Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Term "Orthodoxy"

In studying social movements that support mysticism, the term "orthodoxy" appears often. The purpose of this post is to identify and distinguish uses of the term as a label for various mystical movements. This post collects my notes from a first look; I am using only easily available online sources.

ETYMOLOGY AND BASIC MEANING. Coming from ancient Greek words, the term "orthodox" means "correct opinion."[1] Correct by what standard? Each form of orthodoxy has its own answer.

NATIONALISTIC CHURCHES. A nationalistic church is an institution; as such it is part of a movement. One example is the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.[2] It today has eight million members, mostly in Bulgaria, but around the world too.  Its roots go back to Christians who traveled there before 100 AD, while the area was part of the Roman Empire. Christianity became the dominant religion by 300 AD. In the 300s to 500s, waves of barbarian raiders damaged the Church as an institution. By the 800s the area was again largely Christian. By the late 1300s, the Muslim Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, had conquered the Christian Byzantine Empire. Conquest of the Byzantine Empire brought control of the Greek Orthodox Church. Extending its political control into Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire used the Greek Orthodox Church to crush the nationalism of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgarian monasteries preserved their religious traditions. In the 1800s, Bulgarian Orthodox began rebelling against Greek Orthodox domination. In 1895 Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity became the official religion again. From 1944-1989, Bulgarian Communist rulers controlled rather than destroyed the Church. After that, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church again became an independent nationalist church.[3]

For the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, "orthodoxy" refers as much to a tradition of nationalism as it does to religious principles and doctrines that it shares with other Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Serbian, Russian, and Georgian).

LUTHERAN ORTHODOXY. In 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) broke from the Catholic Church as a protest against various Church doctrines.[4] He and his followers developed their own Protestant doctrines. From about 1580 to the Enlightenment (roughly 1700-1800), some Lutheran theologians worked to develop a set of doctrines that Lutherans could follow as a standard. Today some Lutherans refer to those doctrines as Lutheran Orthodoxy.[5] The term now has three possible referents: the period of history in which Lutheran theologians developed the unifying set of doctrines; (2) the set of doctrines; and (3) a modern movement among some Lutherans to establish churches (as institutions) that represent a selection of features from Lutheranism and Catholicism.[6] In the Lutheran world, sometimes the term "orthodox" simply means "standard," "conventional," or "strictly interpreted," as in the case of contemporary theologian Robert W. Jenson being described as an "Orthodox Lutheran."[7]

For Lutheran Orthodoxy, "orthodoxy" refers primarily to a set of doctrines that guide individuals and groups of individuals interacting with each other. Though formulated in the last five hundred years, the doctrines rely on a Christian context established 1900 years ago in holy scripture and in the writings of ancient theologians. Lutheran Orthodoxy thus depends on (1) revelation, as the ultimate source of guidance, (2) tradition (the handing down of the guidance), and (3) relatively modern articulation and elaboration of that guidance.

ORTHODOX JUDAISM. In Judaism, orthodoxy is defined by multiple layers of authority. The fundamental layer is God's words about ethics and about laws for daily living revealed to a few men thousands of years ago and recorded in the Torah, also called Pentateuch, the five books about Moses, which are the first five books of the Bible.[8] A secondary layer of authority is the Talmud (Hebrew word for "instruction,"[9]) which is a collection of interpretations written by religious scholars. A third level of authority that shapes Orthodox Judaism is the Sanhedrin, also called the "Oral Torah," which is a body of interpretations that were formulated by the "supreme court" of Jewish scholars operating in Roman Palestine (c. 165 BCE to c. 425 CE).[10] In a fourth layer of authority and interpretation, Jewish scholars after the period of the Sanhedrin interpreted earlier sources.[11] Other -- and more explanatory -- names for Orthodox Judaism are Observant Judaism, Traditional Judaism, and Torah Judaism.[12]

There are two main branches of Orthodox Judaism. The first branch is Haredi Judaism, which requires segregation from non-Jewish culture, though not completely from non-Jewish society. Hasidic Judaism is a sub-stream of Haredi Judaism. Hasidic Jews are distinctive socially, in forming their own communities (often centered around a particular rebbe, a "grand rabbi"); in customs, including ways of dressing; in language, by speaking primarily in Yiddish; and in epistemology, by emphasizing mysticism for everyone. The second branch of Orthodox Judaism is Modern Orthodox Judaism, which accepts Jewish law as a guide, but expects to gain from interactions with non-Jewish society.[13]

How did Orthodox Judaism arise? Orthodox Judaism, its advocates say, is simply traditional Judaism, with its religious views and customs going back to the time of Moses. Motivated in part by the advances of the European Enlightenment period, some Jews sought to reform Judaism. These Reform Jews rejected the more consistent traditionalists as "orthodox," a pejorative term. Eventually the orthodox Jews accepted the term and carried it proudly.[14]

Socially and culturally, Judaism has split into streams within streams. For instance, Orthodox rabbi S. R. Hirsch (1808-1888) led a "neo-Orthodoxy" movement of individuals who agree with traditionalists that revealed words of God, as recorded in the Torah, apply to all aspects of life, including secular studies. Hirsch differed from other Orthodox thinkers in that he and other neo-Orthodox Jews believed that Jews should be involved with and should try to change the modern world outside of Judaism. In reaction to this neo- (also called "modern") Orthodoxy, other, more traditional Orthodox formed the Haredi Judaism movement, sometimes called "Ultra-Orthodox."[15]

In Judaism, as in Islam but unlike Catholic Christianity, there is no single hierarchical structure for defining religious law -- and therefore no single structure for determining orthodoxy and heresy. Likewise, Judaism has no canon for deciding which ideas are orthodox and which are not. Differences among Jews arise over issues such as: the degree to which it is proper to integrate into non-Jewish society; whether Zionism is compatible with Judaism; and the role of women in religious society.[16]

Orthodox Judaism is growing steadily in the USA, in part because the Orthodox tend to have larger families and in part because of an apparent trend among Jews generally to follow stricter forms of their religion.[17]

CHRISTIAN NEO-ORTHODOXY. In 1918, Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) published Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. It proclaimed God's absolute control over the world of man. It thus rejected the prevailing view among "liberal" theologians in Switzerland and Germany, the view that God is a sort of distant helper to man, whose institutions should be the center of Christian attention. "Faith," Barth said, "is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative difference between God and man and God and the world." Barth made his view of man clear: "Men have never been good, they are not good, they will never be good."

In the following decades, Barth (pronounced "Bart") edited and reissued the book six times. It infuriated "liberal" theologians. They attacked Barth, who was, in effect, rejecting the ameliorating effects that the Enlightenment had on Christianity, in theory and practice. Barth proposed to make God's revelation through Jesus the center of focus, replacing the "liberal" focus on man. Jesus, for Barth, was not a teacher of religion. "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way."

"Many pastors," says a modern historian of Christianity, "in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, desperate for an antidote to liberalism, eagerly awaited the publication of each [new] book [from Barth]." His influence spread to some Protestant and Catholic theologians until the 1950s. Some of his detractors rejected him as a "Bible-thumper," while others doubted his orthodoxy, for he refused to say the Bible is infallible. Only Jesus is infallible, Barth said.

Barth fought with allies as much as with opponents. For example, Barth rejected "natural theology," the notion that God reveals Himself in the world around us. While teaching in Germany, Barth's main fight, however, was with supporters of the "German Christian church." They were rallying behind Nazism in the 1930s. The German university employing Barth fired him for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler.  Barth moved back to Switzerland to teach, while campaigning to support Jews and other victims of oppression. By the 1970s, the movement he had founded was declining. It had always been an intellectual (theological) movement.[18]

In Europe, the theology of the neo-orthodoxy movement was called "crisis theology" (because it arose during World War I and the decades that followed, a time of intellectual crisis. Another name was "dialectical theology."[19]

In the USA, the main channels of neo-orthodoxy's influence flowed through Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Reinhold Neibuhr (1892-1971), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965). They too rejected theological liberalism (and its desire to "adjust" Christianity to modern science and culture). They disliked the term "neo-orthodox," which had been applied to them by others, because it implied Biblical literalism, which they shunned in favor of modern "critical," scholarly examination of the Bible. Like Barth, they focused not on the Bible but on Jesus as the Word of God. The believer, they held, must therefore make a personal connection to Jesus, God willing, not merely read the Bible.[20]

Neo-orthodoxy has had little influence on evangelical Christians, though evangelicals agree in rejecting "liberal" Christianity as it was influenced by the Enlightenment. Also, evangelicals, who form a broad mass movement, reject modern Biblical criticism in favor of Biblical literalism.[21]

In summary, Christian "neo-orthodoxy" names a small but influential intellectual movement among mostly Protestant Christian theologians and pastors. They disagreed about some issues, but generally united to reject "liberal" theology with its accommodation to modern culture under the influence of the Enlightenment.

PALEO-ORTHODOXY. Late in the 20th Century, a new movement calling for Christian orthodoxy appeared. This movement defines orthodoxy as conformance to the doctrines of "Classical Christianity," which means the Christianity articulated by consensus among the Church Fathers (such as Augustine, 354-430) and the Ecumenical Councils.

The dominant theologian in the paleo-orthodoxy movement has been Thomas C. Oden (b. 1931). He is Protestant (Methodist), works for Drew University (New Jersey), and is the Director of the Center for Early African Christianity. Oden rejects the term "neo-orthodoxy" because he disagrees with some elements of Barth's and Brunner's theologies. Oden adopted the term "paleo-orthodoxy" because it points back to the Christian church in the ancient world.

Oden says he expects "to make no new contribution to theology." He relies on the authority of the founders of the ancient church. His influence has spread beyond his own religious stream, Methodism, to include some individuals in other streams of evangelical Christianity.[22]

RADICAL ORTHODOXY. In an October 8, 2012 post in this weblog, The Main Event, I summarized a first look at Radical Orthodoxy, a movement which rejects modernity (as influenced by the Enlightenment), looks back to the ancient Christian church, and wants to apply Christian principles to all fields of knowledge, from politics to science. Thus Radical Orthodoxy is radical both in going back to roots in history and radical in making Christianity the standard by which to judge all of life.

CONCLUSION. To generalize, the term "orthodoxy" primarily names the idea of strictly following a mystical standard—such as revelation, holy scripture, or an ancient consensus—in one's beliefs and in one's actions in all aspects of life. Secondarily, the term names the consequence of such an adherence: rejection of the use of reason to develop standards, specifically to reject the compromising effects of the Enlightenment.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, here

[1] [2] [3] "History," [4] 
[5] [6] [7] [8] "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [9] "Talmud," [10] The dictionary and concise encyclopedia entries for "Sandhedrin," [11] Introduction, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [12] "Streams of Orthodoxy" section, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [13] "Streams of Orthodoxy" section, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [14] "Streams of Orthodoxy" section, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [15] "Streams of Orthodoxy" and "Diversity within Orthodox Judaism" sections, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, ttp:// [16] "Diversity within Orthodox Judaism" section, "Orthodox Judaism," Wikipedia, viewed Dec. 19, 2012, [17] Aaron Hoover, "As Hasidic population grows, Jewish politics may shift right," University of Florida News, filed Nov. 27, 2006;; and See also: Michael Kress, "The State of Orthodox Judaism Today," Jewish Virtual Library, viewed Dec. 24, 2012, [18] Mark Galli, "Neo-Orthodoxy: Karl Barth," Jan. 1, 2000, Christianity Today, See also: For an exposition and critique of the positions on reason and faith of the two leading proponents of Christian neo-orthodoxy: Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, see Chapters VII and VIII in Brand Blandshard, Reason and Belief, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1974, [19] For the names "crisis theology" and "dialectical theology," see: [20] For the neo-orthodox theologians in America: [21] For the differences between neo-orthodox theologians and evangelicals: "Relation to other theologies" and "Influence upon American Protestantism," in [22] For an overview and bibliography of paleo-orthodoxy: For Thomas C. Oden see: [23]


  1. Dear Mr. Laughlin,

    I am reading your book The Power and the Glory, which I am enjoying very much. I will review your book on Amazon as soon as I have finished it and would presently give it six out of five stars. I have a question. It appears that the common usage of the word cynic is more consistent with the philosophy of Skepticism than the common usage of the word cynic – is that your understanding? The philosophy of Cynicism seems to not correspond with the common usage of the word cynic or skeptic – is that correct? Did these terms morph overtime innocently or was there a purposeful change? Like liberal, or wetlands, or Right?

    Dale B. Halling

    1. Thank you for the kind words about the book. I hope it provides information you can use in your own work, in your activism, or simply in your view of history.

      Does your question about Cynicism arise from something I said in _The Power and the Glory_? I don't recall discussing it, and the index does not list it.

      If I were you, I would consult reputable encyclopedias of philosophy as a start. For example, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

      Also, as usual, _The Oxford Classical Dictionary_ has a concise (half page) introduction, with bibliography. You should be able to find it in any university or large city library.

      Wikipedia also has a long account that should offer plenty of leads, through its notes and bibliography.

      I haven't made any special study of Cynicism or the etymology of the word "cynic." I no longer have my Greek books, including my Greek dictionary, but I recall that it of course means "dog," referring to the shameless lifestyle of the original Cynics.

      When used in an ethical context today, it often means, not a whole lifestyle, but the view that virtue is impossible, that is, there is some nefarious motive behind the actions of great, productive men.

      Since words don't exist independently of human minds, all changes in meaning are purposeful in the sense that new users attach new meanings to old words, for whatever reason. I doubt there was any conspiracy to do so. Have you consulted the Oxford English Dictionary for the full history of the term? That should be intriguing, though beyond the scope of my current work.


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