Dean offers some thoughtful reflections on Jamie Smith’s visit to our store in the Local Exploration in Ecumenical Dialogue.
Redeeming the World with Reformed Catholicity: James K. A. Smith on the Reformed Tradition
As with my last reflection, I must begin by offering sincere gratitude to James K. A. Smith and everyone who came to hear. Jamie’s work and perspective on the Reformed tradition is unique, and despite his repeated emphasis that the he was a philosopher and that his qualifications were suspect, he did a fine job presenting helpful insights for our series. Throughout his career, Jamie has been developing thoughts about what he refers to as a “Reformed Catholicity,” that is, a vision of the Reformed tradition that expresses continuity with historical Christianity despite the common emphasis on a radical break or rupture with the Roman Catholic Church. Echoing the event with Rev. Lawton last week, the audience was interactive and allowed for further development in the discussion.
The affinities and continuities of the Reformed tradition and catholic Christianity were the primary focus of the talk. His tradition flows out of what he calls a “magisterial reformation,” one that emphasizes an attempt to recover an ancient faith, one that is creedal and biblical alike which does not forsake an inherited history. He describes this as an accent placed on the history of the Church, as opposed to the common assumption that the Reformation is a complete evacuation from the historical Church. This is contrasted with contemporary evangelical assumptions about Protestantism, namely that one is able to skip all of Christian history and go back to the Bible alone, unsullied by things like “tradition,” “interpretation,” etc. This led Jamie to pose a curious question: why is it that the word “Reformed” often conjures up people who are Baptist (John Piper, for example)? His answer is that many of these individuals describe themselves as Calvinists, and not only that, but a kind of Calvinism that appears to take on only an interpretation of Calvin’s soteriology (his view of salvation), ignoring his commitment to a sacramental view of reality. Jamie combats this view, suggesting we understand the Reformation as an attempt to renew and retrieve, rather than to break and splinter. That said, the Reformed tradition is not Roman Catholic or Orthodox (big “O”), which led Jamie to conclude by identifying five distinctives of the Reformed tradition:
- a retrieval of an Augustinian notion of grace which emphasizes God’s election,
- the priority of the Scriptures in being “Reformed and always reforming,”
- an ecclesiology made up of a plurality of elders and a commitment to liturgical expression,
- the affirmation of a good creation and the human role in cultivating it, and
- the structural and holistic nature of sin combatted with the structural and holistic nature of redemption.
Though I have read Jamie’s work before, I left finding the summarized version incredibly helpful. The talk was informative and entertaining, and his unique perspective allowed for some intriguing discussion, especially considering the audience’s ecumenically diverse nature. He was respectfully challenged on a few points, most recurrently the issue of Reformed ecclesiology and authority. Jamie dealt with the criticisms well, often taking the issues as legitimate and trying his best to take them into account while preserving his commitment to his own tradition. It was clear that, for Jamie, the boundaries between denominations are porous and are in fact better as a result. Jamie noted that he had much in common with the sensibilities of our other presenters in the series, suggesting he had less in common with contemporary evangelical theology and structures which has a suspicion toward tradition and liturgy.
The event was successful and well-attended, and we were really helped by the audience’s participation. Following the heels of the English/American Wesleyan movement, the Scottish/Dutch perspective was very helpful and will be an interesting addition to the topsoil of discourse that we are establishing here. Next week we return to the English/American region of reformation with Fr. Stephen Holmgren, rector at Grace Episcopal Church. An Oxford graduate and former teacher of liturgy at the Nashotah House, an Anglo-Catholic seminary in Wisconsin, Fr. Holmgren will be an excellent guide as we continue (plus, I am fortunate to call him my local priest, so I am quite happy to host him here!). We hope to see you there!