Living orthodoxy or dead conservatism

I recently watched a really good episode of the Pilgrim Faith podcast on YouTube where my new colleagues Joseph Minich and Dale Stenberg of the Davenant Institute (where I teach) interview my friends from PhD days Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (goes by Gray). The interview was about Cory and Gray’s new translation of Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview.

They talked about many things pertinent to Bavinck, early twentieth-century Reformed theology, and the creation of a worldview. One thing that arose was the idea of living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism, which came up partly in the context of Bavinck and Kuyper’s work in founding a new Reformed church in the Netherlands (I think? I know nothing of Dutch ecclesiastical history after Thomas a Kempis, and I was also rolling change from tips at the cafe I manage so some details slipped by as I counted nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and twoonies).

Since I forget some of the context of the discussion, I am mostly just rolling from the paired phrases: living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism.

I think some would argue that conservative theology and ethics are moribund, are fossils, are traditionalism dressed up in modernist Protestant garb, or, for other Christian tribes, simply mediaeval corpses dressed up in liturgical vestments. I may know far less about Bavinck than my friends, but I have no doubt that this is not the target of the phrase “dead conservatism”.

Instead, “dead conservatism” is what I might call the “conservative temperament” coupled to articulations of historic orthodoxy that are simply held in the head but with no union of the head and the heart. Dead conservatism will happily and gleefully sign off on all three historic Creeds or a church body’s confessional document; it can proudly proclaim itself Bible-believing and theologically sound.

Living orthodoxy is not simply an attempt to accurately and truthfully articulate the faith once delivered. It is finding life as a disciple of Jesus Christ at the same time — maybe even through an orthodox articulation of faith. Living orthodoxy is embracing the reality that Jesus is life and the light of human beings.

If we try to unite the head and the heart, we find true power in words such, “for us humans and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The God who is Jesus is not aloof and distant; he is near to us and intimate, participant in our entire human existence — as the fathers I just finished teaching demonstrate, from Athanasius to Leo the Great. He became a human being. He suffered, was crucified, and died for us.

And he really truly in real human history with a real, albeit glorified, human body rose again from the dead.

Living orthodoxy takes this as fuel for absolutely everything. The life of discipleship, of being an apprentice to Jesus our teacher, is empowered by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Actually, in Athanasius’ terms, it is an ongoing participation in that incarnation, for we are the body of Christ. Look to the cross and the empty tomb — here is the fuel for prayer, for fasting, for studying Scripture, for charitable deeds to neighbours; he tasted everything there was to being human. Oh — and he conquered death!

“Glorious now, behold him arise!” as “We Three Kings” puts it each Epiphany.

We follow where He has gone before. We need not fear government restrictions, COVID-19, recessions, ordinary illnesses, unemployment, boredom, isolation, woke capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, Marxists, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, “liberals”, “heretics”.

Living orthodoxy, living with right belief and right worship in the light and life — as part of the light and life — of Jesus the ManGod — also provides the fuel for the creation of a Christian culture. In our context, not so much the kind we saw in the 1200s with Gothic cathedrals, beautiful manuscripts, and wealth lavished upon all things “Christian”, more the kind we saw in the 200s with the creation of tight-knit communities of disciples learning the ways of the Master, and writing theology and commentaries on the Bible and living rightly amongst their pagan neighbours, always seeking Christ the teacher (or paedagogus), creating not a ghettoised sub-culture but a life-bringing counter-culture.

All of it — absolutely all of it — flows from the kind of orthodoxy that is alive, that is not simply signing off on the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession or the decrees of the ecumenical councils, but saying that these are the distillation of the teaching of the God Word found in Scripture and lived in the centuries — then going forth into the world and living as a result.