A Remark on Creedally-Defined Orthodoxy

The question of the definition of orthodoxy has been a live one, since James K.A. Smith posted on the subject in relation to debates surrounding sexuality. The following is a remark on the question of ‘orthodoxy’ as defined creedally.

For Smith’s argument, which presents the boundaries of orthodoxy in a fairly minimalistic manner, to work, he needs to make some crucial and fatally misguided assumptions about the way that the creed works (he also needs to overlook the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, whose decree condemns the practice of sexual immorality). While Smith can speak of the creed as the ‘grammar of “right belief”‘, for the purposes of his argument, the creed seems to function as a stand-alone document presenting us with a minimal list of what needs to be affirmed to mark one out as nominally ‘orthodox’.

This is where Smith goes wrong. The proper place of the creed could helpfully be compared to that of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments don’t stand alone, but are a condensation of a broader body of scriptural material, a condensation that orients the student of the Torah to the proper use and understanding of the body of law. Likewise, the two great summary commandments—or the principles of justice, mercy, and faith—serve the same unifying and coordinating purpose. These condense statements give one a proper purchase upon the wider body of the Law’s teaching. They enable Jesus, for instance, to expose the unlawfulness of the Pharisees’ legalism in Matthew 23.

However, this relationship works the other way too: the Ten Commandments are expounded in the wider body of the Law, most notably in the book of Deuteronomy, which fleshes out what obedience to their commandments means in practice. This expounding of the Law gives clearer content to terms that might otherwise be unclear in their meaning.

One cannot truly affirm the Law without affirming it in relation to this illuminating exposition. In providing them with both the condensation and the exposition of the Law, God enables his people to attain to a sort of ‘literacy’ in the Law that they couldn’t achieve otherwise. The presence of both condensation and exposition of the Law alongside each other makes possible an understanding of its ‘moral grammar’. Without this literacy, the Law could be distorted in many ways, twisted into legalism or moralism, or frustrated in a license advanced through hermeneutical gerrymandering. The Ten Commandments expose the inner grammar of a body of laws whose content is fleshed out elsewhere.

Likewise, the creed doesn’t stand alone, nor do its statements interpret themselves. Terms such as ‘judgment’, ‘Scripture’, ‘holy’, and ‘sins’ aren’t empty terms, permitting us to fill them however we might please. Rather, their content is extensively unpacked in the Scriptures themselves, apart from which the creed cannot have its proper sense. The creed is never intended to function as a de-focusing of unwelcome scriptural teachings so that error can take refuge in vague terminology, nor is it a lowest common denominator.

When Smith complains about the danger of reducing Christianity to a morality, he is identifying a real problem. However, in denying the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality, he is failing to practice his orthodoxy as he ought. The creed isn’t a self-contained document presenting the sum total of ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Rather, the creed gives us the grammar by which to articulate Christian ethics aright.

The creed guards against the moralism that Smith is rightly concerned about. It does so by framing the Christian life by the fundamental truths of the faith. The newness of life to which the Christian is called is defined by true confession and worship of the Triune God, over against all idolatry. It is made possible by the salvation from our sins that is achieved by Christ, a salvation according to the reliable testimony of the Scriptures. It occurs against the horizon of the future advent of Christ to judge all flesh. It is formed within the holiness of the one catholic and apostolic Church that is established and given its life by the work of the Spirit. It is grounded in the free remission of our sins that is declared in baptism. It is lived in the certain hope and anticipation of a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It upholds the truth of God’s intimate claim upon each of our bodies, manifested in the assurance of future resurrection.

The creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.

And it is precisely in the character of the creed as a document revealing and confessing the grammar of the scriptural content of Christian faith that it reveals the fundamental unorthodoxy that lurks at the heart of the new sexual morality and of those who affirm or practice it, while ostensibly professing the faith. This unorthodoxy is not merely a matter of denying the content of the creedal terms that the creed’s grammar operates upon, but in its failure to honour the grammar itself.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Controversies, Ethics, Scripture, Sex and Sexuality, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to A Remark on Creedally-Defined Orthodoxy

  1. William Murphy says:

    Many thanks for a very illuminating exposition, Alastair. The complexities of the moral decisions that Christians face in so many areas cannot be clarified by reference to a simple check list. There are so many conflicting opinions aired by Christian writers on war and peace, the structure of the economy, the use of money and property and much more. The fact that it took you a long and carefully considered essay to discuss just a few aspects of the recent Middle East refugee crisis shows how many overlapping factors need to be weighed in any serious moral or doctrinal debate.

    I am not clear about the nature of “the new sexual morality” which you refer:

    “And it is precisely in the character of the creed as a document revealing and confessing the grammar of the scriptural content of Christian faith that it reveals the fundamental unorthodoxy that lurks at the heart of the new sexual morality and of those who affirm or practice it, while ostensibly professing the faith. ”

    My confusion lies in the fact that there seems to be a huge range of possible opinions within the new sexual morality. In his superb essay for “Touchstone Magazine”, Carson Holloway draws out some of the horrible problems which Christians are reluctant to face in this area. The problems lie not just in the unexamined assumptions within secular society, but the confusion and sexual corruption across most Christian denominations.


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  3. cal says:

    I recently heard a lecture by Smith, but was surprised to find out it was at BYU. He seemed pretty amenable to mormons as within his scope of targeted readers, applying his theories of liturgical formation. Now, I don’t know what this means for his larger agenda. Was he just panhandling, getting an additional venue for his lecture circuit? Or does he think Mormons are merely a subdivision in the body of Christ?

    Theoretically, his theories on culture, community, and personal formation could be applied across the board. But this means that his project is not focused on Christianity or Christ, per se, and only tangentially related. So, technically, if an “orthodox” group constructed themselves according to the grammar of the creed, it could be done without relation to the Bible as a whole, or only as a kind of backdrop or, even worse, as a prop. So, it’s possible that it’s not Smith is wrongfully applying his theoretical structure, but that it has no inherent Christian application, and it could accommodate both people like yourself (Alastair) and those who find some sort of creedal orthodoxy as detachable from the Biblical text itself (those “orthodox” Christians who’ve reinvented ethics amenable to the modern ethos). While I’m not fond of Dreher, Smith’s conflict with him might be a flash that Smith will end up in the latter camp eventually.

  4. Pingback: A Remark on Creedally-Defined Orthodoxy | Alastair’s Adversaria | Leadingchurch.com

  5. Michael says:

    Alan Jacobs has responded to these arguments in two posts:

    ‘Roberts seems to have fundamentally misconstrued Smith’s post as being about the sources of Christian ethics, when in fact it is about the way we use the term “orthodoxy.”’ http://blog.ayjay.org/on-sexuality-and-the-grammar-of-orthodoxy/

    ‘Both of us were accused of having demoted sexual ethics to the realm of adiaphora by saying that people who are wrong about controversial matters of sexual ethics are not ipso facto heretics (though they could of course be heretics for other reasons) — even though we both insisted that we were not saying that sexuality is a matter of theological and moral indifference.’ http://blog.ayjay.org/orthodoxy-heresy-and-definitions/

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    ‘Both of us..’ (quote 2) referring to Jacobs and Smith, not to Jacobs and Roberts.

  7. evan773 says:

    I find myself agreeing with Smith. His critique is clearly aimed at Rod Dreher. I too am bothered by Dreher’s tendency to suppose that “orthodox Christians” are merely those who support the social and legal marginalization of non-heterosexual people in public life. Orthodoxy ought to be about the Gospel, not about whether Christians should or shouldn’t sell flowers to gay people.

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  16. Geoff says:


    1 I don’t think you have got a hold of the wrong end of the stick, haven’t misconstrued the original Smith article. If you have Smith ought to make it clear with a rejoinder

    2 You correctly draw attention to Smith’s narrow definition of orthodoxy, limiting it to subscribing to the creeds. His purpose in doing so is to make a point. Smith mentions !anti-creedal” protestants. They may see themselves as orthodox, who would accept the truth set out in the creeds, would reject them as man made, uninspired, handed down tradition : they would subscribe to “nuda scriptura”, “no creed but the bible” rather than “sola scriptura”, scripture as the final authority.

    3 Smith knows the history, context, the who, why and how of the formation of the creeds but makes no reference, thereto, thereby severing and setting them adrift from their moorings. He seems to be disingenuous in doing so, by not grounding them in scripture truth, which he knows full well.

    4 This is simplistic and obvious and ought not to be stated. Do the creeds contain scriptural truth? Yes. All scriptural truth? No. All that is necessary to lead a Godly, holy life, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Certainly not. Surely this doesn’t need to be pointed out.

    5 There was then, as there is now a need, to set out a succinct commonality of belief among those gathering as the body of Christ to worship, otherwise there is no real unity in Christ, no unityin the Spirit, no soul-deep fellowship of believers.

    6 How about “Orthodoxy of behaviour”? Smith considers this somewhat obliquely, referring to morality.

    7 He is rightly concerned that morality, sexual morality does not become nor is seen as the cornerstone of Christianity. It certainly is not the Good News of Jesus Christ and neither is fastidious rectitude a qualification. There is a risk that Christians are known what they are against, rather than who they are for, a risk that the Good News of Jesus is avoided or drowned out a risk that imperatives become indicatives and Smith may be seeking to counsel caution. Imperatives remain imperatives. Today the risk, even reality, is imperatives become mere advisories, or are expunged.

    8 But the burden of the article doesn’t read that way, as he moves to equate sexual morality with baptism. As a layman, I find that flabbergasting coming from a man in Smith’s professional position, can his subject. Both may be seen a secondary issues, but at the lowest level this is an error of category. There is certainly no moral equivalence between baptism and sexual morality.

    9 I’d contend that sexual (im)morality is not a secondary matter, for followers of Jesus. It relates to holiness, becoming Christlike and can become akin to idolatry.

    10 Sexual morality forms part of the Orthodoxy of Behaviour.

    11Orthodoxy of Christian sexually behaviour stems from Thinking Biblically.

    12 For what it is worth Alistair, as gently as I can say it, I think it is a misstep and unecessary to make a comparison to the ten commandments as the creeds are not scripture. Perhaps a WCF and Shorter WCF comparison may be more appropriate.

    13 You say “…God’s intimate claim on each of . our bodies, manifested in the assurance of future resurrection. This is key. It is orthodoxy. It is thinking biblically. It is “sola scriptura” . It is beyond expansion, scripturally irrefutable.

    14 It was a pivotal point around which Peter J Williams, Principal, Tyndale House, Cambridge, built his talks at this months Keswick Convention under the overall heading “Answering Moral Objections to the Scriptures.”

    15 “Isn’t the bible sexist and Homophobic” was one talk.
    In it he set out
    15.1 two different views of men and women (mostly from his handout and my scribbled notes}
    a) Secular materialist view: mere chemicals; value is socially relative, is assigned to you;different only in reproduction
    b) Christian view: equal and of infinite value (in God’s image)divinely created variety
    Then he considered
    15.2“Inventing Sex”
    He displayed slides constructed from a search of Google Books using the Ngram viewer.
    The word “sex is rare
    “Gender “, use of as a category rockets from 1970’s
    “homophobia” there is revealed a huge recent change in language
    a)Sex it a recently socially constructed category, grouping diverse physical actions and separating these actions from relational and social contexts in order to create a commodity,. The sex experience is the key thing. It stands alone, separate and apart from covenant and consequences. It become a self fulfilling function.
    b) Once “sex” (as an activity is invented you can invent sexual identity (according to activity) c)Once “gender” and “sex” (identity) are distinguished you can invent , make-up, imagine, gender identity
    d) Once “sexual identity” and “gender identity” are imagined you can make others recognise them
    The word gender has replaced the grammar male and female.
    The word transgender has replaced the word transexual (Ngram slide)

    Gender studies is a recent social construct. It imposes a lot. “Heteronormative” is being indoctrinated, imposed on other people. no binary male and female
    THEREFORE, THERE IS A NEED TO THINK BIBLICALLY, as there are no agreed neutral categories . To have a proper dialogue with the secular We NEED TO START FROM A SET OF Christian categories, which contradict secularism.

    That is we NEED TO THINK BIBLICALLY. (Is this not “sola scriptura” in application ,that is , Orthodoxy.
    1 God’s Good Character and OWNERSHIP OF US.
    Two main categories of humans
    a) Those who contest or ignore it
    b) Those who want and welcome God’s ownership

    God owns all of us, so it not merely a disagreement on sexual activity, or what our bodies are. He decides how we should use them.
    God the Owner may give an identity (male or female) which it is wrong to change
    Some activities are forbidden by the Owner.
    Attraction and visual appreciation of own sex does not create identity. It may lead to temptation to activity forbidden by owner.
    Marriage involves giving sub-ownership, under God to someone else.
    There is only ONE worthy to own, to posses us. He who gave up everything for us Jesus Christ.

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  23. I think James Spiegel’s article in Philosophia Christi–“Moral Heresy”–is relevant and in line with your thoughts. https://www.academia.edu/21796315/Moral_Heresy

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