The Orthodox Imperative

by: Avery Cardinal Dulles 

The word orthodox derives from the Greek word orthodoxía, which standard dictionaries translate as “right opinion.” Aristotle used the verb orthodoxein with the meaning “to have a right opinion.” The Greek-speaking Church Fathers continued to use orthódoxos in relation to faith with the meaning “having right belief.”

During the patristic age, orthodoxy gradually took on a further connotation: conformity with the traditional and universal teaching of the Church. This development rested on the conviction that the Church is, as Paul puts it, the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). From the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian, Catholic Christians were confident that the Church’s teaching stood in continuity with that of the apostles, who had received it immediately from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History frequently uses orthodoxy in contrast to heresy. Similarly, Augustine writes in On True Religion: “Religion is to be sought . . . only among those who are called Catholic or orthodox Christians, that is, guardians of truth and followers of right.”

The importance of orthodoxy in the first sense is self-evident: Everyone by nature wants to know; the human mind craves truth. Particularly desirable is the truth of revelation, which comes from God and leads to saving union with him. Religious beliefs are right or wrong to the extent that they agree or disagree with the word of God.

The value of orthodoxy in its second sense—conformity with Church teaching—should also be clear. As Cardinal Newman observed, we cannot imagine that God would bestow a revelation without making provision for its preservation. The scriptures tell us that he entrusted it to the Church as its custodian and herald. By remaining with the apostolic leadership to the end of time (Matt. 28:20), he protected the Church from succumbing to error. To authenticate her doctrine, the Church needs to have a body of accredited teachers, and the faithful must accept the teaching of their appointed leaders.

Jesus said of himself, “I came to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37), and before leaving this world he assured his disciples that he would send from the Father “the Spirit of truth,” who would be with them forever (John 14:16), guiding them into all truth (John 16:13). As the Father had sent him, he sent the apostles into the world as his representatives (John 20:21). They would be the bearers of his message to such a degree that to hear them would be to hear him (Luke 10:16). Jesus is quoted as saying that those who refuse to hear the Church should be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors, that is to say, as nonbelievers (Matt. 18:17). The Christian message therefore transmits itself through authorized witnesses, who are commissioned to speak in the name of the Lord.

St. Paul, who received the grace of apostleship after the ascension of Jesus, was able to tell the Thessalonians, “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). For Paul, his oral teaching and his written letters stand on the same level of authority: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Since the gospel first came to certain chosen witnesses by way of revelation, it must be accepted on their testimony.

First Things: The Orthodox Imperative


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *