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.