The Plowman

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Defining Terms: Orthodoxy

If this first week of 2007 is any indicator of what is in store for the coming year of the SBC blog world, then it is going to be a thriller, somewhat akin to last Monday night’s Fiesta Bowl.

It all began with Marty Duren breaking his Blog Fast this last Saturday morning, with a post entitled The Great Divide. In this lengthy post (with an even greater volume of comments), Marty divides those in the SBC into two categories, which he calls reformers and tories.
This general division is formulated on the heels of the statement that
“it seems that everyone in the convention at the moment falls under one of two philosophical umbrellas”. I read this post to my wife as she drove us to church Sunday morning, which is something I often do, since we have about a 20-minute drive from home to church. The post was interesting, well written, and, I believe, by creating and defining terms, helped to shed light on the current problem facing the SBC. The basic thrust of the post was nothing new, however. Those on the dissenting side still want a large tent, and those on the Conservative Resurgence side want a small tent.

This post prompted a couple of posts in response, one by Ben Cole on January 2nd where he gives a peaceable biography of Dr. Malcolm Yarnell (who plays a large part in the comments section of The Great Divide) entitled Malcolm in the Middle…. The other post, by Nathan Finn was entitled Is the SBC a Two-Party System? in which he argues that Duren’s terms don’t fit everyone in the SBC, and shows a bias against the one group and favors the other group. No real comment on this, just to let you know some of the related posts that I found. I am sure there were more. The next day, on January 3rd, Marty posted a follow-up entitled The Great Divide Exemplified, which draws from comments from his first Great-Divide post.

What I found interesting in all of this was the comments in these two posts by Druen, especially the comments by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, and those comments that his comments prompted. Dr Yarnell is the Associate Dean for Theological Studies, Director of the Center for
Theological Research, and Director for the Oxford Study Program,
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology” at Southwestern seminary. Originally I had not read the comments of Marty’s first post, we had arrived at church before I got to that, and my browser wasn’t tabbed up with the comments anyway, and then later it had just slipped my mind. It wasn’t until yesterday (the 4th) that, reading a post by Art Rogers entitled Oligarchy that I realized that I was missing the “big show”. In the comments of Marty’s two posts all of the big-name dissenters were there: Alan Cross, Art Rogers, Wade Burleson, Ben Cole, both Littletons, and many more besides. Dr. Yarnell was in the middle of it all, seemingly not ruffled at all. All of this is really not why I started this post. That was all just intro to what I really wanted to say.

In his defense of a small-tent, narrow-parameters for cooperation, Dr. Yarnell used the term orthodoxy in comment #71 of The Great Divide, and it appeared from the context, and the ensuing discussion, that he applied the term incorrectly. I believe it would have been helpful in revealing the true nature of the tory position as just plain wrong if someone would have challenged him as to his usage and application of the word soon after he used it. Ben Cole did challenge him on the use of the term the next day in comments (#84) in the second Duren post, but I believe too much water had flowed under the bridge by that time to do much good. Cole hit it right on the head, though. Here is his comment: You and I both know that the “orthodox faith” is a fence, not a fence post. Orthodoxy allows for a variety of interpretations of sacred scripture within a well defined perimeter outside of which the gospel is not preserved.

Orthodoxy Defined
My electronic version of The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition, defines orthodoxy as: “authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.” and the word’s origin comes from the Greek: orthos ‘straight or right’ + doxa ‘opinion.’ It is this broad, general definition that I believe that Dr. Yarnell was using, so that orthodoxy, as he was using it, meant right thinking on all of theology, concerning all matters of all degrees of importance. Historically in the Church, orthodoxy has not been used in this broad manner. Orthodoxy historically came out of the great theological controversies of the first few centuries. The great councils of Chalcedon, Nicea, and others were conviened as a result of these controversies, and the great historical creeds were the products of these councils. The purpose of these creeds, as Ben Cole put it, were intended to put up a fence to mark the boundaries between the Christian faith, and that which was sub-christian, non-christian. Those historic creeds contain the items that make up orthodoxy. To be sure there are critical doctrines missing from those creeds, doctrines that were not threatened by aberrant views and teaching. The nature of the atonement, or the doctrine of hell, for example don’t find their way into those creeds, but the principle still applies. The creeds are almost synonymous with orthodoxy. You don’t find secondary or tertiary items in those creeds. The creeds were intended to define what true Christianity was.

I believe Dr. Yarnell’s broader use of the word orthodoxy is not accidental, but intentional. This is very telling of the two camps, the reformers and tories. The latter group views that fence as the Great Wall of China, keeping any and all out, even those with the slightest of differences. They view all who are even slightly different as invaders, wanting to take over. The former sees that fence as a garden fence, intended to keep the dogs out, but not family, friends, and neighbors. It is just here where the trouble lies in this great SBC strife. We would do well to realize that these two groups often do not work with the same definitions of terms.


January 6, 2007 - Posted by | Defining Terms


  1. Dear Wayne,

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Honestly, you apparently missed the point I made about theological discrimination, which forms the basis of your critique. This is probably my fault, as I did not want to make a big deal about it. However, this is a theological issue that needs clarification.

    So let me blunt. The proposals recently put forward for “theological triage” lack coherency and applicability. The idea is fine in principle, but nobody has yet to offer any system worthy of agreement by all Southern Baptists.

    In Christ,

    Comment by Malcolm Yarnell | January 15, 2007 | Reply

  2. Dear Dr. Yarnell,
    Thank you for your comment. I hope we can clear up our misunderstanding. I really would like to know your position. I do appreciate you taking at least part of the blame in my missing the point. I did feel that your comments on The Great Divide were a bit evasive and vague. May I ask, in what sense were you using the word orthodoxy; the broad, general sense; or the more narrow, theological, creedal sense?

    I’m not sure what you mean by the recent proposals for “theological triage”. There have been many proposals since Dr. Mohler first introduced the phrase last July. If I read you correctly, this is a theological issue that needs to be addressed of the long view. The immediate issue needing attention, however, is over the encroachment upon the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 by the IMB policies on baptism and private prayer language. Isn’t a working “triage” in place in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000? Although not clearly differentiated, both primary and secondary doctrines are laid out within its pages, and should serve us in guiding Southern Baptists in faith and practice, including IMB appointment of missionaries. I find it odd that its predecessor served us well for nearly forty years, and yet after less than a decade this current Faith and Message needs augmentation, at least as concerns IMB appointment of missionaries. The only serious proposal that I am aware of by the dissenters is the proposal to let the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 stand alone as a guide for Southern Baptists, and the IMB, or if it is found lacking, have it amended at the next convention to better reflect the beliefs of all Southern Baptists.

    I look forward to your further comments on this issue, as I feel you have much to contribute. You don’t seem to be an unreasonable man, just a bit hard to tie down.

    In Christ,
    Wayne Hatcher

    Comment by Wayne Hatcher | January 16, 2007 | Reply

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