So there’s been a fun spat of posts and discussions about protestantism of late, following the Future of Protestantism round table discussion a week ago. I watched most of the event live and caught up on the parts I missed shortly thereafter. I’ve also enjoyed the follow up posts by the participants themselves. But lest it be thought that I was merely an amused spectator watching from the sidelines as though it were golf on the television on a lazy Saturday afternoon, let me throw a few thoughts into the pot.
1. First, this is an important discussion, and I think you can gauge something of the importance by the fact that a fairly large crowd of Christians gathered to listen (live or electronically) to two conservative Presbyterian ministers and an Evangelical Free Church seminary professor discuss the Future of Protestantism. I mean, seriously. The fact that these guys got this much air time says something. And I don’t mean any disrespect. I think there’s a good reason why people would want to listen to these men talk about this topic, but I think it’s saying something when lots of folks agree with me! Add to this the fact that First Things was a cosponsor of the event, a journal interested in joining together, as Rusty Reno reminded us at the end, with all “people of faith” (including Muslims and Jews) — that’s significant too. It seems clear that Christians in America (of many denominations and non-denominations) have a sense that something has changed or is changing. I suspect that part of this is related to the internet age as well. Blogs and websites create opportunities for theological food fights, but they also bring us into contact with Christians from many different backgrounds and force us to some extent to reckon with real people, not just the caricatures we’ve heard about in hushed tones at dinner parties.
2. One of the key moments in the round table discussion (for me) was at the very end following a question from a girl about ecumenism in pro-life work. Somebody gave an answer of general approval, and then Carl Trueman closed the evening out dismissing the girl’s concerns by explaining that this area was not even an ecclesiastical issue. It’s in the civil realm, he explained, and he would have no problem working with Jews or Muslims on pro-life issues because it is not a church-sphere thing. It struck me that what Peter Leithart is proposing at the very least assumes Christendom. It is a practical proposal that presupposes that the presence of the Church goes beyond the four walls of a building on Sunday mornings. Related to this then is the relative urgency for this project. If the Church is limited to Sunday mornings (and maybe an hour for coffee after the service), there’s little to no pressure for “the Church” to reconcile. And it keeps the subject matter almost entirely limited to doctrinal issues. Bumping into your Roman Catholic neighbors or Baptist coworkers is all out there in the world, in the “civil sphere.” So they may as well be Muslims or Hindus or JWs, and all we’re worried about is the “common good” or some bland tyranny like that. Of course I know that Carl Trueman cares about his neighbors and wants to see them meet Jesus, but there is certainly less tension outside of Sunday worship between our creedal claims and our actual ecclesial practices when there’s no expectation that the Church must exist out there in the world.
3. Anyone who’s read this blog over the years knows that I’m one of those grenade launching protestants who has the audacity to make rather extreme sounding claims from time to time, and I don’t mind when it sounds like I’m being inflammatory or contradictory — so long as I’m being biblical. So on the one hand, taking one thing with another, I happen to think that evangelical Protestants converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are engaged in highhanded spiritual adultery. I tweeted one time that converts are basically giving their Protestant families and churches an ecclesiastical middle finger, and I still think that. It starts as ecclesiastical voyeurism, lusting over papal swimsuit issues and before you know it, it’s turned into a full blown ecclesiastical porn addiction, where Protestants are drooling over icons late at night on their computers. Really, this has gotten so bad that there ought to be some kind of porn blocker for this particular malady. But then when he gets busted by his wife (or he comes clean), he explains to his pastor that the arguments for apostolic succession and prayers to saints are just so sexy, and the fragmentation of protestantism just makes his little heart go flub-flub-flubbity. But the way this goes, this guy is well past actually talking about theology. You can’t reason with a man in heat. That dog won’t hunt. This guy isn’t following Jesus; he’s found a mistress in the trappings of liturgy and a lazy mysticism.
4. But on the other hand, for all my polemics, I believe that the Roman communion is a branch of the one true Church. It’s a branch full of deadwood, but it’s still a real, live branch, and there is still fruit being produced there. I’m reading JPII’s Theology of the Body at the moment and there are some wonderful biblical treasures there. There are Christians from liberal congregations finding a comparatively real, biblical Jesus in the Roman Church. There are cradle RCs that somehow find the gospel of grace through the Bible teaching of parish priests. There are Bible study renewal movements in branches of Orthodoxy. Not to mention the rich history of sources we have stretching back into the middle ages and early church. Whatever their foibles, misunderstandings, and blind spots (and they had many), they are our fathers and mothers in the faith. When RCs and EOs show up at my church, they are welcomed to the Lord’s Table because we recognize their Christian baptism and trust that the Lord is at work in them. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned for them; this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t seek to teach them what I consider the doctrines of grace as articulated in the Reformation. But here I would agree with Fred Sanders, Orthodox missions to Muslims are to be celebrated. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ (Nicaea/Chalcedon) do not exhaust what the Spirit has said to the churches, but they are certainly bedrock doctrines which I would be willing to argue imply a robust Reformational confessionalism, despite the protestations of our Roman and Eastern brethren.
5. A day or so ago I linked to an article that Rich Bledsoe wrote for the Trinity Institute website. When a friend raised a question about it, I went back reread it, and I have to admit that there were a number of things that could be confusing, but the reason I linked the article, the reason it resonated so strongly with me was that I found his central point — the analogy of the Church as a family with parents and children an extremely helpful way of framing the issue. Like all analogies, I’m sure it breaks down in various ways, and in hindsight I probably should have just written this article, but here we are. On the one hand, I think Rich assumed a lot more dysfunction in families in general than would have been necessary to make his point. I also take a bit of issue with his general assumption of belligerence on the part of protestants. Nor am I as confident about his read on where we are in the justification conversation with Rome. I have heard things that occasionally make me hopeful, but I’m still waiting for Pope Francis to announce that Trent was a stupid mistake and sorry about the Marian persecution in England, folks. But, nevertheless (and on the other hand), Rich is a friend and I happen to know a lot about his personal ministry in a big liberal city where he (as a presbyterian minister) has become good friends with many different pastors, including at least one Roman Catholic priest and through those friendships has had some extraordinary opportunities to be a gospel presence to the leaders of his city. I also happen to know that Rich is a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan when it comes to gospel basics and pastoral care. So assume that and keep that in mind while you read.
6. But what really pleased me about Rich’s family analogy was the explanation it offered for why it’s ridiculous to convert to Rome or Constantinople. It’s like moving back in with your parents when you’re forty-two. In other words, Rich’s essay frames the issue in a way that highlights the tension of disunity while presenting the solution as something other than conversion. I think that’s extremely helpful. One of the great dragons that faces all inter-denominational dialogue is romanticism. And what I mean is that romantics on the whole tend to be idealists and perfectionists. They have a particular vision for a particularly pristine version of their own heritage, doctrine, liturgy, etc., and anything short of that perfection is considered compromise at best and apostasy at worst. And converts are often created by this romantic perfectionism. But Rich’s family analogy is helpful because families are dynamic and messy. There are feelings and personalities, gifts and weaknesses, good days and puke on the sheets, and everything else. And what makes a family “family” is a central loyalty, a central table, a commitment to one another. And at the same time, as families grow and mature they must, by necessity, have additional space — space for living, space for some measure of difference, space for different callings, space for different emphases, space for different methods of faithfulness. And that’s all assuming a relatively Christian faithfulness in a family. Add a few bumps and bruises here and there, and it gets a bit more complicated even when everyone involved is doing their best to follow Jesus. But the biblical pattern is that children leave and cleave, and the fifth commandment still applies. In tribal societies, children never really leave, families just grow into clans that resemble the blob. On the other hand, in our disjointed, fragmented modern culture, there is little to no loyalty or connection between parents and children, and the requirement to honor parents almost seems foreign. But the biblical vision is one where leaving is expected and planned for, and yet honor and loyalty remains. I find Rich’s analogy a compelling picture of how the Roman Church has envisioned a sort of perpetual childishness in its hierarchy and style. I also find an embedded hopefulness about the future, and how the Lord intends to multiply His blessings to successive generations. Yes, we have much to learn from the past, but our God piles up blessings for our children and children’s children, implying for me, a certain measure of optimism about protestantism. While some protestants perhaps left with huffy attitudes and some have perpetuated a certain kind of bitter, divisive spirit, I think Bucer and Calvin and Luther and company largely left because they were 35 and getting whipped for reading the Bible under their covers at night and daring to think for themselves. As a pastor I have had to work with grown children trying to honor overbearing and overreaching parents. It’s a tightrope walk, but it still must be done. There’s no reason for grown children to move home, and grown children leaving oppressive homes are under no compulsion to suddenly start trusting an abusive dad. But God still calls us to honor; He still calls us to hope for reconciliation. And when you apply the analogy to the facts on the ground, I do believe we are finding that churches are hardly monolithic. There are Methodists that love Jesus. There are Roman Catholics that love Jesus. There are Baptists that love Jesus. And all, despite our obvious and important differences. But we are not aiming at a unity that will end up being a centralized office or common letterhead. It will be a growing unity of Spirit, growing commonality of confession, one baptism, one table, a growing unity of mission. And even though Rich probably didn’t intend this, there’s also the possibility that our Roman parents will eventually grow so old and senile that they’ll need to move in with us!
7. Last thought (since it’s number 7): For all of Rev. Trueman’s Two Kingdom doggedness and pessimism, I actually have some sympathy with his questions about losing priorities or relativizing the gospel/confessional center of traditional protestantism. He pressed this point several times with Peter Leithart during the round table. Ironically, I do think that there can be a kind of ecumenical/liturgical ecumenism that is confusing and less than pastoral. We can, if we are not careful, unintentionally give the impression that liturgical unity, ecumenical attempts, doctrinal common ground are more important than the gospel itself. Unless Jesus is preached loudly and clearly, unless the bloody cross and the blood-bought atonement are heralded early and often, unless we review our Heidelberg heritage and the glorious Solas of the Reformation continually, this new catholicity will go the way of pathetic liberal gruel which is actually far more schismatic in the long run. But here’s the thing: I think reformed evangelical “catholics” (Protestants who love Jesus and His Church) are in the best possible position to live this kind of catholicity out. We have a unique set of gifts through a robust evangelical personalism that insists on true heart conversion to Christ and at the same time, a covenant theology of grace, an ecclesiology that looks in faith to the Good Shepherd, the Chief Pastor of the whole flock of God, expecting Him to be faithful to His promises to make us all one.