By Donald Schell
Irenaeus and standards of ‘orthodoxy’ have figured significantly in recent public discussion of the bishop elect of Northern Michigan, Kevin Thew Forrester. It now appears (unless some standing committees and perhaps some bishops reconsider their votes) that the public work of a faithful pastor will be used and quoted against him to prevent his consecration as bishop by the people of his diocese who chose him and bishops and clergy of our church who worked closely with them through an extended discernment process. In this process ‘orthodoxy’ has emerged as a line in the sand and Irenaeus has been invoked as a vigilant enforcer of it. I don’t recognize the spirit of Irenaeus in this effort.
Irenaeus comes into the discussion because Fr. Thew Forrester regularly quotes this important early theologian. I’ve enjoyed that in Thew Forrester’s work beginning with I Have Called you Friends: an Invitation to Ministry, which I first read eighteen months or so ago, before the election prompted this controversy. I recognized immediately that this book with its strong, vibrant picture of shared ministry and mission and its vision of our growing into maturity in Christ counted on sources like my old friend Irenaeus and as I read recalled with pleasure my first encounter with Irenaeus’ arguments for Christian orthodoxy against the ‘false Gnostics.’ Irenaeus appealed to the church’s public teaching and the lineage of teacher-bishops who carried that teaching back to Christ. Irenaeus claims apostolic succession in an unbroken lineage of public teaching, in other words, Irenaeus’ generous and inclusive definition of Christian orthodoxy rests on his appeal to the church’s public teaching.
Sometimes people take ‘orthodoxy’ to mean ‘holding the line.’ Irenaeus’ adversaries were teaching (to initiates) that there was a firm line and clear definition of what belonged to God and what did not. Responding to that impulse, Irenaeus boldly claimed that everything that had breath lived by the Spirit of God. For Irenaeus the theological line was incarnational, defending his broadly inclusive understanding of reconciliation (or atonement) through recapitulation - ‘what he [Christ] did not assume, he did not save.’ From Irenaeus it’s a short step to Gregory Nazianzen, ‘He became what we are that we might become what he is.’ Like the major theologians of the several centuries that followed him, Irenaeus was working to keep Christian faith grounded in human experience and open to God’s embrace of all people.
Following St. Paul, and echoing the Gospel of John (in a passage Desmond Tutu quotes enthusiastically) Irenaeus readily insisted that Christ lifted up on the cross drew all people to himself as he had taken all of human life to himself, moment by moment throughout Jesus’ life among us. Irenaeus takes on elitism, secret knowledge. The orthodoxy Irenaeus defends so fiercely proclaims God’s longing to embrace us all. Orthodoxy, in Irenaeus use, holds an opening for universal salvation, union, and knowledge of God. It is quite explicitly a celebration of the Divine Embrace of all of human existence and all of life. The rarefied ‘knowledge’ of the false Gnostics privileged the immutable perfection of God and the limited means of regaining access to knowledge or vision of God. Heresy in Irenaeus’ thinking was this teaching of a partial, exclusivist salvation – only the noetic/spiritual part of who we are and that only for a few, highly select people.
Irenaeus’ theology makes the Spirit very active wherever there is life. John’s Gospel warns us the Spirit, blowing where it will, may take us to some unexpected places. The argument against accepting Northern Michigan’s election has drawn on passages from Kevin Thew Forrester’s sermons. I’ve disagreed with some of the diagnosis and interpretation of possible theological problems critics have found in statements Thew Forrester has made, but more to the point, as a preacher, I believe that we keep an ear open to those outside of church, listen to their longing and questions, weigh the best in our common culture and discourse, and take some risks formulating Good News of God’s work among us. Even Episcopalians who attend church most frequently spend most of their time living outside church working with people who think out-of-church thoughts. Good preachers, faithful preachers DO make mistakes. Lively engaged preachers must make mistakes sometimes. The theological risks we take in public become part of the church’s great conversation. The discovery (or blunder) any one of us happens on (or into) preaching has far more power as it is appropriated, corrected, reshaped, and blessed (or rejected) by the community to which we’re preaching. Our faithful task is to tell the great story of God’s love for us in Jesus and include and bless as much of our people’s experience in it as we can.
From Irenaeus on through the first seven ecumenical councils, the steady impetus of the original definition of orthodoxy was to celebrate how completely and how intimately God has joined God’s self to us, our humanity, and our world and how our genuine knowledge of God is experience of being drawn into God in Christ. Not just in Irenaeus, but throughout the great Christological controversies of the first eight centuries, orthodoxy consistently rejected enlightened, high-minded efforts to narrow, refine, protect, and make wholly consistent the church’s faith and practice. Sometimes (as in the third council designating Mary as Theotokos, bearer or birth-giver of God) they dignified unauthorized local liturgical innovations by allowing the new words to carry the doctrinal weight of demonstrating how completely God had taken on our life and experience.
I DO want to be held accountable for my preaching by Irenaeus’ underlying standard of orthodoxy, one I strive to live into. I ask myself: Am I as a preacher consistently looking for the words, stories, and interpretation of Biblical and other inspired texts that make God’s action among us clearer and more evident to even the most ordinary listener? Am I committed enough to being a guide and catalyst in that search to risk making some serious mistakes? Do I (and the congregation over time) have an unfolding discovery that in our preaching conversation (including its missteps and blunders) ‘we have the mind of Christ’? I’m grateful for the dead-ends that I’ve explored as a preacher, and even for the blunders I’ve made. I’m profoundly grateful that it’s been a real conversation challenged by the real experience and faith of people I’ve had the privilege of preaching with. I’m glad that after thirty-seven years, I can tell a congregation that I and we are still learning, still trying to find words that are sharp enough or evocative enough to point compellingly toward the mystery of perfect Love. I’ve argued elsewhere that such risk-taking is exactly the orthodoxy that the church of the first eight centuries was struggling to protect.
Watching our church, hearing bishops and standing committees across the whole Episcopal Church report that they’ve been poring over the preaching of a missionary theologian, checking the ‘orthodoxy’ of every word and phrase, because this pastor is now bishop-elect of Northern Michigan troubles me. My experience of thirty-seven years of priesthood is that our Episcopal churches preachers have gotten steadily better. We’re trying to preach honestly, to speak to human experience, to read Scripture with love and passion, and to take risks. Why would we subject any preacher who is actively engaged in pastoral and missionary theology to a line by line scrutiny of sermons-once-preached to see if phrases drawn from ancient Christian and contemporary cultural sources might be taken to imply something that deviates from a central ‘core of orthodoxy.’ Irenaeus’ insistent definition of the central core of orthodoxy would have us bend the opposite direction. Christ has taken all things on or into himself.
Are we giving orthodoxy a bad name? Or is it that others - our own schismatics and some Anglicans in the Global South - have already made orthodoxy problematic for us, except that now we know no way to reclaim the word but on their terms? Irenaeus’ orthodoxy isn’t a tight, closed fellowship, but a broad, moving river. He boldly innovates and embellishes to make clear his conviction that the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ is, in Christ, embracing the whole world, that every moment and aspect of Jesus’ living and dying is saturated with God’s presence and has its own power to unite us to God, and that the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.