Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants, two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is given over to one of these two positions exclusively is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the centuries.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and states explicitly that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time, it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent (1545) made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation, the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have always possessed what some might consider to be a disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe, it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed Godself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have shifted frequently between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  I believe that it is essential to acknowledge that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and the Holy Spirit of God can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say, sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of the Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts, I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through the Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for the creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Perhaps Christianity is more about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)


12 thoughts on “Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy”

  1. This is just the 500 years of Christian History that I am trying to get my mind around, and it was so affirming to read through this as I was having similar thoughts that were summed up beautifully in your final paragraph. (The implications of this ethic are really what interests me, when applied to observing and exposing ourselves in the world…)

    “The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing. Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives. It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.”

  2. “Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God. I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God. We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.”

    I like this statement a lot. Thanks Elijah.

    1. Thanks Mark. As I have been reflecting on these things this truth (that being a part of the kingdom of God is a balance struck between orthodoxy and orthopraxy in a mysterious way to which we cannot lay our imperialistic claims to) it has really been challenging. Have you ever written something and then learned more when you re-read it?

  3. Great thoughts. Must have coffee and be praxis geeks.

    Even further in a slightly tangential direction: A lot of my work on ritual is based on the fundamental observation of anthropological and social study (not often filtering down through the church) that what we think we are doing and what we are doing are not always the same thing. In biblical studies, then, some scholars even go so far as to say that the theological justification for an action is almost never synonymous with what it achieves. I actually think that Second Temple ritual does a good job of balancing theology and praxis (even if that’s not going to be the same as modern-day Christian theology and praxis), but it’s a valid question to be asking.

  4. Thanks for this, Elijah.

    Reading about the reactionary shift between these two focuses has really tempered my thoughts on where I desire to see the Church, or more specifically the American Evangelical Church, go. I think that the Emergent Church’s critical danger is it’s separating itself from the Evangelical Church. I think the call is to work within the means of it instead. I feel that this is more practical, and more Biblical, because the emphasis is to maintain the unity of the Church (as long as there is a willingness on both sides, not unlike Luther’s initial desire for internal reformation of the Catholic Church). Am I way off?

    1. Dustin,

      Thanks for your comment. I would not say you’re way off at all. Unfortunately I believe the Evangelical Church itself has intentionally become separated from earlier Church tradition. Unity is incredibly important to God, as demonstrated in Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth.

  5. Elijah, this is a good exposition. I agree with you that being a part of the Kingdom of God is a mysterious ‘balance between orthodoxy and orthopraxy’. I like the way you describe works as being a ‘reaction’ to the grace of God through the Gospel, rather than just a ‘demonstration’ of what we believe. ‘Demonstration’, I feel, would be such a shallow way of conceptualising it. But describing works as a ‘reaction’ or a ‘response’ to God puts things in a far more human and relational perspective – a ‘response’ is that which proceeds from the heart; because christian belief is not merely a cool, abstract state of ‘mental assent’ – it is, rather, an issue of the heart, something organic that proceeds from within. What is in the heart is the very thing that will necessarily affect one’s actions, whether consciously or not. Like what Jesus said about a good tree bringing forth good fruit and an evil tree bringing forth evil fruit – the fruit that is born is a constituent PART of that tree’s BEING, it is not merely a ‘demonstration’ of some abstract category to which that tree supposedly belongs.
    I have the conviction that there is a really fundamental unity between faith, action and being. It’s hard for me to put into words

    1. John,

      Thanks for your contribution. I agree. I’ve been reading recently about the inevitable connection between faith, action and being. I think part of it has to do with seeing ourselves more as a whole, something I am thinking about turning into the next post in this series: ‘The “Self” in the Kingdom of God’.

      1. Derek:Embedded in your analysis of this qosutien, I think I sense a logical fallacy.I think it is the fallacy of the false premise. It goes something like this: 1)Deuteronomy 29.29 indicates that there are things secret’ to God as well as things revealed’ by God. 2) Calvinists say that they acknowledge and respect this distinction, yet 3)they nevertheless affirm that there is a divine election according to which God’s mercy is discriminating in the sense that He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, thus 4)they are inconsistent in allowing there to be secret’ things known only to God because by their view of election they are in fact forcing open closed’ councils of God to which neither they nor anyone has access. You attribute this view to Justin Taylor and others in spite of their pledged respect for the distinction between secret and revealed.But you have worked from a false premise, which is that Calvinists have in effect collapsed’ the distinction between secret and revealed. They have not. The real point of difference is not over what God keeps secret to Himself, but over what He has revealed. Both Calvinists and Arminians accept that there is such a thing as divine election indicated in the Bible; it was operative in the calling of Israel and in the calling of the church. They disagree, however, about its operation. Are Calvinists accused of prying’ too inquisitively into its manner of operation? So might Arminians be, because they are fully confident that Calvinists have got it wrong. But how could this be, if (as your argument implies) election is one of the secret things of God about which humans are not meant to know or inquire? Your argument _ought_ to lead to the conclusion that ignorance or agnosticism about election should be the default position for Christians.But you cannot maintain this view with integrity, because election (whether corporate or individual) is such a common theme in both Testaments. Understand it in either the Arminian or Calvinist sense if you will, but it is there in Exodus 33.19 (quoted in Romans 9.13-15). It is there in Jesus in John 6.39, in Paul in Ephesians 1.3,5 and in Peter (2 Peter 1.10). We all know these Scriptures :according to them there is such a thing as divine election.This leaves the qosutien of whether a believer may be conscious of election in this life, short of judgment day. Again, Scripture is not silent on this; it does not belong to the secret things’ according to Paul in 1 Thess. 1.4,5 (where Paul inferred it from the welcome the Thessalonians gave to the gospel) or according to Peter in the passage named (where he affirms that election can be made sure’ through obedience and godly living).So, whether Calvinist or Arminian, election is among the things revealed’; the possession of it, also, is something discernible in this life. And so, by this extension, knowledge of election is also among the things revealed.

  6. Yes!!! Very well said! I have been presently searching for this balance but unable to reconcile it. I have found myself rocking back and forth from Orthodoxy and Lutheranism with no clear direction. Your words have helped me. Thank you so much!

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