Distractions from Orthodoxy

T. David Gordon
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

"Orthodoxy" now has a fairly clear definition. The church's historic creeds and confessions have continued to affirm the basic realities of the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed, and the respective communions have refined their own distinctives. The boundaries of orthodoxy, whether generically considered or considered within the church's respective branches, are fairly well established. We must seriously ask whether the circle of orthodoxy now needs to be further restricted. That is, we may have reached the point where other questions that we raise, fair enough and important enough in their own right, should not be placed in the position of tests of orthodoxy or fellowship.

Orthodoxy was and is already risky. It is the means by which the church (or some branch thereof) defines itself, by which it distinguishes itself from other societies and/or individuals. Whenever it does so, it runs the risk of excluding those who ought to be included, the way Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are excluded by not affirming the deity of Christ. Thus, orthodoxy is a serious, risky business because we do not wish to declare an "insider" to be an "outsider."

Some individuals appear to be less concerned about this risk than others. I knew an individual once whose recurring theme was that the church (generally or specifically) was moving in heterodox directions. When I asked for evidence of this movement, he almost always cited some matter that appeared in none of the historic creeds of the church. So, what sounded at first as though some of the theological cows had left the barn, ended up being that he had brought in some carpenters and made a smaller barn.

Pendulums swing curiously, racing through the middle and tarrying at the extremes. The church, likewise, might swing from the extreme of not caring to talk seriously about doctrine on the one hand, to the other extreme of making every doctrinal discussion a test of orthodoxy on the other. Modern Reformation's editors are surely interested in a vigorous defense of orthodoxy, and they surely encourage hearty and open debate about matters related to the church's faith and life, but not every such discussion need be regarded as a test of orthodoxy or a term of communion.

My students are alternately amused and disturbed by my occasional reference to what I inelegantly call the "toilet effect." Having completed the task that brought you to the toilet in the first place, you reach around and push the handle, but accidentally bump the Reader's Digest (or your "to-do" list, your spouse's toothbrush, or the family Chihuahua) off the sink into the toilet also. The swirl having already begun, the Digest is doomed to a most unliterary fate. It suffers the "toilet effect," wasted in the effort to remove genuine waste. The church not infrequently suffers also from the toilet effect. In the effort to rid itself of some perceived effluvium or another, other resources, energies, graces, or gifts sometimes get caught in the swirl and disappear also.

Satan is a distracter/diverter of the church's resources, and we should not be unaware of his devices. He loves waste, especially the church's waste, because it blunts her warfare against him. He loves the toilet effect, when the church's greater resources disappear in overzealous attempts to achieve smaller gains. Indeed, I often wonder if the Evil One is not the inventor of the toilet effect. The temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 was not a moral temptation in any ordinary sense of the term. Eating bread is not sinful. Rather, Satan tempted Christ to divert his distinctive messianic power from its primary purpose of rescuing the lost from Satan's dominion. Similarly, Satan frequently, perhaps ordinarily, tempts the church to divert its energies from its primary purpose of rescuing the lost from Satan's dominion.

Things that are legitimate to address in their own right need not occupy an undue amount of the church's resources, and some such issues need never be resolved. Examples of such studied and deliberate ambiguities in the Westminster standards, for instance, include: infant salvation ("elect infants dying in infancy"), the nature of obedience owed to the civil magistrate ("obedience to his lawful commands"), post- and amillennialism, and mediate or immediate imputation of sin. Other truths are so woven into the fabric of theology that they must be regarded as a matter either of general Christian orthodoxy (the articles of the Apostles' Creed for instance) or a matter of the particular orthodoxy of one of its branches (Lutheran versus Reformed understanding of the nature of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper). But other matters, worthy of Christian conversation, needn't be finally resolved.

Several matters have recently consumed inordinate amounts of the church's attention and distracted her from her life as a worshiping and discipling community. Matters perfectly worthy of our attention and conversation were regarded as matters that needed ecclesiastical resolution, while other matters that might be more important were given less or no attention. Here are several of my candidates for winners of the coveted toilet effect.

The Length of Creation Days

I am an exegete by training, and exegetes always take an interest in understanding particular texts properly. Genesis 1 is no exception; it is a masterfully terse record of the Maker's plans for his created order and, in my opinion, remains one of the most comprehensively informative texts in Holy Scripture. But some of what it narrates resists exegetical resolution. I don't think, for instance, that we have even the remotest idea what the recurring expression there means: "And there was evening, and there was morning, one (or another numeral) day." According to this narrative, the sun was not created until the fourth day, so what does the expression mean, "There was evening, and there was morning," when there is no sun? The question is fasci-nating as it drives us into a consideration of the mysteries of protology, which are every bit as mysterious as the mysteries of eschatology.

At the same time, however, utterly nothing impinges upon the resolution of the question. There is no question of faith or practice that would change one whit regardless of how the question is resolved. What doctrine that we currently believe would be altered, regardless of what "evening and morning" means without the sun? What sentence in any of the Christian creeds would need to be altered if we were able to resolve this question? And what matter of Christian practice would change? If we were to go through Luther's Small Catechism, or the Westminster Larger Catechism, line by line in the exposition of the Decalogue, what line would need to be removed, added, or altered in any way on the basis of our resolution of the matter?

Some have proposed, with straight faces (I don't know how they accomplish this, but I've witnessed it more than once), that it impinges upon Sabbath observance, but they convince no one. The "days" of protology are unique; there is no sunshine. Our days do have sunshine (in Grove City, Pennsylvania, only fifty times annually), and our days are defined by the recurring pattern of dusk and dawn, evening and morning as determined by the earth's rotation creating the illusion of sunset and sunrise. We know what a "day" is for us, which is all we need to know for Sabbath observance. More problematic for the straight-faced-this-is-necessary-for-Sabbath-observance view is the fact that the seventh day, according to the Genesis narrative, has neither evening nor morning. That is, the one "day" in that narrative that should be most determinative for Sabbath observance is notorious for distinguishing itself by the absence of the otherwise-recurring pattern of "evening and morning." Thus, by the narrative of Genesis 1, the one day that is not governed by the pattern of "evening and morning" is the Sabbath.

The only thing at stake in the matter is a populist hermeneutic, and such a hermeneutic, precious though it may be to some in the United States, has never been affirmed by any of the church's creeds nor by any of its major representative theologians. In the discussion of solar days, I often heard the plaintive cry of the populists: "But don't you think the average layman reading his Bible concludes that these are solar days of twenty-four hours' duration?" I'm perfectly willing to concede that perhaps the average layman does conclude so, but I feel no obligation to conform my opinions to his. If I did, I would not have taken a Ph.D. in biblical studies; I would have simply read the occasional Gallup Poll to determine the meaning of holy writ. The average layman, I suppose, thinks "ecclesia/church" in Matthew 18 is the Christian church; but Calvin didn't think so nor did such commissioners to the Westminster Assembly such as Samuel Rutherford or George Gillespie, nor contemporary scholars such as Herman Ridderbos, all of whom understood it to be a reference to the Jewish Sanhedrin, as do I. The average layman probably understands Psalm 23 to be agricultural rather than royal, the Beatitudes to be ethical rather than eschatological, the Bible to contain "ten commandments" somewhere, Ephesians 4 to teach something about "equipping" saints to do the church's ministry, etcetera, all of which I deny, based on my careful study of the relevant original texts in each case. Following Calvin's "natural sense" hermeneutic, I believe texts should be understood in their natural sense, grammatically and historically considered.

Calvin was Renaissance-trained, and he employed the vigorous linguistic and historical tools of that training to determine what the natural sense of a text was; he did not consult the populace at Geneva. Yet when several communions studied this matter (at considerable expense of time and money), following a substantial hue and cry to do so, the primary motivation appears to have been nothing more than the preservation of the myth of the populist hermeneutic; a myth nowhere enshrined in any of the church's creeds, and a myth not worth lifting a finger to save. Note how far this myth is from confessional language. Even in the place where the Westminster Confession addresses what we commonly call "the perspicuity of Scripture," note how non-perspicuous they say it actually is:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF 1:7)

This highly nuanced text affirms only that the basic gospel message (what is to be "believed and observed for salvation") can be "sufficiently" (savingly?) understood by both the learned and the unlearned. And even here, this may require studying the entire Bible ("some place of Scripture or other"), and a due use of ordinary means. But other "things" in Scripture are less plain in themselves and less plain to all, so Westminster manifests no concern that everything in Scripture be so. Now, if some partisan on one of the sides of the solar-day controversy can explain to me how the resolution of this interesting question is necessary to be "believed and observed for salvation," then I am more than willing to see the church use its limited resources in the effort to resolve it. To suggest this, however, would require Herculean efforts at straight-face syndrome.

Van Tilian Apologetics

Although Dr. Van Til had retired by the time I arrived at Westminster to study there in the late 1970s, he was still in good health, was often seen at the seminary, and gave the occasional guest lecture. I was as impressed with him personally as all who met him apparently were, and having read some of his books in college, I was already an appreciative disciple of his apologetic. Professor John Frame, in classes there, helped us through some of the more difficult aspects of his thought, while gratefully promoting its distinctives. In the literary arena, both Richard Pratt and Greg Bahnsen also contributed profoundly to my appreciation for Dr. Van Til's thought.

I was then, and remain now, an appreciative Van Tilian and am happy for any occasion to express what I consider to be the distinctive benefits of his approach to Christian apologetics. However, it is not at all necessary that the Christian church resolve the question of apologetic method. As Van Til himself would testify, if still living, such a resolution would remove most of Old Princeton (and those like them) from the Reformed communions, a loss most of us would hardly approve.

An ahistorical definition of orthodoxy is a serious matter; it suggests that "orthodoxy" indeed has no fixed meaning and therefore any issue that arises may plausibly be perceived as a threat to "orthodoxy." In theory, then, anything about which we converse could take on heretical dimension; every difference could be perceived as a matter necessitating ecclesiastical resolution. Such a climate would have the effect of stifling theological discourse because the stakes would be too high.

Biblical Theology versus Systematic Theology

As Geerhardus Vos taught, so-called biblical theology and systematic theology are comple-mentary aspects of the overall theological enter-prise. Biblical theology arranges/systematizes the teaching of the canon historically; and systematic theology arranges the teaching of Scripture topically. Neither could or should be avoided; neither can be avoided. John Owen (1616-83) wrote about biblical theology, Herman Witsius (1636- 1708) wrote about it; Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) wrote about it; Samuel Bolton (a commissioner to the West-minster Assembly) wrote about it; so Vos did not invent the discipline during his career at Princeton from the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth. (1) When John Owen, Samuel Miller, and Robert Lewis Dabney all described the so-called Lord's Prayer as "defective," this was/is a biblical theological judgment, not a systematic theological judgment; each believed it was a Jewish prayer, defective in not mentioning the mediation of Christ, a defect unavoidable in its original historical setting, but later corrected/supplemented by Jesus' instructions about praying in his name. (2)

In some circles, however, individuals appear to be suggesting that one must choose between these two aspects of the overall theological enterprise. But would we require a choice between exegetical theology and systematic theology? Would we require a choice between apologetic theology and polemical theology? We all make biblical-theological choices, and we all make systematic-theological choices, and we may rightly discuss the choices we make in each; but we cannot choose to delete one of them, and it makes no good intellectual sense even to discuss their relative "priority." Some texts make little or no sense until biblical theological questions are raised, such as Jesus saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you" (Matt. 23:2). Does this mean that we should do and practice whatever the first-century scribes and Pharisees taught? Of course not, but at this moment in Jesus' public ministry, the new covenant had not yet been inaugurated, and the Sinai covenant still obliged God's visible people on earth. Therefore, it was their duty (but not ours) to do what the Pharisees taught, as teachers of Moses.

Particular interpretive questions of either a biblical theological or systematic theological character should, of course, continue to engage all thoughtful readers of the Scriptures. But there is nothing to be gained (other than deception) by any pretense that we can live without either of these disciplines, and even discussions of their alleged priority one to the other do not take us anywhere. What the Bible teaches about prayer is a systematic theological question we must all engage. Whether and to what degree the Lord's Prayer is a Jewish or Christian prayer is a biblical theological question that engaged John Owen, Samuel Miller, and Robert Lewis Dabney, and should engage us also. But I fail to see how we can construct a biblical understanding of prayer without asking both questions. Debating whether or in what order we should do so is simply a waste of time.

Christian America/Culture Wars

Citizenship per se is a valid component of ethics, and there is every good reason for interested people to raise the question of citizenship in general or, if it exists, Christian citizenship in particular. Citizenship and public square issues, however, are not necessarily more important than other aspects of the cultural mandate (such as writing poetry or symphonies, or refining agricultural technology), and our tradition has raised serious questions about partisan politics and the spirituality of the church.

Especially surprising, in this regard, is the amount of effort expended at attempting to prove that our early Republic was intentionally "a Christian nation" or that the individual Founders were Christian believers. (3) This surprises me not only because the existent documents appear to be at best inconclusive, but also because it would mean nothing anyway. The accidents of history can never oblige us; and even if the Founders had intended to establish a Christian nation (whatever that might mean), we would be under no obligation whatsoever to continue the experiment in our generation, unless we (the populace as a whole) believed there was value to it. To illustrate: The Founders also plainly intended to permit the African slave trade to continue for the foreseeable future without federal interference. Does this mean we should resurrect the practice today? Of course not; it was a horrible idea then, and would remain a horrible idea today.

On this topic, I am also at times surprised at how truncated the historical question is framed, covering merely a couple centuries of the American experiment. The idea of "Christendom" or a self-consciously Christian nationalism is at least as old as a.d. 774, when Emperor Charlemagne was designated by the pope as the "champion" of Christianity, and in 1302 Boniface VIII confirmed the matter in a papal bull (Unum Sanctum). Roman Catholicism then for well over a millennium has promoted the notion of using the power of the state to promote Christianity. When William of Ockham (1288-c. 1347) disputed the teaching of Unum Sanctum, he was excommunicated; and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was often referred to as "the first Protestant." I am somewhat surprised that the Religious Right so blithely promotes the Catholic view on the matter.

But the real point is this: The church is not the American Historical Society and her officers do not have earned doctorates in American historical studies. It is not the church's place to settle disputes over history (her creed mentions only one historical figure, Pontius Pilate-and that backhandedly-placing the crucifixion in a genuine space-and-time context). Such questions might interest a number of us as individuals, but they are not the kinds of questions the church is called or instituted to resolve.

"Christian" Education

Every thoughtful Christian couple will raise questions about how best to rear their children within the resources and opportunities that God's providence affords. There is every reason for this to be an important and thoughtful consideration. But the church has utterly no authority to resolve the matter. Nothing, not a word, in the entirety of Holy Scripture says anything at all about compulsory education, an idea vigorously resisted by such orthodox theologians as Robert Lewis Dabney when it was first proposed. And nothing in the Scriptures addresses formal education at all, which would have been out of the financial reach of nearly all Christians prior to the twentieth century. Nearly as important, for our purposes, none of the historic creeds of the church address the matter either.

Admittedly, some texts have been "drafted" into service in this cause, but the texts themselves would be conscientious objectors to this draft. Poor hapless Deuteronomy 6 has been drafted into a number of causes, including the you-must-home-school or Christian-school-your-children cause, but the text itself resists the draft. The text says nothing about formal education at all but rather addresses ordinary day-to-day life ("talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise"). And the substance of Deuteronomy 6 has nothing to do with mathematics or geography. "These words that I command you today" in Deuteronomy 6:6 are certainly the same as the material referred to in verse 1: "This is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it." And this in turn is surely the Decalogue, which had just been given in Deuteronomy 5. The only thing Deuteronomy 6 required of Israelite parents was to teach their children the Ten Commandments as they went through their everyday life.

We home-schooled our daughters for a number of years and then enrolled them in a Christian school where my wife served as the school's administrator. I am, therefore, opposed neither to home-schooling nor private Christian schools; I just don't think the issue is addressed in the Scriptures or in the creeds of the church, and that it ought to be discussed without any suspicion that it has anything at all to do with orthodoxy.

Women in Military

Prima facie, it was not unlawful for Deborah to play some role in the military. Similarly, it is the duty of all humans to promote and defend human life. If someone breaks into a home while the father is away on business, a mother is perfectly justified in introducing the intruder to the household Glock handgun. Prima facie, then, we know before we go any further that the Scriptures do not prohibit, as a moral absolute, females from defending innocent human life. Thus, the very most the Christian community could do with the matter is offer counsel based on general revelation, which unbelievers can do as well. Some of us, by analogy, did not agree with the military's decision to jettison the .45 ACP as its standard handgun cartridge in favor of the nine mm cartridge (and correspondingly different weapons to chamber it), but is this the kind of matter that the church should address? Is it within her realm of competence?

As a distinct institution, the church proclaims, preserves, and propagates special revelation-what God has revealed in Scripture. She has no special or particular competence in general revelation, and so she brings nothing to the table when we debate the relative merits or demerits of women serving in the military. Yet at least two communions actually studied this matter, expending considerable finances and energies to study a matter that, from the outset, she ought to have known she could not say anything about. Did even the most ardent opponents of women in the military, for instance, seriously believe that the church should excommunicate patriotic women who serve in the military?


How many missionaries, home or foreign, might have been sent out with the monies expended to study such issues as women in the military or the length of the creation days? Vigorous, informed theological discussion is healthy for the church, and I have myself participated in it from time to time. But not every discussion is a matter of orthodoxy. Some discussions may appropriately remain unsettled. Such discussions, therefore, need not absorb an inordinate amount of the church's resources, and surely need not be settled at the substantial expense of study committees or ecclesiastical trials.

1 [ Back ] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948); John Owen, Biblical Theology, or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, in Six Books (1661) trans. Stephen P. Westcott (Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994); Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank (1677, reprint Escondido, CA: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990); Jonathan Edwards, "A History of the Work of Redemption," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 532-619 (1834, reprint Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (1645, reprint Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978).
2 [ Back ] John Owen, "The Lord's Prayer Considered," in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Gold (reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), vol. xv, 14; Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer (1849, reprint Harrisburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 51-53; Robert Lewis Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Education, 1927), 721.
3 [ Back ] There are many sources for this. In popular media, one naturally thinks of the late D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge; and at a more academic level, the 1,200-page treatise by Dr. Peter Lillback of Westminster Seminary, George Washington's Sacred Fire. My own opinion is much more of that associated with Michael Novak (Washington's God), Paul F. Boller, Jr. (George Washington and Religion), or my colleague Gary Scott Smith (Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush), each of which describes Washington as neither a conventional orthodox Christian nor a conventional Deist, but some kind of a hybrid between them who believed in a Supreme Being who acts in history (unlike a strict Deist), who almost never mentioned Christ, and certainly never mentioned any redemption achieved by him (unlike a genuinely orthodox Christian). I am content to think of him, as Dr. Smith does, as a "theistic rationalist."
Photo of T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology