According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.
In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again. While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.
Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.
In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.
Appreciating the End
As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.
Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.
Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.
Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.
Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.
Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.
A Fuzzy, Regional End?
With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.
Of course, Leithart is too brilliant to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.
All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.
Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.
Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.
Here’s where my questions start.
Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.
And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.
And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)
I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?
In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.
And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.
My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless. And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.
I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.
I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.
While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.
Soli Deo Gloria