Peter J. Leithart - "The End of Protestantism"
1:06PM Jun 29, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Peter J. Leithart president of the opolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama and senior fellow theology and literature at New St. Andrew's college. Dr. Leitheart has written many, many books, including defending Constantine, the twilight of an Empire and the dawn of Christendom and against Christianity. Dr. Leitheart is also the author of the book that we'll be discussing today, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church. Dr. Leitheart, it's our honor to be speaking with you today. Thanks very much,
Jonathan. It's great to be here.
Actually, I've heard you've been active in a number of ecumenical venues, including evangelicals and Catholics together and also the magazine first things, how did you come to be interested in ecumenical dialogue?
I think the main thing that happened was came out of my doctoral studies, I did a PhD on baptism. And as part of that PhD work, I spent a lot of time studying the book of Galatians. The couple middle couple of chapters ablations in the baptismal passage there. And I was trying to put that discussion of baptism in the context of Paul's concerns within Galatians. And was particularly struck, I have very vivid memory of being in the reading room at the Cambridge University Library. And suddenly the the weight of Galatians two, I felt the way to Galatians two and Paul's rebuke to Peter. Paul charges Peter with not being straightforward about the gospel. He says that Peter has basically abandoned justification by faith. And the particular thing that Peter's done to warrant this rebuke is that he withdrew from table fellowship with Gentiles. And from that, that recognition that that the issue was the unity between Using Gentiles in the church and Paul saw that as a central element of the gospel from that it, it began to dawn on me that that's a Sunday that Paul returns to regularly and it's a, particularly the Gentile. The healing event division is central to Paul's Gospel in his teaching. And that's part of a broader concern that's expressed perhaps most clearly in Ephesians. Two, that Jesus came to break down the dividing wall and form one new humanity. They're getting this Jew and Gentile, but it's still looking at the whole human race being reunited in Christ. And the question occurred to me that and also thinking about First Corinthians and other writings of Paul, it occurred to me that the church many churches today would warrant similar kind of rebuke from the apostles for their sectarianism and their hostile hostility to to other other Christians and other Christian churches.
I was a student of every Colonel Dallas And then also Joe Leonhard and john Woodbridge, all of whom I know we're on the angelical some Catholics together dialogue, could you give us a brief word on the current state of that dialogue?
Yeah, um, I've been a part of it for the last two cycles in the it's a group of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. And then the goal has been to produce periodic statements, some of them dealing with historic divisions between Protestants and Catholics like, issues about marry doctrine, justification, that sort of thing. Some of them addressing cultural social issues. The last statement, the first one that I was part of, was the one we issued about a year and a half ago, that had to do with marriage, and particularly in the light of the same sex marriage debates that are going on in various churches. So we're right now in the middle of a, another cycle. It's a two year cycle to produce one of these statements and we're in the middle of one that's dealing with I guess you could say it's an effort to provide a kind of apologetic for the Christian faith, similar to the apologetic efforts of the early Christian apologists. They were describing in defending what Christian what Christianity was to the culture or uncultured pagans of their time. And we're trying to come up with a statement that expresses that it's are the premises that there's a great deal of ignorance about what Christianity is what kind of claims Jesus makes, what kind of implications that has. So we're trying to summarize that so that make a big a clear statement of Christian faith to those who don't don't know much about Christianity.
Sir, early in your book, the end of Protestantism pursuing unity in a fragmented church, you right, and I quote, my agenda will make Protestant churches more Catholic, but that is because it will make them more evangelical. The two go together. Because capitalism is inherent in the Gospel, would you be willing to explain to us what is it that you mean by the terms Catholic and evangelical in this text?
Let me start with the evangelical part that I'm using it in an etymological sense, really, evangelicals applied to a certain class of Protestants these days, but the word goes back to a Greek word that simply means the gospel or the good news, the heralding of good news. And when I when I talk about in that in that passage, and that's part of a chapter I'm talking about the evangelical unity. And I'm talking about the character of the gospel and the fact that the gospel is about the salvation of humanity, but part of the salvation of humanity is the reunion of the fragmented human race that arose in the aftermath of Babel, and you can trace that it's you trace it back to the beginning of Israel's history. With the call of Abraham, that comes in the aftermath of the collapse of the nations of battle, and the scattering of the nations their division of language, and I think a division of religion that occurred at Babel. And then God calls Abraham as the solution to that, to that scattering of humanity. And the, the sort of begin from the beginning, Israel exists in order to be God's agent, to bring the nations back to God, and to bring the nations together under the blessing of God. And that's what you know, Jesus mentioned earlier the passage in Ephesians, two, Jesus died in order to unite the human race is one new man. You have the Pentecost, the Spirit's work is to reverse what happened to battle. The Pentecost account in Acts two as resonates with the account of Babel, but it's a reversal that you have in language miracle but instead of being a language miracle, that does binds. It's a language miracle that that allows everyone in from every nation under heaven actually says to hear the gospel in his own language. So that's what I mean by gospel is that there's talking about the good news of Jesus Christ. But with the emphasis on the fact that there's a God's intention is to unify humanity. And that's part of the good news. Part of the damage of sin is that the human human races divided and in healing that damage, God is bringing human humanity back together. That's what the church is. It's the present form of that new new humanity. The word Catholic they're in, in some ways that there's there's a something of ambivalence or double meaning of the word Catholic, the Catholic means universal. And I think it's helpful to break that down a little bit to make sense of it. To say that the church has Catholic means that the church is a one church. Spread out. Throughout all space, every Christian who's living today is part of the same, the same body of the same communion in spite of our, our genuinely tragic divisions that there still there still is a unity that's there. That is a unity in Christ in the spirit. And to be a Catholic is to recognize that in our particular time. all Christians, everyone who names the name of Christ, everyone who walks with Christ is a brother or sister in Christ. But there's also capitalists in time. It's one church from could say from Pentecost, you can go back to Abraham, and go even further back and say, as some medieval theologians did, that the church begins with Abel. But that's that's one entity. That's one church that's running through that history. And so that's all our heritage. Protestants sometimes have a tendency to lop off 1000 years of church history and treated as somebody else's history, everything from maybe Constantine up through the the Reformation or maybe from around 500 to the Reformation. That's all. That's Roman Catholic history, but it's not our history. But if we're Catholics, and we recognize it, that's our history, too. So, those are a couple of the dimensions of catholicity. And so when I say that the be evangelical is to be Catholic, I mean, to be evangelical is to recognize that the unity and the universality of the church both in space and time and the argument is that that's inherent in the Gospel that we that we proclaim about Jesus.
Thank you for that explanation. If I may quote you again, you right and this is on pages 18 and 19. It is essential to correctly understand the factuality of the church's unity. the unity of the church is not an invisible reality that renders visible things irrelevant. It is a future reality that gives present actions their orientation and meaning And I just think that's a beautiful expression of what church unity is. Help us understand. Can church unity be defined by institutional structure, sacramental practice or by doctrinal confession? Why or why not?
Well, let me start by explaining a little bit more about the passage that you quoted, what I'm opposing there is a kind of complacency that some Christians have about the current divisions that exist within the church. I think it is true that there's a certain kind of unity that we already possess. But I don't think that that's a unity that is that really expresses the gospel that we preach. I mean, you could say, Peter could have responded to Paul. Well, sure. I'm not eating with Gentiles, but I'm spirit still invisibly spiritually united with Gentiles. I don't think Paul would have been. I don't think Paul would have been he would not have found that convincing. The There is a visible expression of the unity that I think is, is essential if the churches if the church is healthy. But then, in answer to that specific question you asked, I think all of those dimensions that you mentioned are aspects of what unity is. And they're all dimensions of the church that where there's more or less profound disunity in our current in our current situation. Think of doctrinal unity. There's a certain degree of doctrinal, unique say the many churches confess the Nicene Creed, or the early Creed's of the church, Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox and others. But then of course, you have a large segment of the church that doesn't acknowledge any creed. What do you do about them? And then there's been a elaborations of the gospel in the midst of disputes inter inter denominational disputes. Protestants weren't content just to reaffirm not See a they constructed confessions that clarify where they were differing from Roman Catholics and then eventually different from one another. So you have this these doctrinal elaborations that express a different, different versions of the gospel in some ways that you might be able to isolate some some degree of unity, but they're pretty profound differences. So I think a unified church would have to have some kind of doctrinal dimension to it, it would have to be have some kind of unified confession of what the gospel is and what the implications are. Both doctrinally and practically. They have to be a sacramental dimension to unity.
Christian churches practice baptism and the Lord's Supper, other some churches, label other rights and ceremonies as sacraments. So there's a difference on even how to count the sacraments and even on the sacraments where we that we share There are differences of practice. And I think one of the it's not just a difference of theology that should be concerned but then the difference of differences of theology that lead to a failure to acknowledge other churches practice as sacrament. So there's some some churches that won't acknowledge another churches baptism as a baptism. There are churches that won't accept anyone at the Lord's table that's not part of their particular denomination that doesn't have a certain view of the Lord's Supper or isn't attached in some way to some governmental form and thinking Roman Catholicism. So there there are even even where we have a certain degree of unity. There's, there's, there's both practical and doctrinal, theological divisions. So I think Unity has to include the pursuit of one mind, one voice, one lip, confessing Jesus and the gospel together and that has to be expressed In visible ways, and I think Sacramento Sacramento particularly is a that's kind of the one of the chief visible manifestations of the unity that we have.
Thank you for that response. If I can quote your text one more time, and this is on pages 3738 you write this if Protestants were to become Catholics, parenthesis not Roman churches, Once identified with one or the other variety of Protestantism would cease to identify themselves in this way. reunion would also be the end of Roman Catholic Catholicism and orthodoxy. Despite claims to the contrary. Roman Catholicism and orthodoxy as much as Protestantism are defined by their differences from one another and from other parts of the church. In your view, can individual denominational traditions offer trusted guidance for worship and doctrine, or does this reformed Catholicism project We're speaking of does it require churches to shed their specific and particular denominational histories? Thank you.
Well, I think I would I have to reply, and the answer would have to be yes and no, I think there are some traditions of liturgical life that are some are more reliable than others. Some traditions of doctrinal reflection are more reliable than others. I'm obviously saying that from a particular position, and from a particular set of convictions. But I said, I would I would want to break that down into specific, more specifics, in order to answer answer it fully. But I do think that I think the general a general way to approach it or general answer to the question would be that
Christians need to enter into
an app To an effort to unify the church with the readiness to give up things that are dear and near and dear to their hearts, for the sake of the unity of the church, I don't think that that's I'm not advocating a kind of lowest common denominator. I'm not advocating, ignoring history and category history. We start from where we are. You can't ignore doctrinal differences. We have to, we have to work through those. And Unity has to be on the other side of those doctrinal debates and disputes. But if if everyone enters that kind of dialogue with the insistence that our side is going to win no matter what, that what we're here to do is simply to tell everyone else what is right. And everyone's going to just have to listen to us then I think that's a non starter. Everyone has to be ready to give up. It has to be ready to die to who they are. And for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the interview the church. So the the general answer would be more and more of a stance and a and a personal attitude. And then when you get into specific, you'd have to get into specifics to answer the question more fully.
We often speak of primary issues and secondary issues, those of which are those issues which are absolutely essential and we can't give them up and those which are secondary, which we can give them up. How do we determine between that which is core to our Christian identity and must be preserved and that which is secondary and which can be given up for the sake of greater unity in the church?
I do believe that there are primary and secondary concerns. I think that that's a valid distinction. I don't think though, that we can decide ahead of time, what those what those things are.
And I think those look
like much of much of what I'm about Much of the church's life, much of our personal lives, things are discovered on the way. You know, I think of my experience as a parent. I had a theory about how parenting would go when I started. And I still pursue some of the things that I started with. But parenting for 30 some years has modified the way I parent naturally so because the things that you discover as you on the way of, you know, in the process, Proverbs says that, the way the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn shining ever brighter to the full light of day, it doesn't the sun doesn't come up all at once. And there's a little light ship but if we are walking in the way of obedience and faith, then we can be confident that the Lord is going to shine the light more brightly. So I think even the question even a question like that a question about what counts as essential, what doesn't is something that should be a subject of continuing to debate and discussion within the church along the way toward unity. I don't think we can decide ahead of time well, you know, this, this, this list of things is, at least this list of my distinctive doctrinal practice doctrines or practices, or things that are non negotiable for me. I think there are certain there are certain things that are non negotiable for Christians in general, and we start from that premise. But then there's much of what much of what counts as secondary primary, I think is discovered along the way of discussion and dialogue and debate.
And I think it would be helpful to hear you state, what are those things that you would assume to be primary and core to Christianity that should be up for negotiation? Yeah.
Right. I think that doctrinally, I would think that you have to this is more of a pragmatic judgment than one that is fully theologically elaborated. But I think in the circumstance, I think you have to start with something like the early the earliest The Catholic Creed's nicea the the dogmatic statements of the early councils and I see in Castle calcine, maybe the dogmatic statements of the early counsels on the Trinity and the person of Christ as a document Foundation, the practice of baptism and the Lord's Supper, some degree I'm running through the standard Protestant marks of the church, some degree of conformity to Christian morality, Christian truth and some, some some sort of discipline those those features, I think, would be non negotiable. I think the the difficulty in finding a starting point is that the difficulty is you don't think it's, it wouldn't be right to say okay, we're taking as a premise the decisions and counsel trend, and that's the foundation. That's the starting point for medical dialogue. That's a non starter couldn't take a Westminster Confession. That's non starter. So again, it's kind of as a pragmatic thing. What are the what are the what are the doctrinal foundations that were determined before the church, even between East and West was divided. And I think we get to calcine. You already have some some difficulties with certain parts of the church in the Far East and in the Coptic Christianity that never accepted calcium. So there's some challenges there already. But I think something like that as a doctrinal basis, just as a as again as a pragmatic starting point.
Very good. Thank you. Lionheart, what are the real roadblocks today to ecumenical progress?
Well, I think that the roadblocks on different ends. My book is primarily addressed to Protestants. I'm a Protestant. I'm a conservative Protestant. So the book is addressed to people like me, trying to speak into my own world. And it's I think that's a world where interest in the unity of the church has not been strong in a lot of people. For the last, I should say, for the last century or so, while the mainline churches have been pursuing ecumenical efforts of various sorts of some, some healthy and successful, some not so much, some very damaging to the church. But while that's been going on a lot of the conservative churches, evangelical churches have prioritized truth over unity, and not been interested in pursuing unity of the church, the ecumene of the evangelical movement, in some ways is kind of an ecumenical ecumenical coalition of Christians, but there hasn't really been an effort to overcome denominational divisions. It's been a kind of COBOL agency and coexistence within within denominational within the situation denomination division. So, my, my book is aimed at and most of what I write on the subject is aimed at that world because that's the world I'm in and I think the the I think there are a couple of main obstacles there. One is there isn't a fair bit of sectarianism within the evangelical, conservative Protestant world. It's not the kind of sectarianism that says only my denomination is right. But it is the kind of sectarianism that tends to divide particularly from Roman Catholics and Orthodox didn't, you know, there's a strong sentiment among evangelical Protestants and some evangelical Protestants that Catholics and Orthodox shouldn't even be considered Christian churches. So there's a sectarian tendency within within evangelical Protestantism is an obstacle. And maybe even more than that, I think there's a, an indifference to the issue of unity. there's a there's a comfort and complacency about our current, the current state of the church that is that's a, I think that's a that's a big obstacle. And that's again, that's part largely what I'm trying to address. And in order to do that I try to provide a biblical grounding for my appeals for unity. That's the kind of Best Buy conviction, I think you have to have a biblical grounding for pursuing this. And it's also the the rhetorical appeal that will, that will hit home with the people I'm writing to. But I haven't written as much about Roman Catholicism and orthodoxy. I don't I'm not in those worlds. It'd be a little presumptuous of me, I think to, to address them and to tell them what they should be doing. But I do think that there are huge obstacles on that side to unity. I'll say that in the context, first of all of tremendous concessions and a tremendous shift within Roman Catholicism in the middle of the 20th century with Vatican, Vatican two, and the aftermath of Vatican two. Genuine openness to Protestant insight, genuine openness to dialogue with Protestants. And I think a pretty profound and profoundly moving willingness to, to die for the sake of the brothers for the sake of unity, the church that I think probably have a lot to learn from. But even having said that, you know, there's some, I think the, the, the Roman Catholic claims about the papacy, I don't think are biblically grounded. And they're a huge obstacle to Union, not only with Protestants but with orthodoxy.
dogmatic, dogmatic decrees about the about Mary, are a large obstacle to arm to unity with Protestants. So I think that it's hard to see how that unravels how that changes because of the the convictions that Roman Catholics have about the infallible ability of the official official church teaching? How do you? How do you reverse a decision like Vatican one? That's considered a dogmatic decision that established the infallibility of the pope under certain conditions and circumstances. How do you how do you? How do you reverse that without, without ceasing to be Roman Catholic? So I have to say, if that is, but how do you come to any kind of real profound unity of the church without some kind of modification, severe modification of that? So I think that's that's a place I think that's a Roman Catholicism presents huge obstacles to unity, and ones that I don't see any human way of overcoming.
And that takes me to exactly my next question, can you envision some sort of scenario whereby the church becomes visibly united in the next several decades?
Well, let me start with biblical answer that question and one of the things that happens in the history of Israel and of course after after the reign of Solomon, the kingdom is divided into North and South and for much of the history of the monarchy, Israel and Judah were separate nations, different kings, different sanctuaries, different practices of worship. And, and yet, there's indications particularly in the Book of Kings that show that the Lord continued to consider the northern kingdom, despite all its idolatry and sin continue to consider them as covenant people. There's some pretty striking passages late in Kings live in Second Kings, where the Lord has compassion on Israel for the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And that's after you've read chapter after chapter of, you know, Ahab setting up a temple of bale and Jeroboam setting up golden calves at Dan and Bethel, and yet the Lord considers them as covenant people. But that's the history of the monarchy but then when Israel and Judah go into it, While they go in, into exile still divided, they come out of exile as one people and that's Zico prophesies, that is equal talks about the stick of Judah The Stick of Israel being bound together tied together while Israel's in exile. So that's a that's a process that takes up 70 or 100 years you know, over the course of a couple of lifetimes several generations a couple of generations.
The Lord doesn't
takes takes Israel Judah through a crucible, okay, so that's its exile. It's a it's a demolition of both kingdoms. That's, that's what brings them together. But it's in terms of timeframe. It's pretty short. So I say that just uh, I'm not predicting anything. I just say that to make it clear that scripturally speaking there's, there's nothing that would prevent God from acting rapidly to to to break divisions into reunified in more profound ways than we than we currently have. And I see signs that they're things, things happening that's part of the book is The trying to analyze the current situation of denominationalism. And there have been, it's hard, it's hard to predict. We're denominational Christianity goes because it's been so flexible over, particularly in America over several centuries. And it's a it's a very adaptable system, and has some virtues to it as I tried to show in the book. But I do think that it's ultimately an obstacle to the unity that Jesus wants for his church. So but there do seem to be signs that there are weakening denominational ties. When I speak on these topics. almost inevitably, I hear from people in the audience who say, well in our city, this is what's happening and the churches are working together in these particular ways and churches across denominational lines. There's been an ethic then The kind of culture war situation has led to much closer ties between Catholics and Protestants than existed 50 or hundred years ago. And that's that's similar to what Zeke is talking about. It's through the fires of exile and through the fires of certain kinds of cultural pressure that the Christians are finding more in common with each other than they realized.
After late heart, what does the rise of global Christianity mean for the future of the Christian Ecumenical Movement?
I think it's a it's a complicating factor in one respect, because much of the much of global Christianity doesn't fit into the, the European and American categories of Christianity. The instinct among Europeans and Americans is to think primarily in terms of three large families of churches, one large fan, family, church As Protestants, and then you've got Catholics and then the less unified but but still recognizably unified Board of Orthodoxy. But a lot of the churches in Africa, for example, are churches that have some kind of connection with missionary movements from from Europe or the United States. But the real growth and the real impetus behind them is post missionary. So the missionaries leave and suddenly have these movements pop up and you have a leader, somebody who's trained within an Anglican Church, for example. But he doesn't remain Anglican. He becomes a prophet. And he starts preaching and starts a huge movement and there's a, you know, there's a, there's a ends up you have millions of people in Africa that are followers of this particular movement. That kind of thing happens you get kicked charismatics would be another charismatic and Pentecostal be another large category, but that's a very diverse one. And it's Again, it doesn't have obvious connections with Western, Western Christian. So in one sense, it is hugely complicated, complicated, because you don't have you can't just think in terms of Protestant, Catholic orthodox. At the same time. I think that there are there there. Factor. Are there forces in that in global Christianity, I think there are forces within Pentecostalism that
they contain an impulse toward toward unity.
They contain an impulse toward because they aren't in recognizable historic denomination denominations. That means that there's an openness to to other Christians that might not exist if they were, if they were more rigidly part of a denominational tradition. So I think there's there are opportunities there but certainly hugely complicates the Christian world in all kinds of daunting, very exciting ways.
Natural light hearted, I can ask a final question. It's a question that I've been asking all of the interviewees on this program and that is this, what would it mean for the church today to be united? How can we recognize this unity? And what is it that individual Christians can do in order to pursue the real unity of the church? Thank you.
Be going back to an earlier set of comments. That unity the direction is expressed in several different areas. a unified church would be a church that has, is unified in teaching and doctrine. And I think, also I didn't mention this as much in my in my previous discussion, I think it's important that a unified Church has has to have some form of doctrinal discipline. That's one of the huge problems of the current situation. You have churches that are dividing and struggling over, over sexual issues, sexuality issues, for example, they have their melanin. Within those individual churches to deal with those conflicts and to try to resolve them in the, in the Presbyterian Church, United States in person here in USA, for example, there's a there are there's a governmental system to resolve that there is no such even ad hoc system to resolve what on a global scale with the there's just isn't a way to determine what what counts is, you know, what is outside the bounds of Christian teaching on sexuality and what isn't? You can do that within denominational system within individual denominations, but not globally. So I think the unified church would have to have even if it's just an ad hoc, which is what the early councils were just some kind of ad hoc gathering of Bishops in order to decide what they would arion decide make a decision about arianism and have some way of some way even if it's imperfect, somebody who's enforcing that those boundaries, so that would be part of the Unity unity would be involved recognition of inter communion of churches at the Lord's table and recognition of the interests of other churches as genuine Eucharist and the baptisms of other churches as genuine baptisms. Not to your last question, what can what can Christians do? I think there depends on the opportunities depend on where you are, and what kind of responsibility you have in the Christian church. But every Christian can pray. And I think the that is the central.
That's the central action that we can take.
we can join in Jesus prayer that his disciples would be one as the father's one with the sun. We know that Jesus is going to get what he asks of his father and we should join our prayers to that. Unity is not something that we can manufacture. It's not something we can manipulate and control and we get into huge problems, if it's something we're trying to create our own energy with our own ingenuity. It has to be a gift from God. But it's something we should ask if, if we we have not because we ask not if we want to unify church, then we should ask the Father to bring his children into one family.
It's been our delight today to be speaking with Dr. Peter J. Light heart president of the opolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, Senior Fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrew's college and also author of the text that we've been discussing the end of Protestantism pursuing unity in a fragmented church. Dr. Leiter, thank you for your time this morning. Thank you.