Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - by J. Vaden Cavett
Peter Leithart lights my fire. He’s articulate, winsome, and above all, a man of great character and courage. Dr. Leithart desires to heal the wounds of a divided church, and the medicine he prescribes in The End of Protestantism is a heavy dose of eschatologically-oriented “Reformational Catholicism.”
Leithart opens the book with his diagnosis. The church is divided. We’ve fallen short of the perichoretic unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:21: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us....”
Leithart argues that our denominational divisions are evidence that the unity for which Jesus prayed is not yet a reality. He breaks our present divisions into three categories:
? Doctrinal division
? Sacramental/liturgical division
? Governmental division
Doctrinally, most communions adopt confessions that intentionally distinguish them from other communions (the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, etc.). Leithart argues that, even when we can agree on the same doctrinal statement (e.g., the Nicene Creed), we can’t gain agreement on how to interpret such statements.
Sacramentally, the universal church can’t get on the same page in regards to how many sacraments there are (two, seven, or some number in between), what the sacraments do, or to whom they should be administered.
Liturgically, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches are all over the map, from vestments, incense, icons, written prayers, and lectionary readings to folks running aisles and falling down, “slain” in the Spirit.
Governmentally, there’s also little agreement. Because different communions hold to varying views of ecclesiastical authority, church discipline has become meaningless. If I’m excommunicated from my Presbyterian congregation, my family and I can join the Baptist church down the street the very next Lord’s Day. Even communions with similar structures (e.g., the prelatical structure the the Roman Catholic Church more or less shares with the Orthodox and Anglican churches) can’t agree about who has legitimate ecclesiastical authority. Is it the Bishop of Rome? The Bishop of Constantinople? The Bishop of Canterbury? And these are all communions a quick survey would classify as episcopal! And then add Congregationalists and Presbyterians to the mix, and you’ve got quite the jumble.
Leithart argues that denominationalism makes Protestants content with such divisions. To summarize his proposal in a snapshot, he goes on to suggest ways we can abandon our tribalism and learn from one another. These include interdenominational dialogue, joint ministerial associations, and co-belligerency in political activism. These are fine suggestions, but one need not agree with Leithart’s sweeping vision to grant this.
Describing the church of the future, Leithart writes:
“Former Lutherans will discover fresh insights in the writings of former Mennonites and Calvinists; former Baptists will study encyclicals from Rome with appreciation; former Methodists will deepen their insight into the liturgy by studying Eastern Christian writers. Everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West and beyond, past and present, as a treasure entrusted by the Spirit to the church. . . . Churches will unite around the early creeds and will continue to use the treasures of the Reformation, of Trent and the Catholic Catechism, and of the hundreds of creeds and confessions that the global South will produce.”
According to Leithart, this will be the result when Christ, from His throne, finally dismantles the church as we know it and builds something new, something we’ve never seen before. This new church will be united doctrinally, liturgically, sacramentally, and governmentally. That’s the goal, and we should reorient our present behavior to that end by appreciating what other tribes have to offer.
This project, however, presupposes something I can’t quite concede: denominational divisions are evils we can do something about. I can’t conceive of a Protestant Church without denominations. By that I don’t just mean I’ve never seen it done. Of course I haven’t. None of us have. I mean that the doctrine of private judgment at this point in the flow of redemptive history inevitably leads to division. Baptists aren’t Presbyterians because they believe Scripture requires “believers’ baptism.” My family and I can’t join a baptist church now because my children were baptized in infancy. If I joined a baptist church, either my children would have to be re-baptized (ain’t happening) or the Baptist church couldn’t serve my children communion (functionally excommunicating them). Someone has to give, but who should it be?
And why is such tension necessary? Scripture makes clear that anything that doesn’t proceed from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). We should each be convinced in our own minds of the biblical fidelity of our convictions (Rom. 14:5). A Baptist church shouldn’t have to distribute the Eucharist to individuals they don’t believe are really baptized, and I shouldn’t have to sit there, my conscience howling, while my sons are immersed in the baptistery, their baptisms being declared invalid. Denominationalism allows believers with irreconcilable doctrinal differences to worship with others in their theological tribe without violating their consciences and without asking other believers to violate theirs.
To quote Carl Trueman’s review of The End of Protestantism: “Churches need a doctrinal basis, and a failure to achieve theological agreement is a large part of what causes our current disunity.... A united Church wherein heated debates on key issues are pursued within the institutionally incarnated bonds of visible, sacramental Christian fellowship only works if we deny doctrine ultimate importance.” (Trueman, 2016)
Now, don’t misunderstand my point. I’m pushing back on Leithart’s insistence that denominationalism must go. However, there are a variety of ways one can be a “denominational” Christian, and many of those ways amount to little more than sectarian isolationism. Leithart emphasizes that the problems of another tribe are really our problems too, since we’re all part of the one body of Christ. Just because I’m a card-carrying Reformed Presbyterian doesn’t mean I don’t have to answer for sexually abusive Roman Catholic priests and those poster-board-wielding Westboro Baptist folks. I can’t write them off and say, “That’s not my problem; I’m a Presbyterian.” It doesn’t work like that. They bear the name of the Triune God as surely as I do; we have the same last name.
In conclusion, Leithart makes a number of on-the-ground suggestions for creating unity, but to the degree these suggestions relativized denominational doctrinal distinctives, they seem premature. I’m a postmillennialist. Christ will significantly purify his church (in both membership and doctrine) before Christ returns, but this is a long way off. One day, denominations will no longer be necessary. However, at the present time, they’re very necessary, and any attempt to tear down denominational walls before they become unnecessary (due to Spirit-wrought universal doctrinal, sacramental/liturgical, governmental agreement) promotes for strife, not harmony. So, I look forward, not to the end of Protestantism, but to the end of error. Until then, denominationalism is a truth-preserving system that should be received with gratitude.
Trueman, Carl R. “Where We Stand | Carl R. Trueman.” First Things, 1 Dec. 2016, www.firstthings.com/article/2016/12/where-we-stand.
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