Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

The term “Orthodoxy” can be defined, more or less accurately, as “right/correct opinion”. The verb o)rqodoce/w (orthodoxéœ) is relatively rare (but can be found in Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1151a.19), from o)rqodo/co$ (orthodóxos, also rare). Neither word occurs in the earliest Christian writings (New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, etc); in fact, even the underlying component words are relatively rare in the New Testament:

    • The adjective o)rqo/$ (orthós, “straight, [up]right”) and the related adverb o)rqw=$ (orthœ¡s, “straightforward, rightly, plainly”) are used only 6 times combined, and in the sense of a “right/correct” saying/opinion only in Lk 7:43; 10:28; 20:21. Heb 12:13 uses the adjective according to the Hebrew idiom of making one’s paths “straight” (in the religious/ethical sense of “walking straight”), and note the similar compound verb o)rqopode/w (orthopodéœ, “set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right”) in Gal 2:14, as well as o)rqotome/w (orthotoméœ, “cut right/straight”) in 2 Tim 2:15 as a reference to correct teaching. Both noun and adjective are used more commonly for “right/straight” teaching and Christian ministry in the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius Eph 1:1; Herm Sim 2:7; Diognetus 11:2, etc) and e.g. Justin Martyr (1 Apol 4:8; 2 Apol 2:2; Dialogue with Trypho 3:3; 5:2; 67:4, etc).
    • The noun do/ca (dóxa) is derived from the verb doke/w (dokéœ), which itself has a fairly wide range of meaning, “think, suppose, imagine, consider, recognize” and, more abstractly, “seem (to be)”. So, the noun do/ca primarily means “thought, opinion”, but in the more specialized sense of “consideration, recognition”, etc., it came to be used regularly for the “esteem, reputation,” etc. with which one considers someone/something, and so more specifically for “honor, glory”, etc. It is almost always in this latter sense that the noun and related verb doca/zw (doxázœ, “esteem, honor, give glory/glorify”) are used in the New Testament. However, the verb doke/w occurs more frequently in the ordinary sense of “think, suppose, consider”.

By the end of the first century, and in what are usually considered the latest (anywhere between c. 65-100 A.D.) New Testament writings, there came to be a greater emphasis upon safeguarding “correct” teaching and tradition against ‘false teachers’ and opponents, as can be seen vividly in the Pastoral epistles (esp. 1 Timothy), 2 Peter, Jude, and the epistles of John (note esp. the strident partisan identifications and credal tests in 1 John). As Christianity continued to develop over the next two centuries, a greater number of divergent beliefs and sects arose often with contrasting (or contradictory) and competing viewpoints, ranging from fundamental issues of cosmology and theology (such as the nature of God and the person of Christ) to specific details of Church practice (such as the dating/celebration of Easter). Church leaders and theologians of various stripes sought to defend the “correct” position, usually on the basis of: (1) interpretation of Scripture, and (2) the reliability of inherited tradition. This multifaceted (historical) Christianity is normally described, in relation to orthodoxy (“correct belief/thought/opinion”), by one of two terms—”heterodoxy” or “heresy”.

Heterodoxy simply means “other thought/belief/opinion”, and today is typically used to reflect the (apparent) diversity of belief and practice, especially in the first three centuries of the Church, in contrast to Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire (both in the West and Byzantine East), from the early-mid 4th century through the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a different, but related sort of Protestant “Orthodoxy” developed (mainly that of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches), which extends, at least formally and in theory, among (most) Protestants to the present day. The term heresy has a far more negative (and odious) connotation, and, for that reason (as well as its history of spiteful application), is avoided (and/or used with great caution) by thoughtful Christians today. It is a transliteration in English of the Greek ai%resi$ (haíresis), derived from the verb ai(re/w/ai(re/omai, “take, choose, select (for oneself)”, and fundamentally means “something chosen/taken”, as, for example, a (religious) way of life, a partisan or communal affiliation, a belief, and so forth. The word is used in the New Testament in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1. The related noun ai(retiko/$ (hairetikós) generally means “one who takes/choose, is capable of choosing,” etc.; it is used in a negative (partisan) religious sense in Titus 3:10, a meaning preserved in English by the word “heretic”, i.e. one who has chosen the wrong religious belief, affiliation, etc.

What is the basis for establishing “orthodoxy” over and against either “heterodoxy” (diversity of beliefs/practices) or “heresy” (choice of the wrong belief, etc)? Historically this has been both defined and recognized according to a number of standards or factors, such as:

    • Teaching and/or edicts by influential or authoritative persons
    • Consensus forged through argument and debate over time (as in various Church councils, etc)
    • Interpretation of the authoritative (and formative) religious texts (Scriptures)
    • Acceptance/adoption of (written) formulas of belief (i.e. Creeds and Confessions of Faith)
    • Isolation/emphasis on what the majority of believers hold in common (fundamental and/or ecumenical principle[s])
    • A defining (hierarchic) organizational structure

For many Christians, including the majority of Protestants, the belief, variously expressed, is that the canonical Scriptures should be the ideal for establishing “orthodoxy”, as in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authority of religious faith and practice. Unfortunately, this ideal is greatly complicated by the differences of interpretation which attend many key passages; there are many other profound difficulties as well, such as the weight and force given to one passage over another, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, whether a teaching is culturally conditioned or meant to be applied to all believers through history, and so forth. A much simpler (and popular) approach toward establishing “orthodoxy” is the adoption of written creeds—statements of belief (credo, “I believe…”), whether in the form of a Confession of Faith or a Catechism for instruction of new believers. And yet, here again there is great difficulty, for history has proven (rather decisively) that the establishment of each new creed, however well intentioned, is likely to result in at least as much (or more) division than unity among believers. This is especially true the more detailed and extensive the creed is; the best creeds tend to be those which are the simplest, such as the so-called Apostles’ Creed, and which clearly evince an irenic and peace-loving spirit. Among the many Protestant creeds, the most beloved and widely accepted are the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both largely free of the worst and most destructive polemical characteristics of the period. A faithful and effective creed (in the best Christian sense) ought to be limited to as few “essential” points of doctrine as possible, allowing freedom for discussion and debate on more difficult or controversial matters. As Church historian Philip Schaff has put it well: “a surplus of orthodoxy provokes skepticism”; to which I would add that it (unnecessarily) promotes and instigates division as well.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, of course, the ideal of Church unity is found in the presence of the Spirit at work in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers—uniting us to God (and Christ) as well as to one another. And, while this is true enough—and ought to be the goal and focus of faithful believers around the world—it is, admittedly, more readily expressed at the level of the intimate relationship between individual believers (“where two or three are gathered”); within a larger corporate or institutional setting it is much more difficult to realize.

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