Monday, March 27, 2017

Why Paleo-Orthodoxy?

I can understand how those who are in some way deeply devoted to their denominations might find the proposition of paleo-orthodoxy (a return to the Early Church) threatening, or in some other way view it with suspicion. It isn't easy to let go of something that in some cases has been a part of your family for generations, as some denominations have for some people. A reasonable question asked is, 'Why paleo-orthodoxy'? While I certainly can't answer for everyone who supports the paleo-orthodox position, I can certainly offer some personal insights as to why this is a logical next step in church history.

Most people can understand that as the church progressed and made concessions to prevailing non-Christian ideas and institutions there was a certain loss of focus. The church has become increasingly a political tool, a social justice organization, a means for promoting secularism and egalitarianism and other purely secular agendas, and as a result its pews are empty. Lost is the early Christian focus on the essentials of the faith, or as St. Vincent of Lerins put it, that which has been believed "everywhere, always, and by all." In other words, the common consensus of the universal church in harmony with the hermeneutic of continuity. And while some find it easy to point at the Roman Catholic Church as an example of this loss of focus there is plenty of blame to go around for everyone. Perhaps this is part of the reason some view paleo-orthodoxy as a threat. The idea that one must deal honestly with the defects of their own beloved denomination or religious misconceptions and prejudices isn't easy for some to accept. It becomes an existential crises of a sort. This is a part of the challenge of paleo-orthodoxy: the challenge to look at ourselves in the denominational mirror and recognize the flaws.

One of these flaws is the rejection of the historic methodology of the church in resolving issues of theology and practice. While the Reformation did some good in bringing our collective focus back to Sacred Scripture and away from traditions not founded in the Patristic or Scriptural witnesses, as a movement it failed to substantially adhere to the conciliar model established in Acts 15. Unfortunately the Reformation, which held great promise, devolved into a sectarian battle, with various factions making war on each other over issues of theology that had been resolved by the early Christians for at least 1,000 years. The Reformation began in 1517, while the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was held in 787 AD, just for perspective.

This isn't at all to suggest no good came of the Reformation. Indeed there was good to come out of it. The problem is, however, that the Reformation never reached its potential and, in my opinion, this was precisely because it failed to remain connected to the historic church in anything other than its love for Sacred Scripture. Paleo-orthodoxy in no way denigrates the Reformers, but rather demands the Reformation continue, returning to the consensus of the Early Church- not in some odd antiquarianism- but in a recognition of the dead end of Modernity and its hermeneutic of novelty. This is essentially the vision passed on to us by such great Evangelical theologians as Thomas Oden. As Carl R. Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History, wrote:

"Oden saw only two real alternatives at this point: a return to an earlier, pre-modern way of thinking or an embrace of the chaos of postmodernity (or hypermodernity, as he characterizes it). Like the Marxist Terry Eagleton, Oden sees the consumerism—material and intellectual—of the postmodern world as modernity brought to its logical conclusion. In this context, Oden’s advocacy of paleo-orthodoxy is not a movement of reaction so much as a desire to listen with humility and openness to the testimony of the Church from times past." 1

Oden experienced fallout that exemplifies the prejudices and politics that paleo-orthodoxy by nature exposes. He found people offended at his ideas, he was shunned and isolated both professionally and by the church, and even had attempts by other members of the Christian clergy and intelligentsia to obstruct the publishing of his works. What Oden was fighting against wasn't really theology as much as it was the spirit of Modernity of both thought (modern theologians proposing modern answers to ancient questions already thoroughly and adequately answered in our ancient past), and approach to the world (a certain capitulation to the prevailing ideologies, institutions and conventions of modern thought).There is, I think, in the mind of the Modernist a certain hubris that permits the assumption of a greater wisdom in a fractured and often bitterly quarrelsome modern church, than on the part of those who were much closer to the Apostolic era (and in some cases personally knew the Apostles) and, logically, were in a better position to be a witness of apostolic teaching and tradition.

Will this end all quarrels? That is very unlikely. It will, however, put us back on the right foundation and provide for us a method for resolving conflicts and addressing issues in harmony and in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity. That is why I think paleo-orthodoxy- a return to the Early Church- is the future. It holds the potential not only for substantive unity, but for the removal of the petty political machinations that soil the Church. All of this, however, requires humility on the part of individual believers, and that is perhaps the greatest hurdle of all.



  1. I do appreciate this essay, with a couple of caveats. I want to be more positive about the Gaines of Reformed orthodoxy throughout and after the Reformation, and, while the first four ecumenical councils certainly laid the foundation for the church's systematic theology, the last three were seriously questionable! Surely sola scriptura must be our controlling principle.

  2. David,
    Thank you for reading and for your comment. Let me say that I agree that Scripture holds primacy, but we cannot ignore tradition, reason and experience since all of these play a part in the history of theology and faith. My personal position is that when scripture is unclear or silent on an issue, we then look to apostolic tradition which can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers. When they speak in unity on a topic, and that consensus is brought to the touchstone of scripture, we must embrace that tradition and make it a part of our theological reasoning and experience of the faith.

  3. Christ is risen! This is an interesting post on paleo-orthodoxy and why it might be the future of the Churches. I want to inform you that on my own blog I have a post regarding paleo-orthodoxy from March 2017 that I invite you to read and comment on. Thank you. God bless!