Peter Leithart, my friend and mentor, has a new book out currently making a splash in the theological world: The End of Protestantism. As the author of other titles like Against Christianity, it comes as no surprise that Peter would aim to provoke discussion with another provocative title. If I’m ever a bit rambunctious in my rhetoric, I hope you’ll blame Peter just a bit for it. At the same time, my favorite all time book of Peter’s is A House for My Name. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to get it and start reading it immediately. It’s such a deceptively simple book, but it’s actually the sort of bracing gallop through the Old Testament that will leave you winded and happy. In fact, if you don’t have a copy stop reading this blog post and get thee hence to Amazon forthwith. Along those lines, I would commend to you any of his other biblical commentaries in particular: A Son To Me, Kings, The Four, From Silence to Song, and I wait eagerly for his forthcoming commentary on Revelation which he started when he was still here in Moscow. I’ve said a number of times over the last few years as Peter moved on to Theopolis Institute and folks have asked about the transition that the way I read the Bible has been so dramatically effected by Peter, I can’t do otherwise. My exegetical instincts have been thoroughly programed by sitting for hours upon hours with Peter teasing out various biblical texts. I’m forever ruined (in the best possible way).
Anyway, it’s been a little while since I’ve read a full book by Peter, and I’m just a little ways into EOP, but I figured I’d throw a few thoughts out now and maybe as I finish it up, I’ll have followup thoughts and additional musings.
- First, while Peter has only hinted at this reality thus far in this book, one of the themes that I know is coming which he taught me over the years is the simple realization that apart from some kind of objective, historical severing — Jesus removing the lamp stand from a particular church, our assumption ought to be that the problems in any of the Christian Churches are problems in our church. In other words, if there are churches contemplating (or practicing) the ordination of women, that is happening in our church. If there are churches bowing down and praying to idols, that is happening in our church. This is because there is only One Church, One Body. If one part of the body is full of cancer, we all suffer with that malady. If one part of the body is bleeding, we all suffer. This is perhaps the greatest, strongest point for me in Peter’s ecumenical project. I have questions and concerns about how he states things and what he means at various points, but I think this is actually near the center of Peter’s heart on these matters and on this point I see no way around Paul’s words. And that hard work of loving the brothers should be carried out on the streets and in the neighborhoods of our hometowns. This is worth praying for, fighting for, working for because the Spirit really does use other believers to sharpen us, refine us, etc. It is not good for man to be alone. I might have wished Peter’s title had been Against Denominations or The End of Denominationalism but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so nicely nor is it quite so broad in scope nor so provocative. Nevertheless, to the extent that denominations are a cover for not caring about the true state of the catholic church, of ignoring those Christians in their needs and errors (or even in their successes and joys) who worship and believe differently than us down our street or across the seas, certainly that element in us needs to die and rise again as some kind of far more sanctified and glorified loyalty to our tribes.
- One initial thought I’ve had while reading isn’t necessarily a response to anything in particular in EOP but just a thought that occurred to me and that is that one way of describing Protestantism actually is precisely as a search for unity, true unity in the one Christ. This is perhaps alluded to in Peter’s fascinating overview of Yaego’s work on Luther — who argues that Luther’s early crisis was actually far more ecclesiological than soteriological — or at least those two things ought not be understood as separated in Luther’s quest. And thus, the “war against the idols” was actually far more of a catholic and ecumenical move than it is often given credit for. Idolatry was the root cause of the splintering and fracturing in the medieval catholic church, and what the Protestant Reformers were after was true catholicity and unity through a restoration of worship according to Scripture. Even in the last century, this can be seen in evangelicalism’s emphasis on true conversion. Despite all the caricatures, abuses, and ditches, that focus, aim, desire is arguably an ecclesiastical aim as much as a soteriological aim. If the Holy Spirit is the point of Christian unity then we must have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. How does one receive the Holy Spirit? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be born again. And to the credit of millions of evangelicals, this has been the central mantra: unless a man is born again he will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no unity in the Kingdom apart from true conversion.
- Following on that thought and given that thought-provoking description of Luther’s ecclesiastical dilemma, I was particularly puzzled by identifying “confessionalism” as a boogyman of the Reformation. In the end, it seems that nationalism and perhaps some form of intellectualism are the actual targets of Peter’s criticism. But even these targets need quite a bit more developing. To be sure, an enormous shift clearly does take place from 1500-1700 politically and ecclesiastically — no one can deny that, but the causes, effects, and corollaries seem to require far more elucidation. As the old fallacy warning goes: correlation does not imply causation. And particularly given some of the really helpful connecting of dots between the soteriological, liturgical, and ecclesiastical concerns of the Protestants, I needed a lot more help connecting the dots that Peter wants to connect to the (apparently) ill-conceived confessional project. It would seem on the face of it that confessions of faith and catechisms would be thoroughly catholic activities, reminiscent of such catholic heroes as Athanasius and Gregory the Great and so on, and would be a direct implication of those soteriological, liturgical, and ecclesiastical concerns. In other words, if the foundation of Protestantism was so apparently ecclesiastically solid and ecumenically aimed, why would writing it down ruin it? I wonder too about the connection Peter briefly alludes to between confessionalism and the rise of nationalism. One question I have for him would have to do with how that read squares with some of his work on Constantine. Not a gotcha question at all, just an honest curiosity: as I squint across the centuries (and scan Peter’s work), one of the things I’ve learned from him is to embrace the messiness of the prophetic word to the political heads. Mightn’t confessionalism be seen as nothing short of the Church speaking to the public square? I certainly grant that one possible narrative worth exploring could trace the exorcism of medieval catholicism (via confessions) to the enthronement of the secular state (seven more demons in a house swept clean?) — but I don’t see how even that could get pinned on confessionalism per se. It seems rather that we ought to be looking at some other defect, misunderstanding, or fatal flaw in the 16th and 17th century air. And none of this precludes subsequent misuse of confessions, but that doesn’t seem to be what Peter actually says or means.
- Perhaps this is what Doug Wilson was getting at in his recent blog post, but I need help distinguishing between Protestantism and Reformational Catholicism. Is this just a different name for what I already believe and practice? But then haven’t we just created a new name/denomination? When Peter describes Reformational Catholicism, most of what he describes is what I think of as Protestantism. Why would we want to end that? Maybe this is because Peter already ruined me! But having inherited the church that Peter planted, it will come as no surprise that we already practice many of the things Peter imagines Reformational Catholics would do. But in my (admittedly brief) experience I haven’t run into massive roadblocks in talking about these kinds of things to other pastors from other traditions. I guess what I mean is that I’m somewhat doubtful that Peter’s definition of Protestantism is as pervasive as he says it is. Is it really true that most Protestants define themselves largely in negative terms as what they are not? I supposed I could be convinced of this, and I certainly admit that it probably exists in some quarters of the Protestant world, but is the burgeoning Pentecostal south really all that concerned about not being Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic? I strongly doubt it. I think they are likely quite preoccupied with preaching the gospel and being filled with the Holy Spirit and fulfilling the Great Commission. Are gospel-minded non-denominational churches in the States really that concerned with their denomination? If you go to some big evangelical conference like ETS or Together for the Gospel, is there really that much denominational flag waving? In my interaction with local non-denominational pastors, I haven’t sensed that hardly at all. I sense good men who love Jesus who want to see the nations evangelized and are happy to work alongside other believers. Related, is it possible that some of what Peter is against was actually more of a particular American moment in the mid-20th century that has actually crumbled and largely faded as mainline denominations have lost their hold in America? Can’t remember where, but I distinctly remember reading about early 19th century American churches (Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians) frequently sharing pulpits, sponsoring evangelistic and missionary ventures jointly. Quite a bit more historical work needs to be done to convince me that sectarianism is that essential to the Protestant DNA.
- When Peter describes the future Reformational Catholic Church, and specifically some of the ways the leaders of various traditions will be renewed/transformed by this resurrection into a new way of being Church, it struck me that many of those (happy) developments (who could complain about happy presbyterian pastors?!) would naturally depend upon those other parts of the Church being what they are. In other words, one of the big ways God challenges me to think and rethink the role of the Spirit in my life and the life of the Church is the presence of Pentecostals. And one of the ways God challenges me to think about and rethink the role of sacraments in my life and the life of the Church is through Lutherans and Orthodox, etc. In other words, I don’t see how that transformation can occur throughout the church without denominationalism persisting in some form — where pockets of the church emphasize the spiritual gifts, and others emphasize sacraments, and still others emphasize polity, and still others emphasize eschatology, etc. Granted, perhaps what Peter envisions makes those emphases more permeable, but that hardly rises in my mind to the end of Protestantism but is rather one of the glorious fruits of Protestantism that surely needs constant attention, pruning, and care. Related, and perhaps Peter will get to it later, but the Body of Christ passages in the NT describe very different parts of the body which need one another but which also don’t spend a lot of time rubbing shoulders directly. The eye and the hand need one another, and they should acknowledge that, but they don’t exactly sit around holding hands (they don’t have hands! — or is this taking the analogy too far?). But what I mean is that they help one another best and live out true unity by doing what they are called to do and therefore by being very different from one another while supplying what the other needs. In other words, there’s a certain specialization and division of labor in the Body of Christ. Even if denominationalism needs to die in some sense, I don’t see how it doesn’t persist in some of these other senses. There is a fleshly, prideful way of loving yourself and loving what you do. That’s bad and sinful, and to the extent that churches and groups of churches swagger around with that kind of pride, kill ’em dead. But there is another kind of grateful, Christian confidence that knows that God has given you particular gifts and invests them gladly. Presbyterians and Baptists and Lutherans surely all need sanctifying in that direction, and surely some of the old man still needs crucifying in that way, but if we are to avoid the uselessness and horror of uniformity and monotony, where all the parts of the body are blended into an anatomical soup (which I know Peter is not arguing for!) — then a glorious and biblical diversity of families and tribes and tongues surely must persist within the ecclesia and not merely out there in the world. And this, it seems to me is not at all the end of Protestantism but rather the glorification of Protestantism, the fulfillment of Protestantism. I want many of the same things that Peter wants, but as I look back over the last 500 years of Protestantism, I see a great beginning to that project of true, evangelical union in Christ. Why pull the plug now? We’re just getting started.
Much thanks to Peter for the thought-provoking book. Despite my questions and differences, I hope God uses it to stir up the church to think long and hard about what it means to be the Church, to break down sinful barriers and raise up and heal the Body of Christ in every part, till we all come to that complete man in Christ.