Friday, June 24, 2005

Which comes first - the doxy or the praxy?

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends..." Henry V, Act III, scene i

One of these days I'm going to stop getting into theological arguments. One of these days I'll stop breathing, too - and it's an open question which will precede the other.

My latest misadventure starts with this post at Phil Johnson's blog. The ostensible target is Ron Sider - admittedly a tempting target at that. Being of a conservative bent myself, I tend to be suspicious of political liberalism (especially in its modern forms) - but it seems the target is only partially Sider, and that's where I felt compelled to jump in.

Where the real problem lies, according to Phil, is bad theology...

What I disagree with is Mr. Sider's diagnosis of the underlying malady. He thinks the problem is merely hypocrisy—that people just aren't living up to what they believe. Therefore he simply repeats the same mantra he has been chanting for thirty years: what evangelicals need most is a lifestyle change. (But) it seems to me that the trouble with today's evangelical movement runs much deeper than that. The real problem is that many self-styled "evangelicals" don't truly believe basic evangelical doctrine anymore. Large numbers of them couldn't even explain the gospel in the simplest terms. Many flatly deny the relevance of God's Word and its authority over their lives. Leaders like McLaren and Campolo have fostered these problems and now are openly challenging our right to believe anything with any kind of certainty or conviction. What kind of behavior would you expect to be the fruit of such thinking?

There are several problems with this line of thought.

1) I can't say I've read much of Campolo, but I have read a bit of McLaren, and I have to say that Phil is being somewhat unfair to McLaren's line of argument. He's not the total epistemological relativist he's made out to be here. I doubt Campolo is either. And in any event, Sider has been making the same arguments for three decades, and McLaren's only been around for one at most. Laying the blame at their feet is hardly fair. This train's been a long time a'coming, and leaders can't lead where the flock won't follow...

2) Several of the churches in my personal experience that I would consider most guilty vis-a-vis Sider's accusations are *not* doctrinally washed-up. On the contrary, they are bastions of (r)eformed Gospel preaching and teaching. Watered-down theology (at least as officially taught and preached, in the accepted standards of their conservative denominations) is not the root of their problem in that regard.

This leads to Phil's central argument...

(A)uthentic good works flow from sound doctrine; not the other way around. Orthodoxy is what gives rise to orthopraxy. It never works in reverse. This, after all, is the basic message of Christianity: good works are a fruit of genuine faith. Faith, not any kind of work, is the sole instrument by which we lay hold of justification (Romans 4:4-5). And the practical righteousness of sanctification follows that (Hebrews 11:6; Galatians 5:6). Genuinely good works do not—and cannot—precede faith (Romans 8:7-8). In other words, orthodoxy does take precedence over orthopraxy. That is an essential ramification of true biblical and evangelical doctrine. Orthodox doctrine really is more important than social action.

I have a slight problem with this. *Orthodoxy* - right belief about Christ as the Bible instructs us - is not exactly the same as *Faith* - trust in Christ and His Gospel. The two are joined at the hip, but somewhat distinguishable. A person can be slightly unorthodox - perhaps "heterodox" is a better term - and still have true faith. Having orthodox beliefs, on the other hand, is *no* guarantee that one has faith - James made that painfully clear (2:19). So, is there some magical component of orthodoxy that would reverse all these evils? What doctrine, for example, is being neglected at those model churches that makes them such tempting targets of Sider's criticisms? (And would Phil agree it *is* a "doctrine"?)

I made some initial comments in that post (not, I think, as clear as what I've posted here), and got some feedback on them - and the reviews were mixed at best. I tried to point out that focusing on orthodoxy as the shining path to orthopraxy had not always yielded the desired results in *my* own life. To which one of the respondents said...

I'm having a little trouble following your argument, perhaps because you didn't respond to the distinction Phil made between sound teaching and sound belief, but went right back to talking about "orthodoxy" anyway, as if one aspect of orthodoxy were just the same as the other.

Are you suggesting that when someone shows a pattern of disobedience to God, something other than a deficient faith might lie at the root of their problem?

If so, what is the remedy? A bath? A sacrament? Hypnotism? Flagellation? Beer and skittles?

"I've been down that road, Phil, and that dog don't hunt..."? You appear to be saying you have given up on the sufficiency of Scripture because it didn't work for you.

So, what does the "sufficiency of Scripture" mean here? Scripture itself teaches us that knowing God's commands is no guarantee of obedience (Rom 7). Scripture itself teaches us that obedience and exhortation to righteousness is not just a matter of individual effort and doctrinal learning, but corporate discipleship (I Cor 12). Is my admitting that my actions aren't up to my beliefs, and that therefore my beliefs are not guarantees of good actions, an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture? Again, where is the "magic-bullet" doctrine that makes obedience and a change of heart work? Knowing God is one thing - *trusting* Him, another. Reading about God's love is one thing - seeing it embodied in His people, another (John 13:34-35).

If orthodoxy *is* the guaranteed root of orthopraxy, why do many Christinas I know in my home church, who are not as theologically "accurate" as I, more loving, giving, and accepting of others than I? And why are those staunch theologically conservative churches I know of so blind as to the poverty of their earthly wealth? Why are many Third-World churches (who often lack our theological resources) bearing up grandly under persecution, and sending missionaries to *us*? Might it have something to do with their having faith and love, which we seem to be lacking?

I'm sorry, but if orthodoxy were a guarantee of orthopraxy, we wouldn't be in the mess we are in. There'd be no place for people like Sider and McLaren - who I probably disagree with politically and philosophically to a good extent - to call us out on the carpet like they have done. Yes, there are theologically-starved churches out there - I've seen examples of them, too. But let's not kid ourselves by thinking that a wave of Reformed teaching will be an automatic panacea. If there's any hope to change things in our churches, it's not just sound theology - it's revival. And revival, in Biblical terms, is linked not primarily to emotional hysteria, scheduled appearances by "revivalists", or canned programs. It *is* linked inseparably with recalling the covenant God has made with His people - our Covenant in Christ's blood (yes, orthodoxy). But it is also linked inseparably with *repentance*.

We in American evangelicalism have got a lot to repent of - myself first and foremost.


Blogger pgepps said...

Doug--I responded to this, too, over at Comment Me No Comments.

I left it to readers to follow the link to your place for the sourcing of the quote. I can't quite bring myself to link to Phil's site--too much very irksome history involved with him. Gotta see if I can engage him, one of these days--but right now, I still have his fake anathemas ringing in my ears because I had the gall to greet him as someone who sat under his teaching and respected his work and was thankful for the church and school I'd been in, though I had a few grave theological qualms about it. grrrr As if one man had the power to . . . grrrrr

Yeah, so I did engage the thought, but I didn't link to him. Hope you'll do better by the guy--you're at least a few dozen half-steps closer to his theology . . .


6:29 AM  
Blogger burttd said...

Actually, in his latest "Blogspotting", he links to this article and claims I "pinned myself to the mat" with my arguments.

I ran over my article again, and I certainly don't see where it's off. The only thing I can think of is that were really starting to grow apart in assumptions of church life and the efficacy of abstract theology...

7:10 AM  
Blogger pgepps said...

I took "pins himself to the mat" to refer to your conclusion about repentance, FWIW.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Cultural Savage said...

I have to agree with you on this one. The doxy can be as "ortho" as it wants, but unless there is a change of heart there will never be the actions to match.
I went through a period of hefty sexual sin, and for part of it I was teaching a class about discipleship. I know what the Bible says, however my heart was not completely ready to repent and relent. It was a very hard time, and when I confessed to my pastor he knew that teaching was not what I needed. I had to deal with God, and my heart orientation (repentance) before my life could begin to be lived right.
Orthodoxy is a valuable thing, but without God's Spirit, discipleship, and a heart after God's it is all just a bunch of head knowledge. But if the heart is fixed on God, people will see the fruit of the Spirit weather we know the doctrine or not.

6:51 PM  
Blogger ajlin said...

On my blog (, I have recently posted on this issue, quoting thoroughly from Trogdor's post on Pyromaniac. I believe that you and PJ are using the term "orthodoxy" is different ways. Whereas you are using the term in the common sense of knowledge of biblical doctrine, the post on Pyromaniac (and, by extension, my post) take the term literally to mean "right belief", which must be the basis for orthopraxy, or "right practice". In this sense, knowledge of biblical doctrine only forms one component of orthodoxy, as it must be accompanied with intellectual assent, true repentance and trust in Christ alone.

7:28 AM  
Blogger burttd said...

Not to sound like a broken record, but if a nuance of definition was the only difference here, I wouldn't have written this post.

I'll even grant your definition for the sake of argument. Taking that back to Phil's original post, the real problem (in Phil's eyes) that gives awful fellows like Sider and McLaren their opening is that churches aren't teaching theology enough. If they did, we wouldn't have these problems.

But again, I must go back to my unnamed example churches. There are plenty of Christians in them who meet your criteria of "orthodoxy". I know them. Many are still my friends. They *are* believers. They have a good grip on the basics of the faith. They're not getting mush from their pulpits or Adult Ed classes. And many are *still* guilty of the problems Sider and McLaren point out (lavish lifestyle, no cross-cultural evangelism, etc).

They very things they need to hear are the things that Sider and McLaren are saying - and Phil calls them on the carpet, evidently because they are either not Common-Sense-Realists in their epistemology, or they are Democratic in their politics. Phil's solution (more (R)eformed theology) is certainly applicable to some problems (the megachurch "seeker-sensitive" mess), but as far as what Sider and McLaren address (which is ostensibly what prompted Phil's post in the first place), it simply ignores it.

8:30 AM  
Blogger ajlin said...

A question:
In the definition that i'm using for "orthodoxy" (which corresponds to "faith")- as distinguished from "orthopraxy" (which corresponds to "works")- repentance is a vital component. It seems that you want to put "repentance" in the category of "orthopraxy" or "works"- is this a correct assessment of your view?

1:21 PM  
Blogger burttd said...

Well, if we stick to *my* definitions, "orthodoxy" is the equivalent of Knowledge in the Knowledge-Assent-Trust breakdown of "faith". "Works" are a fruit of faith.

As far as "repentance" goes, which one are you talking about? There's the "repentance" that goes with initial faith, and "repentance" as a integral part of regular Christian life (as we continue to be convicted of sins that we were originally less aware of). The repentance I talk about is the second. Neither is a meritorious work on our part.

Does that clear me of being a "works-righteousness" kind of person? ;-}

6:01 PM  
Blogger ajlin said...

I hope so!
Thanks for the quick replies.

7:49 PM  

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