The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church
by peter j. leithart
baker, 240 pages, $21.99
Peter Leithart’s latest book, The End of Protestantism, began as a set of short but controversial essays for First Things magazine and progressed through a roundtable discussion at Biola University before being expanded into this volume. His argument is based upon two fundamental convictions: Protestantism requires something to protest against, and the visible unity of the Church is of vital importance. As Leithart notes, the early Reformers were committed to both ideas. They protested what they considered to be Roman excesses and abuses, of course, but they were also deeply concerned about the unity of the Church—not simply a spiritual unity but an institutional, visible unity. Like a modern-day Martin Bucer, Leithart wants his fellow Protestants to take unity seriously. But the imperative of unity has long since been overwhelmed by the fissiparous nature of Protestantism.
The Bible knows nothing of a visibly and institutionally divided Church. Christ prays for a unity that is not merely spiritual. Christians should therefore lament the situation in which we find ourselves and strive for nothing less than the kind of unity the Bible assumes and which Christ desires. Further, as Protestantism is a protest, its existence is therefore contingent upon something against which to protest. It should therefore be intentionally committed to bringing about its own end.
Having laid down this foundation, Leithart proceeds to offer a detailed diagnosis of the current state of Protestantism and some thoughts on the future. There is a brief “Intermezzo” inserted in the middle of the argument laying out the theological narrative of the Bible that informs his case for church unity. Those familiar with his work will not be disappointed. Leithart is as always provocative and learned. He is, however, tellingly vague at a critical point.
Leithart is at his strongest in the analytical section. The chapters on denominationalism are well balanced, outlining both the strengths and the weaknesses of strong denominational identities. Then, he offers an interesting account of the global nature of contemporary Christianity and how this is reshaping the way in which we will need to think about the faith. It is well-known that Africa has become a powerhouse of conservative Anglicanism, but Leithart highlights other movements such as that founded by Raymond Buana Kibongi, who pioneered racially integrated churches in Congo. He also highlights the amazing growth of the church in China in the face of terrible suffering and persecution. South America also features, with the rapid rise and success of Pentecostalism, though here I would perhaps qualify the analysis by saying that much of this has involved prosperity gospel groups that are often Christian in name only. South America has not been quite the Protestant success story which the American evangelical press has sometimes claimed.
Along the way, Leithart offers appreciative comments on Pentecostalism and challenging reflections on the social and racial divides in American church life. Throughout, Leithart exhibits an attractive catholicity of spirit while at the same time making numerous pointed observations. While I demur from many of his proposals, it is hard to deny that many of his critical observations are well-made. For example, he raises the obvious question as to why Protestant denominations are losing young people. Lack of proper catechesis is the cause, he argues, along with the underlying carelessness regarding church attendance which is rife among adult Christians. He’s right. We lose young people because we teach them by precept and example that church does not matter.
Church unity is a bit like the eradication of poverty and disease. Is there anyone who does not think that in principle it would be a jolly good thing? It is therefore hard to disagree with Leithart’s basic desire. The fragmentation of the Church and the consumerist mindset that harm congregants are inimical to the spirit of the New Testament. Only the most ideologically committed congregationalists can regard the current chaotic situation as representing anything other than a travesty of the biblical vision for God’s people. Leithart is surely correct when he sees so much Protestant talk about spiritual unity as an excuse for avoiding hard ecumenical and ecclesiological questions. Indeed, the ease with which contemporary Protestants accept fragmentation and disunity is remarkable. It is a distinct difference from the attitude of the Reformers, for whom the shattering of the Church’s unity was, initially at least, an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy. As Leithart makes clear, we are a long way from the land of our spiritual fathers on this point.
Yet Leithart’s account of the way forward is unpersuasive. Take, for example, this passage describing his vision for “the reformed, united church of the future”:
Former Lutherans will discover fresh insights in the writings of former Mennonites and Calvinists; former Baptists will study encyclicals from Rome with appreciation; former Methodists will deepen their insight into the liturgy by studying Eastern Christian writers. Everyone will accept the whole of the tradition, East and West and beyond, past and present, as a treasure entrusted by the Spirit to the church. . . . Churches will unite around the early creeds and will continue to use the treasures of the Reformation, of Trent and the Catholic Catechism, and of the hundreds of creeds and confessions that the global South will produce.
One of Isaiah Berlin’s arguments against utopianism was that utopias, like four-sided triangles, cannot exist even at the level of theory. The same is true for a reformed, united Church described in the terms above. First, there is the obvious point that the theological canon here seems open-ended. How is “the whole of the tradition” to be defined or regulated? Second, even among those that are specifically mentioned, there are going to be obvious contradictions. When Trent and Westminster contradict each other, who wins?
Leithart is aware that not every church that claims the name Christian does so legitimately. Some have abandoned fundamentals of the faith: “adherence to Scripture or confession of God as Father, Son, and Spirit.” But surely no Christian church would argue that such things are all that is necessary. And once you move beyond that bare minimum, you need to address the tensions and ultimately the contradictions that exist between the major confessional traditions of Christianity, to say nothing of the many smaller splinters. Leithart never addresses this issue.
For Leithart, it seems that church unity is first and foremost a sacramental unity. This confuses. The significance of the sacraments is, after all, doctrinal. It is not enough for the same outward actions to be performed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Their understanding of these actions must align. The vision of a church in which Christians can be visibly united while still having robust doctrinal disagreements is an attractive one, but we have a problem if those debates concern things upon which unity itself depends. Churches need a doctrinal basis, and a failure to achieve theological agreement is a large part of what causes our current disunity. Acknowledging the role of personalities in church splits may be appropriate, but we cannot relativize all disagreement as a function of clashing personalities. A united Church wherein heated debates on key issues are pursued within the institutionally incarnated bonds of visible, sacramental Christian fellowship only works if we deny doctrine ultimate importance.
Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism are not simply divided on the issue of sacraments. I remember some years ago hearing an evangelical scholar make the case for church unity based upon a return to the early church consensus. The idea is superficially attractive. Yet even if we grant that a coherent ancient consensus existed, this proposal for unity relativizes every doctrinal development since the early church. It requires that every Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Christian regard the things that are most fundamental to their church’s testimony as of comparatively little consequence. I cannot do that as Protestant, and I would not expect my Roman Catholic friends to do so either.
Still, one has to acknowledge the power of Leithart’s critique of the status quo. Looking at my own Presbyterian corner of the Christian world, I find it obvious that the existence of multiple North American denominations with essentially the same doctrinal and ecclesiastical beliefs is ridiculous. Yet we have to accept the reality of our situation as our starting point. Most Christians are members of denominations and must therefore start the ecumenical process denominationally. So how should we do this?
One way to move towards unity is for the denominations that affirm the same confessions to start voting themselves out of existence and joining with each other. This would still be a long way from the final unity for which Christ prayed, but it would at least be a move in the correct direction. It would require no doctrinal compromise while fostering a spirit of unity. If we cannot even do this much, then we are rightly indicted by Leithart’s book.
After reading The End of Protestantism, I found myself wondering why Leithart is not a Roman Catholic. If ecclesiastical fragmentation is the reality in which we live, and if the unified church he envisages is one in which debates and disagreements can and do take place within the context of sacramental and institutional unity, then Rome would seem the obvious context. Yes, Rome has its tribalism, too. But it is the tribalism of the largest Christian institution in the world, and the one with the deepest historical roots. It would seem to be the default position for someone of Leithart’s ecumenical convictions.
If Protestantism requires protest, then it is a conscious act of will. One must therefore have sufficient reasons to justify such protest. The best reason Leithart gives for not swimming the Tiber is that doing so would involve him breaking sacramental fellowship with fellow Protestants. But that is not a compelling rationale. Remaining Protestant perpetuates the same broken sacramental relationship to Roman Catholics, of whom there are a whole lot more. To put it more provocatively, Leithart’s stated reasons for being Protestant are not Protestant reasons. If it is disunity that provokes Leithart’s most passionate protest, then the most Protestant thing for him to do is to join the Roman Catholic Church.
I have friends who think that John Lennon’s “Imagine” contains the most beautiful sentiments ever expressed in a popular song. Not only do I disagree with them, I think the song’s vision is impossible. Leithart, like Lennon, is a romantic. He would respond, perhaps, that he knows ecclesiastical unity is a utopian vision but that we should still press forward to realize it as closely as we can. But progress requires a definite end goal and concrete practical steps. For Leithart, those steps should lead to the bank of the Tiber. For me, as much as I appreciate many things about Roman Catholicism and my Roman Catholic friends, the insights of the Reformation, particularly the importance of assurance of faith and of the centrality of the Word preached, cannot be relativized or treated as negotiable, and any future united Church would have to recognize these. While I suspect Leithart might regard such an attitude as perpetuating division, here I stand. Sorry, Peter, I can do no other.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.