Western Orthopraxy

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Western Orthopraxy

Orthopraxy or orthopraxis (from Greek orthos, "correct," and praxis, "action") denotes proper action, particularly in a religious context. It is contrasted with orthodoxy (orthos and doxa, "opinion"), which denotes proper belief. The word orthopraxy is of relatively recent invention and has been used above all in connection with Latin American "liberation theology." It does not otherwise have a significant history of its own in the West. Because of its pairing with orthodoxy, however, it is useful for a discussion of the conflict between action and belief, works and faith, obedience to law, and commitment to creed.

There has been some limited use of the term orthopraxy in connection with Islam. Malise Ruthven, for example, in his Islam: A Very Short Introduction (1997), speaks of Muslim fundamentalists (a term he disapproves of), commenting that for Muslims opposed to modern secularism, the emphasis is on action rather than belief. "Throughout history," he writes, "Islamic rectitude has tended to be defined in relation to practice rather than doctrine. Muslims who dissented from the majority on issues of leadership or theology were usually tolerated provided their social behaviour conformed to generally accepted standards. It is in enforcing behavioural conformity (ortho praxy ) rather than doctrinal conformity (ortho doxy ) that Muslim radicals or activists look to a 'restoration' of Islamic law backed by the power of the state."

But in the West, the dominant debates on orthopraxy and orthodoxy (whether or not these terms are used) take place in connection with Judaism and Christianity. This article will examine the conflict in those two religions.


The Hebrew Bible is filled with statements that emphasize the importance of obedience to God's commandments. After his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses proclaims to his people, "So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being" (Deuteronomy 10:1213). Elsewhere God directs Moses to say this to his people: "My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:45).

In the twelfth century, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 11351204) published his Mishneh torah (Repetition of the Torah, c. 1178), in which he gave definitive form to the list of 613 commandments (mitsvot ) that pious Jews accept as binding on their daily conduct. Another milestone in the codification of Jewish practice is the Shulchan'arukh (literally, "the set table"), written by the Spanish-born Joseph Karo (14881575) in the midsixteenth century. This work presents a legal code that many observant Jews continue to the present day to regard as definitive in the settlement of religious disputes. The emphasis that these works and Jewish tradition have placed on obedience has led many modern commentators, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to conclude that Judaism is a religion characterized primarily by its insistence on proper practice and obedience to God's law or, to put it in terms of this entry, a religion characterized by its insistence on orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant (17241804) declared Judaism to be a religion of "purely statutory laws" and therefore no religion at all. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), in his early days, had followed Kant and (in "The Positivity of the Christian Religion") described Jews as struggling "under a burden of statutory commandments that pedantically prescribe a rule for every casual action of everyday life." In their view of Judaism as a primarily legalistic religion, both men were following the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (17291786), father of the modernizing Jewish Haskalah ("Enlightenment"). In Jerusalem; or, On Religious Power and Judaism (1783), Mendelssohn had stressed "divine legislation" (göttliche Gesetzgebung ) by contrast with "revealed religion" (geoffenbarte Religion ) in the Christian senseas an essential fact of Judaism.

A number of modern Jewish commentators agree that Judaism is a religion whose essence lies not in theory or belief but in practice. Samuel Belkin (19111976), president of Yeshiva University in New York and a respected Jewish leader, wrote, "Many attempts have been made to formulate a coherent and systematic approach to Jewish theology. All such attempts, however, have proved unsuccessful, for Judaism was never overly concerned with logical doctrines. It desired rather to evolve a corpus of practices, a code of religious acts, which would establish a mode of religious living. In Judaism, articles of faith and religious theories cannot be divorced from particular practices the theology of Judaism is contained largely in the Halakha [Jewish law]in the Jewish judicial systemwhich concerns itself not with theory but primarily with practice."

The issue arises with particular force in connection with the modern Orthodox movement. That movement arose in late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Germany, in response to various attempts to modernize Judaism, including the Haskalah and Reform Judaism. Orthodoxy's principal proponent, German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (18081888), saw his movement as a means of accommodating traditional Judaism to the conditions of modern life. Still, Hirsch favored a strict interpretation of the practical duties of the Orthodox Jew. In his eyes, the fact of the revelation to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai obviated the need for faith or belief. The revelation is an established historical fact, and Judaism is thus a religion of law, not of belief. "Statutes of faith?" he asks in the fifteenth Letter. "Judaism knows 613 duties, but no commandments of faith." In light of such remarks, Jacob Katz, an historian of the movement, declared that orthopraxy would have been a more accurate term for the new movement than orthodoxy.

But Hirsch and modern commentators like Samuel Belkin by no means have the last word on this issue. There is a lively debate within rabbinic Judaism on the issue of whether belief should be considered a component of the religion alongside practice. After all, though Moses ben Maimon codified Jewish practice in his list of the mitsvot ("commandments"), he was also the author of the Thirteen Principles (shloshah asar yesodot ) published in his commentary on Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah (the codified oral law that forms the core of the Talmud). The Principles cover such matters as the existence (metsi'ut ), unity (yichud ), and incorporeality (shlilat hagashmut ) of God, the divine revelation of Torah (heyot hatorah min hashamayim ), and the resurrection of the dead (techiyat hametim ). But the focus of the Principles is belief, so, for example, when Moses ben Maimon speaks of the existence of God, rather than simply declare it a fact, he tells us that we must believe (leha'amin ) it. In the Mishneh Torah, he emphasizes the importance of kavanah, or intention, in prayer. Kavanah (from the verbal root kun, meaning "to be established" or "to be steadfast") had already appeared in the Talmud in roughly this sense, but Moses ben Maimon gives the word what is quite possibly its locus classicus, when he declares, "Any prayer that is not [said] with kavanah is not a prayer."

The history of Judaism is filled with challenges to what is perceived to be a rigid adherence to the letter of the law. Kabbalah (Hebrew qabalah, "tradition"), with its mystical emphasis on direct communication with the divinity, has roots that go back almost two thousand years. Some might regard this movement as representing a departure from legalism. The eighteenth century in eastern Europe brought a significant reaction to the aridity of Talmudic scholasticism, as practiced by then-powerful rabbis in Lithuania. The leader of the opposition was Israel Ben Eliezer (c. 17001760), known popularly as the Ba'al Shem Tov ("master of the good name"), and his movement came to be known as Hassidism (from Hebrew chasid, "pious," "righteous"). The Ba'al Shem Tov emphasized a nonintellectual, spiritual communion with God (though he certainly did not advocate a rejection of Jewish law). The Paris Sanhedrin, the group of Jewish notables that Napoleon convened in 1806 to determine the legal position of Jews in France, helped establish as a principle in French law that Jews would be regarded as one religion among others, in other words, that, because religious duties must fall in place behind loyalty to the nation, Jewishness in France would henceforth be determined by one's faith, not by one's birth or one's actions. The Reform Movement started out in Germany with a quasi-Hegelian notion of the progressive, historically unfolding spirit of Judaism, something very different from traditional "orthopraxy." In the United States, the movement marked out its turf by expressly rejecting what it regarded as the religion's anachronistic legalism. The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which established the guiding principles of the American Reform Movement, contained this bold statement: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state." The contemporary world, especially in the United States, offers the Jew a varied menu of choices, from the strictly regulated life of the "ultra-Orthodox," to the secular humanism of Reconstructionism, to the mysticism of the modern Kabbalah movement.

While it might be tempting to claim that Judaism has traveled the path from orthopraxy to various forms of spirituality, one must not forget that many branches of Judaism in the modern world have emphasized praxis, but in the social and political rather than the personal, religious sphere. The Pittsburgh Platform, having affirmed the immortality of the human soul, concludes with this principle: "In full accordance with the spirit of Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relation between the rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society." The Reform Movement is not the only branch of Judaism to have dedicated itself to this cause.


The debate about proper belief and proper practice began almost at the moment Christians became conscious of themselves as members of a new religion distinct from Judaism. The debate was framed as faith (Greek pistis, Latin fides ) versus works (Greek erga, praxeis, Latin opera, facta ), and it attracted virtually every prominent figure in the history of Catholic theology, as well as the founding fathers of Protestantism.

The apostle Paul set the terms of the debate. In the decades following the death of Jesus, Paul's mission was to consolidate and universalize the new Christian church, to establish the principle that Gentiles need not pass through a conversion to Judaism in order to join the church, and finally to formulate an explanation of the position that Judaism and its laws were to occupy in the church. The doctrine of justification by faith was perfect for Paul's purposes. It demonstrated that all were eligible to join the fledgling church since faith alonenot works or Pharisaic obedience to Jewish lawwas necessary, and it assured new converts that obedience to the law and loyalty to the legacy of Abraham would follow naturally from a profession of faith in Christ. We find this doctrine in the Epistle to the Galatians (probably one of Paul's earlier letters, written between 52 and 55 c.e.). "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners," he wrote, "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law" (Galatians 2:1516). Under this principle, the church becomes universal, as former distinctions among people disappear. At the same time, members of the church are implicitly incorporated into the traditions of Judaism: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:2829).

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reintroduces justification and once again links it with the principle of universality: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Romans 3:2831). He also introduces two related principles that will guide discussions of faith and works for centuries to come: predestination (from Greek proorizō, "predetermine," Latin praedestino ) and election by grace (Greek eklogē kharitos, Latin electio gratiae ). "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:2930). "So too at the present time there is a remnant [of the Jews], chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened" (Romans 11:57).

What might well have begun as an effort to distinguish a new religious sect from Judaism quickly and lastingly came to be incorporated into the very core of Christian theology. The ultimate victory of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354430 c.e.) in his long polemic with Pelagius, a theologian of the same era who had insisted that volition and action proceed from men themselves and not from Christ or God, established by the early fifth century c.e. the position that the Catholic Church would retain permanently: faith is a gift from God; our freedom of will both to believe and to act proceeds from God's grace; God predestines some, but not all, to faith; and the reasons for which some are elected while others are not is "inscrutable" (On thePredestination of Saints, 428 or 429 c.e.). "Predestination is a preparation for grace; grace itself, however, is a gift [ donatio ]." When it comes to faith and works, Augustine is unequivocal: "faith is given first." Faith takes precedence and is the sign of the new covenant: "As the law of works [ lex factorum ] is written on tablets of stone," he says, "so the law of faith is written in hearts." The rewards of the former are associated with the Old Testament, those of the latter with the New Testament (On the Spirit and the Letter, 412 c.e.).

In the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), we find a shift in emphasis to the inwardness of the human will and the dominance of reason. But Thomas is careful to safeguard the divine origin of the human faculties that he exalted: "The movement of the will is from within, just like natural movement. The cause of the will, however, can be nothing other than God, and for two reasons: first because the will is a power of the rational soul, which is caused by God through creation and second because the will tends toward the universal good, from which it follows that nothing can be the cause of the will except God himself, who is the universal good" (Summa Theologica, 1265/12661273). To be sure, Thomas attributes to man a greater degree of autonomy than we find in Augustine and many other Christian theologians. For example, he distinguishes between two types of grace, under one of which, "operating grace" (gratia per operantem ), God is our sole mover and under the other of which, "cooperating grace" (gratia per cooperantem ), our actions stem from both God and our minds. But when it comes to judging actions, Thomas is quite clear: "our actions are meritorious in so far as they proceed from free choice, moved by God through grace " (emphasis added).

With the new emphasis on individual, subjective freedom that we find in Luther and the Protestant Reformation, we might expect to see man newly invested with the dignity of free choice in his actions. But for Martin Luther (14831546), John Calvin (15091564), and others, freedom meant freedom from the tyranny of the Catholic Church, not freedom in the sense of an autonomous volition that is the source of our actions. In Luther's view, faith and grace once again precede actions, and righteous actions by themselves do nothing to render righteous the individual who commits those actions: "Not he who works much [ multum operatur ] is just but rather he who without works [ sine opere ] believes much in Christ" (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518). Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will (1525) expressly to refute the existence of free will, on the strength of the argument that original sin deprives us of the freedom to choose. "God foreknows and foreordains [ praescit et praeordinat ] all things," he writes, thus only what God wills can take place, and "there can be no such thing as free choice [ liberum arbitrium ] in man or angel or any creature." "The Gospel," he writes in the preface to his German translation of the New Testament, "does not demand works of us, so that we might become devout and blessed [ frum und selig ] thereby; in fact, it condemns such works but demands only faith in Christ" (Preface to the New Testament, 1522).

By the end of Luther's life, John Calvin had completed his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). To the modern reader, Calvin's theology appears, as regards the issue of faith and works, to differ very little from that of Augustine. But for a sixteenth-century reformer extending the work of Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith served as a repudiation of the temporal authority of the pope and thus had a resonance different from what it had had for the bishop of Hippo. Faith for Calvin is a gift of God, as it was for Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther, and righteousness arises not from works but from faith. Works are not the cause of holiness but are, rather, gifts of God (Dei dona ), signs of his calling (vocationis signa; Institutes of the Christian Religion, 15361559). If Calvin's thought represents a departure from that of his predecessors, it is largely owing to his attitude toward life. Contempt for our present life (praesentis vitae contemptus ) and the practice of abstinence, sobriety, frugality, and modesty in that life are the guides to proper conduct.

With the age of Enlightenment and its increasing tendency to ground moral issues in nature and humankind, we see the emphasis in Christianity shift increasingly from faith to the human arena. The nineteenth century produced a spate of books, in a variety of European languages, under the title The Life of Jesus, most prominently Das Leben Jesu (18351836), by David Friedrich Strauss (18081874) and La vie de Jésus (1863), by Ernest Renan (18231892). The kenotic tradition in nineteenth-century German Protestant theology emphasized the human dimension of Jesus ("kenotic" refers to the process, described in Philippians 2:7, by which Christ "emptied himself" [ ekenosen ] and became a man). French socialist theory in the first half of the nineteenth century modeled its conceptions of social justice on a vision of the early Christian church and the teachings of Jesus. In Le nouveau christianisme (1825; English trans. The New Christianity, " 1834) by Henri de Saint-Simon (17601825), the "new Christian" expresses what he sees as the "divine part" of Christianity: "men must conduct themselves as brothers with respect to one another. They must make it their aim to ameliorate as promptly and as completely as possible the moral and physical existence of the most numerous class."

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a spate of socially conscious Christian thinkers and activists, especially in the United States. The Social Gospel movement, from roughly 1870 to 1920, encouraged followers to devote themselves to social justice, in imitation of Christ. Walter Rauschenbusch (18611918), one of its leaders, went so far as to embrace communism as a Christian principle in his Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). Reinhold Niebuhr (18921971) helped define theological liberalism in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

In the second half of the twentieth century, two developments steered the Catholic Church (or some of its members) increasingly in the direction of praxis. In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued, as one of the sixteen decrees of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes (Joy and hope; titled in English "Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World"), which affirmed the church's commitment to service in the human world: "What does the Church think of man? What needs to be recommended for the upbuilding of contemporary society? What is the ultimate significance of human activity throughout the world? People are waiting for an answer to these questions. From the answers it will be increasingly clear that the People of God and the human race in whose midst it lives render service to each other. Thus the mission of the Church will show its religious, and by that very fact, its supremely human character." The Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order) today has an Office of Social and International Ministries, whose purpose is to serve the "Social Apostolate (ministries addressing domestic and international social problems)." One Jesuit priest, Philip J. Rosato, has suggested that Karl Barth (18861968), the great twentieth-century Protestant theologian who became increasingly committed to social justice during his long career, helped, through dialogue with Catholics, to steer the postVatican II church toward orthopraxy in social affairs.

In 1968, a Peruvian priest named Gustavo Gutiérrez published Teología de la liberación (English trans. A Theology of Liberation, 1973), which served as the central text for the Catholic "liberation theology" movement in Latin America. Gutiérrez is explicit about the orthopraxy/orthodoxy relationship. Human history, says Gutiérrez, is an "opening to the future" (abertura al futuro ), and this means an emphasis on action, or "doing the truth" (hacer la verdad ). "Only by doing this truth will our faith veri-fy itself, speaking literally," he says. "Hence the recent use of the term orthopraxis, which might shock certain sensibilities. Nor should this be understood as denying the meaning of orthodoxy, understood as a proclamation and reflection of affirmations considered to be true." Liberation theology represents an odd amalgamation of Marxist theory (the last of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach," 1845, reads, "The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.") and Christian theology.

It would probably be safe to say that many branches of Christianity in the twentieth century have placed an increasing emphasis on orthopraxy at least in addition to, if not to the detriment of, orthodoxy. The praxis that has come to be favored is of the sort that takes place in the social and political world and not just of the sort that is directly connected with the rituals of a particular institution. Waging a struggle against poverty and waging a struggle against abortion rights can both be expressions of religious principle, but they are different in kind from practices like taking communion and confessing.

See also Christianity ; Islam ; Judaism ; Orthodoxy ; Religion .


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Steven Cassedy

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Western Orthopraxy