Some months ago, I wrote a brief piece on the “tragedy” of conversion.I used the word “tragedy” in the sense I develop in Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, & Hope In Western Literature. The word describes a conception of history and metaphysics in which the original is by definition better than anything subsequent. For tragic worldviews, decline is built into the nature of things.

Ancient myths of a lost golden age are tragic because the end is always less than the beginning; later is at best a tarnished version of the early. Arianism is a tragic theology because it claims that only the unbegotten origin is full divine; no begotten Second Person can be equal to the unbegotten Father. Orthodox Christianity is not tragic; it is comic, encouraging hope in the age to come and insisting that the “derived” Godhead of the Son and Spirit is identical to the Godhead of the original Father.

Conversions are tragic when they are driven by the desire to exhume a pure origin, a mythic ideal church from which all the others have deviated. Not all conversions are tragic in this sense. But some are.

In that earlier post, I focused on conversions from some form of Protestantism to Roman Catholicism or a branch of Orthodoxy. But it’s glaringly obvious that conversions in the other direction are sometimes (perhaps often) tragic in just this sense.

Conversions from Catholicism or Orthodoxy to Protestantism are sometimes driven by an implicitly Harnackian view of church history - that the church early on fell into a hidebound “Catholicism” as a result of an acute Hellenization. Efforts to recover the purity of a pre-Constantinian church drink from the same stream. The aim of the convert is to discover the pure (free Protestant) church of the apostles. Every restorationist movement in the history of Protestantism - and there are many - is tragic.

Protestantism isn’t necessarily and inherently tragic, and I don’t think that the main Reformers were driven by a naive hope that they could recover the first century. But it’s not difficult to discern a tragic element in Protestantism already in the sixteenth century.

In short, Protestants can be as tragic - and therefore as un-orthodox - as anyone.

More on: History, Theology

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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