Pneumatological Orthopraxy

As I see it, orthopraxy is the culmination of the development of our relationship with Holy Spirit.  We start with orthodoxy, which informs our orthopathy, which then motivates our orthopraxy.  This development need not always be linear, but is often times, and is a helpful way to conceptualize our relationship with Holy Spirit.  Orthopraxy, as ‘right action’, is the ultimate standard for one’s faith.  In this paper, I will discuss how I conceptualize orthopraxy, core characteristics of Christian orthopraxy, and give a brief synthesis of how I understand orthodoxy, orthopathy and orthopraxy interact. The fuller one’s relationship is with Holy Spirit, the more these areas will be filled out in one’s life.

What is Christian orthopraxy?

As stated, orthopraxy can roughly be defined as, ‘right action’.  First and foremost, orthopraxy is understood as coming from the power of Holy Spirit.[1] Deciding what is ‘right action’ is incredibly challenging.  Indeed, every denomination has a differing opinion on this all so important component of our faith.  I find it helpful to view orthopraxy in two categories, personal piety and social responsibility.  These categories seem appropriate as they map well onto the two greatest commandments, love God and love neighbor as oneself.  Personal piety stands in for loving God.  Likewise, social responsibility seems like an apt description for loving our neighbor.

Before we investigate how orthopraxy looks lived out, we should ask what is the purpose.  Why do we care about orthopraxy?  At bottom, the purpose of orthopraxy is attainment of Christ-likeness as we prepare for everlasting communion with the trinity.[2]  Orthopraxy should not be understood as an end to itself, but as a means for a greater goal.  Holy Spirit leads us into actions not just for the sake of the goodness of these actions, but because they transform us into fullest image of God.  As such, orthopraxy is the mimicking of Jesus.  It is the old saying, “What would Jesus do”.

I believe Holy Spirit is present in all cultures and religions and so the Spirit of Jesus is all over the earth.[3]  Therefore, it should not be too surprising to see many convergences on what constitutes an ethical life.  However, it is also no surprise that Christians will eventually be at odds with other worldviews that do not explicitly follow Jesus.  The three core characteristics of Christianity I want to focus on are love, unity, and reconciliation (this one is perhaps the most Christian of the three).

Core Christian Characteristics

We start with the supreme ethic, the ethic of love.  It is on love that all Christian orthopraxy hangs.  As we looked at earlier, Jesus tells us the two most important commandments are to love God and love neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds us that without love we have nothing and that it is love that is greatest.  What is love though?  It can be a feeling or an action.  Something that controls us or something we choose to do.  With orthopraxy we will focus on the action part.  Loving God is giving total devotion to him.  It is saying that no aspect of your life belongs to you because you know you are not your own, and were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20).  We strive to be holy as God is holy because we were created in his image.

This means keeping his commandments, following his lead and imitating his character.  When I think about loving God, I immediately think of spiritual disciplines and the category of personal piety.  This is not to suggest that social responsibility is not a part of loving God, but that I primarily think about the condition of my heart when I think about how well I am loving God.  As I introspect, I fight to avoid legalism, but take seriously that there are concrete commandments for me to follow.

My spiritual interaction with Holy Spirit is where I find the most convictions.  I am often disappointed in the staleness of my prayer life and how I use God as a genie to wish away bad things.  I find sorrow in how little I call on Holy Spirit to guide me.  Again, I treat Holy Spirit as an emergency reservoir when my wisdom is in adequate or my own strength is failing.  I know there is grace for my failings but I desire so deeply to get things right the first time.  To view purity and holiness as desirable, to rely on Holy Spirit from the beginning, to love God like I say I love God.

The other end of orthopraxy is social responsibility.  Love is not counting the cost to yourself to ensure others can obtain what is best for them.  Jesus tells us to love as he has love us, by laying one’s life down for another (John 15:12-13).  Loving our neighbor can be expressed in multiple ways.  Saying words of encouragement, performing acts of service, spending time with people, the list could go on.  However, I think it is in its fullest expression when it is directed towards the vulnerable.[4]  When we look after the orphan and widow, our religion is pure (James 1:27).

When our orthopraxy is deeply concerned and involved in bringing relief, hope, and life to the least of these, it is not only mimicking Jesus, but is loving Jesus.  Money is not the only way to care for the disadvantaged, but it surely helps.  My wife and I make sure we give regularly to organizations serving those who are in distress.  We also are committed to living in low resourced areas.  Resources are undoubtedly a barrier to success, yet often times it is relationships that can help overcome almost anything.  Knowing that someone loves and cares for you and is invested in you, is a profound motivation that money or resources cannot buy.  It is about empowering people to pursue their dreams and restructuring society so people are the means and ends of their work.[5]

If love really is about helping people obtain what is best for them, then love has a connection to truth.  Love is about living in truth.  The most important truth for us to live in is that we were created by God and that God’s creation is not made whole until we turn back to him and live in communion with him.  This requires us to love God and love people.  To pursue personal holiness and community transformation.[6]  As such, anything done in a pure heart with the guidance of Holy Spirit, that leads someone to God is love, anything that does not lead to God cannot be love.

This leads well into the next Christian characteristic, reconciliation.  In our broken world, restoring one’s relationship with God is of ultimate concern. Reconciling our relationship with our creator makes us whole again, holy again.  It’s important to be clear though, we didn’t reconcile our relationship with God, Jesus did that for us (Colossians 1:20).  Out of love for us, Jesus disregarded his own personal concerns and sought what was best for us, reconciliation with the triune creator.

Mimicking Jesus is seeking to reconcile relationships through love.  Two things are important to keep in mind.  In reconciling us to himself, Jesus also reconciled humans to other humans.  Also, Jesus reconciled not just humans to himself, but all of creation.  What does this mean for us?  Not only are we to try to reconcile ourselves and others with God, we also seek to reconcile ourselves with other people and other people with other people.  Beyond that, we also should seek to reconcile and restore our relationship with creation itself.[7]  This means following Holy Spirit in the ways we are to care for the world and animals, even if that comes as a sacrifice to ourselves.

This last aspect of reconciliation is where I struggle most.  I have embodied a domination perspective over nature for so long that it is difficult to sacrifice personal comforts for the good of nature.  This is seen in areas of my diet, transportation habits, consumption patterns, clothing purchasing cycles.  We cannot solely choose to pursue the personal piety aspect of orthodoxy and only care about our direct relationship with God.  We also cannot just focus on our relationship with others and the world and neglect the call to live holy and pure.  We are called to passionately pursue restoration in both areas.  Indeed, if we are not reconciled to God, we have little hope to find true restoration with his created world.  Likewise, if we neglect redeeming our relationships with other people and the environment, we are foolish to think we will restore our relationship with their creator.

Reconciliation leads us smoothly into our last core characteristic for Christianity, unity.  Unity is a significant way for us to promote and protect peace on earth and act in this world as peacemakers.[8]  First and foremost, we are to pursue unity with God.[9]  Once we begin to live in a redeemed and restored relationship with God, we then can begin to move toward a unity with God.  Being in unity with God implies being a unit with God.  We then move as God moves, live as he lives.  We follow Holy Spirit where he leads, call for him when we get lost, find our strength in him.  This is a more personal endeavor and falls in the personal piety category of orthopraxy.

Next, we seek unity with people.  We pursue living as if in one spirit and mind with God’s people (Philippians 2:2).  God’s reconciliation of humanity is not just individual, but is corporate.  We are now all brothers and sisters in God’s family.  Our broken relationships have been replaced with familial bond.[10]  Again, we are drawn to the idea of living as a unit, like a family.  With those humans who are not currently following Christ, we still need to have unity with them.  Jesus died for them just the same as he died for us, we are no more valuable or worthy than them.  We all have a common humanity that make us all equally precious to God.  This common humanity is more than enough to urge us to fight for harmony and peace with all people. Holy Spirit’s presence all over the earth draws us all together.

Lastly, we strive for unity with creation.  As created beings we are a part of creation, not apart from it, not above it.[11]  Creation again can be seen as a whole unit, as moving in a particular way altogether.  We may have a special relationship with God compared to the rest of the world, but that should urge us to take special care of God’s creation.  From our personal piety, should flow into our passion for social action.  Our desire for social action should motivate us to deepen or holiness.  Holy Spirit wants to take us in and through the good things God has laid out for us to do, but they require a robust orthopraxy both internally and externally.

Briging it All Together

Given that orthodoxy and orthopathy are primarily subjective activities, orthopraxy is the way we get to test one’s orthodoxy and orthopathy.  If what you do does not reflect what you say you believe or how you say you feel, then we would have grounds to question those claims.  What we do cannot be disconnected from what we believe or how we feel.[12]  In trying to discover orthopraxy, it is imperative to investigate orthodoxy and orthoprathy.  We must be led by Holy Spirit in all these areas.  If we are led by Holy Spirit in one area but not another, it will lead to confusion and contradiction.

Often times we are less willing to put moral judgements on people’s orthodoxy and orthopathy.  However, we feel quite emboldened to speak frankly on the morality of people’s actions, on orthopraxy.  More than once I’ve heard comments like, “I don’t care what they believe, I care what they do”, as if what someone believes and feels can be separated from what someone does, as if what we do is all that counts and better than what we believe.[13]  It is quite clear that many different beliefs and reasons can lead to quite similar actions.  However, we must remember that God looks at the heart and not outward appearance as humans do (1 Samuel 16:7).  He cares not just about the act or deed, but the heart behind it.  Not just about the orthopraxy, but also about the orthodoxy and orthoprathy (Hebrews 11:6).

Christian righteousness is so demanding because God requires that we be right on the inside and the outside.  Jesus tells us that if we sin in our heart, we are no better than the one who sins in action.  These are high demands for anyone trying to be a “good Christian”.  We can’t be good just by having good theology.  Nor by just having an intimate feeling of Holy Spirit’s presence.  Not even by just doing the right things.  God requires all three of those things to be fulfilled along with love in our heart.  That feels almost entirely impossible.  Thank God that he sent his Son to redeem our brokenness and leave Holy Spirit in our hearts to pull us closer to God in each moment in the day.  It is not in our own strength that we perform orthodoxy, orthoprathy, or orthopraxy, but in the strength of Holy Spirit.

We sometimes talk about orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy as though they are three separate concepts.  We even then try to compartmentalize them in our lives, acting as though one need not affect another.  The truth is though, they are all bound up in each other.  The fullness of orthodoxy cannot be realized without also participating in orthopathy and orthopraxy, and the same is true for the other two.  For it seems that orthopraxy is an expression of one’s orthopathy and orthodoxy.  For Christians, this expression must include love, unity, and reconciliation.  These are core to Christian living.  This must all be understood within a broader framework of seeing Holy Spirit leading us to become more Christlike and getting us ready to communion with God forever.

[1] Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love: a Theology of Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2016. 115.

[2] Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love. 118

[3] Kärkkäinen Veli-Matti, Amos Yong, Kirsteen Kim, Amos Yong, Kirsteen Kim, and Kärkkäinen Veli-Matti. Interdisciplinary and Religio-Cultural Discourses on a Spirit-Filled World: Loosing the Spirits. Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., 2013. 34.

[4] Green, Gene L., Stephen T. Pardue, and Khiok-Khng Yeo. The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World. Carlisle, Cumbria: Langham Global Library, 2016. 174.

[5] Kärkkäinen Veli-Matti, Loosing the Spirits.  151.

[6] Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love. 145.

[7] Ibid. 146.

[8] Oden, Patrick. “Passing the Peace: A Pneumatology of Shalom.” Fuller Studio. Fuller Theological Seminary, n.d. https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/passing-the-peace-a-pneumatology-of-shalom/.

[9] Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love. 120.

[10] Green, Gene L.The Spirit over the Earth. 114.

[11] Kärkkäinen Veli-Matti. Pneumatology: the Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018. 146.

[12] Green, Gene L.The Spirit over the Earth. 102.

[13] Green, Gene L.The Spirit over the Earth. 147.

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