As we indicated earlier in this study of theology, orthodoxy is that body of Christian doctrine that was hammered out in the early general councils of the Church, upon which Christians generally agree. The great creeds of the Church, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Creed of Nicea, and the Athanasian Creed are summaries of Christian orthodoxy.
The word comes from the Greek orthos, which means “straight,” and from doxa, which means “opinion,” or “thought.” Therefore orthodoxy literally is “straight thought.” The opposite of orthodoxy is “heterodoxy,” which means “another opinion,” in the sense of a doctrine that is different from, or other than, the orthodox.
As the Church moved through the Enlightenment and into the modern world, a two-fold threat to orthodoxy emerged. One aspect of the threat came from outside the Church via philosophy and science. The other came from within the Church itself, as we shall see.
The result of these forces led to the rise of classic liberalism. The first outside force we want to discuss is rationalism. In the eighteenth century, rationalism became a powerful cultural force in philosophy. The rationalists rebelled against any and every authority, apart from reason. Therefore since Christianity had a different authority base; namely, the Scriptures, rationalism became a threat to orthodoxy from outside Christianity,
Among the rationalist attacks on orthodoxy was David Hume’s argument against the possibility of miracles. Hume argued that resurrection is impossible, because of the “law of historical probability.” Hume insisted that the universal experience of mankind is that when people die, they stay dead. Therefore he concluded that Jesus did not rise from the dead. C. S. Lewis dealt with that problem by declaring that if Jesus is the son of God, then it is probable that he rose from the dead. The whole issue turns on who Jesus is.
A second threat to orthodoxy from philosophy was Immanuel Kant’s arguments against the so-called proofs for the existence of God. During the middle ages several philosophical “proofs” had been set forth; and many believed that they had settled the matter. But Kant demonstrated that the proofs didn’t really prove anything. They certainly provide a lot of evidence that God exists; but that is not the same thing as proof.
The truth is the existence of God is a “faith” matter that cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt intellectually. That isn’t really a great problem, because most people would agree that the evidence for God’s existence is overwhelming. But because of the commitment that many people had made to the so-called “proofs,” the arguments of Kant shook up the orthodoxy of his day.
At the same time that rationalism was attacking orthodoxy in philosophy, the disciplines of the natural sciences were rising. Two scientific theories in particular troubled orthodoxy. They were those of Copernicus and Darwin.
Copernicus was the one who established the truth that the earth is not at the center of the universe. This truth hit orthodoxy like a sledge hammer. And as humanity has learned more about the universe, we have come to realize that we not only are not at the center of the universe; we are somewhere on the fringe.
This truth made it very difficult for many to believe that we here on the earth are important enough for God to care about us in the way the Bible suggests. But if one thinks it through, the Bible nowhere suggests that we are worthy of the attention God gives to us. He does it out of his mercy and grace, not because we are worthy.
The second threat from the area of science came from the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The acceptance by many of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which claims that man is merely a highly developed animal that evolved from a single cell, rather than a special creation of God, shook a lot of orthodox Christians.
But if orthodoxy was having difficulty with the thinking of secular philosophy and science outside of the Church, it also was having difficulty within.
With the rise of rationalism a new theological movement arose inside the Church. It was called Deism. The Deists were people who believed in God, but who were over-influenced by rationalism. They wanted a religion all rational men of good will could accept. Because of their rationalism they rejected divine intervention in human like generally, and miracles in particular. And of course this is a direct attack on orthodox theology.
A second threat from within was a movement that began in the eighteenth century, and flowered in the nineteenth. It was what scholars have come to call the discipline of biblical criticism, though it is frequently called historical criticism.
This method of biblical study assumes that the Bible is no different from any other book. Therefore it takes the rationalist position that God does not interfere with human affairs. Thus miracles are explained away, and the Bible becomes men’s words, instead of God’s Word. This kind of interpretation became entrenched in the nineteenth century. And classic liberalism was the result.
As the attacks of liberalism against orthodoxy continued, people committed to liberalism began to move into places of authority and influence in the church hierarchies and bureaucracies, including the seminaries. As this took place, there were three reactions to liberalism.
First, in all of the denominations in America theological conservatives who were committed to orthodoxy rose up to challenge liberalism. They were determined to protect the faith from the liberals, though in those days they called them modernists, rather than liberals. These conservatives became known as fundamentalists, because they emphasized five fundamentals of the faith.
The five fundamentals are are:
1) The inerrancy of Scripture,
2) The deity of Jesus,
3) The virgin birth of Jesus,
4) The substitutionary atonement, based on the death of Jesus on the cross,
5) And Jesus’ physical resurrection and bodily return in the end-time.
A battle royal began between the modernists and fundamentalists for control of the churches, the denominational hierarchies, and the seminaries. Unfortunately the liberals won that theological war. Some fundamentalists pulled out of their denominations to form their own institutions. Others simply withdrew into a kind of isolation.
A second reaction to liberalism came to be known as neo-Orthodoxy. This reaction came out of liberalism itself. As the liberals entered the twentieth century, they did so with great optimism. They believed that the twentieth century was going to be the Christian Century. Indeed a liberal journal was founded early in the century that carried that name, The Christian Century. The liberals believed that humanity was evolving into a better and better creature. As we progressed in the twentieth century we would, by means of better education and evolution, see the errors of our injustices to one another, and we would decide to stop sinning.
World War I was a bit of a set-back; but the liberals decided that it was the war to end all wars. But then in just a little over twenty years the world was swept up into World War II; and Nazi Germany, a so-called “Christian” nation murdered 6,000,000 Jews.
Many liberals realized that they had been wrong about their optimistic appraisal of humanity. They began to realize that humanity is unalterably sinful. We are not becoming better and better. And we rather consistently tend to be hateful towards our fellow human beings. They also realized that humanity now had the capacity; namely atomic energy, to destroy itself.
Pastors and theologians such as Karl Barth began to realize that liberal theology could not meet the needs of their people. Barth and others began to take the Bible seriously again. They began to re-emphasize sin. And they began to proclaim once again the need for the redemption of human beings.
However, neo-orthodoxy is not a return to orthodoxy, let alone fundamentalism. The neo-orthodox theologians despised fundamentalism as much as the liberals did. They also were radical biblical critics. They were called neo-orthodox, because they represented a movement back towards orthodoxy, rather than a movement back to orthodoxy.
The third reaction to liberalism, in addition to fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy was humanism. This was the reaction of the opposite side of the spectrum from fundamentalism. Whereas fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy thought the liberals had gone too far, the humanists believed that the liberals did not go far enough. Humanists deny the existence of God. They are totally materialist, with no belief in life beyond the grave. All of their hope and faith is in humanity and humanity’s capabilities.
By the end of World War II, fundamentalism was in a shambles. It had become so extreme in its positions, that they alienated people who were sympathetic to their basic beliefs. They completely rejected biblical criticism of any kind, even orthodox criticism. They insisted that the King James translation was the only inspired Bible. And anyone who disagreed with them they called a communist.
During the mid-forties in America, a successor to fundamentalism arose out of the ashes of fundamentalism. It is called evangelicalism. Evangelicals still hold to the fundamentals of the faith. That is, they are orthodox believers. But they do not have the closed mind-set of the earlier fundamentalists. Evangelicals promote biblical criticism, rather than condemn it. But they do not embrace the presuppositions of liberalism. Evangelicals do not insist that women wear no pants, makeup, or bathing suits. They do not frown on dating outside the church membership, or disallow dancing. Nor do they condemn to hell persons who are Indeed evangelicalism is a true return to biblical orthodoxy.