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A Generous Orthodoxy (Part 2)

July 8, 2008

It’s been over a week since I promised to start blogging my way through Brian McLaren’s book, ‘A  Generous Orthodoxy.’ Sorry about the delay in posting. I’ll try to make amends over the next few days.

Today, I want to have a look at the introduction, entitled ‘A Generous Refund.’ The chapter is a warning about what the book will contain. The idea is that if you think you’re going to be offended by the book, it might not be too late to get your money back from the bookshop. This won’t be an issue for me, since I borrowed the book from a library. Still, it’s a generous warning.

McLaren explains that the book advocates a new orthodoxy. I have two responses to the word. First, I tend to think about those expressions of Christianity hailing from the east of Europe and the Middle East. The other meaning is to do with belief and doctrine—it means anything the church considers to be ‘true doctrine.’ For me the word doesn’t necessarily mean ‘absolute truth’. It is more to do with what is generally considered to be true.

McLaren wants to link ‘orthodoxy’ with ‘orthopraxis,’ which is the right practice of the gospel. Orthodoxy’ refers to our belief; ‘orthopraxis’ refers to what we do and how we practice our religion. For McLaren, what we do with our belief is more important than the belief itself. That’s not to say that our doctrine is unimportant. It’s the practical work of the doctrine that says how good that doctrine is. I’m sure Jesus said something along those lines.

Still, this seems a little bizarre. I think Christians (at least, the ones I know) prefer to make sure people have got good doctrinal foundations. If we’re interviewing people for ministry positions, adherence to our doctrinal statements might be seen as more important than character or ability. This is one thing the Salvation Army seems to do well (although I’m sure there are exceptions!). We don’t have a very high bar when it comes to the study of doctrine, but we are well known for our service. Still, most people would prefer to be called lazy and incompetent rather than a heretic.

McLaren gives an example of how the link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis might work:

‘The generous orthodoxy explored in the pages ahead assumes, for example, that the value of understanding the Trinity is to love and honor and serve the Trinity, and that allegedly right Trinitarian opinions that do not lead to divine adoration are worth little. More, this view would assert that so-called orthodox understandings of the Trinity that don’t lead so-called orthodox Christians to love their neighbors in the name of the Trinity (including those neighbors who don’t properly understand the Trinity) are more or less worthless, which trivializes their orthodoxy.’

This makes perfect sense to me. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) Jesus doesn’t give anyone a doctrine quiz. He does ask them about their love, though.

McLaren goes on to point out that he’s not decrying doctrine. Far from it. Bad doctrine frequently leads to bad practice.

The problem with doctrine, it seems, is that it’s very easy to get blow very small theological molehills into great big mountains. McLaren explains that he’s not railing against the essential orthodoxy that most Christians agree with. The problem is the ‘distinctives’ that are given a far more important place than they deserve.

Again, I like this about the Army. We have eleven articles of faith and lots of secondary commentary. We have a lot of wiggle room, and thus we can easily accommodate people of fairly varied theological backgrounds. This introduction can be summed up thus: orthodoxy is important, but let’s not get too hung up on the details. Let’s concentrate on living our orthodoxy rather than arguing about it. It’s not a petty orthodoxy. It’s generous.

McLaren finishes the chapter with a frank admission that he realises many people will form opinions about him, some of which may be warranted. He also realises the book misses a lot that could be covered. He reminds readers that refunds are probably still available.

On the other hand, he invites people who haven’t been scared off to read further. In its way it is an invitation to freedom. Doctrine should point the way to liberty, not bind us up.

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