Convivium West: Theology Among Friends


By Gayle Doornbos

 

From August 17-19, the Davenant Institute hosted its first National Convivium Irenicum West in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The theme of the gathering was the same as the National Convivium East held earlier this summer: “To All Generations: Teaching the Doctrine of God in the Life of the Church.” As with all Convivia hosted by the Davenant Institute, the Western national Convivium situated academic discussion and dialogue within a weekend of fellowship and community building punctuated by morning and evening worship, preparing and eating meals together, and having fun on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

After the opening barbeque on Thursday, Dr. Brad Littlejohn opened the Convivium with a short introduction to this year’s theme and connecting it to the mission of the Davenant Institute. Situating the weekend’s topic within contemporary debates concerning the relationship between biblical exegesis and systematic theology and overly pragmatic, emotive, and anti-historical approaches to theology, Dr. Littlejohn encouraged robust discussion attentive to how these trends and debates affect current discussions on the doctrine of God. Furthermore, he encouraged constructive dialogue concerning how to retrieve, renew, and teach classical Christian insights for the sake of the church.

Following Dr. Littlejohn’s introduction, plenary speaker Dr. Steven Duby, of Grand Canyon University, gave the first paper of the weekend, “Divine Action and the Meaning of Eternity.” In his paper, Dr. Duby argued against current critics of divine timelessness who render the concept incoherent given the doctrines of creation and providence and suggest some type of temporal succession in the divine life. In response, Dr. Duby advocated for a retrieval of classical conceptions of divine actuality, which affirm God’s full and complete life in himself, as vital to our understanding of eternity and God’s relationship to time in his work of creation. Consequently, far from driving a wedge between God and creation, Dr. Duby suggested that classical articulations of divine action and eternity are the foundation from which to constructively engage with questions concerning God’s relationship to the world and develop conceptions of divine timelessness.

After some stimulating discussion on divine action and eternity, Dr. Eric Hutchinson, of Hillsdale College, lead two sessions based on his paper, “Philip Melanchthon and the Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” wherein he analyzed contemporary interpretations and misunderstandings of the absence of the locus de Deo in Melanchthon’s first edition of the Loci Communes. Arguing against interpretations like those found in Schleiermacher, Baur, and Barth that take Melanchthon’s remission as representing the need to rework the entire doctrine of God according to Protestant principles, the first session focused primarily on Schleiermacher and his conceptualization of the task of dogmatics and reformulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. The second session argued that Melanchthon did not seek to overthrow or rework the doctrine of God but rather carry forward the classical definitions and distinctions while restoring an emphasis on Christ and the gospel.

The first day finished with a time of communal worship, after which discussions on Schleiermacher, Melanchthon, and other theological and non-theological topics carried on late into the night.

The second day opened as the first day closed: with worship. Matthew Owen, a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham, gave the first paper of the day, “The Trinity and the Meaning of Is.” In his paper, Owen identified a common objection to classical Trinitarianism in analytic philosophy based on the “is” of numeric identity and offered an alternative definition to the word “is,” an “is” of predication in a strong sense, as a way to offer a logical defense and articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in analytic philosophy. The paper produced some of the most vigorous discussion of the weekend, grappling with topics ranging from the analogical nature of human language for the divine to differences between the continental and analytical traditions.

Following Owen’s paper, the other two papers given on Friday examined the relationship between the Doctrine of God and other theological loci. I (Gayle Doornbos), gave a paper entitled, “In the Beginning: The Cosmological Significance of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Herman Bavinck.” The paper utilized Bavinck as a model for retrieving and revitalizing the Reformed tradition, examined the close relationship between Bavinck’s doctrine of God and creation, and used Bavinck’s insights to pose questions to contemporary theological articulations of the missio Dei. Timothy Harmon, of the University of Bristol, gave a paper examining the relationship between the doctrine of God and Scripture and its inspiration. Focusing his paper primarily on John Webster, “The Doctrine of God and the Confession, Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei,” Harmon contented that in Webster’s later development it was God’s perfect life in himself that informed and normed his doctrine of inspiration. Fittingly, Dr. Duby also led an afternoon discussion on the usefulness and challenges concerning the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. During the discussion, we considered the distinction’s origin, the distinction in light of Rahner’s rule, and how the immanent-economic schema relates to the older processions-missions distinction.

Conversation on these topics, along with others about life, academic projects, teaching, church, etc. easily spilled over into the evening on Friday, which included dinner out in Coeur d’Alene and concluded once again with evening worship.

The final morning of the Convivium opened with our last communal worship together. After worship, Dr. Alastair Roberts presented a paper using the current debate on the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) as a lens to examine the necessary relationship between biblical exegetes and theologians. Too often, Dr. Roberts pointed out, they are antagonistic rather than mutually enriching, and the ESS debate is an example of the need for better dialogue. The Convivium closed with a panel discussion led by Dr. Roberts, Dr. Littlejohn, and Mr. Peter Escalante on how to revive, renew, and teach the doctrine of God in contemporary ecclesial and academic settings.

As a first-time Convivium attendee, I can attest to a wonderful weekend filled with stimulating papers and discussions within a community of scholars, pastors, and laypeople that seeks to challenge and encourage one another.

 

Gayle Doornbos is a Th.D student in Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College/University of Toronto. She is also an adjunct distance professor at Calvin Theological Seminary. She and her husband live in Lynden, WA.