There’s an interesting shifting of the goalposts happening in the Christian online world that is weird to me and disconcerting for future conversations.
If you asked me during Seminary or at the beginning of my online discussion going back 13 years, here’s how I would have defined these three “tiers” of Christian beliefs:
- Basic Christian beliefs are found in Scripture. The sufficiency of Scripture for salvation is reflected in many Christian traditions, including United Methodism.
- “Orthodox” Christian beliefs include #1 and add the beliefs expressed in the Creeds and reflected upon by the Early Church Fathers.
- Other Christian beliefs are adiaphora: “agree to disagree” social and theological beliefs that segment out different Christian traditions, but are not critical to the faith.
The above categories makes sense to me (they may not to you).
But that’s not how I see the categories being defined now, and there’s a categorical creep that I find objectionable.
Reframing Basic Christian Beliefs
First, Basic Christian beliefs are now found in Scripture and in the Creeds and Early Church Fathers.
The New Room Wesleyan conference, now in its second year, shared its Covenant online and it has this as an affirmation:
2. We stand firm on the historic, biblical, Apostolic Faith once and for all delivered to the Saints, as contained in the Holy Scriptures and confessed by the Creeds.
Let me be clear that I’m sure the New Room folks agree that Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation–that’s not the question. But it’s interesting to me that the “historic, biblical, Apostolic Faith” is now no longer found in Sola Scriptura, but also in the Creeds and in the Early Church Fathers (the “Saints”). This merges #1 and #2 in the above list into a single #1, and Scripture and Tradition from the Wesleyan sources of authority into one.
Today, the goalposts have moved as basic Christian beliefs are found in not one but three places–and you’d better believe all of them, or you aren’t part of the historic, biblical, and Apostolic tradition.
Second, “Orthodox” Christian beliefs are now both #1 and specific social beliefs.
Last year, the President of Asbury Theological Seminary wrote:
[T]he two groups should never be called “conservative” and “progressive” and they should never be viewed as equivalent groups. What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.
I wrote on this before. Since progressives and conservatives aren’t defining themselves by differing beliefs of the Trinity or Creedal affirmations, the distinguishing point (for President Tennent) is beliefs on social issues. Orthodoxy thus adds social beliefs alongside the previous affirmations–one cannot be orthodox and affirm LGBT inclusion, according to Tennent, though nothing in the Creeds would support that. This phenomenon is outlined succinctly by Roger E. Olson in his post “Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism.”
Today, the goalposts have moved as writers expand “orthodoxy” beyond its proper scope to include the writers’ pet beliefs on social issues.
Reframing Other Christian Beliefs
Third and lastly, other Christian beliefs are no longer adiaphora but rather deemed to be anathema.
- Adiaphora beliefs are “agree to disagree” concepts. Methodists baptize babies, Baptists don’t. Seventh-Day Adventists worship on Saturdays, but Presbyterians don’t. These are important beliefs but they are not consequential to salvation.
- Anathema beliefs are millstones that cast people into hell. If you hold these beliefs, then your salvation is in question.
We see this as people who believe in LGBT equality are not viewed as adiaphora (merely holding differing beliefs) but actually anathema as they are putting their salvation at risk for holding such social beliefs. I’m not agreeing with the sentiment, but as culture embraces LGBT equality, the pushback in Christian circles is to exclude those who hold those beliefs.
Today, the goalposts have moved as writers call anathema what previously has been seen as adiaphora in order to cast people out of Christian conversations.
A troubling trend…
This reframing of Basic, Orthodox, and Other Christian beliefs is like a church version of Inequality Monopoly where the deck is stacked against other people. You will win this game if you keep re-defining the terms to make your social beliefs seem more universal and interlaced with basic Christianity–when they are not. It’s an attempt to universalize social beliefs when they are on a more localized tier than beliefs about the Trinity. And Christians who value conversation should push back on them–especially when discussing adiaphora topics is alleged to be anathema.
My hope is that we resist this temptation to re-frame Christian theology to benefit the tribe we are a part of–and that we cease, especially, with using “orthodoxy” as a weapon in the culture wars.
I’m troubled by this trend as it cuts out the people who have the most bridges to offer the entrenched camps. People like Rachel Held Evans are solid evangelicals who affirm LGBT equality and women in ministry. Solid progressives who push back on attempts to do away with the Trinity. Orthodox thinkers who resist the subjugation of orthodoxy under social stances and categories. These are the people who are most interesting in theology today–precisely because instead of reframing the categories to benefit their pet beliefs, they get the categories to talk to each other.
Now more than ever, we need to be embracing more folks in the conversation rather than casting them out into the outer darkness. May we be more careful with our articulations of faith so that they invite discussion rather than re-label the boxes we put others in.
Julie A. Arms Meeks
Stated very simply because I’m on a phone, I think neither 2 nor 3 should be combined into 1 for re-framing. That’s a danger zone in so many ways.
Your base line for what is important seems to be what ever tickles the ear at the moment.
Jeremy, I respect your viewpoints. I like to read your posts because they challenge me and make me consider my own beliefs, systems, and viewpoints. But sometimes I think we use words differently.
I think “orthodox” seems to be the big one we use differently. In this case, your three tiers of beliefs seems to be drawn around what “orthodox” means. If the word Christian is used to describe belief, there is a certain set of boundaries implied there. Christian, in the early church decades and centuries, was a loosely organized affiliation. But there was an overarching boundary line that was defined to separate Christian from “not Christian”. Those boundary lines were codified in the writings and creedal formations of the early church fathers. Basic Christian beliefs took decades and centuries to formulate. The same was true of basic Israelite/Jewish beliefs.
If we argue that basic Christian beliefs are essentially “biblical”, then as students of historical criticism we would admit that even the Bible is a working out of the cultural context the writings appeared within and/or were edited into. That means that the basic biblical beliefs were, themselves, influenced by the early church believers interpreting the beliefs as they came into contact with contemporary culture. They wrote their biblical texts to reinforce the boundary lines they were establishing as a community.
My point is that I don’t feel that you can separate basic “Christian” beliefs from orthodox beliefs as the Christian community was drawing those boundary lines.
Thanks Todd. I love your comments because they are challenging to me and show your engagement as a reader as well. Blessings to you and your ministry.
I agree with your articulation of the canonization process and the Christian culture surrounding it. However, Orthodoxy, in my view, is not reflections on Scripture alone but in post-biblical interpretations as well. The doctrine of the Trinity, Homoousias, Hypostatic Union, and others constitute what Orthodoxy is about. That’s why my definition of orthodoxy (given to me by people who label themselves as such–yes, mostly Duke grads) is contingent on the ecumenical councils. They are biblically grounded, of course, as those Councils are…but they are not inherent to the biblical canon.
I hear your concerns, but that’s why I think orthodoxy needs to be separate from “the whole of Scriptures are sufficient for salvation” beliefs about who Jesus is. They are formed for many many centuries after the Biblical canon–heck, the Council of Nicaea is over a century after the final letters of Pseudo-Paul were written.
Perhaps we need “first-wave” orthodoxy which is found in the biblical canon, and “second-wave” orthodoxy which is found in the Councils, Creeds, and Fathers. And if so, that still separates them as I have above.
Thanks for your thoughts–very helpful.
I keep reflecting on this post and thoughts jam my brain up. As an evangelical, traditional Wesleyan, I wonder if there can be a starting point with basic “biblical” beliefs. Even the beliefs that were the foundation for the New Testament writers are questioned and contextualized by contemporary theological perspectives. One clear case of a basic belief of the New Testament writers that has been redefined: resurrection.
There are two polarized, Christian, views on this fundamentally Christian belief. And there is little argument that it was an essential subject for the New Testament writers. How do we reconcile these two sides when a first-tier orthodoxy issue surfaces? And then, how do we deal with all of the nuanced theological positions that aren’t on polar opposite ends?
Just stuff I’m chewing on as I think about this. Great stuff, Jeremy!
Richard L. Errington
Jeremy, I’m inclined to agree with you. What has happened is a muddling of the lines, and an appeal to both orthodoxy and an expanded determination of what orthodoxy consists of to beat others over the head.
Some people think this is all about the LGBTQ issue. It is not. I’ve known many people over the years who have been anti-creedal because of how the creeds have been used. And now we see people who would require not only a faith in Christ, but “proper” beliefs and “proper social action” to determine who is and is not a Christian.
I’m pretty basic when it comes to who is a Christian. Though I’d tend to agree with the Apostle’s Creed as minimalist, if Mary wasn’t a virgin I don’t think this matters unless we lose the incarnation. Similarly, the entire Marianist cultism is extra biblical. I don’t think she’d approve.
If it’s not in the bible, I don’t think we can use it to divine who is a Christian. Similarly, while we can use the creeds to pigeonhole people to a particular denomination, I think Wesley would be very appalled at what un-Methodist things some people are doing in his (Wesley’s) name. And to draw distinctions of validity based on the adiaphora elements has set up a modern inquisition.
Look, it’s very simple. God will decide the innies and the outies. That’s not our job. We are to bring the message of the gospel to the lost, and welcome them (warts and all like our own warts and all) into the church. Let God and the Holy Spirit work it out.
When we take on the role of deciding who’s in and out, we’ve become the Pharisees. And we know what Jesus had to say about them.
“Look, it’s very simple. God will decide the innies and the outies. That’s not our job. We are to bring the message of the gospel to the lost, and welcome them (warts and all like our own warts and all) into the church. Let God and the Holy Spirit work it out.” Perfectly put and, iMHO, exactly right within a certain context.
I would only question the existence of a “God” who “questions”, “decides” and “sorts” stuff – at least in any model we’re familiar with. All of those dynamics require a “personality” or ego-structure, which moves that model of God to the mythological model of a deity “above” or outside the realm of our normal reality structures which worked really well before folks had some idea of how the world actually worked.
Is it possible folks LIKE the role of Pharisees (as hard as that might be to admit) – because if gives a consolation (or booby) prize of a sense of control, or illusion of control, lost in the idea that clergy and others are “intermediaries” between the hoi-polloi and the Divine?
Just one observation…Roman Catholics have always held that the basis of faith rests upon two pillars: scripture and tradition (being defined as the church fathers and teachings down through the centuries). Could there be a point of convergence in the road ahead?
I like a lot of this analysis. But I wonder whether there is another aspect of the creeds which might be important that you have overlooked. If we operate with these as narrowing rings, with the basic beliefs at the center, does that mean that the entire Bible functions as basic beliefs? In other words, do I have to believe in a seven day creation to hold “basic Christian beliefs?” Or do I have to believe that women should be silent in worship? The creeds in this sense function to limit the elements of the biblical witness that are required for basic beliefs. The important belief is that God is “maker of heaven and earth” without specifying the particulars of the biblical text. So it’s not that the creeds just “add to” basic beliefs, they also delimit the biblical text to establish which elements of Scripture constitute the things necessary for salvation.
Point is, it might be a bit more complicated than just expanding circles.
Grace and peace,
It occurs to me that I could have framed it more clearly thus: I want to maintain clarity that Scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation,” but this is not the same as saying “all things in Scripture are necessary to salvation.”
The Eqyptian civilization lasted approximately 3,000 years – their traditions, beliefs, practices, metaphysical models for life, the afterlife, etc., remained fairly constant throughout that process. Based on the worldview and science available to them at the time, their perspective on gods, and various manifestations and machinations of gods was relatively consistent.
Just because “Christians” have thought something, or believed something for a long period of time, does that really give those thoughts or beliefs credibility – or move them out of the realm of myth and into the realm of reality? I think not. Especially – when for a significant portion of that time, the religious “leaders” required either adherence to those beliefs, regardless of how irrational they eventually proved to be (whether the sun revolved around the earth or not) – or whether the contribution of money could limit or condense the time one spent in purgatory.
Is the “reframing” of existing religious belief structures the result of an abandonment of orthodoxy or the recognition that we’re pretty clear from empirical observation that
a) the world is not a metaphysical dome with the heavens above and the underworld below,
b) that there are some serious issues with God(s) who behave outside of the laws of physics (nicely illustrated by the amazing things people will take as “truth” on FB without a scintilla of reasonable evidence – and how similar we may be to 1st century folks who wanted to much to believe in magic),
c) when we talk about “salvation”, just what are we being saved FROM?
d) What’s up with a portrayal of an OT God who has the mind and manners of a spoiled brat? Is that a reflection of a real BEING, or projections of a people based on a particular cultural cosmology? Or Israel vs the Egyptians as written by the Israeli side.
If one posits to the those who like to think about these things, and may not have a horse in the race (i.e. get a paycheck based on people subscribing to that stuff) – how many people really thinking those things are literally “true”? Seriously…
if, however, one looks at all of that as a “bigger picture” (a la Joseph Campbell) kind of mythological overstory (and not in the sense of myth being untrue, just not literal) there may be great value in examining the viewpoints and cosmology presented in scripture. To use it as the “be-all-end-all” model for how to behave (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 perhaps, which never seems to crop up in terms of BOD rules) or how a God “wants” us to behave – may be pushing it.
The, like the “New Room Wesleyan conference” folks – clearly, at least to me, have other issues going on besides spiritual, credal, or religious issues. But then a majority of the voting membership of the NS/UMC seems to be suffering from the same kinds of issues. The delusional thinking that somehow they’ve been empowered to filter what God has to say about stuff.
The reaction to loss of control is usually tightening control. Or at least the illusion that we have some say in how that works. I do suspect that their stance is part of a natural “reaction formation” to the increased awareness that traditional models, orthodox or otherwise – aren’t really working – and in another generation will go the way of not eating meat on Friday or a few Hail Marys to compensate for all kinds of benign (or not so benign) behaviors.
I like renown atheist Christopher Hitchens’ definition of a Christian: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
The enemy hates clarity
While I share the aversion to blending Scripture and Tradition into a single category, and I do not believe it is scripturally sound to exclude people from the church, I question why so many who advocate for LGBT inclusion in the UMC seem to think all of this hinges on striking some words out of the Book of Discipline. Does anyone really think no longer prohibiting “practicing homosexuals” from being ordained in the UMC or no longer discouraging UM clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings will somehow solve all our problems and make us truly inclusive? I doubt it is that simple.
At the same time, changing social attitudes are not necessarily a reflection of progress. Our societal shift toward making relationships about personal happiness and moony-eyed romantic love stands in contrast to the survival-based marriage and family structures that sustained humanity throughout most of history. Most of our spiritual as well as genetic ancestors would have seen romantic love as a byproduct of marriage, not as a chief reason for getting married. Are we not privileged to have the option of considering marriage to be something more than a practical way to build families and ensure the survival of our nation? We are blessed beyond belief to be able to choose a spouse based on the love we have for them. There is a luxury afforded to us by innovations in medicine that have enabled people to live longer than ever (and ensured American clergy people in my generation will be really busy in the next twenty-five to thirty years doing Baby Boomers’ funerals.) Now that replacing dying members of the population is not the daunting task it once was in many parts of the world, due to decreased infant and child mortality, as well as longer lifespans for adults, marriage has lost some of its survival-based urgency, giving rise to our increased consideration of its purpose beyond reproductive success for our species. This has shaped our society’s changing attitudes about marriage and human sexuality. It’s wonderful that we are living longer, but is it wise of our society to make marriage all about the mutual “happiness” of two people? Did God put us on this Earth to “be happy?” Anyone who answers in the affirmative is either completely biblically illiterate or has read too many Joel Osteen tweets (no doubt there is some overlap there.) Stable marriages are more than the generators for personal gratification that beach-read novels and romantic comedy films have idealized them to be, just as authentic faith brings glory to God rather than just making us feel better about ourselves. If we are focused on helping our brothers and sisters in Christ build healthy relationships and healthy marriages, as the people who are charged with joining them in marriage, they need to consider what it means to love people the way Christ does, even when it’s hard and doesn’t bring any immediate reward or emotional satisfaction. If we are going to consider whom UM clergy should, or should not, join together in marriage, maybe it is better to draw the line between couples who understand how to love one another this way, and are ready to put this into practice, and those who do not understand and cannot demonstrate a willingness to practice it. If you need to decline a request for performing a wedding ceremony because you have serious moral objections to the union of a certain couple, by all means, say no, and stick to your guns if you’re a delegate at General Conference. But consider this. What has corrupted Christian marriages today is not our politics or our shifting tolerances, but it is the self-centered idea that personal satisfaction should be the sole motivation to get married, to stay married, or to even have a close relationship with anyone. We are all created to bring God glory, not to constantly seek our own gratification. When feeling good becomes more important to us than loving people as Christ loves us, we cannot rightly advise others on how to love people, either.
On that note, is it important to consider our own motives when we discuss inclusion? Do we seek inclusion because we want to love people the way Christ loves us, or are we just trying to make ourselves feel better about what’s in our New Testament Epistles and what’s in our Discipline? This is what we should really be asking ourselves as we seek God’s will for the future of the UMC.
I accept as a theological measure the formulation of Albert Outler, the late UMC teacher, who saw John Wesley’s theology as “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” consisting of an equal mix or scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Subsequent argument led him and Methodism to assert more emphasis on scripture, as is stated in the Book of Discipline. In using this construction, I find that “orthodoxy” takes on less significance for me in the face of “orthopraxy,” or the day-to-day working out of Christianity in the real world. Indeed, I often find reliance on “belief” to be a hindrance to getting anything effective done. Also, I find scripture to be a very tenuous foundation for much that is controversial in contemporary experience. The LGBTQ controversy demonstrates this.