How should we consider the plethora of worldviews, ideas, and beliefs around us? For many of us, the instinct might be isolationism (avoid alternative views), relativism (embrace all views), factiousness (combat other’s views), or some combination.
However, for Christians, these should not be our only options. Instead, we can engage a plethora of ideas, maintain a conviction about what is true, all while engaging, in good faith, with others by assuming they have perspectives that will help us grow. We can become irenicists. In particular, our irenicism can be a powerful tool in our pursuits of justice.
Irenicism & Common Grace
While there are numerous ways to understand irenicism, I want to draw from the historic Reformed idea of pursuing peace through rational argument. In the Reformed tradition, irenicism was an attempt to unify Christian traditions that disagreed over matters of doctrine for the purpose of peace and unity. Combined with the Reformed teaching of common grace, it is my opinion irenicists can become the most nuanced thinkers of our day.
One Reformed thinker who argued for this position was Herman Bavinck. Consider his words from his lecture entitled, “Common Grace” (quoted from and translated by Anthony A Hoekema, Created in God's Image, pp. 190-191):
From this common grace proceeds all that is good and true that we still see in fallen man. The light still shines in the darkness. The Spirit of God lives and works in everything that has been created. Therefore there still remain in man certain traces of the image of God. There is still intellect and reason; all kinds of natural gifts are still present in him…In matters that concern this earthly life, man is still able to do much good.... Through the doctrine of common grace the Reformed have, on the one hand, maintained the specific and absolute character of the Christian religion, but on the other hand they have been second to none in their appreciation for whatever of the good and beautiful is still being given by God to sinful human beings.
Could it be said of us, especially those in the Reformed world (but also beyond), that we are “second to none” in our “appreciation for whatever of the good and beautiful is still being given by God to sinful human beings”? Do we believe “the Spirit of God lives and works in everything that has been created”?
Irenicism, Common Grace, & Racial Justice
Let’s take, for example, one of the most polarizing issues of our day (and frankly many days previously)––racial injustice. The battle currently raging over the validity of anti-racism, Critical Race Theory, and social justice is an interesting case study of irenicism and common grace.
Within each field of study, scholars and thinkers have dedicated their lives to researching how and why racial (and other forms) injustice persists in the post-Civil Rights era. Does Bavinck’s assertion apply to how we approach their work? Is there an appreciation for whatever of the good and beautiful in their work?
There is much to learn from anti-racism activists, proponents of CRT, and advocates for social justice if one desires to be irenic and confident in the doctrine of common grace. But suppose there is a straw-manning of ideas and bad faith engagement. In that case, there can also be 1) dishonesty and manipulation (whether intentional or unintentional), 2) dismissiveness, justification, or downplaying of ongoing injustice that persists, and 3) an inability to actually provide a necessary critique of non-biblical ideas that might be present.
While there are many reasons why we might struggle to sustain the kind of appreciation that Bavinck articulates, I would like to suggest two possible reasons. I wonder if we struggle to (1) distinguish between a cultural expression of Christianity and Christianity itself and (2) hold seemingly opposing ideas together in tandem.
(1) Distinguishing the difference
There is far more than could be said now about the interweaving of American Christianity with American social theory and founding frameworks. However, one consequence is that, for some, to attack American values, history, and perceived exceptionalism is to attack Christian values. Consequently, there can be an instinct to reject any field of study or movement hypercritical of the United States or American Christianity.
Am I saying we should not critique or provide critical analysis of these fields of study or movements? No. In fact, that analysis honors the spirit of common grace. Good faith engagement recognizes the ability of image-bearers to communicate truth while also giving us a basis to bring nuanced critique.
Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, many faithful, committed, biblically informed Christians come to some of the same conclusions as those who might not espouse any Christian faith. I wonder if that reality should cause us to pause and assess where our real offense might be rooted. Not doing so, particularly when considering an issue like racial injustice, could leave real problems in the church unaddressed.
(2) Holding opposing ideas together
How easily do we hold in tension seemingly opposing ideas together to avoid error? Within theological study, we do so all the time. For example, as Reformed Christians, we believe the Bible teaches that God is both sovereign over all things, and yet at the same time, we are free creatures accountable for our actions. While those are seemingly opposing ideas, we believe both are true. As a result, we do the hard work of learning how to live in the tension. If we don’t hold both, our theology devolves into determinism or Pelagianism.
If we can hold such tensions with our doctrines of salvation, we can do so in other areas. For example, we can maintain that the United States is one of the more just societies the world has ever known and, simultaneously, be honest that we have, and continue to, perpetuate grave injustices. We can hold that many American church fathers, like the Puritans, contributed much to our Christian tradition and, simultaneously, be honest that many were idolatrous enslavers who perpetrated the grievously heretical doctrines that established American enslavement. We can be honest that these heresies, and many more that followed, led to 400+ years of racial stratification and injustice, which still have not been adequately addressed. We can believe that we are not responsible for previous generations’ sins while also believing their sins have consequences that we must rectify today.
The result of this posture? When anti-racism activists, proponents of CRT, and advocates for social justice present their perspectives on why injustice persists, we can thank them for their helpful assessments and use those assessments to develop our thinking.
Beyond Racial Justice
In 2 Timothy 4, the Apostle Paul calls the Ephesian leaders to guard against false teaching. He said, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (v. 3, 4). As a pastor, I take these words very seriously. Every pastor, elder, and church leader should take these words seriously.
However, confronting false doctrine is not the same as wholesale rejections of valid ideas percolating in non-Christian spheres (though there are many Christians in those spheres). That is, there are pockets of the cultural zeitgeist promoting problematic ideas, especially in areas of “justice.” For example, if someone comes and says, “the Christian sex ethic is oppressive,” “the nuclear family is patriarchal oppression,” “Christianity is a tool for subjugation,” “Group identity supersedes individual responsibility,” or a host of other “doctrines,” we must filter those ideas through biblical truth.
That, however, is not the same as recognizing how those who might promote “false doctrine” can also at the same time state truth. Is the Christian sex ethic oppressive? No. But does that mean approaches to sexual purity haven’t resulted in destructive consequences? Is the nuclear family patriarchal oppression? No. But does that mean there are no forms of toxic masculinity that have been pervasive in our understanding of manhood? Is Christianity a tool of subjugation? No. But does that mean some haven’t used it as a tool of subjugation? The point? The “false doctrines” still house truth we ought to consider.
Here is the challenge. What will we do when we hear scholars, thinkers, activists, and others confront us with claims of injustice inside our churches and institutions. What will we do when we hear about injustices around us in society? What will we do when those statements come from “non-Christian” sources? What will we do when those statements come from Christian sources? The irenisist committed to common grace will say, “what do they see that I do not, and how can their perspectives shape my own?”
The bottom line, I pray we can, on the one hand, maintain “... the specific and absolute character of the Christian religion …” but on the other hand, be second to none in our “...appreciation for whatever of the good and beautiful is still being given by God to sinful human beings.” I realize the complexity of this approach. But, I also believe such an approach leads to a more faithful witness of the Kingdom of God. It helps ensure we regularly assess the extent to which we reflect the character of that Kingdom––a Kingdom with a throne of righteousness and justice (Psalm 89:14).