Recently the Davenant Trust hosted its first convivium in Colorado. The convivium was titled “Faith Alone: Recovering the Heart of the Reformation,” in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the recognized beginning of the Reformation. The event was held just west of Denver, at the campus of the event’s co-host, Colorado Christian University, on March 10th and 11th. Colorado Christian University’s new academic facilities and campus, located within view of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, provided a scenic and comfortable location for the gathering.
The event attracted a number of attendees from the local Denver area, as well as from further afield, including Colorado Springs; the majority of those in attendance, however, were students from the university. Though CCU is a confessionally Evangelical institution it is not specifically Reformed, and it was a good opportunity for many of the students to engage with Reformation history and theology at a deep level, that was also convivial.
The convivium began Friday evening with presentations made by David Buschart of Denver Seminary, and Aaron Denlinger of Westminster Theological Seminary.
David Buschart’s presentation, “Should We Put the Past Behind Us?: Protestant Christianity and Reformation Traditions Today,” was an appropriate opening as he outlined the foundations of theological retrieval from the Reformation for the church today. He began by noting the “radically” historical nature of Christianity and the need to be aware of change and continuity when it comes to the traditions of the Christian faith, which are both historical and theological in construction. He then sought to highlight aspects of Christian history which tend to be neglected today, such as early history and theological methodology, which included the interpretation of Scripture. He also pointed to the historian’s proclivity in emphasizing “soloists” over the “chorus” when it came to attending to the voices of the past. By this he meant that we should never study historical figures decontextualized, and that greater emphasis needed to be placed on not just the theological writings of individuals such as Calvin and Luther, but also on the historic creeds and confessions. Overall there was a strong emphasis placed on the need for the modern church to go back to historical Reformation for theological resources.
In one sense Buschart’s argument was conventional and even obvious. After all, Christians have always looked to the past for theological reflection. Yet what Buschart highlighted in his concept of “retrieval” was an intensification of this process of looking to the past born out of urgent need. Today’s Evangelical church is more impoverished than ever, even critically so, and this has been a result of decades of rejecting authority and tradition. Looking to the past is therefore not merely helpful or wise, but critically necessary. An indicator of the spiritual poverty of our age and culture is the number of young Evangelicals who have been turning to Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy and the writings and art of the early church. The problem with this is that these spiritual seekers tend to leapfrog over the riches of the Protestant Reformation and its robust scholastic tradition. If understood correctly, Reformation tradition and theology is not only as spiritually “rich” as the other traditions, but directly precursive to their own Evangelical faith.
Buschart was followed by Aaron Denlinger, who went right to the very heart and soul of the Reformation with his presentation: “Faith Alone on the Brink of Fissure: Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.” Denlinger’s talk was a contextually rich assessment of Luther’s key publication concerning justification, The Freedom of a Christian (1520). He opened by pointing to Luther’s public and literary relationship with Pope Leo X, the dedicatee of Freedom, which he demonstrated was much more complex and nuanced than has typically been depicted in popular history. He then followed this with an outline of the medieval teaching on the “ladder” of justification which clearly demonstrated the works based understanding of faith in the era just prior to the Reformation. Denlinger then noted that no pope before the time of Luther had ever defined justification, and that there was therefore nothing prior to Trent which prevented Roman Catholics from embracing Luther’s reforms. How church and European history might have been different had this occurred was mentioned but not speculated upon.
Denlinger then demonstrated from Freedom that for Luther “faith alone” was not arbitrary but the right response to God’s Word, which was in fact “two words”, the commandments (law) and the Word of Promise (gospel). Faith that was based upon God’s Word resulted in three distinct powers for the Christian: the believer becomes a new man through forgiveness and the merits of Jesus Christ, the believer honors God much more than he possibly could through works, and the soul of the believer becomes united with Christ.
While the key features of the doctrine of justification should be nothing new for confessional Protestants, it was helpful and rewarding to have its development expounded within its historical and literary context in the Reformation. This allowed us to better see just how radical and necessary Luther’s exposition of the doctrine really was.
Saturday morning began with “Shedding Light on the Two Kingdoms Debate: The Importance of Covenant Theology,” presented by John Wind of Colorado Christian University. Wind’s thesis was that the fundamental divide between David VanDrunen, an advocate of the two kingdoms understanding of a Christian’s life, and the Neo-Calvinist “one kingdom” perspective on the same question, was not fundamentally about their interpretation of church history, specifically the Reformed tradition, or their understanding of natural law. For Wind the real point of difference in the dispute was actually a result of their differing conceptions of the overall covenantal structure of Scripture. VanDrunen’s and the Neo-Calvinists differing conceptions of the way the covenants related to one another were what ultimately led to their differing conclusions with regards Christian engagement with culture.
Wind argued that VanDrunen held to greater discontinuity between the covenants, while the Neo-Calvinists saw more continuity within the covenantal structure. This difference ultimately works out into either a two kingdom or a one kingdom view. The debate was therefore not really not about natural law or what has been handed down from Augustine and the Reformation, as many contemporary advocates on both sides have alleged. Wind’s presentation seemed to provide a helpful and necessary clarification in this small, if highly contentious ongoing debate.
This was followed by Bradford Littlejohn of the Davenant Trust with ““Not a Wandering or Unruly License”: Christian Liberty Then and Now” which provided an interesting counterpoint to the presentation by Wind. According to Littlejohn, the concept of Christian liberty has, in its broadest sense, been very easy for American Christians to embrace, largely because Americans tend to think of liberty in a very narrow and individualistic way. However it is a confusion and quite a stretch when we try to see Christian liberty and the freedom of the “American creed” as essentially the same thing. Sadly for many, historical Christian liberty has little to do with drinking microbrews at church socials.
By looking back to the Reformation we discover an understanding of liberty that is very different from our own, and one which may bring some much needed perspective. Working from not only well known texts on the subject, such as Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works and Freedom of the Christian and Calvin’s Institutes, Littlejohn also mines some more lesser known texts, such as documents from the Dutch Stranger Church, a church of Dutch Reformed exiles in Elizabethan England. In these he showed that Christian liberty had less to do with direct action and more to do with conscience and a fuller understanding of how justification is lived out.
In terms of application for today, Littlejohn saw much of value in the Reformation understanding of liberty, especially in terms of combating the modern Evangelical problems of sectarianism and individualism. For Luther and others of his time, liberty was a summons to service of others. While the tasks of the community were much more apparent five hundred years ago due to enforced authority structures and a sense of the need for uniformity (aspects which have been greatly relaxed in our own era, in part due to the effects of the Reformation itself), we must learn to resist our easy inclinations, such as leaving our local church when we don’t like the circumstances, and make a conscious and deliberate effort to serve others, even when they drink commercial beer, or none at all.
While Littlejohn’s talk hit at the need for a richer social understanding of justification in the modern church, Gary Steward of Colorado Christian University, pointed to where the doctrine may have gone wrong in some quarters. In his “Faith Alone in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards,” Steward made the argument that Jonathan Edwards, long regarded as a major Evangelical expositor of Reformation principles, may have seriously deviated in his understanding of Sola Fide. This is no small matter considering the impact that Edwards has had on the development of the Evangelical church, especially in America, and Steward carefully made his case, demonstrating that Edwards’s “innovation” with regards justification could be found throughout his career as a theologian, even going back to his master’s thesis at Yale.
Edwards breaks with the Reformed tradition, according to Steward, when he relates faith to other Christian graces. What Edwards calls “faith of the entire soul” is meant to include not only faith, but love and obedience, graces which have been more properly understood as fruits of faith in the inherited Reformed tradition. Edwards, in short, put the fruits of faith back into faith itself.
While this sounds as if he is making an about face and rushing back towards Rome, Edwards is insistent that he is not. He maintains that the believer has complete justification with the first act of faith. Nevertheless, he is also markedly distinct from the Reformed tradition, which Steward sees as best exemplified by Francis Turretin. In this tradition future acts of faith and obedience are what follow justification and serve as evidence of a believer’s spiritual state. For Edwards, faith and obedience must continue for the believer throughout life in order for the believer to be justified. This puts the Christian in a constant state of pursuing justification through faith and obedience.
Steward briefly speculates as to the cause of Edwards’s turn, citing his battles with antinomianism and his metaphysical position (taken from Idealism) that God continuously recreates the world and the soul ex-nihilo moment-by-moment. This “continuous creation” compels him to articulate an understanding of justification that is not once-for-all conferred, but continuously laid out at every moment of life. That Edwards has undergone a remarkable revival in terms of interest among many Evangelicals today, makes this insight of Steward necessary if also troubling.
The final talk of the day, “Reforming Vocation: Luther, Calvin, and a Theology of Work,” was given by Neil Long of Park Church in Denver. Long’s talk, as his titled suggested, was helpfully pragmatic, and provided a good close to the convivium’s individual presentations. Long began by asking: “What is the value of everyday work for Christians?” As a church pastor he saw the importance of asking this question today, and was able to find helpful resources in the theological thought world of the Reformers in order to answer it. Luther and Calvin understood the gospel implications for work and vocation, and expounded on them at length. Luther taught three important truths with regards vocation: justification by faith freed the Christian to labor for the good of his neighbor; every believer was a priest before God, serving him directly; and every vocation was a functional “mask of God” through which God cared for his creation.
Building upon this foundation of Luther, Calvin argued that our everyday work is actually worship in the numerous sanctuaries of God, and Christians are called to pursue the common good of society rather than remaining idle in their assurance of salvation. Long noted that many of these ideas have already become absorbed and secularized in today’s Western world, especially the notion of altruistic labor, which has become especially popular among many agnostic millennials. In consequence, if we are to make a theologically distinctive contribution, we should look elsewhere. Providentially, there is still much in the theologies of Luther and Calvin to discover and appropriate in order to meet the challenges of our modern moment. Calvin reminds us that the human heart is a factory of idols, able to create God-substitutes even from something as noble as our work and career. Luther challenges us to reject a theology of glory in order to pursue a theology of the cross, initiating sacrifice and service in order to imitate Christ’s work on the cross.
It was good to be reminded that much of western culture’s understanding of the vocation of work had been laid out by Luther and Calvin, but that the theological assumptions which had allowed for this approach to foster in the culture in the first place had since been discarded. As such, we have been left with an understanding of work and vocation that may be acceptable to secular culture, but is also deeply impoverished. A recovery of Luther and Calvin’s fuller theology of work would provide a helpful corrective, at least for the Christian worker.
Following Long’s presentation, the convivium ended with a panel discussion made up of Buschart, Denlinger, Littlejohn and Steward. Loosely focused around the question “What is the Significance of the Reformation Five Hundred Years On?” the discussion lasted for an hour and a half, and brought in a great deal of interaction with the audience, especially many of the CCU students. Some of the topics discussed included the allegation that the Reformation was “over”, the accusation that the Reformation was largely a movement towards secularism, ecumenism and a high view of doctrine in relation to denominational division, and the appropriateness of “celebrating” the Reformation in a religiously pluralistic society. In the spirit of the Reformation we agreed to much, disagreed on some particulars and then adjourned for dinner.
Michael Plato is Assistant Professor of Intellectual History and Christian Thought at Colorado Christian University.