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What Is Orthodoxy? Dr. Trevin Wax

Phoenix Seminary
February 3, 2023

Guest: Dr. Trevin Wax | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Wax about his new book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith.

Topics of conversation include:

  • A definition of orthodoxy
  • The role of creeds in establishing guardrails for orthodox theology
  • A definition of heresy, using the categories of orthodoxy, theological error, and heresy
  • The importance of instilling confidence in the core, fundamental truths of Christianity
  • Authors who were influential during the research and writing of this book

Dr. Trevin Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board. He is a visiting professor at Cedarville University, and previously served as a missionary in Romania. Dr. Wax is the co-founder of The Gospel Project, and is the author of several books, including Gospel-Centered Teaching: Showing Christ in All the Scripture (B&H Books, 2013), The Multi-Directional Leader: Responding Wisely to Challenges from Every Side (The Gospel Coalition, 2021), and The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of the Christian Faith (IVP, 2022).


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Intro (00:02):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:20):

We are witnessing what seems to be an exponential rise in so-called deconversion stories. Evangelicals en masse are abandoning the faith, and doing so loudly. Two stories which come to mind are those of Rhett and Link, former Campus Crusade staff, that are now world-famous YouTubers. Several years ago they both said that they did not find the Christian faith credible anymore after doing some studying. But close in the wake of such stories is always the Christian ethic, which has become unsatisfying. Add to that an unhealthy obsession with what is new, and you have a recipe for abandoning orthodoxy. Quite frankly, I don't think a lot of Christians have done a good job demonstrating what makes the faith beautiful. Things familiar and old become dusty and faded in an age of constant newness, where antiquity is a vice, and novelty is a virtue. We need our fires re-lit for historic Christian orthodoxy.

Brian Arnold (01:13):

Christianity is a beautiful truth that pervades every aspect of creation and every facet of life. It's why I'm excited to talk to today's guest about his new book. So here to help us talk about orthodoxy, is Dr. Trevin Wax. Dr. Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board, and is a visiting professor at Cedarville University, and previously served as a missionary in Romania. Trevin is a prolific author, a co-founder of The Gospel Project, and the author of several books, including most recently, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of the Christian Faith. Trevin, welcome to the podcast.

Trevin Wax (01:53):

Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Brian Arnold (01:55):

So we always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is this—what is orthodoxy? So could you begin by just simply defining what orthodoxy means?

Trevin Wax (02:05):

Well, you know...I I knew when I was going to write a book called The Thrill of Orthodoxy, that I was going to have to do some work defining what orthodoxy is at the beginning. And what I settled on was—what is that bedrock, or Trinitarian faith that all wings of the Christian church say—yes, we confess that. We believe that. And the best summaries that you can find of that are really in the three major creeds that all wings of the church look at and say—we, you know, we affirm that. We adhere to that. I'm speaking of the Apostle's Creed, which is probably the oldest there, the Nicene Creed, and then the Athanasian Creed. These are...they're not really long, but they're statements that summarize Scriptural teaching about who God is, and what he has done for us.

Trevin Wax (03:05):

They don't go into a lot of great detail. Which is why, you know, you'll find confessions of faith from different denominations and different traditions that seek to unpack other aspects of biblical teaching faithfully. But those creeds are really a summary statement of what the Bible itself teaches about the identity of God, and what it means for us as Christians to confess our belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. And so, for purposes of this book, I wanted it to be kind of a Mere Christianity kind of book, that even though I'm writing specifically from an evangelical perspective, I wanted people to...I wanted to go back to the very, very basics, the most fundamental of everything that we believe, and say—this is the bedrock that you can stand on. And so I go back to those creeds as faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.

Brian Arnold (03:57):

So I'm sure for some of our listeners, some alarm bells might be going off. where they've been so used to saying, "the Bible is my only creed," that anytime we add any kind of a human creed and say, "that is what the bedrock of orthodoxy is," they get a little nervous about that. But I like what you said—that this is really just summarizing what the Bible says. So how do you work people through that question, that angst, when they have it?

Trevin Wax (04:21):

Well, I mean, first I go back to the Bible itself, because you see credal statements come out in the Bible. I mean, already from in Deuteronomy, you know, the Shema of the Israelites, you know—we believe the Lord, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you will love him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. You know, so you've got credal statements even making their way into the New Testament already. When Paul talks about the "gospel that is of first importance," he lays out what is essentially a credal statement. You've got some statements like that in the pastoral epistles as well. So there's already a sort of an understanding that we are going to sum up—in actual doctrinal affirmations—what it is that we believe to be true already in the Scriptures themselves.

Trevin Wax (05:06):

But, you know, I mean, I'm a Protestant, so I believe that Scripture alone is our final and ultimate authority. And there is no such thing as a...you know, as an inspired creed, in the same sense of the way that the Bible is inspired. That's certainly the case. Which is why for me in this book, when I laid out the creed in the first chapter, those three different creeds, on one side you've got the lines of the creed, and then on the other side you've got all the Scripture references that sum up, that are summed up in those lines of that...it's backing up what it is that we're affirming. And the way I'm doing that is to help people see, you know, these creeds aren't set in opposition, or even over against, or over Scripture.

Trevin Wax (05:50):

But if Christians, for thousands of years now, have looked at these creeds and have said—that is a faithful representation of what the Bible itself teaches, then to go against those creeds is really to go against all the believers who have come before you. So that's a pretty safe way of saying—these are good guardrails. They don't tell us everything about the Christian faith, but they tell us something so essential, that to get this wrong is going to lead you into extraordinary error. And so that's really where the creeds come in as helpful. They're good expressions, and they're good guardrails. You know, they're not the Bible, but as long as they're faithfully summing up the Bible, we can look to them as helpful resources.

Brian Arnold (06:37):

And like you said, for 2000 years Christians have found these—and I like the word guardrails—to say, "what do we think the Bible says about who God is, and who is Jesus, and who is the Holy Spirit?" Like, we need that. I remember—we both have a background in the Southern Baptist Convention, and this was probably 10 or 15 years ago now—there was a controversy in the International Mission Board of missionaries saying, "I don't want to sign a creed. I don't want to sign the Baptist Faith and Message, but I'll sign my name at the end of the Bible. That's my only creed." And you know, that created quite a stir amongst many of us theological students, because the problem is—a lot of heretics can do that, right? Not saying that those missionaries were, but there's a lot of people who would affirm things about what the Bible teaches that I would say are wrong. That the creeds would say are wrong. But that they would say—I hold to everything in the Bible. And so these confessions of faith...and for people to know this has been a strong impetus for believers since the very beginning. I think about...another thing I'd thrown into your mix of the Apostles Creed, and Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed, is things like the Regula Fidei. So Iranaeus, writing these kind of statements of faith that the—Christians have always had this strong desire to summarize the Christian faith with credal-type statements.

Trevin Wax (07:49):

Well, and also to provide a framework for biblical interpretation. You know, I think it's actually a product of the Enlightenment, I think, of an Enlightenment mindset, to come to the Bible and to think that we come to the Bible without any sort of preconceived notions, and it's just a...we're a blank slate coming to the Scriptures. We are coming to the Scriptures already with some sort of, you know, expectation as to what we might find there, that does shape what we receive. And what the creeds can do is, if you really get...you know, see the framework, the sort of scaffolding that they provide for you, it's to be able to say—look, the church comes to the Bible with these fundamental affirmations of the faith, these presuppositions in mind, and this is the way to read Scripture as well.

Trevin Wax (08:33):

So there is a sense in which it does help us be better interpreters of Scripture. Because you realize if you interpret Scripture in a way that's going against one of those foundational tenets, then you also...it helps to kind of put you back on track to be able to say—okay, there must be something off in my interpretation here, because it's going against the, you know, the church on a key distinctive, or a key doctrine, that Christians everywhere have said—that's essential to our understanding of orthodoxy. Confessions are a little bit different. I mean, I guess for me, confessions are basically what denominations, or different Christian groups—it's the way they flesh out the creeds. And I would hesitate if there's someone that's actually being, you know, paid by a denomination to be a missionary or something, if they have a hesitancy to sign their name to a statement of faith. I would say—well, you know, as long as you're partnering with this denomination, you know, to not affirm everything in the confession may, you know...it doesn't necessarily make you a non-Christian, but it does beg the question—why belong to this particular group if you don't affirm what this particular group believes?

Brian Arnold (09:44):

That's right.

Trevin Wax (09:44):

And so I think that's the question that you've got to have at the denominational level when it comes to those larger confessions.

Brian Arnold (09:52):

Well, let's talk about the flip side. If orthodoxy is on one side, heresy is on the other. And I feel like that's a word that is used quite flippantly today. That people like to just throw that around at anything they don't like. So how would you define heresy?

Trevin Wax (10:05):

Yeah, I think there are three different categories we have here. We've got, you know, you've got orthodoxy, which is, you know, essential core convictions, bedrock of the faith. You've got errors, which are, you know, are problems. And I think all of us have them. Every tradition has them. We don't always know where the errors are, or we would change them. None of us are omniscient in that way, and the Lord will have to straighten us all out in the end, I think. But then you have...so you have orthodoxy, you have theological errors, which we want to take seriously, or we want to discuss, but then you also have errors that are so distorting of the core tenets of the faith, or are denials of the core tenets of faith, that we would say it's heresy.

Trevin Wax (10:49):

Like we would look at this as destructive doctrine. Damnable doctrine, if I can use that word on the radio station. Because really, I mean, heresies, when propagated and continuing to be put out by teachers...one of the reasons why the Church Fathers and the Reformers and other people were so up in arms about particular doctrinal deviations is because they believed that these errors were like giving poison to people instead of medicine. And, you know, you ought to get up in arms if someone's dispensing poison as medicine, right? So I think heresy...we tend to be a little flippant, I think, we use the H-word too often. I think sometimes we confuse errors for heresy, or sometimes something that might distinguish us from one group of Christians and another group of Christians.

Trevin Wax (11:47):

We will call that other group heretics, when it may not be that they're actually espousing heresy. We may just see them as being in error in one way or another, on some particular matter of biblical interpretation, or practice, or what it might be. So I think we do have to be careful that we don't rush to that word, because when everyone that disagrees with you is a heretic, you really lose the drama of that word when you really need it. And Lord knows we do need to call out false teaching. It's one of the things that the apostles do, and we ought to be equipped for. But if we rush to call everyone who disagrees with us false teachers, we actually elevate certain issues that are not bedrock, or not core convictions—we elevate them to the level that we then are parting ways or slandering actual brothers and sisters in Christ.

Brian Arnold (12:42):

And I agree with you. I think we have to reserve that word for things that if you believe this, or you don't believe this, and it's heresy, it means it'll send you to hell. Like, this is a dividing line of the faith, of in or out. And I'll keep that tier, if you will, as lean as possible. Kind of like what you were saying—what are the core creeds of the faith that have been believed on by Christians for 2000 years, that we would say—this is bedrock Christianity? Just for our listeners, one of the actual first conversations we ever had with a guest on this program was with Gavin Ortlund, who wrote the book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On. That same kind of thing of—we need to know what is urgent, what is the dividing line between truth and error, and orthodoxy and heresy, and keep that as thin as possible. And then we can have a lot of intramural debates and discussions on some of those lower tier issues. It's one of the things my students have been most impacted by, is thinking through things like theological triage. How do we weight different doctrines and know which ones we need to, you know, burn at the stake for, if that time ever came and it was necessary? And ones that we could just be like—well, we'll find out one day in glory.

Trevin Wax (13:50):

That's right. And, you know, some of those things...there is also, though, this category—and I think Gavin speaks to this well—those second tier issues, they are really important. I mean, there are reasons why, you know, I'm in the church I'm in, and I'm not worshiping with brothers and sisters down the street every Sunday. And it's not because I don't think they're brothers and sisters, but because some of those issues actually do divide us into different congregations. It's unfortunate, and we're seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures as best we know how. But there is a sense in which there are some departures from orthodoxy that are not yet in the level of heresy, but that are distortions, that if continuing to move in a direction will lead you to serious danger.

Trevin Wax (14:33):

So, you know, I'm one who wants to see good theological debate take place, with the Bible being the source that we're constantly going back to. And I think the triage question of being able to look at different doctrines and seeing—can we agree to disagree on this and be in the same congregation? Or can we agree to disagree on this and still be in brotherly fellowship? Those are questions that we really need to ask well. Because one of the challenges that we face today is when everything becomes either a heresy, you know...either it's pure orthodoxy or heresy, we wind up being able to lose any sense of nuance or distinction. And so that some of the things that our group may adhere to, we lift it to a level beyond where it actually is in that hierarchy. And the great thing about those ecumenical creeds that go back to the early days of the church, is like, there you can basically say—I can have full confidence that whatever Christianity looks like a hundred years from now, 200 years from now, should the Lord tarry and not return by then, Christians are going to agree on those essential matters.

Trevin Wax (15:52):

They're going to agree on those core doctrines.

Brian Arnold (15:55):

Well, that's right. That's where I've always struggled with, when we get students, or just people in the church, who can't see how important things like creeds are. You know, in my church, and most of the churches I've ever been in, we don't recite the creeds. It's...they're almost unknown, I feel like, to many evangelicals today. It almost sounds Catholic to them, that there are these creeds that are followed by the Catholic church. But we have overdone sola scriptura, to the point where those are not seen as helpful guardrails, as you mentioned before. Well, every now and then—and this has not happened to me very often—somebody writes a book that I'm like—wow, I really wish I could have written that book. And this is one of them.

Brian Arnold (16:37):

When I saw it come out, and I saw the title, I thought—how important is this book for today? So I'm going to talk a little bit more specifically about this idea of the "thrill of orthodoxy." You know, the way I started off talking about guys like Rhett and Link—I was in Campus Crusade. They led some of the stuff that I was in when I was in college. And to watch all these deconversions—they're happening so often—and I think you're putting your finger right on part of the problem is they've lost the sense of wonder and awe. So what really led you to write this book, and what are you really trying to communicate to the church today?

Trevin Wax (17:11):

Well, I was burdened, in putting together this book, I was burdened because I felt like a lot of Christians these days...because, you know, there are so many cultural currents that are out there that are pulling at us. There are these cultural winds that are blowing pretty heavily. And, you know, I was concerned because I felt like there are a lot of Christians who have lost confidence in the goodness and truth of Christianity. If it's not confidence in the truth of Christianity, they've lost confidence that it's beautiful, that it's good. And one of the ways I thought to try to counter that would be to say—well, let's take a closer look at what it it is we believe, where we're sort of planting our flag here, and let's actually show...you know, the moving away from orthodoxy has this initial jolt of excitement, right?

Trevin Wax (18:00):

Like, you're doing something innovative. That you're pushing the boundaries. You know, you're not being boxed in, in some way. And that really appeals to people in our culture in particular, and the way that we view religion and spirituality and Christianity. And what I wanted to do was to say—no, let me show you that that's actually backwards. And I remember this even as a student. You know, I started studying theology back when there was the emerging church movement that was taking place. And there was a lot of...there were a lot of good questions being asked about how we reach people in a post-modern world. And, you know, what ministry practices or ministry mentality, mindset shifts should we have? Because of, you know, some of the challenges of post-modernity and whatnot.

Trevin Wax (18:50):

There were a lot of really good questions being asked, but a lot of the answers that were coming out of that movement, to me, were just...eventually I realized—these are really overly domesticated. I mean, it's making Christianity more and more palatable for post-modern society in ways where it was losing the sharp edge. It was all about the fuzziness and ambiguity and mystery, and not really having clear lines of delineation, or clear lines of right and wrong, or truth and falsehood, and whatnot. And eventually I got into studying, you know, the history during the Reformation period, theology from then, back to the Church Fathers and others. And then I realized—oh, no, now this is where the excitement's at. <laugh> It's back with this historic orthodoxy that has stood the test of time, that is...yeah, there are new expressions and new ways to apply these ancient truths, but they're not endlessly adapting. They are not just, you know, endlessly revising forever, reconstructing the faith in new ways, and whatnot. They are...this is time tested. And so I eventually realized that's where really the excitement is at, that's where the missionary encounter is. And so that's my encouragement, as well, to people, through this book, is to go back to those core fundamental truths and to realize that the adventure is here.

Brian Arnold (20:19):

Yeah. The beauty is there. The goodness is there. The truth is there. It's been what saints have wrestled through for millennia. One of my favorite church history quotations is from Jaroslav Pelikan who said, "traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; tradition is the living faith of the dead." And I love being connected into the tradition. I mean, my background's church history. Patristics is what I studied, Church Fathers, and seeing that living tradition, that living faith of the dead that continues down generation after generation, to be part of that is a great adventure. That quest for novelty. I was...I remember very well, around 2005 when I started seminary, the five minutes of emergent church that was all the rage, and how quickly that kind of went out. And then I've just never been interested as people move from new idea to new idea, when we've got the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We've got 2000 years to study what men and women, led by the Holy Spirit, have written and passed down. And that we get to be part of this grander story of God that begins in the Garden and ends in the New Heavens and the New Earth. That's a thrilling story. And so, yeah, it makes my heart sad when I see people abandoning that in evangelicalism today, to cling onto something that's just a vapor.

Trevin Wax (21:40):

Yeah. And I think they don't think that it is. I think they think they're on the vanguard of the newest thing that is going to be there. And what I want us to say through this book is—don't fall for that. That's...you know, C.S. Lewis would call it "chronological snobbery." You know, G.K. Chesterton would say—that's believing that something is right because it's Thursday instead of Wednesday <laugh>. When the calendar really isn't what's determinative here. And so, you know, I don't think we should just adhere to things because they're old, but I do think we've got to be on guard against this sort of restless desire to just grab onto a fashion because it's new.

Brian Arnold (22:16):

Yep. That's right. Well, you mentioned C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Who have been your most helpful guides in doing this kind of research?

Trevin Wax (22:24):

Well, certainly Lewis and Chesterton in this book. I mean, I do think that Dorothy Sayers and sort of the drama and the dogma that she says, you know—"the drama is the dogma," that this is really where you find adventures and what Christianity actually teaches. She's phenomenal, I think, on this. I'm definitely very influenced by John Stott, who was a global Christian leader, whose work really continues to resonate with me, but was able to, I think, do that triaging really well—to bring together a lot of different groups that had a lot of challenges and a lot of differences, and yet could come together around some of these core convictions. And then of course, just, you know, throughout the book you will constantly see me going back and quoting different, you know, theologians, ancient theologians.

Trevin Wax (23:24):

Augustine is probably one of my all-time favorites. I'm reading Confessions right now again, because I read it...it's the first book I read every calendar year, in a different translation, usually. But there's just so much history and treasure in the past, and we're in this time when the cultural winds are blowing pretty strong right now. And I think if the tree is swaying, this is the time when you want the church to understand how deep the roots go. And that's the...you know, no matter...all the different things we may argue about, debate about—there are a lot of those things, we're going to have differences on, you know, how we should react to this thing or that thing in the world, or what our posture should be, or what we should do—at the end of the day, though, when everything gets kind of muddled and confusing, you've got to go back to the basics. And that's what I'm hoping this book will help people do.

Brian Arnold (24:17):

Well, and I think it does. And it is an incredibly important...I think it's one of the most important books out right now, because this pull towards the new and away from that rootedness is stronger than it's been in a long time in the Western world. So thank you so much for writing this book, and for the conversation today.

Trevin Wax (24:34):

Thank you so much for having me.

Outro 1 (24:36):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

Outro 2 (25:19):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about an exciting event we're hosting on the campus of Phoenix Seminary this spring, our first annual Sacred Truths Conference on February 24th and 25th. Our featured speakers will be Fred Sanders, Steve Duby, Bobby Jamieson, and myself. Our theme will focus on the core of Christianity—who is Christ, as one person with two natures, both human and divine. So I hope you'll join us, and invite anyone you know who's interested in learning more about Christian doctrine. Click the link in the show notes, or learn more and register at sacredtruths.events.

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