G. K. Chesterton is often quoted positively in evangelical literature, and he is considered by many to be an articulate and reliable apologist for Christianity. Orthodoxy, written in 1908 when Chesterton was only 34, is his best known and most often referenced work and a book I have often considered reading. My assumption, based on the title, was that the work would be a defense of the ancient ecumenical creeds that are accepted by all branches of Christianity and thus constitute the core of orthodoxy. And while there are passing mentions of the creeds in Orthodoxy, the book is actually a description of the author’s quest to find a philosophy of life that would make sense of the world. Once he arrives at the end of this quest, he realizes that the philosophy he sought already existed in the form of Christianity. This particular edition of Orthodoxy is enhanced by Trevin Wax who provides summaries of Chesterton’s thoughts for each chapter as well as extremely helpful footnotes identifying individuals mentioned throughout who are largely unknown today, as well as explanations of the ideas and systems Chesterton references. Anyone desiring to read Orthodoxy would be wise to take advantage of Wax’s guidance.
Chesterton is a most creative thinker and a playful writer. As such, the reader is kept both entertained and often confused by what he really means. His main points are clear, but his subplots meander considerably. The author engages with some of the deepest thinkers of his day such as George Bernard Shaw (pp. 6, 8), H. G. Wells (pp. 42, 83), Nietzsche (pp. 45, 48, 152), and Oscar Wilde (pp. 78-79). Each of these, and many others, represent the critics of Christianity. Chesterton exposes their faulty reasoning and actually says that their inconsistency and contradictions were what drove him to the Christian faith (pp. 115-140). It turned out that it was orthodoxy and the church that held the best answers about life, as opposed to the secular philosophies he encountered. Christianity had the answers that the critics could not supply.
Chesterton draws excellent conclusions that are consistent with reality and which have been taught by the church throughout time. For example, if there is a story, there must be a storyteller (p. 61). If there is magic, there must be a magician (p. 82). God, of Christian tradition, best meets these criteria. He declares that absolutes are necessary (p. 35) and truth does not change with time (pp. 104-105), thus Christianity is the answer to the riddle of life (pp. 126-127). Truth is found in orthodoxy, not through an Inner Light (pp. 106-108) or reason (p. 17). He positions both aristocracy and democracy as human ideals (p. 150) and demonstrates that better human conditions do not make better people (p. 169). The great danger, as Christians have always taught, lies not with the environment but within mankind. Therefore, even “in the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral failure of any man in any position at any moment” (p. 170), including himself. Chesterton exposes the ridiculous lies that all religions are basically the same and are in alignment with what Christianity teaches (pp. 187-192) and that evil is a disease, not a choice (p. 197). Secularists have wrecked the world in their denial of such basic orthodox truths (p. 201). The author also offers a balanced view of living in this world—loving it, enjoying it, yet not being completely comfortable in it (pp. 1, 5, 10, 79, 147, 157).
Still, with all of Chesterton’s helpful insights, all is not well. He enjoyed making inflammatory and unproveable statements such as these: “The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums” (p. 13) (we could wish). “Reason, not imagination, breeds insanity” (p. 17). “Mysticism keeps men sane; he has one foot in earth and the other in fairyland” (p. 31). Chesterton also has strange views about fairy tales (pp. 67-69, 76), the supernatural, miracles, and even ghosts (pp. 220-224). More importantly, the reader must keep in mind that the author was a staunch Roman Catholic and therefore his views on Christianity must be read through the lens of the Catholic church (pp. 213, 226-227). As a Catholic, Chesterton’s orthodox views as expressed in the Apostle’s Creed (p. 8) would be in line with the views of evangelical Protestants. However, his soteriology would be the synergistic (faith plus works) understanding of Rome, not sola fide found in Scripture. Orthodoxy is not a work which lines out Catholic theology; nevertheless, Chesterton’s basic doctrinal views must not be dismissed. Through logic, mysticism, tradition, and serious pursuit of truth, Chesterton discovered orthodoxy. But the orthodoxy he speaks of, found in the Apostle’s Creed, is the truth concerning the Godhead and the deity of Jesus Christ. The creeds say nothing about the gospel or how one comes to Christ for salvation. When evangelicals quote Chesterton as if he is an evangelical Christian, they undermine the gospel and the very reason for the Reformation. Chesterton found orthodoxy, but there is no indication in the book that he came to Christ by faith alone. Orthodoxy is not a book designed to draw us to the gospel. It is, as Wax quotes from Chesterton, the answer to the question of “how can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” (p. 10) Toward this question, Orthodoxy has much to say.
by G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2022), 234 pp., hard $14.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel