Can orthodoxy change, then?

An important question arose in Cyprus during session on ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ I had just quoted John Chrysostom on Romans 4:5 — to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness:

For reflect how great a thing it is to be persuaded and have full confidence that God is able on a sudden not to free a man who has lived in impiety from punishment only, but even to make him just, and to count him worthy of those immortal honors. Do not then suppose that this one [the one who works] is lowered in that it is not reckoned unto the former of grace. For this is the very thing that makes the believer glorious; the fact of his enjoying so great grace, of his displaying so great faith. And note too that the recompense is greater. For to the former [the one who works] a reward is given, to the latter [the one with faith] righteousness. Now righteousness is much greater than a reward. For righteousness is a recompense which most fully comprehends several rewards. (ANF trans.)

I said that I was not quoting Chrysostom out of a naive belief that the Fathers believed in justification by faith alone the same way we do; no one articulated that part of the faith in that way until Martin Luther. This raised a reasonable concern from one of the people present — if God’s truth doesn’t change, how can orthodoxy? (Sort of. It was more nuanced than that.)

The great concern is: if we are not saved by works, yet we trace so much of our heritage to Fathers, and the Fathers seem, at times, to teach that we are saved by works, what does that mean about the faith of the Fathers? Since justification by faith seems to be taught in the Scriptures, why would no one have articulated it until the Reformation?

These are vitally important questions for those of us who wish to have an orthodoxy in line with the majority, consensual teaching that flows from the patristic (and medieval/Byzantine and Reformation) meditation upon, reflection over, and wrestling with Scripture and life in this broken world. It is a vitally important question for those of us whose theology is daily informed by historical theology. I believe it is a vitally important question for all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant.

C. Michael Patton has this useful thought on the development of theology, especially in reference to the development of penal substitutionary atonement with St Anselm in the turn of the 11th/12th centuries, as well as to the question of justification by faith alone. The TRUTH about who God is, explains Patton, does not change. From our finite perspective, at that level, orthodoxy is ‘static’ (read book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions if you want to bend your mind thinking about the concept of time and how it relates to God).

Our understanding of God, however, has developed over time, through the direct revelation of the events and writings of Scripture, with their culmination in Christ, there was a gradual unveiling of the character of God and our relation towards him as fallen creatures. And, through Spirit-led meditation upon and grappling with Scripture, the interpretation of the TRUTH has led to a greater precision of what we know.

Yet still we see as in a glass darkly.

So what do we do about things that seem to have developed over history, and those who lived before their development? Patton says:

1. I could say that before these doctrines were understood and articulated according to my current Protestant understanding, no one was truly saved or, at the very least, orthodox. (Radical Restorationism)

2. I could say that these doctrines did exist before, just in unarticulated form. (Oden?)

3. I could say that these doctrines did exist in the earliest church, but the church became corrupted and lost them. (Reformers)

4. I could say that their immature state was sufficient for the time, but is now insufficient. (Conservative Progressives)

5. I could say that these developments, while true, don’t really matter with regards to defining orthodoxy. (Emerging)

The only option Patton is willing to completely ignore is number 1. I am uneasy with number 5, myself. I probably tend towards a blend of 2 and 4 most of the time — what we believe does matter, but there is a difference between ignorance and denial (as my friend Tim. If you had asked St Mark if Jesus was God, he likely will not have said, ‘Yes.’ But for me, with 2000 more years of thoughtful reflection on the Christ-event — if I reject the divinity of Jesus, I am no longer orthodox.

This is helpful as we all wrestle with the fact that our understanding of the things of God has changed over time.

Yet, with that in mind, we must always be humble. Can any of us, even with the doctrine of the Trinity and penal substitutionary atonement really say that we know God any better than Moses or Isaiah or John the Baptist or Paul?

8 thoughts on “Can orthodoxy change, then?

  1. Slipping into provocateur mode … or maybe not … why in the world would Trinity and PSA be expected to give us insight into God? Jesus gives us insight into God. Theology is not Jesus.

    As fond as I am of theology, I wonder how often it is a paper idol.

    Take care & God bless

    • You can’t divorce Jesus from the Trinity or you have a different Jesus. God IS Trinity, and to understand God in any other way is to misunderstand him. In other words, if you claim that Jesus gives you insight into God, you therefore must be Trinitarian. If you aren’t, you aren’t talking about the right Jesus.

    • Re the Trinity, this is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, because I have friends who would be Trinitarian simply because that’s how they are raised, but don’t really much care otherwise. One friend of mine has married a Christadelphian, so the question is: When I am so bothered about people and the Trinity, does it actually matter?

      And I think it does. The doctrine of the Trinity, first of all, is not God. It is a way of thinking about God borne of centuries of prayerful meditation and scrutiny of the Scriptures. God is beyond the idea of the Trinity; Augustine even says so. Nonetheless, the Scriptures reveal to us the character of God, and the doctrine of the Trinity is part of the outworking of how we think about the Scriptures. It is a way of thinking about God that, I believe, holds in balance the greatest number of tensions in Scripture — even though all of our analogies to explain it break down at some point.

      The doctrine of the Trinity, finally, reveals to us the character of God. This is something elaborated upon quite beautifully in John Zizioulas’ book, Being As Communion. The character of God is rooted in communion, in self-sufficient, self-giving love that is eternal and unbreakable. And, as Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy/theology reminds us, God is the root of the entire universe — so God being Trinity will impact how we view the rest of the world around us and how we interact with others. It will also impact how we interact with Him.

      So I do, indeed, believe that understanding the Trinity can help us know God better. However, speaking as someone within the academic community, the doctrine of the Trinity or PSA or justification by faith alone or the various Calvinistic ways of parsing grace can all be used as ways to distract our minds from actually knowing the living God, despite that we know all about the Church’s teaching. Yet I think that, if we wish to know God, then knowing about him is helpful.

      • How do you square this with the “Athanasian” Creed? If we as confessional/traditional/classic Christians hold to this Creed as normative for Western Christendom (included in both the Book of Concord and the 39 Articles), then isn’t the Trinity essential for salvation, and not just a “doctrine?”

        I will quote the evangelical Michael Reeves here, in his book “Delighting in the Trinity” which formed some of the basis for my original comment on this thread (although the book itself at times is too evangelical/devotional for my taste):

        “What would we say is the article of faith that must be held before all others? Salvation by grace alone? Christ’s atoning work on the cross? His bodily resurrection? Now certainly those are all things “of first importance” (I Cor 15:3), so absolutely critical that they cannot be given up without the very nature of goodness of the gospel being lost; however, they do not stand “before all things.” By themselves they are not what make the Christian gospel Christian. Jehovah’s Witnesses can believe in the sacrificial death of Christ; Mormons in his resurrection; others in salvation by grace. Granted, the similarities are sometimes only superficial, but the very fact that certain Christian beliefs can be shared by other belief systems shows that they cannot be the foundation on which the Christian gospel rests, the truth that “stands before all things.”

        “We need not be disturbed by such similarities. That which distinguishes Christianity has not been stolen. For what makes Christianity absolutely distinct is the identity of our God. Which God we worship: that is the article of faith that stands before all others. The bedrock of our faith is nothing less than God himself, and every aspect of the gospel-creation, revelation, salvation- is only Christian insofar as it is the creation, revelation, and salvation of this God, the triune God. I could believe in the death of a man called Jesus, I could believe in his bodily resurrection, I could even believe in a salvation by grace alone; but if I do not believe in this God, then, quite simply, I am not a Christian. And so, because the Christian God is triune, the Trinity is the governing center of all Christian belief, the truth that shapes and beautifies all others. The Trinity is the cockpit of all Christian thinking.” – Reeves, 14-16

        Any thoughts?

      • I think, in the end, you are right. Now that the Triune nature of God has been revealed, to have been shown it in the Scriptures and then reject that aspect of his character is to forfeit one’s right to be considered Christian and, indeed, imperil one’s soul. To be ignorant is another question.

        This is one of the thoughts that floated around in Cyprus as well, during informal conversations. It is apparent, when we review the history of theology, that baptism and confession of the Triune name of God is the central reality of Christian faith. In Mt 28, the Apostles are called to baptise in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From there, variations on the theme naturally develop through the Spirit’s working in the church until we culminate with the Athanasian Creed.

        My reservation, and what I think Weekend Fisher may have been driving at, is that there are people who spend a lot time arguing about articulating the theology of the Trinity. And that can be simply a way of sidestepping other issues.

      • I’m with you in the sense that we can be obsessed with theology without actually personally knowing the reason for that theology. Studying the Trinity without worshiping, delighting, and serving the Trinity is rather strange and pointless. Perhaps this the attitude you run into in academia and weekend fisher is referring to?

      • This is certainly the attitude I’ve met in some circles. Academics are good at knowing about things. But do we really actually know them?

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