I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Trevin Wax. His
new book is The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith.
TREVIN WAX: We have something beautiful. It's a treasure that has been given us. It's been passed down to us. We have all of these resources, and we go back and explore these resources from the past, so that we can meet the challenges of today.
If you’re a regular here at Listening In, you know that it’s rare for me to have the same guest on the program twice. And three times? Well, that’s rarer still. I can probably count the number of people who have been on the program three times on one hand.
Trevin Wax is now a member of that small community, because he continues to produce
excellent work about important topics. His latest book is one that I think is destined to become a Christian classic. Trevin Wax says that the way forward for the evangelical church is to look back to the ancient creeds and confessions. We need to know what they believed, but also how they engaged controversies of their day.
We need to learn those lessons for at least two reasons. First, we begin to learn that some of the questions we are facing in our own time are not new. They have been asked before, and
answered brilliantly by some of the great theologians of the Christian tradition. To have great answers to pressing cultural questions today, we need to know how they answered these questions hundreds and even thousands of years ago.
Secondly, the way men like Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius – and I’m not out of the As yet –
give us a model for discourse, a model that Trevin Wax himself follows in this thoughtful yet
highly readable book.
Trevin Wax is vice president for research and resource development at the North American Mission Board. He’s also a visiting professor at Wheaton College. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin hosts a blog at The Gospel Coalition and contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, WORLD, and Christianity Today.
Christianity Today named Trevin one of 33 millennials shaping the next generation. His
previous books include 2017's This Is Our Time and 2020’s ReThink Yourself: The
Power of Looking Up Before Looking In. He also served as the general editor the CSB
Worldview Study Bible, which has become one of the best selling Bibles in the country.
WS: Well Trevin Wax, welcome back to the program, because you've been on with me before. And I'm really grateful that you're taking a few minutes to talk about your new book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy. I've got to say that I found this book to be very nourishing and helpful, and my son is reading it as well. And he, he's in graduate school now, he texted me the other day, my son Walker and said, Hey, I really love this book. Do you know this guy?
WS: And I said, I sure do. He said, he's one smart dude, was what he said,
TW: Well, I'm glad that he's enjoying it. And it's, it's always a delight to be back on Listening In.
WS: Well, thank you again. So Trevin, let's start off with some basics. I mean, the book is called The Thrill of Orthodoxy. So let's define some terms here. What is orthodoxy? And why is it thrilling?
TW: Well, most people don't put those words together. That's one of the reasons why I was excited to have a title with this topic. For the purposes of this book, we're looking at orthodoxy as those those fundamental Christian truths that have been believed, as the saying goes, always everywhere, and by all, meaning, it's those core affirmations of Christianity that virtually all Christians have agreed to have given their consent to. So I'm defining it at the beginning of the book, primarily focusing on what you find in the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, which are at different levels, basically, summaries of scriptural teaching about who God is, who Jesus is, and then the Holy Spirit and His work. And so that is sort of the the basis, the foundation, the underlying doctrinal underpinnings for what we mean by orthodoxy. And then there are all sorts of implications that flow from that, that we discuss in the book that we talked about that we want to want to tease out the implications of, for people listening. And, and the reason why it's thrilling, is because it's a treasure. And I don't know about you, but I mean discovering treasure is thrilling. And the more the deeper you dig into those funds, I mean, just one line of the Apostles Creed, I believe in the forgiveness of sins, you know, just digging into that one line is like finding buried treasure everywhere. And we've got to have that thrill at the truths of Christian theology, if we're going to hold on to Christian theology, and pass on the treasure to the next generation.
WS: Well, and one of the ways that you talk about early in the book that orthodoxy is thrilling, is that this quest, this journey of understanding orthodoxy is in many ways, an adventure. I mean, we seek adventure, we love adventure, we find adventures thrilling. And one of the points that you make fairly early on is that we can bring that mindset, we don't have to check that need or that desire or for adventure at the door, when we approach orthodoxy, that we can bring that with us. And in fact, it is that sense of adventure that aids us, that helps us, that assists us, as we dig deeper into orthodoxy. Do I have you right on that point?
TW: Yes. I mean, I think the real aspect of of this that we've got to keep in mind is that, you know, the adventure is one of discovery. It's not one of invention. And we live in a world right now, where a lot of people think the excitement is in being your own personal religion according to your preferences and tastes, and personal well being, you know, if whatever works for you, your truth, my truth, all that kind of stuff, and what the thrill of Orthodoxy is that it gives us something, it's because it's something that's there. It's something that's there, whether you believe it or not, it's actually it's something you have to reckon with. So there's an adventure in discovering orthodoxy, because it's not something that you fabricated. It's not something that you just invented or massaged or innovated your way to, it's something that is there that you have to deal with. I, I compare it to the difference between living in an air conditioned home and having to like actually encounter the weather, you know? I love air conditioning, don't get me wrong. But there's something exciting and rugged about actually having to deal with the weather as it is, rather than living in a house that you perfectly control the temperature and the settings. And a lot of people want an air conditioned kind of religion, rather than what the Christian faith really is, which is, it's something that is, it doesn't bow to our whims. It's not under our control. It's something that sounds something we made. It's something that if we let it it will remake us.
WS: . So if orthodoxy is broadly defined as these core doctrines of the faith which we have discovered from scripture, and have been codified for us in the creed's, the opposite of that would be heresy. They would be those things that are opposed to orthodoxy, is that an accurate definition or a fair definition?
TW: Yes. And I would put one other category in there is what I would just call 'theological errors.' There are errors that are not necessarily completely aligned with orthodoxy, but they're not also heresy. So it is possible, and I think we're all in error at some level or another. I mean, there are different denominations that have, you know, varying views on speaking in tongues or on baptism, and all sorts of issues that we would say are important. I mean, important enough that they sometimes keep believers from belonging to the same church. And yet, we wouldn't lift that to the level of orthodoxy, in the same way that we, they wouldn't lead us to say that people are necessarily heretics. Where heresy comes into play is when a fundamental aspect of Christian truth is so fundamentally denied or distorted, that the church has come together to say, "No, this is antithetical to the Christian faith. It's not just wrong. It's damnable error." You know, a lot of times the H word gets thrown around a little too fast. But that category is there to say no, this is it's like the skull and crossbones, there's poison in that jar. And I think that's what we got to recognize that that heresy is serious. And it's something we should all want to avoid.
WS: One of the things that you say fairly early in the book is that while we have been given this great treasure of orthodoxy, you know, the human heart does tend towards heresy, error and heresy. And you identify various ways that we drift, that while we have been we may have received this gift of orthodoxy, you know, we, we don't always hold on to it, and we will drift. What are some of the ways that we drift?
TW: No, it's different for different people. And I, you know, I use some examples there some fictional examples, but ones that I had, you know, felt the tug in my own heart over the years to it, I've been in different places. Sometimes we could drift toward an innovative teaching because we want something to spice up our spirituality, you know, when I feel like we're in a rut, or we're just kind of grown bored with things, we're not our hearts affections are not engaged with the gospel of it. That's, that's one way. Another way we could drift is by so over emphasizing what is practical or pragmatic, that we really don't see much need for doctrine at all, you know, it's just all about I'm just gonna love Jesus love people. Without recognizing that without theology, without doctrine, you really, you don't know who the Jesus is that you're loving, first of all, but you also don't really know what it means to love people like Jesus would have you loved them without, without really thinking through carefully, what does that look like? There's situations you've got to ask those questions. So it would be easy to just assume doctrine's just for nerdy types, theological types, and that there's no, no real place for doctrine in the everyday Christian life. I think that's one way we could drift.
One way very prominent today is just being unsettled with Christian doctrine - the exclusivity of Christ, for salvation, for example, that, that Jesus is the only way to God or, you know, or Christianity's foundational teachings about marriage and sexuality. You know, there are some people I think today that they're very unsettled, they may still adhere to Christian orthodoxy, but they don't really understand why it's beautiful or good. They lack confidence in the beauty and power of it.
And another way I've identified that we can drift is just by being so focused on the impact of the gospel that we actually move away from the, from the focus on conversion and on seeing other people come to faith, it's, it's easy for, you know, our, our political activism or our social work or other things that are good in and of themselves, ways we love our neighbor, to eventually pushed across from the center of our proclamation. So I you know, there are different ways to drift and the thing about drifting is sometimes you, you drift, and you don't even realize it, and I'm hoping that this book will be a bit of an inoculation against that, that people may see it in their lives and they Yeah, I'd be susceptible to drifting in that direction, you know, and then be able to reorient themselves to recenter themselves around the unchanging, foundational basic truths of Christianity.
WS: Yeah, you know, you use a really interesting metaphor in the book about being at the beach and you know, sometimes you'll go out into the water, you know, maybe needy, maybe waist deep, maybe chest deep out of the, you know, in the ocean, and then you know, you're you're messing around, you're playing, you're doing whatever you're doing out there in the water and then you look up 10 or 15 minutes later or half hour later and you discover that all your things are gone is the way you put it in your book where did my stuff go? Right? Who moved my beach towel in my umbrella? And only then do you realize that just very unconsciously you have been pushed down the beach you've been pushed in the direction of the current. And I've experienced that, and I know that well, because as you say, you don't know you're drifting, but in fact you are. And you say that the antidote for that is to swim upstream, you've got to be intentional, you've got to actively resist the drift. Because if you don't, you can't just kind of let well enough alone, the drift will carry you - do I have you right in that?
TW: That's right. And I think that's part of the adventure and why we call it the thrill of orthodoxy. It requires exertion. It's, there's, there's life there, it's you know, I think it was G.K. Chesterton that said, you know, any dead thing can float downstream. It's the fact that you're alive, and kicking against the stream against the currents. That's where that's a lot of where the adventure is, you know, it's not the adventure is not in adapting Christianity endlessly to be acceptable to the world. It's, it's seeking to live in such a way that you bring your life in line with Christianity, you alter yourself, you adapt yourself to be aligned with Christianity, and then you call the world to account as well, your your, the way Augustine would have said, is you're standing against the world for the good of the world. And you got to keep those two things together. You're not just being contrarian, you're not just being, you know, opposed to things for their own sake, but really out of love and care for the very people that are harmed by, by deceptive ideologies, and by, by falsehoods that ultimately lead away from what is true, and good and beautiful.
WS: You know, a lot of people, including myself, I would put myself in this category, resist orthodoxy, resist this adventure that you are calling us to, Trevin, because we don't like boundaries, you know, "You're not the boss of me," right? I want to be in charge of myself. And yet you spend some time talking about boundaries in the book, boundaries to Orthodoxy specifically. And you actually kind of reframe this notion of boundaries, that boundaries aren't a bad thing, but are in fact, a good thing. Can you say more about that idea?
TW: Well, there's a lot of freedom that comes within limits, and certain constraints, there's no such thing as really unfettered freedom. I think that's a myth of our of our time. And, you know, there's that great image that Chesterton has of little children who were, there's this fence around a playground near a cliff, and they, they took the fence down so as to remove the boundaries for the kids. And instead of the kids playing, just having a ball all throughout that playground, they were all huddled up in the middle, afraid to go out, because I mean, they could fall to their deaths, right? So there's a sense in which there are limits that actually provide room for flourishing and freedom. And it's the same thing with with with warnings. You know, I think we read the New Testament and some of the the New Testament apostles, their warnings against false doctrine, come across to us, like, kind of like ancient screeching, I mean, you just, we just don't have, it's like we don't our ears aren't even tuned to the frequency with how serious they take departures when it comes to doctrine. And yet, the reason that those warnings are issued is not in order to stifle us, but in order to keep us to the path where we won't hurt ourselves. You know, I mean, you take away a sign that's warning against flash flooding on a hike, it doesn't mean that the the flash flooding isn't a problem, if it starts to rain really hard, just because the signs down or, you know, a sign warning you about the bluffs, you know, you don't want to be careful over here on this ridge or something. Oh, yeah, you could take the sign down that warning about a curve in the road, it doesn't make the curve any less dangerous, it just means people speeding that way aren't aren't gonna see it. So I think we've got to recognize that the Bible actually sees life in this sense of this cosmic adventure, this, these epic stakes that are there. And so I think constraints rightly understood, they don't hinder freedom, they're what make possible freedom. The map doesn't hinder you, it helps you be able to get a lay of the land, the grammar book doesn't hinder you and helps you speak the language freely, you know, you've got to have those, you got to know those rules and boundaries in order to really be able to you know, you can't play soccer, if you don't know the rules to the game, if there's no, you know, lines on the field. So I think those are important for us to see a better understanding of what freedom looks like.
WS: You're there are two ideas in the, really three ideas in the book that you treat, sort of separately, but also you treat them kind of at the same place in the book that I'd like you to say more about. And those three ideas are humility, certainty, and mystery. You say, for example, that to really fully engage in this adventure of orthodoxy, of pursuing doctrine, understanding there, you have to have a certain humility you have to act except to the idea that you don't know everything, that there is something to be learned that there are things that we can be certain about. And this is where that notion of certainty comes in. But that there are also other things that are mysteries to us as well. Even if we're humble, even if we deeply pursue this adventure of orthodoxy and and learn about the doctrine, dogmas, history, orthodoxy of the faith, that to a very high degree, there are still going to be things that we don't understand. And that's where mystery comes into play. Am I getting you right in sort of relating these three ideas together?
TW: Yes, I, I'm glad you bring that up. Because I think that it's one of the characteristics of our age to pit these things against each other, rather than hold them all together, I get a little bit nervous when people pit our humility against certainty, basically, to say, well, we can know some things but we can't be certain of things, if that's like the sign of being proud. And I'm like, well, it can be, you know, there's a certain arrogance that can come along with being self assured, or too certain of things, but there's also a sense in which if I'm helping my son, who's nine is in fifth grade with his homework, helping my son with his math work, and knowing how to do some of those problems, and me being certain about them, is not prideful. You know, I feel like a lot of times we feel like certainty is a bad word that you can't, can be sure of anything. I think that's a characteristic of our times that we ought to resist We're not going to have comprehensive certainty. That's where mystery comes in. We're not going to know things like with a God's eye perspective, the way God knows things. That's true. We know in part, Paul says, and the mystery part is that we know in part, but the certainty part is that we do know, there are certain things that we know. And so humility, I think requires us to, to submit to what we do know, to what has been revealed to submit to revelation that comes from outside of us. And so I think we've got to hold those, those aspects of Christian teaching together that humility of learning, and then building upon what we've learned, the certainty on a certain level, recognizing that it will never be completely comprehensive, and then mystery, holding out that there are going to be aspects that of who God is, and what Christianity teaches that we may never fully plumb the depths of, and yet that the mysteries are there, and they are, they are beautiful and waiting to be explored.
WS: Yeah. Another idea that you explore in the book is this notion that details are important. And in some ways that's a little bit counterintuitive, based on what you've said up to that point in your book, because we're talking about orthodoxy, you're talking about certainty, you're talking about the things that we can know. And I would argue, as Christians that we should know, that just because we're not professional theologians who maybe get our paycheck from a university, or a seminary, because we're theologians in a way, we are all called to be theologians, in a very real sense. And yet, details do matter, that it's not just the big ideas, but sometimes the little ideas also can chip away if we don't get them right at the big ideas. Can you say more about that?
TW: Yeah, I think the details matter when it comes to doctrine. In some cases, I mean, certain details matter more than others, of course, but it's really easy to just assume that theology is just a bunch of arguing over minute little things. And it can devolve into that in some cases, but for the most part, the reason why, for example, when you talk about the creed's, you talked about the church fathers that they insisted so clearly, on getting these definitions, right. It's because they recognize that the story of salvation really does hinge on a few very important details. You know, at one point, I mean, the, the doctrine of salvation and understanding Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, who has come to save us. Now, for us and for our salvation, it really did hang on whether or not there would be one vowel in one word, one Greek word, that one letter made that big of a difference, as to whether or not Jesus was, you know, were the Son of God was of like substance with the Father or whether it was the same substance of the Father. Now, that may seem to some listeners that Well, that just seems like you know, you're just looking at tiny little details, you know, that really don't have much of an effect. But what the early church fathers recognized was that if you say and he's only like God, then you're putting him on the, the human side, the creature side of the Creator, and the created distinction. And if that's the case, there's no salvation, and we're getting we're getting what the Bible teaches about Jesus fundamentally wrong. So there's a level of detail that matters because of salvation and also because at the end of the day, we love the God that these details describe. I mean, the reason we should care about the details is because we care about the God that the doctrines are talking about. I mean, we're talking about a real person here. And so, you know, I think a lot of times we think, well, just give me what's practical, I don't need to worry about the details of theology. Well, it's true, not everyone is called to be a professional theologian. I, I get that. But we're all theologians at some level, because we all have a view of God. And what we think about God and how we live in light of who that God is, really does define a lot of who we are and how we live. And we need to, we need to recognize the importance of that.
WS: You know, one of the errors, in fact, I don't know whether this is an error or a heresy, Trevin, and I would invite you to weigh in on this topic. But one of the errors that I see even in the evangelical church, even among people who claim to be Jesus followers, and in fact, you know, are doing their best to be Jesus followers. You see it show up in our culture today, like, you know, the world is going to hell on a bobsled, going to hell in a handbasket, that things are bad, that there's no good in the world, that there's nothing beautiful in the world. And in fact, I would argue, and I think you argue in your book, that that fundamentally gets wrong the doctrine of creation in original sin, that the world is not evil, the world was made good. God declares it good over and over and over again. But there's also sin has entered the world, sin has broken the world. So it's beautiful, but broken and not evil. But I think so many, even evangelicals, don't understand that important biblical narrative. Am I getting you right in that?
TW: Yeah, that would be I mean, in some ways that it resembles the old Gnostic heresies, where the you know, that matter is intrinsically inherently evil, something to be avoided. And you do see that cut sometimes come out in the way that people talk about even, you know, this human body or death, or the world as it is, there's the sense that the world is so bad that really, all that's left for it is destruction, and for God to rescue us from our physicality that you sometimes see, you know, it's possible for people to have to have the wrong notions about things, that upon further study, and as they get more into God's word and whatnot, kind of self correct. So, I mean, it's possible I actually use it as an example of the book, it is possible I, myself was this way, I have a wrong view of Jesus, and how he is how it works for him to be both God and man. And I was in seminary, and I realized that they were talking about different heresies. And I thought, Oh, well, that's kind of how I thought it worked. And then I realized, nope, I guess that was wrong. The good news is, you're not saved by how well you articulate the doctrine of the Trinity, you're saved by the Trinity, by God, the Triune God, right. So you're not saved by how well you can not mess up a doctrine here or there or whatnot. You don't want people like cowering in fear that they may accidentally say something heretical. But you, we do need to take seriously these doctrines and these truths, because they lead to all sorts of other problems that do affect our Christian witness. And so yeah, the one that you're talking about there, I would say I see it as more of a posture, I don't really see people necessarily saying, articulating a heretical view. But the posture leans toward one of the heresies the church has said, No, don't don't We don't go that way. And so I think we got to be careful, even with our posture. If we're leaning one way or another on some of those things, we might not be out and out espousing heresy, but but may already be drifting, you know, beyond what we would do.
WS: Right. I've heard Michael Horton, the theologian, call that as an operational heresy. In other words, they're not confessing or affirming a heresy, but the way we're living our lives is as if we believed the heresy, that might be maybe it's somewhat more fair to say it, would you agree with that or not?
TW: Yeah, that's a great, that's a great way of looking at it or like, it's almost like a functional. You know, I do think and when I think of evangelical churches, I think, you know, for example, this would be a very significant error, but the Universalist position, which is that, you know, in the end, all or virtually everyone will be saved. I think there are a lot of evangelicals who would not say that they would not affirm that view, but functionally, we might as well live as if that's the case. It certainly would, you know, when presented with opportunities to evangelize deep down, I think there's a lot of functional Universalists who just kind of think, well, you know, in the end, I'm sure everyone, that most everybody that's good is going to be fine. You know, they wouldn't say that, but there's that operational aspect that you mentioned with with Michael Horton.
WS: Yeah, so a lack of urgency for, around evangelism would be one way that we, you know, might not, like you say, affirm universalism. But operationally, we we're acting as if we believe it. Because we don't have an urgency about evangelism, we don't have an urgency about sharing our faith, and sharing the way of salvation with others.
TW: Yeah, and that's where I think we need to rediscover the adventure, you know, that the adventure of not only what we believe, but how that belief then affects our our lives, what, what it looks like for us to, you know, to climb the mountain, to become more and more like Christ through the long haul of our lives. I mean, this is really, the beauty of the Christian life is that it is something astonishing. But I don't think the way forward is simply to kind of beat people over their heads with orthodoxy and say, This is what you got to believe. And this is how you got to believe it. It's I want people who read this book, to have their eyes open and their hearts were awakened to the beauty of what it is we're talking about. That's what I hope the goal will be with the book, because it's, it's one thing to tell people, This is what you must believe, it's another thing to say, Look at how beautiful this is, don't you want to believe this? Like, that's what I'm hoping we'll be the outcome for people reading.
WS: Well, that's a great transition, Trevin, into sort of the way I've wanted to land this plane, so to speak, and bring our interview to a close. And that is just to talk about the way forward. You've already mentioned that one of the things that you hope will come from this book is that people will rediscover the beauty, the thrill of orthodoxy, as you say, in the title of the book. It's also interesting to me as especially in the final pages of the book, and in an afterword that you have of recommended reading, that you seem to be saying that the way forward is that we need to look backwards to a certain extent - not to be so focused on the rearview mirror that we don't pay attention to where we're going, but that we should look at many of the heresies and errors that we see in the church today, or many of the questions that we might have in our own lives as Christians are questions that have been grappled with very deeply by folks, you know, who are a lot smarter than I am maybe not a lot smarter than you are. But Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, many, many others have asked and answered these questions before, and they've given us good answers. But we've forgotten them, and we need to rediscover them. Is that a fair assessment of where you're asking us to go?
TW: I do think there's something to be said about looking in order to look for the way forward, we've got to look back. But to add to that, Warren, that it's also about us being rooted in something beyond this present moment. There's a lot of things that are crazy about our world right now. And there's a lot of things that are, you know, very difficult in the church, a lot of things, reasons to be discouraged. There's, there's all sorts of stuff going on all sorts of messages out there. It's just a cacophony of voices. When everything's kind of going crazy, and it seems like the world is really shaking down to its foundations, the really amazing tree is going to be able to withstand storms because of its roots. And I feel like there's a real hunger for a sense of rootedness, of recognizing that we have, we have something beautiful, it's a treasure that's been given to us, it's been passed down to us. And we do have that we have all of these resources in the past, and we don't just go back and explore because it's a hobby, we go back and we explore these resources from the past so that we can meet the challenges of today; we don't go back and have the same battles over and over and over again, and the same words, but the same problems with the same people. I mean, occasionally that happens. Most of the time, these heresies, they show up in very different forms. So, you know, I mean, there's a sense in which even all their conversations about, you know, gender and sexuality and, and what it means to be human, the human body. I mean, there's a sense in which there are aspects of various heresies throughout Christian history that we were there are resources there -Gnosticism talking about the spark of inner life, rather than the physical body or what it means when we say we believe in God, the Father, the maker of heaven and earth, when we say that creation is good, the natural world is good, in a sense that there's something beautiful about how God has designed us and all those all of those things. There are so many resources that we have in our tradition that if we go back, we don't go back just go over the same things. We go back to find what we need in order to face the challenges that are right now and coming in the future. So that's what I hope people will take away. It's not looking back just so we can be nostalgic. It's looking back because, hey, there are the tools back there for what we need in order to be able to have a a missionary encounter with the world that God has placed us in.
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