“Who do you say I am?” Paradox at the Heart of Orthodoxy

christ-appearing-to-the-apostles-after-the-resurrection-william-blake

Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection, by William Blake, ca. 1795

“It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”[1]

What Christians believe is of utmost importance and Christian orthodoxy is defined not only by specific dogmas but by the theories that have been rejected.  The modern mind tends to think of the concept of orthodoxy in a negative light.  It is seen as confining and oppressive.  That orthodoxy has often been used as a tool for tyranny is true, but its abuse does not render it useless.

The line of demarcation that has been drawn between orthodoxy and heresy protects our faith from being transformed from a ‘somewhere’ into an ‘everywhere.’  It brings together a believing community in which a ‘nobody’ is transformed into a ‘somebody.’  From its beginning, Christianity has opened its doors to all:  slave and free, Gentile and Jew.  Yet, without a system of beliefs, the doors would be nothing more than illusions opening up to an emptiness beyond.  Orthodoxy protects the riches that lie behind these doors by taking heretical ideas seriously.  And thankfully, as divisive as heresies can be, in a way, they are “often a prompter of orthodoxy” and clarity.  Orthodoxy then represents what G.K. Chesterton called one of those “limitations that do in fact preserve and perpetuate enlargement, like a wall built round a wide open space.”[2]

The borders of our beliefs are found in Scripture and the church of Christ has diligently sought to discover, articulate, and guard them.  This underscores another important fact: heresies originate from within the church, not from without.  Often times, they represent a butting up against the limits of these boundaries.  Heresy is a succumbing to the temptation to solve the inevitable mysteries that stare back at us from the infinite beyond.

Nowhere are Christianity’s beliefs more important than those surrounding the second person of the Trinity, in all of His divine fullness, becoming a man.  The heart of our faith could be said to lie within Christ’s.  Chesterton would liken this heart to a seed.  And nowhere are the dogmas more mysterious and, thus, subject to heresy than this infinitesimally small though profoundly large point.  Jesus is at once our friend and a mystery, as close as One who would long to gather us in His arms like chicks and yet as distant as One who could call galaxies into existence with a word.

This closeness and disparity reflect the hypostatic union of extremes in Christ: the human and the divine.  Our creeds ring with joy that such a meeting equipped Him to effect the impossible: a reconciliation between us and God.  “Bethlehem,” wrote Chesterton, “is emphatically a place where extremes meet.”[3]  The immeasurable distance between heaven and earth is concentrated in this paradox, “that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”[4]

For Chesterton, paradoxes like the personhood of Christ are examples of seeds “of dogma” that when put “in a central darkness” or mystery, branch “forth in all directions with abounding natural health”.  In other words, a doctrine such as Christ’s personhood is difficult to understand in and of itself, not unlike the difficulty of looking at the sun directly with the naked eye.  Still, like the sun, it enables us to see God more clearly and thus, understand His world and our place in it.

Chesterton excelled at turning these paradoxes of our faith that tend to frustrate us (and enliven the church’s detractors) from inconveniences into adventures.  Paradoxes are the juxtaposition of extremes and it was this aspect of the dogmas of Christianity that caught his attention as an atheist.  He would spend his career as a Christian exploring and reveling in these, playfully tossing them back at enemies as proof of the Gospel’s truth.

In this combining of extremes, Chesterton wrote that “Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life … [for] to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe — that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.”[5]

Chesterton writes, “we must remember the difficult definition of Christianity already given; Christianity is a superhuman paradox whereby two opposite passions may blaze beside each other. The one explanation of the Gospel language that does explain it is that it is the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.”[6]  The union of God and man in one, our Lord and Saviour, represents one such blazing that pours a blessed and humbling light on us.  Christ is the “super-human” paradox that confounds and confronts and in Him, we bask in hope and salvation, the beacon of our faith.[7]

In the end, Christianity has paradox at its heart and it should come as no surprise for it describes the miraculous reconciliation of two most disparate things: our perfect, omnipotent God and fallen, impotent man.

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Christ the Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5-6), by William Blake

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London, 1934), 140.
[2]G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 79.
[3] Ibid., 147.
[4] Ibid., 145.
[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 140.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Psalm 62:6, ESV.

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7 thoughts on ““Who do you say I am?” Paradox at the Heart of Orthodoxy

  1. The One who arranges the nuclear furnaces of stars with His fingers comes to our desolate shore and makes a small charcoal fire on which He prepares for us a simple breakfast of fish and bread. He whose voice sustains the enormous fiery hearts of Aldebaran and Betelgeuse sustains our smoldering wick. No matter what we have done, no matter how we may have denied or still deny Him. No matter how great our apathy, unbelief or indifference is, no matter how hopeless life seems, no matter how ridiculous God or religion or church may seem, no matter how great a sin we may think we have committed, Jesus knows because as God He too was man, for man, in every way tempted as we are yet without sin. He understands our fickleness and cold indifference to Him. And yet He still comes to our shires and bids us “Come have breakfast.” The best kind of breakfast, too. A second one. Just ask Peter.

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    • That is one of my favorite passages. I think we too easily forget that the Founder of Christianity is One who cooked a warm breakfast for a friend that had thrice denied Him in His time of greatest need. He then took that humbled man and made him a leader. The church was built on that repentant traitor (and also a repentant murderous zealot who would go on to suffer like the suffering he had once inflicted)! If we could just burn that image into our minds, to always be before us as we go out into the world, how would it affect our behavior towards others? It’s scary that we so easily forget.

      He has made me quite a few second breakfasts, actually. Also, He never fails to fill my Hobbit cup to overflowing, even after I’ve carelessly spilled it for the umpteenth time.

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  2. The Lord makes for us the second breakfast in order to strengthen us to climb Lonely Mountain and reclaim the heavenly treasures. He makes us new creatures and gives us new names. We come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills and through the air He leads us unseen. He makes us clue-finders, web-cutters, friends of bears and the guests of eagles. He drowns us in the water and draws us out alive again. He takes us from the end of a bag and makes us Ringwinners, Luckwearers and Barrel-riders. We have been chosen for the ascent and must go further up, further in, to reclaim our Lord’s all-but-forgotten glory. The heavens and all their numinous radiance sit piled up underneath the scaly dominion of the serpent of old. “Whom shall we send? Who will go for us?” Who is willing to confront the infernal wiles and reclaim the heavenly treasure?

    “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep, a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs, and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.
    Smaug lay, with wings folded like an immeasurable bat, turned partly on one side, so that the hobbit could see his underparts and his long pale belly crusted with gems and fragments of gold from his long lying on his costly bed. Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed.

    To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.”

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    • Yes. He has prepared so much for us, hasn’t He? Then, to include us in a quest, His Great Commission? We are sent to help steal the treasures hoarded by the god of this age. And our success is always like Bilbo’s, seemingly lucky and by no strength of our own. He is amazing.

      And then, there are elephants! I’m with Samwise. Seeing an oliphant is enough to fill my cup for days. May we all have the pure wonder of Samwise. And may his wonder be infectious. Chesterton had that disease. I try to catch it from him. 🙂

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  3. “Has it come this way?” gasped the keeper.

    “Has what?” asked Syme.

    “The elephant!” cried the keeper. “An elephant has gone mad and run away!”

    “He has run away with an old gentleman,” said the other stranger breathlessly, “a poor old gentleman with white hair!”

    “What sort of old gentleman?” asked Syme, with great curiosity.

    “A very large and fat old gentleman in light grey clothes,” said the keeper eagerly.

    “Well,” said Syme, “if he’s that particular kind of old gentleman, if you’re quite sure that he’s a large and fat old gentleman in grey clothes, you may take my word for it that the elephant has not run away with him. He has run away with the elephant. The elephant is not made by God that could run away with him if he did not consent to the elopement. And, by thunder, there he is!”

    There was no doubt about it this time. Clean across the space of grass, about two hundred yards away, with a crowd screaming and scampering vainly at his heels, went a huge grey elephant at an awful stride, with his trunk thrown out as rigid as a ship’s bowsprit, and trumpeting like the trumpet of doom. On the back of the bellowing and plunging animal sat President Sunday with all the placidity of a sultan, but goading the animal to a furious speed with some sharp object in his hand.

    “Stop him!” screamed the populace. “He’ll be out of the gate!”

    “Stop a landslide!” said the keeper. “He is out of the gate!”

    And even as he spoke, a final crash and roar of terror announced that the great grey elephant had broken out of the gates of the Zoological Gardens, and was careening down Albany Street like a new and swift sort of omnibus.

    “Great Lord!” cried Bull, “I never knew an elephant could go so fast. Well, it must be hansom-cabs again if we are to keep him in sight.”

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  4. Pingback: Divine Providence and Human Free-Will | Along the Beam

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