Wycliffe as a School for “Generous Orthodoxy”

By Joseph Mangina
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In late October I attended a conference at Yale commemorating the centenary of Hans Frei (1922-1988), one of the leading historical theologians of our age, and the most important figure in the so-called “Yale School” of theology and scriptural interpretation. His masterful The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and The Identity of Jesus Christ should be required reading for theological students, clergy, and others interested in the recovery of traditional Christian modes of reading Scripture.

Frei was a highly original thinker, gifted teacher, and kindly mentor—many of his students and colleagues at the conference commented on how he had supported them at crucial times in their lives. (He was the very opposite of an academic careerist.) Frei could draw sharp lines when he believed it was necessary but was also able to forge friendships and foster dialogue across disagreements.

One such interlocutor may be somewhat surprising: Carl Henry, the great American evangelical theologian and first editor of the magazine Christianity Today. Today it is taken for granted that evangelicals are part of the larger conversation that is Christian theology in the academy. This was not so in 1987, when Frei and Henry met in the Yale Divinity School Common Room to talk about the role played by concepts such as “narrative,” “history,” “fact,” and “truth” as they pertain to our reading the Bible. The details of that encounter make for fascinating reading (for the record, I think Henry misunderstood Frei’s project), but more important was the respectful tone and spirit of their exchange. In a passage that later became famous, Frei wrote:

My own vision of what might be propitious for our own day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism—a voice like the Christian Century—and an element of evangelicalism—the voice of Christianity Today…. [T]his is a great opportunity for me because I think no one has done as much in our generation in America towards making that conversation possible as one between friends in the faith rather than enemies as Dr. Henry…. (Frei, Theology and Narrative, p. 208).

Since Frei wrote those words, many people have laid claim to being “generously orthodox.” Sometimes it seems to mean a squishy middle, where everyone is nice to each other, and truth is secondary. That was most definitely not Frei’s version! Rather, I think he envisioned it as a space that is firm at the centre but porous at the edges. The centre is formed by Scripture itself, along with the church’s historic practices of reading it as a testimony to Jesus Christ; this involves the practice of figural reading, which, among other things, helps us to read the Old and New Testaments as a unity. (This was very important to Frei, a Jewish convert to Christianity.) On the edges we find our particular ecclesial traditions, confessional allegiances, and schools of thought. We need to be generous to one another not so much as a way of being nice but as a way of being patient with one another as we strive to follow in the way of him who is himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, namely the Lord Jesus Christ. It is loyalty to him that makes us orthodox, and his summons to love the neighbour as a central part of our love of God that makes us generous, though our living-out of these convictions is always a work in progress.

I would like to think that Wycliffe College is a laboratory for the sort of truthful, tradition-minded orthodoxy that Frei envisioned. Wycliffe’s historic Anglican identity might be thought of as the liberal, Christian Century-like part. Because “liberal” carries distracting political resonances, perhaps it would be better to speak of “ecumenical” or “ecclesial” forms of Christian faith. Wycliffe’s vibrant assortment of Baptists, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and Free Church folk would be the evangelical, Christianity Today-like part. Many of these members of the Wycliffe family represent immigrant and ethnic communities, making the College a far more diverse place than it was even ten years ago. Also part of this evangelical identity are confessionally-minded Protestants, like the students who will be part of our new Reformed House of Studies, which seeks to create a particular space withinthe College for students in the Reformed tradition(s).

How well does this diverse, pluralist theological identity comport with Wycliffe’s historic commitments? Very well, as a matter of fact. The evangelical Anglicanism out of which Wycliffe grew was itself a form of generous orthodoxy, rooted in Scripture and the ancient Creeds as received by the sixteenth century Reformers. That vision of Anglicanism is ensconced in Wycliffe’s Six Principles. The Principles deserve more detailed treatment, and maybe I’ll attempt that in a future blog post. Suffice to say that they are a précis of sorts of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Like the Articles themselves, the Principles are best viewed not as an exhaustive confessional statement (along the lines of the Augsburg Confession or Heidelberg Catechism) but simply an attempt to mark out a broad “space,” or Christian ethos, that prioritizes the Word of God. Thus, the first Principle: “The sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture as the rule of faith.” Other of the Principles, such as the ones affirming the Pauline-Augustinian doctrine of justification, the centrality of the cross, and even episcopal polity, are really by way of safeguarding that central conviction about Holy Scripture.

In a community as diverse as Wycliffe, it’s inevitable that not everyone is going to agree about everything. Even the Six Principles will be subject to interpretation and debate! Yet surely, we can all agree that the space of God’s living Word is a space where we’d like to locate ourselves. We can agree likewise that this “domain of the Word,” as the late John Webster (professor of theology at Wycliffe from 1986-96) liked to call it, should be marked by charity, patience, and mutual forbearance. This is part of what it means to be “generously orthodox.”