“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.
So we’d have “orthodoxy,” true doctrine, as opposed to “pseudodoxy,” false doctrine. And we’d have “heterodoxy,” different than our tradition, as opposed to “plesiodoxy,” near to our tradition.
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.