Question: "What is orthodoxy? How can we tell if a teaching is orthodox?"
Answer: In the context of Christianity, orthodoxy refers to the core beliefs that define the Christian faith. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines orthodoxy as “right belief, as contrasted with heresy” (Cross, F. and Livingstone, E., ed., Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 1,206). Orthodox beliefs are established, biblical beliefs that all Christians should agree on. While there is a wide range of legitimate views on many topics, rejection of orthodox beliefs places someone outside the bounds of Christianity.
One theologian describes orthodoxy this way: “The word means ‘correct opinion,’ and relates specifically to the tried and true interpretations of the Bible’s major theme, its overarching story, and its foundational truths. These are the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith that never change—and never should” (Svigel, M., RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, Crossway, 2012, p. 87, emphasis in the original). God’s people have always held that we cannot approach God’s revelation and invent our own novel interpretation of His words; rather, our views must correspond to traditional orthodoxy, as handed down from the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).
Let’s look briefly at the history of Christian orthodoxy, both in the Bible and in the church, before concluding with some simple ways to determine whether a particular teaching is orthodox:
In the Old Testament, Israel had a set of central beliefs that governed life. Deuteronomy 6:4–5 lays out some of the main elements of Jewish (and Christian) orthodoxy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Directly following this foundational expression of orthodoxy, Moses commands the Israelites to teach God’s commandments to their children and represent them to others. This illustrates the enduring nature of orthodoxy: it is passed down by God’s people through the generations.
Because Israel was a unique, covenant community, harsh penalties were prescribed for those who rejected the tenets given by God through Moses (Deuteronomy 17:2–7). Those who sought to mislead their fellow Israelites into unorthodox beliefs and practices were to be put to death (Deuteronomy 13:6–11). The Scriptures provide the divinely inspired guardrails for orthodoxy (2 Kings 22:13).
In the New Testament, Jesus stands at the center of orthodoxy. As God Himself, everything Jesus says is true, and He is truth itself (John 1:14; Ephesians 4:21). He has always been and will always be the center of the Christian faith (John 14:6). The apostles carried Jesus’ message to the wider world. They did not use the word orthodoxy but referred to these core teachings by using phrases such as sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), sound teaching (2 Timothy 1:13), or simply the faith (Acts 6:7). The church, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” was commanded to keep the teaching they received from Jesus Christ through the apostles (Ephesians 2:20; cf. 1 Timothy 3:14—4:10, 2 Timothy 1:13–14; Titus 1:9). Churches were warned strongly against accepting people who taught things contrary to orthodoxy (2 Corinthians 11:3–4; Galatians 1:6–9; 1 John 4:2–3, 15; 5:10; 2 Peter 2:1–2). Jude urges the church to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). Our word orthodoxy simply refers to the content of this faith.
The church received the orthodox doctrines from the apostles and eloquently articulated them in various confrontations with early heretics. Many early church fathers decried those who introduced false teachings into the faith, demonstrating that they understood orthodoxy well before the existence of any kind of Christian power structure. Later, as doctrinal disputes over core issues threatened to tear the church apart, Christian leaders from across the world gathered to discuss their understanding of orthodoxy at what became known as ecumenical councils. While not perfect, several of these councils represent the early church’s consensus regarding important issues in light of Scripture and therefore reflect Christian orthodoxy.
A belief in the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus is an example of Christian orthodoxy. Heretical groups have claimed that Jesus was only human, or only God, or only human until He became God, etc., but the church has historically recognized that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, without division or confusion. Rejecting the full divinity or full humanity of Jesus places one outside the boundaries of Christianity and in opposition to what the Bible and the church have always taught. Several ecumenical councils reaffirmed this orthodox perspective. Other orthodox beliefs include the fact that God created the universe from nothing (Psalm 89:11–12), that Jesus died and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3–6), and that Jesus is coming back for His people (Hebrews 9:28).
There are many important issues over which Christians can and do disagree that do not affect orthodoxy. Personal preferences and disagreements over secondary matters are not matters of orthodoxy; orthodox beliefs are faith-defining. For example, one church might celebrate communion every week; another church observes it every month—but both churches might hold to orthodox beliefs. If we elevate personal views and denominational distinctives to the level of orthodoxy, we run the danger of unnecessarily dividing the body of Christ. We also remove the potency of the word orthodox and reduce it to a cult-like acceptance of our own viewpoint. To paraphrase a line from the movie The Incredibles, “If everything is orthodox, nothing is.”
Some doctrines are truly central to the Christian faith and are worthy of the term orthodoxy. How can we tell if a specific teaching is “orthodox”? We can check with the Scriptures, check with the church, and check with God:
Check with the Scriptures. The Bible is the final authority regarding Christian belief and practice. If a doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture, it is unorthodox.
Check with the church. The early church was not perfect; however, their memories overlapped the lifetimes of the apostles. The ecumenical councils were not infallible, but they did reflect the majority perspective of an early and mostly unified church. Therefore, if a novel interpretation of the Bible completely contradicts the teachings of the church fathers, the conclusions of the early ecumenical councils, and the enduring beliefs that most of the worldwide church still holds today, that interpretation is probably outside of the bounds of orthodoxy.
Check with God. Prayer should guide the entire discernment process. God invites us to bring our concerns to Him and ask Him for wisdom (James 1:5). We need His help in everything we encounter. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).