[This post is written from an explicitly Christian perspective, and from a particular Christian position at that. Its purpose is to explore what the study of orthodoxy might entail for the Christian believer. The point of studying theology from a neutral perspective has been brilliantly written on by Tara Isabella Burton here, and its account is far more generally valid!]
I can’t begin to say how wonderful it’s been to be back in Oxford. I’ll be heading back to America in August, but after four or so (more or less) continuous years across the pond, it’s nice to have six weeks to putter around this wonderful town.
One of the main advantages of being in Oxford is the ability to attend things like the end of a recent conference at Pusey House, where those present were blessed to see a number of excellent talks centring around the doctrine of the Trinity. Similarly, it’s lovely to be able to actually spend some time with some of the other authors on this blog.
With that said, there is an oddness, and a discomfort. Part of it is no doubt reverse culture-shock (a culture-shock which has been exacerbated by the news coming out of America these last few days), but there is still something else lying beneath. There was a moment during the day at Pusey which has particularly lingered with me—I think because of this ‘something else.’ The comment was made at some point that it’s almost impossible to be orthodox without having studied the Fathers (or something broadly to that effect)—a statement which was met with general assent. And why not? It probably is impossible to appreciate the depth of Christian doctrine without an awareness of its origins. All the same, I haven’t been able to shake a nagging discomfort provoked by the statement, or at least the general context of its utterance.
Part of this discomfort is probably down to the fact that I’m one of the only people to have studied under Bill who didn’t do patristics—and I’m only too aware of how significant this gap in my knowledge is. But as my thoughts have circled around this statement over the last few days, the same question has been popping up: ‘so what? Why would it matter if one were orthodox in that case?’ At the risk of self-indulgence (and not a little self-righteousness), I’d like to write a few paragraphs on the ‘why’ behind this question, and the implications its answers might have for the practical study of Christian doctrine. They have nothing much to do with the question of whether knowledge of patristics is essential to orthodoxy; only with the thoughts which followed from the nagging discomfort which this remark provoked.
First off, it is worth saying that neither this question nor this post are motivated by the belief that orthodoxy is unimportant. The core of Christian orthodoxy—which here refers principally (though not exhaustively) to the Nicene Creed and the later elucidation of Trinitarian theology, the definition of Chalcedon, the rejection of Pelagianism, and the fact that each of these rests on the authority of Scripture—is of essential importance to the vitality of Christian faith (of course, I’m also quite confident that this orthodoxy can be understood in accordance with the idea that the (human) language in which it is codified is inherently ambiguous, such that the proclamation and assent to words can never in itself definitively constitute the fullness of orthodoxy. The last I checked, however, such a belief has never been condemned as heresy, unless we tenuously include the modern Roman declaration against modernity!).
Nor is this question asked on the assumption that abstract theologizing, or investigation into the historical development of Christian doctrine, is either irrelevant or useless. Again, both of these practices are (and have always been) of essential importance to the life of the Church, and neither should be denigrated in the name of other practical vocations.
It has instead been nagging at me precisely because I believe orthodoxy to be important; precisely because I believe this study to be essential to the vitality of the Church. And there is something in the air which has led me to wonder whether the reasons for this importance are manifested here, in the atmosphere of academic theology.
To repeat the question, then—why does orthodoxy matter? I believe the reflections above contain the beginnings of an answer: it matters because it is key to the vitality of the Church. The next question is thus ‘why the Church, then?’ To gloss over a far wider debate, this is a question to which we have been given an answer: the reason of the Church is the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord. And so the answer to the question ‘why orthodoxy?’ is the same—orthodoxy matters because Jesus Christ is Lord.
Developing this a little: orthodoxy is important because it provides us with a means of talking about this Lordship of Jesus Christ, grounded in the mysteries of revelation borne witness to in Scripture. It clarifies and sharpens our sense of what is actually happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and through this (for most Christians, at least), it sharpens our sense of what is happening in the narrative of creation and fall, the words of the prophets, the Law, the history of Israel, the development of the Church, and so on. We are thus brought into a deeper sense of who God is, who we are, and what God’s will is for us today.
The key words in this, however, are ‘God’ and ‘Jesus Christ.’ These are the grounds of the importance of orthodoxy. And this means the focal point of orthodoxy is not doctrinal rigour or precision for their own sake, but rigour and precision for the sake of this same Jesus Christ (and Him crucified). The fact that the ‘why’ of orthodoxy is the Lordship of Christ therefore means that the content of that orthodoxy is necessarily intertwined with the life which Jesus, in this Lordship, calls us to pursue.
This in turn means that our focus in the study of orthodoxy must ultimately be the same as the focus of Jesus’ ministry, the focus of the God of Scripture—in the words of Isaiah 58:6-7, that our study must be explicitly, even if not directly, geared towards loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our houses, covering the naked, and opening ourselves to our own neighbours. Or, in the words of Luke 4:18-19, this study must ultimately echo the proclamation of good news to the poor, of release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; it must enable us to join the work of letting the oppressed go free and living out the reality of the year of the Lord’s favor. In the words of today, it must proclaim against the killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, as well as the police officers who have been killed in Dallas today, to mourn these deaths as Jesus wept, and to try and articulate a way forward in the grace of God.
This much can of course be said about the discipline itself. But there is more to it—for if this is what our field of study must do, in virtue of its object, then its students must do so as well. Students of orthodoxy must seek to live out this Gospel through daily life, not vicariously, not indirectly, but as a practical aspect of our theological discipline. To study orthodoxy as a Christian in virtue of the Lordship of Jesus Christ necessitates the active pursuit of a life of discipleship. And this entails more than voting with conscience, ethical consumption, charitable giving, or advocacy for just causes (though these are all good and important things): it entails the twofold ministry of mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and so seeking community with those who have been cast out and starved by the sins of our society, both to share in their celebrations and stand with them in their sorrows. To put it another way; the study and proclamation of orthodox belief must be set in the context of active participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ, as borne witness to in Scripture—the ministry of building relationships of grace at the margins of society. Otherwise our words run the risk of senselessness at best, hypocrisy and deception at worst.
All this has felt absent in the atmosphere of Oxford. And this, I believe, is a significant source of the above discomfort: the feeling that the study of orthodoxy in the academy is all too often disconnected from its practice. This is little more than a feeling, I should say—a lurking discomfort, a sense, not a confident judgement. And it may all be thoroughly misguided and mistaken. Even so, the sense is there, a feeling of the absence or hiddenness of the idea that the life of the Church is the necessary context of catholicity; of the idea that if we seek to study orthodoxy as Christians, then an integral part of that study must be the living out of our responsibility to the all-encompassing claim of God’s command, given in both the Law and the Gospel. Again, this may well be more a matter of blindness on my part than any actual hiddenness or absence; but I can say with relative confidence that it isn’t evident in the patterns of our discipline at large (I cannot, of course, say anything about the lives of students in particular, which would be beyond presumptuous). And even if these principles are there, perhaps sitting modestly beneath the surface of our visible life, their implications are worth making explicit, so as to show the integrity of the whole.
To clarify, none of this is said to try and argue that practise trumps doctrine in terms of importance—this is not a ‘life over doctrine’ rant, and to set one against the other in terms of value or priority is to misunderstand both. Neither do I believe that doctrine should be reduced to concrete ethical proclamation or subordinated to the goals of secular morality (c.f. several liberation and liberal theologies); on the contrary, I believe it is essential to theological ethics that the study and formulation of doctrine retain its own formal integrity and independence from concrete ethical expression. Nor is this said as if practise could supplant prayer in theology. Rather, it is said under the belief that the autonomous study of orthodox Christian doctrine itself, insofar as its object is Jesus Christ, demands the pursuit of this life as its outworking, even (and perhaps especially) of its scholars. The redemption that is in Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, very God and very man, is no abstract matter: it is a matter of the concrete realities faced by the victims of sin, ourselves included. The formal, historical, and doctrinal proprieties of orthodox faith are important, but they are important because they serve to bring the concrete practice of this redemption into sharper focus. And without setting their study in the broader context of this practice, without bringing orthodoxy into encounter with the day to day life of dispossession, without engaging with both the joys and the sorrows of this life, the theologian is akin to someone who claims to be a chess-player after they have learnt a large amount of strategy, but never actually played a game; their claim is not strictly false, but there’s something not quite right about it too.
In any case, theology is not ‘a wonderful glass-bead game played for its own sake by its company of initiates in a quiet valley with no outward contacts.’ (Barth, The Christian Life, 96) It may well be, then, that one cannot be an orthodox theologian without a clear grasp of the Fathers, and in truth, I have no real opinion on this matter. In virtue of the subject of this orthodoxy, however, to articulate this faith outside of a life which seeks to share community with the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien, the poor, with those crushed by sin—to do this is to speak doctrine outside of the life of Jesus Christ, outside the life of Church, and so to rob the words of both their substance and their sense. They can only hang in the air; the institution of their use is lacking. The lecture halls, the classrooms, and the chapels of our academies are so often disconnected from many of the worlds where Jesus Christ spent his time; they are so often disconnected from many of the people with whom He built community (this is, it should go without saying, principally because we are lost and needy—not those to whom the academies are closed). We will not find the matter of Christian orthodoxy in these places, even insofar as they are indeed essential for learning its development and articulation. And whilst an understanding of this development and of this articulation is essential to the vocation of the theologian, if this understanding is prioritized to the exclusion of the life commanded by the object of orthodoxy, on both a personal and a disciplinary level, then it is a hollow understanding at best, falsity at worst.
Injustice can be found everywhere in the world, much of it in the cities around our theological institutions (in both Britain and America). Injustice can be suffered within the academy, of course, and we all of us can fall victim to isolation—but the call of Christ is still to follow him to where we are not. This call is not a grim call either: it is not a matter of some group from a position of strength reaching out to ‘help’ some group in a position of weakness, as if fellowship with the victims of injustice were some sort of ascetic or noble discipline on our part. Indeed, many communities on the margins, in my experience at least, know as much of joy, fellowship, and grace as anyone (often more). The Gospel does not command us to do favours for those we consider incapable of helping themselves out of our the goodness of our divinely-inspired benevolence. It instead commands us to seek relationships of grace for the sake of Jesus Christ—relationships which will prove just as important to our study and to our vocation as reading the works of the fathers.
So, if we wish make proclamations regarding the conditions of orthodoxy, then seeking community within the places of injustice should be of equal priority to other forms of theological inquiry. If we wish to study orthodoxy, then we should seek to love and be loved by others through the grace which lies at the core of that orthodoxy—and through this learn those truths of Christian faith which cannot be discovered in a seminar or substantiated within a text. We should do this for ourselves, we should do this for the sake of Jesus Christ, and we should do this for the Church. After all, how can we expect this orthodoxy—this catholicity — to invigorate the life of the Church, if it doesn’t even inspire us to dedicate everything we have to the pursuit of that life? And why would it matter that we’re able to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord through the most precisely orthodox formulations, if this Lordship doesn’t compel us to then try and manifest this ‘why’ of orthodoxy to the world?
To summarise: orthodoxy is essential because Jesus Christ is Lord. But the fact that its importance is grounded in the Lordship of Jesus Christ means that both orthodoxy itself and its study can only make sense in the context of the Gospel through which this Lordship is revealed. On a disciplinary level, this means that the study of orthodox theology must explicitly serve the Gospel, working in more and less direct ways towards the liberation of the captive. On a personal level, this means that the students of orthodoxy should pursue a life of discipleship with as much vigour as they seek precise and orthodox articulations of doctrine. This post was written because of a lurking sense that these principles are lacking in the air of the academy. This sense may be wholly mistaken—still unease persists, and so it seems worth writing on, even if that writing is in error.