Whose Orthodoxy?

Michael S. Horton
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

Who defines the content of "orthodoxy"? Every society has a constitution and the canon of the covenant of grace by which our Ascended King reigns is his Word, Holy Scripture. While the church needs its courts to interpret this constitution, it is always the fallible interpreter and never the infallible source. Only when the church is faithful to this canon is it truly the community of Christ; but precisely because it is defined by this canon, it is always open to correction and change.

Not all truths are of the same importance nor all errors of equal weight. Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1623-87) provides a helpful analysis of some distinctions we should bear in mind when considering the boundaries of orthodoxy. We may err either by addition or sub-traction, warns Turretin. Representing the latter, Socinians and Arminians reduce necessary doctrines to that which is morally useful; in the latter case, to "faith in the divine promises and obedience to the divine precepts and a due reverence for the Scriptures." (1) Erring by addition is Rome, which requires all of its dogmas as necessary for salvation. The truth, however, lies between these extremes-careful to insist upon the fundamental articles of religion, yet careful also to "neither restrict them too closely, nor extend them too far….In this sense, fundamental articles of religion belong to the Decalogue, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the sacraments, and the power of the keys because they contain the doctrine of salvation as necessary and fundamental without which we cannot receive the rest." (2)

Everything that God reveals is necessary to be believed, yet these truths "are not all equally necessary." We must not confuse the implications and amplification of doctrines with the doctrines themselves. (3) He distinguishes between "substance" (for example, "Christ died") and "circumstances" ("between two thieves"). The former is "absolute and indispensable," the latter "hypothetical and changeable." Some doctrines are necessary for the very existence (esse) of faith, while others are necessary for the well-being (bene-esse) of faith. We believe the whole Word of God, but specifically "the doctrine concerning Christ with the dependant articles and the promises of God." These "primary" articles include the Trinity, Christ the Mediator, justification, and so on. "Others are secondary and mediate (or consequent) hypotheses and conclusions springing from and deduced from the primary." (4)

Therefore, not every error can be ranked as heresy. "As all truths are not of the same necessity, so all the wounds which are inflicted upon the truth are not therefore deadly, nor is every error capital." There are "errors against the foundation"-direct rejection of fundamental articles of the Creed; "errors about [around] the foundation"-assertions that implicitly contradict a chief article, and "errors beside the foundation," which does not injure the faith. (5)

Drawing on Hilary and Jerome, Turretin further distinguishes between verbal errors that concern the language used in formulating a doctrine and "a real error (about the doctrines themselves)." The former cannot be considered "fundamental." "The sense, not the words, gives character to a fault." (6)

The following things must belong to fundamental articles: (1) that they be catholic, for the things necessary for the salvation of everyone are required for a universal faith (according to the Athanasian Creed 'whoever wishes to be saved must above all things hold the catholic faith; for unless it is held entire and inviolate he will perish forever'; (2) that the belief of the catholic truths necessarily draws salvation after it; and the ignorance of them, the entire doubt of danger, the impious and heretical denial, is damnable; (3) that believers cherish a true consent to them, nor do some think differently from others because if anyone thinks or speaks otherwise he is subjected to the curse (Gal. 1:8). Hence where a difference in fundamentals exists, there cannot be union; (4) that all theological doctrines be reduced to them as to a rule which the apostle calls the analogy of faith (analogian pisteos); (5) that they be primary and principal truths upon which all others are built as upon a foundation-and being removed, faith itself is overthrown; not secondary and less principal, by the removal of which faith is only shaken. (7)

Turretin points out that the "fundamental articles" are so clear from Scripture that they could be reduced to a common creed that has bound Christians of differing traditions through the centuries. Turretin therefore helps us delineate the line (so we clearly know when it has been crossed) through this definition of orthodox Christianity:

[T]he doctrines concerning the sacred Scriptures as inspired (theopneusto), being the only and perfect rule of faith; concerning the unity of God and the Trinity; concerning Christ, the Redeemer, and his most perfect satisfaction; concerning sin and its penalty-death; concerning the law and its inability to save; concerning justification by faith; concerning the necessity of grace and good works, sanctification and the worship of God, the church, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and eternal life and such as are connected with these. All of these are so strictly joined together that they mutually depend upon each other. One cannot be withdrawn without overthrowing all the rest. (8)
1 [ Back ] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1: First Through Tenth Topics, trans. G. M. Giger, ed. J. T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1992), 48.
2 [ Back ] Turretin, 48.
3 [ Back ] Turretin, 49.
4 [ Back ] Turretin, 49-50.
5 [ Back ] Turretin, 50.
6 [ Back ] Turretin, 51.
7 [ Back ] Turretin, 52.
8 [ Back ] Turretin, 52.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Friday, September 5th 2008

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

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