Alice Was Right. Thoughts On Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy and Homodoxy

Friday, October 24th, 2014

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’ Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, once asked Humpty Dumpty. He smiled contemptuously and said, “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’ Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” However, who can forget Alice’s response: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

In recent years it has become clear that the contemporary church has a misunderstanding about the word orthodoxy. This has, in turn, led to a profound misunderstanding about the nature of the church’s unity.

In the ancient world there were really only two categories when it came to “agreeing” or “disagreeing” about something. The first category was “homodoxy.” The term homodoxy meant sharing the same view or opinion about something. The second category was “heterodoxy” which meant that we did not share the same view about something. Certainly one of the signs of our times has been the decline in agreement on a wide range of issues in the church. We could easily list several examples of issues which the church has been united on for centuries, but have now become points of sharp division and disagreement. To try to reconcile these opinions makes the assumption that this is about coming to a common agreement on something.

However, it is at times like this that we need to remember that we are called to transcend the simple categories of “homodoxy” and “heterodoxy.” We are called to “orthodoxy.” This term refers to what is “true” or “straight” or “right.” This is a standard which transcends the changing, shifting vagaries of human opinions. It is a category probably invented by Christians. It reminded the world of a very important thing which has been largely forgotten. It was this: God has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. God’s revelation transcends all of our opinions whether they be “of Paul” or “of Cephas” or “of Apollos.” We must humble ourselves before God and listen afresh to His Word. Groups will always disagree, but in God’s divine economy He calls us all to a deep agreement and resonance which transcends our various “perspectives” and “cultural lenses” and our “particularities.” It remembers our common heritage in Adam (In Adam all die) and it rejoices in our common heritage in the Second Adam (In Christ we have all been made alive”).

Alice was right. Words can’t just mean what we want them to mean. The church can’t just be re-cast into our modern vision of it. There is a great narrative to which we have all been summoned. It is not centered on this faction or that faction. It is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the basis for unity in the church. It is centered on the unfolding redemptive plan of the Triune God.

Unity cannot be achieved organizationally or institutionally: “All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again” Unity is not really about that. Unity is not uniformity (that’s homodoxy). Unity is not a single institutional structure which manages to survive our heterodoxy. It is easy for a simplistic call for “unity” to really be about finding unity through dilution, which is made possible by relativistic views of truth.

It was Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor who made famous the real heart of unity: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity.” This is why true unity throughout history has always come through a rebirth of orthodoxy which is the recognition that our unity is in Jesus Christ.


  • Betsy says:


    As I discovered, basic orthodox Christianity is NOT the same as modern fundamentalism; the two can not be more different! Problem is, basic orthodox Christianity has not had a strong presence within the UMC for a very long time. I did not discover it until I got lost and confused enough that I finally and distanced myself from all things church and discovered the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it. Through them I learned just how much I did not know/understand about basic orthodox Christianity.

  • Elaine T. says:

    My Father left a very legalistic denomination and became a Methodist pastor in the mid50′ He always said it was such a joy to be a Methodist pastor because He could preach the redeeming gospel of our Lord instead of being expecting to concentrate on the don’ts. I am thankful that he isn’t alive to see what is happening to his beloved Methodist church today. He was a faithful Good News Convocation attender so he did have a hit of what was coming. Thanks to Good News for being faithful.

  • Tim Kirkes says:

    Amen. Those who desire unity will always be tempted by homodoxy and heterodoxy (defining our unity by our difference from others). True unity can only be found in holding to orthodoxy.

  • Scott A says:

    The two-word phrase for the contemporary understanding of this is “come together.” By merely “coming together” in the same room, we claim to have created some level of commonality. I call it “The Clinton Disease.” In my lifetime, it was the Clintons who first drove us toward this false claim of unity.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    I am curious as to the context for these remarks by Dr. Tennent. I doubt they spring from simple reflection on the landscape of the church. Do these remarks issue as result of a particular hopeful event? I am very intrigued. I’d like to know what spurred this blog.

  • Daniel Ivey says:

    Thank you Dr. Tennent for these words.