By Joshua Chestnut
The good people over at Brazos Press were generous enough to give us a free copy of Peter Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church in exchange for an honest review. This is a fascinating book and certainly recommended for anyone interested in discussions around Christian ecumenism (i.e. the promoting of unity between churches). That said, Leithart’s intended audience are those who are usually not interested in ecumenism (which includes Leithart’s own PCA denomination). It is a provocative read with many helpful insights, but leaves me with some significant reservations.
I quite enjoy Leithart’s distinctly theological ways into this discussion. First, he takes with utter seriousness Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where Jesus prays that all of his disciples would be one, as he and the Father are one — a prayer that Leithart repeatedly insists is one that the Father will not leave unanswered. Second, in the book’s “intermezzo” entitled “From Glory to Glory” Leithart offers a rich and stimulating reflection on a Biblical pattern to history — briskly and capably moving through the Biblical story and summarizing the pattern as “God makes worlds, dismantles them, and rebuilds” (p. 101). God creates and calls, his people fall away, he judges but doesn’t give up — after death there is resurrection. Where this all gets somewhat provocative is when he insists that 1.) much (if not all) of our current denominational structure actively works to delay the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer and 2.) that while the Reformers themselves are not to blame for the current fragmentation of the church (pp.38-51) it is still undeniably part of their legacy and part of the church’s “dismantling.” Yet, Leithart insists — where God dismantles he always rebuilds, and so Leithart looks a future church.
This future church, which he calls a Reformational Catholicism would hopefully mean the “end” of Protestantism. By this Leithart plays with the double meaning of the word “end” — it would be the end, as in the death, of the type of antagonism and tribalism which characterizes far too much of American denominationalism (i.e. to be a part of this tribe means to not be a part of some other tribe; my tribe has the best and only way to be, etc). But it would also further us towards the end, as in purpose, of the reformers who longed for the reformation of the entire church, not the endless formation of entirely new and separate churches. Here I must raise a complaint. While I think there is some legitimacy in connecting the proliferation of schismatic, tribalistic churches to the unintended fall-out of the Reformation, it seems all together unfair to lay the origins of schismatics and tribal mentalities at the feet of the Reformation. Schism and fragmentation were no doubt part of the church’s life long before the Reformation (See 1 Corinthians 1; see Galatians; see the Great Schism of 1054; see the Western Schism of 1378 to 1417 to start with). I know Leithart is aware of all of this, but it is not mentioned and so I find the implied picture of the pre-Reformation church to be border-line irresponsible. Leithart would have done well to acknowledge this more.
While much of Leithart’s agenda is driven by theological concerns, I appreciated when his criticism of denominationalism moved out of the theological and into the sociological — highlighting how denominational divisions often mirror divisions in our broader culture which do not necessarily arise out of theological commitments but rather out of what he calls Americanism. While Leithart highlighted racial division and a pervasive distrust of Roman Catholicism (especially in early America), I was disappointed that he overlooked the way in which current day partisan political divisions in many parts of the American church simply mirror the polarization of our wider culture. Seemed like the perfect place to address this.
So what then is the unity that Leithart is after? If denominationalism’s tribalism is not the end to which the Protestant Reformation was after, what exactly then must come to an end? Leithart”s answer is in some ways quite simple and beautiful. It is not merely an organizational or bureaucratic unity (though that would be nice), nor is it an ecumenism which waters down the importance of theological distinctives. Nor is he calling for anyone to simply transfer their membership to one church in particular. For example, he strongly warns disenchanted evangelicals from jumping ship and simply joining the Roman Catholic Church just because it’s bigger and has an older tradition. This would only increases the tribalistic mentality of denominationalism because it implies denying the legitimacy of one’s previous church’s existence.
For Leithart, this future church must be Catholic — i.e. “a recognition of our brotherhood in baptism and a practice of table fellowship” (p. 21), but it also must include continual Reformation and the commitment “to work through differences in a context of communion and prayerful friendship” (p. 181) Leithart sees something inspiring (if not programmatic) for the churches of North America in the church of South India where “Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians in India stripped away their denominational identities to become the church of South India” (p. 25).
While there are certainly details of Leithart’s own presentation that are less than satisfying, on the whole this is a well-informed, thoughtful and theologically rich book even where one disagrees. I closed the book scandalized by how un-scandalized I am by the fragmentation and tribalism which often characterizes my own tribe. Though not convinced that Leithart has given us a real way forward, his directness and candor pricked my own conscious in unexpected ways, and has spurred me to pray for God’s church to be one as the Father and the Son are. That said, on the whole this book reads more like the beautiful and admirable hopes of a pastor/theologian than an actual plan on how to join God in how he create his future church.