Five guiding principles in determining biblical orthodoxy
By Michael Cooper, Ph.D./ABD
Trinity International University
The present discussion of postmodern theology raises a number of interesting
issues, not the least of which is the issue of a contextual theological
orthodoxy. The hallmark of evangelicalism has been its stance on the 16th
century reformation’s watchword sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola
fidei and yet postmodernity seems to threaten the very essences of
evangelicalism’s reliance upon Scripture as a source of doctrine and living.
However, is it possible that even as postmodernity threatens evangelicalism it
could broaden it as well? This essay will address five guiding principles to
ensure theological orthodoxy in a postmodern context.
Before approaching this subject one presupposition needs to be addressed. The
presupposition of a high view of Scripture is assumed. This high view of
Scripture is mitigated by three overarching principles of hermeneutics:
1. Since the Bible was written by human beings, it must be treated as any
other human communication in determining the meaning intended by the writer.
2. Since Scripture is God-breathed and true in all its parts, the unity
of its teachings must be sought, and its supernatural elements recognized
3. Since Scripture is God-breathed, it is absolute in its authority for
doctrine and life. (McQuilkin 1992, 9)
Both Old and New Testaments constitute the plenary and verbal revelation of
God’s economy. The Old and New Testaments comprise a unity of understanding of
God’s intentions in human history. Critical analysis and interpretation of the
texts must not be separated. The critical analysis of the text includes, “textual
criticism, age and origin of the source, identification of authors, editors and
compilers, stylistic patterns, and the like” (Barrois 1974, 8). Similarly,
interpretation is defined as, “evaluating contents in relation to the
historical context, at determining what the source documents meant for their
contemporaries and how they were understood by later generations, at observing
the evolution, the deviations, and eventually the vanishing of traditions”
(Barrios 1974, 8).
With that presupposition in mind, the five principles under consideration
1. Criteria for Determining Orthodoxy
2. The Vincentian Canon
3. The Circle of Sensibility
4. Heresy as Boundary
5. The Hermeneutical Community
Principle One: Criteria for Determining Orthodoxy
Stephen Bevans raises the issue of criteria for determining orthodoxy when
formulating contextual theologies. Utilizing the work of Schrieter, de Mosa and
Wostyn, Bevans describes five checks: First, a contextual theology must have
continuity with other theological formulations. This means that the validity of
a contextual theology rests in its consistency with contemporary and historical
theologies (Bevans 1992, 18).
Second, liturgical practices are the vehicle that moves orthodoxy to
orthopraxis. If the way we worship contradicts what we believe then the
contextual theology is not orthodox (Bevans 1992, 18). The opposite is also
true. Third, if the way we worship demonstrates what we believe then what we
believe is demonstrated by what we do. Hence, this criterion is that of
Christian orthopraxis (Bevans 1992, 19).
Fourth, a contextual theology must submit itself to verification by the
hermeneutical community. Bevans states, “Theology, even contextual theology,
is always dialogical” (1999, 19). The fifth criterion is whether or not the
contextual theology can constructively challenge other theologies. The idea here
is that authenticity of a contextual theology is measured by whether or not it
moves other theologies to reflect on “unthought of areas” (Bevans 1992, 19).
If there are so many divergent, and sometimes apparently conflicting
interpretations, how can we be sure that our understanding of our faith is
correct, that is, faithful to the Judaeo-Christian Tradition? Is it possible
to recognize the one faith in the different interpretations? Does pluralism
not become an ideology of adaptation when what is adapted or inculturated is
considered to be correct? Should we not, perhaps, re-introduce at least some
basic and universal truths, conceptually expressed and accepted as such?
(Bevans 1992, 18; quoting de Mesa and Wostyn)
These five criteria represent contemporary reflection on a historical
problem. While Bevans utilizes contemporary contextualizers of theology he
inadvertently leaves out the fact that the church has historically practiced
similar criteria for measuring orthodoxy. It is to this subject we now turn.
Principle Two: Vincentian Canon
The best attempts at formulating a biblical orthodoxy include a consensual
effort to understand the “historical continuity” of orthodox theology. At
this point, Vincent of LÃ©rins’ (c. 431) conciliatory method of interpreting
Scripture is advanced. Vincent, a monk who lived in a monastery off the coast of
France, became known for his rule of determining orthodoxy, the Vincentian
Canon. It is summarized as teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus
In the Catholic [universal] Church itself, every care should be taken to
hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is
truly and properly “Catholic,” as indicated by the force and etymology
of the name itself, which comprises everything truly universal. This general
rule will be truly applied if we follow the principles of universality,
antiquity, and consent. We do so in regard to universality if we confess
that faith alone to be true which the entire Church confesses all over the
world. [We do so] in regard to antiquity if we in no way deviate from those
interpretations which our ancestors and fathers have manifestly proclaimed
as inviolable. [We do so] in regard to consent if, in this very antiquity,
we adopt the definitions and propositions of all, or almost all, the bishops
and doctors. (Vincent of LÃ©rins, Commonitorium, Chapter 2)
Motivated by Arianism and other influences that threaten orthodoxy, Vincent
set forth the idea that correct theology is that which has been believed always,
everywhere and by all. Rudolf Morris suggests that, “This principle, however,
does not exclude progress or doctrinal development. But it must be progress in
the proper sense of the word, and not a change” (Morris 1949, 260). Vincent
himself understood this progress as a maturing of doctrine within its own orbit
rather than a creation of something different.
Commenting on the Vincentian Canon, Florovsky states,
These two aspects of faith [church and apostles], or rather - the two
dimensions, could never be separated from each other. Universitas and
antiquitas, as well as consensio, belonged together. Neither was an adequate
criterion by itself. “Antiquity” as such was not yet a sufficient
warrant of truth, unless a comprehensive consensus of the “ancients”
could be satisfactorily demonstrated. And consensio as such was not
conclusive, unless it could be traced back continuously to Apostolic
origins. (1972, 74)
The similarities of the Vincentian Canon with the five criteria for
determining orthodoxy are obvious. The first criterion recommended by Bevans
suggests Vincent’s idea of antiquity and universality. The fourth criterion
suggests the idea of consensus. Similarly, the fifth criterion suggests the idea
of the progressive nature of theology as it matures. Vincent (or maybe Bevans et
al.) is in good company in assuring the preservation of orthodoxy.
Like Bevans’ criteria, the application of Vicent’s canon will serve not
only to give validity to an orthodox interpretation of Scripture, but also to
historical continuity of the interpretation. However, understanding that there
are many valid interpretations of Scripture we now turn to setting their
Principle Three: Circle of Sensibility
Thomas Oden, an avid proponent of the Vincentian cannon, proposes that
theology should not be looked at narrowly, but rather with boundaries. In fact,
he believes that the rediscovery of boundaries will be the primary occupation of
twenty-first century theology (Oden 1996, 13). It is in the context of
boundaries where theological reflection is best conducted. Those boundaries were
initially set in the first five centuries of Christian history. To understand
the doctors of the church is to understand the boundaries of consensual theology
that was accepted by East and West.
Defining the boundaries of consensual theology is challenging. In the early
church, heresy played a significant role in determining boundaries of orthodox
theology. Theological issues, when taken to extreme, molded an understanding of
what is or is not correct Apostolic Tradition that was believed everywhere by
all. It is here at this juncture that I propose the “circle of sensibility”
as a model for determining boundaries of orthodoxy.
The “circle of sensibility” was conceptualized by Urban Holmes as a means
for guiding Christian spirituality with boundaries of acceptable spiritual
practice (1980, 4-5). These boundaries are relevant for this present discussion
on postmodern theology. A vertical and a horizontal axis (see illustration)
dissect the circle of sensibility. The vertical axis represents a scale from
speculative (illumination of the mind) to affective (illumination of the heart
or emotions) technique of reflection. The horizontal axis represents a scale
from apophatic (emptying) to kataphatic (meditation) technique of reflection.
There are four possible extremes when theological reflection moves outside
the boundary of the circle. The apophatic/speculative extreme leads to
encratism; the speculative/kataphatic leads to rationalism; the
kataphatic/affective leads to pietism; and the affective/apophatic leads to
“Sensibility” defines for us that sensitivity to the ambiguity of
styles of prayer and the possibilities for a creative dialogue within the
person and within the community as it seeks to understand the experience of
God and its meaning for our world. (Holmes 1980, 5)
Principle Four: Heresy as Boundary
As previously mentioned, it was the propagation of heresies in the early
church that served to give orthodoxy boundaries and guarded the Apostolic
Tradition. The theological propositions advanced by the early church were not
bound in Greek cultural categories, but rather in Moses, Christ, and Paul. These
propositions were tested and tried against heresy by the hermeneutical community
that spanned from North Africa to Persia and from Britain to Arabia.
Etymologically, heresy is rooted in the idea of an assertive self-will. Being
derived from the Greek hairesis, heresy is choosing oneself over
tradition (Oden 1990, 74). Heresy evolved from personal theological biases and
offered the occasion to help define orthodoxy. It was in the context of those
heresies influenced by diverse cultural presuppositions that the early church
set out to assure apostolic continuity (Oden 1996, 12-13). Therefore, the
assertion can be made that the early church attempted to anchor their theology
in the Apostolic Tradition and propagated orthodoxy that was contextual and
transcultural by nature.
Principle Five: the Hermeneutical Community
Implicit in the Vincentian Canon and the understanding of Bevans is the
responsibility of the hermeneutical community. Paul Hiebert suggests that a
hermeneutical community serves as a check for personal theological biases (1994,
101). Self-theologizing, as understood by Hiebert, holds the idea of developing
contextual theologies that are culturally relevant to a particular context. “Self”
should not be understood as an individualistic attempt to formulate a personal
theology. Rather, “self” is understood as an ethno-hermeneutical community.
Yet, there is a danger in the development of “self” or local theologies.
It is easy for a local theology to give priority to the context of theology over
theological content. When this is the case, we can no longer speak of an
objective theology as opposed to theological pluralism (Clapsis 1993, 72-73). A
universally valid theology based on absolutes is considered religio-centric in a
postmodern pluralistic world.
One solution to this problem is the idea of meta-theology. Hiebert states
that meta-theological truths are, “the methods by which legitimate theologies
could be developed, and the processes for setting limits to theological
diversity” (1994, 98). The objective of meta-theology is to give the diversity
found in local theologies a center and a limit. In other words, the
ethno-hermeneutical community comes under the scrutiny of the greater
hermeneutical community of contemporary and historical Christianity to ensure
the theological orthodoxy of a contextual theology.
In the emerging culture of Europe where there is a tendency toward the
deconstruction of truth, theological orthodoxy must be maintained. In the
evangelical tradition, theological orthodoxy has tended to be authoritarian and
individualistic in nature without regard to the historical development of
theology, nor its application in various cultures. Evangelicals have understood
Luther’s maxim sola scriptura to mean that anything dealing with
tradition must be rejected when in fact this was far from his understanding. By
applying these five principles evangelicals can take a holistic approach to its
theologizing. In this way, postmodernity broadens evangelicalism as it considers
the historical and contemporary understanding of theological orthodoxy in the
various cultural contexts of Europe.
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