In the Acknowledgments of The End of Protestantism, Peter Leithart mentions the privilege he had of debating with me at New St. Andrews last year on the issues surrounding the thesis of this, his most recent book. Now that I have the book, I have to say the privilege is all mine—but the debate still continues. The issues involved are really very important, and confusion at the beginning of a great task will not only necessitate confusion at the end of it, but it will be the kind of hostile confusion that will militate against the kind of Christian harmony that Peter wants and which, I also believe, all of us want.
And if you recollect (rightly) that we were just talking about this, here is a refresher from just a few weeks ago.
What Jesus Prayed
In his first chapter, Peter frames the issue, and the way he frames it determines the direction his entire argument has to take. His starting point is something Jesus said in the course of His great prayer in John 17.
“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).
Now Peter takes it as self-evident that this prayer went unanswered.
“This is what Jesus wants for his church. It is not what his church is” (p. 1).
But there is another way to state this. “This is what Jesus wants for His church. And it is what the Father refused to give Him.”
Jesus was talking here, but it was not to the disciples telling them to get along (which He certainly did elsewhere). He was pleading with His Father for something. And if we don’t have that thing—and Peter is adamant that we do not—then that must mean that the Father said no. He refused the request.
Do we then conclude that this prayer was a bad idea? As soon as we frame it this way—a Father’s refusal as opposed to our disobedience—we find ourselves thinking that the Father must be saying “not yet” instead of giving a flat no.
But as soon as we do that, we find ourselves seeing the Lord’s request here as eschatological, yearning for the completion of His church. He is not praying about the mess of the construction phase, but rather what it will be like when we are setting the great ecumenical capstone.
We can think about this same problem from another angle. What did Jesus actually mean? What was He actually asking for? He says that He and the Father are one—that the Father is in Him, and that He is in the Father. This is what theologians call a perichoretic indwelling. Jesus is asking that His disciples would “all be one,” and that they would be “one in us.”
Now if this is something Jesus wants, but which we do not have, what is it we would not have? Well, it would have to be that we are not one with one another, and we are not one in them. But if we are not one in them, then this is either because our disobedience has been tracked into the Trinity, or that some or all of us are still outside, practicing our “Lord, Lord, did we not” lines.
Or there is another possibility. We do not yet have a clear idea of what Jesus was actually asking for, and which He actually received.
There is a great danger in trying to understand intra-Trinitarian perichoretic relationships (which we understand about as well as the family dog staring at your son’s calculus textbook) in order that we might try to figure out the right applications to our horizontal relationships down here. This why Jesus asked the Father to do it. He didn’t ask us to do it. It will be revealed in us, but we will not be the architects of it.
There are places where social trinitarianism has a point, but there will be black letter texts that tell us what that point actually is. “Be imitators of God, as dear children” (Eph. 5:1). The head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11:3). But there are other places where social trinitarianism can go far astray, and this seems to me to be one of them. “The intra-perichoretic dance of the Trinity is to the relationships of billions of professing Christians and their churches, and mission boards, and Bible societies, and denominations, as what is to what?”
I don’t believe we know enough even to frame the problem properly.
The Line is Here Somewhere
At the very start of his discussion, Peter says this:
“The church is divided. It is not that the church has remained united while groups falsely calling themselves churches have split off” (p. 1).
The way he frames this is very straightforward, but it leaves a lot of Bible out. The Scriptures describe two kinds of division for us. There is division that occurs when it shouldn’t because Syntyche and Euodia really ought to be getting along (Phil. 4:1-3). Both their names are in the Book of Life, for crying out loud. But there is another kind of division that is greatly to be desired. This occurs when false brethren are identified and excluded (Gal. 2:4).
I mean, we really need to get real. A large portion of the New Testament was written in order to introduce, accomplish and maintain divisions. I am talking about Galatians, 2 Corinthians, 1 John, Colossians, and one could easily go on.
Unity with what? Division from whom? Division is not a bad thing, depending on what you are separating yourselves from. Unity is not good, depending what you are going along with.
What is the dividing line?
Peter says, “It is not that the church has remained united while groups falsely calling themselves churches have split off.” But actually that has happened, and it has happened many times. What about Mormons and Cathars, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Donatists?
It seems to me that Peter is using the zoom out feature on Christian history prior to the Reformation, and the zoom in feature afterwards. This gives him pre-Reformation unity, but that is a unity which did not actually exist.
“Once there were no denominations. Once the church was not mappable into three great ‘families’ of churches—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox” (p. 4).
But this is simply not true. We have had teeming multitudes of groups from the very beginning, a number of them showing up in the pages of the New Testament. Not only so, but we have had the same range of options that we have now. We have had heretical groups from top to bottom, we have had heretical groups that contained genuine believers, we have had orthodox groups that contained heretics, and so on, down the street and around the corner. Augustine had his favorite Donatist writers the same way I have my favorite Catholic writers. This thing has always been messy.
First, Do No Harm
And last, let us assume for the sake of our discussion that denominationalism is a bad thing. I am not sure I know enough to assume even that, but let us grant it for a moment. How do denominations form?
One of the ways they have historically formed is through premature ecumenical ventures. One of the way new denominations form is by repudiating denominationalism. The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) considers itself to be “non-denominational Christianity.” Not a denomination. Those of you who thought they were a denomination are mistaken.
How many of you good readers out there attend a “non-denominational” church? Yes, I see that hand. How can we be sure that we are not in fact perpetuating denominationalism?
“I speak from within denominational Christianity to call Christians to strive in the Spirit toward a new way of being church” (p. 5).
Yes, but what if this “new way” is actually the old way? People are fond of asking how many denominations there are, but I think it would be a salutary exercise to ask how many distinct denominations and organizations there are that formed as a direct result of well-intentioned ecumenical ventures. How many groups have formed because they thought that they, at long last, had found the key to unity?
“My agenda will make Protestant churches more catholic, but that is because it will make them more evangelical. The two go together because catholicity is inherent in the gospel” (p. 6).
Actually, Peter’s agenda will only make something of those who follow it, who seek to implement it. And because the chances are pretty good that a limited number of people will buy in, the most likely result will be one more denomination.
You could file this point under “when you are in a hole, stop digging.” How confident are we that our grasp of the history of denominational formation is large enough and expansive enough to ensure that we have successfully guarded against the exact same thing happening again?
One last comment. Peter uses a very important qualifier in his summary of his initial discussion, and I believe that it is a qualifier that puts a spotlight on the central problem that needs to be addressed.
“This amounts to a call for the end of Protestantism. Insofar as opposition to Catholicism is constitutive of Protestant identity; insofar as Protestants, whatever their theology, have acted as if they are members of a different church from Roman Catholics and Orthodox; insofar as Protestants define themselves over against other Protestants, as Lutherans are not-Reformed and Baptists are not-Methodist—in all these respects, Jesus bids Protestantism to come and die” (p. 6).
Insofar. But that raises an important set of question. Who decides? Where is the dividing line? We know that we are to be unified with those on this side of that line, but where is the line? We know we are to reject those on that side of the line, but where is the line? What are our definitions? I propose we answer these questions—which are all essential questions—as good Protestants. To the law and to the testimony.
In short, how far is insofar?