If I might, I would like to add just a few observations to the discussion, without assuming that either Leithart or Sanders or Escalante would differ with any of this. At the same time, I think it might help put things in perspective. This is not so much a rejoinder to anything really specific as it is a set of pastoral observations about how people tick — and, while we are at it, how theologians tock.
In doing this, I want to join with Peter and Fred Sanders in deploring a blinkered, sectarian, and bigoted spirit. There is that kind of narrowness within the Protestant world, but not because it is Protestant — rather it is because it is in the world. Whenever you have provinces, you have provincial people in them. Whenever you have farms, you have people who have never gotten around to leaving them. Whenever you have catechisms, you get the folks who use them as a security blanket — and it has happened with the Baltimore Catechism and the Westminster Catechism. You can get stuck in Bovill, Idaho or East Toad Flats, Arkansas, but not both.
The problem comes, not from being located in a particular place, but when this particularity is combined with hubris, resulting in an ignorant superciliousness. Nobody should want to defend ecclesiastical jingoism, dogmatic chest-pounding, or sloganeering substituted for careful theological craft.
But limits themselves, and faithfulness to those limits, is not the same thing as chauvinism at all. Peter Escalante reminded us of the etymology of the thing, and we see that rightly understood Protestant means pro-testimony, what you are witnessing for, what you are testifying to, and it does not have the meaning of, say, an Occupy Wall Street protestor, someone known chiefly for being against bars of soap.
At the same time, because of how the Reformation unfolded, Europe was divided between Protestant regions which were not the Catholic ones, and vice versa. When you are playing a shirts and skins pick-up basketball game, if you are a shirt, it follows from this that you are also not a skin. One guy on your team might be thinking, “Throw it to the fellow shirt,” while someone else, the point guard, wants to throw it to the fellow not-skin.
Recognizing this, embracing it, and going with the flow of it, is part of what it means to be human. I have argued before that a worldview (something all human societies necessarily have) has four components — two of them are propositional, and two are enacted or lived out. The enacted ones are lifestyles and rituals. The propositional ones are catechesis and historical narrative (story).
I am interested here in the narrative. Who are your people? How did we get here? This is not something that should quickly be forgotten, and numerous examples crowd into my head. Refusal to forget this kind of thing need not be sectarian. It may well be part of what it means to live here in these parts.
The preeminent example of this would be the Exodus. God delivered His people from the land of bondage. That was wonderful, but He also told them to remember that deliverance for millennia by observing the Passover. Part of the essential identity of the Israelites was found in the narrative of how they were brought up out of Egypt. They were forever the “not-in-Egypt” people.
I, my children, and my grandchildren, worship God weekly, and part of our weekly worship is the singing of Psalms. This means that, thousands of years after the fact, we are still celebrating the fact that God delivered His people from Og, king of Bashan, and from Sihon, king of the Amorites (Pss. 135, 136). Who were they, exactly? We are not precisely sure anymore, but it is just fine to define ourselves as being against them. I hate those guys, and if I could ever find them on a map, I would hate them even more.
When setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, I frequently have my grandchildren yell, “Down with the House of Hanover!” And they do it with a good attitude, and with the kind of gusto that makes all the difference.
Reformation Day is the same kind of thing. The Reformation was a milestone in the history of the church catholic, and so we remember it, and give glory to God for it. This means — with the bad ways of doing it carefully rejected — that in at least this way it is essential for us as Protestants to define ourselves over against Rome. I can’t be an Israelite really unless I remember how bad it was in Egypt. And I can do that while looking forward to the time when we can have ourselves some real wine-on-lees ecumenism.
“In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance” (Is. 19:23-25).
To do otherwise is to act like worldviews are ethereal things that float blissfully inside the minds of intellectuals — which is the perennial temptation of theologians. So I confess myself thoroughly Protestant for many reasons, but one of them is these are my people. I like them. Even the provincial ones.