Keeping the Cathedral

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.

19
Leave a Reply

avatar
 
18 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
10 Comment authors
katechoRFBJill SmithTim NicholsEllen Recent comment authors

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
timothy
Guest
timothy

In Ephesians 4, Paul teaches us that there are two kinds of unity. T

Insights like that is why I read Blog and Mablog several times a day.

Grace and Peace.

t

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I think it should be noted that although “the one true Church” is still official teaching, it would be a very rare North American or European Catholic who believes that his/her “separated brethren” belong to heretical cults that lack the means of salvation. When I became a Catholic 45 years ago, I was taught that the Catholic church offered “the fullness of truth”–certainly not that everyone else was 100% mistaken. I have also never met a Catholic in the last 40 years who believes the old dogma about “no salvation outside the Catholic church.” There are traditionalists who may hold… Read more »

Eric the Red
Guest
Eric the Red

Doesn’t “Protestant” take up way too much territory to have any kind of coherent conversation about its future? I suspect the future of the Episcopalians looks quite different from the future of Orthodox Presbyterians.

Rufus
Guest
Rufus

It seems to me that mainstream Protestant tribalism blew up just as the country was becoming post Christian and secular. I put this down to the inability to reach the secularists in an environment submerged in wall to wall materialist propaganda. This resulted, in turn, in the necessity to recruit against other sects to keep the membership roles up.

Tim H
Guest
Tim H

BTW “semper reformanda” is not a word OR concept that was used by the Reformers.

Matt Beatty
Guest
Matt Beatty

Jill,

I find your comment (“I have also never met a Catholic in the last 40 years who believes the old dogma about “no salvation outside the Catholic church.”)interesting. Does it really matter what “Catholics” believe – traditionalist or more progressive?

Isn’t the point that the CHURCH teaches “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” not that “Mr. Smith” doesn’t?

Otherwise, why be Catholic?

Ellen
Guest
Ellen

My views are best described as an amalgam of the best from each of the gentlemen there

Just love that – and intend to use it often. ‘I agree with the best/truest/correct/accurate points of each person’s arguments.’

Tim Nichols
Guest

Matt,
As J. Gresham Machen discovered to his sorrow, the official teaching of a group matters now a whit if the people no longer believe it. In Machen’s case that was cause for mourning, to be sure. In the case of the Roman dogma under discussion, that’s cause for rejoicing–and we ought to rejoice.

Tim Nichols
Guest

*NOT a whit

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Matt, that is an excellent question, and I will try to answer it but I ask you to bear in mind I am one often muddle-minded Catholic who can’t speak for the Roman Catholic Church. The church has never taught that the “nulla salus” doctrine applied without exceptions. These exceptions were often not understood by the average Catholic in the pew (or by the sometimes theologically unsophisticated cathechists who instructed him). Formal Catholic doctrine has always held that baptism of blood or baptism of desire is efficacious for salvation, and that “invincible ignorance” is excusable if the person does the… Read more »

Tim Nichols
Guest

I ought also to add that the difference between official teaching and the particular individual’s convictions runs both ways, and this is a good time to be applying the Golden Rule. Suppose you’re presbyterian of some stripe, submitted to the Westminster standards. For whatever reason, say founding a much-needed crisis pregnancy center in your town, you feel a need to partner up with your local Roman parish, which actually has the resources to pull the thing off. Would you want them to blow you off on the grounds that — no matter what you personally might think — the official… Read more »

Katecho
Member

However, I’m thankful that the WCF was never presented as infallible tradition, otherwise it would be illogical to register exceptions to it, as we may do as Protestants. If Rome presents certain of its traditions as infallible, the whole idea of taking an exception would seem to be equivalent to denying God’s authority, rather than man’s authority. Permitting exceptions would completely undermine the authority that Rome claims for their traditions. So there isn’t a symmetry between Roman Catholic traditions and WCF traditions. Hopefully the local Roman parish would recognize this asymmetry if they were approached to help with a crisis… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Jill Smith wrote: “A major example of this shift is that, in the past, we prayed officially for the conversion of the Jews; we no longer do this as the modern church teaches that the Jews have their own covenant with God, that they are our “elder brothers in the faith”, and that we may not attempt to prosyletize them.” Paul would have been so relieved to hear this. He apparently wasted a good bit of time trying to provoke his fellow countrymen to jealousy that some of them might be saved. Apparently Paul need not have bothered with all… Read more »

RFB
Guest
RFB

That premise (not proselytizing Jews) would also seem to obviate the entire Epistle to the Hebrews.

Tim Nichols
Guest

Katecho, Agreed that the symmetry is not perfect. However, the asymmetry from our Protestant perspective doesn’t really matter. Suppose my local parish priest takes exception to the official teaching of the Roman church over, say, justification by faith alone. Of course his bishop would care about that in a way that the local presbytery wouldn’t care about someone taking exception to the pope/Antichrist thing. I get that. But why should I care? (Other than to applaud the priest, I mean.) I’ll happily work with him — the Roman church’s internal discipline is not my concern, and the more of ’em… Read more »

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Katecho and RFB, this is where the Catholic position that the teaching magisterium has equal authority as scripture comes in handy. It is also a total deal-breaker between Catholics and Protestants trying to find common ground. You take St. Paul literally as written; I am required to interpret him in light of church teaching. I am personally not sure about the rightness of attempting to convert Jews, especially when Catholics set out to do this on any kind of organized basis. The Inquisition and Queen Isabella do tend to come to mind. On the other hand, I share my faith… Read more »

RFB
Guest
RFB

Jill,

If the “magisterium has equal authority as scripture”, it seems that such a premise self-nullifies any practical authority.

Katecho
Member

Jill Smith wrote: “Katecho and RFB, this is where the Catholic position that the teaching magisterium has equal authority as scripture comes in handy.” Handy in a handwaving sense perhaps. Functionally however, there is no equal authority at all. Instead, as Jill has done, Paul is simply kicked to the curb and Rome moves on ahead with its agenda. Jill continues: “You take St. Paul literally as written; I am required to interpret him in light of church teaching.” Literally? As written? How does Rome take it? What interpretation is necessary? Did Paul try to convert his fellow countrymen to… Read more »