The Thrill of Orthodoxy, Trevin Wax (Foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.
Summary: Spirited advocacy for orthodox belief as vibrant, broad, crucial in the battle before us, and for the renewal of God’s people.
Many are the voices echoing Bishop John Shelby Spong advocating “Christianity must change or die.” Orthodoxy is portrayed as dead, sterile, narrow, confining, and irrelevant. In an era of politicized Christianity, culture wars and accommodations, and moral scandals that have left many deconstructing their faith, the temptation is to associate dogma with dogmatism–the sooner abandoned the better.
Trevin Wax would contend just the opposite. Writing in the tradition of figures like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, he would advocate that the way forward for both personal and communal renewal in the church is to return to the central creeds of the church, those that have defined the “communion of the saints” across the millenia and around the world. He offers the following picture to articulate his vision of the “thrill” of orthodoxy:
“Orthodoxy is an ancient castle with spacious rooms and vaulted ceilings and mysterious corridors, a vast expanse of practical wisdom handed down from our forefathers and mothers in the faith. Some inhabit the castle but fail to sift through its treasures. Others believe the castle stands in the way of progress and should be torn down. A few believe the castle’s outer shell can remain for aesthetic purposes, so long as the interior is gutted. But in every generation, God raises up those who see the value in the treasure, men and women who maintain a deep and abiding commitment to recognize and accentuate the unique beauty of Christian truth so that future generations can be ushered into its splendor” (p. 9).
Wax defines orthodoxy as “the foundational truths, consistent with the Scriptures, upon which Christians through the ages have demonstrated agreement.”
He follows this introduction with a discussion of the ways we drift from orthodoxy, usually without intent. but rather with the complacent “of course.” Some drift into a place of affirming the faith to accepting a lifeless Christianity, distant from God. Some drift into a pragmatic, “whatever works” where action becomes detached from conviction and degenerates into niceness. Yet others downplay uncomfortable beliefs that they would jettison, and perhaps do. Finally, some become more enamored with the good the church can do rather than the transforming good the gospel can do. For each, the problem is gradual drift and the antidote is the thrill of orthodoxy.
Wax argues the adventure begins with discovering who God is and what God has done. While acknowledging mystery, he contends that it is not all mystery but that God has revealed himself and calls us to the encounter of a person: who do you say that I am? We discover that certain boundaries lead to freedom and that humility rather than arrogance is essential to the understanding of truth.
He contends against those who argue that we shouldn’t fuss with the details that details matter. He proposes, for example, that the belief in original sin leaves no room for any form of moral or class superiority–we are all tainted by sin and all need salvation without exception. Even a single letter matters, such as the difference between homoousios (that the Father and Son are of the same substance) and homoiousios (that the Father and Son are of similar substance). As Karl Barth noted, his theology could be summed up with the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” The volumes of Barth’s theology flow from this simple statement.
One of the most striking chapters for me was that in which Wax contends that far from representing a broadening, heresy represents a narrowing. It ends up pitting one truth against another in attempt to make Christianity simpler. But to do so is always to make it smaller, less inclusive than the both-and of orthodoxy. He goes on to advocate for a humble but confident orthodoxy that neither accommodates itself to the world nor retreats from it but rather is “against the world for the world.” It is against self-help for salvation, against naturalism for a world of wonders, against sin for sanctification, and against wealth for true riches. Do you notice that, in all of these, orthodoxy wages battles against falsehoods for the love of the world and its people? When we lower the eternal stakes connected with orthodoxy, we raise the earthly stakes of other things–whether nationalism, racial purity, social justice as salvation, or whatever.
Orthodoxy beckons us to a quest of moral excellence and radical generosity that is always on the penitential path, becoming ever more aware of how far we have to go, and the grace that has been given us that calls us on. He argues that the beating heart of orthodoxy is not adaptation but application, where we take old truths and apply them to new situations, becoming a church that is always re-forming. He reminds us of the journey of Thomas Oden, who cycled through every new theological fad until challenged to go back to the Church Fathers (by a Jewish rabbi no less!) and found himself in a new place of freedom that spanned time and cultures. Orthodoxy is the eternal song of the church, reminding us both where we have come from and of our eternal destiny as the people of a holy, creating and redeeming God of wonders.
Reading Wax is like a plunge into cold, clear, sparkling waters, awakening us from the dull, the tarnished, the clouded indifference of drifting from orthodoxy. It can be both intensely uncomfortable and utterly invigorating. Wax may make you angry or lead you into the delights of the splendor of God. What he won’t do is leave you nicely indifferent. He challenges our creeping universalism, our pragmatic activism divorced from its theological roots, and our accommodations to our culture’s sexual ethics. Yet I find nothing censorious in his tone but rather, as he puts it, a stance against the world for the world–that is out of deep love for what truly contributes to the flourishing of humans created in the image of God. This book is like the fire alarm that cuts through our dreaming slumbers allowing us to find our way to safety and freedom. It is also like the call of Gandalf to home-loving hobbits to glorious and risky adventures–except that the call to us is not a fiction but to an undying future hope.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.