Too Generous an Orthodoxy? A Call to a New Ecumenical Hermeneutic

Thanks to the Emergent movement, a dialogue regarding the nature of Christian orthodoxy has gained serious momentum in the Western Church. Certainly, Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy has helped facilitate this conversation. And the conversation seems to have no end in sight.

As shocking as this may be to some, Emergents may not be that far removed from historic orthodoxy... But this depends on one's definition of orthodoxy. And, of course, there is no universal agreement on such a definition.

Etymologically, orthodoxy is a combination of two Greek words: ortho ("right, correct") and doxa ("thought, teaching, glory"). Some say orthodoxy is adhering to the creeds of the ecumenical councils of the 4th century, others the creeds of the first seven councils (c. 325-787). Catholics would maintain that orthodoxy is concurrent with the official teaching (or Canon Law) of the Roman Catholic Church, which includes 21 councils in all (the last of which ended in 1965). Many Protestants, most markedly those maintaining the Reformed tradition, appeal to much later documents, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, for their definition of orthodoxy. A relatively recent and historically minor view is that Scripture alone, in its totality, or scriptura nuda (not to be confused with the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura), constitutes orthodoxy in and of itself, outside the context of interpretive community and/or a systematic summary statement of any kind.

This broad, historic divergence of opinion requires a response. If Christians are to maintain ethical and doctrinal integrity, "right doctrine" must remain open for discussion, in light of the following considerations:
1. Orthodoxy as we know it is a human construct, defined differently by different groups of people in different periods of time.
2. Orthodoxy evolves, in either a cyclical or linear fashion.
3. Orthodoxy as a term is thus currently rendered meaningless for all practical purposes.
4. For the term to be useful again in theological dialogue, Christian church leaders and scholars from all faith traditions must collaboratively agree on a definition of the term.
5. This definition must preclude any application of the term to any doctrinal specifics.

What this does not mean:
1. That no absolute truth exists that is knowable by mankind.
2. That we ought not "labor, striving according to His power" to exegete and apply the totality of Christian Scripture, in order to "present everyone fully mature in Christ" (Col. 1:28-29).
3. That different ecclesial traditions ought not affirm, confess, and teach their corporately agreed upon doctrinal and ecclesiastical convictions.

The implications of this, I believe, are staggering for fundamentalists of all stripes--conservative, liberal, and yes, moderate. Though sites like GenerousOrthodoxy.net try to establish liberals as the new moderates, no one's being fooled. Under the surface, there appears to be a subtle insinuation that "moderate" theology inherently leads to "liberal" action. At the very least, we see this reality being played out time and again by those who claim to be "balanced".

My earnest hope is that moral, ethical, and doctrinal conservatives (as distinct from cultural conservatives, or conservative fundamentalists) learn to be hermeneutical moderates and yet maintain their stances on issues such as the preeminence of preaching salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the dignity of all human life, gender issues (gender distinctions, homo/bi/transsexuality), in addition to insisting upon incarnational Christian community, holistic discipleship, participation in the missio Dei, justice for the "alien, widow, and orphan", and creation care.

Again, those holding views counter to the aforementioned conservative distinctions will argue that adopting a moderate/humble hermeneutic automatically produces liberal ethics, but I see this as a gross misconstrual. I would assert that liberal ethics are not the direct result of a humble hermeneutic, but have simply been reactions to conservative fundamentalism, based on modern social theory and cultural hermeneutics rather than rigorous biblical exegesis. Mark Van Steenwyk of The Jesus Manifesto recently argued that the two are inseparable, and would reject my dichotomy. But I firmly assertain that intellectual honesty will result in a recognition that Scripture cannot be approached in an either/or manner which views all Scriptural teaching as either culturally-bound or culturally-universal. Understanding how and where this distinction is played out in Scripture is the fundamental task of all practical hermeneutics.

In summary, I am proposing a call to Christian theologians of all stripes, that will dramatically improve the quality of ecumenical dialogue and thus the quality of our resultant affirmations of faith and practice:

In light of the fervent desire of Jesus Christ for unity among the brothers and sisters comprising His Body, the Church (Jn. 17:20-23),
And of the admonition of the Apostle Paul to deeply respect and honor diversity among matters secondary to the Gospel (Rom. 14, Col. 3:11-15),
We hereby call all Christians:
• To adopt a humble hermeneutic that recognizes the historic diversity of Christian belief and practice;
• To adopt an honest hermeneutic that strives to recognize, admit, and critique the cultural and societal influences which shape one's decisions; and
• To adopt a rigorous hermeneutic that takes seriously Jesus' command, reasserted and further explicated by Paul, to make fully devout, mature disciples of people of "every tribe, nation, and language" who are knowledgeable and obedient to the teaching of all Scripture.

All glory, praise and honor be to the one, true, Triune God--Father, Son, and Spirit--who reigns sovereignly from eternity to eternity.

Will you join with me in saying, "Amen"?

Popular Posts