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The word orthodox derives from the Greek word orthodoxía, which standard dictionaries translate as “right opinion.” Aristotle used the verb orthodoxein with the meaning “to have a right opinion.” The Greek-speaking Church Fathers continued to use orthódoxos in relation to faith with the meaning “having right belief.”

During the patristic age, orthodoxy gradually took on a further connotation: conformity with the traditional and universal teaching of the Church. This development rested on the conviction that the Church is, as Paul puts it, the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). From the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian, Catholic Christians were confident that the Church’s teaching stood in continuity with that of the apostles, who had received it immediately from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History frequently uses orthodoxy in contrast to heresy. Similarly, Augustine writes in On True Religion: “Religion is to be sought . . . only among those who are called Catholic or orthodox Christians, that is, guardians of truth and followers of right.”

The importance of orthodoxy in the first sense is self-evident: Everyone by nature wants to know; the human mind craves truth. Particularly desirable is the truth of revelation, which comes from God and leads to saving union with him. Religious beliefs are right or wrong to the extent that they agree or disagree with the word of God.

The value of orthodoxy in its second sense—conformity with Church teaching—should also be clear. As Cardinal Newman observed, we cannot imagine that God would bestow a revelation without making provision for its preservation. The scriptures tell us that he entrusted it to the Church as its custodian and herald. By remaining with the apostolic leadership to the end of time (Matt. 28:20), he protected the Church from succumbing to error. To authenticate her doctrine, the Church needs to have a body of accredited teachers, and the faithful must accept the teaching of their appointed leaders.

Jesus said of himself, “I came to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37), and before leaving this world he assured his disciples that he would send from the Father “the Spirit of truth,” who would be with them forever (John 14:16), guiding them into all truth (John 16:13). As the Father had sent him, he sent the apostles into the world as his representatives (John 20:21). They would be the bearers of his message to such a degree that to hear them would be to hear him (Luke 10:16). Jesus is quoted as saying that those who refuse to hear the Church should be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors, that is to say, as nonbelievers (Matt. 18:17). The Christian message therefore transmits itself through authorized witnesses, who are commissioned to speak in the name of the Lord.

St. Paul, who received the grace of apostleship after the ascension of Jesus, was able to tell the Thessalonians, “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). For Paul, his oral teaching and his written letters stand on the same level of authority: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Since the gospel first came to certain chosen witnesses by way of revelation, it must be accepted on their testimony.

In the New Testament, we see Paul passing on the doctrines of the Eucharist and of the Resurrection that he has received from the earliest Christian community (1 Cor. 11:23 and 15:3). He expects the members of the community, instructed in the apostolic faith, to “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10), and to avoid schisms. The Book of Acts shows the apostles reporting on their experiences and settling their differences at meetings such as the Council of Jerusalem.

The preservation of orthodoxy has always required vigorous oversight. Paul warned the elders of Ephesus against perverse teachers, whom he compared to ravenous wolves (Acts 20:29–30). Writing to the Galatians, he anathematized those who would teach “a different gospel” than the one he had proclaimed (Gal. 1:6–18). In his pastoral letters, Paul instructs Titus to appoint in each town of Crete elders who could teach with authority, confuting those who contradict the faith (Titus 1:5,9). He admonishes Timothy in Ephesus: “Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). He exhorts Timothy to protect the flock against godless heretics, who have “swerved from the truth” (2 Tim. 2:18).

Concern for orthodoxy is not peculiar to Paul. Peter in his second letter predicts that false teachers will arise and “secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). The Second Letter of John admonishes the community to abide in the holy doctrine of Christ and not even to greet those who fail to adhere to it (2 John 9–11). The Book of Revelation warns against the false teaching of the Nicolaitans, which was infecting some of the Christians at Pergamon (Rev. 2:15).

By the close of the first century, the bishops of the apostolic Church, ordained in the apostolic succession, were recognized as the custodians of the faith. In the second century, Irenaeus and Tertullian speak of the “canon of truth” or the “rule of faith.” It comes down from the apostles and is decisive for settling disputes about the contents of revelation. The summary rule of faith communicated to neophytes, as recorded by Irenaeus and Tertullian, is very similar to the baptismal creeds of the next few centuries.

The history of early Christianity could be described with little exaggeration as a constant struggle against heresy. Bishops met in council after council to protect the true faith from being overridden by human opinions and speculations. The councils hammered out the great doctrines of the Trinity and Christology in opposition to the heresies of the time. Theology was born and grew in this context. Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses produced the first great work of systematic theology. St. John Damascene in his The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith brings the patristic age to a majestic close.

Christians of later centuries owe an immense debt of gratitude to the vigilance of the Fathers and their heroic labors to preserve doctrinal purity in the Church. Purity of doctrine is the condition sine qua non of right worship and of fruitful ministry.

The question of orthodoxy always comes to the fore in times of crisis, when the integrity of faith is being threatened. One such period in the West was the sixteenth century, when Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and others drew up lengthy confessions to defend their respective flocks against the errors they attributed to rival groups. Councils such as those of Trent, in the sixteenth century, and Vatican I, in the nineteenth, were convoked to condemn errors prevalent in their day.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church had become less defensive. The Second Vatican Council, convened at a moment of relative tranquility, saw no need to issue new condemnations. The Council Fathers presumed that the vast majority of Catholics were orthodox in their beliefs and did not need to be admonished by new censures. Instead of concentrating on the denunciation of error, as most other councils had done, Vatican II sought to present Catholic teaching in a serene and appealing light and to address new questions in a constructive manner. But the respite was only temporary. Before the Council came to a close, many Catholics were misinterpreting it as an invitation to question nearly every doctrine of the Church. Thus the struggle for orthodoxy had to be resumed.

In the past, Christians have held orthodoxy in high esteem, even while sometimes disagreeing about what doctrines are true and sound. But the case is quite different today. The idea of orthodoxy has become suspect, and many consider that it is bound up with an authoritarian and fundamentalist mentality unsuited to the modern age.

So, for example, in the school of thought exemplified by the Protestant systematician Paul Tillich, revelation does not convey information or ordinary knowledge. It is a mystical encounter that cannot be expressed in propositions. “Ordinary language,” he writes, “is not a medium of revelation.” For Tillich, there is no such thing as revealed information, nor are there any revealed doctrines. Religious statements have truth value only to the extent that they are expressive of, and conducive to, an ecstatic experience of the divine. To believe in propositional truths as matters of faith would, for Tillich, be a form of idolatry. We could almost say that, in his estimation, orthodoxy is a heresy. No dogma or creed can be accepted as a revealed truth.

As an argument in favor of his own position, Tillich claims that it precludes any possibility of a collision between science and faith or between history and faith. For him, apparently, it would make no difference for faith if historians could establish that Jesus never existed or never rose from the dead. The doctrine of the Resurrection, he would say, does not describe a factual or historical event. For the faithful, it can mean only the victory of Christ over the ultimate consequence of the existential estrangement to which he subjected himself.

We may agree with this school that revelation is not in the first instance propositional. It comes predominantly through historical events, interpreted in the light of faith. Still, these events are facts that can be described in words. The scriptures and the creeds testify to certain essential facts: that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead, and sent the Holy Spirit upon the community of believers. These and other events, committed to language, belong to the Christian creeds and are inseparable from Christian faith.

A non-propositional understanding of revelation contradicts the tenor of Holy Scripture and the earliest confessions of faith, which describe particular historical events of crucial importance for faith. “If Christ has not been raised,” writes Paul, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Later creeds incorporate articles of faith expressing truths of a more theoretical kind, such as the dogmas that there are three divine persons and that the second person became incarnate. These doctrines are not mere metaphors. They must be held and confessed according to their proper meaning. Their significance, no doubt, is most fully brought home in situations of prayer and worship, but such a richer understanding presupposes that the doctrines are factually true. It is unacceptable to say that revelation does not contain any factual information. Anyone who denies that the events of salvation history truly occurred would be contradicting the faith.

A second line of objection, very widespread in our time, may be called relativism. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of “the dictatorship of relativism” in a homily delivered on the day he entered the conclave in April 2005. Relativism takes two forms: historical and cultural.

Historical relativism was one of the driving forces behind the Modernist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Alfred Loisy, one of the leaders of that movement, held that propositions are always conditioned by the circumstances in which they are uttered. When first uttered, he granted, they were true because they corresponded to the religious consciousness of the time. But at the price of becoming false, they must submit to revision. The creeds and dogmatic definitions, Loisy contended, must be continually updated and transformed to keep pace with human progress and to meet the emergent needs of thought and knowledge.

Loisy and his associates were quite properly condemned by Church authorities, but their position contained a grain of truth. The dogmatic formulations of the Church, we may concede, bear the signature of the age in which they are composed.

To communicate the revealed truth, the Church uses the concepts and language that are available in the culture. She has no other conceptual and linguistic tools for making herself understood. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council therefore recognized that doctrine, while remaining certain and unchangeable in itself, “has to be explored and presented in a way that is demanded by our times. One thing is the deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in sacred doctrine; another thing is the manner of presentation, always however with the same meaning and signification.” In adding this last phrase, the pope made it clear that he was not accepting the idea that truth changes with the times.

The reinterpretation of dogma is a delicate business, fraught with perils of diminishing or adulterating the deposit of faith. But as John Henry Newman demonstrated in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, new articulations of the faith, while replacing older ones, never deny what was previously held but build on it while advancing in clarity and completeness. Doctrines that reverse and contradict the earlier teachings from which they sprang could not be anything but corruptions. One mark of true development, for Newman, is its tendency to conserve past teaching.

The other form of relativism, cultural relativism, claims that what we perceive as truth is inevitably a function of our own culture. Thus, for example, the Protestant philosopher of religion Ernst Troeltsch, before his death in 1923, came to the conclusion that although God’s revelation in Christ was final and unconditional for Westerners, it was possible for people in other cultures to experience the divine in altogether different ways, which were valid for them. Each religion can therefore have its own system of dogmas, reflecting the adherents’ own religious experience. The Christian dogmas, valid though they be for Christians, are not for export to other cultural spheres.

To relativism in both its forms we must reply that any dogmatic assertion—for example, the doctrine that God is tripersonal or that the Second Person of the Trinity became man for the sake of our redemption—is objectively either true or false. It cannot be true for the people of one culture and false for those of another. Truth by its nature is universal and permanent. If a statement is true at any time and place, it must be true always and everywhere. This principle of universalism holds for all truth, whether scientific, historical, metaphysical, or religious.

Cultural factors can, of course, color people’s perception of the truth or prevent them from recognizing what others can see. Some might be incapable of recognizing that the earth is round, but such difficulties do not affect the truth of the statement. So likewise, some might be wedded to an idea of God that would exclude the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. But cultural limitations are not insuperable, and they do not affect the truth of the doctrine that they cloak. Every culture can enrich and purify itself by learning to appreciate the truths and values carried in other cultures.

A third line of objection against dogma comes from the philosophical liberalism associated with such thinkers as Matthew Arnold, Herbert Spencer, and Alfred North Whitehead. They object to dogmatism because it treats as certain what is not really knowable. Many Americans, influenced by this school of thought, hold that religion is more a matter of the heart than of the head.

This objection rests on the agnostic view that truth and certitude about transcendent matters are unattainable—a view that must be vigorously challenged on philosophical and theological grounds. God is knowable to a limited extent by means of reason. Divine revelation, properly authenticated, can give sure knowledge of things beyond the limits of human inquiry. His word, conveyed by the testimony of the believing Church and impressed on the heart by grace, can impart convictions of unshakable firmness, as shown by the armies of martyrs and confessors who have been constant under persecution.

A fourth objection to orthodoxy is the notion that firm convictions lead to intolerance. History, it is said, demonstrates that believers have used the power of the state to force people to adhere to the established religion.

We may concede that the Church’s historical record is blemished. But Vatican II, in its Declaration on Religious Freedom, made it clear that the assent of faith must always be free and no earthly power should seek to coerce it. As John Paul II later put it: “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. Far from being averse to human freedom, the Church hopes that authentic religious freedom will be granted to all peoples everywhere.”

Tolerance should not be an obstacle to evangelization. Without exercising any coercion, the Church can confidently bear witness to the message entrusted to her. In so doing, she helps to liberate people from error. In the words of Jesus, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

A fifth objection to orthodoxy is prevalent in America today: individualism. Maturity is thought to exclude reliance on authority in religion. People are encouraged to be their own masters, believing what their own experience tells them. Conformity is considered to be dull; dissent, interesting. Heresy is even promoted by books with titles such as The Heretical Imperative (Peter Berger), which suggest we ought to prefer our private judgment to the tradition of the Church. It seems more honest and more courageous to speak for oneself rather than to take refuge in the faith of the Church.

In assessing this view, we should recall that the mind is not given to us for the purpose of self-assertion. As an organ of truth, it is intended to conform itself to what is real. Certain religious truths must be accepted on authority or else remain unknown. The decision to submit to authority in a given matter can be mature and responsible, especially because the authority of Christ and the Church in no way contradicts reason but perfects it.

The glorification of dissent, in a curious way, lends support to orthodoxy. When dissent becomes the rule, orthodoxy is another form of dissent. It sometimes takes more courage to uphold unpopular teachings of the Church than to join the chorus of dissenters. Thus, in his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton takes delight in showing how he discovered an exciting new heresy of his own: orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy, like most good things, can be carried to a fault. I do not mean that one’s doctrine can be too sound but only that one can be excessively preoccupied with keeping the rules.

One danger is formalism. People who are overly concerned with conforming to authority run the risk of losing interest in the contents of the faith. They speak as though it were enough to say: “I believe whatever the Church teaches, and I don’t care what it is,” or “Since the Church teaches that there are three persons in God, I believe it, but I would be just as glad if she told me that there are four or five divine persons.”

Revelation is neither a puzzle nor a body of useless information. It is given to enlighten our minds. Like good food, it is to be savored, digested, and assimilated. The guidance of authority enables us to see more, not less, than we could without it. By engaging in contemplation, prayer, and worship, Christians are enabled to grow in personal familiarity with the God of revelation and to express the content of faith in new and powerful language.

A second danger is superficiality. Because the faith is much richer than the propositions of dogma, orthodoxy does not give us the fullness of truth. A robust faith grounds itself not only in the word of the Church but more profoundly in the word and deeds of God, as attested by Scripture and apostolic tradition. The word of the Church is intended to guide us in interpreting the sources. It points ultimately to the one source: the person of the divine Word, who is in himself the fullness of revelation.

Pius XII instructed theologians to return constantly to the sources of Holy Scripture and apostolic tradition. These sources, he said, “contain so many rich treasures of truth, that they can really never be exhausted. Hence it is that theology through the study of its sacred sources remains ever fresh; on the other hand, speculation that neglects a deeper search into the deposit of faith, proves sterile, as we know from experience.”

A final danger of orthodoxy is dogmatism. In their excess of zeal, some want to settle every question by authority and point fingers of suspicion against anyone who raises questions and engages in speculation. Many questions in theology are still open; relatively few have been definitively settled. While we should not minimize the force of doctrinal pronouncements, we should not exaggerate them either. Not every statement that comes from the lips of the pope, a curial official, or a bishop is final and absolute.

Fortunately, none of these faults belongs to orthodoxy by nature. At its best, orthodoxy is warm, genial, and beneficent. Perhaps we could best define it as a loving adherence to the word of God in its fullness, with all its complexities, paradoxes, and mysteries. G.K. Chesterton taught his readers to see orthodoxy as a romance, full of surprises for those who explore it. Forbidding though it may be in its outward appearances, it gives rise to joy and fascination when experienced from within. Orthodoxy would have a brilliant future if it were represented with a more cheerful face.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.

Artwork by Michael Pacher is in the public domain. Image cropped.