There were many Christian scholars I was introduced to in college. It wasn’t until after college though, that I was introduced to the words of G.K. Chesterton, in James Bryan Smith’s biography of Rich Mullins.
I first read about Chesterton in The Christian Imagination. There I learned of the man who was a journalist and an apologist, while also a poet and an artist.
Orthodoxy is the most recognized work of Chesterton, wherein he gives his personal apologetic of the Christian faith. I finally picked up the book, and having read it, find it hard to describe. First published in 1948, he takes aim at many of the philosophies of the day, including modernism and determinism. He explored many philosophies, agreeing with them to varying degrees before finding them empty. In the end, he found that only Christian orthodoxy answered the riddle.
It’s hard to quote this book. It’s like a song that builds momentum to end in a crescendo. A single piece doesn’t tell the story. Nevertheless, I give you the following words from Chesterton:
The real problem is – Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved. This is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life…Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact everyone did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe – that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature….
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance…Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excresences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years…So in Christianity apparent accidents balanced….
It is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture of a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium.
Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in definitions might stop all the dances…Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own…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. (Chesterton, 145-150)
You can read Orthodoxy online, for free, at the Christian Classics Ethereal Libary.
Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press. 1994.