06 June 2016

Convivial Thoughts Part I: Cardinal Henry Newman

2016 permitted me to attend my third Covivium Irenicum. Sponsored by The Davenant Trust, each Convivium has combined serious scholarship with substantial opportunities for developing lasting personal friendships. (A blog post from several years ago here gives a good sense of what The Davenant Trust does. My posts herehere, and here cover the 2014 Convivium. I posted seven times on the 2015 Convivium so I'll only link here and here for two on "God and Constitutionalism" or, in my words: What Would "Christian America" Have Meant To Late 18th Century Colonial Americans?)

This year's theme was more ecclesial than political but was nonetheless interesting, stimulating, and practical: “Confessionalism and Diversity in the Reformed Tradition.” Piqued by Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress Press 2014), the objects of papers presented at the Convivium included figures as diverse as Martin Bucer, Theodore Beza, Richard Hooker, George Carleton, Francis Turretin, and Cardinal Newman(!). Topics included early-modern Reformed takes on natural theology, natural virtue, hypothetical universalism, apostolic succession, and libertarian free will. There were, in fact, enough quality papers that for the first time there were break-out sessions; thus, I won’t be reporting on everything that transpired.

I’ll begin with some comments drawn from keynote speaker Carl Trueman’s work-in-progress, “Reading the Reformers After Cardinal Newman.” Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine is crucial across confessional lines. In other words, (to a certain extent mine) by reading the history of Church doctrine through a Hegelian lens, Newman provided later Catholic theologians with a means of explaining how doctrines that changed throughout Church history actually never changed at all. Substituting all sorts of cool-sounding organic metaphors for in-depth historical scholarship (it seems evident that Newman never read the Reformers closely), Newman has enabled contemporary Catholic apologists to pull a rabbit out of the historical hat.

Next, drawing from the book “Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome” (Ignatius Press 2016), Trueman observed that one thing was noticeably absent from these seminarians’ seminary curricula: Church History. Ignorance of that history leaves theologically sensitive young’uns vulnerable to the claims of a church that has history in spades.

In particular, Trueman went on to say, it is necessary to know the history of the Church and its dogma (as opposed to, say, the hagiography of one’s tradition, long or short) to avoid, on the one hand, the Scylla of the contemporary chaos of “me and my Bible” shortcuts to heresy and, on the other, the Charybdis of misleading cross-Tiber claims to unchanging certainty.

Finally, Trueman observed that meaningful knowledge of the history of the Church and its doctrines can play a positive role for ecumenism. Church history is a means by which we can both reject with integrity and at the same time prioritize doctrines. Ecumenism must be based on something more substantial than “Can’t we all just get along?” but doesn’t require jot and title conformity on every point of one’s confessional tradition before we can cooperate. 

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