Qualifying Orthos Doxa

What is orthos doxa? What are we right to think? By what standards do we measure it? By what distinguish it from any other hairesis, any other school of thought? Is it even a school of thought itself?

In one classical sense, the orthos doxa is kat' holēs, what we receive from the entire tradition. What is catholic, what is truly a matter of common trust, is right. So the canon of scripture represents a catholic basis for thought, because it forms the minimum approved standard of our common trust in God. Other writings, other witnesses may be approved locally, but as concordant with the catholic canon. Discord is resolved by reference to what all hold in common.

Ah, but this is a late criterion. What is catholic cannot by definition belong to any one hairesis, any one school of opinion ... except that it belongs to the hairesis that had been confessionally defended. That Cappadocian minority opinion that expanded in authority to become the standard for orthos doxa. Otherwise, with possibly more justice, we might have had to declare the Arian view catholic.

So orthos doxa becomes catholic, but catholicity cannot define what is properly orthos. It is a leveling safeguard against idiosyncrasy, but it cannot defend against popular error. And it is only a safeguard of any sort after it has been instituted by a consolidating movement out of a plural tradition. It is only a safeguard if what it guards is actually safe. Catholicity cannot therefore be a primary criterion; all may be in error. It does not even guarantee the truth of what it protects.

The period of post-Reformation Protestant Orthodoxy provides an example nearly parallel to the Patristic. An explosion of plurality, a mixed bag of brilliance, mediocrity, and failure -- and an evaluative synthesis in the century following. Several evaluative syntheses, to be sure -- we may name the Lutheran, Reformed, and "Catholic" traditions as modern heirs of this largely 17th-century catholicizing of orthodoxies. And in that moment it would be perfectly appropriate to note how deeply the Roman, Tridentine orthodoxy resembles the second-century shift to Rabbinic Judaism. One name continues, but the hands that uphold its banner -- and even the banner itself -- have decidedly changed. Consider Trent and the Birkat haMinim: the ways that distinguishing and judging heretics and schismatics changes us.

And so catholicity cannot help us escape the question of how we define what is right. It cannot get us beyond the polemics of truth proclaimed against error, against falsehood. Orthos doxa, so far, remains dialectical. As Spinoza, in his Ethics: verum index sui et falsi -- "what is true signifies both itself and what is false." We know the darkness as everything that is not the light, because we see the light.

But this doesn't solve our problem, either. We still have no epistemology for "truth" and "light". We are left with Adorno's response: falsum index sui atque veri -- "what is false signifies itself, and also what is true." That is, we cannot agree with the idea that what is true is self-evident, and all else becomes evidently false next to it. We will too often mistake verisimilitude for veracity this way. And this is the case because what is rational is not necessarily real. A beautifully solid system can be constructed with no basis in reality. Reality may, indeed, look false next to such a thoroughly-reasoned ideal. We may be disappointed by what is in fact true! But a falsehood, however well-constructed, however desirable, will inevitably contradict reality. We are always better-established as observers of what is false when we set ourselves to observe reality. Reality does not make us better at knowing truth, but it does give us grounds to test and disprove the false. From this we can work toward truth, though it will never be self-evident.

And yet orthodoxy is still bound, to a high degree, to catholicity. And so we could use a bit more of Adorno, in conversation with Lukács, from his Lectures on Negative Dialectics. If you've read (or more likely heard from) Roman Catholic theologians who have been called and censured before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this will sound awfully familiar.
"... he explained to me that the party was in the right, even though his ideas and arguments were better than the party's. The party was in the right because it embodied the objective state of history, while his own position, which was more advanced both in his view and in terms of the sheer logic of the ideas involved, lagged behind that objective state of affairs. I believe that I do not have to spell out for you the implications of such a statement. It would imply simply that, with the assistance of the dialectic, whatever has greater success, whatever comes to prevail, to be generally accepted, has a higher degree of truth than the consciousness that can see through its fraudulent nature." (17)
The church in the West -- even among Protestants -- is in many ways the ultimate in Marxist materialism as it goes about preserving the depositum fidei. We become bound to the declared actual, to the rationalization of the real as we have interpreted it in history, against any falsification of that rationalization in face of the real itself. And yet the truth of the material of the faith, even as a historic product, even with the support of vast tracts of history, is not the truth of its object. Its falsehood is not the falsehood of its object. And so it cannot be implicitly right for us to agree with the tradition, any more than it can be implicitly wrong for us to disagree with it.

Which is not, of course, to say that it is right for us to disagree with the tradition, or wrong to agree with it! We have become mired in the science of the wrong object if we engage in this discussion. We have begun, at such a point, to do ecclesiology without doing theology. And so the material of what we believe (the fides quae creditur) cannot itself become an object of trust. We may, can, and must use the historical material of what we have believed, especially as scripture itself is a collection of such material. But it must always be put critically to the service of understanding the one in whom we believe, the one whom we trust (which is the fides qua creditur). It is actual, but God is real. God is in fact most real, the source of reality, the one who actualizes the possible. We mostly rationalize the actual -- the scope of possibilities we can actualize is profoundly limited, though also real in a subordinate sense. It is the scope of our relative moral agency as creatures in creation.

So: what is orthos doxa? What is it right for us to think? Recall that Jesus would ask his audience, ti humin dokei; -- "What do you think?" More correctly, "How does it seem to you?" We can only respond orthos dokei hēmin ... -- that this or that "seems right to us." That these opinions seem to line up with the rest of what we know. And hopefully then be corrected! Only revelation is providential; all knowledge is merely provisional. And yet our traditions are frequently the best that could be made of the arguments of the time.

By what standards do we judge it to be good? It has to fit what we know of God. That has had different criteria down time, different systems of knowledge and different cultural priorities in pursuit of knowledge of God. The how of orthos doxa is really the harder question than the what. And perhaps that's a post for another day -- it certainly deserves its own place on the bench, and a lot of room to work.


  1. My fear is always that "what seems good to us" is always corrupted by our sin, our brokenness. Surely only God is real and worthy of trust. But if we can never trust in "the faith" handed down to us - if we cannot hold to Scripture as having authority - as marking out what is true and real concerning God and ourselves, we will always be left to our own broken sense of what seems right to us here and now. We will never really be describing God as God has revealed himself to us but only how we feel about God. What seems good or real or true to me gets me nowhere. There is no life, hope, or salvation there but only in God's word revealed to us - handed down to us

  2. Yes, that is the problem I'm trying to answer here. Don't be afraid that "what seems good to us" is always corrupted by our sin -- it is! Of course it is. Interpretation always is. Orthodoxy is never orthos because it corresponds properly to God. Only because it is the best correspondence we can achieve for the time.

    Here's the distinction I want to make: we cannot trust in what has been handed down to us; we can only trust along with it. We trust the one it also trusts. And so the question becomes, what is the authority of scripture? What is its exousian, what has it been granted the power to do? If you would speak of the authority of scripture, you would speak of what has been granted to its authors.

    Scripture is not a way out of the hermeneutical circle. It does not declare with one unanimous voice what its absolutely true about God -- except that God promises and is faithful, that God redeems and saves. This is its witness. Otherwise, even scripture is human communities doing theology in the wake of revelation.

    And so you can't push off the burden of interpretation onto scripture, as though you could rely on it in place of the living God. We simply don't have an absolute recorded truth. But the alternative to direct preserved revealed truth is not "how we feel," let alone that "what seems good or real or true to me gets me nowhere." That's a trap. It holds too high a view of sin. It proposes that sin has made creatures utterly incapable of corresponding to reality, especially to their Creator. Don't follow it into a land where we cannot perceive even what grabs hold of us and reshapes us in the Spirit -- doing that truly destroys the authority of the scriptures. If nothing that seems to us can be true, no witness is possible, not even that of the scriptures. At that point we cannot even trust along with scripture and tradition -- we are utterly without hope.

    And that's intentional -- it's built into the rhetoric. No hope at all, or propositional truth preserved in human writings. Which is a false dilemma. The problem I see at the root, here, is the idea that knowledge of God is the fundamental thing. That is always what orthodoxy tries to secure: the truth of its knowledge of God. But it cannot be preserved! Knowledge of God is not the key; faith is. Knowledge does not lead to faith, but faith does lead to knowledge.

    So, as I said, knowledge is not providential -- it is only provisional. Knowledge only belongs to its time and place. Revelation is providential -- God gives it. And faith, too, is providential -- God gives it. But knowledge always and only follows faithful observation. It is only as good as it can be -- which is no problem at all, because it is secondary to faith. It follows faith. And faith believes that there is no life, hope, or salvation except in God who reveals Godself to us. Who has done so and continues to do so, and who is self-consistent. Life, hope, and salvation do not come from scripture or tradition. They cannot save us -- they can only point us to the one who can, and does. This is the authority of both scripture and tradition. And I've had occasion to reflect on it at several ordinations: "true witnesses and faithful expositions" -- but not true expositions.

  3. (As I said, the "how" is a far bigger question than that "what" -- you can see, I've got a bit I can say about it, but I'm not sure of the best framework to set it in. I can do it in response, but taking it apart in its own terms is bigger than I was prepared to do in the parent post.)

  4. A true Barthian-Lutheran, indeed! Nice; I especially liked your longer comment above, Matthew.

    1. Thanks, Bobby. Trying to get down to the root of things always shows my joint inheritance!

  5. I find it hard to argue with what you've written, which bothers me more than a little. I'm concerned that there are so many in the ELCA these days that are simply casting aside any sense whatsoever of the Scriptures being any kind of aunthoritative. "We" know better on this issue or that subject. "We" know that you simply cannot take seriously what the Bible says about this topic. Then in this they begin going from what "we" believe the Word says, even though it contradicts what the Bible says. The subjectivity of my stand on my hot button topics that don't require any connection to the objective authority of Scripture is what drives me nuts.
    Even so, as I say this, I realize I'm doing my own picking and choosing within Scripture. But it still seems preferable to the vague reliance on feeling that I or We know what the Word teaches with no connection to the written word at all.
    Hey, Matt, give your old man some props for trying to keep up with you here. You have my deep respect. I hope I'm honoring you in trying to process what you're sharing.

  6. Thanks, Dad. I really am glad to have you arguing with me, and processing what I'm writing. I'm trying to argue back in ways that show how much I respect the questioning. You're far from the only one with these qualms, and I really am trying to argue toward the center rather than playing to "my side."

    Part of that is what I'm trying to do here: arguing interpretation and the nature of orthodoxy so that I have some reliable ground for how to deal with scripture and tradition on doing theology for today. We cannot proceed from the social situation, decide what we agree or disagree with, and justify it by scriptural references. And the conservatives are as apt to do that as the liberals -- social ethics that become scripturally grounded, that then determine the necessary content of the faith, that then tell us what God is like. That is precisely backward.

    Here's the thing, for me: I'd like to think I'm as opposed to bad scriptural arguments from either the social left or right. Maybe I'm not, actually, but it's part of my job to be so. And I do confess that the scriptures are the authoritative norm of our faith and life. The "norma normans," as the confessions say.

    But what that means is that theology ultimately comes down to interpretation of scripture. And what that often means is that we argue theological points about matters that the authors of scripture were not making confession about. And these are matters about which we do not have to say what the scriptures say! A parallel: Muhammad was always perplexed when his people would come to him and ask his expertise on farming, or other mundane activities that the witness to the revelation of God had nothing definitive to say about. Nonetheless, the hadith preserve many sayings of the Messenger of God on things that were not revealed to him, but seemed wise at the time.

    We must confess God with the scriptures -- the same God to whom they bear witness. But we have no need to confess sexuality with the scriptures, any more than you see Paul arguing Pentateuch sexual codes with the Corinthians. It's not about "the objective authority of the Scriptures" on every topic of our concern. They are a kind of proof, best used for what they intend to prove.

    We do, on the other hand, have every need to come to a faithful understanding of an ethics and a discipleship that bears out our confession of God. It is about the subjective authority of God in our individual and common lives. It is not about "vague reliance on feeling." But it is very often -- even most often -- about extrapolating and interpreting from our faithful confession of God, grounded and normed by the scriptures and informed by the traditions of the people of God before us, for situations on which the Bible is not the best authority. Ethics can never be reduced to citation. But it can be defended from principles drawn faithfully out of our knowledge of God and the world.

    So: scripture norms our knowledge of God, but what kind of norm should it be for our knowledge of the world?

  7. Okay, I just said "the subjective authority of God in our individual and common lives," and that strikes me as something that's going to get me in trouble, even though it's correct.

    "Subjective" doesn't mean "up to us," any more than "objective" means "really true." The objective authority of God is the authority God has by virtue of being God -- the authority of the autonomous Creator, for example. God has objective and unquestionable authority over creation as the Creator. The subjective authority of God, however, is the authority God has by virtue of being the God who has acted for us. The authority God has for us by virtue of becoming our God. The authority of grace, of covenant with creatures.

  8. So we're having this discussion, and at the same time, Jon Coutts goes and writes this piece over at Out of Bounds:


    It's a nice analysis, and I resonate with what he's dealing with and where he comes out at the end. In Jon's words:

    "What we need is to render ourselves open and attentive to the living and active Word of God which is intent on being heard in the community. We need to come together to “test the spirits”, reform our readings, and commit to one another for the humble road of both discerning and obeying the voice of God in the day to day life of this world. Perhaps in this there is less personal certainty, but is that such a bad thing? Actually, one might argue that if this dynamic of mutual discipleship is allowed to settle into self-made criteria of any kind it might make us feel more secure in our convictions precisely at the expense of the Lord we aim to follow."


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