Essay / Theology

Prescriptions for Protestants

Future of Protestantism at Biola University

This week’s Future of Protestantism discussion was serious fun, a big success, and, I think, a helpful exploration of some crucial issues confronting the churches today. Though it was sparked by an online disagreement, Tuesday’s event was not a debate. It was more like three medical doctors looking at the same ailment and disagreeing about its severity, the diagnosis, and the right course of treatment.

Peter Leithart thinks the disease is disunity, and among all the disunities, the primal one for the Western church seems to be the splitting of Protestants and Catholics. Though Leithart made it clear that in his opinion contemporary Roman Catholicism is not without its share of pathogens, his attention is fixed on the Protestant patient. But then again, one of the ambiguities that kept coming up was the question of exactly who Dr. Leithart’s patient was: I think Peter refuses, in one sense, to consider Protestantism as a distinct entity over against another distinct entity. It’s not that he denies there’s such a thing as Protestant integrity. But he addresses the Protestant audience sort of like a marriage counselor would address only one of the marriage partners: refusing to talk to them alone, always treating them as one part of a larger relational whole, always directing attention to the broken unity. “Stop acting like you’re not one thing.” Leithart doesn’t want Protestants to get away with feeling un-implicated in what happens among Roman Catholics. Catholicism is the Other that’s always there.

Protestants who refuse to acknowledge that other (I’m not Levinasian enough to sustain that capital O, sorry) fall into many snares, snares of the kind Peter disparaged in his End of Protestantism post back in November. They end up haunted by a bogeyman Catholicism, and developing reactionary instincts.

In his opening remarks, Peter thanked the audience for coming to hear him summarize his entire life in ten minutes, but then he did more: he started in Genesis 1:1 and told the story of God making new and better things emerge from the old. It was vintage Leithart biblical theology, especially strong in its narration of the divided kingdom (he’s working through 1 & 2 Chronicles right now for a future publication), exile, and return. He beautifully described how the prophetic word and Spirit raised them from the dead as one new people, and how the returning exiles all ended up with the royal name Judah, Judah-ites, Jews. And finally, how Christ wielded that same unifying power to make even Jews and Gentiles into one new man, through the blood of the cross.

And then Peter kept the typological pattern rolling, right past the present and into our future, where God is making one church out of the two so long divided, bringing about a new thing in which there will be neither Protestant nor Catholic, but one body, known to be such, under one head.

It was powerful typological exposition, and powerful preaching. I love the way the trajectory builds up until it bursts through into our own day and makes us recognize that we are in the history in which the living God is at work.

But the particular application Peter makes only lands home if you already agree that the multilayered disunity of Protestant and Catholic is a problem of such catastrophic nature that repairing it is high on God’s to-do list. And that’s a real judgement call, a particular position, one among several.

If the unifying power of Christ is to be  invoked (and it is!), why not apply it to racial and ethnic divisions within the churches? That is, why not say that what God is doing now is to bring about one new church out of the ethnically divided white and black churches? There are those who read the signs of the times this way. Or go bigger, discern God’s global work of mestizaje, with a new humanity being formed in the overcoming of cultural frontiers. I read enough mainline denominational theology to know that other prophets of the coming church are claiming that the Spirit is leading the church to break down the wall of division between straight and gay, and doing so in a way that necessarily relativizes earlier revelation. Or we could say that the actual wall of division described in Ephesians, the one between Jew and Gentile, is still empirically standing in a way that ought to trouble the Christian conscience. What thoughts would we have to think to begin seeing that as a live issue, to see Ephesians as still being about us and the eschaton we are approaching?

If Leithart is picking one of many possible areas to apply the power of unification to, then of course there’s no reason not to go ahead and apply the same logic of overcoming divisions to the splits I just described, and others besides. But I get the impression that he’s making a stronger claim than that, not just because of his rhetorical power but because of his eschatology, and maybe even (not so much because of Hegel but because of Rosenstock-Huessy) because of his metaphysic. This seems to be future-oriented ecumenism with ontological heft.

But everything looks different if another doctor makes another diagnosis. I think Dr. Trueman looks at contemporary Protestantism and sees a patient who is sick enough, all right, but is mainly sick from not taking the medicine that was already prescribed: the Reformation medicine of creed and catechism, the two spoonfuls of sixteenth and seventeenth century cure-all. And the medicine really is a comprehensive compound, since Trueman insists that the patristic and medieval developments  have been ground into this Protestant medicine by the mortar and pestle of Protestant scholastic commentary. Okay, that’s officially an overworked metaphor. But the point is that Trueman has diagnosed Protestantism as losing its identity as a church of salvation by faith and the authority of Scripture. It may seem late in the game to say “It’s not that we tried Protestantism and it failed, it’s that we failed to try Protestantism.” That sounds like special pleading, or willful ignorance of the past five centuries of western church history.

But as it applies to particular denominations and congregations, it’s simply true: many Protestant churches wear the name proudly but know absolutely nothing about the theology and spirituality behind it. Their plans and programs and preaching have nothing to do with any identifiable body of historic confessional teaching. In popular works like The Creedal Imperative, and in scholarly works on John Owen and company, Carl has given his prescription.

Churches that ignore the Protestant heritage of creed and confession and catechism haven’t tried Protestantism. These are the people for whom “Catholicism” is a shadowy, evil other, on whom they rely for self-definition by contrast. Trueman’s diagnosis arguably goes deeper, identifying the disease that Leithart treats as symptoms. The bigoted strain of know-nothing, knee-jerk anti-Catholicism can only thrive in the vacuum left by utter ignorance of the theology of the Reformation.

And that brings us to the evangelical variety of Protestantism, which is the patient in my clinic. A lot of self-identified evangelicals on the low-church end of the spectrum know they are evangelicals, but are genuinely surprised to be told they are Protestant. Really: they’re like the man who was shocked to be told he’d been speaking prose all his life. So my prescription is very similar to Trueman’s (LEARN YER DANG HEIDELBERG CATECHISM!), except that I’m eager to go slumming in the sub-Presbyterian part of town, among the free church folk (my people) and the very loosely organized charismatics and Pentecostals (not my people, but we get along well). Where Trueman urges the historic Reformed Confessions, I’m more easily pleased with churches that take their modern statements of faith seriously. And my people are not high on the sacramental scale, but I keep trying to make that not come up for the purpose of this discussion.

When I’m in diagnostic mode, I can find plenty of things to worry about among evangelical Protestants; don’t get me started. But if you do get me started, I’ll produce a list with scary stuff at the top: precipitous loss of the once-widespread  mastery of the content of the Bible; perversion of gospel into prosperity teaching; meaningless membership; normless sexuality; treason of the clerics and the defection of the church’s educated class; aloofness toward evangelizing; and so on. Eventually I would get to disunity among denominations, and somewhere under that, a bad attitude toward Roman Catholicism. But it’s several lines down on any list I could produce by my own lights. I know Peter Leithart moves in very different circles than I do, and I can imagine some of the reasons why that kind of disunity registers higher on his list. But I just can’t pencil it in to my top ten. And for all the items that do make the top of the list, I’d prescribe a thorough regime of characteristically Reformational theology.

Oh, and the Trinity. I prescribe trinitarian theology and spirituality for evangelical Protestants, which, if they continue to grow strong in, will take care of a lot of other symptoms. Tuesday’s conversation was co-sponsored and moderated by the Davenant Trust, whose motto is Adtendite ad petram unde excisi estis—“Look to the rock from which you were hewn” (Isaiah 51:1).  Proximately, that rock is Reformational, and behind that, as the Reformers themselves claimed, it’s patristic. But behind that, as the church fathers themselves claimed, it’s apostolic. And behind that, as the apostles themselves claimed, is only one thing, in three persons.


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