“Quiet theology” means practicing theology through philosophical quietism, where philosophy is meant to be more remedial than exciting. As such, it is about treating conjecture like conjecture, being willing to say “Nobody actually knows,” and finding and tackling language problems that have been causing confusion and miscommunication.
The word “orthodox” represents one such confusing language problem.
Note: This is about the semantic difficulties with the word “orthodox,” and not an attack on the Orthodox Church, and not intended as a specific doctrinal indictment.
When determining truth or falsehood of a doctrine, there are roughly 5 big questions we can ask:
- Does it have logically coherent premises and does it proceed from those premises?
- If it has one or more naturalistic premises, are those premises consonant with science?
- Does it have historicity?
- Is or was it popular among acknowledged authorities?
- Is or was it popular within the Church generally?
These are in priority order. For example, its historicity is unimportant if its apparent cogency was based on bad science. Its popularity, even among the respected intellectuals, is unimportant if it can be shown the doctrine does not logically follow from coherent premises.
Notice that we’re trying to determine orthodoxy, or “straight doctrine,” meaning “true doctrine” by figure. When some doctrine fails 3+, the Fathers call it heterodoxy — something different than what ‘we all believe and have been believing.’
A False Dichotomy
But we’ve just put questions of logical validity and — if science is invoked in the claim — scientific consonance above questions of historicity and popularity (that is, tradition).
In other words, it is quite possible that there are various doctrines that are orthodox but heterodox. I’m confident that we can all agree: It’s not impossible for this to be the case for some doctrines.
And we know that, as language is mutating, more problematic nomenclature is developing. “Unorthodox,” for example, means “breaking with tradition, often with overtones of creativity and new insight.” Good gravy!
If we were to fix this language problem, we’d add a second qualifying dimension, and perhaps come up with a couple of new terms.
The problem is that this remedy cannot be administered retroactively. The Church Fathers did indeed consider orthodoxy and heterodoxy dichotomous and single-dimensioned. Tradition was extraordinarily vital for preservation of the faith.
Why was it vital? The Fathers were dealing with three issues: Antiquated philosophy, false science, and logistical challenges.
The Fathers’ Strategy
Here are two uncomfortable facts to admit as Christians:
- Early theologians were not that great at answering question #1.
- Early theologians were really bad at answering question #2.
This isn’t to prop ourselves up as superior giants. It’s to merely admit the fact that when we stand on the shoulders of giants, we are net-taller than giants. We have post-Enlightenment philosophy. We have pivotal scientific discoveries from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that have eliminated mistaken assumptions about how organisms operate. And so on.
Listen. Aristotle was smarter than you or I will ever be. But he also thought air, fire, water, and earth were elements.
We’re not boasting; we just have better tools. And it’s not like we built those tools ourselves. We received them as Christmas presents, for heaven’s sake.
Lacking those better tools, the ingenious progenitors of our theology did their best with what tools they had. Questions #3, #4, and #5 had primacy. “Don’t tolerate teachings other than the ones you received!” was the constant refrain from Fathers like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.
But tradition is notoriously dynamic and volatile, especially given the logistical difficulties of the era. So the early Fathers — even up to the Apostles — came up with a way to settle it down.
By metaphor, the Hat of Approval is the deference given to the hierarchical authority of the Church, especially that which is expressed in Council decisions. We see the roots of “pleisodox/orthodox” conflation take root as a product of this logistical necessity.
It’s not perfect, but it was almost certainly necessary. And that appears to be the seed that, down the road, blossomed into our current semantic confusion.
When discussing how to “fix” problematic nomenclature, there are roughly three routes you can take:
- Keep the existing nomenclature, but refine the definition (e.g., “‘Orthodox’ now means traditional doctrine, not true doctrine.”) This has partially happened already, just not “officially.”
- Create new nomenclature completely (like in the four-pronged diagram above).
- Abandon the remedial project and stick with what we have, and wherever it’s going.
All three options will catalyze all sorts of communication problems, but of different kinds.
I apologize for the sad ending. Confident, “100% upside” direction is often preferred by folks in general, even if it’s untrue.
Ignatius of Antioch, in the custody of Roman soldiers, along the long road to Rome to be executed, sent a letter to the church in Ephesus:
You are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God.
Pray continually for the rest of mankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be gentle; do not be eager to retaliate against them. Let us show ourselves to be their brothers by our forbearance, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.
There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished. None of these things escapes your notice, if you have perfect faith and love toward Jesus Christ. For these are the beginning and end of life: faith is the beginning, and love is the end, and the two, when they exist in unity, are God. Everything else that contributes to excellence follows from them. No one professing faith is sinful, nor is anyone possessing love hateful. “The tree is known by its fruit”; thus those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognized by their actions. For the Work is not a matter of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith.
It is better to be silent and real, than to talk and not be real. It is good to teach, if one does what one says. … Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our secrets are close to him. Therefore let us do everything with the knowledge that he dwells in us, order that we may be his temples.
Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord — three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone forth in heaven brighter than all the stars; its light was indescribable and its strangeness caused amazement. All the rest of the constellations, together with the sun and moon, formed a chorus around the star, yet the star itself far outshone them all, and there was perplexity about the origin of this strange phenomenon which was so unlike the others.
Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life; and what had been prepared by God began to take effect. As a result, all things were thrown into ferment, because the abolition of death was being carried out.