Orthodoxy VS. Orthopraxy

I’ve been pondering (much akin to Pinky and the Brain) about the place of the Church in the categorization of orthodoxy and orthopraxy of late. I figured that we’d run out our last theme fairly thoroughly. Anyways, I don’t know exactly what it was that spurred the pondering in me but (must have been something in church) but today I listened to a lecture by Dan Peterson which went over this topic as a part of a broader comparison of Semitic world view tendencies versus Greek world view tendencies and their reflections in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and I have been inspired to write.

For convenience sake I’ll roughly define our terms. Orthopraxy comes from Greek and is translated as right action. Orthodoxy also comes from the Greek and means right belief. These terms are applied frequently to describe Judaism’s, Christianity’s, and Islam’s main religious focus. Judaism and Islam are primarily orthopraxic in nature. It is much more important that a person do what is right than think what is right.

In Judaism, to be a good Jew (speaking generally of course) one should observe kosher laws, cover ones head when praying if a man or not if a woman, attend synagogue, celebrate the Passover, etc. In Islam, (again, being general, it differs between groups) this involves keeping dietary laws, praying facing Mecca five times a day at prescribed times, attend Mosque, etc.

In Christianity, the focus is much more on what one believes than what one does. At the heart of this for most Christians is a belief in the Trinity and that Jesus is Lord. Catholics and Protestants are and have been at arms over how to understand things like the doctrine of justification, the nature of God, the nature of Jesus suffering, etc.

In both cases the other side is present but is much less dominant. In Islam you must believe that God is One; in Judaism that Moses is God’s prophet; in Christianity one must confess that Jesus is Lord.

So where do we Mormons fit? A quick review of what is important in the Church may bring different ponderers (all us Brains) to different conclusions but one thing we can all probably agree upon is that we are more orthopraxic than most of our fellow Christians. Consider, what do we judge makes a person a good Mormon? This will vary with the person but most Saints will think at first about things like: does he/she do their home/visiting teaching? Do they attend the temple? Keep the Word of Wisdom? Attend church regularly?

How many people’s first reaction would be to say, “does that person believe that Jesus is Lord?” or “were they baptized as a baby and received communion?” These two questions are different. The first is a focus on belief, the second on action. The first I would expect from an Evangelical, the second from a Catholic or certain Protestants.

I would characterize Evangelicals and other Christians who’s focus on confession of Jesus as Lord as the most orthodoxic group. Catholics seem to be more concerned about baptism at birth and perhaps communion. This is fairly orthopraxic really. They also have a very strong emphasis on belief in the Trinity but I’ve met lots of people who don’t “practice” who consider themselves and anyone else who was baptized by the RC as a baby to be Catholic. Perhaps practicing Catholics would be more orthodoxic than I’m giving them credit for.

So, when I compare us Marmons to Catholics (or even Anglicans who seem to be very close substantively) I still see us as more orthopraxic. This question might be better addressed by someone who has spent more time in a place where more people are devoutly Catholic like in Latin America or southern Europe. Are the expectations for public, communal actions as high as the are for us Saints? My instinct is to say close, but not quite.

Are we as orthopraxic as Islam or Judaism? I’m pretty sure the answer to this is no. I characterize this in this way: are Jews or Muslims as likely to argue about their doctrinal equivalents of the three degrees of glory? Do they have as many theological issues of considerable importance as we do? This is all fairly speculative, I know, but my intention is to raise the question generally and not specifically and carefully. And my gut tells me that Mormons have more doctrinal/theological issues than Islam or Judaism does and we spend a lot more time discussing them and put a lot more emphasis on the ones we have than they do.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think that it is necessarily as straightforward as saying that “we’re the middle way, the balance of things compared to two extremes.” We’re fairly orthodoxic (think about all the blacks in the priesthood/Adam-God/Spirit World type discussions we have on the blogs) and we’re fairly orthopraxic. Does one side dominate?

My first reaction would be to say that we are practically (I mean in practice) more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (cf. our what makes a good Mormon a good Mormon question above). As Dan Peterson pointed out today, even the way we speak about ourselves shows leanings to orthopraxy. He said that we speak of people being “active” and “less active” in the Church. He also pointed out that we apply the terms orthodoxic and heretic to ourselves very seldom.

Another thing to note is that our “right actions” aren’t normally done in private, the ones we think about the most are public or communal. Attending church, attending the temple, fufilling a calling or assignment, taking the sacrament, attending Church programs, keeping the Word of Wisdom, etc are all things that we judge people by when considering at a glance whether they are “good Mormons” or not. This is quite similar to Judaism and Islam where the community is very important and one’s actions within the community largely define oneself in the eyes of the community.

But we also have private actions that we don’t get to judge by that we would say are important for being a good member. I’m thinking of Family Home Evening, personal and family prayers and scriptures, personal relationship with God, and to some degree paying tithing. What do we do with this?

It is also unclear what specific beliefs one must have for a person to be considered a Mormon in good standing. Is it as narrow as being able to pass a baptismal interview and/or temple interview? Different people have different ideas about how much one must believe the same as the community. For example, I’m not a proponent of a worldwide Flood or a literal baptism of the earth. Anyone out there going to call me a heretic? Some may be tempted. While I think that ultimately the bare minimum of communal belief is less than many would suspect, it is probably more than we would find in Judaism or Islam.

So now we have a fair amount of necessary communal belief, public action (this can be a killer at times for antisocial folk like myself), and private action necessary for good standing in the LDS Church. How do we define that? Its part orthodoxy, part private orthopraxy, part public orthopraxy. Is it overall right living, a combination of belief and action? What snooty Greek word would we create to describe this lifestyle? Orthozony?

And just because I can’t let sleeping dogs lie, I wonder if this plays a part in our discussions of late about the place of exegesis of the Bible in the average members life and our differing opinions about it. The picture I’ve tried to paint above is made with long wide brush strokes and is by necessity too broad and general. Within the Church I can see that there are some people who are much more orthopraxic than I am and some that are less. There are some who think that we must all believe the same thing more than I do and some (I’m thinking of a name here….) who think less.

If your definition of “right thinking” is communal belief then this argument doesn’t work. But if you mean “correct thinking whether it’s communal or not” then I wonder if this is causing some of the difference of opinion about the important of exegesis. I personally think that right thinking whether it is communal or not is more important than plain old communal belief. This naturally increases my view of how important good, honest, rigorous exegesis is. I don’t want to see and think what everyone else sees and thinks unless I can clearly see that it is the correct way to think. Where I see an understanding of a verse that I deem to be more correct than the general understanding of people is, I take the road less traveled.

This is not to say that there are not necessary communal beliefs or that communal beliefs are bad or anything. They aren’t, in moderation. But when I see the prophets and apostles of God disagreeing with each other on some (even sometimes many) things, I come to the conclusion that the body of belief that is truly communal is limited. This has the effect of acting as an anchor to my soul. It <i>must</i> be believed that The Book of Mormon is the world of God and so I can always trust in this fact and place my faith in the teachings of the Book of Mormon. It does not have to be believed that the Flood was a universal deluge that acted as a baptism of the earth.

So what are your all thoughts? Are we orthozonic? Does some people’s leanings to orthodoxy push them (us) to value exegesis over and above those who don’t? Will we take over the world tonight or not?

21 Replies to “Orthodoxy VS. Orthopraxy”

  1. LXX,

    Good post – chapter IV was the best part. 🙂

    Works-based righteousness doesn’t have much of a place in Christianity. I think the NT (Mogget, correct me if I’m wrong) certainly casts the works-based righteousness folks in a bad light, at least that’s how I walk away from the synoptics. Paul seems to continue it, but I’m an OT guy, so my acquaintance with Pauline stuff is sketchy.

    My question is – why did orthopraxy win the day in Mormonism? Is it because we’re rooted in convoluted and contradictory doctrinal statements from our early leaders (cf. Orson Pratt w/ Woodruff [or anybody!])? Is it because works-based righteousness is germane to better accounting procedures (ie, sending your home teaching numbers up to SLC or whatever)?

  2. Lxxluthor, mark me down as one of those Christians who believes that practice is just as important as faith. I am thinking of James, of course. James and Paul go hand in hand with each other.

    I know people that can sign their names to orthodox statements of faith, but they live like heathen. They live like heathen because they are heathen.

  3. David J, Martin Luther would agree with you in the conflict. He categorized James as an epistle of straw. But he was dead wrong. Yet I am easy on him, understanding full well the religious culture wherein he lived that was directly antithetical to sola fide. Romans was like that window opening the light of heaven. And I am sure those in his day used James to blot out Romans.

    But as much as Paul laid out Christian orthodoxy, he interwined expected orthopraxy. Make no mistake about it. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

  4. David J:
    Excuse me, how do James and Paul go hand in hand? I’ve always viewed them as conflicting.

    I haven’t seen them as conflicting, so much as emphasizing different angles to the same Gospel.

  5. While we’re waiting for Mogot, I mean Mogget (Freudian slip with a hat tip to Samuel Beckett), I think the New Perspective on Paul is largely about showing showing that Paul wasn’t really dissing works as much as 16th century Catholic-Protestant debates made it seem.

  6. Ah yes, I’m very Lutheran in my approach to things – very pessimistic about human nature and destiny, just like he was. That’s why I like that passage in the BofM about man’s carnal, sensual, and devilish nature from the beginning – as if JS was influenced by Luthor the day he translated (wrote?) that passage.

    I agree – Paul seems to possess a blend of the two. But I’m a synoptics guy, and in there I think the dichotomy is quite vivid. Perhaps as Xianity moved on, a happy medium was reached.

    I still would like to know why orthopraxy won the day in Mormonism.

  7. David J – “I still would like to know why orthopraxy won the day in Mormonism.

    CEF – I think it is quite simple. 2Nephi 25:23.

  8. Samuel Beckett!!? You could get a Mogget-nipping for bringing that guy up… And BTW, it’s Mōgget! 😉

    Yeah, the James-Paul thing. The modern world has yet to recover from some aspects of the Reformation and the loose talk that permeates the church on the works/grace debate doesn’t help. I’ve not done much with James but here’s my thoughts for what they’re worth.

    The interesting thing is that there was a debate in the NT world of Christianity that was every bit as bitter as our divisions over works/grace. It was the debate over Jewish- and Gentile-Christian relationships. And the thing about the Epistle of James is that it seems to be addressed to Jewish-Christians. It almost seems like there were two churches: one for Jewish Christians and another for Gentile Christians. In the end, the latter group prevailed.

    So now if you go take a look at the larger section in which our passage of interest is located, it all has to do with speech. James talks about prayer, about boasting, and about faith without works, all of which have to do with speech. His main point is that speech that comes from God or is directed toward God is transforming and active. Its antithesis is boasting, duplicity, slander, and empty claims.

    So now, I think the heart of the matter is to be aware of how James and Paul defined the word “faith.” In James, it’s mostly just verbal and intellectual assent. To James, “faith” is just a shorthand way of saying “what one says.” James’ point is that verbal and intellectual assent, that is, empty speech, is not adequate. IOW, the proof is in the pudding.

    And you know what? Paul would have agreed. Paul’s understanding of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4 is very similar in some ways to James’ understanding of “works.” Abraham’s faith was an unwavering trust in God, a conviction of God’s faithfulness that determined the course of his life. This is the essence of what the AV calls the “obedience of faith.” Pauline faith, far from an empty assertion, is a life-changing committment.

    But the real key to the matter of agreement between Paul and James is the question of precedence. Paul taught clearly that God’s action precedes ours. Does James? I think so (Jas 1:16-18):

    Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers: all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

    Note here that James is talking about speech – God’s speech is what gives us the “birth” that makes us the “firstfruits.” His speech is inevitably effectual; our speech must be continually examined. And I expect that Paul would have agreed.

    So I think that there is a genuine sense of conflict, born of the difference in audiences, which has much to do with the essence of LXXLuthor’s post. But on a deeper level, they seem to have the same basic idea. I think that I find Paul’s formulation perhaps the more articulate but I am, after all a “child” of Gentile Christians.

  9. David J.: I think that the history of Jesus as remembered by the early Xtns aids the cause of those who want to promote works based religion. The Sermon on the Mount is about affecting attitudes but it is as based in action as anything in the Gospel.

    Also, I’ve also been informed that James’ epistle was likely based on a different version of the Sermon on the Mount (never done any close work in it myself) but it connects James’ works to Jesus teachings. And we all know about how Mormons like James and his works. Don’t think the connection is direct but it certainly is interesting that it exists. And when you add the Sermon at the Temple in the BoM I think that the connection probably becomes real.

    Todd: I think that the Reformation, following thing the steps of the split between the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians (the Judaizers at the very least), is one of the main causes that continually drives Christianity to be so orthodoxic in the first place. And orthopraxic faiths have an inherent sense of expected orthodoxy. The thrust is in the emphasis within the faith.

    Robert: I’m not very familiar with the New Perspective on Paul that you speak of (at least not by that name) but I do know that in school that it is emphasized that Paul was usually speaking of the works of the Law of Moses and not everyday Christian acts. Is this the same thing?

    CEF: That verse has to be the most misunderstood verses in the whole BoM. As per exactly what you are saying about it.

    Mogs: You work on a different planet than the rest of us.

    It almost seems like there were two churches: one for Jewish Christians and another for Gentile Christians. In the end, the latter group prevailed.

    Do you think so? I’m just getting into the whole scene but I see the leaders (read: the 12) as trying to prevent this and failing miserably (hence the many varieties of Christianity c.100). Paul, for all he was ticked off at Peter and Barnabas for abandoning the Gentile converts, still went to Jerusalem to sort out the issue and being in dialog with them. The apostles seem to have been trying to get the members to all work together and be unified, a task which they ultimately failed at. If this was true then it was a division among members but not at the top.

  10. James’ epistle was likely based on a different version of the Sermon on the Mount

    I’d like to know more about this idea.

    The apostles seem to have been trying to get the members to all work together

    At some point you’ll have an opportunity to sort out the conflicts between what Acts says and how Paul recounts the interaction between himself and the Jerusalem Twelve. Most folks give Paul’s account some precedence while recognizing that both versions may not be what we would call “accurate.”

    Mostly, I’m just noting the division of labor implied in the respective missions to the circumcised/uncircumcised and the fact that the Jerusalem Twelve don’t ever really direct Paul’s missionary efforts. They interact precisely over the points at which Gentile and Jewish Christians must interact, such as table fellowship, but in little else.

  11. Regarding the New Perspective on Paul, Dunn’s intro to Romans in the WBC has a whole section devoted to this. Here’s an excerpt (E. P. Sanders is the main name I’ve heard with this; also, I should note that Dunn criticizes other parts of Sanders’ work):

    the hermeneutical mistake was made of reading this antithesis back into the NT period, of assuming that Paul was protesting against in Pharisaic Judaism precisely what Luther protested against in the pre-Reformation church—the mistake, in other words, of assuming that the Judaism of Paul’s day was coldly legalistic, teaching a system of earning salvation by the merit of good works, with little or no room for the free forgiveness and grace of God (“the imaginary Rabbinic Judaism, created by Christian scholars, in order to form a suitably lurid background for the Epistles of St. Paul”—Montefiore, 65; in addition to the examples cited by Sanders and Watson, see, e.g., Leenhardt, passim, and Ridderbos, Paul, 130–35).

    It was this depiction of first-century Judaism which Sanders showed up for what it was—a gross caricature, which, regrettably, has played its part in feeding an evil strain of Christian antisemitism. On the contrary, however, as Sanders demonstrated clearly enough, Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace—that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel, to be their God and they his people.

    [Dunn, J. D. G. (2002). Vol. 38A: Word Biblical Commentary : Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary (lxv). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

  12. Mogget,

    With regard to the epistle of James and the Sermon on the Mount, maybe Lxxluthor is referring to the following paper:

    The Epistle of James and the Gospel of Matthew, Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 75, No. 1. (Mar., 1956), pp. 40-51.

    Here is a quote from the paper:

    What is particularly significant for our analysis is the fact that every one of the discourses provides parallels to Matthew even though there is no precise quotation. Most of these parallels come from the Sermon on the Mount, but by no means exclusively so.

  13. OK, yes, the Shepherd paper. It’s actually from 1976 rather than 1956, in case someone wants to look it up. I’m thinkin, though, that EJames is less another version of the SotM than the recipient of a similar tradition of sayings. But we shall see.

  14. Jstor must have the year wrong; That’s where I got a year of 1956.

    Your right, Mogget, about Shepherd’s argument. In my quick skimming of the article, it looked like he was arguing that EJames was produced in a community that accepted and solely used Matthew as the authoritative source about Jesus and His teachings.

  15. CEF (#10): 2Nephi 25:23

    Ah, probably the most misunderstood verse in the BofM… but oh well.

    If the BofM isn’t a 19th century document, how Nephi could have had such a clear view of grace/works as a good little Jewish boy is beyond me…

  16. DJ: Thanks for keeping a reign on me pal. 😉 My tendency for hyperbole is too great to suppress all the time. Plus, Nephi saw Jesus, learned the fullness of the plan of salvation, and overall was not a good little Jewish boy but was a good little Christian boy. The BoM overall is about a group of Christians waiting for Christ. I guess that is the part that you can’t swallow.

  17. Oh and David J? What is your little picture by your comments? It only shows up as question marks. In fact, I can only see my own and Mogs.

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