Links to external articles should appear in bold type.
The United Methodist News service, as well as my Bishop, recently shared this across social media platforms. I invite you to read this as what I am writing is to be properly taken in contrast to this. From the start, I should make my position clear that orthodoxy is not a bad thing, but in fact is a very good thing. Second, Irenaeus is by far my favorite church father and has been an inspiration in my life, so, if I am being honest, misrepresenting him hits a sore spot with me. Finally, in the tradition of early fathers like Irenaeus, polemic responses were indeed a preferred method of confronting bad teachings.
The first claim that the article makes is that there has never been a single orthodox theology in history. This claim is false, and the supporting evidence that the four gospels reflect four different versions of Christianity is wanting. Four people describing an event will of course have four differing accounts. That is not only normal, but supports the truth of the central event. There is also not contradiction in the four gospels that has any bearing on the Christian faith. In reference to the early church, there very much was an orthodoxy of belief. The epistles of saints Paul, John, and Peter show that as in all of their writings, there is reference to those teaching contrary to the gospel. On a very basic level, in order for something to be contrary to the faith, there has to be an established faith. Moving forward, while there were differences in the early church, sometimes substantial differences, those beliefs were outliers, they were countered and challenged, and, eventually, resulted in the early church creeds and the first seven ecumenical councils that codified and formalized what was from that moment on, basic Christian orthodoxy. Do Christians believe the same things about every point of scripture? No, of course not, but that was never what orthodoxy was about to begin with. Orthodoxy was about establishing the boundaries of Christian belief, and through that belief, proper Christian action.
The second claim is that orthodoxy has been used as a weapon of “extremist camps” to discredit camps that they do not agree with. Again, allow me to use her example of Saint Irenaeus. In his writing Against Heresies he spends five volumes, about 130,000 words being an extremist camp and discrediting the Gnostic beliefs primarily. In doing so, he references all of the books of the new testament (before it was formally canonized) with the exceptions of Jude, Philemon, 2 Peter, and 3 John, as well as the writings of other apostolic fathers and The Shepherd of Hermes, an early Christian text. He uses all four gospels as authoritative as a response to Marcion who claimed that his heavily edited version of Luke was the one and only true gospel. To use a couple of other examples of “extremist camps”, Saint Paul spends several chapters in 2 Corinthians alone discrediting individuals in Corinth, Saint John calls some Antichrists, Saint Peter calls them false teachers and predicts their destruction, even the examples of Jesus and the Pharisees that are given in the article are proof of an orthodox faith, for if the words of Jesus are not orthodox, what can be? In short, there have always been things that are out of bounds, and it is not weaponization to say so.
As can be predicted at this point, some quotes from John Wesley and his Catholic Spirit sermon. It is an excellent sermon, and one every Wesleyan ought to read frankly. It is also one of the most improperly quoted sermons that he wrote. Should we all be of the ‘catholic spirit’? Yes, by all means we should be, as Wesley describes in his sermon. He does go to some lengths however to show us what it is not as well.
“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”
There have been a good many books written on the Latitudinarians of 17th century Europe, but in short, they believed that adhering to, among other things, that specific doctrines did not matter. To be fair, there is much more to it, but for the purposes of this writing, it is the doctrinal indifference that matters. The Wesley quotes are great, and he certainly preached them, but in their proper context, they do not mean, or include, an indifference to doctrine, rather quite the opposite. The proper catholic spirit exists within one being “fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.” To paraphrase, having an orthodox faith. So then, even Wesley properly understood seems to be part of an “extremist camp”.
The author raises a question of whose orthodoxy are we to follow, that of Tertullian, Origen, or Irenaeus? A historical note should be mentioned here. The second council of Constantinople at the very least condemned some of Origen’s teachings, and Tertullian at least flirted with Montanism, so they may not be the best examples to use. The question however is not only valid, but of huge importance. Whose orthodoxy indeed? The author reveals an at best incomplete view and understanding of orthodoxy. The question has never been whose orthodoxy to follow. If you ask this question, you simply do not understand what orthodoxy is. It is not a matter of whose orthodoxy at all. The orthodox Christian faith is not the property of any singular theologian or lay person. It is contained in the great creeds of the church and the seven ecumenical councils. It is the property of the church, and as the head of the church, Christ Himself. Whose orthodoxy do we follow? The orthodoxy of Jesus the Christ, anything else is, as Wesley eloquently said, “is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”