On Tuesday night I attended a conversation on “The Future of Protestantism,” which consisted of 10-15 minute presentations from Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman, a discussion between the three presenters moderated by Peter Escalante, and Q&A from the audience. Biola University and their Torrey Honors Institute added to their track record from the first LA Theology Conference as superb hosts, and it was nice to see Rusty Reno of First Things (also a sponsor of the event) attend and briefly interact with the presenters at the end.
- I thoroughly enjoy reading Peter Leithart, namely because he is one of the best typological and intertextual readers of Scripture of which I’m aware. I also resonated with much of what he said regarding Protestantism, both in his original article at First Things and in his presentation and response last night. Namely, I appreciated so much his calls to abandon the tribalism endemic to much of Western Christianity, and especially American Christianity, and to return liturgically, doctrinally, and historically to a more robust faith. I don’t want to pass over these things quickly, because they are important calls that I think the church needs to hear. But I think there are a number of issues with his proposal which were only exacerbated and made clearer as the night progressed, and I sensed that Sanders and Trueman wanted the same things as Leithart but had a much more precise vision for it.
- First, I’m worried as a Baptist where I fit into Leithart’s vision. The only comment he made about Baptists was a dismissive one in which he called us to let go of a primary distinctive (congregationalism). The larger problem here is that, in Leithart’s proposal and especially in his further comments last night, he appears to be the one who decides which ecclesial bodies need to give up which doctrinal distinctives in order to overcome tribalism. Although he eschewed a top down approach to ecumenism, one can’t help but wonder if that’s inherent to his proposal.
- Second, it seems to me that Leithart’s proposal relies heavily on an unsupported typological reading of Western history. It’s one thing to say that God reunited Judah and Israel in Christ, and another to say that we should therefore expect God to reunite Protestants and Catholics. I’m not comfortable with taking what I see as a legitimate typological pattern in Scripture and then, without any support other than our own reading of subsequent church history and our current situation, apply that reading to a prophetic call to action.
- Third, and related, Leithart mentioned his “eschatological vision” a number of times. He never said it explicitly, but it seems obvious to me that his goal is one born partly out of his postmillennialism. If one is a postmillennialist, then I suppose Leithart’s expectations are warranted. But I’m not convinced that the NT gives us much warrant for that type of eschatological outlook, especially given Jesus’ warnings at the end of each gospel about people falling away, Paul’s continued fight against false teachers, and the cyclical nature of the structure of Revelation. There is an already/not yet tension inherent to the NT’s structure, and Leithart only seems to pass over that tension and focus too heavily on the “already”.
- Fourth, and finally, I don’t see how Leithart’s vision takes into account the very clear instructions of at least Paul and John to cast out those who depart from sound doctrine. In other words, there is a warrant for church discipline not only on the basis of behavior but also on the basis of belief. I’m thinking specifically of Galatians 1, where Paul anathematizes those who preach a soteriology contrary to Scripture; 1 Timothy 1, where Paul says that Hymenaeus and Alexander have been handed over to Satan in order to be taught “not to blaspheme”; and 1 John 4, where John instructs the church to discern the spirits primarily through judging their beliefs about the incarnation. Leithart, in my opinion, did not take this into consideration at all in his proposal. He did state a number of times that we should be honest about our doctrinal differences and attempt to convince one another, but, in the case of both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, there are fundamental soteriological doctrinal differences that I think warrant consideration of the verses listed above.
Sanders and Trueman ably brought up many of these critiques, although I’m not sure I heard much on eschatology or doctrinal discipline. Nevertheless I was convinced that they possessed a more rigorous and precise understanding of how to articulate and implement many of the most important aspects of Leithart’s vision without ignoring some of its evident problems. In the end I’m grateful that these three men had the courage to tackle this difficult topic and to have been able to attend in person. My hope is that the conversation continues well into the future.