Over the years we have said a number of things about what it means to be a “Reformed Irenic” thinker. In one of our very first essays, Peter Escalante laid out some guiding principles. A bit later we applied this to eccesiological matters. A little later we also examined the way in which one can be both “irenic” and “polemical,” which is what we have tried to do with this website. Colloquially, to be irenic is to be kind, gentle, and perhaps even accommodating. But in the history of Protestant theology, the term actually had the specific meaning of creating peace through rational argument, and this is what we mean by it. We try to be nice, though we are often not so good at it. Hopefully, we are more successful in being irenic.
Is Irenic Theology Catholic?
A number of terms which we have used to describe our intellectual project have been in wider use among Christian theologians for some time. “Ressourcement” and “retrieval” are two which appear throughout the 20th century, and we have self-applied them particularly as pertaining to recovering the actually lost legacy of Magisterial Protestantism. These terms are not unique to Protestantism, however. The recent book Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, in its introductory chapter, gives a helpful summary of the most famous retrieval movements of the last century, though one could push back even earlier to the 19th century’s great interest in church union and its recovery of patristic studies. Of course, the word “catholic” is perhaps the biggest branding term in Christendom, and we should say that we have purposely avoided using it in our primary description.
It is true that most of our writers have used the expression “Reformed Catholic” in some sense in the past, but we unashamedly reserve the right to subject the meaning of that nomenclature to scrutiny in the light of the obvious tendency for thinkers, even historically informed ones, to infuse it with stipulated meaning of an unreformed character. For many, to be “catholic” is to find points of commonality with Roman Catholics and to avoid points of difference. In the worst cases it takes on an ethos which privileges the first eight or nine centuries of the Christian Church over the medieval and Reformation developments. But this almost always depends upon a certain sort of romantic nostalgia and a glossing over of important distinctions which were better clarified at later points in history. As we regularly try to point out, the Reformers claimed that their essential doctrines were already catholic and in no need of supplementation. To be a “Reformed Catholic” in the 17th century meant to be a Reformed theologian with a pan-Protestant vision. The via media actually ran between Geneva and Augsburg. We are happy to be dubbed “catholic” in the sense of being historically-minded, intellectually cosmopolitan, or even culturally pro-Christendom, but we deny that this places any burden on us to approximate deformed doctrine, liturgy, or practice. We believe that the old controversies were decisively answered, at least on their essential points, by the Protestant Reformers, and we deny that subsequent theological or historiographical developments have changed this in any great way.
We have therefore chosen to use the expression “Reformed Irenic” in describing our vision. In some ways this helps us stand out from a crowded and unclear field. But it isn’t just a branding move. We believe that a Reformation-based irenical theology is precisely the need of our day. And so what does that mean?
The Role of Reason
It does all start with reason. We often speak of “natural philosophy” and “natural theology,” but by this all we really mean is that we must not be content with allowing mediating authority structures to settle questions, not by actually answering them but rather by asserting their own claims in the place of answers and disallowing further criticism or scrutiny. This is especially true for pious-sounding intellectual authorities. “Worldview,” “presuppositions,” “communities,” “values,” “commitments,” and even “virtue” are all terms used to prop up irreducibly subjective authorities in place of reasoned persuasion. This is why we routinely speak negatively of the “Retreat to Commitment.” We do intend to tip our hat to W. W. Bartley’s important work, but most basically we are speaking of the negative intellectual phenomena which he so pithily named. We agree with his critique while finding his solution empty and unworkable. A more orthodox counterpoint, though lacking the importantly catchy title, is Auguste Lecerf, particularly his An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck’s Prolegomena is also an anchor on this same point.
This does not lead to a rationalism because we believe and profess reason to be a common possession, a reflection of an external reality which is revealed to all mankind and inescapably so. The necessity of philosophical first principles is self-evident, and this does not depend upon specific interpretative artifacts to demonstrate. Axioms are axiomatic precisely because their denial leads to immediate absurdity and impossibility. We might say it simply this way: General revelation is both revelation, it comes from God and outside of ourselves, and it is general, all mankind possesses it because of the nature of creation and humanity’s being created in the image of God.
The role of reason is important because it protects knowledge from becoming a product of power. The various subjective “commitments” do terminate in some authority structure having the last word and requiring submission. If this terminal point is God, then we still have a reasonable account, for at least two reasons. First, God really is self-existent and the authoritative creator of all things. His authority claims are just true. Secondly, all men stand equally before His face, coram deo as the saying goes. God’s existence is not the same thing as our interpretation of His existence, and so He remains immediate. Professing belief in Him is perfectly rational and requires no retreat.
However, if we place the authority in our mediating interpretative communities or even “paradigms,” we do end up subordinating ourselves to someone else’s authority, and on matters of ultimate importance, this means that we allow them to make the crucial decisions and actions for us, as our substitutes. We abdicate our own responsibility. If the substitute is God or Jesus, then this is most pious and returns us to the previous paragraph. But if the substitute is another creature, then the old word for this is idolatry. The situation becomes worse, even absurd, when we consider that we know and profess at the beginning that creatures are limited and fallible. Therefore placing ultimate faith in them and the works of their hands really is directly parallel to the situation of Psalm 115, “Eyes have they, but they see not.” Humans create the councils, churches, or philosophical matrices and possess all the tools to examine the conditions by which they were created and how they arrived at their conclusions or how they function. We can even see whether they erred and how. And yet, in order for historical artifacts to serve as true philosophical saviors, we must a priori limit ourselves to them and promise not to look at what can nevertheless still be seen. So the Scriptures are fulfilled, “they that make them are like unto them.”
What if the various historical artifacts or philosophical constructs are simply correct? Then the proper response is that we demonstrate this to be the case and persuade others of that fact. But we do not do this by stomping our feet and raising our voice. We do this through reasoned argument. And if we are successful, we do not simply make a convert, but we make a believer and another teacher. Our interlocutor sees the truth as well and understands it. The external reality becomes a common possession and both are the richer for it.
Following directly from the role of reason is a proper ecclesiology. The Church, it is said, is both human and divine, but this is only true in the sense that the Holy Spirit indwells God’s people. As Protestants, we believe that the Holy Spirit indwells all of God’s people, and so this means that the “divine” side of the church is simply God Himself and not an approximation, midpoint, or substitute. And again, God Himself is common and immediate to all mankind and perceived and apprehended by believers. The human side of the church is the people, all of the people, and the various authority structures and jurisdictions of the church are also “human” in this way.
It is true that we speak of various ordinances as being “divine,” and so we can say that “church office” is a “divine office.” But what we mean by that is only that God has established that there should be such an office in the church and that it has real authority which must be honored and obeyed. We do not believe that this office has properly divine attributes in the sense that it cannot err or that its authority is absolute and indubitable.
We also deny that the church is an institution which sits atop various congregations. It is not a ministerial corporation or hierarchical structure. “The Church” simply is the meeting of the people with God through the vehicle of His Word. It is a place rather than a thing. Therefore, wherever the Word is presented and people gather around it, there the Church is. Order is inescapable, and so the people will form themselves in certain ways, but this order is always specific to the gathering itself.
The Apostle Paul is the great falsifier of apostolic succession. He was not initially commissioned by Jesus Christ, and he did not “succeed” the original 12 apostles. He did not derive his authority from them, and he is emphatic about this point. Galatians 1:12 and 2:6 state exactly this, and when Paul has to defend his apostolicity throughout the 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians, starting in chapter 6, he makes no appeal to his credentials or office-bearing as such but instead points to the charismatic proof of his suffering and ministerial fruit.1
Thus our apostolic character is the same as that of the actual apostles. We are called by God, through His Word, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The world knows us by our fruit, and the ultimate and true bond of unity is the real presence of God in us equally, as the Holy Spirit unites us in true perichoresis, not an institutional hierarchy built on obedience and conformity, but the possession of the singular divine nature. The 3rd Person of the Trinity dwells in all believers, and this is the unity and glory of the eternal God.
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (John 17:20-23)
To really try to explain those verses by way of denominational reunion or the classic notae ecclesiae would lead directly to a Trinitarian heresy. We are thankful that no such consistency on the part of modern ecumenical churchmen and theologians exists, but we stand by the observation and appeal to it as the reason that we do not expend energy or emotion on a project which is neither possible or desirable. We do not create John 17 unity. We recognize it, and we recognize that it objectively exists. Our burden then is to relate to other Christians in a fashion which is consistent with the truth.
Should we have church union? Only of the only true sort. It starts with charity. We ought to treat one another the way in which we wish to be treated. We ought to be honest. We ought to seek to persuade one another of the truth. But we ought not simply demand that the other give up cherished and important beliefs and submit themselves to another creature. We make no demands towards some “unified” suprastructure which will hold us together. To do so would violate the truth of John 17.
A final point to make, but perhaps the most practically relevant one, is that an irenic disposition can cover a multitude of sins. This is very different from mere pacifism or fawning praise and fake humility. We do not have to constantly say “No, after you” in our kindest English accents. Instead, we assume a sort of “mere Christianity” as that which qualifies one for general “Christian” identification and then we enter into good faith conversation with them, being completely honest about our own positions and goals and treating them with respect and proper manners.
This is not the same thing as being “nice.” Sparring partners can be the best of friends. But it does depend upon honesty and a mutual respect wherein neither party attempts to disguise arguments or self-estimation. This is sometimes called “manliness,” though it need not exclude the fairer sex. It is, rather, a spirited ethos which tries to avoid animus but does allow itself the right to punch hard if necessary. We must distinguish essentials from non-essentials in attempting this, and we must also be able to separate the argument from the man. One will find, perhaps surprisingly, that he can play the roughest with his friends, since the bond is strongest and most-well understood.
There is a necessary sort of “protective” strength, of course, and this arises when interlocutors are not themselves engaging in the irenic project but are instead trying to either indoctrinate, harm, or “shipwreck” the faith of others. We see this difference in approach when we compare the heretics of the New Testament with the “weaker brothers.” The Judaizers are theologically mistaken, but they are also evil. They “pervert the gospel” (Gal. 1:7) and are put under a curse (Gal. 1:9). They are called “dogs” (Philippians 3:2). Peter says that “false prophets” are driven by covetousness (2 Peter 2:3) and are like beasts who are destined for Hell (2 Peter 2:12-17). John’s opponents are “antichrists” who somehow “went out from us” but were nevertheless “not of us” (1 John 2:18-19). And the difference between them, ultimately, was that they did not possess the anointing of the Holy Spirit, so that their lusts led them into deception (1 John 2:20-21). This lack of “truth” between the claim and the reality even applies to those synagogues of Satan in the opening chapters of Revelation. Notice, especially, that the church of Pergamos has, among its members, some of the heretics whose presence will bring judgment (Revelation 2:12-16). At no point is “unity” offered as the appropriate way to interact with these persons. Instead we are told to correct them, to rebuke them, and then to remove them.
The weaker brothers, however, might believe many of the same doctrines, considered simply as ideas, particularly those of the Judaizing variety. Yet they are not evil antichrists but rather those for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15). The difference is not so much the idea but what the people are doing with the idea and how they are treating others with it. If they are grappling with matters of true faith, then they are to be gently led and persuaded. But if they are using false doctrine to devour others and give themselves more power, then they are to be combated.
We should also say that any unprincipled ecumenism which pushes significant matters of disagreement among privileged Christian denominations to the side in order to have a big tent but yet, at the same time, engages in uninformed and uncharitable abuse of sectarian bodies and other world religions (Islamophobia, for instance) is not Christian unity at all but rather one of the basest forms of tribalism. While we can and should admire and defend our cultural heritage, it is not the gospel, and uniting around it alone is realpolitik rather than the bond of perfection. It is also a great dishonesty to pledge oneself to the pursuit of truth in a general way, general enough to chose one world religion over another, but to show continued disinterest in the various particular conclusions within that religion in the name of appreciating diversity. In both cases, a commitment to truth and a charitable interaction with others as people made in the image of God is a Christian virtue and duty.
One area where we would agree with some of the various “virtue” schools is the point that the pursuit of truth must be united with moral formation. This is because courage, the sum of all the virtues, is itself necessary in order to follow truth wherever it leads. And yet, as Protestants, we do not believe that this must again entail a subordination of the individual to a ritual community or authoritarian schola (or counter-polis!). No, it means that the individual must come to know God and grow in holiness. Communities and other means to this end are important, but they must always point away from themselves to the Good, and the individual’s growth in sanctification will be recognizable and something which he can always use to reflect upon his community and other tools. As our Lord taught us, the Sabbath was made for man, and so too were the rest of the means of grace.
Being a Reformed Irenic in large part means staying put and being one’s self. It means that the knowledge of God always also grants the knowledge of self, and so instead of retreating to commitment we must step into reality. Let us walk together in this project, but let our walk ultimately be The Way.
- In Judaism and early Christianity, this succession was very literally charismatic, the spirit of the teacher was poured into the spirit of the disciple. We see this most clearly with Elijah and Elisha. Elisha was not simply the authorized successor to Elijah. He was Elijah. For a very good treatment of this concept, see David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, 1998) 230-246.