The Ecumenism of Exile and the Future of Protestant Unity

Sanders, Leithart, R. Gaffin's grandson (RG4), and yes, I did get Trueman in a photo. Unfortunately it wasn't a selfie.

Sanders, Leithart, R. Gaffin’s grandson (RG4), and yes, I did get Trueman in a photo. Unfortunately it wasn’t a selfie.

Just this last week Biola University hosted conversation on The Future of Protestantism between theologians Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman. Matthew Lee Anderson over at MereOrthodoxy.com got it into his head to pull these three together after and exchange last year between LeithartSanders, and, once again, Leithart, on whether Protestantism as a sort of “Glad Protestantism” should have a future, or whether it should give way to some sort of “Reformational Catholicism.” So, the newly formed Davenant Trust (which you should go check out and support!), Biola’s Torrey Honors Program, and First Things sponsored the whole thing, pulling Trueman in, because, well, he’s Trueman.

The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating, and has been aptly summarized elsewhere, and can be viewed in its entirety here. Kudos to everyone involved in putting it on. These are exactly the sort of conversations Evangelicalism needs to having more often.

Two major, overarching comments before proceeding to my main point. The first is that it could have been aptly named the The Present of Protestantism, or The Past of Protestantism Recapitulated. In recently reading a Calvin biography, I couldn’t help but see in the differing approaches of Sanders, Leithart, and Trueman to the present challenges, an analogue to the original debates between the early Reformers who had varying contextual concerns. One seemed more concerned to reunify with Rome while beating off the Anabaptists, another to bring the Swiss and the Germans together, and still another to the Turkish threat looming from the East.

Second, the interlocuters seemed to be discussing the issues on different registers. Every time Sanders or Trueman pressed Leithart on some doctrinal or practical point, he’d say something like, “Well, yes, I don’t see any problem with you doing that,” or, “Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever denied that.” At that point I’d think to myself, “Well, that argument seemed to shrink quite a bit.”

All that said, there was one thread in particular that I thought deserved some development, or tugging on and that’s the issue of what we might call “the ecumenism of exile.” Do forgive the ramble the follows.

Ecumenism in Exile?

At the heart of Dr. Leithart’s proposal was a now widely-discussed figural reading of Israel’s history in which the split and reunification of Israel in the forge of the exile is something of a picture of, or historical precursor to, the reunification in which the public unity of the church is realized. It’s not merely the death of Protestant tribalism, but really, the eschatological coming together of Protestant and Roman two into one new man again, a la, Ephesians 2.

What was interesting to me was how that dovetailed with Trueman’s initial comments on the coming cultural isolation and marginalization of Christianity in the modern American West. He’s helpfully excerpted them here:

Christianity, at least in its traditional, orthodox forms, is about to see itself politically and socially marginalized in America in a way unprecedented in history.  Central to this is the way in which same sex marriage has come to function both culturally and legally. Recent judicial rulings and the appropriation of the idioms of the Civil Rights movement have effectively shut down intelligent discussion on the issue in the public square. This will change everything for Christians.   It is one thing to be regarded as intellectually foolish for believing in the resurrection of the dead; it is quite another to be regarded as morally dangerous for believing that marriage is to be between one man and one woman.  Societies generally tolerate idiots, allowing them to go about their daily business unhindered. Peddlers of hate typically have a harder time.  Conservative American Christians must realize not simply that they are no longer kingmakers in election years; they might soon not even be regarded as legitimate members of society in many quarters. 

These two threads were pulled together by Brad Littlejohn’s question in the Q&A portion to Dr. Leithart on the visible unity of the Church in the headlines of the Huffington post. Essentially, Littlejohn asked whether or not we haven’t achieved a sort of functional, public unity in the eyes of a progressive, unbelieving world that stands opposed to the supernaturalist, and especially moral conservatism of Christianity across confessions. In other words, the Huffington Post doesn’t care about what type of Presbyterian you are, or if you’re Orthodox instead of Catholic, so long as you’re on the wrong side of whatever social  justice issue they happen to be championing. And if, as Dr. Leithart mentioned, we do have Evangelical pastors reading papal encyclicals for moral guidance, linking arms with Catholics at the picket lines, haven’t we reached a place of effective public unity? Or something along those lines.

No, Yes, Maybe

As I listened to Littejohn’s question I found myself thinking, “Well, no. But, yes. But…maybe.” First, the no.

In the first place, we have to take into account the various liberal denominations out there, the rise of vocal, progressive Evangelicals on various social issues, and so forth. One of the things The Huffington Post and similar outlets like exploiting, in particular, is the kind of disunity on these social issues that American Christianity allows for because of its freewheeling character, lack of doctrinal discipline, and capitalism’s tendency to foster theological novelty as a form of entrepeneuership. Just last week the UCC sued for gay marriage in one state. I had a friend suggest, not implausibly, that next Time Man of the Year will probably be the first major Evangelical pastor to declare for gay marriage. So, in that case, I’d say the issue of public unity on moral and major theological issues is problematic.

And yet, and yet…I do find myself wondering whether the coming public exile, the marginalization of those who hold to a sort of historic moral orthodoxy (along with broadly Trinitarian confession), is precisely the cauldron that will purify, unify, and so forth. In other words, as conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Orthodox get kicked out of the public square for not playing by postmodern liberalism’s rules, we might possibly begin to band together since we don’t have the luxuries of living in Christendom, where clinging to denominational/doctrinal fights make sense.

Maybe this is where Sanders’ proposal comes into play. Maybe the future of Protestantism is a Trinitarian, Evangelical, “mere orthodoxy” that isn’t necessarily shy about distinctives, but doesn’t walk away from the table because of them? I do think there was quite a bit of overlap there between Sanders’ call for low church Evangelicals to return to the broad tradition, with Trueman’s more specific call to plunge deeply into Reformational, confessional, and yes, broadly catholic, sources. Perhaps that’s the answer?

I’m still not sure, though, for at least two reasons. First, I don’t have Leithart’s upbeat, postmillenial (possibly Hegelian) eschatology, so my convictions about the already/not-yet keep me from being so optimistic about the sort of almost institutional, visible, unity that he does. Truemanian pessimism has taken root for me here.

Second, this is where the issue of Trinitarian, Evangelical progressives comes in, which is the sort of thing that Sanders, Leithart, and Trueman didn’t address. Maybe that’s because they’re real theologians unconsumed with the blogosphere like I am. Still, in conversation with a couple of friends (Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts) we mused over the fact that if you try and go for some of that kind of lowest-common-denominator, Nicene, Evangelicalism as the baseline for agreement, then the challenge to present a public unity comes at you, not from the Catholics, but from the progressive left. Increasingly we’re seeing people who self-identify Evangelical (or Post-Evangelical), are Trinitarian, resurrection-affirming types, who nonetheless have left behind what I earlier referred to as the moral orthodoxy, that, though never enshrined in an ecumenical creed, up until about 40 years ago, was unquestioned across Christendom. The question that’s beginning to come up in these discussions is “Are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds enough?”

Unfortunately, there’s a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” logic here. If you let the progressives in, so to speak, then–liberal fantasies about Francis aside–you essentially lose the ecumenism of exile with our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren. But, if you don’t, then there goes your broadly Trinitarian, Evangelical unity, and it seems sharper confessional lines have to be drawn. So, I guess it’s a “no, yes…well, probably not, but maybe if we sort this out…”

This isn’t an easy issue and it will take brighter minds than mine to puzzle it out. I think there are some good early stabs at an answer out there, and yet, ultimately, this is a puzzle only the Lord of the Church can sort out. The Future of Protestantism, and indeed, Christianity as whole, is thankfully in his hands.

So, along with having important conversations such as these, let us not forget to pray with the early church for our deepest hope of unity: “Come Lord Jesus!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Calvinism Not Lutheranism? Books

Last week over at First Things James Rogers asked:

Why is Calvinism so influential among American Evangelicals while Lutheranism is not? We might describe the statistically modal convert to Calvinism—that is, the most frequently observed kind of convert—as a person like this: A young adult, usually male. Raised in a broad though indistinct Evangelical (and sometimes nominally Catholic) home. Bright. A reader. Searching for better intellectual answers to questions about God, Jesus and the Bible. Is open to becoming a pastor. Why does this young man so much more often become a Calvinist instead a Lutheran?

It’s a good question. When I was doing my theological searching early on, I found myself initially more attracted to Lutheranism given their apparent lack of emphasis on predestination as well as Luther’s fiery wit. (Also, I was in my anti-Piper phase.) In fact, many of us raised in more a-historical, non-denominational Evangelical backgrounds are likely to hear of Martin Luther as the Reformer, instead of Calvin, just because of the 95 theses and the issue of justification by faith. So why is it that so many of us end up learning the Westminster or Heidelberg catechism, instead of Luther’s?

Rogers lists a number of possible reasons I find worth summarizing here:

  • American Lutheran churches have tended to be ethnically-focused and insular. That alone just makes it harder to even find.
  • Beyond that, it’s hard to read your way in. Calvin wrote an influential systematics, while Luther’s works are more piecemeal and polemically-situated. That makes immersion in the one easier than the other.
  • In the same vein, Lutheran Confessional documents assume and refer to a lot of church history, so their clarity and accessibility leave something to be desired. Reformed documents tend to spell things out more cleanly, assume less, and verify more, making them welcoming to the newbie. The opposite holds true of the catechisms–Luther gives less and assumes more. Westminster gives more distinctly formative theology to the inquirer.
  • Ecclesiastically, Calvinists know their Bibles and confessions, on average better than their Lutheran counterparts, so you’re more likely to run into a Calvinist who knows their stuff.
  • Sacramentally, Lutheran practice and theology is even less accessible. Functionally, most Evangelicals are rockin’ a pseudo-Zwinglian view of Baptism and the bread & wine/grape juice. Making the jump to baptismal regeneration and Luther’s consubstantion is leap, both theologically and experientially.
  • Drawing on Lutheran theologian Philip Cary, he makes big contrast between the two modes of piety: one focused on the mental assent of the believer, and the other on Christ’s faithfulness alone as the sole ground of my comfort. The Evangelical/Calvinist assures himself by remembering he’s assented in proper faith, while the Lutheran has it because he remembers Christ’s faithfulness given to him in baptism. Lutheran air is made of thicker stuff than the Zwinglian rationalism and nominalism the average Evangelical is used to, so it’s a bit of more an awkward shift than simply picking up a Reformed soteriology.

Finally, he ends with an appeal to Lutherans to be as winsomely passionate about evangelizing for a Lutheran view of Word and Sacrament as Calvinists are about predestination.

Me with BooksReading My Way In – Given Rogers’ Lutheranism, his apology for it is understandable and somewhat slanted read of Calvinist piety is somewhat forgivable. Only somewhat, though, given the classic Reformed emphasis on union with Christ, which, honestly does all that the Lutheran’s does, as well as gives us a bit of a boost into sanctification. That said, his point about the cultural difference is a real one. Still, the more interesting point for me was the one about reading, because in my experience far easier to read yourself into Calvinism or Reformed theology. I would say there are a few reasons for this, though, beyond Calvin and confessional documents.

As DeYoung points out in the article I referenced yesterday, Calvinism (whether broadly or narrowly defined) has dominated the theological conversation in America since its founding. I mean, just think about the Pilgrims–Puritan Calvinists. Beyond that, Reformed thought, especially its soteriology, can be found across denominational lines be it Episcopal, Presbyterian, Particular Baptist, or whatever else. This is also the case in our revival heritage. While Finney is horrifyingly hyper-Arminian (and that’s really unfair to Arminians), much revivalist piety has still had a Reformed rooting. In other words, it travels well, which means that if you go digging into the literature, you’ll be able to find broadly Reformed thinkers in various places.

Institutionally it’s been better represented as well in terms of universities, publishing houses, and authors. This last one is probably the most pertinent one right now. Honestly, it’s easier to read yourself into Calvinism, because who knows of any good, current, pop-level Lutheran books, writers, or preachers? Tullian Tchividjian? (I kid.) Really though, the only current theologians I can think of are Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson–brilliant heavyweights, to be sure–but not exactly great book-club reading. Maybe someone might name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but again, not very pop or accessible, and at this point in history he’s become a figure that transcends confessional lines. There’s no current Lutheran author I know of, comparable to a Tim Keller or even a John Piper for popular reach.

So when a theologically-minded young man (or woman) goes shopping around for books on pressing theological subject, if he’s not pulled into Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or some emergent, Heidegger-quoting business, it’s far easier to put a copy of Desiring God (Piper), or Knowing God (Packer), into his hands than find something written by a Lutheran. Or again, when a pastor is looking for a book to turn into a sermon series, it’s the Calvinists that are publishing en masse, so some Reformed emphasis will be bleeding into non-Reformed Evangelical preaching. That prepares the young Evangelical hearer to search for more of the that rich vein. Even picking up Rogers’ point about confessional literature, yes, I found Heidelberg before Luther’s Catechism, but I did so because of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent little commentary on it The Good News We Almost Forgot.

If you want my two cents, then, for why so many young, theological types choose Reformed theology over Lutheranism: books. Accessible, pop-level books that gave us a big picture of God, and a desire to read the thicker theologians and texts that we’d catch glimpses of in those pages.

Soli Deo Gloria