Today, June 28, we celebrate with our Roman Catholic siblings the Feast Day of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (202 CE). In my Sabbath rest I’ve been rereading “Against Heresies” and “Proof of the Apostolic Preaching” (for an entry level text see Irenaeus of Lyons by Robert M. Grant).
I see Irenaeus as one of the most significant early church fathers as he is a precedent to the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition. Justo L. González was the first to outline “three types of theology” generally considered to be orthodox expressions of the Christian faith, each tracing back to the earliest centuries of the church (see González, Christian Thought Revisited). Dorothee Sölle described these types as 1. orthodox/conservative 2. liberal 3. radical/liberation theology (see Sölle, Thinking about God). Missiologists Bevans and Schroeder outline these three types/paradigms of theology as Type A. Tertullian in Rome, conservative, emphasizing law. Type B. Origen in Alexandria, liberal, emphasizing truth. Type C. Irenaeus representing Antioch, liberation, emphasizing history (see Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 2004).
Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in the region of Asia Minor. Antioch was the principal city of the area and the place where Christianity was first recognized as a distinct religion in its own rite (Acts 11:25-26). Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch in the formative years of the church, and Polycarp served as Bishop of nearby Smyrna in the same region. Scholars believe that Matthew, John, Revelation, and many of Paul’s letters were a product of the early Christian communities there. Irenaeus was deeply influenced by these leaders, and through Polycarp, who was likely a direct disciple of John, was one generation removed from the first apostles. He migrated to the Roman frontier city of Lyons in Gaul but brought a distinct Antiochian theology with him.
Unlike Tertullian, Irenaeus was not a brilliant lawyer. Unlike Origen, he was also not a keen academic. He was the pastor of a Christian outpost in a frontier town, and his theology bears the mark of a practical theologian who was engaged in ministry as a practitioner. In fact, he warned against criticism of the “simplicity of the holy presbyters” and “how much better a simple religious man is than a blasphemous and impudent sophist” (Against Heresies, V. 20:2) (Sophist: paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric in ancient Greece). González shows that Type C is the oldest stream of Christian theology, closer to the original witnesses collected in the New Testament and influenced by the sub-apostolic tradition. Whereas Tertullian and Origen were deeply immersed in Hellenistic culture, rooted in Platonic philosophy and Roman law, Irenaeus produced a theology that was both less legalistic and less abstract.
Bevans and Schroeder place Wesleyan theology in this stream, with some emphases being a holistic understanding of salvation, the pairing together of both works of piety and works of justice and mercy, the ongoing activity of the Spirit in our daily lives today, and a reformist impulse.
So, when groups break off of Methodism in the name of preserving “orthodox theology” I always find this intriguing. There has never been a single “orthodox theology” in history. Tracing back even to the four Gospels we see distinct theologies that reflect the writers/communities’ contextual circumstances. Another odd dimension of this claim is that a focus on law, couched in terms of perfecting grace and sanctification is a distinct Wesleyan contribution. It is true that this is one Wesleyan distinctive, but certainly not unique among the various theologies of the world. One might just as easily argue that prevenient grace, or the integration of “waves of grace,” are the true Wesleyan distinctives. The fact of the matter is, Wesleyanism, was not formed from a distinct doctrinal emphasis, but rather a “practical divinity” worked out in the process of mission (see Beck with Acevedo, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions).
In reality, the term “orthodoxy” has been weaponized by various extremist camps, to discredit groups that don’t agree with them. This is not dissimilar to the conflict Jesus experienced with some of the religious leaders. The three primary religious sects within Judaism in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The two dominate religious groups, Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to have certain ideas around how their ancestry and their interpretation of God’s law placed them in an elite and superior class (Matt 3: 7-9, Mark 10:5).
Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14; 23:16, 24). Their eye condition was connected to a deadly heart condition, which he described as pōrōsis (hardened) kardia: (heart) (Mark 3:5). In several of those encounters, Jesus highlighted their diminished way of seeing others, their overly fixed views, and their stubborn resistance to take on the posture of a learner. Their rigid, hard-eyed, surety of knowing led them to accuse Jesus of hanging out with sketchy unclean people and ultimately to indict him as a fraudulent messiah. I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to hold orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy together as of equal importance.
The weaponization of “orthodoxy” bears a strong resemblance to the legalistic attitude Jesus confronted.
Irenaeus challenged some of the Platonic assumptions that the spiritual and physical were incompatible. He could hold the goodness of creation and its current fragmentation together in tension. He saw the incarnation of Jesus as God’s intention before the creation of the universe, “because the Word, Fashioner of all, preformed in Adam the future plan for humanity around the Son of God” (AH, III, 22:3). Some of Irenaeus’ more well-known statements like, “Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is” (AH, V. PR) has certainly been taken up into Methodist theology. But so has, “The glory of God is the human fully alive” (AH, IV, 20.7) and how that can be held together with “But we do now receive a certain portion of His Spirit, tending towards perfection, and preparing us for incorruption, being little by little accustomed to receive and bear God” (AH, V, 20.1).
Irenaeus gave us a grace-centered, holistic, and inclusive vision of human flourishing, that has been core to the people called Methodists. The seeds of these ideas were taken up by liberation theologians who recognized how the physical embodiment of God’s justice could free the marginalized and the oppressed, while simultaneously threatening the powerful and the comfortable.
I will remain a post-separation United Methodist. There are parts of my denomination I don’t love. But one distinct Wesleyan posture that we talk little about is a commitment to reform from within. Wesley gave his life to that. What a sad thing it is that people would weaponize the word “orthodox” in such a small-minded and legalistic way. Which orthodox are we referring to? The stream of theology that arose with Tertullian, Origen, or Irenaeus? Each of them had distinct emphases in their theological systems, but each is an orthodox expression of the Christian faith.
In Against Heresies, through cataloguing and deconstructing the various Gnostic misinterpretations of Jesus, Irenaeus provides to “the Church dispersed throughout the world” a “uniform faith” … “received from the apostles and their disciples” in “one God the Father almighty … and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit … the birth from the Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension of the beloved Jesus Christ our Lord in the flesh into the heavens, and his coming from the heavens in glory of the Father to ‘recapitulate all things'” (AH, I.10.1) I am a United Methodist who with Irenaeus confesses that faith and believes in a fully inclusive church where all can serve together equally. With Irenaeus I’m convinced that we need to have the humility to know we cannot find solutions for all the questions raised in the Scriptures (AH, II. 28.2), that God is still active and alive in human history today, that redemption is less about some kind of legal transaction, and more about Jesus drawing us into his victory over the forces of darkness and death (AH III, 19.3).
Wesley, a practical theologian who worked out his theology in fields and on horseback in the process of mission said things like, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.” And “If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.” And “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
Perhaps on this Feast Day of Irenaeus we can get some historical perspective and focus on the essentials that bind us together, rather than using our distinctions to judge, divide, and dismiss. A passion for orthodoxy “right opinion” can become harmful when it’s used as a weapon, no matter what camp you are in. Holding that passion together with orthopraxy (“right practice”), and orthopathy (“right pathos”), or a right heart centered in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, gives us a way to disagree in love.