When we think about orthodoxy, we are considering the whole world of what is right, what is true, what is known - and the realm of accepted opinion. Our own thoughts are tested against other thinkers throughout the millennia; and all thoughts are tested back against the life and teachings of Jesus.
Where should we start? It is easy to become boxed in by what has come before us. Even those of us who are determined not to be confined to the thoughts of previous ages often find ourselves drawn into the same conversation. And this is right; this line of thought, this struggle to understand did not begin with us.
For a Christian, the question is always this: what really happened with Jesus? Who was he? What did he say, and what did he mean by it? What do we learn from it and what do we do with it?
For the earliest Christians, their mission was to teach Christ. Those who had known Christ directly traveled the known world with their message. The first guarantee of orthodoxy was having known Christ, and, by definition, what was taught by those who knew Christ was orthodoxy. The disciples did not go forth as sages or gurus, but as witnesses of the extraordinary life and teachings of Jesus. The early Christian writings reflect this in their talk of first-hand knowledge, of witness and of testimony, "What we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim." There was no other opinion they had to agree with or expectation they needed meet other than the reality of Christ as they had known him.
It was important for the early Christian community that their message did not change from what the apostles had told them. There was emphasis on holding onto the same truth they had known from the beginning, passing on the same thing they had received. All this we see in the early writings now collected into the New Testament, where those who had not known Christ in the flesh emphasized the importance of carefully preserving the message as originally given them by the first witnesses. We see it also outside the New Testament, where there was an early Christian community devoted to making sure the teachings stayed true to the message once given. For these Christians, the guarantee of truthfulness was that the teaching matched what the apostles taught.
In time, the meaning of orthodoxy shifted. Instead of meaning what the apostles taught, it meant what the previous generation had taught. If each generation was careful, that worked out well; but sometimes not so much. Over time, orthodoxy came to mean not what we knew of Christ through those with firsthand knowledge, nor simply remaining faithful to what those first ones had taught and so could be known with reasonable certainty. In time, orthodoxy also came to mean the allowable interpretations determined by councils of scholars, church leaders, and statesmen. At its best, orthodoxy meant the accumulation of the riches of thought and insights of the ages. At its worst, it meant devotion and enthusiasm shackled by the limits of an unimaginative committee that may not have always had quite the same agenda as Jesus himself. At times, it has meant adherence to a philosophical theory or theological system enforced by various more or less coercive means and extending far beyond the bounds of what many Christians would consider justifiable based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
It is the job of each new generation of Christian to separate the different kinds of things that call themselves orthodoxy, and -- as we were taught from the beginning -- to test everything and hold onto what is good. It is not only easy but also fashionable to criticize orthodoxy for some of the wrong turns it has taken over the years. At its worst, orthodoxy has meant being bound to a party line rather than testing everything and holding onto what is good. But that general approach -- testing everything and holding onto what is good -- was the original method of orthodoxy. It had the goal of being faithful to the original person and message of Christ.
If we care at all about being faithful to the reality of Jesus, then we grant that orthodoxy is a legitimate idea. It takes an utter contempt for reality and for truthfulness to despise the general idea of orthodoxy. The alternative to orthodoxy, in principle, is to say that each person should invent what he pleases with no regard to the historical realities surrounding Jesus, to forget the early decades of the church and the knowledge passed on by those who knew him in person. For about half a century, those who had known Jesus in person remained to pour out their memories of someone who was, after all, a particular person who lived in a particular time and place, and that they particularly had known.
So the question becomes this: Does orthodoxy take on a life of its own and dictate how we can think about Jesus, or does what we know of Jesus define orthodoxy?
The stakes are higher than they might seem at first. As soon as we decide that our thought about Jesus will take on a life of their own apart from Jesus, as soon as our thought becomes a system to which the reality of Jesus must conform, we have robbed Jesus of his paradigm-shattering place, of his central and formative place that the apostles proclaimed about him. There have been endless reconstructions of Jesus putting themselves forwards as "orthodoxy" in the sense of reflecting the reality of Jesus, but which still insist on dictating what we are allowed to see, whether we are told we are supposed to see a hypostatic union of one person of the triune Godhead with humanity, or we are supposed to see a cynical sage.
While the reconstructionist-orthodox give us a bowdlerized Jesus and the Chalcedonian-style orthodox give us a philosophical prism, no system of understanding Jesus ever gains full acceptance in the context of Christianity, and there is a reason why this must be so: the early Christians did not proclaim a system of understanding Jesus. They proclaimed Jesus. A system tries to put Jesus in the background while other concerns rise to the fore to explain him. A system like this is designed to show how, in light of something else that defines Christ, we can make sense of Christ. But the Christ that was proclaimed is not someone who we understand in the light of something else -- something that matters more, something that explains more, something that puts him in his place so that we can understand him in his context with his more important surroundings. The Christ that was proclaimed by those who knew him is the light in which we understand those other things. If we are faithful to the first generation of Christians, then that is the challenge of orthodoxy: not to make a system to explain and define Christ, but to define and re-think all those other supposedly more important things in light of Christ.