Reason and Faith on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Central College Chapel

Hosted by Central College
October 13-14, 2017

Schedule: Approximately 8 a.m. Friday, October 13 to 5 p.m. Saturday, October 14

Rationale and Call for Papers

As we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, the Lilly Fellows Program has generously contributed in support of a regional conference to bring together scholars and educators from a variety of Christian traditions to discuss the relation of reason and faith as it is understood in both the academy and Church in the wake of the Reformation. Along with our five keynote speakers, we invite scholarly participation in the form of paper presentations from a range of disciplinary perspectives, historical, theological, philosophical and literary. Papers should focus on an aspect of the relation between faith and reason as it pertains to the Protestant Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, either historically or in its consequences, especially pertaining to education.

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Although the relation between faith and reason was not the only defining topic of the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Counter-Reformation, it is one point of access into the labyrinth of a theological and political movement that shaped Europe and the entire world as a result. Our conference has both a theoretical and a practical aim. The theoretical aim is the scholarly inquiry into the range of possible ways of relating faith and reason within the Protestant tradition and into the merit of such formulations. We are reminded of the formulations of two of the reformers regarding the nature of ‘reason’ with respect to religion. Luther says in his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520):

“We must not start something by trusting in great power or human reason, even if all the power in the world were ours. For God cannot and will not suffer that a good work begin by relying upon one’s own power and reason. He dashes such works to the ground, they do no good at all.” (translated by Charles M. Jacobs and James Atkinson)

And Calvin says in the Institutes (1559):

“Profane men think that religion rests only on opinion, and, therefore, in order that they may not believe foolishly, or on slight grounds, they desire and insist that it be proved by reason that Moses and the prophets were divinely inspired. But I answer, that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to His own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until these words are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.” (I.7.4, Pangle’s translation from the Latin text).

The critique of reason may lead to a compartmentalization of faith and rational inquiry; on the other hand, attempts at integration risk the subversion of one by the other. To be sure, our inquiry will require us to define what ‘reason’ or ‘philosophy’ is. For example, the account of reason as it is articulated by Classical Philosophy in the writings of Plato and Aristotle is not the same as the account of reason as articulated by the writers of the Enlightenment, such as Descartes and Hobbes.

The crest of the Reformed Church in America.

Coat of arms of the Reformed Church in America. Motto from Psalm 127.
Learn more about the symbolism of the crest.

The practical aim is to allow presenters to reflect on the relation of our Christian faith to academic disciplines of research and to our teaching. Do our Patristic and Medieval heritages as well as ongoing Reformation formulations need affirmation, correction or clarification in light of new circumstances? Graduate curricula and research programs are often so ubiquitously aimed at the experience of “otherness” and différence that faculty are not able to attend to the intellectual rigor needed to nourish the cultural continuity we have with Christian theology and Christian moral thought. Our aim with this conference is to focus on the intellectual development of faculty who can give leadership to our disciplines of research, to the formation of curricula of instruction, and to the education of our students; we seek to achieve an enriched sense of how Christian learning may contribute to our academic disciplines and vocations. Despite the ongoing climate of “value-free science” which often blurs off into postmodern relativism in many of our education institutions, there is still need to inquire whether intellectual and moral virtues are in opposition to or in support of one another.

Given the challenges of contemporary education, we think it germane and timely to bring together an ecumenical group of scholars, pastors and educators, in order to reflect on these topics. We are especially interested in papers devoted to hitherto unrecognized but significant areas of historical research, papers on particularly strong philosophical formulations and arguments, papers on theological arguments that, like Ockham’s razor, cut through years, even centuries, of unnecessary obfuscation and distraction, papers with refreshingly astute readings of primary sources, and papers offering literary criticism that cause us to wonder anew about religion and community. We do not know exactly what Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer, Calvin, Hooker, or Bucer would say five hundred years later of all which their writings caused – pure gold or too much wood, hay and stubble, or some mixture of these – and where in fact would St. Augustine or St. John the Evangelist be in all this? But this is why we have a topic and why we invite you to join us in October, with your papers, your presence and your conversation.

We encourage you to submit a title and a proposal of 250 words online on this website. Papers presentations will be thirty minutes in length with ten minutes for questions and answers. We anticipate that there will also be time during breaks and meals for further conversation. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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