The Three Orthos at the Heart
At the very heart of a new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be what I call the three orthos. At its core the healthy renewed Christian movement in American will be a combination of orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. The word ortho comes from the Latin and late Greek. It means right or correct. Thus orthodox = right belief or right (correct) doctrine. Orthopraxis = right practice or correct action and practice. Orthokardia = right heart.
Over the years the church has on different occasions emphasized one of the three above the others; thus, there have been times when right doctrine so dominated practice and heart that the result lacked grace. There have been occasions when heart has been right but the actions disastrously mistaken. There have been times when the practice was holy but its lack of cohesion with heart and doctrine led to long term mistakes with little lasting strength.
Orthopraxy, which is currently in ascendant position of the three, is an insistent emphasis in Wesleyan thinking. Thus Don Thorsen in Cavlin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice writes,
“Wesley emphasized that the church ought to be more than a congregation of believers – more than ‘faithful men’; it ought to also exhibit ‘living faith.’ It is not enough for people to exhibit right belief (or orthodoxy); they ought to also exhibit a right heart (orthokardia) and right practice (orthopraxis). From Wesley’s perspective, the devil (as well as other religious people) may hold to ‘orthodoxy or right opinions,’ but ‘may all the while be as great a stranger as he to religion of the heart’” (Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bring Belief in Line with Practice, p. 98).
Significantly, “progressives” with an emphasis on enlightenment-thinking and a reasoned faith and “evangelicals” with an passion for doctrinal correctness both run the risk of ignoring religion of the heart (orthokardia). Orthokardia holds a critical function of constantly directing our attention to Christ as the center of the Christian faith. I am convinced that much of the emphasis of modern praise music is an attempt recapture a forgotten orthokardia. So too is much of the renewed interest in spiritual formation.
Orthodoxy, correct or right doctrine, was central in the life of the earliest Christian movement. After the Holy Spirit descended, Peter preached, and listeners responded with repentance. The life of the newborn church was anchored in its doctrine. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42). Jaroslav Pelikan (one of the great scholars of the Christian faith over the last half century) in Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, references the textus a patribus receptus with a stronger translation of action of those earliest Christ followers. “And they were persisting in the doctrine of the apostles” (textus a patribus receptus, excerpt from Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 57; emphasis added). Thus the critical importance of doctrine (or foundational teaching) emerges as a centerpiece of the life of the earliest Christian church. The importance of doctrine towers over any strategy for growth or program for action. It is a first-order claim on the life of the church.
John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).
Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine. His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline. In other words, part of the genius of early Methodism was the way it combined the three – orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.” They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement. Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology (orthodoxy) in spirit (orthokardia) and discipline (orthopraxis). Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.
I close this writing on a deep conviction that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a wonderful thing. A new church is being called forth for our post-Christendom age. The words of Ross Douthat (which I have quoted before) are worth re-emphasizing.
“The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man [and woman] a God unto himself [or herself] – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).