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?

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