In a recent First Things article, Peter Leithart has continued to develop his recent emphasis on the “end of Protestantism.” He has a book coming out on the subject, and so this is not the first précis he has offered on the topic. The topic is on his mind, and that is why it is on mine also.
I am sure that others will be responding to his arguments in greater detail, but I wanted to register some basic concerns, which have to do with the outlines or the general structure of his project.
I am not objecting to Peter’s answers so much, but rather to the way he frames the questions in the first place. Grant the questions and the answers generally follow. But why these questions, and why now? The questions are structured in such a way as to gather into themselves much that is misleading and confusing, and that will result in many confusions for others.
A number of years ago, Nancy and I were flying somewhere, and Nancy got pulled out of the jet way line for some security questions, and so I waited for her just a few feet down the jet way. I waited and waited, and then went back up. No Nancy. It turns out it was a double jet way, and when they were done with their questions, which were few, they sent her down the wrong one, and so she naturally boarded the wrong plane. It all got sorted out eventually, but not before I obtained my illustration. It doesn’t matter very much if you find the right seat if you are on the wrong plane.
Peter’s Protestant boarding pass is all in order. It is for the right plane. He really is seated in 5E. He believes in many of the right doctrines. But he is nevertheless on the wrong plane, which means the wrong 5E. There are three basic reasons for thinking this.
The first is that we need to recognize that in all ecumenical discussions a certain assumption of antecedent unity drives the pursuit of future unity. In other words, in order to lament the disunity of the church, you have to have a Protestant doctrine of the church. If you have a Roman doctrine of the church, you can’t have church disunity, by definition. The church is unified by definition.
If you are a Protestant, you need to figure which are rooms in the house, which are run-down rooms in the house, and which are outbuildings. No sensible person thinks that the existence of the JWs or the LDS means that the “seamless garment” of Christ has been torn. A certain kind of disunity is not only not lamentable, but is rather laudable. Protestants need to have a debate and discussion about where they locate Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, but we do have principles that could govern such a debate. The doctrine of mere Christianity is a Protestant doctrine, and so a Protestant ethos must figure out where the boundaries are. As Lewis points out, the phrase comes from Baxter, a Puritan.
At the beginning of Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the Christian faith as a large mansion with many rooms. He describes the rooms as various communions, and he includes Rome, which is distressing to some ardent Protestants. Why do they get a room? But it is equally distressing to any Roman Catholic who knows his onions. Why aren’t they considered the whole house?
Now what this means is that in order for the kind of ecclesiastical unity that Peter describes to take place, both Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy would have to abandon, repent of, repudiate, and utterly reject, their understanding of themselves as the one true church. This repentance would be an earth-shaking development in historical theology. It will not ever happen off to the side, or as an afterthought.
Moreover, the kind of unity Peter describes means that Protestants generally would not have to give up anything essential to their identity. They could largely carry on just as before. Protestantism is not characterized by “one-true-churchism.” A handful of splinter Protestant sectarian groups do think that way, but the vast mainstream of Protestant churches do not. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches do define themselves in that way. To abandon this particular distinctive would be to abandon something right at the heart of their current identity. When they abandon that, a great Reformation will truly be under way. And if they abandon that, such a reformation will be cheered on by all Christians of good will.
Incidentally, I do believe this will happen. It is just that it is not happening now. Postmillennialism is all well and good, but we must not let it get all muddled up with over-realized wish fulfillment.
So this means that Peter’s urgent rhetoric is entirely wrong-footed. The title to his article asks if Protestantism has a future, but what he is describing is a scenario where Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, considered as such, cannot have any future at all. Peter acknowledges this as a technicality, but does not recognize the gargantuan import of what he is saying. Quoting Ephraim Radner, who was speaking of Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal, Peter says this: “But their exclusive finalities have been clearly subverted.” The ecclesiastical problem with this is that the only ones with the “exclusive finalities” were Rome and Constantinople, not Geneva, not Wittenberg, and not the last place they held the Southern Baptist Convention.
Protestant Dress Ups
While Peter denies the status of “one true church” to Rome, he still grants them (and EO) the liturgical center of gravity. His proposal is NOT that we should submit to the pope as the vicar of Christ on earth. He doesn’t believe that, and is not going there. His proposal is more like saying that we should act as though we had. But this is simply the scratch-n’-sniff Anglo-Catholic approach—all the cute outfits, and no actual obedience or submission necessary. This is how Peter puts it.
“Protestant churches that ignore the riches of tradition should learn to treasure those riches, all of them. Protestant churches that believe the church disappeared from the earth between 500 and 1500 AD should mine the wealth of medieval Christianity, east and west. Non- or anti-liturgical Protestant churches should adopt liturgies that more closely resemble the Roman Mass or Lutheran or Anglican liturgies. Non- or anti-sacramental Protestant churches should start having weekly communion, and nurture Eucharistic piety, and confess without any mental reservations what the Bible teaches about baptism. Protestant churches who refuse to consider any but the literal sense of the Bible should learn to read typologically and cultivate an allegorical imagination. Free churches that see the church as a voluntary gathered community should give way to churches formed by ecclesiologies that incorporate public and visible dimensions of the church. Protestant churches that have no theology of orders or ordination should acknowledge the goodness of ecclesial authority.”
Just to be clear, I don’t disagree with everything here. At Christ Church, we have weekly communion, and I do acknowledge the goodness of ecclesial authority. There are places were the text demands a typological reading—I’m looking at you, Hagar and Sarah. But again this emphasis is just wrong-footed.
When Peter urges us not to ignore the “riches of tradition,” and that we should learn to “treasure those riches, all of them,” does he really mean all of them? Or does he mean just those things which actually are riches, buried under mountains of refuse and idolatrous offal? If he means only those things that actually are riches, as opposed to pretend riches, then we need a scholastic and very Protestant hermeneutic that will enable us to sort through a pile like that.
But here is the odd thing. That work has already been done. It was done on such a vast scale that historians have a name for it. It was called the Reformation. We possess a vast library of Protestant resources that worked through all these issues, all of them that mattered anyway, and there is a significant movement among educated Protestants today dedicated to the task of resourcement—bringing those resources of our very rich heritage down to the present. For another example, the Wenden House project at New St. Andrews is translating into English works from the Reformation that have never been translated before. Why not start our ecumenical labors with that?
And also, at the same time, if we are pursuing catholicity in every direction, then why is Peter’s proposed drift all in one direction? Why not also say that we need to learn how to preach with the energy of Reformed Baptists, or sing like Mennonites or Welsh Methodists?
Two Kinds of Unity
And third, the last thing to consider is why this kind of thing is so attractive to some. At the very least, it is attractive enough that the problems that are manifestly right on the surface are not being examined very closely.
The reason for all this is, in my view, an over-realized eschatology. Peter is impatient for unity now, but it is the kind of crowning unity that Paul describes as the end of the historical process. There are two kinds of unity in Ephesians 4. The first is a unity that we already have, and are commanded to preserve. The second is a unity that by God’s design we do not yet have, which means that we are not supposed to try to grasp it early. If we try to grasp it early, we are not going to gain the future but rather will lose the past.
The unity we already have is supposed to be maintained by means of things like humility, gentleness, and patience—“endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). This is a unity that is a base line gift to all Christians, and the thing that disrupts it is personal sin—not institutional divisions. Two brothers, a Baptist and a Presbyterian, can have this Spirit-given unity (and frequently do), and they can have it regardless of the fact that their two churches do not have formal, fraternal relations. They don’t care about that—they are too busy being brothers in Christ.
This is not to say that unity between churches and denominations is unimportant. It is important, so important that God sets it before us as a teleological goal. There is a Christian unity for the churches and the Church that is the goal of all human history. Just a few verses down, Paul says this:
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13).
This is a unity we cannot have yet. We are not supposed to have it yet, for the same reason we don’t have roofers pounding away at the shingles when the concrete trucks pouring the foundation haven’t left yet.
On a road trip of two thousand miles, we are the kids in the back seat. We relate properly to the first kind of unity by not squabbling and pinching in the back seat. We relate properly to the second kind of unity by refraining from asking, when scarcely two miles down the road, “are we there yet?”
But Peter thinks that this final institutional unity is the way the world will know that the Father sent the Son, which is locating the persuasive power of true unity in the wrong place. The thing that nonbelievers will find persuasive is our tangible and palpable love for one another, not our joint committees. And this is what Jesus says, expressly.
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35).
“And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:22–23).
I don’t see any reason for taking these words as a directive on institutional unity. It could well be a comment on certain reasons for institutional disunity, but the mere fact of living in different communions presents no barrier whatever to an exhibition of the kind of unity Jesus is referring to. The Wesleyan can love the Calvinist who lives on his left side, and the Baptist can love the Presbyterian on his right, and the new age Buddhist who lives across the alley can see all of it and feel it. I see no reason for assuming he would be impressed if the Baptist started wearing a white surplice when he officiated communion.
What wearing a surplice would most likely do, however, is inaugurate a church split among the Baptists, which would result in all the nastiness that is likely on such occasions, and that would disrupt the first kind of unity in Ephesians 4, the kind that Jesus said would be compelling. In other words, we ought not to do things to demonstrate unity with our distant cousins if doing them will initiate a nasty fight with our brothers and sisters. Maintain unity at home first, and the means for this is humility, gentleness, and patience.
Peter thinks that liturgical unity is evangelistically compelling, but, if I may quote that papist von Balthasar, no doubt in senses he would find objectionable, love alone is credible. This is why I think that Peter’s assessment of our evangelistic impotence is misguided on another level, a very practical level.
“If not, we’re in trouble, because that perichoretic unity is, Jesus says, the way the world will know that the Father sent the Son. If we are never going to be one, then our evangelistic efforts are pretty well doomed.”
But surely this is odd? Why are our evangelistic efforts “pretty well doomed” because of the lack of realization for Peter’s ideals in ecumenism? I mean, we are two thousand years into the history of the church, and we have millions of Christians, all over the place. If lack of liturgical unity were going to doom evangelistic outreach, wouldn’t it have already done so? How have millions of people come to realize that the Father sent the Son when the ecumenical endeavor is largely in shambles?
Going back to Ephesians 4, liturgical unity will not result in successful evangelism. Rather, successful evangelism, much of it conducted by the wahoo brethren who would not recognize a historically-informed liturgy if it bit them on the hindquarters, will eventually result in liturgical unity. But it will do this centuries from now. Rather, if I might continue to mine the treasures of my own reading among the papists, Christopher Dawson once said that the Christian church lives in the light of eternity, and can afford to be patient.
So the thing that will expedite evangelism today is humility, gentleness, and patience.
Peter has many valuable things to say, about many subjects. I have read many of his books, and have done so with great profit. To take just one example, his book From Silence to Song was one of the best things I have ever read. But on this subject (and a handful of others)—because he is so personally amiable, and because his BS detector is busted—his suggestions should simply be rejected.
This can be done without attacking him personally. I believe that his boarding pass is entirely in order, and I have no complaints in that regard. But I think it would be a mistake to follow him onto that plane.
Throughout this piece, I have been making it a point to quote papists, in part to illustrate my agreement with part of what Peter is urging. I am mining a rich tradition. Protestants can be decidedly Protestant without being bigots. And so I will conclude by citing my very favorite papist, G.K. Chesterton. He once said that you ought never to tear down a fence unless you knew why it had been put up in the first place.
The resourcement project mentioned earlier is an effort to teach Protestants why our fences and boundaries exist in the first place, and why they are located in the places they are located. There are good reasons, multitudes of them, and expositions of those reasons are readily available. Protestants who follow Peter’s suggestions here without working through those reasons in detail are in my view exhibiting, not doctrinal fidelity, but rather a listless ennui.
And that is not the need of the hour.