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Peddling Dangerous Nonsense: James K. A. Smith on the Meaning of ‘Orthodoxy’

Introduction

One of the ways to undermine orthodox Christianity’s stance against the sexual perversions of contemporary, Western society and the disappearing mainline denominations in the West revolves around the word ‘orthodox.’  The argument goes that orthodoxy is all about affirmations in the early Church, ecumenical councils, which do not mention anything about homosexuality—or sexuality in general.  So, goes the argument, there is no orthodox teaching on sexuality.

Smith’s Argument

James K. A. Smith—and he is not the only one with this argument—has recently put the argument to print.[1]  He says,

Historically, the measure of "orthodox" Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea [sic], Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of "right belief" (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus' life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of "one holy catholic and apostolic church"; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Smith later avers,

If "orthodox" becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to "us" in order to exclude "them."  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into "orthodoxy" like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women--which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.

Thus, Smith seems to think that, if we extend the meaning of orthodoxy to other, traditionally held convictions of the Church, then it will be a way to say, simply, ‘I don’t like your teaching,’ without any basis in ecclesiastically defined and authoritative teaching.  He asks, ‘Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?’[2]  He also challenges the supposed selectivity when the meaning of ‘orthodox’ is broadened: why this matter but not that one?

In Reply

While Smith is commendably concerned to affirm orthodoxy and not let it become soft from too much stretching, he is decidedly mistaken—seriously in error.  I would suggest the following points to consider.

First, those applying the term ‘orthodoxy’ to matters of sexual ethics do so to indicate that such matters fit, like the early Church councils, the universal affirmations of the Church and the teaching of Scripture.  (a) The Church councils affirmed orthodoxy, they did not define it.  What was ‘orthodox’ was what all the Church had always and everywhere affirmed.  As St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) says,

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors (Commonitory 2.6).

If the Church Councils defined orthodoxy rather than affirmed it, then we would be in the peculiar situation of having to say that there was no orthodoxy until the 4th century (the first council, Nicaea, being in 325).  We would also have to discount all the ‘orthodox’ writings of the Church Fathers other than what emerged in the conciliar canons. The whole purpose of the ‘ecumenical’ (universal) councils was to find where the Church agreed: everywhere, always, and by all.  Thus, ‘orthodox’ has to do with this principle as articulated by St. Vincent and is not limited to specific statements in response to specific heresies that needed countering in the 4th century councils and creeds.  The principle articulated here—that by St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) in his Commonitory (2.4-6) of ‘everywhere, always, and by all’, or ‘universality, antiquity, and consent’—is stated as a principle to be applied to anything arising in opposition to orthodoxy.  It is a principle that could help the Church ‘discover’ what is orthodox when new heresies threatening the Church emerged.

This was, furthermore, St. Vincent’s second criterion for orthodoxy: the affirmation of the Catholic (i.e., universal) Church.  (b) His first criterion for orthodoxy was the authority of the Divine Law—that is, Scripture.  He says,

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church (Commonitory 2.4).

We cannot agree, then, with the notion that ‘orthodoxy’ is limited to creedal statements emerging from the ecumenical councils.  This is a limitation that early Christians themselves would have rejected.  

Indeed, previous arguments for an orthodox Christianity in the 2nd century, called for (a) reliance on the Scriptures (which is why the definition of the canon was so important—that what was God’s Word would be defined and its limits set), (b) an affirmation and guidance by the ‘Rule of Faith’ (the emerging creed), and (c) the consensual affirmations of bishops from apostolically founded churches (‘apostolic succession’).  Such, e.g., was Tertullian’s argument at the end of the 2nd century (Prescriptions Against Heretics)—as also Irenaeus in his magnum opus, Against Heresies.  On the latter, mind, Irenaeus had a host of heretical groups to oppose, including those touting a sexually perverse doctrine of one sort or another.  Irenaeus would find Smith’s suggestion as to what constitutes ‘orthodoxy’ to be a step backward and over the cliff.  If orthodoxy were applied only to certain doctrinal affirmations and not also to the Church’s ethics—including sexual ethics—then Irenaeus’ defense of orthodoxy over against these heresies becomes incomprehensible.

Second, Smith’s pristine definition of ‘orthodoxy’ undermines Biblical teaching.  He offers an alternative term for matters not addressed in the ecumenical councils: ‘traditional’.  So, are we really to say that teaching articulated in Scripture in the strongest of terms but that is not repeated in the creeds of the 4th century (for contextual reasons, of course) is merely ‘traditional’ and not ‘orthodox’?  Can anyone dispute that the following passage from Scripture fails to articulate a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy as to both doctrinal and ethical—sexual—matters?

2 Peter 2:1-2 (ESV) But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them-- bringing swift destruction on themselves.  2 Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned.

Similarly, Jude calls the recipients of his letter to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (v. 3) and then proceeds to warn against the false teaching of a group affirming Sodom’s sin (which is clearly a sexual sin in this verse, even if the sins of Sodom were many):

Jude 1:7 (ESV) Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Moreover, are we really being asked to exclude sexual ethics from orthodoxy when Paul says that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6.9-10).  On Smith’s reckoning, the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, soft men, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers who will not inherit the Kingdom of God may well be orthodox Christians affirming the creeds.  May God help us!

Third, Smith’s example of ‘baptism’ being snuck into a debate about orthodoxy rather makes the alternative argument than the one he suggests.  If we can find varied practice in early Church orthodox circles, then we are surely not talking about a matter that is definitive for orthodoxy.  And that is precisely what we do find on this matter of baptism.  Tertullian’s defense of adult baptism at the end of the 2nd century is surely offered to counter an alternative practice of infant (cf. his ‘On Baptism’).  There is meagre but significant evidence from the early Church that there were varied practices and perhaps theologies of baptism.  There is no danger of introducing baptism into a definition of orthodoxy, and that precisely because the early Church did not have a single practice of baptism that was universal, ancient, and consensual.

Fourth, just what is Smith up to?  An affirmation of orthodox creeds from the early Church is most welcome.  But in the present climate of mainline denominations imploding precisely because they reject Scripture and oppose the Church’s universal, ancient, and consensual teaching on sexuality, Smith’s argument showers upon the context like flammable liquid on a fire.  One simply cannot approach theology in this unorthodox, heretical context with an argument that we need to limit our understanding of ‘orthodoxy’ to the particular matters that came to expression in the 4th century context.  His argument does not stand for the early Church, but it is also an argument that waltzes into the battle zone of our own time as though dance form is more important than the present danger.

Conclusion

We have responded here to an attempt to side-step the seriousness of contemporary, Western softening of the Church’s teaching on sexuality by claiming that it is not a matter of ‘orthodoxy.’  The argument countered here would have us define orthodoxy narrowly so that it refers only to conciliar councils.  Yet we have seen that this will not stand up to a Biblical or early Church understanding of orthodoxy.  Instead, we have affirmed a definition of orthodoxy as articulated by St. Vincent of Lerins that is based on (1) Scripture as God’s Law and (2) the universal, ancient, and consensual teaching of the Church.  On these criteria, the Church’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin is a matter of Christian orthodoxy.[3]


[1] James K. A. Smith, ‘On "orthodox Christianity": some observations, and a couple of questions,’ Fox Clavigera blog (August 4, 2017).  Online: http://forsclavigera.blogspot.co.za/2017/08/on-orthodox-christianity-some.html; accessed 5 September, 2017.

[2] This question confuses issues.  How shall we equate the sin of sexual morality, which has to do with entering the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9-10), with advice on church polity (women in office)?  Let us say that one should not ordain women, for argument’s sake.  There is no Biblical basis to say that this is a matter so pressing as entry into the Kingdom.  At most, one might say that it is a practice set up to protect the Church from error, like not ordaining someone who is the husband of more than one wife (i.e., remarried) (1 Timothy 2.10-3.13).
[3] See S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., 2016).