What is the church? Though the question has dogged Christians since the Book of Acts, there has been something of a renewal of interest among American evangelicals. Over the past few years, especially in the wake of cultural transformations in American society, evangelicals have sought to rearticulate their identity and mission. One example might be the renewal of emphasis on the local church as a non-negotiable experience of authentic faith. Another might be the recent surge of literature attempting to clarify the relationship of Christians to a post-Christian public square. Both trends speak to the same phenomenon: American evangelicals are not content with individualistic spirituality. They are asking, “What does all this mean?”
The Davenant Institute exists to answer that question. Based in Lincoln, Nebraska, the nonprofit group of academics, writers, and Christian thinkers—led by scholar Bradford Littlejohn and Mere Orthodoxy editor-in-chief Jake Meador—seeks to recover, in their words, “the lost riches of Christian wisdom.” Pulling extensively from Reformation and post-Reformation historical theology, The Davenant Institute might be characterized as an ecclesiological think tank, providing a distinctly Reformed perspective on questions such as politics, Christ and culture, and Protestant identity.
Their latest book, People of the Promise: A Mere Protestant Ecclesiology, features essays by ten different Reformed Protestant thinkers on the doctrine of the church. The scholarly and literary quality of People of the Promise is high, and with a variety of authors and denominational traditions represented, the book certainly makes for an intriguing and worthwhile crash course in historic Reformed ecclesiology. Regrettably, though, it comes up just short in its stated goal of being a “mere Protestant” statement and is disappointingly low on interactions with other major Protestant theologies.
Priority on History
People of the Promise is organized into four broad categories: an introduction to basic Protestant ecclesiology (essays by Joseph Minich and Bradley Belschner), an overview of the biblical canon’s teachings about the church (essays by Steven Wedgeworth, E. J. Hutchinson, and Alastair Roberts), an account of how Protestants developed a theology of the church (Littlejohn, Andre Gazal, and Jordan Ballor), and finally a discussion about contemporary issues in Protestant ecclesiology (Jake Meador and Andrew Fulford).
One strength of these essays is their intermingling of scholarship and accessibility. Seminary students specializing in biblical studies will find a lot to enjoy and digest about Alastair Roberts’s essay in particular. Roberts offers a fascinating interpretation of the ecclesiology of the day of Pentecost, in which, he writes, “We see a Church that is formed by the descent of the divine word upon it in the power of the Spirit, in an event redolent of Sinai.” Both Roberts and Wedgeworth argue convincingly that the concept of the church was not a novelty item invented by Paul, but in fact is a common conceit throughout the entire biblical narrative—one that culminates in the New Testament ekklesia but doesn’t originate there.
Additionally, Minich’s opening essay provocatively and invitingly sets the stage for discussions about how modern-day Protestants should think of the church. Writing in contrast to some contemporary ecclesiological arguments, such as 9Marks editorial director Jonathan Leeman’s recent book on political theology, Minich argues that while the local church is a necessary expression of God’s people, the two communities aren’t one and the same. The people of God, Minich writes, are bound together not by localism or autonomous church government but by their faith relationship to Christ (Meador, in the book’s concluding essay, repeats this idea). At a time when evangelicals are reflecting on the essence and identity of the local church, Minich’s powerful essay should initiate some enlightening dialogue between differing ecclesiological traditions.
Organizationally, the Davenant Institute prioritizes historical theology and the sociopolitical lessons of generations past. This priority is evident throughout much of People of the Promise, which often reads more like a primer on Reformation history than a handbook on theology. Littlejohn contributes arguably the volume’s most important chapter on “the genius and tensions of Reformation ecclesiology.” Paying close attention to Martin Luther’s revolutionary insistence on the priesthood of all believers, Littlejohn traces out the development of Protestant ecclesiology from the Reformation, arguing that
[W]e must accept for practical purposes that all those who professed Christianity [in Luther’s context] belonged to the Church, and this meant nearly the whole body of citizens. In its temporal profile, then, the Church overlapped almost wholly with the body politic, and hence decisions about its temporal well-being were fit subjects for the civil magistrate’s concern.
This is a striking claim. Over and against the views of other Protestants, such as Baptists, Littlejohn and other authors in the book believe that Luther, Calvin, and the other “Magisterial Reformers” sought a close-knit relationship between the church and the public square. Indeed, Littlejohn goes on to criticize the “Anabaptist model” of ecclesiology and its “critique of civil authority.” The true spirit of the Reformation, he counters, is one that refrains from policing the boundaries of the church too aggressively. It concedes, instead, the utter impossibility of separating wheat from tares, both within the local community of faith and in the larger society (which are not nearly as separate as Baptists might suppose).
If this sounds a bit slippery, that’s because it is. Disappointingly, Littlejohn does not offer any substantive interaction with competing Protestant theories. His failure to quote or engage any contemporary descendants of the “Anabaptist model” cuts against the book’s ambition to present a “mere Protestant ecclesiology.” What Littlejohn mentions almost as a historical footnote is, in fact, one of the most important theological disagreements in Protestantism, one which a brief historical evaluation of Luther, while helpful, does not really address.
Coming Up Short
This absence is perhaps symptomatic of People of the Promise’s wider confusion as to what kind of book it really is. As mentioned above, much of the book is historical, yet the lack of attention given to other Reformation-based Protestant traditions weakens its force as a historical overview. There are plenty of excellent examples of biblical exegesis and interpretation, but this isn’t really a book of biblical theology. Indeed, even in Meador’s strong and lucid concluding chapter on the goodness and necessity of a “Christian commonwealth,” one searches in vain for a sturdy theological foundation. While the essays that make up People of the Promise are individually well-written and enlightening, they come up short of presenting a comprehensive summary of Protestant ecclesiology.
Nevertheless, People of the Promise is proof that the Davenant Institute is doing good work that all Protestants should value. In an increasingly fragmented American culture, and an increasingly uncertain church culture, Davenant’s call for the church to recover an intellectually serious and authentically Christian identity is one to applaud.
Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books. He blogs at Inklingations.