Defining Christian Orthodoxy
Before we can objectively examine Holmes’ book we have to become familiar with his terminology and definitions.
The first definition I’d like to deal with is “Christian orthodoxy” in colonial American times.
One of the strengths of book, The Faith of the Founders are the chapters on the religious landscape of the colonies.
The first observation is to understand that the majority of churches were Protestant of one stripe or the other. Catholic Churches and Jewish Synagogues were few and far between. The majority of Protestant groups as well as the Catholics were considered “orthodox” although there was much prejudice regarding Catholics because the prevailing “orthodox” church was the Church of England (Anglican, later in America Anglican became Episcopal) which did not accept papal authority. The Calvinist Churches were also anti-Catholic.
Today “Orthodox” usually means Eastern Rite Christian Churches such as “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox.” But in a more general sense “orthodoxy” means “non-heretical” and that’s what it meant in colonial times.
Non-heretical meant and means no significant deviation from early church historic creeds .
A creed was a written statement the defined orthodox beliefs and excluded heretical teachings. The most basic example is the Apostle’s Creed, but a more important example for our purposes would be the Athanasian Creed.
This creed is attributed to Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria who was the strongest defender of the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. It defines the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ in very concise language.
The creed was written to counteract a heretical group known as the Arians. It’s beyond the scope of this article to reconstruct the arguments so suffice it to say the Arians rejected the Athanasian view of the Trinity (and that Christ was not co-equal with the Father). Hence the necessity of a written creed so Christians would not fall into error.
(For anyone wishing to understand this important doctrine I would encourage you to follow the series my pastor preached on the subject. The Doctrine of the Trinity was important in colonial times and is important now. Here’s a link to the first sermon in the series from Sermon Audio.)
Creeds are not popular today, even among evangelicals and this often results in a watered down orthodoxy that tolerates heretical groups as orthodox Christians.
For example, Governor Romney is a Mormon (LDS). Mormons will argue they are Christians but by orthodox standards they are not.
This is not the place to get into detail so one example of a non-orthodox statement will suffice:
The trinity is three separate Gods: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. “That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with man,” (Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 35.). Teachings of Mormonism
An “orthodox” statement on the Trinity would be similar to this:
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity defines God as three divine persons (Greek: ὑποστάσεις): the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct yet coexist in unity, and are co-equal, co-eternal and consubstantial (Greek: ὁμοούσιοι). Put another way, the three persons of the Trinity are of one being (Greek: οὐσία). The Trinity is considered to be a mystery of Christian faith. wiki/trinity (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
In colonial times both Protestant and Catholic Churches would use a similar statement to define Trinitarian orthodoxy.
I’ve belabored this point because it would be a key factor in determining who held orthodox Christian views in colonial times and who held deistic views. In other words if you could find documentation where a founder denied the trinity as defined above you could conclude they were not orthodox Christians. By the same test if someone denied the deity of Jesus Christ it would provide more evidence that the person was not an orthodox Christian.
(Just for the record I find President Obama’s Christian orthodoxy highly questionable as well. As I implied earlier the early creeds and later confessions of faith were established to say “we believe this and not something else” whatever that may be. Creeds and Confessions of Faith were useful in determining early heretical teachings from orthodox teaching. Today it is not popular to call a group heretical and so much of “the church” flounders about in a theological haze. President Obama has clearly been influenced by what is called Black Liberation Theology when he spent 20 years under the teaching of Jeremiah Wright, someone he has called his friend, pastor and counselor. The theology has a strong connection to Marxism and in my opinion represents a significant departure from gospel orthodoxy.)
To be continued…defining deism.
- The Trinity, link to a series, Pastor Matthew Henry, Missio Dei Fellowship, Kenosha, WI
- Article from Christianity Today about Athanasius
- Faith of the Founders 1
- MAKING SENSE OF THE TRINITY – Millard J. Erickson (2000) (baldreformer.wordpress.com)