REVIEW OF PETER LEITHART’S THE END OF PROTESTANTISM: PURSUING UNITY IN A FRAGMENTED CHURCH

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.

 

 

 

 

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CONSIDERING THE LEGACY OF THE REFORMATION: TWO NEW BOOKS ON BEING A PROTESTANT 500 YEARS AFTER THE REFORMATION

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Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Now, many evangelicals might assume this would be the perfect time to grab a bottle of champagne and in gratitude toast the legacy of our spiritual forefathers.  Yet before the party has even begun there has been a steady stream of publications by both Protestant and Catholic authors who have in fact lamented the Reformation — asserting that some of the biggest problems we face in the world today (secularism, church schism, pervasive skepticism, etc) are all the “unintended” but nonetheless necessary outworkings of the Reformation.

While the literature on this subject is vast and beyond the scope of being worked out on any blog (especially this one!), we will be considering two soon-to-be released works by two of North America’s leading Reformed theologians — Peter Leithart and Kevin Vanhoozer — both of which have come to us  here in Southborough courtesy of the good people at Brazos Press.

Leithart, who runs the Theopolis Institute, has an astounding range of interests and expertise, having published on 1 & 2 Kings, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Constantine, the Atonement, Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, and the intellectual history of Gratitude, just to name a few.  In his new book provocatively titled The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, Leithart directly confronts the reality of Protestant denominationalism in North America by playing on the dual meaning of “end” — both something’s conclusion, but also its original purpose.  Here’s a quote:

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Vanhoozer, who teaches systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is a fascinating theologian.  I was recently told a story that in the not too distant past an academic publishing house put out “Theologian” trading cards as a bit of a joke for theology nerds.  In the pack among such giants of church history as Augustine, Irenaeus, John Calvin and Karl Barth was Kevin Vanhoozer — the only living theologian for whom they made a card.  Now, I’m not exactly sure what kind of compliment that is, but it must have been flattering.  Vanhoozer’s new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity is a fresh articulation and defense of the Reformation’s five solas (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, in Christ alone & for the glory of God alone).  In particular Vanhoozer spends a significant time defending the Reformation principle of scripture alone as it has come under heavy criticism in the last few decades as promoting “interpretive chaos” in the church.  Here’s a video clip of Vanhoozer talking about this book (if you are reading this on email you might have to click to our blog to watch it):

Be on the look out for more extended engagement here on the blog with both of these significant works on the legacy of the protestant reformation in the coming weeks.   

Again, both of these books were given to us for free from Brazos Press in exchange for an honest engagement and review.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” by James K.A. Smith

 

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James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.  224 pgs.

If James K.A. Smith’s recently released book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is correct in its general thrust, then reading this accessible, insightful and well-informed book will decidedly not change your life.  Let me explain.

You Are What You Love is Smith’s ‘user-friendly’ presentation of a thesis he has been arguing over the last few years in more academically inclined books (if you’re interested see here and here).  Central to this larger project of Smith’s is an attempt to expand how contemporary Christians understand what it means to be human and how this effects our discipleship.  In short, Smith wants to re-situate our head with our heart, our thinking with our desiring, and our rationality with our imagination.  Smith believes that all too often the church has bought into an Enlightenment picture of the human person as primarily a ‘thinking thing,’ and with this reduced picture of the human person in hand, models of discipleship have also been reduced to mere data input: learn the right doctrine, read the right books, go to right conference, download the right podcast.  All of these are good and helpful things in our discipleship, but if discipleship is only aimed at the filling our heads the broader culture will be more than happy to captivate the heart, woo the imagination and form our desires.

Taking his cues from both St. Augustine and the biblical witness, Smith wants to enlarge our picture of the human person and in so doing questions the discipleship-as-data-input model.  Early in the book Smith puts it this way, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”  Smith gives many pointed examples throughout the book about the limitations of data input discipleship, showing how human action often flows out of deeper places than our rational deliberation (a favorite example of mine was Smith’s retelling of enthusiastically devouring the anti-industrial food writings of Wendell Berry while at the same time devouring a hot-dog in a Costco food court).  Smith wants to say that discipleship is a much richer, deeper, and often more time-consuming process of both having our minds renewed but also having our loves transformed and reoriented towards God through the power of grace-filled habits.

This is central to Smith’s project: if humans are more than merely thinking things, and are instead driven by our loves, then discipleship has to include the reorientation of our loves through the creation of habits.  Smith is constantly touching down into the seemingly mundane routines that characterizes daily life, showing how they can become opportunities to shape and reorient the things we love.  Smith talks about habits of worship, marriage, educating your kids, and going to work. Unlike his previous books that primarily remain on the level of philosophical and theological reflection, this book orbits around day-in and day-out living, making it much less intimidating to wade into than his earlier works.

So if discipleship is not only learning certain things, but actively working to create habits which shape our deepest longings and loves, then reading Smith’s book by itself won’t change your life.  At best it might change the way you think — something of high significance! — but if that is all it does, then in a real way Smith has not accomplished what he hopes to through this book.  Along with changing the way you think, Smith wants  you to face the truth that your habits might reveal that the things you love can often be in contradiction to the things you think you love.  The resulting vision for Christian discipleship seeks to create new habits that can re-orient our loves towards God and his Kingdom, so that our thinking and our loving work in unity.  This book comes highly recommended.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy” by C.E. Hill

By Joshua Chestnut

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C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.  xi + 295 pp

There is no shortage of books about how the early Christian church came to agree upon the four accounts of Jesus’ life (i.e. the canonical gospels) that are included within the New Testament.  In many of these works, from popular level fiction to credentialed academic treatises, it has become commonplace to present a narrative in which the four canonical Gospels arose to prominence only after a long and bloody battle within early Christianity that was finally won in the fourth century after the establishment and enforcement of Christian Orthodoxy by the Roman Emperor Constantine. In his Who Chose the Gospels? New Testament professor Charles E. Hill effectively, and often entertainingly, turns this narrative on its head.

Hill does a commendable job at making scholarly work not only accessible but often interesting, and occasionally even funny.  Hill displays an impressive command of the pertinent material as he sifts through a massive amount of scholarly information regarding the nature and number of ancient Christian papyri and codices.  The two chapters in which he exonerates  Irenaeus of Lyon, a 2nd century bishop who, in recent years, has been in the cross-hairs of many critical scholars who see him as an angry, oppressive and intolerant front runner to Emperor Constantine, are both compelling and convincing.  From there Hill devotes a large amount of space working back from Irenaeus to show how even though there were ‘other Gospels’ in existence throughout these years, yet there was a strong consensus on the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among many church leaders across the Roman Empire prior to Ireaneus.

In the final chapter of the book Hill attempts to answer the title question of his book: who chose the gospels?  Following F.F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger before him, he concludes that no one person or single group of people did in fact choose the gospels; in a very real sense the four gospels imposed themselves uniquely on the early church through their apostolic connections, their large acceptance throughout the church and their spiritual dynamism.  Hill writes,  “The question ‘why did you choose these Gospels?’ would not have made sense to many Christians in the second century, for the question assumes that the church, or someone in it, had the authority to make the choice.  To many, it would be like the question, ‘why did you choose your parents?” (p. 231).

Whose Chose the Gospels? is a highly readable and informed introduction to a difficult and often complicated subject matter.  If you, or perhaps family, friends or colleagues have read the work of such scholars as Bart Ehrman Helmut Koester or Elaine Pagels, Hill offers a compelling, competent and up to date alternative.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “Fasting” by Scot McKnight

By Joshua Chestnut

Fasting by Scot McKnight has been out for a few years now (which means you can find plenty of used copies online for cheap!), and it is a very helpful little gem.  New Testament scholar McKnight gives a readable and highly informed account of the Christian practice of fasting, which he presents through the lens of “responsive body talk.”

Perhaps this way of thinking of fasting — “responsive body-talk” — needs a little unpacking.  First, “Body-Talk.”  McKnight helpfully situates his discussion of what fasting is within the larger Biblical vision of being human: a person is a duality of body and soul (i.e. there are two distinct but intricately united parts), but not a dualism (i.e. an antagonism or hierarchy between body and soul).  This is in contrast to some popular presentations of fasting that can make it out to be a practice in which the soul works against the body by suppressing its desires and depriving it of food, implying that getting around the body is the path to spiritual growth.  This is a way of thinking about the body and soul foreign to the Biblical vision of human spirituality.

Second, “Responsive.”  Sometimes when fasting is discussed it is presented as though it were some sort of magic way to get what we want, be it tighter abs or spiritual growth — both good things mind you — but McKnight helpfully points out how when people fast in the Bible, this sort of “instrumental” logic is not part of the equation.  While this sort of results-oriented approach to fasting makes sense to many of us in late-capitalist consumer societies, it would be alien to our spiritual ancestors.  Looking at many instances of fasting throughout the Bible (e.g. in repentance, in sorrow or grief, at a crossroads, in light of the evil and injustice of our world), McKnight concludes that the logic to Christian fasting is not so much if-you-fast-you-will-get x, y or z, but instead, “when grievous or sacred moments in life happen, God’s people fast.”  Fasting then is a whole person’s response of body and soul to life’s sacred moments.  It is full-person prayer.

McKnight’s book clocks in at around 200 pages but with its large print, small page format and easy to read prose, it can be read fairly quickly.  The book is full of wisdom, grace and humility and is a wonderful place to start when thinking about how to approach fasting.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: “SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP” by Wesley Hill

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Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, is Wesley Hill’s second book on Christianity and homosexuality. Wesley, who is a professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, identifies himself as a “celibate Gay Christian,” meaning someone who has only experienced attraction to people of the same sex, but as a Christian, is convinced that the biblical teaching on human sexuality precludes acting on this attraction. Wesley has written on the topic before in his book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, and in both books he exemplifies a unique ability to tell his own story through deep, theological reflection in a way that is intellectually compelling, deeply human and often poetic. While Washed and Waiting chronicles how he came to terms with these issues in his own life, Spiritual Friendship is something of a follow-up which hopes to re-introduce the church to the theological richness of “friendship” as a missing but potentially vital component to the discussion around human sexuality.  Early in the book Wesley writes, “Friendship is a good and godly love in its own right, just as worthy of attention, nurture and respect as any other form of Christian affection. That is what the Christian tradition has mainly said and that’s what I want to say – from a fresh angle of vision – in this book, too” (xx).

And that is what Wesley does in just under 140 pages. The book comes in two parts, each comprised of three chapters. The first part, “Reading Friendship” (which is perhaps the most sobering/saddening/insightful part of the book), narrates the disintegration of friendship in modern life. Wesley points to multiple reasons for this, including our shared Post-Freudian inheritance of a deep suspicion that all relationships are motivated by subterranean sexual desire, the elevated status of marriage, and the nuclear family as the exemplary form of human relationship, as well as the Enlightenment conviction that being tied down or committed to anything, especially a friendship, can only inhibit our own self-determining happiness. While his lucid style can lend itself to a casual read, this section merits close attention, evident as it is that he has done his homework on how we moderns have come to think of friendships in such a diminished manner compared to the elevated status our predecessors gave it.

The second part, “Living Friendship,” contains a call for the church to re-discover the forgotten art of friendship, and in particular “spiritual friendship.” For Wesley, “Spiritual Friendship” is a formal and communally acknowledged vow of friendship between two people of the same sex. He sees this as a fruitful way forward for those in the church who, like himself, identify as same-sex attracted but remain convinced of traditional Christian sexual ethics – a pairing that often leads down a life-long path of loneliness without intimacy.

Throughout both parts of the book, Wesley knits together honest and intimate personal experience, well-researched theological reflection, sober analysis of our current cultural moment and that of previous ages, weaving one coherent and highly readable plea for all in the Christian church, both gay and straight, to rediscover the good and hard work of friendship. His basic argument is that one of the primary ways the church has failed those of its own who experience same-sex attraction but hold to a traditional sexual ethic, is that we have over-emphasized marital relationships to the exclusion of friendship. This then all too often implies a diminished status of solitary loneliness for those who are unable to marry. Instead, with the help of many of the Christian tradition’s brightest moments, Wesley traces a tradition of intimate same-sex love which is expressed not through sex and marriage but through chaste, committed friendships. In fact, some of the most thought-provoking material in the book looks to ways in which Christians in centuries past entered into and celebrated these “vowed spiritual siblinghoods.” While Wesley offers a rich celebration of the goodness and power of intimate, committed friendship, he is sober enough to know that proposing friendship alone is no magic bullet for solving all the complicated and personal issues that churches face in caring for people with same-sex attraction. Still, he is convinced it is a wonderful and important place to start!

Wesley’s proposal for the church grabs one’s attention in large part because it avoids the publicity stunts, blanket condemnations, and oversimplification that has all too often characterized the discussion. Instead, Wesley speaks with the gentle voice of experience, creativity, compassion, informed conviction, wisdom and humility. This book (along with Wesley’s others) comes as a highly recommended resource for anyone interested in issues surrounding friendship, human sexuality more broadly, as well as LBGTQ issues within the church.