What Is Orthodoxy?

A reader wrote to ask about the definition of orthodoxy.

The word itself is defined variously. The Oxford American Dictionary defines it thus:

1 authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice: monetarist orthodoxy | he challenged many of the established orthodoxies.
• the quality of conforming to orthodox theories, doctrines, or practices: writings of unimpeachable orthodoxy.

2 the whole community of Orthodox Jews or Orthodox Christians: she was brought up in orthodoxy.

Our English words orthodox and orthodoxy are derived from the Greek adjective, ὀρθόδοξος , ον. Liddell and Scott define it as “orthodox in religion” and cite the Justinian Code (1.5.21) as their first example. Of course words are ordinarily defined by use and not by their roots (Barr, Silva et al), but, in this case, the roots of the words do seem to illuminate the use. ορθος signals “correct” or “right.” δοξος signals worship. Richard Muller writes,

Orthodoxy,” of course, simply means “right teaching.” In one sense, this right teaching was the goal of the Reformation from its moment of inception. Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and the other early Reformers saw a host of abuses and nonscriptural doctrinal accretions in the practices and teachings of the church. Their goal in attacking these abuses and accretions was to reform both Christian life and teaching. The earliest confessions of the Protestant churches are quite specific in this goal. They do not present entire bodies of doctrine but only those particular points of doctrine—such as grace, faith, justification, and the sacraments—where a return to right teaching was needed (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) 1.33).

The word, when capitalized frequently refers to a set of specific traditions, e.g., Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, or Coptic Orthodoxy. These are often grouped as Eastern Orthodoxy as distinct from the Western (Latin) Church.

As with the noun heresy, we may use the noun orthodoxy and the adjective orthodox broadly or narrowly.

So far we have considered the broader use. Muller’s comments regarding the quest for orthodoxy in and after the Protestant Reformation, hint at the narrower senses. First, we may speak of Christian orthodoxy as defined by the ecumenical (universal) creeds, e.g., the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. Christians and churches from a variety of traditions accept these creeds as the boundary markers of Christian orthodoxy. Thus, to deny the ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ would place one outside the boundaries of ecumenical or catholic (again, universal) orthodoxy. The Athanasian Creed presupposes the existence of such an orthodoxy when it says, “Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith, which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

More narrowly, one may speak of Protestant orthodoxy, e.g., the Reformation consensus that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). Within that we may speak of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy in two senses:

  1. Those movements that developed in the mid-sixteenth century that sought to work out the boundaries of confessional tradition especially in ecclesiastical contexts but also more broadly in academies and universities (here, orthodoxy is broader than but overlaps with Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism, the application of the Reformation insights within the schools);
  2. That which conforms to the Lutheran and Reformed confessions and catechisms.

In our age, in some quarters, the very existence of any orthodoxy is under suspicion as an arbitrary construct subject to deconstruction but it is passing difficult to find any society or association that does not operate with some sort of orthodoxy. The very critics of the existence of orthodoxies as nothing more than the exercise of power themselves excoriate anyone who strays for their agreed deconstructionism. That there has always been a Christian orthodoxy is evidence from:

  1. The various biblical confessional statements, e.g.,
    1. the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, which was used liturgically in the synagogue and quoted in the New Testament;
    2. Paul’s confessional formula in 1 Timothy 3:16, among other places.
  2. The very early development of creedal formulae, e.g.,
    1. The rule of faith (regula fidei) in the early 2nd century
    2. Aristides’ summary of the faith c. AD 125

In general then, orthodoxy is not only a good thing it is a necessary thing. Christian orthodoxy is neither arbitrary nor an act of political power. It is the recognition of the existence of objective truths revealed in God’s Word and confessed by the church.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “Christian orthodoxy is arbitrary nor an act of political power.”

    Should this read “…neither arbitrary nor an act…”?

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