A team of scholars is translating the work of a 16th century British theologian from old English into modern vernacular in order to spearhead an intellectual renewal in the contemporary reformed and evangelical Protestant Church.
In just over a year from now, Protestant Christians will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. But according to Brad Littlejohn, founder and president of the Davenant Trust, many Protestants today lack a historical and theologically robust understanding for why they are Protestant and the intellectual resources for engaging public affairs.
To address this disheartening phenomenon, Littlejohn and his colleagues have just released the book, Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution, their modern English version of the preface of Richard Hooker's The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
Littlejohn, 28, who completed a PhD in theological ethics from the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and soon thereafter founded the Davenant Trust, told The Christian Post that due to the absence of this historical knowledge, many Protestant believers find themselves ill-equipped to answer the questions that arise when it becomes abundantly clear that reforms are needed in the Church and political spheres.
"A lot of young Protestant intellectuals find that their faith does not seem to have much of a historical grounding so they are easily drawn to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and we wanted to show that the Protestant tradition has a rich intellectual history worth recovering," Littlejohn said.
Secondly, he added, "we believe there's a real need in particular for Christians today. As the Religious Right has kind of crumbled, a lot of Christians are wondering: Should Christians be involved in politics and if so, how? And how do we avoid the missteps we have had in the last few decades?"
Enter the judicious Richard Hooker.
Considered by many to be the preeminent theological writer in the entire history of the Church of England, Hooker recognized the problems that beset reform movements in the decades after the Reformation. His book, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is regarded as one of the finest systematic treatments of how biblical authority relates to the authority of conscience, human leaders in church and state, and to our God-given obligation to exercise reason and prudence in discerning Christian duties in church and society.
Christian pastors and leaders sorely need such wisdom today but the Elizabethan English in which Hooker wrote proves so archaic it is virtually unreadable for most English speakers today. But that has now changed, and Littlejohn and his colleagues undertook the laborious task of rewriting Hooker's insights, couching them into accessible prose.
For example, an original passage in Hooker's Laws reads: "Let the vulgar sort among you know that there is not the least branch of the cause wherein they are resolute, but to the trial of it a great deal more appertaineth than their conceit doth reach unto."
The Davenant Trust wrote the same sentence in modern English to read: "The uneducated among you should be aware that even the least of the changes you are so set on involves all sorts of debated issues that you have not conception of."
Because of its astuteness in speaking to matters of the law and the human conscience, Littlejohn believes that Hooker's seminal work is useful for Americans in light of rising anti-State populism in the United States.
"Throughout our history, but especially today, we have this kind of anti-government reflex where we just think that anything the government does is bad. And if we want to object to the things our current government is doing badly, we need to do so from a clear standpoint of what government is supposed to look like and what legitimate government authority is, and that's what Hooker tried to establish," Littlejohn said.
Over the next few years, he and his team plan to release subsequent installments of Hooker's Laws in modern English as part of a larger set of projects mining the wisdom of several early 17th century English theologians.
"I want the next generation of leaders in the Church, and I mean that in the broadest sense, to have confidence that their Protestant faith is intellectually serious and historically grounded," Littlejohn said, when asked what he hopes The Davenant Trust will accomplish for the Kingdom of God.
"We tend to confuse confidence with arrogance," he added. "Often arrogance comes from defensiveness which comes from insecurity."
"And it is when we are insecure about our faith that we get really defensive about it and that's when we fight the most. But if we have confidence in what we believe we don't have to be so defensive, and we can learn how to work together even when we have differences."
For more information about the Davenant Trust, including its upcoming academic seminars and study programs, click here.