Prof. Wilson at the Protestantism Conference at Gordon College

From Nov. 14 to 16, Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson of the Institute participated in the conference on “Protestantism? Reflections in Advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, 1517–2017” that took place at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, USA. The speakers were drawn from across the Western Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, mainline and Evangelical, to examine the impact of this nearly half-millennium old movement, for good and for ill, and to make suggestions for its commemoration less than four years from now.

A most impressive list of lecturers kept the conference lively and interesting at all times. The keynote address was delivered by eminent church historian Mark D. Noll on “The Chaotic Coherence of Sola Scriptura,” arguing for the simultaneous “bane and blessing” of sola scriptura, but with an emphasis on the latter. The next morning, the widely respected legal scholar John Witte Jr. took up “Protestantism and the Shaping of Western Law,” concluding with a careful and compelling examination of Luther’s legacy regarding the Jews (in short, Luther said hardly anything directly about the Jews, and the horrible things he did say were virtually unknown in the West until the Nazi period itself). This presentation was followed by that of Brad Gregory, professor at Notre Dame in Indiana and author of the recently published The Unintended Reformation, arguing for better integration of all parties in the Reformation, including the Radical element, into historiography, and raising questions about the political impact of divided Christendom over against increasingly powerful nation-states.

Prof. Wilson then gave voice to Luther’s own central convictions feeding into what came to be known as the Reformation in her lecture “Martin Luther at 500 and the State of Global Lutheranism,” emphasizing the real presence of Christ as a key motif in his thought. She also drew attention to the dramatic change in Lutheranism—as in all other branches of the church—over recent centuries through the mission and growth of Lutheran Christianity outside of its old North Atlantic stronghold. This was followed by Karin Maag, a history professor and Director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College, speaking about “The Reformation and Western Higher Education,” demonstrating how the university-centered magisterial Reformation addressed the need for better educated clergy. Finally, Matthew Lundin, a history professor at Wheaton College, discussed trends in the historiography of the Reformation and, like many others at the conference, called for the “return of religion” in Reformation studies, stressing how religious belief motivated the key figures of the Reformation rather than being a cover for their “real” concerns with money, power, and so on.

The next day, the conference began with a lively presentation by Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University whose many books have brought world Christianity to the consciousness of North Atlantic Christians for the first time. In asking “What Hath Wittenberg to Do with Lagos?” Jenkins argued that the study of the Reformation and the study of world Christianity today are mutually enriching, as both are upheavals in the church of the incredible magnitude and demonstrate some striking parallels, innovations in social media being but one of many. Sung-Deuk Oak, professor of Korean Christianity at UCLA in California, took up this theme with a case study in the growth of Protestant Christianity in Korea, considering challenges of inculturation, rapid growth and equally rapid division, and current stagnation.

In the afternoon, Hermann J. Selderhuis, the director of the Refo500 network of Reformation anniversary events, talked specifically about Reformation commemoration in post-Christian Europe as well as the more explicitly financial and touristic aspects of 2017. Matthew Levering, a prolific Catholic theology professor at Mundelein Seminary, favorably compared Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin’s ecclesiologies. The program wrapped up with Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, speaking of 2017 in the light of ecumenism and the tremendous growth in respect and appreciation between Catholics and Evangelicals in particular.

Both full days of the conference concluded with panel discussions with the day’s speakers, allowing the many conference attendees and Gordon College students to put their specific queries to the group. These were moderated by Gordon professor Tal Howard, the mastermind behind the conference and gracious host of the entire event. The conference was made possible by the partnership between Gordon College’s Center for Faith and Inquiry, the University of Notre Dame, the Boston Theological Institute, and Refo500.

A forthcoming book will collect all of the conference lectures.