Historic. Orthodox. Christianity.

Many contemporary Christians subscribe to a certain normative fable of a “historic orthodox Christianity.” This view of Christian history relies on a master narrative of a “pure” Christianity which is distinct from heresy. In this view, Christianity is differentiated from heresy in double terms, that it is both “historic” and that is “orthodox.”

The problem comes in equating “historic” and “orthodox.” One suggests a certain degree of detatched objectivity while the other suggests a degree of partisan politics. Both make a normative claim on what counts as “Christianity,” but the operative norms lie in significant tension. While history may tell us something about what Christianity is like, it in no way privileges a particular theological position identified with orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a theological construct which is not rooted an any particular set of facts, but rather a particular interpretive tradition.

While ancient Chrsitian discourses of orthodoxy and heresy relied on multiple strategies, contemporary discourses rely on two. First, truth and origins are conflated. This means that the search for origins is taken to be a search for truth. Much of the rise of historical critical scholarship is rooted in this same view (though often the results are subversive to orthodoxy). In this way, “historic” is taken to be “orthodox” as long as “orthodoxy” can be found in history.

Second, orthodoxy is located in particular historical moment(s), privileging certain historical moments over others. It is not the cumulative sweep of history which determines what is orthodox, but particular episodes that are seen as victories of orthodoxy. Further, a particular geography is privileged in determining the scope of Christianity, which is often taken to include only certain Greek and Latinate locales. Such a view homogenizes certain thinkers, obscuring the differences between them, while hyping up the differences between so-called ‘heretics.’ The question that we should be asking is why some differences matter and others do not.

Latter-day Saints make a mistake to the extent they concede the fiction of a unified “historic, orthodox, Christianity.” Instead, these categories are rooted in particularly problematic assumptions that conflate history with truth and truth with selectively chosen examples from history.

19 Replies to “Historic. Orthodox. Christianity.”

  1. Thanks for this, TT; I’m taking an early Christian theology course this term, so this topic has been especially interesting to me lately.

  2. Personally, I don’t usually use the term “orthodox” in this context, I use the term “classical theism” instead. Nonetheless, I fail to see how any informed observed would fail to make the distinction between orthodox as “true” and orthodox as “conventional”.

    In fact, I daresay nearly all informed observers read orthodox as “conventional” unless the context clearly indicates that the other sense is being used. After all, who out there doesn’t have opinions that differ from “orthodoxy” in some sense or another, a difference whose very existence implies the distinction, short of someone choosing to believe that which he believes is either not true or strictly arbitrary.

  3. Mark,
    I think that “classical theism” has a different connotation than the particular phrase that I am objecting to here. I think that this too has limitations in that it also privileges a particular kind of theism as “classical,” which in some ways draws on the same discourses of “historical,” though I might be convinced that this doesn’t imply normativity by invoking it.
    That said, I am not sure that I agree with you that for most observers “orthodox” means “conventional” if by “conventional” you mean to suggest that it doesn’t have a normative connotation. I object to the way that a certain form of Christianity is taken to be normative, either because it is “orthodox” or “conventional”.
    I do agree with you that the idea that someone is completely “orthodox” in their opinions requires a selective understanding of what orthodoxy is, and exposes it as a fiction.

  4. I was most entertained by this article. It is outstanding, as it it both devoid of any historical or spiritual Truth. Entertaining in that it comes from adherents of a cult that believes that Moroni brought tablets of gold to Joseph Smith..(a man of dubious character) .do you have them, by the way? Would this be “classical, normative, historic fable” or just orthodox Mormon fiction? it is, however so well written and erudite. I don’t think that Joseph Smith would even understand it! well done!
    An Eastern Orthodox Christian

  5. I think a good substitute for what we mean by orthodoxy would be “historic majority Christianity,” or perhaps “historic dominant Christianity”. This is a case of the dominant group leveraging its power to define its own views as the only legitimate ones.

    The notion of a monolithic orthodoxy has been easier to maintain because of the fact that the dominant/majority group(s) have been fairly continuous throughout history. The orthodoxy concept may be increasingly problematized in the next century, however, as indigenous/independent Pentecostal groups in the Southern hemisphere become the Christian majority. They tend not to care as much about traditional Western theological norms.

  6. Seraphim,

    Your comment was outstanding, as it is both devoid of any historical or spiritual Truth. I actually do have the “tablets of gold” (actually, they are an alloy that includes gold and as such are not made solely of gold, but that is really besides the point). Maybe we can meet up sometime in the future though, and then you can eat it. I hope this comment isn’t so well written that you can’t understand it’s hidden meaning(s), however. 🙂

    Best wishes,

    Angel Moroni

  7. I hear that that the Ark of the Flood, Stone Ten Commandments,the Cross and Nails of Jesus, and even the orignal autographs of the Gospel writers are in the Vatican. Who knows, maybe the Gold Plates are with them.

  8. Sounds like Seraphim does not understand the history of early Christianity.

    Was Origen’s writings considered orthodox or heretical? It depends on whether you were quoting him in 275 AD or 500 AD. Eusebius of Caesarea considered himself a follower of Origen, the defender of the “orthodox Christianity”. However, St Augustine later considered Origen a heretic.

    I think this is the gist and scope and problem of equating orthodoxy and historic. You cannot tie down orthodox ideas for centuries after Jesus’ death. The Trinity came about in 325 with Nicea’s Council, yet was again rejected and Athanasius exiled not long afterward, but then was reestablished as orthodox by the end of the century.

    Not long after that, the Council of Chalcedon was announced to figure out problems with the Trinity – such as the duality of Christ. These were not issues 2 centuries earlier, but were very important in the late 4th century AD.

    Even the schism between the Roman and Eastern Churches shows a rift in the “orthodoxy” of the Church. Does the Pope hold all the cards? Or is the Patriarch really the possessor of the ancient priesthood authority?

  9. Dear all,
    I probably shouldve deleted Seraphim’s comment but let’s refrain from attacking his religion in response. In fact, let’s just not respond. Sorry for leaving this bait out there.

  10. It appears from #7, that Angel Moroni is now a permablogger here at FPR. While I am surprised that nobody informed me, I am very pleased by this development.

    You think you’re surprised? He didn’t even tell his own father. What happened to the patriarchal order?

  11. Historic. Orthodox. Christianity.

    TT, I do love the sounding ring of all three of these words.

    Of course, unorthodox has been historic, too. One can note that by just opening up the KJV Bible on the coffee table, reading both its full preface and then the books (canonical plus apocrypha). 400 years for the English world.

    We shall see how the Tradition might be upheld among the English in future days in what they have carried over from the Greek and Latinate locales.

  12. Nice post.
    I’m not usually a fan of theory of religion, but Jonathan Z. Smith has a lot of interesting material on these kinds of issues, ideas about maps and territories and their relationships and the kinds of difference that make things different.
    I have a great respect and fondness for the Eastern traditions; this particular Seraphim is not its best public representative.
    I personally think that Mormon historians have too long allowed its history and its views of Christianity to be driven by a dialogue with particular strains of American Protestantism, much of it surrounding these types of questions of norms and orthodoxies.

  13. “I personally think that Mormon historians have too long allowed its history and its views of Christianity to be driven by a dialogue with particular strains of American Protestantism, much of it surrounding these types of questions of norms and orthodoxies.”

    My thoughts exactly, Sam.

  14. As an Orthodox Christian, I ask your forgiveness for Seraphim’s comments. That sort of attitude is not Christ-like, and Is not representative of most Orthodox people.

  15. I would like to hear from what you will learn about the Christian and the different religion has to the Morman religion in complex and social topicals. Theological and Historical, if you would. Thanks again

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