How To Be orthodox With A Small “o” – Part 2
In the first part of this study a discussion took place of the diaspora of Christian beliefs and practices within contemporary Christianity in the West, and the concept of independent exposition of the Scriptures in order to avoid allegiance to any group since all allegedly contain pros and cons. It was concluded that some ultimate standard must be introduced in this confusion to avoid the complete dismantling of Christian “small ‘o’ orthodoxy.” This endeavor will involve a serious consideration of historic Christian faith and practice. The discussion of this “standard” will now continue.
SOLA VERSUS PRIMA
Distinguishing “Church Tradition” and “Scripture” into two separate camps–whether one believes them to be competing with or complementing one another–is a concept that has only come to exist in the later Western world. The only reason for doctrines, for creeds, for ecumenical councils, for the writings of the Church Fathers, and so forth, are because they are road block signs preventing us from steering the Scriptures in the wrong direction from our own subjective interpretations and not following the true Christ in intimate relationship with Him. So orthodoxy would uphold a teaching of “prima scriptura,” that Scripture is indeed primary and the apex of the Tradition of the Church; but even within Scripture itself there are different levels of importance and centrality regarding the Faith. Using the image of a bullseye target, the Gospels are like the center point, and the ring around that is the book of Acts, next are the New Testament letters, then the Old Testament, then the creed, then the ecumenical councils, then the early Fathers, and so forth. The Gospels are the core of our faith and really should be sufficient, but because of our weakness, pride, and misguided tendencies we can really make them say anything we want them to. So each ring outside of the center has a diminishing level of prominence and authoritative-centrality to the Faith, but they are still vitally important because they prevent us from taking that bullseye center totally out of context, running away with it and aiming in the complete wrong direction, into all kinds of heresy that leads people away from God. This is why when you read the canons of the seven ecumenical councils they do not tell us what we must believe, but what we must NOT believe. They say “DANGER! DANGER! Don’t go down this road, it’s not the apostolic Christ we have always known.”
GROWING IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
The canons of the councils articulate the parameters of how far one can go in describing who God is by delineating who God is not. But these systematic statements are not “theology” in the traditional sense. They are fences around the garden of the Church and its pursuit of God. True theology involves the cultivation of the garden, and there is actually quite a lot of freedom there. When reading the Church Fathers, each one may have a different, more illumining interpretation of a certain Scripture like Jesus’ saying “I go now to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” However, they will unanimously agree on what the passage does NOT mean, namely, that Christ is not one in essence with the Father, very God of very God; that is out of bounds. I recently heard a Protestant friend repeating the sentiment, “Do you need the Baptist Jesus, or the Presbyterian Jesus, or the Catholic Jesus . . . or do you just need Jesus?” I can sympathize with this, as the endless discussion, debate, and dissention is so exhausting when what we all intrinsically yearn for is union with God and neighbor. But the issue here is ensuring that the “just Jesus” we pursue is actually the real one. In discoursing with Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived in my yard, I ascertained that they undeniably “love Jesus,” trust in Him for the salvation of the world, and believe that He died for us. But unfortunately, they are simply not able to know Christ in a true sense simply because their doctrine–not God’s rejection–hinders them from doing so. The Jesus they love actually does not exist, and thus the problem is simply that they are not taking advantage of the fullness of the revelation God has given about Himself which allows us to know Him as truly and fully as He has allowed us to know Him. So this is why the historic Church is so important: to preserve the boundaries so that we do not go down a rabbit trail and pursue a Christ that is fictitious. But once those boundaries are in place our pursuit of Christ does not conclude. He is infinite, we are finite, and we will eternally delve ever deeper into His beauty and majesty. We just need to make every effort to ensure that we are in fact pursuing the real Christ and not a human construct that we call Christ; that we are in fact working within the established apostolic boundaries in our pursuit.
THE CATHOLICITY OF ORTHODOXY
In light of all this, I have come to the conclusion that the only sure way to be truly “orthodox with a small ‘o’” is to become “catholic with a small ‘c,’” for the term “catholic” is not a mere denomination title either. This is a term that was already being used by first generation Christians to describe the Christian Church. Katholikos was then understood to mean “complete,” “throughout the whole,” “not lacking in anything.” It is an antonym to words like merikos (“partial”), or idios (“particular” or “one’s own”).[i] For example, Saint Ignatius of Antioch ordained bishop in the first century:
“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[ii]
Or the second-century reference to Polycarp, also a first century bishop:
“. . . this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and the bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna.”[iii]
And of course the second-century words of Clement of Alexandria:
“Therefore in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith . . . But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself.” [iv]
The “catholicity” of the Church was also attested to in the universal statement of faith for all Christians ratified at that first ecumenical council (discussed in the previous article), a creed that serves as a refutation for teachings that conflict with this representation of historic, core Christian faith. It contends:
“I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church.”
This concept explains why early figures such as Saint Cyprian of Carthage made statements like,
“He who does not have the Church as his mother cannot have God for his Father.” [v]
THAT THEY MAY BE ONE, JUST AS WE ARE ONE[vi]
One must conclude, therefore, that maintaining true orthodoxy and catholicity, in line with historic Church witness, requires one to be united to that one, catholic, orthodox church sacramentally and devotionally rather than merely with mental assent to some really old doctrines. The mystical union of the Church is a mystical union with Christ, participating in His very body and becoming one flesh with Him. Even Paul, the great Apostle called by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, still had to undergo the sacraments of baptism and then ordination to be received and affirmed as abiding in the true apostolic community – even though He had been given a Divine revelation and mission individually. This is because there is ultimately no such thing as “just me and Jesus” Christianity. I certainly do not suggest an understanding of anyone’s status with God based merely on church membership. But ecclesially, Jesus is not a polygamist, nor does His bride have Multiple Personality Disorder. Most all other religions understand that the way to adopt a certain faith, unless you want to start your own, is through a package deal; not a build-it-yourself theology kit. We literally manufacture a new faith every time we try to master the latter.
There is a catchy new trend among contemporary Christians to refer to differing groups of Christians as “streams” of the faith, rather than the ugly and divisive “denomination” word. The thing about streams, however, is that if you trace them back far enough, they have a common origin. But the further down the line one traverses from that source, the more impure and contaminated the waters can become. Let us return to that source. Let us return to the ancient faith. Let us embrace the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
[i] Thurston, H. (1908). Catholic. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 28, 2015 from New Advent:
[ii] Saint Ignatius of Antioch. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans. Ch. 8. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm
Accessed July 28, 2015.
[iii] Letter on the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Ch. 16.
Accessed July 28, 2015.
[iv] Clement of Alexandria. The Stromata, VII. Ch. 17 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02107.htm
Accessed July 28, 2015.
[v] Saint Cyprian of Carthage. What the Church Fathers Say About . . . Vols 1&2. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co. 2005. p. 167.
[vi] John 17:22 NKJV