A hopeful reflection on the Leithart, Sanders, and Truman ‘Future of Protestantism’ conversation


I had a wonderful time watching this lecture/debate last night with about 15 friends on a big screen. Yes, that’s what some of us do for fun around here. Yes, there was beer. This is my summation of the conversation with some reflections.

Peter Leithart’s proposed future of Reformed Catholicism tends to elicit swift “yeah, but” reactions from all quarters. The reason is because the scope is so epic and powerful, but the details are not articulated and may contain thousand-year gaps. This leaves plenty of space for the imagination to try and fill in the space and to easily conjure insurmountable obstacles.

In describing his vision during the forum last night, Leithart began with the first day of creation, and how the separated light and darkness was good, but not good enough because on the second day God divides the firmament from the waters below. This narrative continued on with bright new beginnings of impossible births and rescues following long dark nights of exile and persecution. Protestantism’s current hyper-divisionist state is the latest in a string of nights to be followed by an even more mature day – perhaps not “very good” yet, but more good than anything before. It is a grand and sweeping history with a more unified future we are participating in somewhere at this moment. It’s definitely a forest rather than trees angle.

Focusing on just one tree then was critic Fred Sanders. He was friendly, and funny, and very practical – giving many good examples of growth and challenges in his local corner of Christianity. At the end of the day, he is happy with how things are going in his evangelical/Baptist tradition and is eager, as a professor teaching old books, to dig into the church fathers and Reformers to keep us on track. And the end of the day though, he doesn’t see any need to become substantially more catholic than the small amount he already is. The division is a drag sometimes of course, but is more or less necessary and our real problem is with the powers around us that have no fear of God, right? Leithart is kind of off in left field with this fantasy ecumenicism. Jesus doesn’t need that to accomplish all the important stuff in the lives of individuals. As he later suggested in a follow-up piece, uniting the church may “not be as high on His to-do list”.

Finally, splitting the difference somewhere was Carl Truman. He expanded the scope, not to the bold range of millennia, but to a good 500-year time frame, drawing on his understanding of world history, and the original writings of the Reformers. In this he found himself more sympathetic to Leithart’s hope, (he is after all, looking at an entire hillside of trees, to continue that analogy) but unable to reconcile this with his personal, pastoral, on-the-ground experience. At the end of the day, he just can’t see this “Reformed Catholicism” happening. Why? Because quite literally hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics and Orthodox don’t give fig about the most basic doctrines of the church. How can we have unity with so much nominalism? How can I help the hurting people in my congregation by shifting the focus to corporate (catholic) solidarity? (Can’t) It seems that the evangelical focus on the individual and assuring them of their salvation through faith in Christ alone is the only thing that turns people’s lives around. I had better stick with that and the Reformers were and are a good resource for keeping on track with that. The other traditions? Not so much.

A few observations: Leithart’s vision really is crazy. It’s certainly not something human’s could accomplish, for a hundred different reasons, not least the sociological, psychological, and even theological reasons that the critics here presented. But this IS something the Holy Spirit of the living God could accomplish. In fact, He has perhaps done far wilder things in the past. Let us not fear that such a dream is utterly impossible just because we cannot articulate the proper tactics.

Despite the differences, there is more unity going on now that we may admit. One student during the question and answer section essentially said to the panel, “Come on guys, we all know Roman Catholics aren’t really Christians, right?” Across the board he was given a negative answer. It was pointed out that even Calvin considered them part of the body, despite numerous problems. There was no disagreement on that point on the panel. What a difference from what I was consistently told growing up! In my tradition, Rome was only ever a bogey-man and the Orthodox virtually from another planet. Leithart pointed out earlier that despite our differences, Catholics share so much more affinity with Evangelicals now than anyone thought possible just 100 years ago.

Brad Littlejohn, who helped organize the event also pointed out that as far as the secular world is concerned we ARE united! In our commitment to the resurrection and our unwavering opposition to infanticide and homosexual union, our denominational differences melt away. Strangely, we have become auto-united in the eyes of modern west by their own hatred of us. (Talk about a backfire!) This has become increasingly clear in just the past 5 years. Again, there are other forces at work here than our church leaders having a friendly pow wow now and again. Persecution or just marginalization could do wonders to bring us together, and that not of ourselves, but a gift, like everything good.

In conclusion, I want something like Peter’s vision to come to pass. I know everyone out there can articulate a list of perfectly reasonable reasons why it won’t work. So can I. But I think we serve a Creator who can make those obstacles evaporate and who may very well desire his children to have such greater unity.

I desire it. The division of the body is still very unsettling to me. I hope what Peter speaks of is possible. If I use my imagination, I can come up with some ways that it seems to be. I have only a tiny sphere of influence, but I can do something there. I will continue to disavow tribalism, even while openly acknowledging differences. I will start by thinking the best of my brother and sister, rather than to begin with suspicion. Oh, and if I’m going to pick just one thing to fight for, it will be weekly communion. Ha! Hasn’t happened yet. At the same time, I really appreciate Carl Truman’s realism and I think that on the ground, my approach to life and ministry will not end up looking so different than his. There’s only so much of life I can bite off and chew and it is likely I will be like the prophets who “longed to see” Jesus (Matthew 13:17), but died before having a chance to meet him. That’s OK. I can still trust Him because resurrection is built in to this plan.

The used bookstore haul


I love the used bookstore. Sometimes I find almost nothing, but days like this make up for it. The books crisscross  from classic to obscure and from fabulous to pretty ridiculous.


A call to amplify Easter

Well, Easter 2014 has past and for my household it was in most ways just like any other week. The Sunday service at church took several hours of extra preparation to get the music right, get everyone dressed in special clothes, and to prepare a lot of food for an elaborate late lunch. The scripture readings and prayers I do with the kids in the evening were varied and a bit richer than usual in the days leading up to it. So that’s all good, but compared to some other Christian traditions, we barely made a dent in Holy Week.

Last night, I talked to a good friend of mine who is a traditionalist Roman Catholic. They do things up right – special services nearly every day of the week, and a 3.5 hour easter vigil with only candles. Then suddenly at midnight on Easter Morning all the lights are thrown on in the church and all the images and artwork and colors – covered and drab through all of lent, are cast off and the Gloria (conspicuously missing during the past 40 days) is loudly sung again. He described how excited his young daughter was when the lights came on that she squeeled with delight. Then everyone began singing. What does this communicate to those present – especially the children? What really matters. What is the most important and incredible thing we do or talk about or celebrate all year? No question: Christ rising from the dead to save us.

The modern evangelical church in the west (of which I am a part) is allergic to pomp and circumstance (loud music and lights excepted). The reason behind this is not at all without merit: overdone ceremony can indeed be a distraction from the Gospel, just as preaching that over-emphasizes the law can also be detrimental. I propose that perhaps an exception should be made for Easter though. Why exactly do we keep it toned down so much that it’s presence is barely a registered spike on the spiritual rhythm of our lives? If you’re going to take a risk and go a bit overboard about something, I can’t think of a better event than the Resurrection. The contrast from the usual low-church activities would make the celebration stand out even more. Can we not do this?

Zahl against tradition

Paul Zahl on tradition, from A Short Systematic Theology:

Tradition is always secondary to the gospel of bood atonement and to the freedom of reason created from it. Huma traditions are a crazy weave of outdated circumstances, past idiosyncrasies, unexamined ideas that have somehow over time accumulated the weight of authority, and passed-down “wisdoms.” These are all another name for law. They bind individuals, and they bind theology. This is what Jesus said about tradition as such:

Why do you [scribes and Pharisees] transgress the commandment of God for the sae of your tradition? …For the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. (Matthew 15:3,6)

What a chronological snob and iconoclast, right? No actually. One has to realize that among protestants and evangelicals, Zahl is actually relatively “high church” and liturgical. That is to say, he is largely a traditionalist. But at the same time, he is declaring that the blood atonement of Jesus, rather than anything we do, or the way we do it, is the thing that really counts. The tradition is at best a great guide and pattern for worship and Christian devotion. On the other hand, it can be just “unexamined” fluff. At it’s worst, it is a stumbling block and distraction from Christ. What ever you may be doing, if it’s substantially getting in the way of the Word of God and the good news, it should be dropped. Keep the traditions that help us tell the story and help us remember. I think this will always require a bit of house cleaning with each generation.

The spirit brings accelerated maturity

A meditation on Luke 1:39-45:

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

The immature John, Prophet preparing the way for the Messiah, leaps in the womb of Elizabeth when the young Jesus is carried through the door. John doesn’t have a loud voice yet (indeed, his lungs are filled with fluid) but he shouts all the same. His mother is listening and even understands his wordless message. She blesses Mary and the fruit of her womb, though she cannot possibly understand what it all means.

It has always been God’s desire for Man (and Woman) to mature. He seems to take delight in slowly nurturing us to greater wisdom and maturity. In the garden, we were like young children – not realizing our nakedness and Adam unable to protect Eve from the serpent. But even though they fall and our cursed, even in the same day, our creator prophecies that they will one day crush the head of the serpent. They will not remain children forever.

But growing up takes a long time, and many lives of men. As our bodies grow tired and then return to dust, our children surpass us, but also fall into the same traps as we watch in anguish. It’s two steps forward, one step back and because our trust is partial, we don’t quite know where we are walking to.

In these times throughout history, the Holy Spirit comes unto certain individuals. And how does his visit manifest in them? Often through a accelerated or temporary maturity. It’s like as if for a moment they are a millennia older and wiser, more like what Adam would have been had he aged enough to have his wits about him.

David will need to fight powerful foes – a frightening task for any man. Yet as just a boy we find him up in the face of a bear, something most modern men would be terrified of. Even his singing is skilled far beyond his years. He is filled with the Holy Spirit.

Solomon was a young man when he asked the Lord for wisdom rather than riches. Why did he not ask for riches? The Holy Spirit was upon him already. What did he get – a divine IQ boost? An encyclopediac brain dump from heaven? No, but rather more of what he already had been given – the Holy Spirit. It’s like he suddenly became 200 years old (and still smart as a tack) rather than 20.

John the Baptizer exhibits this same accelerated maturity. Long before he enters the desert with a hairy face and coat to shout “Behold the Lamb of God!” loudly, we find him squirming mightily near the end of the second trimester. In what other prophet was the Spirit so present in? According to Christ, no one.

Finally, at the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descends on Jesus “without measure” (John 3:34). In Christ, the incarnation, the presence of the third member of the God Head is turned up to eleven and Jesus is like a second Adam. He IS the second Adam, a man perfect and untainted by sin, but also analogous to the first Adam – as he should have been had he matured. Now as first born of the resurrected humans, he returns to his father, leaving the Holy Spirit behind in greater measure than ever before. Our own growth and maturity, though punctuated by death and delays, nevertheless charges forward at a quicker pace than ever before. He will not see his children remain toddlers forever.

The serpent has been used to striking little children and coiling easily around their bodies. In Christ, the tiny dragon met a full-grown man with a heavy shovel and a strong arm. He despairs at the thought of so many more of us, taller than ever, with keen eyes and heavy boots. It is the Lord’s slow and patient gift to us and our race: Life. Growth. Even life unto the reversal of all death.

An alternative to tears

Growing up in evangelical circles and especially amongst charismatics in college, genuine crying was held in high regard. An emotional reaction was typically seen as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s immediate action in your heart – a “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30) moment when our false self was temporarily broken down. Repentance that was not accompanied by tears was suspect. Heck, love that was not accompanied by tears was maybe not very strong. Now of course it was acknowledged that some people (typically males) were not nearly as prone to crying, but even then it was simply a matter of degree.

Our “heroes of the faith” biographies and stories were frequently filled with accounts of foreign missionaries who prayed and fasted until they cried profusely. This was seen as normal behavior for super saints and if you only prayed an hour a day and it wasn’t accompanied by tears, than you holiness was clearly, CLEARLY at a much lower level. Quotes from people like Hudson Taylor were frequently quoted in evangelism training or even seen on inspiration posters:

“Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire.”

Of course, I always felt like a bit of a loser because I didn’t cry that much. Now, I do cry some and even intensely, but it certainly isn’t a regular occurrence. I’d like to think it’s because I keep a level head rather than a hard heart. It’s probably some of both, and a lot of natural temperament and genetics too. I’ve always thought (and felt, ha see what I did there?) that a healthy theology or philosophy of human psyche would take this obvious diversity a little more into account. On paper it sometimes does, but in practice, even in church traditions that downplay emotions, tears (or their absence) still carry a lot of weight in expressing or determining how serious someone’s words are.

And all of that explains why I was so delighted to find this line near the end of the Celtic monastic Rule of St. Columba – the general guidelines for all the monks that served under him.

Thy measure of prayer shall be until thy tears come;
Or thy measure of work of labour till thy tears come:
Or thy measure of thy work of labour, or of thy genuflections until thy perspiration come often, if thy tears are not free.

You get that? Pray until you cry. Heard that one before. Or work so hard you cry (or collapse maybe). OR, if you aren’t the crying type, just pray and work until you what? Sweat. The water might not come from your eyes, but what about your skin? Are you working hard? This is perhaps just as decent an indicator of you sincerity. Colm Cille was a smart fellow to add that aside to his rule. I say we should keep the same in mind.