The winners get to define
what's orthodox and what's not
Mr. Knowles, former managing editor of The Plain Truth, published by the Worldwide Church of God, makes his living as a writer. This article is part of his "Out of the Box" series of columns.
By Brian Knowles
MONROVIA, Calif.--For some 35 years I've made my living crafting words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into articles and books. I enjoy words. They are symbols for thoughts. Writing is thinking on paper.
Words, however, are not always what they seem. Many of them come with baggage, or even freight. Take, for example, orthodoxy and heresy.
The medical example
In virtually any profession, you have your orthodox practitioners and your heretics.
For instance, consider the nomenclature of the medical profession. Mainstream medical practice is referred to in the media, and by itself, as orthodox or conventional. Sometimes the word traditional is used as well. "Standard" medical practice is also called "scientific medicine." These are all positive words.
Conversely, natural medicine is termed unorthodox, alternative or even quackery. It is viewed as "unscientific." Note the generally negative imagery.
As we daily absorb the literature and media that use this nomenclature, we find ourselves buying into it. We accept the idea that it is normal or conventional to burn, toxify and cut away body parts, and we embrace the notion that working with the body's natural physiology is somehow quackery.
But natural medicine is based on an understanding of how the human body works as a total system. It is quite scientific. When the body becomes toxic, or when the flows of any of its systems are arrested (bowel, liver, gall bladder, kidney, bladder, nerves, blood vessels, lymphatic system, lungs, skin, etc., etc.), then the thing to do is detoxify and release blockages so normal flows can be restored. What's so unscientific about that?
What's unscientific about bowel cleansing or releasing stones from the kidney and gall bladder through natural means rather than cutting them out? What's unorthodox about detoxifying the body, getting good nutrition into it and rebuilding the immune system, which is our first line of defense against disease? Why is that quackery?
It's quackery because those who don't believe in it have gained power, and those who do have lost it.
So-called orthodox medicine is big business these days. Health-maintenance organizations (HMOs) are in business to make a profit, not to get people healthy so that they don't have to use them.
Mainstream medicine is interested in getting rid of its competition. Hence it must discredit it and label it heresy.
Big drug considers natural foods and supplements ineffective because they don't instantly mask symptoms and cause side effects.
Orthodoxy and heresy are defined by those who win battles for power and influence.
In China the Communist Party decides what's orthodox and what's heresy. Politically, communism defines one-party rule as orthodox and multiparty competition as heresy.
In this country we see it the opposite way. Who is right?
The Communist Party is right for China; the Constitution is right for America.
My point: Orthodoxy and heresy are not defined objectively but by power.
Theological orthodoxy and heresy
In recent days the world was transfixed by the death watch surrounding the illness of the pope. The world's largest Christian church was about to lose its leader.
For millions of Catholics the world over, the pope had been the paragon of orthodoxy. World leaders would recognize his preeminent position in Christianity by beating a path to his coffin. The Roman Catholic Church views itself as the guardian of Christian orthodoxy. All other claims must be evaluated in the light of its official dogma and doctrine.
Protestants, of course, disagree. The various other sects also disagree, within both Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Orthodox churches--Russian and Greek--also disagree.
So who is truly orthodox and who is heretical?
The prize: orthodoxy
Within the Christian church, as in medicine, orthodoxy is determined by those who win the power struggles for dominance.
Bart D. Ehrman writes: "During the first two and a half centuries, Christianity comprised a number of competing theologies, or, better, a number of competing Christian groups advocating a variety of theologies. There was as yet no established 'orthodoxy,' that is, no basic theological system acknowledged by the majority of church leaders and laity. Different local churches supported different understandings of the religion, while different understandings of the religion were present even within the same local church" (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 4).
Sect of the Nazarene
In its original form, "the church" was not an institution but a sect within Judaism. It was known as "the sect of the Nazarene," and it revolved around the teachings of Yeshua the Jewish rabbi (Acts 24:5).
It was also known as "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 24:14).
The religion of Jesus and His followers was Judaism, not Christianity. The word Christian was not even invented in Jesus' day. It was not until more than a decade after Jesus' resurrection--around the year 43--that the term was coined in gentile Antioch, possibly as a pejorative (Acts 11:26).
Until the gentiles began fellowshipping with the Jewish believers in response to Paul's gospel, what later became known as the church was a wholly Jewish "witnessing body" (Hebrew edah). The Jewish apostles bore witness to what they had seen and heard.
The first followers of Jesus had no formal theology. The story of Jesus' life and teachings was not even written down until some 40 years after His resurrection. Everything the early Christians knew they knew from word of mouth (oral tradition).
In the mid-50s the letters of Paul were first copied and circulated among the gentile congregations that were springing up all over the Roman Empire. Most of these groups were founded from synagogue Jews and "God-fearer" gentiles and proselytes who fellowshipped with them in their synagogues (Acts 10:1, 22; 13:42, 49).
For the first decades of its existence, the fledgling church had no formal or structured theology. The Jewish Christians practiced the tenets of normative Judaism. The God-fearers among them were like Noachides. They adopted the aspects of Jesus' and the apostles' Judaism that applied to gentiles. Yet they knew they were not under all of the same obligations to Torah as were the Jewish believers. This is clear from a close study of the implications of the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15 and the letter that followed it.
The teachings, doctrines, dogmas and theologies that emerged from the gentile church in the centuries after the deaths of the original apostles bore little resemblance to the fundamentally Jewish teaching of the earlier church. In fact, the edifice of subsequent church theology was erected upon a foundation of anti-Judaism.
The Roman emperor Constantine was the founder of the Holy Roman Empire and the one who ended persecution against the church. In 325 he called the Council of Nicaea, at which the basis for much Catholic theology was established. It was Constantine who married church and state in what turned out to be an unholy alliance.
After Nicaea the emperor wrote a letter to the churches of which he was now the head. In it he excoriated the Jews, their teachings, their character and their right to represent God. He deemed it "a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity [Easter], who, polluted wretches! having stained their hands with this nefarious crime [killing Christ], are justly blinded in their minds . . ."
He wrote of "rejecting the practice of this people," and he said: "Let us have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews . . . that most odious fellowship . . . the vilest of mankind . . . these parricides and murderers of our Lord," etc., etc., etc.
Constantine orthodoxy: anti-Jewish
Dan Gruber says of Constantine's purple prose: "In this letter, Constantine officially establishes an anti-Judaic foundation for the doctrine and practice of the Church, and declares that contempt for the Jews, and separation from them, is the only proper Christian attitude" (The Church and the Jews, pp. 33-35).
With the power of the Roman Empire behind him, Constantine was in a position to enforce any kind of doctrine and thinking he wanted to.
Needless to say, the church became the Church of Constantine. He was the 600-pound gorilla who decided the direction it would take from that time forth.
Also needless to say, it moved farther and farther away from its Jewish roots and deeper and deeper into Greek and pagan philosophy. In fact, the formation of doctrine in the church was influenced by many streams: gnosticism, Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Persians), the allegorical method of interpretation (as set forth by Origen) and various prevailing manifestations of paganism. It became truly a catholic--that is, universal--religion. The Jews, and Jewish Christians, were left in the dust.
The purity and simplicity of the original apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42) was contaminated by the inflow of a wide variety of toxic streams. The church that emerged in the wake of Constantine was a far cry from Jerusalem.
It was gentile through and through. Its doctrines continued to evolve and develop over many centuries. Many of them bore no resemblance to the thought worlds of the Old and New Testaments.
The church, under the heavy hand of Rome, had the power to define orthodoxy in any way it wanted to, and it did just that. As Gruber writes: "God's Truth was to be determined by Church councils, and not by the Word of God. Consequently the teaching which was a blasphemous heresy to Justin Martyr became the new, unchallengeable orthodoxy" (The Church and the Jews, p. 39).
Gruber sums up: "Constantine and Eusebius institutionalized many serious errors. They made changes that were to plunge the Church and the world into a literal thousand years of darkness. They laid a different foundation than Jesus and His apostles had laid. A new era in the history of the Church had begun. In actuality, a new Church began" (ibid., p. 40).
Throughout ecclesiastical history, the same principle--that power defines orthodoxy--has prevailed. When the Reformers gained power in various parts of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, they too imposed their doctrine as orthodox. Those who dissented were sometimes burned at the stake.
When Henry VIII established himself as head of the Anglican Church, he defined orthodoxy in accordance with his own wants and needs.
Within autocratic, smaller sects and denominations, the leader du jour can enforce his will as being orthodox, and those who disagree are by definition heretics. It was ever thus in the world of religion. It's a variation on the old might-makes-right theme.
Perhaps this is why the synagogue, to its credit, has long been a democratic institution. Consequently, no rabbinic tyrant has been able to force his will upon the whole of Judaism, or even upon one of its divisions. For all of its antiquity, Judaism is nowhere near as divided as Christianity, with its thousands of denominations.
Judaism has only three main groupings: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Within those groups are variations, but nothing like the chaos we Christians have experienced.
But, then, it's probably a good thing, as I wrote in an earlier column. At least it prevents any one group from imposing its orthodoxy on the rest of us. We are free, therefore, to live in conscience toward God.