Historic. Orthodox. Christianity.
These words are probably not connected too often by the average churchgoer, yet it is an important lens to view Christianity through. The concept of historic orthodox Christianity was woven into my undergraduate theological classes as a lens to view normative theology. And it was expected that any theological idea we wrote about would in some way be measured by historic orthodox Christianity. But just what is it? I think it would be best to begin our examination of this concept by studying some of the terms which comprise our phrase.
The term “historic” is defined as “of or concerning history” or “of the past”. It originates from the Greek term “historikos” and comes to the English language via Latin. Within our phrase, “historic” is being used to denote the history of Christianity. So when discussing historic orthodox Christianity, I am specifically referring to Christianity as rooted in history. Any concept that cannot be found to have been present in the long story of Christianity is not likely to be the subject of this blog except as it is being critiqued by historic orthodox Christianity.
Moving on to the second term, it can be noted that the term “orthodox” is perhaps more descriptive of the type of Christianity one will find discussed at this blog than the first term. “Orthodox” comes from the Greek “orthodoxos” and is composed of two other terms “orthros” and “doxa”. “Orthros” means “straight or right” while “doxa” means “opinion”. So the term “orthodox” can be defined as “right opinion or belief”. For our purposes, “orthodox” refers to the kind of Christian beliefs that will be examined. Any belief which has not been accepted as normative for Christianity will likely be critiqued as well.
Now that we have defined the key terms it is time to put them together into a coherent concept. Historic orthodox Christianity refers to Christian beliefs or practices that are considered to have been normative and which have been found to be correct throughout Christian history. Generally, I limit the historical aspect to roughly the first millennium of Christianity. This is for a number of reasons.
The foremost reason is sheer practicality. What is history? Well anything that has occurred in the past is history. So that does not give us a good measuring stick. We have to set some sort of limit to separate contemporary ways of thinking with ancient ways of thinking. Why do I use the first thousand years (give or take a bit) of Christianity’s existence? I use that because it’s a long period of time which encapsulates half of Christianity’s lifetime. Additionally, it is within that length of time there is the opportunity for those who lived in that period to have reflected upon Christian beliefs. Still, I also chose this particular period because it is generally considered to have been marked by unity within the Church (with one notable exception. See footnote 1 on the Chalcedonian Schism).
What ends this period is the Great Schism of 1054. This is when the Eastern Churches and Western Churches excommunicated each other over differences which had arisen in the two traditions (and theologically as well). Without getting into the weeds, this was a split which was never mended. The West developed into Roman Catholicism (and eventually Protestantism) and the East developed into Eastern Orthodoxy. And from this split, both can claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Though East and West have distinctive ways of viewing theology, there is common ground to be found between these two historic faiths in the seven ecumenical councils. It is to these councils that primary importance is given on matters of what constitutes the historic orthodox faith as they represent the consensus of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Thus concludes what many of my readers are sure to find a boring topic. However this blog post was necessary to help my readers understand what I mean in the future by historic orthodox Christianity. I hope I have clarified what I mean by our phrase of the hour. Hopefully my next blog will be much more interesting and edifying to you.
1 The Chalcedonian Schism occurred after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Many refused to accept the Chalcedonian Definition on theological or grammatical grounds. Those who left formed their own churches and eventually they became known as the Oriental Orthodox. The Council of Chalcedon was probably the largest of the ancient councils with reports of over 500 bishops in attendance. Such a number suggests Christendom was well represented and demonstrates that those who rejected Chalcedon (and the following councils) should not be considered part of normative Christianity in the ancient world.