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.