Some Doctrinal Triage

Okay, one last follow-up post to the Future of Protestantism discussion. Again, I am grateful for the entire discussion, and to the folks who arranged it, and also grateful for the opportunity to participate here in the nickel seats — even if the only thing I do is throw a little popcorn.

Most of what follows should be filed in the “yeah, but” or “what about” category. Or maybe it could go under “not that simple.” Here I am going to interact mostly with Peter Leithart’s comments because his theology and mine have the most in common.

There was one place in Peter’s opening statement where I had a question about his rhetorical strategy. He made a very clear case that a problem in any part of the body is a problem for the body at large. But when it came to his wish list for the church, I was surprised by how narrow his program for reform was. His list appeared to be limited to a pretty narrow sector of the church. I really had no problem with the things that he wanted to see “blasted from the earth,” but thought that he ought to have included — for rhetorical balance — prayers to Mary, and painted icons in the sanctuary. His presentation made it clear he is not in favor of such things — contrary to what some of his critics say about him — but he plainly is not at war with them in the same way he is at war with follies closer to home. This makes sense if you think of your denomination as “home,” but I don’t know how to reconcile it with the point that the whole church catholic is home.

Now I know that for some years now I have been one of the chief fuglemen when it comes to making a little harmless fun of pop evangelicalism. There are many things that my people do that just drive me bonkers, and I certainly have no issue with Peter taking a swing at them too. To use one of Peter’s examples, the bread and wine are not an optional add-on extra. But I don’t think the situation is greatly improved in those churches where they always have bread and wine, but believe them to be worthy recipients of worship.

He said that one doesn’t have to leave home to be part of the church catholic, which is exactly right, but if we are responsible for reform of the whole, then the principle of triage would seem to indicate that we address worshiping the host before trying to fix the problem of monthly communion.

In order to be rhetorically effective in the work of reformation, we don’t want to send the signal that if you are praying to the bread, we desire to pursue further ecumenical discussion with you, but that if you are stinting on the frequency of serving the wine, we would like to see your form of worship blasted from the earth. We should want to see anything that displeases God blasted from the earth, even-steven, and we should want to see all the saints who love the Lord gathered together in the truth — all of them abandoning all of their errors with equal gladness. And if we want them to do that, then we should model how it is done by showing our willingness to have some of our proposals for reform blasted from the earth. I hereby submit for consideration my idea that the Lutherans and Baptists have to split the beer allowance. Now that I think about it, I see that it would be manifestly unfair.

A second issue the discussion made me think of is the whole matter of nationalism and churches — on the graves of which Peter announced that he was prepared to dance. But that whole thing is really complicated. National churches proper range from historic Erastianism, like the Church of England, to caesaropapist churches, like what Byzantium used to have, to the state churches licensed and allowed by the godless commies in China. And even the residue of the eastern caesaropapist churches carry the names of their ethnicities on the high priest’s breastplate like the urim and thummim. We have the Greek Orthodox, we have the Russian Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and so on. We were told to disciple the nations, and this seems like part of the cost of doing business — including the obvious errors that are dragged in. But it does seem to me that these sorts of errors will take up to five hundred years to deal with, and we will need at least several hundred thousand postmillennialists, who have all had their coffee, to deal with them.

Out of all these, one of the most interesting cases for me would be the instance of American civil religion. Maybe I just find it interesting because I am an American, but I think this is part of my point.

American civil religion — at least the priesthood — is currently in high rebellion against God, and it is almost as bad as the Episcopalians. The high priests refuse to let us pray in the name of Jesus, the god on their money has no Son, they have sacralized abortion and sodomy, they regard themselves to be the source of all righteousness, and the righteousness they put on display for us is pretty iniquitous. That’s a bad business, and if they could re-crucify the Lord, they certainly would. To find something like it, one of the places we should look is the time when people just like this crucified the Lord the first time.

Caiaphas was an evil man, and being high priest that year, he delivered a prophecy from God (John 11:51-52). His evil did not mean that the religion he represented was out of covenant with God. It does mean that his religion was under covenant sanctions, which is a very different thing than simply being “another religion.”

So American civil religion is a bad mess right now, and under covenant sanctions. But when did it get into this condition? Our nation is a little over two hundred years old, and that is just a couple of page turns in the Old Testament. When did it become the case that orthodox Christianity moved from the informal establishment church to the exiled church? It didn’t happen in 1789, but rather much later than that. There are many examples to illustrate this, but one should suffice. The post World War Two evangelicals were behind the drive to include “under God” in the Pledge, and they were not referring to a generic Deity. The National Association of Evangelicals was, around the same time, pressing for a constitutional amendment that would have recognized the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If we were in the book of Judges this would have happened one, maybe two, judges ago. There are all kinds of red state civil religionists who are still identifiably Christian, if we are going by the ecumenical ground rules.

But this highlights the real problem of ecumenicity and nationalities. We all know that there are faithful Christians in Russia and faithful Christians in the Ukraine. But are we prepared to acknowledge that there are faithful Christians who support Putin? And other faithful Christians who think he is a thug?

There are Christians who remind us that the US invasion of Iraq did a lot of damage to the church there, which it did. But those Christians who hasten to remind us of this are almost never the people who remind us to please remember that George Bush, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter are all our fellow Christians.

If we apply the principles of ecumenicity in an even-handed way, and we do it in every direction, whether left or right, we find ourselves in a situation where the Christians we want to draw into dialog are actively shooting at each other. Or dropping bombs. Or gobbling up territory. Or defending freedom. I was once in a position where I really did see Russia from my house. It was through a periscope, but I saw it. And I was talking one time to a Russian brother about it, but I noticed he didn’t think it was nearly as funny as I did.

Do I have a point here? Only the beginnings of one. The ecumenical endeavor is doomed unless we have a theology for it, a theology that is all-encompassing, large-hearted, robust, and realistic. I suggest postmillennial Calvinism.

Theology That Bites Back



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  • Rich Hamlin

    I guess I don’t see the problem with Leithart’s rhetorical strategy. Maybe I’m missing something. He said that his program for reform was directed at Protestants, b/c that is his audience. In addition, he wants us to regard prayers to Mary, worship of the host, etc. as ‘our errors,’ not as non-errors, and therefore, to work against them, as such (not leave them at more than arm’s-length away as someone else’s problems).

  • Mark B. Hanson

    But Rich, are the errors of prayer to Mary and worship of the Host more egregious than having monthly communion? If so, why does Leithart go so much more strongly to war against the latter than the former? Is it a tribal thing? Sins of our tribe vs. sins of another?

    But we can’t just leave the Roman Catholic tribe with their errors, can we, if we all suffer because of them? Certainly they are in no hurry at all to change. In fact, on their own reckoning, they are immune to it.

  • Rich Hamlin

    Thanks for the response. It still feels like there’s a disconnect. In his challenge to Protestants, should he have said that we (Prots) should stop praying to Mary? Obviously, no, as that is not the sin that we need to discontinue. However, he clearly stated that we should not start committing this sin, as he affirmed that the Prots were right on this point. However, there are some sins that we have had, (among them, distancing ourselves from RC’s in every area, such as by making the LS infrequent & theologically vaccuous, or by leaving the RC’s to their Mary-praying ways).

    It seems to me that DW is requiring that PL make the same qualifiers PL did make, only more often. If I am right about this, then I don’t understand why he wants more of the same.

  • Mike Van Meter

    This is a topic that I would like to see you write more about. The challenge of how to practically be ecumenical is something that I have been challenged by and appreciate your thoughts.

  • Mark Lindloff

    Is there room for an Amill in your camp, pastor Wilson?

  • Tim H

    The Protestant Reformation increased the frequency of communion FOR THE LAYMAN from once per year to once per month. Thus, monthly communion is not a “distancing from RC” historically, unless you mean in the direction of “10 times more frequent than.”

    Oddly enough, the once-per-year has at least SOME foundation in Scripture, namely, the analogy to Passover, while weekly has only circumstantial scriptural support.

  • Rich Hamlin

    I guess I’m still not seeing the problem. Leithart is arguing for the principles of Classical Protestantism. It is modern Protestantism that sees weekly communion as close (too close for comfort) to the RCC. Leithart consistently pointed out that the movement of the Protestant Reformation was for more frequent communion (at least weekly), and that this was a Protestant influence, not a RC one, but that nowadays, modern Prot tribalism recoils from such an idea as being too similar to the RC’s.

    I guess I don’t buy the idea that the records in Acts are not normative for the church (but are only “circumstantial”). Certainly, neither did the Reformers.

  • Andrew Lohr

    Couple starters. Be ecumenical by praying for the sanctification, and if necessary salvation, of Pope Francis and Bartholomew Patriarch of Constantinople and Justin Archbishop of Canterbury and Franklin Graham, etc, and for some of their local followers (pick up the phone), not just for denominational requests. By visiting and taking communion at diverse churches.

  • Tim H

    Rich — yes the Reformation brought more frequent communion TO THE LAYMAN (i.e. the priest already had it weekly if not daily) — though not universally weekly. I don’t know about the Germans, but the Swiss were either monthly or quarterly (I forget) and the Scottish appear to have gone for quarterly if not annually. In some quarters (e.g. Nuremburg) the driving issue seems to have been “under both kinds” more than frequency — as of course was the issue in Bohemia as well. So it seems like Leithart is telling a partial truth, and not fully accurate. If however you leave off the qualification “weekly” and simply say, “the Reformation brought more frequent Communion to the layman,” that is true.

    By circumstantial, I simply mean that there is no command “thou shalt do every week” as there is for Passover (annually). It appears that at times the early church “broke bread” ANY time they met. But is this a norm or an historical circumstance? If we say “what they did is normative,” should we also say that about their pooling of their property? Also, some people argue that “breaking bread” could mean “having an (ordinary) meal together,” i.e. not necessarily Communion in every instance. Again, whatever hermeneutic is involved, the Reformers obviously did NOT uniformly draw from this that weekly communion was normative.

  • Rich Hamlin

    I didn’t say that the reformers achieved weekly communion. They were, nearly uniformly, working toward that, but there were other bases of resistance other than the theology of the reformers. The reformers’ exegesis did not rely solely on Acts, but neither was their exegesis so wooden that such would mean full-pooling of property was normative as well. I’ll let you go through the more historic readings of Scripture and the arguments concerning the meaning of breaking of bread.

    Earlier you criticized the notion that moving toward more frequent communion could (improperly) be seen as RC, as you pointed out (in concert with Leithart) that the Prots were originally pushing in such a direction. Now you criticize the notion that the Prots were were working toward weekly. So which exactly are you upset with Leithart about? His (apparent to you) description of the RC’s as being ‘more communion-frequent’, or his historical analysis that says that the Prots were more so? Both can’t be right.

  • Rich Hamlin

    I agree. I think that such is part of the Reformational Catholic vision. I don’t think that anyone is pushing us to assume that liberal bishops are going to be in heaven. I think DW has said before that they are the kind of Christian that’s going to hell. That is, that they are covenant members, but are unfaithful and should expect the covenant sanctions.

  • Rich Hamlin

    By the way, I really liked everything DW said after starting his discussion about nationalism and churches.

  • Rich Hamlin

    Tim H-
    I apologize for my aggressiveness in my most recent response. There’s no point to arguing back and forth about this. I was originally frustrated with the way the critiques against Leithart were oriented around how much he emphasized the Prots being right doctrinally when he criticized us (and the RC’s) for being wrong sociologically. I think Brad Littlejohn’s most recent analysis is more appropriate. Let’s discuss the semi-Hegelian synthetic approach to eschatology/history versus its alternatives, with reference to Scripture.

  • Tim H

    Rich — no prob. I can take the heat I hope. However, I’m not going to start an historical study of how “breaking bread” has been interpreted. It’s not urgent enough for me. I’m simply pointing out there are different views on this. Leithart doesn’t get to resolve it by pronouncement. And before he starts dancing on the graves of churches, he better be sure their practice was not just a linguistic error, but a culpable one.

    It’s not enough to say “wooden.” Either you or Leithart or the alleged reformer needs to SHOW that one practice is normative even though another practice, narrated in the same tone, (and indeed, with even more involvement of the Holy Spirit explicitly) is not.

    My ax is simply that Leithart makes assertions that are at worst, false, and at best, misleading.

    Rome now OFFERS communion to the laity weekly — but it doesn’t require that they take it weekly. The canon law only requires (if I remember right) something like 4 or 6 times per year. Whereas, if a Presbyterian church establishes weekly communion, it is de facto requiring its members to partake weekly. This is another difference that hasn’t been brought out clearly yet.

    So I am pointing out that there is a lot more nuance both at the time of the Reformation and today to the “two positions” than Leithart lets on, and perhaps than he is even aware of. This gives his presentations a tone of smugness, as if he gets to flatten out all these issues ex cathedra.

    Finally, I think Protestants that are nervous about weekly communion “smacking of Rome” are not highlighting the mere frequency. I think it is more an instinct that the emphasis (1) threatens to downplay the word ministry and (2) move in the direction of the irrational. So, for example, we know there are many people for whom “the Eucharist” is very important, the “center of their faith” etc etc. yet who do not affirm the literal Resurrection of our Lord. Now, perhaps these appreshensions can all be assuaged, but in doing so, the discussion will be something quite different than “being nervous about weekly because Rome does it weekly.”

  • Tim Nichols

    This makes sense if you think of your denomination as “home,” but I don’t know how to reconcile it with the point that the whole church catholic is home.

    This is a big theoretical problem, but it’s not that significant of a problem in real life. Of course worshiping the host is a bigger problem than not celebrating the Table often enough, and of course they are both our problems, because they are problems in the one Church of Jesus Christ, who — as Paul said — is not divided. But you tackle the problems you are in a position to tackle. First you put yourself in a position to offer care, and then you do triage, not the other way round.