18 May 2005

davenant on dissension

While still the Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge, John Davenant (1572-1641) was called upon by James I to serve as a member of the English delegation to the Synod of Dort, along with Bishop Carleton, Joseph Hall, and Samuel Ward. Davenant's role in the Synod is a matter of continuing scholarly discussion, but all are agreed that his moderate Calvinism, both biblically rooted and historically-informed, played an indispensible role in bringing unity and clarity to the proceedings of Dort.

Davenant later went on to become Bishop of Salisbury and during his tenure worked tirelessly, along with Ward, Hall, Thomas Morton, John Dury, and others, in an attempt to bring unity and accord amongst all the Reformed churches of Europe. In these efforts he had numerous correspondents and collaborators ranging from Pierre du Moulin among the French to Johann Heinrich Alsted among the Hungarians.

Davenant's most extensive written contribution to that project was published in 1640 in Latin under the title Ad fraternam communionem inter evangelicas ecclesias restaurandam adhortatio, which appeared a year later in English as An Exhortation to Brotherly Communion betwixt the Protestant Churches.

The following is an extended series of quotations from the opening chapter of that exhortation, using the Latin to correct and update the 1641 English version.

In truth, regarding the dissensions between various churches we can say the same as Cicero the Orator once said of the disagreements between famous men: that they typically end either with everyone destroyed or the winners lording it over the losers to the latter's injury. Now, while one would hope that no dissension among the Reformed churches would affect a soul or lead to the absolute rule of some over the rest, nevertheless, such things are to be feared, at least given these daily and deadly contentions that hasten our own overthrow (God forbid!). This situation is one that the godly regret and, in light of the miseries fallen on some, can surmise the danger hanging over us all--unless, of course, having learned a lesson from these calamities, we at least begin to be wise and heartily study the advancing of peace.

When this strife among brothers becomes heated, we afford our enemies continual occasion for rejoicing and insulting all the churches and not only do we give occasion for rejoicing and insulting, but we also arm our enemies with infinite opportunities to hurt and oppress us.

Nor do we handle the matter well with regard to our own people, allowing even the unlearned to be distracted with these endless controversies, which probably even the learned will never be able to settle. If scholars were only to dispute amongst other scholars, then the danger would be less. But instead, it's obvious that Christians of all sorts and sides are summoned to the fight, so that as soon as their minds become entangled in these needless controversies, they are led away from the most important duties of charity and new obedience.

...Those who, due to recent controversies, separate themselves from other Reformed churches, scarcely seem to acknowledge that the Gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, instead acting as if there were no hope of salvation for those Christians who have not attained an exact knowledge of these points of controversy.

For my part, I don't see any great difference between those who place unwritten traditions alongside the holy Scriptures and those who enforce their controversies on all churches as something to be known and believed with the same necessity for salvation as the solid and obvious teaching of the Gospel...If divines could calmly debate these disputes with brotherly minds, some good (or, at least, less evil) would come to the church. But we seem scarcely able to do that (if at all) judging from the experience of these many years, and so it would be better if these disputes were buried in slience, if the only alternative is to tear and mangle so many churches into pieces.

Now that our eyes can so obviously see these and even worse grievances arising from the discord of the Reformed, let us begin to inquire what might cause these bitter and hurtful strifes between learned, wise, and godly men, what has led to their daily increase, and what has persuaded them to pass these controversies on to their posterity.

The nature of supernatural knowledge and heavenly things gives the cause - or rather, occasion - for these disputes. It is easy for minds that are enlightened and sanctified to embrace with "the obedience of faith" everything necessary to know for salvation, which is plainly given to us in the holy Scriptures concerning God and Christ, as well as everything thing else we should believe and practice. But our difficulties and danger, as well as the occasion for our disputes, is a matter of the desiring to dive deeper into the mysteries of faith than is fitting and to draw consequences using our reason so that we then annex them to the fundamental Articles of faith.

After all, it cannot help but be the case that the wits of men must often differ and sometimes err in those things that are brought together by means of human understanding. Meanwhile, everyone likes to dote on the darling offspring of his own brain as beautiful and entitled to be born of the very womb of Scripture, thereby he goes on to hate the reasoning and inferences of others, seeing them as deformed and springing up from the puddles of corrupted reason. Thus, people want to find in the very mystery of the Faith more than is clearly shown in the glass of God's Word and so, instead of the light of their knowledge being increased, they increase the heat of their dissensions.

It would be like applying a plaster to the sore if the theologians on both sides would remember that, although all the Articles of the catholic Faith are plain and perspicuous (as if they were written in God's Word with capital letters so that someone running by might read them), yet those things we go on to further extract by the chemistry of human understanding are diverse and of different kinds, most of them so obscure that they escape the eyes of the most sharp-sighted theologians. We must therefore confidently lean with all our weight on what the Scriptures have decided, but not lay so much stress upon the consequences of our own deductions...

In order, therefore, discord may be avoided, everyone should always remember the Apostle's admonition, "Not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think soberly" (Romans 12:3). And to this we should add: quietly bear with those who have an opinion that is different from ours, praying daily to God that he would be pleased to reveal his truth to us, which is not yet fully known. But in the meantime, "let us live up to what we have already attained" (Philippians 3:16) and think well of others. That such counsel is true and profitable, no one can deny. Why then are these controversies, nonetheless, daily increased? Why do these wounds grow more and more raw and bleed afresh?

If one may speak the plain truth, there is in every human heart an inordinate love of self and our own inventions and pleasing concepts, and this fault causes us to be blind to the falsehood of opinions once we have entertained them and to not admit the truth that is shown to us by others. "For judgment perishes when the matter is passed into the affections and we desire that our opinion would prevail, whatever it may be, simply because its ours" (Augustine, "Contra Julianum"). Wherever this selfishness rules, theologians (no matter what they pretend) will study more to tune the Scriptures to their own opinion, that their opinion to the Scripturea, and thus drag the fundamental Articles of the Christian Faith by head and shoulders to the support of their own teaching, which is not fundamental.

If anyone could find a cure for this epidemic, we would immediately see many controversies and contentions (at least the bitter and hostile ones) pacified and put to rest. But (and this is to be bemoaned) those divines who are too much drawn away by selfishness are, by the breath of popular applause and desire for an ego-boost, driven further than they themselves at first intended or even thought possible. For those who are beset by this evil, they will cause trouble in everything, human and divine, rather than ever confess that they've been misled or are weary of the fight or have been refuted by their adversaries.

I'm not ignorant that everyone pretends to desire the truth and God's glory, but the fact is, that too many continue these contentions for the love of their own egos, and I cannot deny this and still speak the truth. Surely, it is unbelievable to think that those who know how these dissensions between Protestants damage nations, churches and people's souls (bought with Christ's blood), can in the midst of these contentions simply have their eyes fastened on the "glory of God"! Wherefore, let the hot disputants on either side examine their own consciences, whether they perpetuate this controversy and discord among the churches in order that God may lose no honor or whether they might not simply want a fitting and lasting enlargement of their own egos.

A good and godly exhortation for all of us.