Thoughts on The Future of Protestantism

Protestantism

I am still trying to process the essays and interchange at “The Future of Protestantism” (video) roundtable held at Biola last night. If you are unfamiliar with what I am referring to, the Torrey Honors Institute, Davenant Trust, and First Things co-hosted an event where Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman responded to Peter Leithart and an essay that he wrote last year on the future of Protestantism. City of God friends Peter Escalante and Brad Littlejohn were both involved as moderator and organizer, respectively.

All in all, I enjoyed the interchange. Each of the conversation partners, and the moderator, had distinct personalities that made watching and listening a pleasant experience. The added element of following on Twitter with the hashtag #protfuture was also good, as people with varying perspectives on ecumenism shared thoughts and concerns. The humour over the Other Peter’s mustache was also quite hilarious—it felt a little like Dali was in the house!

I have sympathies with Leithart’s concern for a publicly visible unity of God’s people. I also agree with him that the traditional Protestant understanding about the Church of Rome is that she is a true church but has become deformed (to use the language of some participants last night). The question that I continue to wrestle with, however, is: at what point does a church cease to be a church? It strikes me, based on what Leithart said about Jehovah’s Witnesses, that an “in/out” boundary is found in the formulations of the ecumenical creeds. Thus, if a church ceases to believe in the Trinity or deity of Christ, it is no longer a true church.

However, Galatians 1:6-10 indicates that the boundaries should be tighter than Trinitarianism or Christology and should include concerns about the gospel (would Leithart say this is tribalism?). Leithart points to N. T. Wright’s definition that the gospel is only a declaration about Jesus Christ as Lord, not justification by faith. While I agree that the gospel is not less than a declaration about Christ’s lordship, it is certainly more, and is deeply bound up with justification by faith. Or, to view it with another soteriological lens, how do I a sinner become reconciled to God? Is it by my own work or merit? Or do I trust in what Christ did in his propitiatory sacrifice and his resurrection on my behalf? Based on his words last night, I would think that Leithart would have to say, ultimately, that it does not matter. If Protestants and Catholics effectively share the same gospel—that is, that the gospel is only a declaration of Christ’s lordship—then it does not matter whether my works contribute to my reconciliation with God or not. Because of Galatians 1:6-10, I can’t escape the fact that Paul would anathematize such a view. Is he not the one who elsewhere said that the gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes, Jew or Gentile? Is he not the one who linked the “good news” (euangelizometha) and “justification” (dikaiothenai) in Acts 13:13-52, esp. v.38? This is what brings about eternal life.

I do not doubt Leithart’s genuine desire that Protestantism should develop a higher liturgy. I too would love to see the Eucharist become more central than it is in many denominations. When I visit my mother’s Reformed Baptist church back home, they practice weekly Communion, and I am deeply blessed by that. I would also love to see Protestants have a more robust and Reformed understanding of the real presence. But as I listened to the discussion last night, so much of that part of Leithart’s discussion felt like a veil, masking the core question of what is the gospel? The Roman Catholic Church and Reformed Protestanism hold fundamentally different views about the gospel. Sure, we share the ecumenical creeds, but that is not enough.

One might also ask, what about those Protestant traditions that are purposefully low-church? Is it wrong to not want the accouterments and trappings of medieval Christendom? What about the Salvation Army, or Black Gospel churches? What about churches in other countries on other continents that express their worship according to different cultural norms? Leithart’s vision seems to be heavily indebted to historic European forms of worship.

These are the thoughts jumbling in my head as I come away from last night’s discussion. Leithart’s vision, if it is stripped of the admittedly important, yet also secondary issues of worship, seems to be the ecumenical message that has been in vogue for the last hundred or so years. I have yet to be convinced by that movement, and I remain unconvinced by Leithart—as interesting as I often find him.