Earlier today, New St. Andrews hosted (and videotaped) a discussion/interaction between Peter Leithart and me on the theme of his latest book, The End of Protestantism. These are my opening remarks. I will let you know when NSA has the video posted.
The question before us is:
“Does the gospel require us to pursue and promote unity among Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and others?”
- In order to enter into the spirit of the event, let me begin by simply replying no. I do this provisionally—knowing that all Christians have to be eschatological long-run optimists, meaning that at some level the answer is yes, but. If all things in heaven and on earth are reconciled through Christ (Col. 1:20), then why not Protestants and Catholics? If the Jews are going to grafted back in to the olive tree, then we should not stumble over the prospect of a great Christian reunion at some point centuries or millennia hence. But for all practical purposes, on a day-to-day level, I don’t believe the gospel requires us to do anything in particular to pursue and promote unity among Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and others. Jesus prayed that the Father would accomplish such unity (John 17:21), not that I would. And I trust that in His perfect time, He will.
- There are two kinds of unity. One is the kind we already have, and are required to preserve and maintain (Eph. 4:3). We do this by staying out of attitudinal sin—we are to be humble, meek, patience, and are to bear with one another in love (v. 2). The other kind of unity we are not supposed to have yet. When God is finished with His work in history, the prayer that Jesus offered up will be finally and completely answered (Eph. 4:13). The bride then will be without spot or any such blemish.
- The first kind of unity can be displayed in places where we might not have anticipated it. Consider the sources of the following two quotes:
“In perusing a deeply spiritual book of devotion, you have been charmed and benefited, and yet upon looking at the title-page it may be you have found that the author belonged to the Church at Rome. What then? Why, then it has happened that the inner life has broken all barriers, and your spirits have communed. For my own part, in reading certain precious works, I have loathed their Romanism, and yet I have had close fellowship with their writers in weeping over sin, in adoring at the foot of the cross, and in rejoicing in the glorious enthronement of our Lord. Blood is thicker than water, and no fellowship is more inevitable and sincere than fellowship in the precious blood, and in the risen life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here, in the common reception of the one loaf, we bear witness that we are one” (Charles Spurgeon, Till He Come, pp. 229-230).
“Far more serious still is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church” (Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, p. 52).
These are the words of stout Protestants, not bigots.
- In a similar vein, I have to confess that I have learned a great deal from papists, and have read enough of them to have my favorites. Not surprisingly, Chesterton is right up there, and he is the one who taught me not to tear down fences unless I have understood the reason the fence was put up in the first place. His words:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it’” (Chesterton, The Thing).
- It is easy to say that denominations are the institutionalizing of disunity, but this is an area where it is perilously easy to fall prey to our metaphors. What would be our reply if someone were to say that tourniquet was the institutionalizing of the wound? If you simply remove the bandage, you might discover you have not thereby removed the wound.
- The old joke is told of two ministers visiting, and one of them concluded, “Well, obviously, we are both servants of God—you in your way, and I in His.” Proposals that want to describe in detail how the church will look post-unification, as Chapter 3 in The End of Protestantism does, are proposals that (in my view) are far more likely to create yet one more denomination than they are likely to reduce the overall number of them. And on the assumption that denominations are bad, should we consider perhaps that we ought to have done our homework on the genesis of these things? Planting a standard for the Christian world to rally to might just plant a standard for one more splinter of the Christian world to rally to.
- And last, I am concerned that a lot of damage can be done by interpreting current history as a crisis point for the ages. Friends don’t let friends immanentize the eschaton. I think there is a tendency, encouraged by Rosenstock-Huessy, to over-read the tea leaves of the present crisis. When this happens, the data found in Chapter 9 of The End of Protestantism, the chapter on the reconfiguration of global Christianity, is taken as an encouragement to believe that this crisis is possibly the ecumenical moment, when it could more readily be understood as the time when everybody really scatters—as the sage once put it, lots of “asses and elbows.” On top of that, the patterns of scriptural history, described wonderfully in Chapter 8, are read in such a way as to flatter us and chastise our forefathers. If we get to engage in bumpy and very messy ecumenism, then why not read past history as a version of the same thing—instead of taking it as their disobedience but our opportunity?