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Robert Benne’s critique of Mitri Raheb’s lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“Political Supersessionism,” March) is full of claims and insinuations, but bereft of substantial arguments. For example, Benne writes that “Raheb flatly denies that Israel has any historic claim to the land and that there is any connection between biblical Israel and today’s Israel,” but does not follow this description with any arguments against it. He tells us that Raheb “rattled off standard points from the pro-Palestinian side,” such as “labeling Israel an apartheid state,” but does not give the reader any reason to judge this characterization inaccurate. Benne seems to assume that readers of First Things consider such statements self-evidently absurd. Is it because they contradict the claims of Christian Zionism, to which all true Christians, theists, and men of good will who know the Bible and history subscribe? 

In a Christian Zionist journal, Benne’s piece, along with its assertoric mode of argumentation, would fit quite nicely. But First Things is a journal for reasoned and fact-substantiated debate on topics and positions that are debatable by Christians, monotheists, and men of good will. Are the claims of Christian Zionism exempt from such reasoned debate? Have Palestinians suffered injustice under the Israeli regime? Did Israel commit war crimes and other human rights violations against the Palestinians in Gaza? Is the footnote commentary of the Scofield Reference Bible, with its peculiar interpretation of God’s “unconditional promise,” in accord with the actual Old Testament read in light of Christian tradition? Is the modern state of Israel, quite godless and secular, in direct continuity with biblical Israel?

These are questions Benne leaves unanswered.

Thaddeus Kozinski
wyoming catholic college
lander, wyoming

Robert Benne replies:

I’m afraid I won’t be able to satisfy Thaddeus Kozinski’s discontent with my opinion piece. He seems to expect that in the brief space allotted for my critique of Mitri Raheb, I should also have given full arguments and evidence for my counterclaims. Doing so would have required a far longer article. 

But the sarcastic tenor of Kozinski’s complaints suggests that it would be very difficult to find enough common ground with him to have a fruitful discussion about Arab-Israeli issues. His dismissive insinuations that I am arguing according to the Scofield Bible and that my argument—weak as it is—belongs in an intellectually deficient Christian Zionist journal exhibit the very kind of thoughtless disdain of which he accuses me.

Yes, I did expect that readers of First Things would agree with some of my background assumptions: that there is historical and religious continuity between the observant Jews of Israel and their biblical forebears; that a democratic Israel which recognizes the rights of all sorts of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities is not an apartheid state; and that the “secular and godless” state of Israel has a highly complicated relationship with believing Jews which nonetheless provides a crucial protective canopy over them. Most fair-minded Christians accept such assumptions; those who vehemently deny them move rapidly toward the political supersessionism I was protesting.

The three non-sarcastic questions Kozinski asks in the middle of his second paragraph are certainly worth debating, but I suspect his mind is made up.


R. R. Reno’s perceptive essay “Goodbye, Heraclitus” (March) nicely highlights the sources of both popular and elite distempers, and the gaping chasm that separates them. But even though he speaks primarily in terms of a colossal transformation, Reno’s most persuasive point, made toward the end, is that what we are living through is a transition from one liberal phase in our national life to another—not the end of liberalism that some of Trump’s critics bewail and some of his champions herald.

Reno suggests that we are witnessing the exhaustion of a liberal phase in which the competition among the parties was mostly between two ideals of personal liberty, and that we may in time see the emergence of a new liberal phase in which the competition among the parties (also, if not instead) is between two ideals of solidarity. We could already see intimations of this in the 2016 election, in which our parties were bitterly divided over how the country should be unified.

But if this is his argument, then Reno metes out blame very unevenly. He is right to criticize the more apocalyptic of the president’s critics for imagining that the shattering of their illusions of a permanent, post-nationalist, and post-Christian progressive settlement means the shattering of all our liberal freedoms. But he might also have noted that some of Trump’s more intellectual defenders have been no less apocalyptic, arguing that our society was on the brink of destruction, so the absolute need to disrupt its suicidal course justified even the election of a patently unfit miscreant to the presidency.

Some intellectuals who most favor Trump and some who most detest him agree that he is bringing the end of the liberal experiment; they just disagree about whether that is a good thing. They are mistaken, and this renders them less than helpful to the country at a crucial time. What’s needed now is neither gleeful demolition nor a blind persistence in every postwar verity, but renewal. Such renewal would reinforce the (often pre-liberal) foundations of the liberal order and would work to build or rebuild institutions essential to human thriving in our particular circumstances.

Some intellectuals in every age would like to imagine that theirs is the unique moment of history’s ultimate reckoning. But our time, like our fathers’ and their fathers’ before them, requires instead that we renew the sources of our strength and make them available to our children, who deserve them just as we did. That task requires gratitude for our inheritance and a sense of proportion. Neither comes easily just now.

Yuval Levin
silver spring, maryland

R. R. Reno replies:

I share with Yuval Levin a distaste for end-times hysteria. Our republic is not ending. Our democratic culture is not imperiled. But perhaps we disagree about our present circumstances. I experienced the Obama years as a time of intense ideological constriction—and not just on the left or at our universities. The Republican party had become donor-dominated, fixated on economic policies increasingly ill-suited to our political moment, and punitive of any dissent. At the same time, the Democratic party became a vehicle for elite preoccupations such as gay marriage. These trends were and remain deeply entrenched. Our political culture suffers from a great deal of blockage. From where I sit, Trump has been a welcome enema, which is a messy business, but in our circumstances a necessary business.

The important question is where we go from here. Like Levin, I trust our basic political institutions and our deepest traditions. They are weathering the present storm quite well, in fact. Trump is hated by our elites and was elected without a majority of votes. Nevertheless, our constitutional machinery functioned smoothly. We are at a point of heightened political anguish over every judicial nominee—and our court system continues to command our respect. Both political parties have been rocked by the populist rebellion—and they are slowly, reluctantly, but visibly adjusting. Republicans are trying to figure out how to govern without a unifying ideology. Democrats are trying to avoid becoming the party of smug, rich progressives. Amid all this, the current occupant of the White House is significantly less inspiring than the most honored political leaders of our past. Welcome to the ugly business of democracy at the end of an era, when we are afflicted by our decadence and fresh initiatives are not yet ascendant.

And so, as Levin says, our task will be one of renewal. It will require restoring what Russell Hittinger describes as the three necessary societies: family, nation, and religious community. This project needs to be reality-based, which means we’re going to have to figure out how to buttress the culture of marriage in a society transformed by the sexual revolution. We need to rearticulate our national covenant in a time of global economic activity and civic fracture. And we must restore a transcendent orientation to our society in a liberal tradition that refuses to lend the power of the state to any one religious tradition. None of this will be easy, as Levin notes. But things were not easy in 1776, 1860, or 1932, the three past periods of trauma and transformation in this country when old compromises, coalitions, and political settlements unraveled, times when eras came to an end and new ones were born. Our best traditions carried us through those tests. I’m confident they’ll do so again.


We appreciated Mats Wahlberg’s engagement with our book Roman but Not Catholic (“Ecumenical Incorrectness,” March) and his dissent from the “ecumenical correctness” that is rife today among both Roman Catholics and Protestants, which fails to explore in an honest and forthright manner those troubling and impolite matters that divide us. We also welcome his irenic spirit, sometimes displayed in pointed criticism, and we remain open to correction in our dialogue with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. However, we think Wahlberg misses the mark on a number of points.

Failing to synthesize all the elements of our argument on the nature of apostolic succession, Wahlberg writes that Collins and Walls

reject the idea of apostolic succession in the episcopate. But this doctrine was taken for granted by basically all Christians (except some heretical sects) for more than a millennium prior to the Reformation era. Why is this not a case of “truly catholic consensus”?

Given our ecumenical concerns, however, the salient question about apostolic succession is not only historical. It is also about how the Roman Catholic Church employs this appeal today, not only in its conception of its own authority, but more importantly, in its judgment of the authority of those Christian traditions, say Lutheranism or Presbyterianism, well beyond its walls.

Apostolic succession was cited in the early Church to distinguish the orthodox from the heterodox—in other words, to keep heretics at bay. It therefore seems highly inappropriate, both ecclesiastically and theologically speaking, to make a similar appeal today solely in order to question the validity of Protestant ordination and sacramental ministry, including the integrity of the Lord’s Supper. This teaching, which we judge to be an innovation and in its later uses an aberration, emboldens Rome to divide the Communion table, preventing Protestants from partaking. But because this teaching is itself thought to be derived from apostolic doctrine, Rome must assume that Jesus himself wants a divided Lord’s Table, so long as Protestants remain Protestants. In the hands of Rome, then, apostolic succession functions as a self-justifying and ever-dividing myth. Jesus gave the bread to Judas; Rome won’t give it to Protestant saints.

With respect to Protestant interpretations of Scripture, Wahlberg rightly notes that we reject individualistic readings, but he misrepresents why we do so. Our view is not, as he suggests, that the Nicene Creed has binding authority over scriptural interpretation primarily because it represents a “truly catholic consensus” in the ancient ecumenical Church. Rather, our case hinges on the essential clarity of Scripture as revelation. If Scripture is a revelation from God, then its central meaning must be accessible to its intended recipients. The authority of the Nicene Creed follows from this Protestant principle of the perspicuity of Scripture because this principle leads us to think that the early Church, when faced with the need to explicate more precisely the identity and nature of Christ, would get it right, given the obvious importance of this issue in the New Testament revelation. The fact that Nicene views prevailed, and have been defended over and over again by great theologians and biblical scholars down the centuries, only confirms the conclusion that the Nicene Fathers correctly discerned the meaning of Scripture on the vital issue of the nature of Christ. This may not provide the Cartesian certainty that Roman apologists seem to think can be achieved in their own Church, but it provides ample rational and theological warrant to take the claims of Nicaea as fixed, normative Christian doctrine.

Yet Wahlberg, emboldened by his belief that we have no rational warrant to affirm the authority of Nicaea, goes on to cite Newman’s challenge: “On what principle do we receive Chalcedon yet not Trent?” We find this appeal to Newman somewhat ironic since we showed in some detail why the cardinal’s case for doctrinal development is deeply confused. Wahlberg has begged the question, presupposing Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and its reading of history) at every step. Considering the further question “How does Eastern Orthodoxy receive Trent?” would have revealed the full extent of his missteps.

Appealing to Newman to demonstrate why Roman Catholics have sound reasons for accepting the Nicene Creed (as if Protestants do not), Wahlberg cites two background beliefs. First, an authorized interpreter of Scripture has been established by God in the form of the Roman magisterium. Second, that magisterium can be recognized by “the formal criteria of apostolic succession in the episcopate, and episcopal communion with the pope.” If the second belief can be shown to be problematic, it would cast doubt on the first belief, at least insofar as it is claimed that there is a particular and authoritative Roman magisterium. 

Bringing forth only fragments of our extended critique of apostolic succession (and acting as if it constituted the whole), Wahlberg fails to realize both the nature and the extent of our criticism. One who affirms a doctrine of apostolic succession culminating in the authority of the bishop of Rome must not only choose between succession of teaching or succession of office (as J. B. Lightfoot in his own day understood), but also surmount the historiographical difficulty posed by the early Church’s transition from apostles to presbyters, and from presbyters to a single monarchical bishop. Wahlberg’s claim that the Apostle Peter’s “first successors might have been something like the leaders or chairmen of the presbyterial college at Rome” is belied by the careful scholarship of Peter Lampe, who, as we point out in our book, “developed the ‘fractionation thesis’ to illustrate the house-church-decentralized flavor of the city along with its various Christian districts.” Wahlberg’s image of an elevated body of chairmen immediately succeeding Peter is therefore fictive.

The question of proper ecclesial hierarchy—whether culminating in the papacy or not—has consequences not only for Rome’s relations with Protestantism, but with Eastern Orthodoxy as well. Despite Rome’s repeated claims to the contrary, the notion that the Apostle Peter reigned as the singular bishop of Rome is dubious on several levels, as historians, including Roman Catholics, have generally recognized. The issue here is not only jurisdictional, but also geographic. While Peter almost certainly visited Rome for what looks like a brief period of time, if there was any city that represented or epitomized his authority in a special way, it would not be Rome, the place of his murder, but Jerusalem, in which the Church was born, or perhaps better yet Antioch, in which he long served as a local leader. The notion that Peter enjoyed any special or exclusive relationship with Rome represents the reworking of history to fit the needs and ecclesial realities of a later age.

Since the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic magisterium has deployed its self-referential doctrine of apostolic succession to portray Protestants as little more than heretics. Such an unenviable view was corrected, in part, by Pope Leo XIII in the nineteenth century in his encyclical On the Rosary and Public Life, when he began to refer to “misguided brethren,” and by Vatican II in the twentieth century, when the Roman Church took up the more agreeable yet still painful rhetoric of “separated brethren.”

These public shifts in Rome’s attitude and language, as important as they were, left in place its peculiar doctrine of apostolic succession, which continues to this day to divide the Lord’s Table by barring from Communion those who live holy lives, marked by an abundance of sanctifying graces, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Given this painful reality, it is high time for new thinking about old matters. We need an “ecumenical incorrectness” willing to entertain the difficult and challenging matters that continue to divide us by disrupting our communion and scuttling what should be a united witness to the world in holy love of the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Kenneth J. Collins
asbury theological seminary
wilmore, kentucky

Jerry L. Walls
houston baptist university
houston, texas

Mats Wahlberg replies:

I am grateful for Kenneth Collins’s and Jerry Walls’s thoughtful response to my review. It gives me an opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding at the root of their argument against apostolic succession. “Apostolic succession was cited in the early Church to distinguish the orthodox from the heterodox—in other words, to keep heretics at bay,” they write. This is correct, and apostolic succession is still needed for this purpose today. From the Catholic perspective, some Protestants are materially heretics: They hold beliefs that contradict dogmas of the Catholic faith. Since the vast majority of Protestants are not formal heretics, however, the contemporary magisterium has wisely chosen to retire the h-word, and instead talk about “separated brethren.” This does not mean that (for example) the Protestant denials of real presence or transubstantiation are now compatible with orthodoxy, or that the need to “cite apostolic succession” in relation to heterodox communities has ceased. 

According to the authors,

The authority of the Nicene Creed follows from [the] Protestant principle of the perspicuity of Scripture because this principle leads us to think that the early Church, when faced with the need to explicate more precisely the identity and nature of Christ, would get it right.

Here one must ask with Newman why the later Church (say, at Trent or Vatican II) was inherently less likely to “get things right” than the early Church. I combed through Roman but Not Catholic in search of an answer to this question, and the only plausible candidate I could find was an appeal to the “truly catholic” character of the pre-schismatic “ancient ecumenical Church,” which is implicitly an appeal to broad consensus among Christians. Now, in their letter, Collins and Walls again offer no answer to Newman’s question, but only reinforce their appeal to consensus by pointing out that Nicaea has been “defended over and over again by great theologians and biblical scholars down the centuries.” As I showed in my review, no appeal to consensus can achieve the aim that Collins and Walls have in mind, because there was broad consensus for at least a thousand years about the existence of an apostolic succession in the episcopate—a doctrine that the authors consider themselves free to reject. Certainly, the consensus about Nicaea has now lasted for more than a thousand years, but I doubt that Collins and Walls would want to argue that it takes more than a thousand years for a doctrine to become binding.

As regards the Petrine office, church historian Robert B. Eno has argued that the historical data about the Church in Rome—including Peter Lampe’s findings—are compatible with the existence of an “embryonic papacy” in the first century. The traditional lists of early Roman bishops indicate, according to Eno, that “the collective leadership counted among their number men who stood out from the crowd; people perhaps who frequently exercised a de facto leadership but without being monarchical bishops.” The idea that Linus, Cletus, Clement, and the rest were successors of Peter is of course a retrospective interpretation from the vantage point of a later stage in church history, but this does not mean that it is false. Viewing Christ as the second person of the Trinity is also a retrospective interpretation, since none of his disciples thought of him in these terms.

Of course, it is another question how we can know that the Petrine office continues in the Church of Rome. Since Catholics believe in tradition as a channel of revelation, they do not expect everything to be demonstrable from biblical evidence alone, nor by means of neutral historical research. (Ask: Could the “perspicuity of Scripture” or the correct biblical canon be established by such means?) The fact that Roman primacy with a Petrine flavor eventually became universally accepted in both the West and the East is sufficient evidence that this development constituted a fulfillment of Christ’s “prophecy” in Matthew 16.

Was Roman primacy really accepted in the East, though? At least those Orthodox churches that signed the Ravenna declaration in 2007 acknowledged that “Rome, as the church that ‘presides in love’ . . . occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the Bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs.” This ecumenical agreement illustrates, incidentally, how comparatively small the doctrinal differences are between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Might an Orthodox reception of Trent be in the cards?


I very much appreciated Kyle Harper’s learned review of my book Demopolis (“Illiberal Democracy,” March). Harper offers an admirable summary of my argument and correctly explains why I, as a liberal democrat, consider distinguishing democracy from liberalism worthwhile. But he finds my account of “basic democracy” lacking in the warm-blooded love of nation and passionate striving for greatness that animated, for example, Pericles’s funeral oration over the Athenian war dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian War. That oration is among the high notes of Thucydides’s superb history and a classic expression of the values that animated the best-documented ancient democracy.

I am guilty as charged. While I sought to avoid the ultra-dull prose style in which so much contemporary moral philosophy is written, the quasi-mathematical coolness of the book’s tone is an inherent feature of my chosen genre of analytic political theory. But beyond that, my account of basic democracy is intentionally bare-bones—and thus lacking the blood and tissue of value commitments and passions that animate all fully realized political systems. If it is ever to be brought into being in the real world, my basic democracy would, of course, require a fleshed-out superstructure in which real humans could live together—arguing as well as deliberating, competing as well as deciding, united and distinguished by something beyond their shared conviction that equality, freedom, and civic dignity are essential to collective self-government by citizens.

But starting with the cold, bloodless framework has some advantages. Harper reasonably enough asks what Pericles might have said about my thought experiment. I wish I knew. But I would be even more interested to have Thucydides’s and Aristotle’s views on it. After all, they knew what Pericles, who died early in the twenty-seven-year war, could not: that harnessing democratic dynamism to ethno-nationalism and an unquenchable desire for “having more and more” ended badly. Democratic leadership passed on to the likes of Cleon and Alcibiades led to catastrophic military defeat, domestic terrorism, and a bloody civil war. Yet Athens survived all that. Its postwar democracy was rebuilt on the sturdy foundations of constitutional procedure. Demopolis was written in the hope that the country I love can avoid the fate of Athens in and after the Peloponnesian War—but also in acknowledgment of the possibility that rebuilding on a basic democratic framework may one day be necessary.

Josiah Ober
stanford university
stanford, california

Kyle Harper’s latest book, The Fate of Rome, is a brilliant appropriation of that old Gibbonian chestnut, the idea of the fall of Rome. By that time, in the latter days of antiquity, democracy had long since ceased to carry its original explosive charge—something like dictatorship of the proletariat, in Marxist terms—and its meaning was reduced to “riot,” a characteristically Byzantine misreading of democracy as merely ochlocracy or mob rule. Josiah Ober’s summoning of a time “before liberalism” in Demopolis incorporates that late Roman imperial period, and all else before the sixteenth century. But Ober is more interested in confronting modern liberal and post-liberal “democracy” with the genuine ancient ideal, the Athenian “people power” of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c., on which he has had so many original and persuasive things to say since publishing Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens in 1989.

We are currently experiencing a (prolonged) moment of liberal angst, and we desperately need to find ways to recuperate “normal”—representative, parliamentary, indirect—modern democracy. One of those ways, through Aristotle, is sketched out in Ober’s rational-consensual, demo-political thought experiment; another, via Pericles’s evocation of a transcendent communal ethos, is recommended by Harper in his review. I made my own contributions with Democracy: A Life (2016). We historians of the ancient Greeks’ democracy need to keep banging on not only about the virtues of their peculiar political form, but also about the key differences—theoretical, ideological, and pragmatic—between any modern versions of “democracy” and theirs.

Paul A. Cartledge
university of cambridge
cambridge, united kingdom

Kyle Harper replies:

I’m grateful for Josiah Ober’s thoughtful response to my review of his book and for Paul Cartledge’s expert opinion (I can recommend Democracy: A Life as the perfect complement to Ober’s efforts to show why ancient democracy matters).

Demopolis is a stimulating and even provocative thought experiment that successfully highlights the value of democracy, whether or not rule by the people is fused with a liberal order. Ober provides a “bare-bones” account of democracy, defending it along the lines of what Cartledge calls a “rational-consensual” model. Our disagreement is over how this minimal (cold, bloodless) framework relates to what Ober calls the “fleshed-out superstructure” where “real humans” can make a political community together. How can Cartledge’s distinction between the rational-consensual model and the “transcendent communal ethos” be bridged or synthesized? This is precisely what Pericles (by way of Thucydides, of course) was getting at in the funeral oration—that Athens was both a collective project of the Athenian people binding them together across generations and a rationally worthy object of esteem.

In this moment of political angst, I think it is worth asking whether these two should be separated, and with Ober and Cartledge I agree that thinking with the past can sharpen our understanding and broaden our imagination. Like many communitarians, I confess I don’t want to discard the core tenets of liberalism (respect for the dignity of all human individuals, a pragmatic approach to the scope of lawmaking), even if I worry that anemic forms of utilitarian individualism are insufficient to underwrite the political life of real humans. Thinking about ancient democracy can remind us of this discomforting tension within our political tradition.

In this belief I think I am in respectable company. Consider another famous political oration, the 2004 convention speech that vaulted Barack Obama to national fame. It evokes the “larger American story” that shapes every citizen, in his own family’s case through Patton’s army, the G.I. Bill, and the Western frontier. It affirms that the “greatness of our nation” is rooted in the “legacy of our forebears” and will be measured by the “promise of future generations.” It aspires to the “ideals of community, faith, and sacrifice.” It recognizes that at our best, “we are connected as one people.”

These are terms that Pericles might have appreciated and that are not so alien to the communal ethos animating life in an ancient polis. Democracy, to warm our human hearts, does not have to succumb to raving ethno-nationalism. And we can reasonably imagine Aristotle’s opinion. He would have heartily approved of the integration of the empirical and theoretical, while questioning the premise that our political and ethical life concerns our reason but not our emotions and appetites.

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