Not a week had passed since the 2018 National Convivium Irenicum and I was already hearing on the internet a buzz of anticipation for next year’s Convivium. Enthusiasm before the Davenant Institute’s 2018 Convivium Irenicum was evident. This kind of momentum, it appears, will continue into 2019.
At this recent event the esprit de corps of the group gathered was tangible witness to the 2018 Convivium theme of catholicity. On Wednesday evening at our opening BBQ supper we saw friends and new faces coming from all corners of the US and also from the UK. As in previous years those from Anglican, Presbyterian, Reformed Baptist, Reformed, non-denominational, Lutheran or other churches in the Reformation heritage were present. We also heard from several who made it last year and wished they could have come this year. The Convivium met at Davenant House from May 30 through June 2. Davenant House is located near Lake Lanier, SC and is large enough to comfortably host the group of about 35 who came. Here is the Davenant Institute webpage that earlier announced the 2018 Convivium Irenicum.
In this post I want to recap some of the topics covered and a few things that stood out to me which are worth highlighting again. The theme for this year’s Convivium Irenicum was “Exploring Reformed Catholicity: The Whole Word for the Whole Church.” Not only was there good fraternity in the group. The papers presented filled out the theme of catholicity quite well.
On Wednesday evening after the BBQ dinner we sat around the porch of Ridgeview house and heard each participant introduce themselves, where they are from and what interests or connections drew them to the Davenant Institute. It was great to have Peter Escalante with us this year. Brad Littlejohn and Joseph Minich then spoke to the purpose of the Davenant Institute and offered general comments on the theme of Reformed catholicity.
In preparation for this conference one book among others that was very helpful to me in understanding Reformed catholicity is one written by Drs. Michael Allen and Scott Swain. In Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation after quoting a passage from William Perkins’ Reformed Catholick the authors make the simple, but precise observation that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity” (p4). How is the aim of Reformed catholicity to be achieved? Allen and Swain explain at length, but in clarity that “because the anointing of Christ dwells within the church, the church is the school of Christ” (p18, emphasis original). This school of Christ the Spirit directs and leads with Holy Scripture.
On Thursday morning we began with a time of prayer and praise after which Dr. Brad Littlejohn presented his paper titled, ‘It’s the Ecclesiology, Stupid: Why Reformed Catholicity Needs Reformed Catholicity.’ In deference to the various speakers whose papers may have been or may be published I won’t quote them at length. The content in these papers was rich, well researched and thoughtfully delivered.
In Brad Littlejohn’s paper he reminded us that Christ’s body is without question “one” as we read in Ephesians 4. Drawing up the insights of Hooker, Heppe, Hodge, Schaff, Nevin, the Mercersburg theology, Peter Leithart and others Brad brought into focus the need to pursue catholicity as “a matter of the church’s sanctification.” We sometimes hear in objection to Protestantism that it has spawned since the Reformation over 20,000 denominations. And depending on who you’re talking to that baseless number grows by the day to 25,000 then to 28,000 and then 30,000 or more. One joke over the couple days of the Convivium was that each time someone mentioned the number of Protestant denominations their total was bigger than the one mentioned a few hours before, lol. What are we to make of this exaggerated number? The National Catholic Register gives a good answer in ‘We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denominations.’
The next paper delivered was by Dr. Andre Gazal, ‘Reformed Catholicity in Tudor England: John Jewel’s Doctrine of the Universal Church.’ Gazal’s paper brought into the present many good reminders that during the Reformation era and after the intent of the reformers was to employ “a revised conciliarism” while holding to evangelical truths. John Jewel is one example of an academic reformer and churchman who used his learning in the early church fathers and position as Bishop of Salisbury to work toward catholicity in the Faith.
After the lunch hour on Thursday yours truly presented a paper, ‘The Catholicity of Reformed Confessions in the 16th and 17th Centuries.’ In preparation for this paper I discovered that the amount of material available for its thesis is mountainous. A key resource for me was Dr. James Dennison’s 4 volume set, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, which contains 127 confessions and catechisms written by reformers in those two centuries. Though these confessions are diverse in country of origin, language and local purpose they show remarkable unity of doctrine on the essentials of the Christian faith. When we use the phrase “Reformed catholicity” we are speaking both of a fidelity to long held core doctrines by the Church catholic and also we are speaking of a unity in diversity among the Reformed.
Mid-afternoon on Thursday Joseph Minich led a guided discussion on the question, “Can the Reformed Confessions be Reformed?” This session provoked a lot of good interaction. We heard many fresh ideas for the use of Reformed confessions going forward. These suggestions were put forth without sacrificing a commitment to the core doctrines the confessions declare. This session was one in which the matter of Reformed catholicity was tested with some tough questions, but likewise showed the tensile strength of the Reformed confessions and the Church’s creeds even under such pressure.
The final session on Thursday was capped off in the evening with a splendid paper presented by Dr. Steve Duby, ‘Reformed Catholicity and the Analogy of Being Contra Karl Barth.’ This paper with a tightly focused topic was one which still gave weight to the project of Reformed catholicity that reaches back as well as presses forward. Duby’s paper ably demonstrated that though we confession to many Protestant doctrinal essentials we need not abandon such foundational realities as the Analogy of Being so well expressed in Thomas and others.
The day was closed with a session of liturgy in prayer and praise led by Rev. Craig Beaton.
On Friday Craig led us again in a time of prayer and praise before we heard a paper presented by Dr. Michael Allen. Dr. Michael Allen was the plenary speaker for the 2018 Convivium and the title to his paper was, ‘The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity.’ In this paper Dr. Allen gave some historical background to the “demise of the central dogma” and then showed Herman Bavinck’s work on “the root of Calvinism.” Bringing the work of John Webster into conversation with Bavinck Dr. Allen built on these notable scholar’s efforts to make a strong case that the “sovereignty of God” need not be the lone central dogma of Reformed catholicity, but with it and even folding it into the “simple fullness of the triune God is the root of Calvinist or Reformed faith and practice.” This preserves us from veering off into stolid notions of divine sovereignty and encourages our learning and worship in the full life of God triune in himself and freely given to his people. Here again we hear fidelity to classical Christian Theism which is a steady theme in the efforts of the Davenant Institute.
It was also great to see Dr. William Evan joins us for the sessions of this second day. I appreciate his wisdom and learning in many topics of concern to the Reformed and to the Church at large. Before the lunch hour on Friday we heard a paper from Greg Soderberg on ‘Weekly Communion: A Criterion of Catholicity?’ This was another paper with a detailed focus. It was a demonstration how the Reformed should regard all matters of the Church’s practice as vital to its life and faith and yet not be divisive on how exactly every aspect of those practices are habituated. Again the theme of catholicity among the Reformed and beyond is not simply a matter of inclination or preferred methodology, but a necessary spirit and aim of the one Church in which we are held together by the Gospel.
In the Friday afternoon session Dr. Allen led us in another guided discussion on the question, ‘Will the Real Reformed Catholicity Please Stand Up? Engaging Leithart, Vanhoozer, et. al.’ Dr. Allen chose for discussion several motifs or images from Scripture the seem to have currency among Reformed writers to speak about the Church’s unity or diversity or even its division. Metaphors such as “battle” or “divided kingdom” or “foundation” and many other figures have a way of shaping our conversations about catholicity. There can be some negative effects of either overusing or misusing such imagery. We do well to ponder how we describe and fill out our ideas about catholicity as we instruct and converse with others.
The remainder of the day was open for conversation or a trip to the lake for swimming or boating. The weather during our time at Davenant House was ideal. The mountain surroundings and the clear skies added to joyous atmosphere of the Convivium.
The final session of the Convivium on Friday was a casual evening discussion led by a panel of Brad Littlejohn, Peter Escalante and Joseph Minich. This was mostly a session of participants recapping what they learned and enjoyed hearing about in the previous sessions and some thoughts on the future for Reformed catholicity.
Available throughout our stay were many of the books published by the Davenant Institute. We also got to see a copy of Alastair Roberts’ new book (co-authored with Andrew Wilson), Echoes of Exodus. The books published by the Davenant Institute are available for purchase at their online bookstore. Alastair’s book is available on Amazon or other book sellers. I did a review of that book in this blog post on Echoes of Exodus. As before, the papers presented in this Convivium will be edited in a published volume later this year. Jake Meador posted a few thoughts on the value of Reformed catholicity here. Scott Pryor has also posted several reviews of papers presented. If you browse past blog posts on the Davenant Institute website you can find reviews of previous regional Convivia from this earlier this year. Audio or video are available for most of them. Check out the Davenant Institute FB page if you can’t find them on their website.
Brad Littlejohn has already announced the theme and plenary speaker for the Convivium Irencium 2019. The exact dates and other details TBA. The motto of the Davenant Institute is adtendite ad patram unde excisi estis, “look to the Rock from which you were hewn” (Isaiah 51:1). The imperatives in catholicity for the Reformed is not in seeking unity for unity’s sake, but to recover and to resource the core truths which began the Church’s long history or in the words of the prophet to return to the Rock from which we were cut. Yahweh God is the eternal Lord of all things and it is in him, especially known to us through Christ, the Lord, that we are sustained in the catholicity of the Faith.
I am grateful for the Davenant Institute and the many scholars, men and women, the churchmen, students and layman who support and remain involved in it efforts. The Davenant Institute is providing for the Church resources and focused conversations that reach to the past, ad fontes, while still pursuing relevance to the many issues we face in these days.