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The Convivium Calvinisticum: A Report

The first-ever Convivium Calvinisticum was held last week and sponsored by the Reformed Irenics private online theology forum. While all of the writers for TCI are members of the Reformed Irenics, the two entities are distinct, and it should be made plain that the content posted at TCI are not at all necessarily the views of Reformed Irenics or all of its members. We were honored to have Prof. W. J. Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at McGill University, Director of McGill’s Centre for Research on Religion (CREOR), and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, as our special guest and plenary speaker. Prof. Kirby is a leading scholar of 16th-century history, and we were very excited and grateful for his participation. It should likewise be stated, however, that the views of TCI and the Reformed Irenics group are not necessarily those of Prof. Kirby, though we do consider his work immensely important for the recovery of a responsible understanding of Reformation ecclesiology and the early modern foundations of a culture of persuasion and inclusive political freedom. With those obligatory caveats now given, here is the review.

The Reformed Irenics theology and discussion group held its first ever Convivium Calvinisticum, June 12–14, at Laureldale Cottage on Lake Lanier near the South Carolina and North Carolina border in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As its name indicates, the design of this gathering was deliberately quite different from the ordinary academic conference format and was instead a symposium, with scheduled times of feasting, fraternizing, and common prayer, these being understood not as accessory activities to the gathering, but as essential components of the event. Our goal was to arrange a simple and intimate forum for lectures and seminars, as well as the opportunity for fellowship. Part of the goal of the Irenics forum is to cultivate personal friendships between people who know each other primarily as online interlocutors and collaborators.

I.

The Convivium began on Wednesday night, on the deck of a boathouse at Lake Lanier. There were 18 men in attendance, coming from different denominational and ecclesiastical backgrounds from the broader Reformed and Evangelical theological culture, including the American, British, Canadian, and Chinese communities. All shared similar concerns and critiques of the Reformed world, yet within a larger fidelity to it and a commitment to strengthen and promote the Reformation’s theological distinctives.

After supper, Peter Escalante introduced the event with an introduction and overview of the Reformed Irenics group. He traced the origins of the group from conversations among more sober participants in the various “Reformed Catholic” and “Evangelical Catholic” movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as outlined how the Reformed Irenics have distinguished themselves in several important ways. Whereas prior conversations have attempted to answer contemporary dissatisfaction by appealing to peripheral ideas and images from the past, placing them at the center in an effort to revise and construct an ideal ecclesiastical tradition, the Irenic method seeks to recover history as it was, through ad fontes study,  works from proper theological order of primary and secondary principles and thus keeps the center central and the periphery peripheral, and deploys both academic method of inquiry and persuasive pastoral rhetoric. All forms of “retreat to commitment” and every attempt to construct alternative Christian micro-cities, separated civically and philosophically from the world, ought to be rejected in favor of an irenic but uncompromising conversation within the public sphere with the proper methodological demeanor being modeled by an affirmation of real history and timeless truth: Schaeffer’s “real reality” and “true truth,” all the while bridging the gap between the academy, the church, and the broader community.

II.

Thursday morning began with Morning Prayer and the singing of Genevan and Becker Psalms. Throughout the course of the Convivium, several attendees mentioned that the singing was a high point of the gathering, introducing them to forms of sacred music that they had not experienced before. This conference liturgy also reflected a commitment to unite doxology and piety with scholarly and philosophical inquiry. The Scripture reading throughout the gathering came from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.

III.

The first plenary session featured Dr. W. J. Torrance Kirby of McGill University. The lecture, titled “Apocalyptics and Apologetics: Religious Identity in Elizabethan England and the Formation of the Public Sphere,” compared the methodologies of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The former was desribed as “apocalyptic,” with its stark contrasts between true and false, good and evil,  and a sense of imminent final decision between them, and the latter was termed “apologetic,” a defense of the establishment institution as a sign of a cosmos rectified by grace and indefinitely abiding. Dr. Kirby noted that most commentators, especially Dr. Richard Helgerson, have been content to see these two styles as contrary to one another. Against this view, Dr. Kirby pointed out that both Foxe and Hooker were committed Erastians, held to justification by faith alone, believed in the Reformation concept of the “two kingdoms,” and recognized the legitimate category of adiaphora. Instead of total opposition, then, the dynamic tension between the two methods actually helped create a unified public sphere and culture of persuasion which formed the early modern political identity of England.

Building on the work of Brian Cummings, Andrew Pettegree, and Natalie Meers, Dr. Kirby argued that the Reformation preaching, especially at the public pulpit of Paul’s Cross, helped create in Britain the modern notion of the public sphere and reinforced the centrality of “persuasion” as the mediator between the external forum and the inner forum of conscience. The two most preached-upon topics in late-16th-century England were the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (with a strong distinction between the sign and the thing signified) and the Royal Supremacy. These two doctrines, Dr. Kirby argued, were related: the Protestant sacramental distinction achieved a sort of disenchantment of the ecclesiastical world, but the Royal Supremacy then re-sacralized the secular world through its understanding of the universal priesthood of all believers and the laity’s competence and duty towards religion. While disagreeing over the forms of representation and centers of jurisdiction, all participants in the English controversies of religion in the 16th century held nevertheless to the public character of religion, whereas, as Dr. Kirby put it, “We are all Anabaptists now.”

IV.

The second presentation of the morning was a seminar led by Peter Escalante and the Rev. Steven Wedgeworth, entitled “What Went Wrong?” The seminar attempted to explain the two chief problems facing our discourse today: (1) secularism or globalism and (2) “the retreat to commitment.” Mr. Escalante made it quite clear at the beginning that this narrative is not meant to be historicistic, since the only true “fall” occurred in Eden. The present is not determined wholly by the past, and every generation rises to its contemporary challenges by reappropriating what it inherits. For our purpose, we wish to be very specific as to what challenges we face and what causes them, and we wish to present realistic solutions to them. Mr. Escalante explained that by “secularism” he meant both the formal exclusion of God from public matters and an overall materialism even in private affairs. This ideology originally took the form of Progressivism, a response to genuine problems in industrialization within the United States, but was later turned into a global platform with the United States as the primary leader and protector. Its basic tenet is the rule by sociological experts and a positivist confidence in scientism. and it regards all religion which makes public truth claims a dangerous and destabilizing force. The churches reacted variously, usually badly, to this. The mainline Protestant churches in the US chose largely to withdraw, for reasons partly externally imposed upon them, but partly self-imposed in an effort to distinguish and protect themselves from new and numerous Roman Catholic arrivals, and this withdrawal took two primary forms: “fundamentalist” reaction, and “liberal” accommodation, neither of which was wisdom or fidelity.

Pastor Wedgeworth took up the conversation here, noting that he would focus on the radical decline in the Protestant seminary system. Whereas Old Princeton really had served as a headquarters for an American Public religious discourse, this place was lost with Old Princeton’s fall. As late as B. B. Warfield, Princeton professors were writing on a wide variety of subjects and gaining a serious audience across the world; hardly anyone at Westminster and no one at RTS achieved that same stature. J. Gresham Machen had intended Westminster Theological Seminary to continue the confessional tradition of Old Princeton, but this vision was almost immediately sidetracked. This occurred in part because of the political landscape of the day, but also through the addition of Dutch thinkers and theological concepts which gave Westminster a separatist posture in both philosophy and ecclesiology. As noted in Clair Davis’ memoir, The Significance of Westminster Seminary For Today, agreeing with Van Til was the essential mark of orthodoxy at Westminster, so much so that orthodox stalwart Harold O. J. “Joe” Brown was disqualified from membership on the faculty for his overly broad and inclusive attitude. This separatist posture reduced Westminster to a small and fractious theological tribe within an already small cultural world.

Reformed Theological Seminary arose from a very different context, the Southern Presbyterian Church. This Church had originally been marked by a commitment to de jure divino Presbyterian church polity and a clericalist distortion of the “two kingdoms” doctrine called “the spirituality of the church.” It experienced a slower decline, but its leadership was eventually lost to liberal thinkers in the early 20th century.The political context, however, was such that to be “conservative” was to also be very socially and politically conservative, defending racist practices and identifying theological orthodoxy with social and political convictions. Thus, when RTS was founded, it only had one academic theologian on staff, the controversial Morton Smith. The combined weaknesses and separatist postures of Westminster and RTS effectively abdicated any place of public leadership which would be filled by the newly-formed Evangelicals, of whom nearly all professing “Reformed” thinkers today are heirs.

V.

After lunch, Peter Escalante presented a paper on the principles of natural law. With a very dense yet illuminating explanation, Mr. Escalante sought to define both “nature” and “law” and then to demonstrate how such concepts functioned in Christian thought, taking Thomas Aquinas as an example of consensus thought. To first define nature, Mr. Escalante contrasted it against the dominant modern assumption of the mechanical and material: in the modern scientistic understanding, the only actual nature, the only really intelligible form, is mathematicalized space. Contrary to this, the classical definition was along the lines of a determinate essence or an intelligible formal reality of subtance. So, too, “law” has undergone a shift in meaning, typically assuming a mathematical or mechanical character. Historically, however, “law” was taken from several different terms, especially ius and lex. Ius means “justice” or “right” and denotes what is morally and ontologically correct. Ius exists independent of one’s interpretation and application of it. Lex, on the other hand, signifies the enactment of ius and has to do with specific or positive laws. And of course a lex which violates ius is illicit and no law at all.

Mr. Escalante then considered the different aspects of the natural law of mankind. Although a participation in the divine order, man must choose himself prudentially into perfection in concrete and often complicated situations. Natural law is actually intuited by synderesis, that aspect of soul whereby the shape of human perfection is intuited for us in its archetypal character. Natural law is a dictate of practical reason, which can be described speculatively as a proposition – do the good, avoid the evil – yet it is, in itself, not of the order of speculative reason but rather practical reason, known intuitively and applied prudentially in real life action. In fact, principles of natural law are not at first known as propositions at all, but rather are known connaturally and experienced as affinity and attraction toward the good and right on the one hand, and disaffinity and repulsion from the evil and wrong on the other, with regard to ends and means of action. Natural law alone however is insufficient to live a human life, since it must always be enacted by prudence, upon which all ethical choice and all legislation and political action depends. The affirmation of natural law opens up the public square for rational discourse about public affairs, presupposing as it does the fact of a shared nature and a common good, and is the measure of just law, but it may never be a substitute for politics and positive law, nor it is a clear code immediately present to speculative reason. Then, drawing on the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas and the Reformers, Mr. Escalante adjudicated several key and controversial topics in recent natural law discussions.

VI.

Professor Kirby then led the group in a discussion on Richard Hooker’s Learned Sermon on Justification. He explained that man’s natural end is itself supernatural, union with the divine, and proposed that the doctrine of justification seeks to explain one aspect of this union. He then asked the group whether the righteousness involved in justification is imputed or imparted. After some discussion, Prof. Kirby proposed that this righteousness can be both, as it is imputed in justification, as the sole ground for justification, but actually imparted in sanctification and glorification. In demonstration, he pointed to this quotation from Richard Hooker:

The righteousness wherewith we shal be clothed in the world to comme, is both perfecte and inherente: that whereby here we are justefied is perfecte but not inherente, that whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect.

VII.

Thursday’s final presentation was “The Political-Theological Significance of Justification by Faith Alone” by Pastor Wedgeworth. Drawing from Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics and Augustine’s City of God, the main thesis was that the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone is necessary for men to avoid “immanentizing the eschaton,” yet also participate fully in this incomplete and temporal world, while desiring the kingdom of God and union with the divine. Invoking Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, Pr. Wedgeworth argued that the doctrine of justification by faith alone explains how it is that a political settlement which is always imperfect can also be considered just, and how Christians may participate in civil government and even warfare when need be, but without needing to consider those actions to be themselves uniquely sacral or eschatological. Luther’s two kingdoms, then, are a continuation and modification of Augustine’s two cities which serves to create a fuller and more internally consistent Christian political theory.

VIII.

Friday morning began with a brief prayer service, and then Brad Littlejohn presented a summary of his Ph.D. dissertation named “Law and Liberty in Richard Hooker.” This paper explained that the contemporary “Reformed Two Kingdoms” doctrine typified by the work of Dr. David VanDrunen is actually a confused modification of the earlier de jure divino church polity of Thomas Cartwright, and that it is best answered by the systematic and scholastic Reformation theology of Richard Hooker. Mr. Littlejohn defended the idea of the doctrinal harmony of Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, and Hooker and then explained how Hooker also had a “two kingdoms” doctrine but one in which neither church nor state must be dominated by divine positive law. Richard Hooker’s optimistic view of human reason thus allowed for a fuller and more practical doctrine of adiaphora which secured Christian liberty within the bounds of lawful temporal order. The Convivium attendees then participated in a round-table discussion of the dissertation itself, as well as the implications of Cartwright and Hooker’s theological outlooks for contemporary Reformed ecclesiology.

IX.

The next seminar was led by Brad Littlejohn and Alastair Roberts. Named “Polemics and Irenics in the Digital Age,” this discussion sought to outline the necessary considerations for engaging in controversial discussions online while still preserving the larger goal of concord. Mssrs. Littlejohn and Roberts explained some of their own polemical engagements and outlined the strategies which they had found successful in achieving mutual understanding and agreement, and Mr. Roberts gave a careful and very insightful examination of the specific ways in the new social media can both integrate and alienate us. Both men encouraged the audience to continue to participate in online correspondence and even controversy, but to do so in an irenical way which furthered the larger Christian pursuit of wisdom in charity.

X.

Pr. Wedgeworth then led a discussion on “The Politics of N.I.C.E.,” taken from C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. The N.I.C.E. serve as a case study for the modern political problem, a technocracy that is both “conservative” and “liberal,” embodying the worst characteristics of both Right- and Left-wing politics. Pr. Wedgeworth argued that we should learn from the example of the N.I.C.E. that Christian political and social views cannot sit comfortably among any of the contemporary political categories and options, and so that we must seek our own sort of “third way” which can take the better aspects of both Right-wing and Left-wing thought while allowing ourselves to be challenged constantly towards godly virtue. The group discussed the ways in which traditional Reformation Christians ought to be conservative and the ways in which they ought to be progressive.

XI.

Mr. Escalante facilitated the final seminar of the conference, “Engaging Contemporary Cultural Debates.” He began by explaining that we ought to be very skeptical of the concept of a “contemporary” and a “contemporary culture” with which we can “engage.” He suggested that many of our failures have arisen from uncritically accepting the historicistic and triumphalistic notions embedded in these presupposition of a distinct “modernity,” whether enthusiastically embraced by “happy modernists,” that is, progressivist utopians,  or dejectedly bewailed by “unhappy modernists,” that is, elegiac conservatives. He then critiqued the common evangelical usage of  the phrase “the culture” to mean either the city in general or unbelieving citizens in particular, saying that this usage reflects a strangely dissociative and Anabaptist mindset endemic among evangelicals, wherein civic schism from the common city substitutes falsely for spiritual transcendence of it. He then discussed the question of the vocation to public discussion of civic affairs, and articulated a set of criteria by which one can responsibly judge whether one ought to speak, and if so, the way in which one should; and then he gave a careful consideration of the principles of rhetoric as they apply in the internet age.  He emphasized that when, as often enough happens, conversation becomes contest, one must never regard an opponent in debate as merely a symbol or puppet of a position or cause, but always as a unique person made in the image of God, with a history all his own, and finally as a potential friend. The Christian should be supremely confident, not in himself but in reality, and also supremely empathetic, seeking to understand and show the common good by working with the tools of a common nature,  common reason, and the universal hope of the gospel.

XII.

(A) The 2013 Convivium Calvinisticum concluded with a discussion by Peter Escalante, Steven Wedgeworth, and Brad Littlejohn on the future “Goals and Ambitions for Reformed Irenics.” In this discussion, they laid out several specific goals and ambitions for the immediate future. Thanks to the Convivium’s success, it was determined that an annual conference should be held at the same location in the beginning of June. Other high-quality academic speakers should be sought out, and other members of the Reformed Irenics group should be invited to present papers and lead discussions. Suggestions for the keynote speaker were taken from among the group, and are still being considered.

(B) The idea of regional convivia was discussed. These would meet more frequently, and would locally continue the practice of cultivating personal friendships and circles of thoughtful conversation among Christian leaders and scholars . While encouraged by Mssrs. Escalante, Wedgeworth, and Littlejohn, each of these would be actually facilitated by members of the Reformed Irenics group themselves in their local areas. So far, conversation circles  have emerged in the Washington D.C. metro area; the New York City metro area; Grand Rapids, MI; Jackson, MS; and Moscow, ID. A gathering in the United Kingdom is also being considered, with the best locale yet undecided.

(C) The plan for the Davenant Trust, currently being founded by Mr. Littlejohn, was introduced as well. The Trust would seek to advance the task of historical research at the intersection of the church and academy in topics of Reformation and post-Reformation theology, ethics, and politics, cultivating a particular focus on the early 17th-century English Reformed, seeking thereby to bridge some of the regrettable and anachronistic confessional divide between Anglican and Reformed. Research sponsored by the Trust would be oriented toward making knowledge and resources available to a broader contemporary audience, rather than merely to academic historians and theologians, and would have, as a secondary aim, the renewal of contemporary Reformed and evangelical ecclesial and political vision.

The Trust would be open to sponsoring such research in a number of different ways, including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Future conferences and study retreats of the Reformed Irenics group;
  2. Development of online resources for facilitating continuing education and research collaboration, primarily in the areas of early modern studies, Reformed theology, and Christian ethics/political theology, a collaboration in which three areas of development in particular would be prioritized: (a) an e-learning platform for informal courses aimed at pastors, seminarians, or other interested members of the public, featuring discussion board, chatroom, video lectures, and social annotation tools; (b) a platform facilitating research collaboration among scholars and aspiring scholars on projects related to the Trust’s mission; (c) a platform using social annotation tools to facilitate community discussion of texts, for the use of both (a) and (b);
  3. Possibly collaborating with the Junius Institute in projects to identify, digitize, and organize early modern texts for online public use;
  4. Translation and publication projects, wherein the Trust would sponsor persons involved in translating and editing important early modern texts, and help pay publication costs, or else provide a platform to disseminate the translations and editions digitally, and possibly also work to coordinate the provision of such texts for colleges and seminaries;
  5. Provision of scholarships for young scholars pursuing research and graduate studies on topics within the purview of the Trust’s mission; and
  6. The creation of a semi-permanent study center that would facilitate tasks (1), (3), and (4).

(D) The Reformed Irenics group would also like to begin offering  a semi-formal elective courses, for pastors especially, in historical, theological, and philosophical topics. This could take place by guided studies and coordinated reading groups, as well as by focused discussions and writing assignments. A sort of group curriculum could be constructed through the interests of the Reformed Irenics group. Initially these seminars would be directed by Mr. Escalante, but others from the group would subsequently be invited to lead discussions in the area of their expertise.

(E) The Reformed Irenics group would also like to facilitate research collaboration by using digital archives and the new media. Supplementing already existing resources such as the Post-Reformation Digital Library, we would like to provide annotated bibliographies, biographical sketches, and regional and historical surveys of the various Protestant centers of learning. We would also like to store certain helpful scholarly essays and to organize annotated bibliographies of appropriate secondary sources and contemporary works.

* * *

The Convivium was judged by all participants a great success, and we’ll hope for God’s blessing on next year’s gathering.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.