Stop obsessing about the election. Let’s talk about something else for a bit. I tell you what, let’s talk about church unity. Let’s divide over it!
Actually, Peter Leithart continues to be kind enough to engage with my critiques of The End of Protestantism, which he has done most recently here.
There are any number of things that I could respond to here (and likely will in the weeks to come), but this morning for clarity’s sake I want to limit this rejoinder to one basic point. If I continue typing near the bottom of the post, it will only be to circle around the same point in other ways. This point is actually the ur-issue.
Let me begin by cheerfully granting that Peter does say in various places that the Father grants the request of the Son in John 17, and that Jesus is not to be denied. His church will be unified. Peter cited a number of places where he says this, and I myself marked others.
“The unity of the church is not an invisible reality that renders visible things irrelevant. It is a future reality that gives present actions their orientation and meaning. Things are what they are as anticipations of what they will be” (p. 19).
But here is the problem, and it is why my point still remains. If the disunity of the church now is something that is contrary to the wishes of the Son as expressed in John 17:21—and this is where Peter’s exhortations for immediate action derive their energy—then the Father must be denying the request of the Son now. If the desire of the Son is to be fulfilled at some future point, according to the divine wisdom of the Father, then why should it be a source of consternation to us that we are not unified in that future sense now? Because the request is being made to the Father, the only possible source of present distress is if the Father is somehow saying no in the present. If He is not saying no, then that means that the request is already granted, and all is proceeding according to plan.
Whatever Jesus was talking about in John 17:21, it has to be given to Him. If, as Peter argues, it will be given later, then either that was the plan all along or it wasn’t. Either our sins are getting in the way of church unity (in this sense) or they are not. If they are, then the Father is for the time being denying the Son’s request. If they are not getting in the way, then we don’t need to have an urgent fix-it-now approach to ecumenical issues.
This should not be because we don’t care about unity, but rather because we should have enough church history behind us to know that premature or badly conceived attempts at church unity are the seed of future disunity. Church history is littered with this kind of thing. The vision that Peter sets out in his third chapter is exactly how new denominations form. Peter grants the possibility of an overrealized eschatology (p. 19), but that is precisely what I think is happening here. Peter believes that we are living at a crucial turning point in history, and therefore the time to act is now. But I would suggest that the urgency is actually coming more from Rosenstock-Huessy’s views about history than it is from our disobedience of John 17:21.
Now I do agree completely with Peter’s point that we should all seek to be embodying now what we will be then—this is the basis of all Christian living. Forgetting what lies behind, we press on to the upward call. This makes perfect sense. A boy should yearn to be a man. Yearning to be a man now is an essential part of the process of becoming a man later, and amen. But what kind of a father would spank his son at age seven for not being a man yet?
And Peter is definitely spanking us.
“This is what Jesus wants for his church. This is not what his church is” (p. 1).
“But denominationalism is not what Jesus desires for his church” (p. 4).
“While acknowledging that God has used denominationalism to extend his kingdom, I argue that it suffers from fundamental flaws and inhibits us from manifesting the unity Jesus desires” (p. 6).
“Painful as it is to acknowledge, the church as such is a historical community and thus as such is both sinful and divided. And that means that the church as such is not living in the gospel” (p. 23).
When Peter says things like this—particularly that last phrase, the church as such is not living in the gospel—it is impossible to miss the nature of the exhortation. He is not looking for an obedient boy to become an obedient man. He wants a disobedient boy to become an obedient man, and he wants it now.
So the question returns to this. When does Jesus want this unity to be manifested? When is He asking His Father to bring it about? Peter’s entire argument here is premised on the view that Jesus wants a particular kind of visible unity now, and we, by various shifts and evasions, are preventing it from being given to Him.
If we put time indicators into the sentences, they transform everything. And the central thing they transform is the nature of the urgency.
“This is what Jesus wants for his church later. This is not what his church is yet” (p. 1).
“This is what Jesus eventually wants for his church. This is not what his church presently is” (p. 1).
It would be better to say that the request of Jesus was in fact granted in a foundational spiritual sense, and that this inner reality will become increasingly manifested to our eyes over time. Already, not yet. This is what Peter’s friend Jim Jordan argued in The Sociology of the Church.
“It is a fact that the church of Jesus Christ is unified. Jesus prayed the Father in John 17 that we might be one, and the Father does not deny the petitions of the Son. Therefore, we are one. We eat of one Christ. We hearken to one Word. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, etc. Anyone who denies this is insane, not adjusted to reality. Thus, we cannot unite the church, and church unity is not a problem, any more than we can make America a theocracy. What we need is for people to stop pretending that the church is not united, because such a pretense is a denial of the truth. When men recognize the truth, and stop being fooled by vain appearances, then the judgment upon the church will be turned to blessing” (p. 131).
The kicker is this: “We cannot make the church united by negotiation.”
But Peter has a sense of immediate urgency (derived from his understanding of John 17), and this sense of urgency is driven by something missing, and not by something given and something promised. I have no problem with the urgency, but I do with the basis of the exhortation.
“This book offers an ‘interim ecclesiology.’ It proposes an agenda for conservative Protestant churches on the way toward full reunion” (p. 26).
Lest I be mistaken, I do grant that unity of a certain sort must be demanded by us now because God demands it of us now. For example, when open bitterness is exhibited between Christians, this is an insult to the revealed will of God for us. He tells us not to do that. This has nothing to do with eschatological development, but is rather a matter of simple obedience on the part of individuals. This was true in the first century—Christians were forbidden to bite and devour on the Internet then—and it is equally true in our time. We don’t get to do that either. Sin is sin.
So, as I have previously argued, there is a unity that all believers who are not in sin possess now, as a simple gift of the Spirit. Our task is to labor to preserve this unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3). But there is another unity that we are to grow up into, the unity of the perfect man (Eph. 4:13). We are not there yet, and we are not supposed to be there yet. And I trust you notice that a careful eye will see that the only difference between Eph. 4:1-3 and Eph. 4:13 is that little teeny hyphen.
What Peter is doing here is equivocating with two kinds of unity. He is treating this issue as though he can’t see that hyphen, and thus is blurring and confusing two kinds of unity. I would say we cannot be faulted for not being at Eph. 4:13 yet. We can be faulted for not being at Eph. 4:1-3. But Peter reverses the two. He treats us as being all in sin, as though failure to be at the perfect man were tantamount to a refusal to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace—failure to live the gospel. And he chides the pleasant relations between men of different denominations (which is what Eph. 4:1-3 actually requires) as though it were a big part of the problem.
There is much more to say, but all of it will eventually come back to this. What does God want? Unity! When does He want it? That’s a good question!