The Innate Generosity of Orthodoxy

Years ago I read Brian McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I really liked it at the time. I thought he made a good case. In subsequent years, however, I’ve become increasingly less comfortable with the term “generous orthodoxy.” I believe it is redundant. Orthodoxy is an expression of the generosity of God. Thus to say “generous orthodoxy” is like saying, “generous philanthropy.” Without the generosity of humans, there is no philanthropy. Without the generosity of God, there is no orthodoxy.

In the United Methodist world I inhabit, the term “generous orthodoxy” has recently resurfaced in a blog by Bishop Ken Carter. Joel Watts has written a solid response. I’d like to add a few more ideas to the public discussion of these matters.

Belief and Praise

We usually think of orthodoxy as “right belief.” This definition is inadequate. Orthos means “right” or “straight.” Doxa can mean “opinion” or “belief,” but just as importantly, it also means “glory” and “praise.” In the New Testament world, doxa was connected to the ancient value of honor, which involved giving someone the recognition and respect that he or she deserved.

“Orthodoxy,” then, is “right belief,” but, more importantly, “right praise.” It is tied to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. Quite literally, this means, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” Put differently, our worship and our belief are inseparable from one another. Our belief shapes our worship and our worship shapes our belief.

The Faith Once for All Entrusted to the Saints

The term “orthodoxy” describes the praise and belief of the Church catholic (or “universal”) down through the centuries. It has taken various forms and gone through various permutations. We sometimes speak of the “apostolic witness,” or the “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). During the second century we find this faith expressed as a “rule” for the churches, a statement of the doctrinal claims that should form proper Christian praise and belief. Irenaeus recounts this rule for us in his important work, Against Heresies.

The Rule of Faith is an early statement of basic Christian belief. It is not a creed, but its basic content will appear in the Old Roman Creed, which was the forerunner to the Apostles’ Creed. In the Nicene Creed of 381, this tradition would be given the definitive and elegant form that one hears today in myriad languages across the globe, in settings that range from grass huts to gothic cathedrals. This expression of belief and worship is often called the Great Tradition.


Why Has the Great Tradition Thrived Through the Centuries?

Why is it that, despite so many attempts to revise it over time, the basic content of Christian orthodoxy has not only survived, but thrived? Well, one might say, it is because “the Church” has enforced its doctrine by whatever means necessary, using the power of the state when it could, and insisted that everyone believe the same thing.

In some cases, this has been true, but much of the time it has not. Prior to the early fourth century, by which time the basic contours of Christian orthodoxy had already developed, Christians had no political power. CalvinIn the eleventh century we recognize the first major schism of the Church, but despite the fact that we now had separate communions, the faith of the East and West remained remarkably similar with regard to their major affirmations. Likewise in the sixteenth century, when the Roman Catholic Church exercised considerable political power and influence in Europe, the second major schism took place—the Protestant Reformation. Even though the Reformers departed in significant ways from the traditions and practices of Roman Catholicism, the major streams that emerged out of the Reformation were generally orthodox with regard to the set of claims they made about God, our salvation through Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. (So, for example, see the Westminster Confession, the Augsburg Confession, and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which Wesley abbreviated to twenty four, and was later expanded to twenty five.) They maintained with renewed vigor the divine revelation given to us in our Scriptures. They understood the Church, fractured as it now was, as the body of Christ offering salvation to the world. They maintained the Great Tradition’s high Christology as the centerpiece of belief and worship.

There have been plenty of opportunities for Christians to slough off or revise the Great Tradition, but even when it would have been easy to do so, we have generally preserved it. Moreover, Christian groups that have rejected the great tradition have in most cases not survived. There is life in the Great Tradition because within it are the seeds of life.

The Generosity of God

The roots of orthodoxy are of course in Scripture, and even in traditions that precede the writing of Scripture. At its core, Christian orthodoxy is about the God who created all things out of a sheer act of love. God chose one people, Israel, to be a light to the world. God gave this people the law and the prophets. At times they abided by them, and at times they rebelled against God, as all people do. And yet this same God against whom we have rebelled came to us in person—in a particular person, Jesus. Speaking out of the beautiful traditions of Israel, he taught us how we should live. He healed the sick, proclaimed good news to the poor, and even raised the dead. For this, he was executed. He died on a cross, taking upon himself all the sin of the world, and bridging the chasm created between God and humankind through sin. After three days, Jesus rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and he will come again in glory.

crucifixion icon


This tradition that embodies these claims—Christian orthodoxy—expresses the generosity of God, who has created us, offers us salvation, and abides with us through the Holy Spirit. We read in the Nicene Creed that it was “for us and for our salvation” that Christ “came down from heaven” and was made human. “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” The creed teaches us that the Holy Spirit is not just “the Lord,” but “the giver of life.” It teaches us that there is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and that we will be raised from death and will have life in the world to come.

Thanks be to God.

We do not need to make orthodoxy generous. As an expression of God’s generosity, it is innately so.

Becoming a Generous People

I think what people mean when they refer to “generous orthodoxy” is that orthodox Christians should be kind and reasonable. To insist that we need a “generous orthodoxy” suggests that the tradition of orthodoxy is somehow particularly in need of greater generosity. In my experience, stinginess of spirit knows no ideological bounds. There are ungenerous people in every stripe of the Christian tradition and beyond.

It is important to understand that orthodoxy is not simply about praise and belief. It is also about the way we live. Thus, to the ancient maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, some people add another phrase: lex vivendi. As we worship, so we believe, so we live. The faith we proclaim should shape our lives. In fact, we believe, the God who has created all things and saved us from sin through an act of gracious self-giving offers us something greater still: the opportunity to become ever more like God. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this is called “theosis.” In the Western traditions we usually call it “sanctification.” In either case, the faith we proclaim leads us into the divine life, and God shapes our character into the image of Christ. Just as God is generous and kind, and has brought all things into being through the divine logos (“word” or “reason”), we become more generous, kinder, and more reasonable people.

Often those who speak of a “generous orthodoxy” seem to aim for the least common denominator among Christians, and the danger here is that we dilute the power of the orthodox faith received in its fullness. If it is true that orthodoxy is an expression of the generosity of God, and that the orthodox faith should make us more generous people, then to dilute this faith is not generous at all. As Christians, we know it is sin to withhold water from the thirsty or food from the hungry. By the same token, may God prevent us from withholding spiritual food and drink from a world so desperately in need of them.

9 thoughts on “The Innate Generosity of Orthodoxy

  1. Some appeals to “generous orthodoxy” might be more accurately framed as appeals for the existence of adiaphora. Approaches to orthodoxy vary in how much Christian belief & practice they contain within the term. Some maximize the claims of orthodoxy to the extent that there are few or any areas of legitimate difference allowed. Others minimize the claims of orthodoxy to the extent that almost anything goes; this is how you’re interpreting the “generosity” those calling for “generous orthodoxy.” Seeing at least one function of doctrine as directing the life and mission of the church, it sure seems to me that we need as robust a conception of orthodoxy as we can get – more than currently dominates our UMC.

    • Right… often it seems that when we identify things as “adiaphora,” it means they don’t matter. Sometimes, though, they matter a great deal.

  2. Dr. Watson,
    Well said, as always. I happened to be thinking the very same thing while reading Joel Watts’ post yesterday. The more I imbibe from the Great Tradition the more the glory of God becomes evident. I can even see how the Eastern Orthodox claim that a theologian is “one who prays” and “one who prays is a theologian.” Orthodoxy has its own generosity flowing as it does from the Triune God.
    A couple of months ago, as I was introduced to my new charge, one of the members of the SPPRC asked if I was going to “force feed the congregation with doctrine.” I replied that I would rather spread the table with the feast of Christian doctrine. It is such a feast that I do not quite understand the wandering off for lesser “dishes” and “fast food fare.” In the words of Peter: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

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  4. Yeah . . . I liked McClaren’s phrase “generous orthodoxy” when it first came out but then the cheese slid plum off the cracker. It was the whole using grace as a license for doing whatever you want.

    As for Bishop Carter, I think we all know what he’s aiming at. He’s a bishop and a part of the UMC institution and he wants to keep everyone together. I get it and I understand that there are a lot of complexities about the question as to stay together or divide in the UMC. But I feel that guile and manipulation of words are being used to try and persuade us. And every time I experience it, I just want to leave behind the whole way that the UMC is doing church. I have UMC fatigue.

    The whole dividing up of orthodoxy from orthopraxy is getting old too. But it doesn’t surprise that a bishop in the UMC does. I have been in the UMC a long time and it is a common thing for leaders to not even reference any sort of theology in their preaching and teaching. But there’s a whole lot of utilitarianism, that’s for sho’.

  5. David, I hope you are armed for the intellectual and spiritual warfare that will become sharp and furious among UMC theologians and their proxies as we approach the Special Conference of 2019. This is not the time to relent or to renounce but to confess and declare the Great Tradition, and ever more vigorously.

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