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The Reformers and the Joy of the Gospel

Beeson Podcast, Episode 374
Gwenfair Adams
January 9, 2018

Announcer: Welcome to the Beeson Podcast. Coming to you from Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Now, your host, Timothy George.

Timothy George: Welcome to today's Beeson Podcast. We're coming to you today from Providence, Rhode Island where I've been a part of the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting. I have the great honor of speaking today on the Beeson Podcast to one of the plenary presenters at this meeting. She is Dr. Gwenfair Walters Adams. She's associate professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, not too far from where we're meeting today. A distinguished scholar of late-medieval Reformation study. She's a graduate of Wellsley College, of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. It's a pleasure to welcome you to the Beeson Podcast, Gwenfair.

Gwenfair Adams: It's a delight to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Timothy George: We know you a little bit, because you've been to Beeson. You gave a Reformation heritage lecture several years ago. There were a smash hit down there. You did a wonderful job here. I want you to talk a little bit about your presentation, but begin by telling us a little bit about yourself. How you came to faith, your background ...

Gwenfair Adams: First, I just want to say how much I enjoyed being at Beeson. What a wonderful community you have there. Well, my background is very much in medieval studies. So, I approach the Reformation as a medievalist, but I also grew up in a household that was very Calvinistic. My father was a professor at Gordon-Conwell. He had done his doctoral work on John Calvin and the doctrine of sanctification.

Timothy George: Oh.

Gwenfair Adams: I grew up very much as part of the reformed faith. So, I approach the medieval world from a Reformation perspective and the Reformation from a medieval perspective. I'm fascinated by the transition between the two.

Timothy George: I think I first met you in Cambridge-

Gwenfair Adams: Yes.

Timothy George: ... when you were a student there. We have a mutual friend, Mark Dever, who was-

Gwenfair Adams: We did.

Timothy George: ... also a doctoral student and a former student of mine. We were together, I think at a Thanksgiving meeting for expats, or something like that-

Gwenfair Adams: Yes, indeed.

Timothy George: ... in his home. You were then-

Gwenfair Adams: Wonderful memories.

Timothy George: ... in the thick of your doctoral work. Tell us what that was focused on.

Gwenfair Adams: Mark Dever and I had the same supervisor, Eamon Duffy, who's one of the premiere medievalists and Reformation scholars. He, again, is interested in that transition. So, Mark Dever was working on Puritan studies while I was working on late-medieval studies, while Eamon Duffy was writing his book on the striping of the altars. My work was very much focused on visions and visionaries in late-medieval England. It was fascinating to see all their different experiences and how they impacted the laity’s experiences.
You can really look at the visions and their expression as a way of looking at the key dynamics that are at play in late-medieval spirituality. The visions really buttress late-medieval spirituality as well, because they're a way of the church saying, "Look, what we're saying is true, because look at these people who had these visions that confirm it." It was very interesting work.

Timothy George: There's a big discussion about Luther and mysticism in particular. Have you thought much about that? He doesn't talk a lot about visions, except he did have some visions. He talks-

Gwenfair Adams: Right.

Timothy George: ... about these a little bit. How does he fit into this?

Gwenfair Adams: He was interested in some of the mystical writings. I think of the Theologica Germanica had an impact on him. In terms of visions in particular, yes, as you mentioned he had some visions. In reference to your own talk, your own plenary address, which was fascinating, you were dealing with Luther and the Devil. So, one of the categories of visions that I had looked at in the Middle Ages, was that of those dealing with demons. There were so many categories of visions that went away with the Reformation, because of they're being attached to purgatory, or the saints, or whatever, which changed theologically in the Reformation. One of the categories that didn't go away, were the visions with demons, because of course the demons are mentioned in Scripture themselves. So, sola scriptura did not eliminate those visions-

Timothy George: No, that's right. When you were talking about your background growing up in a reformed tradition, I forgot to mention your husband who is a baptist. You're a presbyterian.

Gwenfair Adams: Yes, indeed.

Timothy George: How do you all get along?

Gwenfair Adams: We get along great, but we have wonderful discussions.

Timothy George: I think that's interesting-

Gwenfair Adams: Iron sharpens iron.

Timothy George: He's a pastor, right?

Gwenfair Adams: He is a pastor in Lynn, in Massachusetts an inner city church.

Timothy George: Wonderful. Now, I want you to say a little bit about your plenary address here. It was a really a remarkable address. I'll let you characterize it because what you were doing, I think surprised people a little bit. How you began, by talking about continuity rather than discontinuity with a preceding medieval period. Tell us what you were up to there.

Gwenfair Adams: What was interesting me was the fact that in recent years there has been some denigration of the Reformation, I think, in some scholarly writings and on a popular level. That has been a bit of a concern to me, because I think that we have so much to learn from the Reformers and with my work on the Romans 1-8 commentary in the RCS, the Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series. I've really come to love the reformers at an even deeper level and to catch from them their passion for the gospel.
I was concerned that the Reformation and the Reformers writings were in danger of not being treated with a kind of respect that I think they're worthy of. I was trying to figure out why that was. Part of what came to me was this possibility that we have perhaps focused so much on how the Reformation changed things from the medieval world, that we have, perhaps, put ourselves in danger of thinking that the medieval world was so different from ours that, therefore, the Reformers are maybe even skewed by those differences and that when they come to the gospel they're merely responding to something very idiosyncratic in their own time period and they really have nothing to say to us.
I wanted to find out little bit more about this and if it was such an idiosyncratic time, does it have something to say to us. What I was proposing in the talk was that the very idiosyncratic nature of the medieval period happens to coincide with many of the aspects of life that the law in the Old Testament puts into place. So, there are very distinct parallels between the late-medieval period and the Old Testament. Therefore, I argue that the Reformers have something very important to tell us, because they may be looking at the gospel from a period that was very similar to what God had set up in the Old Testament. They may, therefore, be able to understand the gospel in a very profound way. Instead of being irrelevant to us, they are highly, highly relevant to us.

Timothy George: I remember one of the points of continuity that you began with, I think, was the sense of transcendence. The utter holiness of God-

Gwenfair Adams: Yes.

Timothy George: ... exemplified even in some of the architecture of the period.

Gwenfair Adams: Yes, and that's part of what I find another parallel between the late-medieval world and the Old Testament law, was that both of them were concretizing these abstract theological concepts that might have been possible to ignore had God not, in the Old Testament, made them concrete through the Holy of Holies and the temple and the tabernacle. You see a similar thing happening in the late Middle Ages with the cathedrals, with the space, the sacred space and the majesty of the magnitude of these cathedrals, that it would have been very hard for the medieval person not to take seriously the transcendence of God, when they see these cathedrals and worship in the midst of them.

Timothy George: Yeah, you mention that Calvin's father was an official at the cathedral in Noyon, in France. This was probably a part of his experience growing up.

Gwenfair Adams: Yes, and there were five other cathedrals that he had exposure to over the course of his life. When he's writing the Romans commentary, he's actually in Strasbourg, which has, I think it was the second largest cathedral.

Timothy George: It's amazing. I've been there and seen it and it's still, it's awe inspiring to-

Gwenfair Adams: Is it?

Timothy George: ... be in Strasbourg, you can see that great cathedral. Now, I love the title of your talk, which again, was a bit jarring. It was, Shock and Awe: The Reformers and the Stunning Joy of Romans 1-8. You mentioned the fact that you're interested in Romans 1-8, because you're doing the volume. You're the volume editor for Romans 1-8 in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series. Where's this shock and awe come from?

Gwenfair Adams: The shock and awe is a reference to the phrase that emerged in the 1990s, in reference to a particular psychological warfare approach that was used in literal warfare. It's a metaphor that I think people use for really coming on strong against an enemy and showing them your might and power, so that they're cowed into submission. There is a little bit of that in the law, the Old Testament law that God is saying, "I am holy and powerful and you are sinners. You need to be aware of this gap." There's a shock and awe element to that.
The medieval period was doing something similar with the sacrament of penance and the purgatorial images that were put up before people. Just this constant reminder that they were sinners in contrast to this powerful and holy God. So, this shock and awe, the reformers grew up with that. They would have known how serious their own sins were before this holy God.
This shock and awe then, is something that prepares them in the same way that the Old Testament law prepared all of humanity, in a sense, for the reality and the shock, but the stunning joy then that comes with the reality that Jesus came and died for us. There's the shock and awe of the terror turns into shock that Jesus would come and die for us while we were yet sinners. Then the awe, of a God that would love us so much that He would do that. Then, what happens in the writings of the Reformers, it's just this explosive joy.
I, reading this for the first time when I had put all of it together, I had this wonderful team of translators that were working with me. I finally took all of the work that we had done and put it all together. It was about 300,000 words. I read it for the first time all the way through in order. It took about 4, 18 hour days to do it.

Timothy George: Wow.

Gwenfair Adams: At the end of each day, I would find myself just overwhelmed with the emotion. I would have to weep, which was a surprise to me, but I just couldn't get over what the Reformers couldn't get over, which was the incredible joy of the gospel. The whole doctrine's sola fide, that we take for granted now, I think, but they weren't taking it for granted. They had rediscovered it, but they were rediscovering it in the context of this shock and awe. So, they didn't take it for granted. They just couldn't believe it.

Timothy George: It's the place where, what we call the material and the formal principles of the Reformation come together in a way. What you're talking about, the discovery of the joy of the gospel, sola fide, we're saved, we're justified by faith alone. They found this in the Scriptures. So, this becomes a kind of nexus, the Word of God in holy Scripture and the message of the Word of God, center in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's what produces the joy.

Gwenfair Adams: Yes, and then sola scriptura helps them cut out all of this other stuff that has been piled on over the centuries. Now they can see the crystal clarity of the gospel.

Timothy George: I love the fact that you're a Reformations scholar, but also a medievalist and that you're pursuing the conexus between the two. You see continuity, discontinuity. I think that's a much more holistic way and more accurate way of describing what really happened, because it wasn't all of a sudden that there was something out of the blue that they're building on something that's there, but then it's transformed by this new revelatory insight into the gospel itself.

Gwenfair Adams: You do that beautifully in The Theology of the Reformers, in that first chapter.

Timothy George: Thank you. Thank you. Now, a lot of your work, Gwenfair, seems to be at the intersection of spirituality and church history.

Gwenfair Adams: Yes.

Timothy George: These are two separate disciplines in a lot of the curricula of seminaries today. We all have to give an account to our accrediting body of what we're doing in spiritual formation. That's a fairly new thing. When I got started in this field, really only the Catholics, maybe the Orthodox, a few Anglicans were interested in spirituality. Now we all are, because we have to be, but I wonder if you've thought about that. That intersection of history, in particular, theology and spirituality. What would you say about that?

Gwenfair Adams: This is an area of much passion for me. I like to think about CS Lewis and his personal experience. When he was growing up, he was reading richly in the classics, in mythology, and in Greek, and Roman writings, and in all the different classics coming up to his time period. He was passionate about reading as a child so he did it on his own, but he also had this wonderful instructor, kind of a mentor to him when he was a teenager. Then he went to Oxford and was reading in the classics and then in English literature. All of this was going into his mind and in his heart.
When it came time then for him to start writing himself, there was so much for his mind to draw on. His writings, I think part of the reason why they are so popular and why people constantly are reading them and even 50 years after his death, you've got a huge popularity in the states for them, is the richness, but it didn't come from just his sheer brilliance. It came from this reservoir that he was drawing on.
For me, church history does the same thing. I think so often when we're doing spiritual formation today, we're just looking at our own time period. We look to the Scriptures, which is of course, the most important place to look, but if we don't draw on the riches of church history it can be quite thin if we're just drawing on our own experience. But if you go back through the history of the church and you look at all these different models and there are so many, it's not just the medieval models, but the Reformation models, the revival models, Methodist models. Just so many different and even back to the early church, if you put that all in your mind and your heart, then when it comes to trying to think about how to understand the Scriptures and what they say about spiritual formation and how that can be applied now, there's this rich matrix again, that you can draw on. I think it makes for much more layered, textured, much more lively models of spiritual formation.

Timothy George: I had a great teacher at Harvard, George Huntston Williams and he used to talk about our speaking cousins. People that are on the margins maybe, not in the mainstream. They're not the centerpiece, but they're a part of the tradition. Our speaking cousins and we need to know them. We need to be in conversation with them as we're seeking the face of God, as we're seeking to grow in Christ. We have something to learn from them. I think that's what you're talking about this intersection of learning from our speaking cousins throughout the history of the church. Then applying that to the life of faith today.
You've come to this and you're working right now in Romans 1-8. We're really looking forward to having your volume out, by the way, and the Reformation commentary on Scripture. This is a 28 volume set of exegetical comment from the 16th Century and of course, Romans is just right at the heart of it all and Luther certainly thought so, didn't he?

Gwenfair Adams: Indeed, yes.

Timothy George: The Reformers were also interested in prayer and in this turning the heart to God. They're devotional writings. Some of Luther's best devotional work happens in his letters, his correspondence, where he's dealing with people in their struggles, in their doubts, and their fears. Can you connect the biblical exegetical basis of Reformation theology with this other, we might call it more of the spiritual literature of the period?

Gwenfair Adams: For the Reformers, of course, everything rises from the Scriptures. They are always beginning there and Romans, of course, was one of the places where they began. I mean it began in many ways for Luther with Romans. His first foray into lecturing at the university was in Psalms.
There he starts to think Christologically in an Augustinian fashion about the Psalms and starts to discover the humility of Christ. It starts to turn him from being terrified through this shock and awe we were talking about earlier towards falling in love, in a sense, with Christ. That's something that continues over his life, but I think it's in Romans that he really discovers the doctrine of justification by faith alone and really, I think, there comes fully to his appreciation for what Christ has done and so on.
The work in the text is where it starts for the Reformers, but they did have rich devotional lives and they were encouraging those that were following them to develop rich devotional lives as well. Luther, for example, takes his medieval monastic approach to the Scriptures and translates it into a modified way of taking the Scriptures and turning it into prayer. Lectio Divina is something that he would have practiced as a monk, four step process. He then develops a four step process that takes someone from Scripture all the way through then to turning it into prayer. Again, it's that rootage in the Scriptures, but then turning it into one's devotional approach to God.

Timothy George: Luther has these three rules on how you read the bible, how you pray. Orotio, which is prayer. Meditatio, but then he adds tentatio, temptation, as something that we don't always think about when we think about prayer. We get alone with God. Go to your prayer closet, or go to church, but we don't think about temptation as being very much central to the whole act of Christian devotion. Luther thought that way, didn't he?

Gwenfair Adams: Yes. It's interesting you mentioned those three in particular, my colleague, Gordy Isaac has just published a book this past month on those three. When you think about tentatio, anfechtung, is another term sometimes that is used for that. This was something that was very prominent for Luther. He was someone who had struggled with depression. That didn't leave him completely after he had his moment of coming over into sola fide and so on.
He was someone who deeply understood what it was to suffer. He, of course, was living under perpetual threat of being killed because of his beliefs. There was a lot of suffering in life in general in the Middle Ages. It was not an easy time period in which to live as a human being. There was a lot of physical suffering that he endured. He had lots of illnesses.
He saw these anfechtung as really shaping him and as being the way that God actually made him a theologian. He said that it was not just living, but it was dying that made him a theologian. He talked about the contrast between the gospel and its joy, again we're back to the joy of the gospel. The gospel comes to us and it presents the Christian life as this wonderful thing that we live in Christ and that heaven is awaiting us and so on, but then in our lives we have this suffering and this temptation, this agony.
The gap between the two is something that forces us, first, to grow in our faith, because we have to believe in something that we can't see. But it also draws us, or should, or can, draw us closer to Christ, because only in Christ can we bear these anfechtung. We need His help. It also draws us to other believers as well, because we can't survive these tentatio by ourself. We need to have believers with us.

Timothy George: Luther talks a lot about the consolation that we receive from one another. I think that's really what his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is about. It's not just, "I'm a lonely priest." That we are together a priesthood of believers in the community of faith. We're to care for one another, forgive one another, love one another. This is a part of the Christian life.

Gwenfair Adams: That also then, of course, leads to vocation, the importance of vocation. That's one of the exciting places where you see the paradigm shift happening. Is that vocation used to be a trend that would be applied only to the monks and the nuns and the priests. They were the ones that had the callings, but with Luther and then the other Reformers, you start getting this sense of excitement that everybody has a calling.
Luther even talks about changing diapers, can have value before God, because that's part of your calling as a father, as a mother. That everybody's work matters. That as long as you're doing it as unto the Lord and you're doing what He is calling you to do, that it has tremendous value. Yeah, vocation.

Timothy George: Wonderful. Shock and Awe: The Reformers and the Stunning Joy of Romans 1-8. That was the title of Dr. Gwenfair Walters Adams plenary address here at the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island. She is associate professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A distinguished scholar, author of numerous books including one that's just coming out. Romans 1-8 in The Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series from InterVarsity Press. Thank you Gwenfair for this wonderful conversation.

Gwenfair Adams: It's been a delight.

Announcer: You've been listening to the Beeson Podcast with host Timothy George. You can subscribe to the Beeson Podcast at our website Beeson Divinity school is an interdenominational evangelical divinity school, training men and women in the service of Jesus Christ. We pray that this podcast will aid and encourage your work. We hope you will listen to each upcoming addition of the Beeson Podcast.

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