05 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 1: "It's Ecclesiology, Stupid"

I gave a brief preview of this year's Convivium Irenicum sponsored by The Davenant Institute here. Brad Littlejohn, Davenant's president, presented the lead-off paper fully titled It's the Ecclesiology, Stupid: Why Reformed Catholicity Requires a Reformed Doctrine of the Church. The initial part of Littlejohn's paper divided into two parts. First, what if it's not true that the body of Christ, the Church, has been torn into pieces at war with one another? To be sure, everyone talks as if the ever-expanding universe of denominations represents the Church torn asunder. Yet, ultimately that cannot be the case because, as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, there is in fact only one Church of which, as the temporally extended body of Christ, all Christians are members. Empirical appearances cannot destroy the ontological reality of the Church.

Even so, one cannot but help wonder at the place of the extraordinary institutional diversity among the churches. What warrants such diversity and what, if anything, should be done about it? Littlejohn observed that the questions of warrant and response drive us to the question of the nature of temporal being of the Church. In other words, should the Church principally be understood from an objective, institutional perspective, in which case divisions (denominations) represent a decidedly suboptimal state of affairs? Or should we approach the nature of the empirical Church from the subjective side, that is, as consisting of all who assert they are Christians? Or mixing objective and subjective, is the Church all who confess certain core (catholic) doctrines? Or all who engage in certain practices? Or, finally, from a transcendent perspective, is the Church all who in reality are united to Christ?

Each of these variations of what comprises the Church on earth and in time has advantages as well as disadvantages. The final take on how to identify the Church--the mystical body of Christ--while true, promptly evaporates into ephemera because, well, it cannot be known until after the fact and thus presents little with which we time-bound folks can work in the here and now. The first--the Church as institution--finds no warrant in the New Testament and easily slides into sectarianism. The second--I'm part of the Church because I say so--renders meaningful organizational unity almost impossible. Thus, some combination of variations three and four--orthodoxy plus orthopraxis--applied with a charitable bent seems to be about the best we can do. Which, it so happens, roughly describes the approach of the magisterial Reformers. In other words, belief and practice frame Reformed catholicity.

So far I've described only the first half of Littlejohn's paper. He spent the next segment addressing meaningful (and not-so-helpful) approaches to ecumenicity. Given that from the Reformed catholic perspective the Church has identifiable substance, how should we go about making that substance empirically visible? After pursuing some nineteenth and twenty-first century approaches (think Schaff, Nevin, Hodge, and Leithart) at length, Littlejohn frames the ecclesial question in terms of the classical doctrine of personal sanctification:
The Protestant ought to recognize that the task of ecumenism is always a matter of the church's sanctification, not its justification. Our divisions, however, great, never threaten the being of the church, or our standing in Christ, but they do certainly threaten our well-being.
I won't tax my readers' patience (or sate their appetites, as the case may be) with Littlejohn's conclusions for what should be done. Suffice it to say there was much food for thought. What I can say, however, is that you can expect to see a final version of this paper as well as the others published in softcover book form by The Davenant Press sometime in the next year. (And for a reasonable price.)

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