-William R. Brafford

Joe Carter wrote “Obama is not a orthodox Christian.” Freddie wrote “what, exactly, constitutes Christian faith is immensely complicated and incredibly divisive.” And then Joe Carter writes “on the essential issues of the faith we have always been largely in agreement.”

There’s more to it, of course, but the interesting part for me is the range of comments on each post about how to use the label “Christian.” If someone says he is a Christian, what would make it possible for me to say that he is not?

It’s important to note that Joe Carter is talking about small-o orthodox (from the Greek for “right opinion”) Christianity. Because orthodoxy has to do with doctrine, it must be related to the history of religious institutions. I’m sort of amazed that so many of the commenters on all these posts want to make individual understanding of or adherence to particular doctrines the standard for orthodoxy. The average Christian doesn’t understand the Nicene Creed, they say, so how could it be the standard?

Christian doctrine didn’t just land all at once. It took centuries for it to develop even a doctrine of the Trinity, and it’s still in process now. This process takes place in the Church, which is to say within the various churches and denominations that make up the church. Joe Carter is right to say that most Christians in the world are affiliated with denominations that affirm the Nicene Creed. On the rosters, there are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, 225 million Eastern Orthodox, 77 million Anglicans, and millions more in other Protestant denominations.

With denominations that don’t regularly recite the creed—such as Southern Baptists, apparently—there is a history to the objection. With certain ancient denominations, some of these objections date back to the times of the councils, which is kind of wild. But most importantly, there is an understanding on the part of the larger denominations that there is a theological validity to the argument for rejecting some part of the creed. Many various dissenting groups are part of the conversation.

The same understanding doesn’t really exist for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that this because these movements didn’t emerge from the theological arguments of the time. (I know almost nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses; for some interesting information on the theology of Mormonism, see the recent exchange on that subject in First Things.)

To put it simply, your denomination’s relationship to the Nicene Creed will tell you a great deal about the sense in which you can call yourself an orthodox Christian. If your denomination rejects it entirely, then you probably can’t claim orthodoxy. This is not necessarily a matter of eternal salvation, just a matter of the sensible application of a label. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. He attended church, but he never joined one as an adult. So I think it’s safe to say that there’s not much of a positive case for calling him an orthodox Christian. Am I “casting him out”? Not at all. I really have no way of knowing whether or not Lincoln was “actually a Christian,” and it’s probably fruitless to try and pin it down.

Unfortunately, and as usual, there is grey area. One can be a member of an orthodox denomination and yet be publically heterodox in one’s beliefs, or one can adhere to a different theological tradition than that of one’s church.

Here I must admit that I don’t have much to say about President-Elect Obama’s orthodoxy, and that my title was a bit of a gimmick. His fuzzy answers in the 2004 interview sound like those of a politician who is going to run as a more-or-less secular pluralist, and I don’t really blame him for them. It’s obvious that Obama identifies with 20th-century mainline Protestantism à la the Niehbur brothers. Anyone who knows the history of the mainlines in the 20th century knows that some of their leaders have openly and self-consciously challenged Christian orthodoxy, and that other leaders have defended it. And among the defenders, there are various understandings of what orthodoxy entails. It would take a thorough reading of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons to make any sort of judgment about the range that Obama’s former church occupies on the spectrum. (And not just the excerpts—the small amount of time I spent looking into this led me to believe that the average sermon at Trinity UCC was not at all what Fox News would have you think!)

But, in conclusion, just because orthodoxy is a complicated doesn’t mean we can’t have rational discussions about the application of the term.

(Cross-posted at William Writes.)