Last week, Biola University hosted a conversation between Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman on The Future of Protestantism, an event organized by the Torrey Honors Institute, First Things, and the Davenant Trust, and moderated by the Calvinist International‘s Peter Escalante. Jake Meador has produced a helpful roundup of the various responses to the event. Here is the video of the event, for those who have yet to watch it.
I greatly enjoyed listening to the conversation and had several thoughts and questions arising from it, some of which I thought that I would share here.
Within his Brazos theological commentary on 1 and 2 Kings and elsewhere, Leithart has explored the account of the divided kingdom (which he relates to a divided Church), the prophetic movements of such as Elijah and Elisha (a sort of ecclesiolae in ecclesia), and the concept of the remnant. He employs these as figural frameworks within or paradigms from which we can discern our current situation within the Church. I believe that these analogies are often illuminating, affording richer accounts of the divisions within the Church than many of frameworks of understanding that are more common within our discussions. Leithart developed such a figural reading of the Church’s situation in various parts of his presentation. Unfortunately, he did not sufficiently articulate the weight that such analogies have within his thinking. Are they merely heuristic tools of understanding, or is Leithart positing a deeper relationship?
History and Eschatology
Leithart displayed the influence of the work of James Jordan in quite a pronounced fashion at various points (Jordan’s position is most fully articulated in Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future). One of the things that interested me was the way that his description of the days of creation and the stages of Israel’s history segued fairly seamlessly into a discussion of Church history. This sparked a few questions for me. Leithart’s narrative has a pronounced surface linearity in its continuing patterns of death and resurrection. Does this lead to a sort of ‘sacralisation’ of the history of the Church, presenting it as a continuation of the history recorded in Scripture?
More significantly, if Christ is at the centre of history, is there not a disruption of linearity? Is not his death and resurrection climactic in a manner that cannot be surpassed by any subsequent age? While Leithart elsewhere speaks of history entering a climactic phase through the work of Christ, I wonder whether this unsettles his parallels between the relationship with the future in the old covenant and that which pertains in the new. How would Leithart respond to the claim that the future has already come in Christ and that our entrance into God’s future is at heart the entrance into and living out of a once-for-all achievement in the past? How does the history of the Church relate to Christ’s narrative?
To what degree is Leithart’s account of history dependent upon his particular brand of postmillennial eschatology? There is also an apparent note of Hegelianism within Leithart’s account of history. For many, the current problems in the Church will be resolved primarily by repentance, return, and restoration. By contrast, Leithart’s accent upon providentially orchestrated stages of death and resurrection in a larger process of development and maturation suggests that the primary source of the solution to current divisions is found elsewhere: in the ‘apocalyptic’ emergence of some synthesis that we cannot yet envision. Here the eschatological risks overwhelming the ethical and theological.
Situating our Differences and Discourses in History
On the other hand, I believe that the attention given to history, providence, and the temporal character of the processes of theological and moral discourse within Leithart’s account is salutary. Too often we view our theological divisions as absolute and insurmountable oppositions. In so doing, we fail to appreciate the degree to which they are contingent upon historical conditions and contexts, upon ways of framing our questions, and the preunderstandings that we bring to them, all of which are both amenable and likely to change. While the philosophy of history that informs Leithart’s hope may be suspect in some regards, there are indeed grounds to believe that the tension manifested in many current disputes may at least be partially relieved as new frameworks and perspectives emerge and as history changes us and our contexts and exposes us to the influence of others.
Such belief can give us both a measure of hope and a greater degree of patience. Even if no potential resolution to certain divisions presents itself on the horizon, this is not sufficient reason to believe that these divisions will be indefinitely enduring, or that they will always meet us in their current configuration. History is a realm of change and surprise and our theological and ecumenical conversations developing entities extended within it. Oliver O’Donovan, speaking of the importance of committing ourselves to the resolution of tensions through discourse in the context of communion, remarks:
The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.
Many regard the division of the Church into various denominations and fractured traditions as a situation with very few redeeming features. However, these divisions do have some advantages. They can quarantine relatively corrupt, unorthodox, and dying parts of the Church from healthier parts of the Church, whose well-being might be jeopardized by close interaction. They can mark off the spiritual ‘hard-hat’ areas of the building of the Church. Trueman’s pastoral concerns are relevant here: the well-being of the Church is often endangered by the visible manifestations of its unified being.
Denominations and divisions within the Church may also have the benefit of holding open certain questions and issues for which we have yet to arrive at a satisfactory resolution. An immediate resolution would have the effect of prematurely collapsing the tension, rather than working through and being transformed by it. Dimensions of the truth might be abandoned in such a situation. Denominational boundaries can have the benefit of aerating our theological conversations, preserving a space within which biblical tensions can be maintained, when they would otherwise be collapsed or abandoned.
Doing Theology for the One Church?
From the following lengthy quotation from the preface to Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1, it is hard to avoid the impression that Leithart has drunk deeply from his thought in this area:
Theology is the church’s enterprise of thought, and the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds. Therefore theology may be impossible in the situation of a divided church, its proper agent not being extant—unless, of course, one is willing to say that a particular confessional or jurisdictional body simply is the one church. To live as the church in the situation of a divided church—if this can happen at all—must at least mean that we confess we live in radical self-contradiction. Also theology must make this double contradiction at and by every step of its way.
We commonly speak of such things as “Roman Catholic” or “Baptist” or “Lutheran” theology. Such labels can be used in a harmless historically descriptive sense, as one can say that “Orthodox theology” tends to a Cyrillean Christology. They may be used in a somewhat more ominous descriptive sense, as someone might say that “Reformed theology” cannot accept certain ways of asserting papal primacy. But a theologian who described her or his own work as “Lutheran” of “Reformed” or whatever such, and meant by that label to identify the church the work was to serve, would either deny the name of church to all but his or her own allegiance, or desecrate the theological enterprise.
It is sharpened recognition of such stark alternatives that has driven a characteristic form of modern ecumenism, the search for healing of churchly divisions by theological “convergence.” The dialogues and the convergence-theology they practice have achieved marvels. But it is becoming clear that reestablishment of ecclesial fellowship between East and West and within the West across the divisions begun at the Reformation will not occur by any straightforward continuation of these efforts. It increasingly appears that no degree of theological convergence can by itself suffice to reestablish communion once broken. An act of God is needed.
Nor need this be a pessimistic prediction. The church must regard waiting as the most creative of activities, since she apprehends fullness of being only in the coming Kingdom. And God may act tomorrow. In the meantime, it is a great blessing specifically to theology that we need not wait for the church to be undivided to do theology for and even of the undivided church. For theology itself is a form of the waiting we must practice.
The present work is deliberately done in such anticipation of the one church…
As a long-term appreciative reader of Leithart’s work, one of my deeper concerns is with the way that he typically seems to operate from a deracinated theological posture (this is a fault that I occasionally recognize in myself too). Like Jenson, Leithart seems to be producing theology for the one Church of the future, or the unitary Church of the creeds. However, I fear that such a theological disposition is in danger of operating in terms of an implicitly over-realized eschatology and mischaracterizing the role that one’s own tradition should play in the theological enterprise.
In particular, viewed retrospectively from the perspective of the one Church of the future, the current oppositional particularity of theological traditions is apt to appear as a matter of distortion and limitation. In a direct quest for convergence, we can neglect the deep wells of our own tradition and our rootedness in a pre-eschatological situation. When these seem to be potential obstacles to the unity of the Church, we will fail to realize their significance within the distinct ‘prophetic’ ministry of a robust theological tradition to the Church as a whole. This is a ministry through which the Church as a whole can be edified and brought closer to a mature unity. Leithart has previously compared divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants to the division between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Employing his own typology, it is important to remember that this division was put in place by God and God was the one who removed it. While there was a need for mutual recognition between the kingdoms, God didn’t seem to push for the people of both kingdoms to launch grand reunification projects. Rather, the people of God were called to act faithfully within the non-eschatological terms of a broken situation. Sometimes we are called to tarry in the wilderness and forbidden to enter the Promised Land.
The Future of Evangelicalism?
Near the end of Leithart’s presentation he declares:
I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth. I hope to see fragmented Protestantism, anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental Protestantism, thinly biblical Protestantism, anti-doctrinal, anti-intellectual Protestantism, anti-traditional Protestantism, rationalist and nationalist Protestantism slip into the grave. And I’ll be there to help to turn that grave into a dance floor.
Much of what Leithart is describing here is directly applicable to Protestant evangelicalism. The vehemence of Leithart’s statements is startling, especially in light of the more irenic and positive tone he struck in his presentation more generally. The mode of expression would seem to suggest that Leithart’s animus is not merely directed at certain traits that are present among Protestants (as he earlier challenges ‘Catholic tribalism’). Rather, a prima facie hearing suggests that he closely identifies the bearers of these traits with the traits and in some sense wishes to see both annihilated together. Does Leithart have a redeeming vision for evangelicalism itself, or must evangelicals just abandon the movement and join more liturgical, sacramental, traditional, and hierarchical churches? In the past Leithart has spoken of a split that occurred in the Church between high and low forms of culture: I wonder whether there isn’t some residual ecclesiological snobbishness lurking in his remarks at this point.
Evangelicalism as the Bearer Institution of Protestantism
Leithart’s implicit vision for evangelicalism sharply contrasted with Sanders’ vision for evangelical Protestantism as the bearer institution of the Protestant message. Evangelicals’ experience, Sanders maintains, arises directly out of the two central principles of Protestantism. The formal principle of the authority of Scripture is expressed in the significance evangelicals give to preaching and Bible study. The material principle of justification by faith alone is expressed in the centrality of conversion in evangelicals’ experience.
I am not so ready to grant Sanders’ claim here: I believe that, despite evangelicalism’s intense theological commitment to them, both principles are subtly compromised within much evangelicalism. If we were speaking about evangelicalism as a movement within a more sacramental, liturgical, and institutional church context I would. However, Sanders seems to have non-denominational, non-confessional, and baptistic churches in view here.
At one point in his presentation Sanders speaks of the need for ‘devices for symbolizing the living tradition.’ Without such devices, the tradition will have little force in the life of our churches. I want to argue that the maintenance of the formal and material principles of Protestantism require something akin to such symbolizing devices too and that. For the authority of Scripture we need external agencies that can effectively press its teaching over against us and our churches. Despite its commitment to the authority of Scripture in theory, evangelicalism has been poor on this front and, without such agencies, an affirmation of authority of Scripture has too easily lapsed into the authority of our particular church or our own authority as individual interpreters.
Likewise, to uphold justification by faith alone, we need the effective symbolization and presentation of Christ extra nos. Without such a presentation, faith can easily get lost in its reflexive self-regard (a self-regard perhaps most openly expressed in the ‘look at me, worshipping you’-style lyrics of some modern worship songs). There is, I believe, a distinction to be drawn between lively Christ-focused piety and a preoccupation with the ‘conversion experience’. With its typically weak account of the sacraments, I believe that evangelicalism faces real dangers here.
Such problems are not problems that can be addressed by better or more comprehensive or intensive teaching. What is required is a change in evangelicalism’s form to something closer to magisterial Protestantism and its greater realization of the sacraments, liturgy, tradition, confession, and subordinate authorities. As a movement within the context of such Protestant churches, evangelicalism could indeed be all that Sanders hopes for it and more. However, divorced from such contexts, I am far less optimistic about its prospects.
Word and Sacrament
The Word and Sacrament part of the discussion was perhaps more significant than many might presume, as are Sander’s subsequent remarks on the subject. While all parties would hold Word and Sacrament together and would regard the sacraments as word-based, both Trueman and particularly Sanders appear to regard the sacraments as more akin to intensifying restatements of the Word in a different mode. However, for Leithart, while the sacraments are Word-based rituals, as rituals they ‘effect’ something new: they are performative ‘words’, more akin to a wedding ceremony or the induction into a new office. Declaring ‘by the power vested in me … I now pronounce you man and wife’ is word-based, but it is a very different sort of ‘word’ from one only providing an intensifying illustration, declaration, teaching, or affirmation of the meaning of marriage, for instance.
Leithart’s emphasis upon the performative word of the Christian sacraments naturally shapes his understanding of Christian unity in various ways. Leithart also seems to have more of a sense of liturgy and the sacraments as practices designed to shape the imagination and to train the body. This should help to explain both why he places such an emphasis upon the weekly practice of the Supper in the context of the life and worship of the Church and why sacramental unity is a far more important dimension of his vision. Where the performative effect of the ‘word’ of the sacraments is downplayed along with their non-cognitivist inculcation of Christian truth, explicit teaching and doctrine will tend to be front and centre in our understanding of Church identity and unity. Leithart’s doctrine of the sacraments brings different dimensions into the picture.
Unity through Co-Belligerency
Trueman’s presentation helpfully brought into focus the issue of our current cultural predicament, where conservative Christians stand on the brink of suffering rapid and aggressive marginalization. As Protestants participate in the ‘culture wars’ they find themselves in co-belligerency with Roman Catholics and Christians from various other camps. As Brad Littlejohn observed in one of the questions, in the eyes of the Huffington Post, we are all on the same (wrong) side.
A danger that I perceive here is that of moving into a unity framed by the priorities of the surrounding culture, rather than in terms of faithfulness in the truth of the gospel. Opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage may be significant, but in framing our affiliations in terms of such negative positions we risk losing sight of the positive grounds of true Christian unity.
Creedal and Moral Unity
The role of the creeds as a source and site of unity was an issue that surfaced at various points during the discussion. I took up this question in a recent post. The ecumenical creeds principally focus upon identifying the God in whom we trust and whom we worship, the most fundamental concern of the Christian faith. They also represent the authority of the wider Church and tradition within our Christian thought and practice. However, many of the growing divisions in the Church no longer operate on the faultlines of creedal orthodoxy, but rather concern questions of morality.
It is as if creedal orthodoxy were that which defined the ‘playing field’ of the Church. While we will always have linesmen and the ball may sometimes go off the field, as we operate within the bounds of the creeds we will be engaged in a realm of activity that is recognizably Christian. However, most of our divisions today seem to be more akin to disputes over the identity or authority of umpires or referees and the form that the play upon the pitch should take.
Creedal unity is focused upon shared belief in the Triune God. Alongside this we would seem to need a basic degree of moral unity, a shared commitment to the moral authority of God exercised through Scripture and to the subordinate authority of the Church and tradition along with a commitment to a general form that the life of faithfulness should take, such that we can identify the shape of the restoration of human agency in Christ.
Leithart seems to place an emphasis upon a further dimension of Christian unity, a dimension that received limited attention among his interlocutors: sacramental unity. This is the sort of unity that was at stake when Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. For Leithart the ecumenical endeavour is not merely a project with potentially positive fruit: it is an imperative. We should not be satisfied with a situation in which different churches refuse to acknowledge the baptisms and authority of other churches, or where they will not share the Supper with them. While Trueman suggested that Roman Catholics had no apparent need of Protestants, Leithart’s line would push directly against this. Roman Catholics need Protestants because a failure to recognize Protestants is a failure to recognize the body of Christ and a subversion of their sacramental practice as Paul describes in Corinth. Likewise with Protestants: as long as our communion tables are sites of sectarianism, we are violating the meaning of the Supper.
What Does Christian Unity Look Like?
Perhaps the most prominent set of questions that emerged for me from watching the conversation concerned the actual shape that Christian unity would take. Different participants and questioners in the discussion spoke of unity from a number of different directions: top-down and bottom-up unity, unity in cultural co-belligerency, unity in the eyes of society, ‘branded’ institutional unity, non-‘branded’ unity in mutual recognition and the parachurch, creedal and confessional unity, sacramental unity, etc. I would have loved to have heard each of the participants share more of their thoughts on how different elements and loci of unity interact in their understanding and how much weight they place on each.
I believe that a discussion of this would prove rewarding. One of the things that it would serve to clarify, I believe, is the exact character of certain church divisions. For instance, the divisions between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism may operate in a rather different manner from the divisions between independent evangelicals and more ecclesial and liturgical orthodox Protestants. While Leithart spoke of Catholic and Protestant tribalism, I believe that the moderator, Peter Escalante, was pushing things in a helpful direction as he observed that there is significant equivocation here: Protestant tribalism is accidental, while Catholic tribalism is more constitutive.
In the case of the two sets of divisions I just mentioned there are different conceptions of the character of Church unity on either side (for instance, the role that the papacy plays in Church unity in Roman Catholic theology presents ecclesiological obstacles to unity with Orthodoxy). However, in the case of the divisions between independent evangelicals and ecclesial and liturgical Protestants this may be more of a pronounced factor. I would also suggest—as an evangelical Anglican—that what we may be seeing on both sides is the unnecessary opposition between two loci of unity that any healthy church requires, when both sides could gain a great deal by bringing and holding them both together.
In a recent post, I commented on evangelicalism’s focus upon a sort of ‘prophetic’ form of ministry and relative neglect of the ‘priestly’ dimensions of the Church’s life. What results is a rather attenuated liturgical, sacramental, traditional, confessional, and institutional existence to the Church. Conversely, higher church traditions have often emphasized the ‘priestly’ dimensions of the Church’s existence and neglected many of the areas of evangelicalism’s strength: robust biblical pedagogy, personal evangelism and discipleship, missions, an emphasis upon personal conversion and vibrant personal faith, deep spiritual community, individual devotional practices, etc. Bringing together alienated dimensions of the Church’s life is a rather different endeavour from attempting to unite ecclesial bodies practicing the same modes of unity according to sharply differing principles.
Evangelicalism can be a wonderful thing as a movement within strong ecclesial bodies, but it typically lacks a firm ecclesiology of its own. When it operates outside of the context of strong liturgical, sacramental, institutional, and traditional forms of the Church’s existence, this lack can prove debilitating. When push has come to shove, when I have had to choose between evangelicalism’s loci of unity and the loci of more ecclesial, liturgical, and sacramental unity, I have gone with the former. However, the fact that such choices face us is deeply regrettable.
Much more could be said, but I will leave it to others to leave their thoughts in the comments (as I have a lot on at the moment, I don’t intend to get involved there).