A number of years ago I read an insightful article by Robert Johnston, Orthodoxy and Heresy a Problem for Modern Evangelicalism. In it he maintained that the ground had shifted as to what was considered orthodoxy, away from a set of boundaries that provided one was inside we were ‘ok’. Those boundaries were normally tightly drawn: inerrancy of Scripture (a faith statement that is based on a presupposition, not even on an internal biblical claim), penal substitution (not easy to defend!) and the like. When along came the publication of The Openness of God (1994) it was pushed to the edge of the boundaries and beyond. (My comments in parenthesis above of course indicate that I, for many reasons, am also on the edges… OK beyond those edges of the boundaries.)
The Johnston article, the work of Fowler that undergirded stages of faith…. and the movement of the Spirit that became known as the Toronto Blessing all originate from the same period of time – late 80s, early 90s.
Defining heresy was the issue that Johnston articulated so well. I have been fascinated by Paul in Galatians being so objectionably strong-minded, writing in no uncertain terms about ‘another Gospel’, and despite biblical instructions to bless not curse, he comes right to the edge of cursing those who come with another Gospel. Now if we think of that being doctrinal – orthodoxy – where do we draw the line? Can I suggest that anyone who believes in predestination is therefore ‘un-orthodox’? (And they do the same of me hence we are advocates of another Gospel.) As much as I cannot reconcile predestination with biblical texts (oh yes there are some odd ones that could be read that way) I am slowly coming to see that what we believe about that is not so central after all. Perhaps, and here Johnston’s article I think gives some foundations for a way forward. He simply outlines two important areas: by what authority do you believe what you believe? (We might need to add ‘behave’ to the word believe… more later.) And how is someone reconciled to God? The two answers are Scripture and the cross of Jesus. I affirm both of those. As do those who ardently believe in inerrancy and penal substitution. (And those who are Universalists and those who believe in limited atonement, that Jesus only died for the elect, also both affirm the right answers.) Johnston presented the problem well. How then can we define orthodoxy?
Jump forward with me a little. Final ‘exam paper’. I have revised my answers to justify ‘Open Theology’; alongside me someone has revised ‘Absolute foreknowledge as a necessary attribute of God’. We turn the papers over. We are both bitterly disappointed as neither question is on the exam paper. Instead – ‘what did you do (to the least of these)?’
So my ‘ortho-what’ title. There are some parameters to our faith, but we all have to do a little squeeze here and there with some arbitrary texts, and can pull on ‘fresh research shows…’ to help us make a successful squeeze. But whatever ‘God-breathed’ means it did not help me to be comfortable with everything that has been breathed into, and more annoyingly has not helped me persuade others to acknowledge my interpretation as being the obvious one.
I am coming to think that the ‘what’ part of the ‘ortho’ is not orthodoxy but orthopraxy… what did you do? Maybe that is the thrust of ‘by their fruit you will know them’. Perhaps the ‘different Gospel’ is not the divide over limited atonement / universal atonement (or whatever else we deem as important) but over how we respond and act, for after all that surely communicates more than anything else the Gospel we believe in, whether it is a Gospel once and for all delivered from heaven, or one we have developed.
I think this is worth exploring as there seems to be so much hatred and insults being generated, even by those who claim to be orthodox in their Christian faith. It is not love without judgement and discernment, for sure… but it is love that is absent of insults; absent of calling for physical response against others.