Orthodoxyby G.K. Chesterson
Length: Approximately 6 hours. To read (180 pages)
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The Christian faith is true, rational, and very old. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton winsomely engages worldviews that deny the supernatural. Orthodoxy is a highly quotable apologetic for Christian theism.
Who Should Read This Book?
This book is for any Christian who wants to be familiar with the classic works of apologetics. It would also make for a fun read by anyone who loves the way a skilled writer can use a clever turn of phrase or witty comeback to make their point. There are a few historical and cultural references that may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but they are not the focus of the book and should not be too much of a distraction.
The American theologian Thomas Oden told the story of the moment he began his journey out of theological liberalism into what he would later call “Classic Christianity”. Ironically enough, Oden was studying under a Jewish scholar named Will Herberg. Herberg told Oden he should learn his own religious tradition as a Christian. He explained that Oden would never be a great theologian until he read and learned from “the great minds” of the historic Christian religious tradition, a tradition that Oden did not actually know well enough to reject.1Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 136.
In an earlier time and context, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) had a similar experience to Thomas Oden’s. His journey lead him from various forms of skepticism about the Christian faith into affirming what he identified as Christian orthodoxy. Chesterton was a well-known writer of plays, mysteries, journalism, and later theology in Great Brittan. It is clear that Chesterton’s experiences prepared him for writing Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is mainly an extended, free flowing defense of Christian super-naturalism against the competing worldviews like materialism, pessimism, and nihilism. Chesterton tells us that his purpose in writing Orthodoxy was to assert that “the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics” (pg. 5). In other words, Chesterton went looking for what makes the best sense of life and discovered that it was Christianity.
Chesterton describes his journey of searching for how to best explain and understand the world and when he reached his conclusion, he thought he had discovered something new. Instead he landed on orthodox Christianity, which had been there all along. He rightly points out that there are beliefs or dogmas that all Christians have historically believed. Chesterton admits he could have discovered what he already believed if he had simply read “the catechism”. The question of which catechism is not clearly answered but it will be important to keep in mind.
Chesterton explains that he was prompted to write Orthodoxy after writing what he described as “a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of ‘Heretics’”, he decided to give a positive statement about what he believes. It is one thing to attack the beliefs of others and another to be willing to actually say what one believes and be able to defend it. Interestingly, Chesterton chooses to begin his apologetic for Christianity with “the fact of sin” (pg. 9).
Instead of sin, why not begin with the fact of God or our dependence on revelation? Later, Chesterton addresses circular reasoning (pg. 159) and recognizes the need for an objective standard but this does not mean he would completely agree with a later presuppositional apologist like Cornelius VanTil, Greg Bahnsen, or K. Scott Oliphint. Chesterton fails to reach the same conclusions as these Confessional Reformed Christians because he has a different starting point. Instead of recognizing God as the starting point, Chesterton tries to begin with man and reason his way up to God. This will always have an influence on one’s thinking if followed consistently.
Not long after beginning Orthodoxy, it becomes clear why this has become such a classic work. Chesterton proves himself an apparently effortless, sometimes genius, wordsmith. He is extremely quotable and would have flourished in our modern age of sound bites and Twitter.
In the introduction he proclaims, “I am the fool of this story and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.”(pg. 4) In Chapter III “The Suicide of Thought” he reasons that “The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.” (pg. 37) As well as being witty and quotable, Chesterton shows himself capable of going deep and sharing complex, profound thinking, such as the ways in which the form of the cross is superior to the form of a circle. (pg. 23-24)
Despite the fact that Chesterton intended for Orthodoxy to be a positive presentation of the Christian faith, and not another take down like Heretics, he was not able to avoid critiques of competing worldviews. In several places he rightly points his pen at nihilism and its great evangelist Friedrich Nietzsche.
Chesterton dismisses the idea that Nietzsche was a “bold and strong thinker”, instead calling him out for how he “always escaped question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet”. (pg. 107) So, instead of talking about “more good than evil”, Nietzsche used the phrase “beyond good and evil”. This showed a lack of courage on Nietzsche’s part and ultimately made him “truly a very timid thinker” in Chesterton’s judgement.
What Chesterton seems to be getting in his critique of Nietzsche is the truth that a worldview like nihilism may try to deny and get “beyond” categories like good and evil, when in reality it is an attempt to avoid the very real and unavoidable nature of categories like good and evil. Chesterton argues that the courageous, though ultimately foolish, stance for Nietzsche to take would have been to try and stake his claim on ideas about “more good than good and evil” or “more evil than good and evil”.
Then Nietzsche would have put himself out there as claiming to hold “good” and “evil” to some kind of more authoritative and independent standard of “good” and “evil”. But by what standard would Nietzsche’s “good” or “evil” be measured? Chesterton was right to call Nietzsche out for not being willing to go there.
This brings us to questions about standards of truth as they relate to Christianity. What can rightly be considered true Christianity? Who gets to decide? Which beliefs are essential to Christianity and which are secondary, disputable matters to be gracious about? If there is such a thing as Christian orthodoxy, how do we determine what that is? What authority do scripture, tradition, and the historic creeds and confessions hold?
While Chesterton points to the Apostles Creed as his guiding standard for Christian Orthodoxy, unfortunately he does not really seem concerned with the actual distinctives of the Apostles Creed like the virgin birth, or the deity, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While some distinctly Christian doctrines are touched on, they are not the emphasis for Chesterton. He does not seem interested in theology. His primary focus seems to be on defending the possibility of the supernatural. This is not to say he was an ecumenical.
Throughout Orthodoxy, it becomes clear that Chesterton considered Roman Catholicism the truest and most legitimate form of Christianity, if not the only true form of it. He was clearly not fond of the Protestant Reformers. Chesterton goes so far as to claim that “… Christianity was shattered at the Reformation” (pg. 26). He seems to flatly affirm priestly authority to absolve sins and the popes’ authority “to define authority”. (pg. 29)
As he approaches the end of this work, he claims that Rome, not “Christianity” in general, has the balanced position on divine sovereignty and human freedom. (pg. 133) Calvinism and scientific materialism are condemned by Chesterton as being on opposite extremes concerning God’s freedom and man’s freedom. We have to wonder what experiences and conversations influenced Chesterton to take this perspective.
Consciously or not, Chesterton actually seems to echo Calvin’s famous statement that “The finite cannot contain the infinite.” when he writes that “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” (pg. 11) This should serve to remind us as Christians that while God has revealed himself in Scripture and we can know true things about him, we are still finite creatures who will never have exhaustive knowledge of all there is to know.
Who gets to define what true Christianity is? What is the ultimate, binding authority on a Christian? Is true “orthodoxy” simply about affirming the Apostle’s Creed? Does the Roman Catholic Church hold claim to being the true church? Protestants and Confessional Reformed Christians in particular, will by definition come to different answers to those questions than G.K. Chesterton did.
Despite even serious disagreements, it would be a mistake for any thoughtful Christian to ignore or dismiss Chesterton. He was an exceptionally gifted writer with great insights into our need to make sense of the world. Orthodoxy is an always entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but also worthwhile look into one man’s journey through competing worldviews and into Christian theism.
- “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” (pg. 11)
- (After describing three arguments against Christianity) “… they are all quite logical and legitimate; and they all converge. The only objection to them (I discover) is that they are all untrue.” (pg. 151)
- “A false ghost story disproves the reality of ghosts exactly as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence of the Bank of England—if anything, it proves its existence.” (pg. 161)