Is there hope for Protestant churches – of a certain kind – to reunite in a visible, meaningful way? Presbyterian pastor, author, and Cambridge Ph.D. Peter Leithart believes this is a possibility, and has written an entire tome – The End of Protestantism – to articulate both the need for unity and a way towards it. Along the journey, Leithart makes meaningful contributions to ecclesiology and theological exegesis of Scripture, and is quite convincing in his overall project, even if there are some lingering questions that remain.
Leithart offers what he calls an “interim ecclesiology.” We are in-between the Magisterial Reformers and the united church that Christ intends for the Kingdom, so how might we get from this moment of denominational “defiance of Jesus” (p. 3) to the united church for which Christ died and the Spirit continues to work? His answer is, in short, this project, a defense of what he calls “Reformational Catholicism.” To his credit, Leithart is very clear up front that he’s no sunny optimist about what it will take to achieve this vision: this is a resurrection that will require, first, a death to our old forms of church.
The author is strongest when building a biblical ecclesiology from Genesis to Revelation, one to which Christians of all stripes would do well to aspire: “Unity in faith includes holding to a unified set of beliefs, a unified confession of truth, but includes a common purpose and intention.” (p. 17) He is emphatic in rejecting any vision of the church which accepts a “spiritual” or invisible unity as a substitute for the full-orbed unity that is God’s will.
It’s worth noting that the Protestantism in focus for Leithart is a particular brand. From the title and most of the promotions, you’d be tempted to think his project involved Protestantism as a whole, but that would be a mistake. His real investment is made clear during occasional lapses of clarity such as noting “the defection of the National and World Council of Churches from faithfulness into trendy leftism.” (p. 22) In chapter three, he eventually makes explicit that he is proposing “an agenda for conservative Protestant churches.” (p. 26). It would be more clear to say that his agenda is for conservative Protestant churches with organic ties to Luther and especially Calvin, as other flavors of Protestant faith such as Wesleyan, Quaker, or Mennonite (to name a few) are almost wholly absent from his vision. Thus, even as a Wesleyan who is quite traditional in doctrine and more moderate in terms of social ethics, I have difficulty seeing a way in which I can contribute to Leithart’s vision.
Even while anticipating that “everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West” (p. 27) Leithart continually narrows his focus, taking potshots at old Reformation arguments (against icons and saints) and making clear that the future of Protestantism is Calvinist (even going so far as to suggest that everyone will accept predestination on p. 29). That aside, his vision of the future church – sacramental and liturgical, biblical, catholic, disciplined – is quite compelling. It is compelling enough that even if you aren’t in the (conservative, Calvinist) prime audience, this is worth a read. The author is certainly correct that denominationalism is an institutionalization of division with which Christians of good will should not make peace, though it is admirable that he takes the time to discuss the (former) benefits of denominationalism. (It reminds me of the infamous, “What have the Romans ever done for us?!” scene in Life of Brian.) Just because something has run its course does not mean its erstwhile contributions should be ignored.
My favorite section of Leithart’s new book is chapter 8, an extended ecclessiological look at the Biblical narrative as the story of a God who longs to unite humanity under God in a single family. This is why “division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church.” As critical as Leithart is of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the ecclesial lens through which he writes is decidedly un-Protestant. Both my fundamentalist upbringing and my time in the Mainline have taught me that most Protestants simply don’t care about Christian unity. It is far more important for the (local) church to be correct in fundamentalist circles, or to influence Caesar in the mainline church, than to care about unity. Thus, Leithart’s powerful conclusion that “unity is evangelical because it is the evangel” deserves more consideration and development. (p. 115)
If you care about the future of the church – as a pastor, an involved layperson, a theologian – there is much here with which to wrestle, and much that you will no doubt find edifying. In his insistence on ecclesiology, on liturgy and sacraments, on the debt which Protestants owe the pre-Reformation church, I heartily agree with Leithart. (This sentence from the last page might be the favorite I’ve read all year: “I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth.”) Perhaps where he fails most notably is in describing a post-reunification Protestantism that is “mere”ly protestant; the church of Leithart’s future looks suspiciously like a Calvinist Church with regular eucharist – a church which no doubt appeals to Leithart, but is far from a vision of the church that will draw Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Methodists into a new Protestant ekklesia of the future.
Why not, for instance, a future Protestantism of an Anglo-Methodist/Pentecostal variety? The Anglican heritage brings in the church of the apostles, the fund of liturgical and creedal riches which Leithart values, and the Methodist DNA broadens the soteriological possibilities from just the Reformation’s justification myopia to include (via Wesley) the sanctificationist note of the East. Wesleyanism’s ties to the Pentecostal movement make such a church an organic fit (indeed, charistmatic American and African Methodists are already living this out), and would help link this future church to the global renewal movements which Leithart notes. I humbly offer that the Anglo-Methodist & Pentecostal church of my dreams has the potential to unite more Protestants than Leithart’s Roman Calvinism. (Call that description unfair if you like, but it’s not far off from his “Reformational Catholicism,” a name which equally offends my Arminian sensibilities.)
In the end, I agree with Leithart’s (unexpected?) ecclesial synergism: Protestant reunion is both “a gift of God” and “a work of the Spirit,” and yet still “we must act.” (p. 165) Christians who take Jesus seriously in John 17 cannot turn a blind eye to division, for as long as we are divided, our witness is damaged, and we are not the church fit to be the bride of Christ. I daresay than any follower of Jesus will, having read The End of Protestantism, find themselves recommitted to the Biblical vision of the church as a single family, and work locally and at all other levels toward that end.