Left or Right of Orthodoxy

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One of the dangers of having an I-Pod Touch on my nightstand is that when I wake up in the middle of the night, I sometimes turn it on to read myself back to sleep, only to find myself driven more fully awake by something I read. That is the reason that I’m up at 3:15 a.m. CDT mulling over the question to come.

In my reading, I went to Google Reader and was scanning through blog posts when I came upon the Tall Skinny Kiwi’s reflections on a series from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary chapel services on the Emerging Church. This post represented his notes from presentations by SBTS president Paige Patterson and others. In the midst of these notes was a listing of three “types” of emerging church groups, the last of which jumped out at me:

Examining 3 types of EC – 1. reformed and cool (Calvinistic), 2. emerging church (evangelical) 3. emergent village (left of orthodoxy)

It was that last parenthetical phrase that jumped out at me — “left of orthodoxy” (used to denigrate me friends more closely associated with Emergent Village). I found myself wondering why it seems that critics only see heretical thinking about being a “left wing” sort of thing? In this case, theological ruminations that focus on embracing all people, the radical love of God, and a focus on the incoming kingdom in the hear and now is seen as outside orthodoxy, but are there other criteria that aren’t so “left” leaning that are equally as heretical? Why does it seem only possible to be left of orthodoxy — isn’t it possible to be “right” of orthodoxy as well?

For most of these critics, it is unimaginable that someone with a conserving bent could fall outside orthodox belief and practice, and yet, radical fundamentalism offers streams of thought that seem far outside the realm of biblical teaching and consistency with the practices of Jesus. Would Patterson not think that the Hutaree “Christian” militia group that was developing a plan to kill law enforcement officers not an example of a group that was “right” of orthodoxy? Don’t the faith expressions of the David Koresh’s of the world represent teachings based in Christianity that are heretical but are likewise as far from right wing as possible? Do we really think that the expressions of faith offered by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church centered in the hate and demeaning of others is right thinking, or might it be possible for this to be considered right of orthodox.

Ultimately, these terms left and right are useless categories that we throw as epithets at others with whom we disagree. For that matter, the division of insiders and outsiders focused on “orthodoxy” represents a way of thinking that has more connection to the way of the Pharisees and legalists presented in the New Testament than with the way of Christ, the one attacked and killed for hanging out with sinners. Would Jesus even care if folks were to the “left” or “right” of orthodoxy? I am likely to think that he would instead be asking if we’re willing to humble ourselves, willing to take up our cross to follow him.

So Paige Patterson, I ask you the question: Is it possible to be right of orthodoxy? If not, why?

3 thoughts on “Left or Right of Orthodoxy

  1. Great question. I think your observation about “left” and “right” not having much content when we talk about theology is a good one.

    Going way, way back the word “orthodoxy” referred to adherence to a specific creedal formulation. The Nicene party was orthodox and the Arians, Docetists, and so on were not.

    It looks from my vantage point like there are two ways people try to modify that ancient understanding of orthodox. Some try to hang extra ornaments on the Nicene tree. They expend the list of things that you must affirm to be orthodox – atonement theories, inerrancy of Scripture, predestination, male headship, etc.

    The other reaction is to carve out exceptions to the creedal affirmation. I see folks like Borg doing this when he says it does not really matter if Jesus rose from the dead. McLaren goes pretty far this way, too.

    The terms “right” and “left” do not seem proper here. That’s my two cents, though.

  2. My experience at SBTS in the early years of the conservative takeover there and reading their alumni stuff, for the most part, since then, has shaped me to read “left of orthodox” as not quite heretical: the left side of orthodox. Of course, left of orthodox = 99% of UMC, as defined by Al Mohler.

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