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Last Tuesday, leading representatives of different models of conservative American Protestantism gathered at Biola University to discuss and debate the “Future of Protestantism.” Peter Leithart, an ecumenically-oriented apostle of “Reformational catholicism” faced down Fred Sanders of Biola, a spokesman for the “unwashed masses of low-church evangelicals” and Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary, an unapologetic representative of Calvinistic confessionalism. Those hoping for a hard-hitting debate, or a quick and full resolution of the questions, were bound to be disappointed: the three interlocutors were much too patient, irenic, and thoughtful for that. No, it was a conversation, and like almost all good conversations, inconclusive, an invitation to further conversation.

Most promising for such future conversation was the extent of common ground uncovered. All three interlocutors were willing to grant that the Church of Rome is a part of the body of Christ, a diseased part, perhaps, but still a part of us whose sufferings and triumphs we can share in, and whose healing we desire, not some alien entity to be scorned or ignored.

All three speakers granted that some kind of reunion with Rome (and with Orthodoxy) must be eventual goals for Protestantism, which could not think of itself as the sole bearer of the church’s future. All three insisted therefore that Protestantism should be characterized more by its positive witness than by a negative self-definition over against its enemies. All three also managed to agree that the content of this witness was largely set by the terms of the early Protestant confessions, that the solas of the Reformation constituted fundamental truths that must remain the ground of future Protestant ecumenical engagement. Finally, all agreed that the best forms of ecumenism, for the foreseeable future at least, should be local and ad hoc, involving such small but powerful gestures as learning to pray with and for local Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Before moving on to the inevitable frustrated question, “Well where do they disagree then?” we ought first to marvel at, and take encouragement from, this substantial common ground. After all, this isn’t the Protestantism that many of us grew up in, a Protestantism which answered to many of the harsh criticisms contained in Leithart’s essay last fall, “The End of Protestantism”: either militantly convinced that Rome is nothing but a synagogue of Satan, or complacently ignoring her very existence, and also ignoring much of the robust theology of classical Protestantism.

The differences that did emerge, then, were in part simply dispositional. Leithart is a cheery optimist about Rome’s willingness and ability to reform and meet Protestants half-way, Sanders an optimist about the ability of low-church evangelicals to gradually remedy their defects through patient retrieval of the tradition, Trueman a determined pessimist about both possibilities.

They were also in part theological. On the issue of sacraments, which dominated much of the discussion (partly due to Leithart’s firm insistence on the absolute necessity of weekly communion), Sanders said little, given his low-church Zwinglianism on the issue, Trueman admitted their importance but stressed the centrality of the Word, and Leithart camped out on his own more sociological De Lubacian sacramentology.

They were also in part a matter of pastoral sensibility, with Leithart seeing the greatest pastoral danger in the scandal of disunity, Trueman in the relativization of the doctrines of grace and subsequent weakening of salvific assurance. And of course, part of the difference was rhetorical: Leithart continued to identify “Protestantism” by its most widespread contemporary expressions, and accordingly called for its abolition, while Sanders and Trueman remained puzzled by this odd attempt to define something in terms of its most defective forms, rather than its historic essence.

This last difference, however, highlights perhaps the most important and persistent difference between the speakers, one that remained sadly unexplored: a difference over the nature of history. Put briefly, Leithart was skeptical that there is such a thing as a historical essence to Protestantism, at least one that deserves to be jealously preserved. His stirring opening statement invoked a repeating Biblical pattern of creation, death, and resurrection to new creation to suggest that Protestantism is not a diseased form that needs to be restored to its original health, but the historically-necessary senescence of something bound to die and rise again as some new and unforeseen synthesis. (Leithart’s reference to the neo-Hegelian philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested that the Hegelian resemblance is no coincidence). Within such a schema, no historical movement, however necessary, valuable, and more-or-less true, can expect to endure unchanged. Thus, despite the resemblance of his “Reformational catholicism” to, well, the Reformation, Leithart would rather free us from the unhealthy attachment to something ultimately bound for replacement. While for Sanders and Trueman, the future of Protestantism must be an extension (not without any change, of course) of its past and present, for Leithart it will be a new, unpredictable work of the Spirit.

(For the complete video of the event, which was sponsored by First Things, The Davenant Trust, and the Torrey Honors Institute, click here. A downloadable audio recording of the event can be found at WordMP3.)

Bradford Littlejohn, President of The Davenant Trust and managing editor of Political Theology Today, received a Ph.D in Theological Ethics from the University of Edinburgh.

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