Essay / Theology

Thinking an Unsectarian Thought

Protfuture gang plus blinding light by matt jenson

Imagine you are vexed by the divisions among Christian churches. You’re on the Protestant side of one the great divides, and you think the divide itself is a problem.

But here’s the catch. You also are pretty sure you’re right about your principled, Reformational theology. At least if you’re wrong about it, you are unable to see where. You’ve checked the math several times, and it keeps adding up to a bottom line with all the solas in it. But that doesn’t make the vexing divide less of a problem.

The easy conclusion to draw would be that your opponents just need to repent of their errors and join you on your side. But you’re self-aware enough to know that that’s exactly the kind of thing somebody on your side of the line would think. In fact, every time you think of the errors of the others, you’re getting more firmly ensconced in the dividedness. Every thought you think is sectarian, every theological decision reinscribes that dividing line, and its very existence must also be wrong. But remember, you can’t just give up your convictions: what seems true seems true, and you can’t quit affirming it unless it quits that seeming.

So instead of repenting of the other guy’s errors, or complaining about how other churches are holding up the cause of unity, you think of a way to let your next thought be unsectarian: you lament the errors made on your side of the line. You take a swipe at all the divisive features of the Protestants. You really warm to your task and let the small-minded, ahistorical, reactionary Protestants have it.

If you followed those steps, you might end up writing something a lot like Peter Leithart’s End of Protestantism post at First Things last year. In a publication palpably dominated by Roman Catholic sensibilities, you sound the alarm that lots of things are going to have to change among the heirs of the Reformation.

Unclarity ensued. But also intermittent clarity, and a public conversation about the future of the church. Lots of people took part, and even in the blogosphere the discussion was carried out at a pretty high level, getting lots of people thinking outside their habitual ruts.

But one thing that happened at the Future of Protestantism event at Biola is that Peter Leithart made his Reformational commitments even clearer, and voiced some criticisms of the main non-Protestant options, criticisms radical enough to get to the heart of what Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are about. A lot of people wondered, “Hey, what was all that ‘end of Protestantism’ stuff about? You don’t sound anywhere near ready to convert. Come to think of it, you seem to have more criticisms about non-Protestant churches than you do about Protestant churches.”

So today in his Friday First Things column, Leithart’s got a post entitled “Staying Put In the Presbyterian Church.” “Thanks but no thanks,” he says to people who read his first post and invited him to come home to Rome, sail to Byzantium, or at the very least angle for Anglicanism (preferably the kind that doesn’t have a Protestant self-understanding). As he maintained at Future of Protestantism, he’s actually a Reformational Christian because he believes this stuff. Much as Leithart admires Rome and Orthodoxy, he says:

I continue to have standard, biblically grounded Protestant objections to Purgatory, to Marian doctrines, the Papacy, and icons, as well as lingering puzzlement about ambiguities concerning justification and the role of tradition. Though both are crucial to the future of Christianity, neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy is the Church of the future.

One way to read the End of Protestantism post, I think, is as an attempt to hammer away at the division of the churches from Leithart’s own side. Imagine if he’d done the opposite: declared in his column space at First Things “The End of Catholicism,” explaining just how much Rome has to change in order to get ready for the ecumenical future that God will bring about. Never mind that it would be the wrong irritant in the wrong venue; it would be a thought project that reinforced the line and acquiesced in the divisions as they are.

If Leithart made a two-column list of the changes that would need to happen in order for the churches to be visibly unified, it seems clear that the Catholic church would have to change more, and more radically, than, let’s say, the Presbyterian church. But to say so runs the risk of beating the “yay for our side” drum. Leithart tried instead to let his next thought be as unsectarian as possible. Catholics and Anglicans and everybody else who heard the thought project and thought, “ah, he should join us, we’ve got this thing nailed,” were probably a bit less successful in thinking a thought that was whole, unpredictable, or unsectarian.


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