On Smith’s Proposal for “Orthodoxy”-language and SSM

nicea-2.jpgYesterday James K.A. Smith had a post on whether to talk about SSM as an issue of “orthodoxy” or not and, of course, it provoked some discussion online. Alastair Roberts has already weighed in with a rejoinder worth considering on what it means to be “creedally-orthodox.”

I have a few thoughts on it that I figured I’d lay out in no particular order. First, though, I’ll just state at the outset, I benefit greatly from Smith’s work, respect him as a scholar and a Christian. Nor am I at all worried this is an attempt at moral revision or something like that. And I hope anyone reading this (including Smith himself) will read this post in that light.

To begin, I’ll just say I find myself quite sympathetic to Smith’s concerns. A few years ago I wondered aloud whether we needed another term to flag what sort of error SSM-affirming is. I’m certainly in no rush to declare new heresies or label anybody as a heretic. I have enough friends who I am convinced are trying to love Jesus but honestly differ from me on this issue that it would be painful and costly to do so.

That said, I’m not sure Smith has been fair to or grasped the point of those who have been using the term this way.

For some who insist this is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy, the point is same-sex marriage is and assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation and the meaning of the body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It’s a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the resurrection of the body. For them it is an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence”, so to speak.

Second, some would object to this sort of trimming of the concept since it tends to imply an un-Biblical bifurcation between dogmatics and ethics. Paul’s admonition against fornication and sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 6 is grounded in the creation of the body, as well as Christ’s death and resurrection (“the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body”). It is an explicitly Christological sexual ethic. I don’t think Smith intends this bifurcation, but it seems to be a danger inherent in his thin creedalism.

Beyond that, it does not seem those whom Smith suggests are “stretching” the markers of orthodoxy are “oddly selective.” They are reactive to particular, current movements to normalize behaviors in the Church which have been scandalous to it for 2000 years. Now, there may be a selectivity about it worth critiquing, given other scandals we may think are occurring without much notice. But there’s nothing unintelligible or suspicious about the reaction this issue, since on no other issue does there appear to be such a full-court press towards revision and acceptance in both society and the Church.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem their focus on sexual immorality is out of place with the focus it was given in the life of the early church. Consider the first church council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Whatever you make of the proscription against consuming blood, one of the first rules the Apostles laid down for the Gentiles to be seen as Christians in good standing is to abstain from “sexual immorality”, a term which in 1st Century Judaism was largely informed by Leviticus 18 including its proscription of same-sex intercourse. This actually tells you how central sexual ethics was to the practice and understanding of the gospel it was in the 1st century.

If you jump into the writings of the Fathers, this focus is similarly not lacking. In fact, the Councils themselves had various canons attached to them which included much moral and ethical instruction beyond the specific definitions and creeds we usually associated with them.

Beyond that, the danger most are reacting to is that if we don’t label something a matter of orthodoxy, it tends to become minimized to an adiaphora or an “agree to disagree” issue. Smith is not trying to do that. He says this linguistic change doesn’t signal it’s a matter of indifference. And yet there is a danger of doing just that when he asks this question:

“Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o “orthodox Christianity?”

There are couple of problems with this question. One is running the issue of SSM right in there with women in ordained office and violence. The exegetical and traditional witness on women’s ordination is in such a different place than that of SSM. Even starker (at least in the tradition) is the difference on the matter of nonviolence and Just War. By putting them in the same category it falsifies the difference between these three issues and (unintentionally) moves the boundary towards a similarity in treatment.

Second, though, I think we fail to consider that the battles over orthodoxy in the first few centuries were all among people who had way more agreement between themselves on the broad Christian story than with the surrounding Pagan culture. For instance, the sixth council which ruled on the issue of Monothelitism was making some fairly fine distinctions about the nature of Christ’s two natures. All the participants could plausibly say, “Hey look, we’re all Nicene and Chalcedonian Christians here.” And certainly someone from the outside would look at it as distinctions with barely a difference.

At this point, then, you have a dispute between Christians who affirmed the supernatural tenets of the gospel, the resurrection of Christ, the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father and so forth, grace, and yet this very fine distinction about Christ’s two wills was deemed a marker of orthodoxy, because if it wasn’t affirmed, it functionally and materially undermined all the rest. I think we need to consider that reality when we think about Smith’s questions and our unwillingness to use strong language about the issue.

As I said, though, I don’t mind using a different term. So long as we all agree “orthodox” only means, “signs off on the right propositions on some foundational issues settled by church creeds and definitions.”  But what needs to be made absolutely clear at that point is that “orthodoxy” is now an extremely limited concept for ecclesial boundaries and distinguishing normative Christian belief and practice. It is necessary but nowhere close to sufficient for flagging the totality of their beliefs within the ecclesially-acceptable spectrum of normative Christianity.

Let me put it this way, on this thin view, it’s a coherent and acceptable statement to say, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes adultery can be Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes bearing false witness is Christian behavior.” Or, “Joe is an ‘orthodox’ Christian who believes coveting is Christian behavior.” None of those statements is incoherent if “orthodox” just means “formally aligns on key Nicene and Chalcedonian propositions.” And yet it’s obvious in each case, somewhere Joe is severely out of line with the gospel. My point is that it’s clear whatever extra term we have, it needs to have some real, normative force.

Otherwise, while we may say this isn’t an issue of indifference, the more we repeat sentences like, “Well, this is an argument between ‘orthodox’ believers”, the more the line is moved and we all begin to hear, “Well, this is a discussion between believers who are all basically in line with the gospel.” Smith’s thin definition of orthodoxy will still carry the thicker connotation it has typically had with all of its boundary-defining force.

Now, with that said, what different word will do? I suppose traditional could work, for the reasons Smith mentions. But it seems to lack something of the moral and ecclesial force it needs to in order to flag the importance an uniformity of opinion on the issue in church practice and history. What’s more, the implied binary term “un-traditional” still manages to carry with it a bit of sex-appeal and cachet in our culture that is unhelpful.

I’m tempted to suggest a difference between a “catholic” sexual ethic v. an un-catholic or revisionist one? It’s close enough in sense to traditional, but gives clearer testimony that this view is one of the only ones that could plausibly fit the Vincentinian Canon (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”) in both time and space. In which case, someone could be “orthodox” creedally, while “revisionist” as to ethics, and we could have a better sense of the situation. There was a reason no less than Wolfhart Pannenberg thought churches who revised on the issue were formally schismatic.

Of course, I am not married to that language. Perhaps “apostolic” could do. Or maybe I’m being too finicky and “traditional” is enough. The point, though, is that whichever term we choose, it needs to be an unambiguously clear way of signalling this is a very, very serious deviance from historic Christian belief. And it’s one that if gotten wrong, has serious moral and spiritual repercussions.

How we have the conversation does matter. We do need to conduct it with the love, grace, charity, and courage of those whose lives are marked by the confession of God’s forgiveness. And yet, we need to be clear on exactly what sort of conversation we’re having.

Soli Deo Gloria