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).
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.
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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?