What is Historic Orthodox Christianity?

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.

3 thoughts on “What is Historic Orthodox Christianity?

  1. I understand the delimiting of the historical period for examination. I have two comments:

    1. Some who review this may construe this sentence to mean that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are similar. “The West developed into Roman Catholicism (and eventually Protestantism) and the East developed into Eastern Orthodoxy.” They are quite different. And some consider Protestantism closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than Roman Catholicism.

    2. I am not an advocate of what is now referred to as Progressive Christianity. I am a conservative Evangelical. But I do not think that it is necessarily wrong to embrace a tradition or theology that developed after the first millennium of Christianity. Is it right to conclude that only theology in practice within the first millennium of Christianity can be considered “orthodox” or right belief?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate the feedback. I think your comments offer a good challenge.

      1. I can answer this in a couple of ways. The first is that historically speaking, Protestantism is a breakaway from the Catholic Church. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli would have been well-versed in the catholic theological developments that came before them as well as contemporary thoughts. They also come out of western theology which likes to systematize everything. We see this with Aquinas’ Summa and Calvin’s Institutes and even Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. The East cares only to preserve the same beliefs as the Apostles and only “develops” ideas in order to expound on what was already believed.

      A good example is the view of the Eucharist. Both Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Lutherans believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. What they disagree on is how that happens. The Orthodox prefer to leave the process as a mystery because we cannot explain the supernatural. Luther helped promote the consubstantiation theory. And the Catholics adopted the transubstantiation theory to contrast the “reformed” view. Of course, Luther was closer to Catholicism on this issue than he was with other reformers such as Zwingli who believed in a purely memorial view (something held only by heretics in the past – namely the docetists). Certainly, the Protestants come from Catholicism, but they have also developed their own unique identities.

      On the other hand, the Orthodox have consistently rejected the most definitive Protestant beliefs (mainly Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide). The Orthodox had some brief discussions with Lutherans, but it never went anywhere because they were very far apart on many issues. Theologically, Protestantism is more closely related to the west. However, I think you are referring to a more modern trend. Primarily this is a new fascination with mysticism seen in people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. This trend does have parallels and perhaps even borrows from Eastern Orthodoxy but it does not belong to Orthodoxy.

      Yet perhaps you refer to the teachings of John Wesley which seem closest to eastern theology as regards his views of salvation and sanctification. Though again it does not come from the Orthodox, but merely the study of the Church Fathers (both Latin and Greek). The Reformation is directly akin to Catholicism and not Orthodoxy. However, Orthodoxy has perhaps been winning ground in Protestantism since John Wesley brought many of their ideas back into vogue by simply reviewing all the Church Fathers and not merely Augustine.

      In conclusion, Protestantism is distinct from both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However in terms of historicity and how they do theology traditionally, Protestantism is more akin to Catholicism though there is perhaps movement towards Orthodoxy.

      2. What can be considered orthodox? That certainly is a good question! I do not mean to clarify the limits of actual orthodox Christian beliefs. I am interested in what that means historically. So there are perhaps many contemporary ideas which are compatible with historic orthodox beliefs. I am not seeking to define necessarily what can be considered orthodox, but what has historically been known to be orthodox. We measure our contemporary theological ideas by what we know to be historic orthodox belief and practice. In doing so we ask: “how is this compatible with the ancient beliefs?” So to embrace a new tradition or theology is not particularly wrong as long as it is compatible with historic orthodox beliefs.


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