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What Is Protestant Orthodoxy?

In a Christian tradition with thousands of denominations, what defines orthodoxy?
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The other day, I read Carl Trueman's piece in First Things titled "David French And The Future Of Orthodox Protestantism". Nowhere in the short essay is "orthodox Protestantism" defined. In the context, it seemed clear to me that he means "Protestants who are orthodox on Christian sexual morality." And that's a perfectly good way to use the term, as sex and sexuality have become the point on which so many churches and denominations have broken apart in our time. Liberal Christians love to say, why do you conservatives care so much about sex? -- while at the same time, pushing their denominations and congregations so far from Christian norms on sex that the center of those communions cannot hold. As I wrote here recently, the German Catholic bishops are determined to liberalize their churches on homosexuality, and are doing the all-to-familiar move of claiming "plural truths" -- a nonsense position that is a tactic to stabilize the situation until such time as they can declare pro-homosex as the new Catholic orthodoxy.

Anyway, it makes sense to speak of "Protestant orthodoxy" and "Christian orthodoxy" regarding basic matters of sexual morality. There is a clear Biblical view, one that has been held by the churches consistently, until modern times. Usually when I use the clunky term "small-o orthodox Christians," I mean it to entail Christians who are orthodox on sex, and more broadly, who believe that the Truth is something outside of us, to which we must conform. This, in contrast to modern Christians, who are heterodox in the sense that they believe it is up to the individual to determine what is true, and that truth is radically subjective (unless, of course, we are talking about LGBT people, in which case there is no orthodoxy more rigid than the progressives' normalization of sexual expression deviating from the Biblical norm).

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I'm kind of like Justice Potter Stewart on the question of broad Christian orthodoxy: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. Again, I think the most general useful definition I can come up with is in a shared stance towards theological and moral truth. The orthodox Southern Baptist and the orthodox Roman Catholic have deep and irreconcilable disagreements on theology and ecclesiology, but the thing they agree on is that we don't have the right to make it up as we go along. Though the Baptist believes that Scripture alone is the source of authority, while the Catholic believes that it is Scripture as interpreted by established authoritative Tradition, both see Truth as being something objective, that must be grasped and appropriated by the subject.

Modernist Christians don't understand what we orthodox Christians mean when we say that marriage cannot be other than one man plus one woman, exclusively. We believe that this is God's ideal, revealed in Scripture. We are bound to obey it, even if we want to change it. For modernists, though, the tradition is not binding at all; the religion can be shaped to fit the perceived needs of the existing community.

The kind of people I know who use variations of "small-o orthodox Christians" know that it's only a limited term of description, but it's still a useful one. An orthodox Catholic knows that he has more to discuss with an orthodox Calvinist than he does with liberal, modernist Catholics, who don't recognize any source of authority other than their consciences.

But what does it mean to speak of "orthodox Protestantism"? I'm not asking to be combative. I really am curious how Protestants would define this. As we know, the churches of the Reformation began to split from the beginning. Calvinism is not Lutheranism. Can an LCMS Lutheran recognize a Bible-church nondenominational Evangelical as an "orthodox Protestant" -- and if so, on what basis?

I'm guessing that it would be on the same general basis that we orthodox Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox define orthodoxy: in a limited, particular context. But I'm curious to know from your Protestant readers where you would draw the line between Protestant orthodoxy and Protestant heterodoxy -- and when it would be necessary to make that distinction. On the question of sexual morality, no question. But are there other issues today?

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JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
Orthodoxy very broadly defined:
"Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior"- the ancient "fish"(ΙΧΘΥΣ) acronym by which Christians once identified.
Obviously we can all add more stuff to that-- Nicene Council and various others, but if we want it apply broadly to all Christians, Quakers as well as Copts, that's about as far as it can go.
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Eric
Eric
As a Protestant raised in the Church of Christ and now currently Presbyterian (with some deep Catholic sympathies) I sometimes find myself thinking similar things. Within the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), even though the historic Creeds and Confessions still exist in the foundational documents, one need not necessarily believe any of it to be a member, elder, deacon, or even a minister in good standing. From a small “o” orthodox perspective, this is intolerable. The PC(USA) along with the other old Mainline Protestant churches have all taken very hard left turns over the past few decades. They’re also in freefall decline and have ruptured along traditionalist/modernist fault lines multiple times throughout the years. I’ve been along for the ride for a little over the past decade and am on my way out the door. As a search for a place to land, I too find myself wondering where I can jump that is “orthodox.” My thoughts center on the following to constitute some sort of Protestant orthodoxy beyond those issues surrounding sexuality, marriage, and objective truth you mentioned above: a very high view of scripture, acceptance of the entire Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds as good summations of what the church needs to believe, and respect for 2000 years of Church tradition and scripture in regards to salvation, worship, structure, and governance. Beyond these, it’s hard to grasp what could unify all Christians. Ironically, unifying all Christians on shared orthodoxy was the impetus behind the Restoration movement back in the 1800’s that led to the formation of the Churches of Christ I was raised in.
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Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
"...we orthodox Christians mean when we say that marriage cannot be other than one man plus one woman, exclusively. We believe that this is God's ideal..."

This is the rock, divinely revealed authority, but besides this, there must also exist a solidly secular, liberal argument for the marriage concept you outline, for in the long run, those skeptical minds will have to be changed, as well. Divine revelation cannot be denigrated, for it appears to animate most of humanity, but observe the standard liberal response, yet-to-be countered: divine revelations are multiple, and in conflict with each other. Objective truth may well exist, but none have a convincing path to it through logic. The Truth is obscured, and we probe the veil via our imaginations, mostly. It seems we have no other tools left.

For someone like me, and for others like me, for those of us inelegantly dancing on the liberal's generously slime-covered slippery slope, skating grimly, secularly styling patterned figure-eights, semicircles of a pantheistic bent, but untouched by the divine aroma of Heavenly roses, traditional marriage between one man and one woman MUST come to fully stand on its own sturdy legs, somehow. There is a superior form of human collaboration, and it's called marriage. A variety of arrangements are possible, I suppose. We can have polygamy, polyamory, bestiality, homosexuality, sure, the Mormons and the Spartans did some weird stuff, and the Kyrgyz still practice bride-napping. You can have young boys, you can have young girls, you can have a harem of young transgender concubines guarded by old eunuchs who are all married to each other and their pets. There's room for plenty of diversity under the sun, we can have all types of partnerships and business arrangements. It's all available in a giant mess.

For me, I would like it to be simple. Admittedly, I don't really know why I put "alternative" marriages into the same basic category as cannibalism: totally legit and yet totally backward human behavior. It was no big deal to eat people a long time ago, after all, dear Science: we're animals, and we still eat animals. Therefore, we're cannibals all day long. We simply stopped eating the human animal, that's all. We also used to marry our cousins a hundred-fifty years ago. We no longer do that, either. Thus, evolution to me is fact, easily provable by the most superficial historical survey. The moral (and physical) evolution of mankind is incontestable. And we seem to be evolving in a certain direction, too. Maybe even with a Purpose? I don't know, but there does seem to be a directional arrow. Evolution is supposed to be a soup of random mutations from which a pattern emerges.

Well, the ancient and fine art of human coupling is also a soup of random mutations from which a pattern emerges. That most basic one being reproduction. And yet, that's nowhere near enough. You can reproduce with your fourteen year old niece, can't you? Why isn't that marriage? Inevitably, you regress to anthropological investigation or Divine Revelation in order to solve the deeply unpleasant dilemma: inclusion and exclusion are codependents.

Sorry, liberals, but the game of evolution picks winners and losers. There is such a thing as a hierarchical system, independent of whether we approve of it, or acknowledge it. The thing we call heterosexual monogamous marriage between non-related adults who don't cannibalize each other but have children instead has taken a long time to come out on top, and I don't think we should surrender it so easily.
schedule 2 months ago
Michael Clapper
Michael Clapper
As a long-time Evangelical, I think orthodoxy is a real problem for Protestants. For the longest time, I never saw a problem with affirming what "mere Christianity" affirms regarding sound doctrine: that which Scripture clearly teaches and has been broadly recognized throughout the church age has to be considered orthodox. But when you start to get to the specifics like "What does it mean for Scripture to clearly teach something?", "How do we decide what is clear from Scripture alone?", "What does it mean to be 'broadly recognized' as right?", or even "What are the essentials of the faith, and what do each of these essentials teach, specifically?", there is no agreement among Protestants. Even with something like "Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ" conceals deep disagreements over the terms and conditions of salvation, the atonement, regeneration, the meaning of faith, how faith and the sacraments come together, whether someone truly professing faith can possibly end up in hell, etc.

More recently, I have begun to recognize the problem Evangelicals in particular and Protestants in general have with orthodoxy. Yes, we have "Scripture alone", but whose understanding of it? There is no authority in Protestantism that can settle disputes for us; we have Scripture and Scripture alone. The question is: is it even possible to have an orthodoxy that does not require a corresponding present-day human authority to declare it? Of course Protestants would answer with a resounding "Yes!", but how? If various Bible authorities disagree on something associated with the meaning of salvation e.g., Ryrie vs. MacArthur on repentance, Chafer vs. Hodge on the covenants, Calvin vs. Luther on eternal security, etc.), how do we settle the issue? It seems the only answer we have is to insist that our interpretation is right because of X, Y, & Z and to marshall more followers than our opponents so we can have our view hold sway. There is no "Catechism of the Protestant Church" - only catechisms specifically for Lutherans, Calvinists, and other denominations.

In the end, there is a real need for a visible authority to settle questions of doctrine and morals in much the same way there was a need for Church Councils to degree what the canon of Scripture was and is, and the sooner Protestants can honestly face this reality, the sooner we can begin to stand together not only against liquid modernity but for true Christian orthodoxy - and orthopraxy.
schedule 2 months ago
    Maclin Horton
    Maclin Horton
    That's all basically why I became a Catholic some forty years ago.
    schedule 2 months ago
    Jude
    Jude
    This is why I became Catholic in 2020, the first Catholic in my family since the Reformation. I thought I could thread the needle, by seeing acceptance of the Apostle's Creed or Nicene Creed and holding to a Mere Christianity mindset. I personally loathed the idea of the Magisterium and fear greatly authoritarian impulses, but I could not hold together the Christian faith at all without accepting Divine Authority held by humans, no matter how sinful they are. It was either believe in a visible Church on earth, or become agnostic.
    schedule 2 months ago
      Eusebius Pamphilus
      Eusebius Pamphilus
      I feel this tug strongly but all earthly authority is corrupt. I settled on loyalty to ancestry and Jesus Christ along with subservience to God. Beyond that I simply don't know and don't want to judge. I'm not in any type of authoritative position and cannot see myself ever being elevated to such. That is why I've stayed in the same Lutheran denomination I was born to and most likely will till the end of my days or until that church is no more. If I ever do make a change it will be because I followed the church leadership toward a reunification to Catholicism or because I've converted to Islam.
      schedule 2 months ago
    Jonesy
    Jonesy
    Impressive comment, thank you.
    schedule 2 months ago
Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
Scripture is authoritative but can only be properly understood by guidance of God's Holy Spirit. That isn't at all the same as an individual conscience without that submission. Church leadership may or may not operate under that authority, just like anyone else.
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    John Phillips
    John Phillips
    I agree. The bible is our creed. Nothing should be added to, or taken away from the bible. The holy spirit helps us to understand. Bible scholars who are disciples of Christ and filled with the holy spirit are instrumental in preaching and teaching us all as congregations, but we each individually must also read an understand the scriptures to the best of our ability.
    schedule 2 months ago
Brendan McNeill
Brendan McNeill
The question of what constitutes Protestant orthodoxy is both important and challenging. It becomes personal when you see fellow believers straying from the clear teaching of Christ. How much personal autonomy can you exercise in your beliefs and practice before disqualifying yourself as a disciple?

Why would you even go there?

A love for Scripture as the ultimate authority, a commitment to absolute truth and the courage to follow Christ come what may are hallmarks of Christian orthodoxy where ever its found, regardless of institutional structures.

I do like the saying: “In essentials unity, non-essentials, liberty, in all things charity”. Of course there will always be someone willing to bicker over what is essential.
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Mark
Mark
Protestant orthodoxy is not so much about morality but about doctrine and theology. Protestant orthodoxy would embrace the historic creeds and confessional statements of the Reformational churches. For the Anglican or Episcopalian, it would be found in the Thirty-Nine Articles, for Presbyterians it would be found in the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter catechisms, for Reformed denominations, it would include the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, for Baptist denominations, it would be found in the London and Philadelphia Confessions. These documents would be a good place to start.
schedule 2 months ago
    Eusebius Pamphilus
    Eusebius Pamphilus
    Thanks for this. It inspired me to look and read the Lutheran Confession. The Augsburg Confession article 7 seems particularly important to the discussion.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augsburg_Confession#The_28_articles
    schedule 2 months ago
Mark Brown
Mark Brown
Origin: First Article of the Apostle's Creed (God created and by His providence continues his care.)
Law: The 10 Commandments/C.S. Lewis' Tao. (The law as for our good even if we can't keep it.)
Gospel: The Second Article of the Apostle's Creed (The life, atoning work and imminent return of Jesus Christ in glory)
Telos: The Third Article of the Apostle's Creed. (The Holy Spirit works in and through the church in a binding way.)

Heterodox protestants will quibble or outright reject elements of that. It usually shows up most clearly in rejection of the law, but by the time they are rejecting the law they have reject either God's creation, Christ's work or the Holy Spirit's specific work sanctifying sinners through the church.
schedule 2 months ago
Eusebius Pamphilus
Eusebius Pamphilus
I don't think you can define an orthodoxy within Protestantism. If I tried I would say their are two main "Orthodox" strands. The one that comes from Luther and the one that comes from Calvin. Obviously you've already put your thumb on that fact with the picture above. The further you move away from Luther and Calvin the further you get from the world of truth they argued for. Unfortunately in modern times Liberal Catholics have more in common with ELCA Lutheranism than the ELCA Lutheran has with Missouri Synod Lutherans. So I'd argue that the differences that a handful of ecclesiologist argue over between major protestant churches and Catholicism are meaningless in light of the behavior of the flock and clergy. Those arguments no longer mean anything when both liberal catholic and protestant defines truth as he sees fit and probably couldn't summon within them the difference that separates catholic from protestant beyond the veneration of saints and obedience to the pope. For that matter the fact that nondenominational churches often do not participate in the Eucharist and Baptism and the fact that most protestants/catholics see no problem with this further emphasizes the point that most people do not understand the Christian faith.
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John Phillips
John Phillips
The new testament is crystal clear on sexual morality. There really is no room for debate without ignoring the words of Jesus himself, and also the apostle Paul.
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Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
Whether the denomination is $1, 5, 10, 20, 50 or a hundred, it's genuine as long as it's not counterfeit!
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    Fran Macadam
    Fran Macadam
    The authority to make Christians resides with God; not with fakers.
    schedule 2 months ago
    Mark Robinson
    Mark Robinson
    Fran, I was planning to write a response to Rod’s Protestant Orthodoxy question with various examples of Christian conversion experience, such as John Wesley’s Aldersgate heart-warming experience. I was planning on pointing out growth from “Jesus is Lord” as a beginning, to growing in Christ and o-rthodox or Orthodox experience. However, your post about currency is a grand example of reducing complexity to simplicity. There is simply no need for my comment, Thank you!
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Steve
Steve
The classic work answering this question is "Christianity and Liberalism" by J Gresham Machen (1923), still in print. The forward in the most recent version is by Carl Trueman.
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Dean Cooper
Dean Cooper
Several have already pointed out how most orthodox Protestants subscribe to one or more of the accepted creeds or confessions. They may differ on which one(s) they prefer and which ones they disagree with, but that is the authority they rest on. Those confessions basically outline what are consider the essentials of the faith. Deviate from them and you enter the land of heresy and no orthodox Protestant wants that. But of course there is a lot of wiggle room here. Go to any non-denominational church's website and they will usually have a page that lists what they believe in (usually written by them so each one is unique). They have it there so you know the things they will consider essential and don't want to argue about. It's there to reassure you that they aren't a cult or into heresy. It establishes their baseline. Beyond that, authority rests with the pastor, his team, or the leaders of the network they are connected to. And because of that, there is often an emphasis on who a given church is "under", who they are in "relationship" with, or who they are "accountable" to -- however weakly. In the end, it's still people driven. Any talk about reestablishing "apostles" gets people really nervous and fearful someone will control them, and historically such attempts haven't gone that well.

I once was part of a small group that was quite close to each other. But we only shared one basic teaching in common. As long as we stayed on that topic, everything went well. But bring up any other topic, and nobody could agree. But that can't last very long, and such groups eventually splinter. Which is what happens with non-denominational churches. It's largely become that each pastor decides what's really important for his church and what they consider orthodox -- if they even care so much about orthodoxy as compared to other things.
schedule 2 months ago