The Thrill of Orthodoxy received Christianity Today’s 2022 award of merit for Book of the Year in the theological category, and it was deserved. Trevin Wax, who wears many hats, is concerned that, in a world filled with information and disinformation, it has never been more important to reach back to old, foundational truths tested by time as we attempt to move forward (p. 7). As every generation risks losing the wonder of truth (p. 6), Wax points us toward orthodoxy, as embodied in the ancient creeds, especially the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian (pp. 13-19). “Orthodoxy has come to mean conformity with Scripture as agreed upon by the church” (p. 8). Of course, this raises the question of which church. Wax’s response would be that these are the truths which have “been believed ‘everywhere, always, and by all,’” (this is often called “classic Christianity”) (p. 9). Yet, while the three ecumenical creeds are accepted universally by Christianity, there are parts in which disagreements continue to exist. For example: Jesus’ descension to the dead (Apostles’), the meaning of baptism for forgiveness of sins (Nicene), Christ’s descension to hell (Athanasian), and the meaning of “those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire” (Athanasian).
Wax sees creeds as guardians that keep us on track and are faithful summaries of Scripture (p. 10), but they do not address all theological issues or details. For example, the creeds do not offer a comprehensive soteriology, which is why the Catholic church, Greek Orthodox, and Reformed Calvinists can all agree with the creeds and yet disagree strongly on how one comes to salvation, not to mention the five solas of the Reformation. For this reason, confessions, and other statements of faith, have been drafted by various smaller segments of the church (pp. 11-12). Creeds are few; confessions are many.
The author is deeply troubled about orthodoxical drift and not only devotes chapter two to this concern but, throughout the book, references some of the important historical deflections and battles. He separates heresy (serious deviation from orthodoxy) from error (less important drift that, if left unchecked, can steer us towards heresy) (p. 10). While Wax is strong on examples of ancient errors and heresies (such as Arianism, pp. 88-99), he is extremely weak on modern ones. He does reference the fallacy of the emergent church (pp. 41-42) but gives no specifics an neither identifies nor quotes the heretics (he gives an example of Rob Bell (p. 104) but does not use his name, leaving the reader to conjecture who he is referencing). This is a major weakness of The Thrill of Orthodoxy. Without specifics, contemporary heresies can continue to hide out. Who, today, is drifting and who are the heretics? Wax does not say. He does, in general, warn concerning those who would pit deeds against creeds (p. 59), of losing our wonder of orthodoxy (p. 27), of thinking we can live the Christian life—or even know our mission—without theology, (p. 73), of weaponizing one truth against other truths (p. 85), of the danger of always adapting Christianity to the point where we lose our hold of any Christianity to adapt (p. 175), and of getting involved in lesser battles (p. 136), all of which is greatly appreciated. But without specifics, without names, quotes, movements, or current drifts, these become statements to which we cry out “amen” but remain ignorant of what we are affirming. Throughout the book, I wrote in the margin, “specifics.” Just who or what is he talking about? Without such, we can all nod agreement to the importance of orthodoxy while we merrily drift into heresy, without knowing it. Wax quotes Pascal on this very issue, “When everyone is moving toward depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops, he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point” (p. 192). This is an excellent comment, but what is the application for today’s Christian?
Another concern has to be Wax’s own drift. Standing firmly for orthodoxy, as expressed in the creeds, his quotes and “heroes” are suspect: Dorothy Sayers is an Anglican (pp. 8, 77); G. K. Chesterton, to whom he is “indebted,” was a Roman Catholic (pp. 51, 99, 195, 198); Francis and Clare of Assisi (p. 60) were Roman Catholic mystics; Soren Kierkegaard (pp. XI, 63) was an existentialist; Thomas Aquinas was a Roman Catholic theologian (p. 71), and Thomas Oden (pp. 186-188) was a principle leader in the paleo-orthodox (Ancient-Future faith) movement that attempts to blend many orthodox and errant beliefs and practices).
Wax wisely writes, “Some doctrines are like load-bearing walls in a house. You can’t remove them without destroying the structure” (p. 99). The Thrill of Orhodoxy was written to shore up those walls, but by leaning heavily on those who have drifted into error (especially sorteriologically), Wax is destabilizing the very walls he cherishes. Nevertheless, I am highly supportive of the primary thrust of the book and believe it has value for the serious, discerning student of theology.
by Trevin Wax (Downers Grove, Intervarsity, 2022), 219 pp. + XIII, hard $24.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel