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