And don’t forget Richard Hooker

I’ve had some discussion with friends recently about the “Future of Protestantism” discussion at Biola University with Dr.’s Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman. I listened to the discussion in its entirety and was impressed with portions of it; other portions were less inspiring. (If you haven’t seen it, you can go here.) I will give full disclosure to the fact that I attend church with Dr. Leithart and he is a mentor to me. I try to learn from him whenever I can. His gracious style is not just a public display; he is just as gracious in person as he is in public. I’ve read Dr. Sanders and Dr. Trueman before but have no personal contact with either one of them.

To begin with, I have long agreed with Dr. Leithart that the differences between modern-day Protestants and modern Roman Catholic theology is closer than many realize. That’s not to say that there is no difference; I despise the adoration of physical elements (also known as idolatry); think praying to Mary is useless (at its best); and believe that infused righteousness is no righteousness at all. That being said, I believe, along with all the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, that  Rome is in some form a church. If you doubt this, let me ask you: were the churches at Laodicea, Thyatira, or Philadelphia real churches despite the great sin taking place in them? If you say, “No” then your standards for a church surpass that of Jesus Himself. Despite her sinful beliefs, Rome believes in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, the atonement once for all for our sins, and the resurrection of the body. They are a church.

In fact, they are closer to Protestant theology than before. That is not to say that efforts like these answer all the questions, but it is a start. And Dr. Leithart is not calling as much for hierarchical meetings on doctrine as decentralized meetings in cities and towns throughout the country with ministers working together for the good of the cities in which they minister. The prototype for this is from Pastor Rich Bledsoe in Boulder, Colorado. He divided the city into parishes and established pastor gatherings in each one. In these gathers pastors from all Christian churches would get to know one another. It is going well and is being attempted in other cities. This is on-the-ground unity; the type that is more in line with Scripture than top-down unity agreements that many times paper-over differences.

Back to the actual Biola gathering, I hate that it excluded Dr. Sanders much more than it should have. It became a discussion of differences in Presbyterian theology between Dr.’s Leithart and Trueman over issues like baptism and communion rather than what it was intended to be, a discussion of what Protestantism would/should look like in the future. Dr. Leithart is more optimistic than Trueman on the future of Protestantism. I believe this descends directly from the differing views of eschatology. While Dr. Trueman believes the answer to what ails the church is a return to the confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries (most notably the Westminster Confession), he said he didn’t have hope that it would happen. He sees a future of persecution that contours nicely to his amillenialism. Dr. Leithart believes the different wings of the chuch (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Catholic) will work together more as persecution comes. This is a result of his postmillennial eschatology.

Dr. Sanders on the other hand, believes that evangelical Protestantism (Arminian, free-church, non-confessional) can be brought to a realization of its desired end through working together with other Protestants and realizing its historical, reformational roots. This new-found unity among Protestants would be achieved through a thoroughgoing Trinitarian theology. To contrast Sanders with Leithart, whereas Leithart is calling for an end to Protestantism as we know it and striving for unity with the other branches of the church, Sanders believes, to change a phrase from Chesterton, that evangelical Protestantism has been found difficult and left untried. There is a lot to like in this approach and I believe some form of it must be put into practice. The sacramental, high-church Protestants are a distinct minority and will likely remain so for some time. There must be a vision for low-church historical rootedness and Dr. Sanders presents such a vision. May his tribe and their birthrate increase.

What is there to learn from this gathering? First, the Holy Spirit is working toward unity among Christians more than ever before. I can see this in my own experience and from talking with others. But just like in conversion, the Spirit calls for a obedience and obedience means going out of your comfort zone and saddling up to other Christians despite your prejudices.

Secondly, there must be a vision for this. You must believe that the Spirit of God will (not just can) accomplish these things. The vision of Dr. Trueman, that it will not happen and the best we can do is to work with anyone, atheist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, who opposes abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. is not inspiring. It’s like telling a soldier to go out and fight but know that you will lose. Why try?

The third thing we can learn is that what is done must be done with an eye to the low-church Protestants. They are the Christian foot soldiers in the U.S. If Dr. Sander’s approach is not taken in some form, it will not matter how much we speak to non-Protestant Christians. I have no expectation that all U.S. Christians will be conservative Presbyterians or Anglicans in ten or twenty years. But I do have hopes that low-church Protestants will grow in their historical realization of who they are and where they come from. To put I another way, if this army of Baptists, Pentecostals, and non-denominational believers were exposed to the ramifications of Augustine or Dante, and they heard a little of Abraham Kuyper and John Wesley, it could be really unpleasant for secularists in the U.S.

Lastly, as we are drawn to the light of global church unity, we must keep hold of the Protestant confessions. There are a lot of messes within the reformational household and Dr. Trueman was absolutely right about the need to clean them up. The mainline churches have been lost because they came up with better ideas than the reformers and flushed their confessions down the drain. That can’t be the case. I’m all for eliminating sectarianism but not at the expense of orthodoxy. This is not to say that I think Dr. Leithart is in danger of this, but as a young man I know the temptations to compromise in order to accomplish what you believe is important.

How do everyday people bring these things about? Love the brethren. Pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ and pray for all the local churches in your area. Talk to those who are from different Christian perspectives with respect and ask God to help you learn what you can. And if you have time, read the Anglican Richard Hooker. He had some insight into these things.

2 Comments

  1. Nathan E. says:

    Excellent post. I certainly hope Christians will gradually grow together and become more united. I think that this might happen on the fringes first, as Traditionalist Catholics are abandoned by their hierarchy. When I stumble on uber-conservative Traditionalist Catholic blogs, I am often confused about how they can simultaneously uphold their views of Church infallibility and then turn around and realize that the present hierarchy is compromised, including at the very top. Eventually, the cognitive dissonance might start to cause real tension if there is a strong Churchly Protestant alternative. They, along with disenchanted Evangelicals seeking more historical roots, could converge. In fact, as Leithart already has pointed out, they already have converged in the culture wars and often wind up crossing each other’s paths in the world of the internet.

  2. John R. says:

    Thanks, Matt, for your response. I have much in common with conservative Catholics on things like abortion, marriage, and other culture flash points, but in what substantive theological matters have the Catholic and Protestant churches become more alike? Whether driven by his eschatological priors or not, Trueman does seem to have a point: on matters like justification, tradition, and infallibility, there is still a wide gulf between Protestants and Catholics. Perhaps in the face of increasing secularization in America, Catholics and Protestants may decide that those issues are peripheral to a pressing need for unity around a shared belief in the Trinity, the divine nature of Christ, etc. But it appears (to my novice eyes) that the Catholic church isn’t interested in seeking common ground with Protestants if that means changing any of its theological commitments. Perhaps folks like Dr. Leithart think Protestants should be put less priority on issues like Marian theology, infused/imputed righteousness, etc, and focus more on the shared commitments. It’s a very interesting discussion.

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