In conjunction with my research on the work of John Owen, the last several months have had me working on a treatise on divine justice authored by Jesuit luminary Francisco Suarez. This work is a very rich and nuanced treatment of a dogmatic topic central to many of the most controversial theological discussions of the early Modern period.
It’s a truism at this point to note that the relationship in the western world between religious doctrine and political theory has become quite tense and uncertain. This is particularly true when we consider the past 3-5 years. As more and more nations have adopted same-sex marriage as the law of the land, this has had the knockdown effect of creating all sorts of questions about religious liberty, the legal status of churches, the legal status of other Christian institutions, etc.
Alex Mason is a native of Lynchburg, Virginia. After completing an undergraduate degree ingovernment from Liberty University, Alex went on to complete graduate degrees in public policy, church history, ethics, and theology from Liberty University, Southeastern Seminary, and Southern Seminary. Currently, he lives in Scotland where he is a PhD candidate in Divinity (Theological Ethics) at the University of Aberdeen. He has a beautiful, talented, and capable wife as well as two delightful and rambunctious little girls who make every day enjoyable. For more than a decade, Alex has worked in the private non-profit sector, and he’s been an university adjunct instructor since 2010. In his free time, Alex likes to visit various Scottish castles with his wife and daughters.
1. When did you first realize you wanted to study Theology at an advanced level?
Like many people from the South, I was raised in a Christian home and underwent all my childhood education at a Christian school. As a result, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have regular exposure to Scripture and theology on some level. During my teenage years, however, I was more interested in politics than theology. I entered college with the intention to go on to law school and then a political career. During those college years, I underwent serious discipleship from an older mentor who helped ground me in the truth of the Christian faith as well as the all-encompassing implications of a robust Christian worldview. I began reading deeper theology, which served to whet my appetite for more. As my faith in Christ grew and began to mature, the idea of vocational theology seemed more and more fitting. Near the end of my college education, I decided to apply to seminary instead of law school, a choice that has set my life on a much different trajectory than what I once envisioned. Throughout my seminary education, I was challenged and trained by a variety of brilliant professors who exemplified the rigor and beauty of theology as an academic pursuit. God used those years to instill in me a desire to be a witness in the academy and a servant to the Church, so it didn’t take long before I knew I wanted to go as far as I could with theological education.
2. What is your particular area of research?
In the broadest terms, my project aims to excavate a theme and a period that has been formative in the political theology of the modern West. Specifically, I am working with a unique Christian theory of resistance to authority called the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, which was first detailed in Magdeburg Confession of 1550. This doctrine teaches that when a ruler has become an incorrigible tyrant, he has abdicated his claim to legitimacy and relinquished his de jure status in exchange for that of a de facto magistrate. Consequently, those magistrates with lesser authority under him may defy and resist the illegitimate magistrate (and his unjust laws) for the sake of protecting others. For the embattled Protestant Reformation, the Magdeburg Confession became the embodiment of a theology of resistance allowing not only for a right to resist in certain circumstances, but a duty. In order to bring the doctrine into conversation with more recent political theory/theology, I am examining the socio-political and theological context and content of the Confession through a lens crafted from the biopolitical theory of philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose homo sacer theory offers us a useful metanarrative about the abuse of political power in a fallen world. My purpose for this project is to excavate a theological/ethical understanding of submission and resistance for faithful Christian living in societies hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. How did you first become interested in this area in particular?
The intersection of Christianity and the state has intrigued me for a long time. Although I ultimately chose seminary over law school, I remained involved in the political arena for a few more years. While attending one seminary, I worked as a campaign manager and a legislative aide in my home state’s capital. I worked for some upstanding Christian people, but the longer I was behind the curtain, the more I became frustrated with the widespread abuse of power and lack of regard for truly good governance. Frankly, you don’t even need to work in government to see the Machiavellian bent of modern secular politics. Those experiences required me to start thinking more clearly and biblically about the God-ordained nature and role of authority as well as the ensuing dynamic between rulers and the ruled. I think my current research is the result of a long convergence between my interests in political theory and Christian theology.
4. How would like to see your scholarship impact the church today?
We are pleased to announce that, beginning with the 2016-17 academic year, the Davenant Trust will be awarding two $2,500 fellowships (or, in cases of one standout candidate, one $5,000 fellowship) to cover tuition and/or living expenses for doctoral or postdoctoral research in early modern Protestantism. We invite proposals through July 15, 2016, and will announce the recipient(s) of the fellowship(s) on August 8, 2016. Current Ph.D candidates who have completed their comprehensive exams (or, for European Ph.Ds, their first year of study) are eligible to apply, as are scholars who have completed their Ph.Ds and are undertaking additional research that is unfunded or under-funded. The fellowships are intended to support research and/or translation projects on 16th and 17th-century Protestant theology, ethics, and politics. Fellowships will be awarded on the following criteria:
(1) To what extent does the proposed research dovetail with the mission and vision of the Davenant Trust and promise to be a blessing to both the church and academy?
(2) To what extent is the scholar well-qualified to undertake this project, with demonstrated academic excellence?
(3) To what extent is the scholar in significant financial need, without adequate additional funding sources to enable him/her to undertake the project?
For full details on how to apply, click here.
In December 2015, the Davenant Trust provided a small grant to fund Mr. Brian Hanson, a Ph.D candidate at St. Andrews University, for a five-day research trip in London, involving archival research at The National Archives, British Library, London Metropolitan Archives, Lambeth Palace Library, and Kent History Centre. Mr. Hanson’s research concerns the English evangelical reformer Thomas Becon, and his writings on piety and charity. His dissertation, being carried out under the supervision of Prof. Andrew Pettegree, is entitled “‘The worde of our soules health’: Evangelical piety in sixteenth-century England with particular reference to the writings of Thomas Becon’.”
Mr. Hanson had this to say about his valuable time in the London archives:
“I would like to formally thank the Davenant Trust for it’s funding of my recent research trip to London. I’m very grateful for the generosity and support for the archival research I conducted December 18-22. Without it’s backing, the research would not have been a reality. It was a highly productive trip and the data I uncovered greatly adds to my doctoral thesis and ultimately to the broader scholarship of evangelical piety and devotion in Reformation England. . . .
Given that Thomas Becon and his evangelical contemporaries wrote much on poor relief and how individuals should give to the poor of London, my primary objective was to survey a sample of poor relief records in London’s churches in between 1550 and 1553, and 1558 to 1575. After 1552 due to the influence of Becon and other evangelicals, churches were required by Parliament to give to the poor. However, not all church record books from this period contain financial records. Those churches that did record their poor relief activity tended to be very specific, regimented, and generous in the way they gave. . . .
While the data I discovered in the church record books and letters will further advance scholarship in the areas of poor relief and piety in early modern England, it also specifically benefits the evangelical church today by providing a healthy model for it to follow. In the past 50 years, many evangelical churches have reacted to the social agenda of liberal churches by almost entirely abandoning social concerns such as poor relief. Thomas Becon and other evangelicals saw no difference between the gospel and poor relief. Poor relief was an extension of the gospel. Evangelical churches across London freely and indiscriminately gave to the poor. The regular, organized, and systematic poor relief of these churches is a helpful example for churches today. It is possible to be evangelical and generous to the poor without abandoning the pure gospel. Biblical poor relief is ultimately giving to Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:31–46).”
Gregory Soderberg, a Christian school teacher and Ph.D candidate at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, has spent the last several years researching the practice (or non-practice) of weekly communion in the Reformed churches throughout their history, and the theological arguments for or against it. In December 2014 he launched, with the Davenant Trust’s support, a crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe.com to raise support for his annual study stints in Amsterdam. Mr. Soderberg’s dissertation is provisionally titled “‘As Often as You Eat this Bread’: The Historical Backgrounds of the Weekly Communion Debate in the Reformed Tradition, with Special Reference to the American Reformed Churches”
The Davenant Trust committed to match the first $1,250 donated, thus covering the $2,500 Gregory needs for his travel and study in the coming year. Over two months, the fundraiser raised 90% of its target. Mr. Soderberg expressed his surprise at such a successful fundraiser and said, “I’m incredibly thankful for the support and generosity of the Davenant Trust!”
Mr. Soderberg summarizes the importance of his research as follows:
It is well known that John Calvin desired to hold weekly communion services in both Strasbourg and Geneva. However, many in the Reformed tradition have rejected this idea. Infrequent communion is the norm and weekly communion is a minority practice in Reformed churches. In some Reformed polemics, weekly communion is viewed as a “Roman Catholic” practice. From the perspective of historical theology, this study is relevant because it will provide the first systematic examination of the debate, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition. For Reformed theology, this study is significant because it forces us to re-examine many of the standard assumptions about the purpose of communion by revisiting the sources. For ecumenical theology, the issue is significant because, like many Reformed churches, both the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox churches have struggled with communion reluctance, and this study makes it possible to compare causes and backgrounds of this phenomenon. For Reformed churches, this study will provide a much-needed resource for conducting the ongoing debate on weekly communion in a historically sound and informed way.