Michael Jinkins: Orthodoxy as guarantor of mystery

It’s good to be able to affirm the whole creed. And not to beat up those who can’t.

“Can you recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing your fingers?” my friend asked.

“Sure,” I answered. “I can now. Every last article.”

My friend, a pastor, nodded approvingly. “Good.”

I wish I had in that moment the presence of mind to add: “But, there was a time when I couldn’t. And I was just as much a child of the covenant and just as much a Christian theologian then as I am now. Believing and doubting are not opposites. They are essential parts of an active faith.”

This conversation with a friend and pastoral colleague (and its imagined addendum) brought to mind another conversation I had almost twenty years ago with another friend, a respected British evangelical scholar. In his view, belief in the virgin birth of Jesus was a vestige of medieval superstition that, however “orthodox,” revealed a lack of faith.

I’m not sure I was ever entirely convinced by his argument. But I was struck by the fact that the argument was made by one of the most admired orthodox theologians I’ve ever known.

The first conversation illustrates the anxiety abroad in Protestantism today in which progressive as well as conservative church leaders feel compelled to inquire into the doctrinal orthodoxy of theologians, pastors and students. The second illustrates the robust sense of faithful adventure that has been essential to good Christian theology from the church’s earliest days.

Origen, arguably the most creative theologian of the early church, was also one of the most controversial. His thinking influenced not only the arch-heretic Arius but the champions of fourth-century orthodoxy – like Athanasius, Basil of Caesaria, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus – the product of whose genius is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The gold standard for Christian orthodoxy was unimaginable without the risky musings of Origin.

There are two things the self-appointed contemporary guardians of orthodoxy seem to forget: (1) orthodoxy was never a guarantee of certainty, but of mystery; and (2) the opposite of faith is not doubt, but apathy.

Augustine spoke to the first point when he reminded us that after we have said everything we can about God we must remember that the God we have described is still not the God who is. As Daniel Migliore has said: “True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says we reach a point where we must stop our inquiry and simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.” The goal of orthodoxy is to resist the simplistic reductions of irreconcilable realities, realities which invite (even demand) continued interrogation.

George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom C. S. Lewis called his greatest influence, speaks to the second point in his fairy tale, The Princess and the Goblin: “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less.” The church is not a club; least of all the kind of club with which you beat others over the head.

MacDonald’s admonition is just as important to theology as is Augustine’s, and perhaps even more crucial for the church to hear today. A church rattled by threats from without and within is tempted to retreat into a cocoon of fideism, demanding the unquestioning belief of adherents. But a retrenched faith lacks the energy, imagination and love to engage the world for the sake of the gospel, and a defensive faith tends to prosecute its most creative minds and adventurous spirits precisely when it needs them most.

Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.