I was not a player in the live stream experience of The Future of Protestantism, but had a chance to finish watching it today. My views are best described as an amalgam of the best from each of the gentlemen there — Trueman’s confessionalism, Sanders’ loyalty to the evangelical center, and Leithart’s postmillennialism. In cases of any contradiction needing to be resolved, I would probably just go with the moderator, Peter Escalante. If you have not watched it yet, just click below and the result will be an edifying couple of hours. My thanks to all the folks who put this together.
Consider the following my attempt to riff off the discussion. This kind of event always gets my juices flowing, and there will probably be another post after this one on the problems posed by civic religion.
But first, what is the future of Protestantism? One point that was made in the course of the evening was that repentance of “tribalism” would do very different things to Catholicism and Protestantism. Although this point was made, it was not pursued the way I would like to have seen. If you take tribalism out of Protestantism, you are removing something accidental to it, but if you do the same to Roman Catholicism, you are removing something essential to their central claims. It would have the effect of making some Protestants a little less cranky, and all Catholics a lot less Catholic.
There is dogmatic tribalism and sectarianism among Protestants, but it is not constitutive of the heart of Protestantism. We could take it away entirely, and afterward everything would still be recognizably and robustly Protestant, only less crabby. But if you take away the “one true church” claim from Rome, you are not modifying a detail. This would be like replacing the towers of Chartes, and razing the rest of it, but keeping the cathedral.
This relates to a second observation I had. Let me use Protestants and Catholics just to illustrate the point, but the same thing would apply to the Eastern Orthodox. The ecumenical endeavor is either making Protestants into Catholics, or making Catholics into Protestants, or making both of them into a third thing. Once we have those three options on the table, we could break it down further into more options — pursuing each option while admitting what we are doing, or not.
In my book, the first would not be okay, the second would be great, and the third might be fine, depending. If Protestants and Catholics became a third thing because both denied the Trinity, that would be terrible. But if they became a third thing because of semper reformanda, then this would just be a variation of the second option, because semper reformanda is constitutive of Protestantism, and not of Catholicism. Future church historians would look back on the formation of this third thing and would see a matured Protestantism and a repentant Catholicism. This would be fine by me, but we need to honest about the options we are actually talking about.
Mere Christianity is Baxter’s phrase, and it is a Protestant concept. A Protestant can adopt it without giving away the store, but a Roman Catholic cannot adopt it without giving away the store. Now I am fine with asking Catholics to give away the store, but am not so fine with us being unaware of the fact that this is what we are in fact asking them to do.
Last thing, at least for the present. Peter Leithart said a number of times through the evening that this great ecumenical work would have to be done by the Spirit, and we are not a position to dictate how He might choose to do so, or what it might look like as He undertakes it. He just saw the beginnings of what looked like an opportunity to him, and believed that we have an obligation to pursue it.
In Ephesians 4, Paul teaches us that there are two kinds of unity. The first is the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are to labor to preserve (Eph. 4:3). This means that this unity already exists, created by the Spirit, and that our task is to not disrupt it. We would disrupt it by refusing to walk worthily of our calling, by refusing to love, and so on. A few verses down, he describes the unity of the church, and he says that it is a unity that we are not supposed to have yet. It is not yet our possession because the Spirit has not yet given it to us. We are supposed to grow up into the perfect man, into the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:13).
For us to lament the divisions of Christendom because this unity of the faith has not yet occurred is to have an over-realized eschatology. To lament the divisions of Christendom because the session meeting broke up in a shouting match is to lament something that Ephesians 4 tells us to lament. If we did not forbear with one another in love, then we should confess our sin and make it right. That is something we are supposed to have right now, and if we don’t, we should repent of our sin. But there is absolutely no need to repent of not living five thousand years from now, when we will have grown up into the perfect man.
In the meantime, in the practical pursuit of this, I agreed with Carl Trueman’s exhortation that ecumenical pursuits ought to begin with Protestants pursuing unity with Protestants, evangelicals with evangelicals, and so on. We need to be careful that we don’t spend our energies showing up at distant families reunions that ancestry.com told us about if it comes at the expense of disrupting our close relations to our close relations.