Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Irenic Dialogue

Irenic: tending to promote peace or reconciliation; peaceful or conciliatory.

Irenicism in Christian theology refers to attempts to unify Christian apologetical systems by using reason as an essential attribute. The word is derived from the Greek word ειρήνη (eirene) meaning peace.  Those who affiliate themselves with irenicism identify the importance of unity in the Christian Church and declare the common bond of all Christians under Christ.

This is different than reaching ecumenical agreement – in fact it is a necessary step before any such agreements are possible: do we understand each other?

I have been watching a series of videos by Dr. Gavin Ortlund via a playlist on his YouTube channel, entitled Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant Discussion.  The playlist has over sixty videos and counting.  Ortlund emphasizes his desire for Irenic dialogue: he is not after winning, he is after understanding – hence, he often describes the purpose and method of his dialogue and commentaries as “irenic.”

Something of Dr. Ortlund:

Gavin Ortlund is a pastor, author, speaker, and apologist for the Christian faith. He is a husband to Esther, and a father to Isaiah, Naomi, Elijah, Miriam, and Abigail (not pictured). He serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California.

Gavin has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in historical theology, and an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of eight books as well as numerous academic and popular articles.

I was very pleased to find this channel and this effort.  I listen to many in the broad Christian world – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.  Maybe it’s just me, but there is significant content from Catholics and Orthodox regarding their doctrine, faith, etc.  I realize there is also much Protestant content, but I haven’t seen as much of it in the current conversation – in directly addressing the issues, stereotypes, misinformation, etc., regarding the world of Protestant thought and doctrine. 

I don’t at all appreciate when the conversation is dismissive or attacking, when the objective is to score points instead of to make points.  I have seen some that are downright nasty – this toward others who believe Jesus is divine, is the Son of God, that His death and Resurrection in some manner reconciles us once again with God the Father.  Unable to even love their neighbors (in the Mere Christianity house of C.S. Lewis), they even treat them worse than the enemies that they are also called to love.

What I have seen is that so much of the divisiveness is based on comparing the best of one’s doctrines to the worst of the other’s practice.  It only works to increase division unnecessarily.

What I have also seen is that when one understands the doctrines and history, many of what are considered major differences are nothing of the sort.  Not to say that there are no major issues, but clearing the field would bring focus.

Of course, this confusion is understandable when it is amateur publishers or commenters on YouTube videos.  But it is troubling when it comes from those who are well-educated in the doctrines and history.  I have seen it from all sides.

And this is why I appreciate Ortlund’s channel and methodology.  Not to say that I agree with all of it (from the little I have heard from him regarding social and cultural topics, he seems a mess), but his approach is irenic, and he is well-educated not only in Protestant history, he also points back to the earliest Church fathers (his Ph.D. is in historical theology, after all), finding value in many of them – and a common thread from these earliest fathers to many doctrines in Protestant denominations (yes, even Calvin-Reformed).

I offer a few of the comments made in his videos, dealing with some of the stereotypes of Protestant-Reformed theology.  First, a couple of the “solas”:

Sola Scriptura is the claim that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule for faith and practice.

It says nothing about the bishop’s pronouncements or tradition being invalid or are to be ignored.  Only that these are not infallible.

Justification by faith alone, judgement according to works.

Judgement referring to 1 Corinthians 5: 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.  This is judgment of the justified. 

Martin Luther, believe it or not, speaks in even stronger terms:

Works are necessary to salvation, but they do not cause salvation, because faith alone gives life.

How many times is Luther attacked for offering an easy Christianity – you need not do any good works? 

Finally, something you might never have heard from someone raised in a Reformed Church:

Icons are acceptable for teaching and decoration.

He understands the difference in the terms “veneration” and “worship”; he just doesn’t really see the difference in many taught practices.


How I see things: I thank God that He has given us multiple ways to worship Him, such that different people with different characteristics can find a community of fellow believers. 

I think the arrogance of the exclusivists (only those who attend our church and worship our way are in the Church) does more to send people away than to draw them in.  It certainly does so for me.  I have seen too many Christians in too many traditions and denominations bearing good fruit to buy into the exclusivist mentality.

I think the arrogance is unjustified given the histories of each tradition – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant; each tradition has given plenty of examples of hypocrisy and mortally sinful behavior.  Each tradition offers evidence where they have departed from either Biblical teaching or long-accepted tradition.  True humility is called for from all parties.

I think many of our divisions are based on things that are not made clear in Scripture and not made clear in tradition – and, therefore, should not be used as the basis for exclusivist claims. 

I think there were sufficient differences between and among the early Church fathers such that everyone and no one can claim to hold true to their teachings and understandings.  Everyone can find some church father to support their view and attack the other’s view.

I pray that God works to unite these different expressions on the important issues of justification and sanctification.  But on the practices in each different tradition and expression, there is no need for conformity and there is no benefit in exclusive thinking.

And it can remain one true Church.


An interesting item pointed to by Ortlund – a demonstration that he is well aware of the details of the early Church and is not afraid of pointing to the earliest of Church fathers:

The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, by Irenaeus of Lyons. 

Who was Irenaeus?

Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 AD) was a Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in the southern regions of present-day France and, more widely, for the development of Christian theology by combating heterodox or Gnostic interpretations of Scripture as heresy and defining the Catholic and Orthodox doctrines of the Apostolic Churches. Originating from Smyrna, he had seen and heard the preaching of Polycarp, who in turn was said to have heard John the Evangelist, and thus was the last-known living connection with the Apostles.

He was about as apostolically connected as one gets.

The description, from Amazon:

In a day of many and varied denominations, one might wonder what the doctrine and belief of the unified apostolic church looked like. Due to a modern-day discovery of an ancient, lost manuscript, now we know. The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching is a faithful transmission of what the intellectual Christian was taught in the second century. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, famed as the subduer of heretics and as the most brilliant Christian mind of his day, now brings us this early body of doctrine, being only decades removed from the apostles of Christ.

As to the recent discovery of this document:

The manuscript which contains our treatise was found in December 1904, in the Church of the Blessed Virgin at Eriwan in Armenia, by Dr Karapet Ter-Mekerttshian, one of the most learned of the Armenian clergy. It was edited by him with a translation into German, in conjunction with Dr Erwand Ter-Minassiantz, in 1907, in the Texte and Untersuchungen; and Dr Harnack added a brief dissertation and some notes. Then in 1912 Dr Simon Weber, of the Faculty of Catholic Theology in the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, being dissatisfied with this presentation of the work, published a fresh translation with the help of some Armenian scholars.


  1. Rev. Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and had served as Moderator of its General Assembly. According to one account, his parish church was decorated with Orthodox icons. Theologian and philosopher, his contributions to irenic ecumenical relations between the Orthodox east and the western churches was rewarded by the bestowal upon him by the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1973 of the rank of honorary protopresbyter. His theological works are worth reflecting upon. May he rest in peace: Memory eternal!

    1. A very nice example of what is possible among and between men of goodwill.

  2. Heard great story from woman I work with - she teaches CCD classes to kids from 1st thru 7th grade. One of them asked her: "what is the difference between the different churches? Why are their Catholics, Baptists Lutherans - like that"? She thought for a moment and replied: "Think of Ohio as Christianity - each of the churches is like a city, so Cleveland is Catholic, Cincinnati is baptist - like that" She said they seemed to understand her answer. My guess is that these kids will not be so critical of those who go to different churches. Since she told me that story - I have marveled at its simplicity. Seems to apply to this post!
    God Bless and Merry Christmas!