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The Lure of Orthodoxy – 1

November 2, 2014

Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?


 Orthodoxy (from GREEK ὀρθός, orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + δόξα, doxa (“opinion” or “belief”, related to dokein, “to think”).

Within Christianity, the word orthodoxy usually refers to one or both of the following:

a) Sound doctrine, the idea that there is a uniquely accurate understanding of scriptures, expressed in the right creedal formulas and developed by the correct theology. Right doctrine being the key words.

b) The accepted tradition, meaning what is established, customary, or most commonly believed among Christians. The key word being tradition.

While a) appeals to rightness and b) to tradition, we know from history that the two don’t always go hand in hand, actually, they rarely do. The accepted tradition, supposing to have also the right doctrine, has always resisted change, even that which turned out to be right in the end. Tradition’s main concern isn’t rightness, but preservation.

Old Bottles and New Wine

In our world truth is never static but grows and expands through a continuous learning process. It is so in all sorts of disciplines, where new discoveries constantly enrich, change, correct or even erase earlier assumptions. A similar process happens in religion as well, where new insights (new wine) fulfil the same role as new scientific discoveries.

As in the scripture “I am the way the truth and the life”, truth is dynamic, like travelling down a road or living life. Jesus spoke of a life journey into unfolding truth and He’s quoted as saying “if you continue in my words you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”. In other words, being free is also not static but depends on continuing to learn the truth.

His word also, isn’t static, but is a living and dynamic entity that constantly reveals new truths (new wine). He even compared the old religious establishment to old bottles which could not accommodate any new wine (truths) without breaking. Being full of old truths, which they supposed to be final, they had no desire for more.

This is why, religiously speaking, new wine (truth) is constantly manifested in the form of new movements, new revolutions happening outside the constrains of the older ones. With time, however, each new movement also becomes old, brittle, institutionalized and set in its own traditions. The new wine, which brought it to life, eventually becomes old and vinegary, and that’s why newer vessels for newer wine are constantly needed.

It is a continual process and early Christianity was a primary example of it. Though Jesus had poured out some new wine, which challenged the old orthodoxy, His fledgling new movement got stuck in a compromise with it. They called it the Concision for it stressed circumcision as a prerequisite for Christian initiation. For almost 40 years, until the destruction of Jerusalem, this system-preserving-compromise had a restraining influence on the rest of Christianity.

It took some new wine, from a person outside the inner circle, to finally break the spell of the previous orthodoxy. Considered heretical at first, Paul’s new interpretations eventually gained acceptance and set the pace for a new Christianity. In time, Paul’s writings became the new orthodoxy but when this happened, as with any new idea reaching that privileged status, it was the end of the line. As R.G.Ingersoll said Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy a coffin.

Orthodoxy means old wine, aged, final, the best and no longer needing anything more. New ideas (wine) are thus no longer admitted because orthodoxy cannot change, so nothing can be added to it. Whatever challenges its “final” status is automatically unorthodox, a heresy.

The Nature of Religious Institutions

Religious institutions are by their very nature conservative and exist to conserve the past, which they equate with orthodoxy. They believe they have the final truth in some kind of correct biblical, creedal, doctrinal or traditional form, which they intend to keep intact. Truth, in their view, is not dynamic but static and only the old wine qualifies as “word of God”.

All attempts at reforming or innovating an old institution are viewed with suspicion. Suggesting changes to its accepted creeds can evoke an even stronger reaction. A litany of negative labels, such as Docetist, Donatist, Gnostic, Arian, Dualist, Modernist, New-Age, etc. effectively serve as a vaccines against unwanted intrusions. Nonetheless, some new ideas, as represented by some new movement, may survive if these gain sufficient numbers and influence. With time, they may also become accepted and recognized, or “orthodox”. The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next. (Helen Keller)

Actually, that’s how most Christian denominations began, as heretical movements and remained such until they finally gained size and power. Their founders, however, seldom got to see the day but died before, usually in shame and after being maligned and persecuted by the previous orthodoxy.

That’s how it was with most prophets, Jesus himself and the apostle Paul. Their challenge to both, the “correct” interpretation and the accepted tradition, earned them the worst of titles, such as false prophet, mad, demon possessed, leader of a sect, etc. Such has been the case with most religious reformers, not only within the bible narrative but all through Christian history.

Nobody likes those labels and it’s usually a great relief when they are finally lifted, when a movement, a sect, or a new church attains to the status of orthodoxy, either by compromise with the majority or by becoming themselves a majority. It is, however, only an illusion of success.

The Paradox of Orthodox

While the word orthodoxy conveys the idea of solid, established, truthful, enduring, strong and reliable, it also has a history of oppression, intolerance, resistance to change, reactionary posture and violence. Upon closer observation, it also isn’t as stable as it claims to be but is a most subjective and mutable element.

Furthermore, the idea that orthodoxy preserved doctrines and traditions as they originally were is deeply flawed. The very presence of differing and contrasting orthodoxies brings it into question. Since, by definition, orthodoxy excludes relativism, the reality of multiple orthodoxies annuls the claim, and consigns it to the dimension of mere ideologies. In reality, orthodoxy doesn’t really exist. It is merely a persuasion, an idea shared within the framework of the institution which created it.

What’s most amusing, however, is not the utopian illusion that some have about a universal orthodoxy, but the fact that God doesn’t seem to care about it. If he did, for sure he would have vindicated one orthodoxy above the others, which isn’t the case. In reality He even appears to be against the very idea of orthodoxy, doctrinal or traditional.

If we look at the Judeo-Christian history we see him constantly giving new revelations, making new covenants, enacting reforms, pouring out new wine and challenging the previous tradition. He seems to be more of a God of change than a god of keeping things as they are. His messengers were always persecuted by the guardians of tradition, yet we are so used to seeing God within a tradition, to see Christianity as a preserver of the past, that we forget what a progressive revolution it first was.

Now, with its orthodoxy all bolted down into unchangeable formulas, we no longer think of Christianity as a progressive movement. Instead we think of it as an ancient, unmovable, fortress-like institution, standing beyond towering walls and deep ditches, the orthodoxy it built to keep the enemy out. But while Christianity claims to protect itself from the dangers of modernity, relativism and the bad world without, it has actually become the very world that it first condemned.

No, it wasn’t the secular world that Christianity clashed with most violently, but it was the religiously orthodox one. Things haven’t changed that much and there are still many venerable old bottles, full of sour old wine, who fear the new more than anything else. Why? Because it puts their world and privileges in jeopardy and so they prefer that which never changes, their tradition, book, rituals and doctrines. These are the things which they worship, which they have carved out and set upon the altar as infallible. They are predictable and manageable things, instead of a living God who may still speak, effect changes and expand human horizon in directions which they would not dare to go.

Personally I’ll take my risks with an unpredictable God, a Spirit unrestrained by the chains and definitions of orthodoxy, but who’s love I do know and who has never failed me. As David said To Hell with the proper way! The proper way is of man! The unexpected and the improper, the unconventional and untraditional, the unorthodox and unceremonious, contrary to man’s natural expectation–this is the way God usually works!


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