By Jake Meador
Earlier this month we had our sixth annual Convivium Irenicum, held in upstate South Carolina near Greenville. As in previous years, we enjoyed a mixture of new people and long-time attendees and were blessed by an engaging keynote speaker and rich conversation around the conference’s theme.
This year Dr. Michael Allen of RTS-Orlando was our keynote and the topic was “reformed catholicity.” The urgency of the topic should be apparent: In a day of fracturing religious communities, a proper grounding in ecclesiology is essential. Dr. Allen, along with our other presenters, helped us toward that understanding over several days of convening.
The event kicked off with a paper from Dr. Brad Littlejohn, President of the Davenant Institute, that challenged one of the most common mistakes Christians make in their discussions of church and Christian unity: Does the mere fact that a plurality of denominations exist prove that the church is divided? Arguing that it does not, Littlejohn defined what a more properly Protestant ecclesiology is and what it has to say to us today. He then said that Reformed catholicity is, “some combination of… orthodoxy plus orthopraxis–applied with a charitable bent.”
That, of courses, raises the question of how we define the “catholic” faith at the center of Reformed catholicity. Several papers helped address that problem: Dr. Andre Gazal spoke on how 16th century English reformers preserved catholicity in the emerging Anglican church. Board member Scott Pryor summarized Dr. Gazal’s paper on his blog.
We also heard from Mark Olivero, whose paper reviewed a number of reformed confessions from the 16th and 17th century, identifying themes that united all the confessions, despite their disparate nationalities, culture, and language.
Finally, our keynote speaker, Dr. Allen, presented a paper titled “The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity.” The two key arguments Allen made is that the initial generations in the reformed traditionally really did have a “central dogma” and that it actually was in keeping with catholic Christianity. From Pryor’s summary:
Allen did not dispute the centrality of exegesis to the Reformed project but painstakingly demonstrated that there was nonetheless a central dogma. This dogma was the doctrine of God. This doctrine did not, however, function as an abstract, metaphysical starting point for a series of successive speculative conclusions. Instead, the Reformed doctrine of God first found its origin in biblical exegesis and then functioned as an organic root from which other dogmatic, exegetical projects drew sustenance. Drawing on Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, Allen concludes that “the simple fulness of the triune God is the root [not pre-supposition] of Reformed faith and practice.”
We also heard papers from Dr. David Haines, Dr. Steven Duby, Gregory Soderberg, and guided discussions led by Littlejohn, Joseph Minich, and Peter Escalante.
Of course, the papers are only one part of the appeal of the Convivium. Central to the event is the ample time reserved for conversation, which allows the attendees to get to know one another and enjoy the pleasures of slow talk with new friends who share many of the same concerns, beliefs, and ambitions that they themselves have. First time attendee Dale Stenberg was delighted not only by the papers, but by the pervasive atmosphere that other attendees know well:
This year’s theme on Reformed catholicity was not merely argued for in the presentations, but displayed in the fellowship. People from various theological and philosophical backgrounds and convictions manifested the epitome of what the word “irenic” means. In that sense, the conference takes on a very genuine and heartfelt softness which pairs nicely with the precise and profound arguments presented. Throughout the day the atmosphere remains both serious and jovial as men and women who differ show that they can think carefully and comically in deep fellowship with one another. Every day starts off with a short worship service and then ends with the speakers and attendees mingling around wonderful food and drink into the wee hours of the next morning. The speakers are not aloof and distant from their material and its affect on the hearers, but rather they are engaged in thoughtful and kind discussion about important topics. Throw in a lake-house with kayaks and canoes, along with the unbelievable admission price of $100, and you have one the most unique, edifying, soul-stirring and intellectually invigorating conferences that you will ever attend. I cannot wait until next year.
Another first-time attendee, Travis Lowe, College and Career Pastor at Bay Life Church in Brandon, FL said that,
As a first time attender, I was unsure of what to expect when I pulled up to the Davenant House. What I encountered over the course of the conference was a group of thoughtful men and women who were deeply engaged in the life of the mind and passionately committed to the health of the church. Two things which God has joined together, that should never be separated. Questions were taken seriously, different opinions were worked out with charity. This is the exact sort of thing that the body of Christ so desperately needs right now.
Writing about the event on his site, Theologydelish, Olivero said,
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.
Most of the papers presented at this year’s event will be published in a volume, yet to be titled, that you can purchase in our bookshop sometime in early 2019. Also, we’re happy to announce that next year’s theme and speaker have already been arranged: Dr. Brian Dijkema of Cardus, a Dutch Reformed thinktank based in Canada, has agreed to come speak to us on the theme of “Reforming Justice: Protestant Wisdom, Economic Freedom, and Modern Injustice.” We will also be calling for papers on questions of political economy, social justice, and ordered liberty addressed from a 21st century magisterial Protestant perspective. We hope that you can join us!