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.