A fascinating event took place on Tuesday night at Biola University: “The Future of Protestantism.” The event was the culmination of a conversation sparked by an essay Peter Leithart wrote for First Things last November entitled “The End of Protestantism,” which then prompted a rebuttal from Biola’s Fred Sanders and then a rebuttal to the rebuttal by Leithart. All are well worth reading.
The “Future of Protestantism” event gathered Leithart, Sanders and Carl Trueman together on one stage to debate exactly what the event’s title ponders: what form should Protestantism take going forward? Is the “protest” of the Reformation still necessary or should unity as the one body of Christ be the goal as religion in general becomes marginalized in the secularizing west?
Leithart’s perspective is that Protestantism, insofar as it is defined in opposition to Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy), should end. It’s time for unity, he argues; unity is internal to the gospel itself.
“For either side, to persist in a provisional Protestant/Catholic self identification is a defection from the gospel,” says Leithart. “If the gospel is true, we are who we are by union with Jesus, in his Spirit, with his people. It then cannot be the case that we are who are are by differentiation from other believers.”
I’ll talk more in-depth about the challenging question of unity, as well as Sanders and Trueman’s responses to Leithart, in another blog post. But for now I want to consider the meat of Leithart’s proposal as articulated at Biola, which I think has merit and should be respectfully considered by even the most Bible-thumping and Sola-centric of Protestant evangelicals.
What does a unified, post-Protestant church look like? This was the substance of Leithart’s talk. He suggested we shouldn’t focus on the future of Protestantism as much as the church of the future, “a city yet to come.” His vision is for what he calls “Reformational Catholic” churches, and during his talk he offered a partial wish list of attributes he dreams of for this future model of church:
- Churches where “faith without works is dead” is heard as frequently as justification by faith
- Preachers who preach the whole Bible, in all its depth and beauty, and who draw on the whole tradition of Christian commentary as they prepare their sermons and teaching
- Pastors who form friendships with the local Orthodox and Catholic priests, knowing that they are one body
- Seminaries where theologians are encouraged to follow Scripture wherever it leads, even if we have to admit that our opponents were right all along
- Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly
- Churches whose members know Psalms as well as any medieval monk, where hymns and prayers and praise are infused with the cadences of the Psalter
- Churches with enemies enough to make imprecatory psalms seem natural
- Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music
- Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the eucharistic assembly
- Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness and patience, but to use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy
- Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, knowing that they are one body
- Lutheran pastors who teach obedience, as Luther did
- Anglicans who exercise discipline
- Jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity
- Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition
- Baptists who love hierarchy
- Liturgical Bible churches
- Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with a single voice to civic leaders
- Churches that take the pedophilia scandal, the upheavals in the Anglican communion, the persecution of Orthodox believers as crises among our people, not problems for someone else over there, knowing that if one suffers, all the members suffer
- Churches that recognize that they are already members of a Church, where there are some who venerate icons, some who believe in transubstantiation, some who slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some who believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception, knowing that we are one body
This last point is particularly controversial, I suspect, as it is precisely on the basis of things like icon veneration and papal infallibility that so many Protestants are dubious of full communion with their Orthodox or Catholic brethren.
Leithart’s vision of “Reformational Catholic” churches, however, invites such differences and internalizes them as “in-the-family” issues that must be reckoned with and hashed out together, as one body, rather than tossed aside under the banner of irreconcilable schism.
“If Rome is simply outside of us, we can leave it to its errors,” said Leithart. “But if we are one body, Rome’s errors are errors in the church in which we too are members. Brothers correct brothers, and it works both ways.”
What do you think of Leithart’s proposal? Is his 20-point vision of “Reformational Catholic” #futurechurch compelling? Realistic? Naive? Within reach? Are there unreconcilable differences that make such a coming-back-together untenable?