Back to the Future for Protestantism?

 

Future of Protestantism: Peter Leithart, Peter Escalatante, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman

Future of Protestantism: Peter Leithart, Peter Escalante, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman

 

On 29 April 2014, Biola University hosted “The Future of Protestantism,” a panel discussion comprised of Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman.  Brad Littlejohn gave the introduction and Peter Escalante moderated the discussion.  The event was prompted by Leithart’s essay “The End of Protestantism” which appeared in First Things in November 2013.  The essay generated quite a bit of discussion among Evangelicals and this event was designed for Leithart to have a face to face discussion with some of his critics.

The video is long – two and half hours.  To save time one can skip Brad Littlejohn’s 5 minute introduction.  Pastor Leithart’s presentation is only 15 minutes.  He is followed by Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman whose talks are about twenty minutes each.  This is the first hour.  The second hour consists of dialogue among the panelists.  The last half hour consists of questions from the audience.

I am writing this response from the viewpoint of a former insider who is both critical and sympathetic towards contemporary Evangelicalism.

 

Leithart’s “Reformational Catholicism”

Pastor Leithart’s presentation is a vision of what future Protestantism could look like.  It is based more on theological imperatives than on social analysis.  It is more about what Leithart wants to see happen than what he thinks will happen.  I imagine that if he had more time he might have brought in sociological analysis.  This is not to fault him, but it leads to questions that Leithart will hopefully attempt to answer down the road.

In many ways what Peter Leithart called for is nothing new.  It may be new, even startling, for modern Evangelicals but for those who know something about the original Reformation of the 1500s Leithart’s prescription will sound quite familiar.  Basically, what Leithart calls “Reformational Catholicism” is classical Reformation, one that Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, Bucer and others would have been very comfortable and familiar with.  Furthermore, Leithart’s attempt to reappropriate the early church fathers resembles the Mercersburg Theology and Oxford Movement of the 1800s.

Like most Christian bloggers I usually categorize Evangelicals as Protestants.  However, this understanding must be taken with more than a grain of salt.  Many of the original Reformers would question whether present day Evangelicals are Protestants.  Martin Luther abhorred the notion of rejecting infant baptism and strongly believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.  Luther expected Christians to recite the Apostles Creed daily and to make the sign of the Cross in their morning devotion.  John Calvin strongly condemned those who held to a “bare symbol” understanding of Holy Communion and affirmed the visible church as our Mother.  I became aware of all this when I went beyond popular Evangelical publications and began to read up on the Reformers.  The discrepancy between modern day Evangelicalism and the original Reformation caused me to wonder: Are Evangelicals even Protestant?  If one takes a rigorous theological approach one could deny low church Evangelicals and their Pentecostal brethren are Protestant. Charity and intellectual flexibility are needed to classify modern Evangelicals as Protestant.

If Pastor Leithart is calling for Evangelicals to return to their Reformational roots one has to ask why they do not join up with the church bodies with the most direct ties with the original Reformation, the mainline denominations.  The answer is: For the most part mainline Protestant denominations have become apostate.  Many mainline liberals deny the divine inspiration of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and even his bodily resurrection.  One has to ask: Why have so many of the mainline Protestant denominations and seminaries succumbed to the anti-supernaturalistic rationalism of the European Enlightenment?  In military terms it would be like an embattled battalion retreating to a position that has been taken over by enemy forces.

Evangelicals are the offspring of conservative Protestants who lost the denominational wars in the early twentieth century.  The raging controversies over biblical inerrancy stemmed from the emergence of a new source of knowledge: the autonomous reason of the European Enlightenment and modern science.  In the late twentieth century modern scientific rationalism found itself being displaced by postmodernism.  Will modern day Evangelicalism and Leithart’s Reformational Catholicism be able to withstand the coming onslaught from postmodernism?  I expect that postmodernism will take its toll leaving only a few congregations and seminaries unscathed.  I expect the Protestant brand will still be around by the year 2100, but the content of that future Protestant brand will have been redefined to the point that many of us today will not be able to recognize them as Protestants or even Evangelical!

My pessimism is rooted in what I call Protestantism’s fatal genetic flaw.  Lacking a stable binding hermeneutical framework (Holy Tradition) sola scriptura gives rise to multiple readings of Scripture.  This gives Protestant theology a fluid quality, one that results in theological incoherence.  It also results in numerous church splits as evidenced in Protestantism’s fractured and decentered denominational landscape.  Leithart’s failure to address the sociological consequences of sola scriptura constitutes a serious weakness in his presentation.

The implications for the future of Protestantism are troubling.  The more conservative, classical Protestantism of Luther and Calvin has no future.  It will continue on in declining isolated pockets, while the ahistoric low church Evangelicalism that Leithart deplores will increasingly dominate the Protestant landscape.  Evangelicalism will continue to mutate and adapt to post-modern American/Western society while oblivious to its Reformation heritage.  Pastor Leithart rightly waxes eloquent about the need for Christians to band together but there is little evidence of this becoming a broad trend among Evangelicals and Pentecostals.

 

Getting There From Here

Pastor Leithart’s call for a Reformational Catholicism is fraught with practical difficulties.  He failed to inform his audience how to get there from here.  One, isn’t it likely that a Baptist pastor who institutes weekly communion services and accepts as valid infant baptism will be fired by the church board?  Two, how many independent congregations would be willing to come under a higher church authority with the possibility that they might be forced to embrace foreign or exotic teachings and practices?  Three, who will have the authority to determine doctrine and worship where Scripture is silent or ambiguous?

 

Engaging Former Protestants

One thing that struck me about the conversation was the frequency with which Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy came up.  This raises the question: Can Reformational Catholicism have a future if so many of its best and brightest are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy?  The numbers may be small but the caliber of their intellect is impressive.  We are talking here of pastors and theologians exiting Protestantism!  I wish Peter Leithart had spoken on the irony and significance of Jason Stellman who sought to try Leithart on grounds of heresy only to soon after become Roman Catholic!  Then there is Scott Hahn, a Gordon-Conwell Seminary graduate and Presbyterian seminary professor, who converted to Roman Catholicism.  Francis Beckwith was president of the Evangelical Theological Society until he stepped down as a result of his conversion to Catholicism.

Then one has to wonder about Jarsolav Pelikan, a Lutheran pastor and eminent professor of church history, who late in life joined the Orthodox Church.  The group of former Campus Crusade for Christ staff workers and their followers numbering two thousand joined the Orthodox Church in 1987.  Frank Schaeffer, the son of the famous Francis Schaeffer, became disenchanted with Evangelicalism and became Orthodox.  Michael Harper, who worked with the leading Anglican theologian John Stott, converted to Orthodoxy.  Many other younger, bright and serious men (some being Leithart’s students) have headed to Orthodoxy. Rarely a month goes by without hearing of another settled, mature, thoughtful Protestant church leader who after studying the church fathers headed to Orthodoxy.  (See Journey to Orthodoxy)

Thus, Pastor Leithart’s call for ecumenical cooperation and engagement with historic Christianity – Reformational Catholicism — while admirable will likely have unintended consequences for the very cause he so dearly cares about.  The growing permeability and fragmentation along the borders of Evangelicalism while it enriches also allows for easier exits.  The wave of the future may lie, not with Leithart’s Reformational Catholicism, but with people exiting Protestantism altogether for the ancient communions of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.  This I suspect is the blessing of exposing young Evangelicals to the rich heritage of ancient Christianity.

 

Moving the Conversation Forward

The “Future of Protestantism” is part of an ongoing conversation taking place among those concerned about the future of Christianity in America.  This conversation needs to be continued and also expanded.  A wider range of people need to be brought into the conversation.  “Future of ProtestantIsm” was a Protestant event; one could even say that it was primarily an Evangelical event.  All the discussants hailed from small off shoot denominations: Leithart from the Presbyterian Church of America, Trueman from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and Sanders from the Evangelical Free Church of America.

Missing from the conversation were representatives from mainline Protestant denominations.  I would suggest that Leithart and his fellow panelists ask their mainline Protestant brethren: What accounts for the theological collapse of the church bodies that have the most direct ties to the Reformation?  And, what lessons does the mainline debacle have for Pastor Leithart’s vision of a Reformational Catholicism?

Also missing were former Protestants who have become Orthodox or Roman Catholic.  Due to their bicultural theological backgrounds they can speak knowledgably to Leithart’s vision of Reformational Catholicism.  They could also answer the following questions: After reading the early church fathers why didn’t you remain Protestant?  What compelled you to leave Protestantism altogether?  What compelled you to discard the Protestant principle of sola scriptura?  Many of these converts still regard themselves as Evangelicals and would be quite interested in being part of the conversation.

Robert Arakaki

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21 Responses to Back to the Future for Protestantism?

  1. Bayou Huguenot says:

    I would like to contribute to this conversation, but every time I do I am told “Yeah, but that’s irrelevant.” Fair enough. What is the main line of thought in this post around which comments may converge?

    • robertar says:

      Jacob,

      Sorry for your frustrations with posting comments to the blog. I am happy for you to contribute, IF you have a gracious comment . . . in this case about the ability of classical Protestantism to contribute to the future and provide a basis for Protestant unity. Or how classical Protestants see a net gain against losses to Evangelicalism, something close to the issues at hand. What I am not longer willing to tolerate are snarky digs at Orthodoxy that are off topic to the issue of the blog posted, that are not so much intended to help, but rather score theological points. I pray that you know I don’t mean to be unkind to you. I just want the OrthodoxBridge to be a positive and friendly place that is helpful to sincere inquirers or those new to Orthodoxy.

      I hope you understand.

      Robert

      • Understood. If my earlier comments were perceived as snarky, I had intended them as relevant to the conversation vis-a-vis Protestant/EO church growth.

        To the actual topic: I agree with your criticism of Leithart. I think his project is doomed from the start. That really can’t be understood fully outside the context of the Federal Vision debacle. I actually see Leithart taking the worst elements of all traditions and mixing them together.

  2. Dana Ames says:

    Funny that confab was held at Biola – there is quite the little knot of student and faculty Protestant converts to Orthodoxy there…

    Scot McKnight linked to Al Mohler’s interview of Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas’ answers to the questions put to him sounded very Orthodox – kept coming back to the Church and Tradition (though he did not say the “T” word). Mohler was polite and respectful, but did not get it, and at the end (I think it was commentary for the end of the podcast, after the interview – the transcription does not make this clear) went off into a minor rant about “liberalism.” You might be interested, Robert; it’s a lot shorter than this panel discussion ;)

    Dana

    • robertar says:

      You stole my thunder! :) I was planning to do a short followup posting on the conversation “Nearing the End” between Stanley Hauerwas and Albert Mohler. But thank you for bringing it to the readers’ attention.

      Robert

  3. George milo says:

    Some points that strike me when you gave a brief synopsis of the history of century. And please let me say this is based solely on your post I did not listen to the discussion. I often wonder what Luther or Calvin would have thought of the existential movement and it’s diversions or say the Marxist destruction of the largest Orthodox body in the world, Russia . What I find hard to understand is that the Protestant strength manifested itself in America and if we read as true that God judges nations therefore America was truly blessed for it became the lighthouse of the world. It was progressive to a certain extent in bringing the message of Christ to common man. Now you see the crumbling of the once strong reform churches in favor of evangelical stadiums and tremendous pressure from none religious and none christian being, I think, the real story of decline. Should we turn back time and look for the old or do we as Orthodox make a better effort to synthesis the personal appeal of evangelicals with the holy ritual of orthodoxy. I would agree that going back to Calvinism is done but it’s hard to imagine Orthodoxy or Catholicism growing enough to fill the vacuum that the decline of Protestantism will leave.

    • robertar says:

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge!

      While Communism has been a terrible catastrophe for Orthodoxy in Russia, I would have to disagree with your statement that it destroyed Orthodoxy in Russia. Orthodoxy survived Communist rule and is growing in Russia.

      I don’t think the answer is to turn back the clock. The truth of Orthodoxy is eternal; it is not dated in a particular period in the past. The reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the miracle of Pentecost continues to spill over into history to the present. This is what I found appealing about Orthodoxy. One does not have to keep up with the times because Orthodox worship is rooted in the heavenly worship.

      I’m hoping that Orthodoxy in America will continue to grow and evangelize. Under the leadership of the late Metropolitan Philip the Antiochian Archdiocese grew from 60 to about 240 parishes. While the numbers are small, the percentages are very encouraging. But I will have to admit that it is indeed a daunting challenge for Orthodoxy to fill the vacuum resulting from the collapse of Protestantism.

      Robert

  4. Bayou Huguenot says:

    I think adding an RCC/EO respondent would have been interesting, but it might have made the discussion unwieldy. That said, a sharp Roman Catholic apologist could have nailed Leithart on a number of points. Leithart appeared “iffy” on the Mass. He seems okay with transubstantiation. Historically, both Reformed and Rome would have screamed horror at such a Latitudinarian approach.

    Further, as any good Lutheran knows, Christology and the Lord’s Supper are interconnected. Leithart doesn’t seem aware of these larger issues.

    • robertar says:

      Jacob,

      Your more recent comment submission about the Hodge-Nevin debate does not relate to the Future of Protestantism debate and for that reason has been blocked. Comments that are constructive and relevant to the discussion are welcome.

      Robert

    • Anastasios says:

      It’s true that both the Reformed and Rome have always considered Eucharistic theology a “hill worth dying on”, but that hasn’t universally been the case elsewhere. The Moravians, for instance, would not have had a problem with Leithart’s comments. Historically that group has not had an official teaching on the Eucharist, and members are free to believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or something else, as they see fit. Arguably, though, that’s because the group is rather pietistic and considers dogma secondary to “living faith”, which may not entirely be a positive trait.

      Another interesting aspect about that denomination is that they don’t use the filioque. They are thus the only Protestant denomination whose roots are (indirectly) in the East rather than in Rome. (Czech country was originally Orthodox, then was forcibly made Roman Catholic by its king, the followers of Jan Hus cried foul, and eventually what remained of Hus’ followers formed the Moravian movement several centuries later).

      I’m not a Moravian, but there’s a Moravian church near where I live (it’s about a century old).

  5. John says:

    I actually like that Jacob comes and comments. I find most of his comments that others find irrelevant to be quite the opposite. That he engages here and in a way that isn’t general or broad the way that convert literature usually is (think Conciliar Press’ pamphlets that one usually finds in a parish bookstore). That kind of thing is useful, but Jacob’s comments seem to be digging at something deeper that folks at Orthodox Bridge aren’t willing to dive into. If that is how you want to run your website, Robert, I certainly do not want to come here and tell you what to do. But conversation must go deeper, I think, in order to be edifying.

    I’d also like to say that I am not just some Reformed cheerleader. I am an Orthodox Christian who attends Holy Cross in Dorr, Michigan. While I don’t have the time to engage much of what Jacob brings to the table, I usually am able to follow the conversations that follow from the questions he asks. Why not let him show you how his post is relevant? Perhaps there’s an angle that you’ve missed?

    John

    • John says:

      My apologies. The above should read: That he engages here and in a way that isn’t general or broad (as covert literature usually is) is a good thing.

      I hope that makes sense. I just reread my statement above and some of it doesn’t quite make sense.

      John

      • robertar says:

        John,

        Thank you for voicing your thoughts. I have a partner in running the OrthodoxBridge and we are of the same opinion that sometimes Jacob goes off on a tangent with his comments. He is still welcome to submit his comments. If it is relevant I will post them, if they are not relevant they won’t be posted. This is a joint decision we make, not mine alone. I agree that an open forum for discussion is important but it does not give anyone carte blanche in making comments. As the administrator I have a responsibility for maintaining an orderly and constructive dialogue.

        Robert

  6. David Lindblom says:

    When you write that Evangelicals are not really Protestants because they do not hold to classic Protestant theological positions I wonder if that’s actually accurate. They simply don’t hold to the Luther/Calvin/Zwingli aspect of the Reformation. Seems to me that modern Evangelicals have adopted many of the beliefs of the Radical Reformation. While this movement came a little after Luther and Calvin it was nonetheless a big part of the “Reformation”. In fact, they were REALLY Protestant because they were protesting both Rome and Luther.

    • robertar says:

      David,

      The direct descendants of the sixteenth century Anabaptists are the Mennonites and Amish. To assert that modern Evangelicals derived from the sixteenth century radical Anabaptists is an anachronism. The majority of Evangelicals came out of English Separatism, Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, and Methodism.

      The key thing is that I asserted that if one took a rigorous theological approach it would be hard to categorize low church Evangelicals and Pentecostals as Protestants. Doctrinally, many Evangelicals today are not able to articulate the core Protestant tenets like sola fide and sola scriptura in a fashion recognizable to the magisterial Reformers like Luther and Calvin.

      I have no problem with your point about Evangelicals as Protestants providing that it is based on a loose non-academic understanding. But if you wish to assert that Evangelicals are Protestants in the technical sense then you will need to provide evidence and sources to support your position. You would also need to take into account the emergence of the term “Protestant” at the 1529 Diet of Speyer.

      Robert

  7. David Lindblom says:

    I’m probably in over my head here and you are right in that the original Reformers are probably spinning in their graves over modern Evangelicals. But modern Evangelicals exist as a direct result of the Reformation. While I admit that they are not directly descended from the Radical Reformers they have as I said:

    “Evangelicals have adopted many of the beliefs of the Radical Reformation”

    These include the invisible church, adult baptism upon statement of belief, rejection of any authority of an institutional church, the “great apostasy” of the church etc. So, I’m sure you’re right about them not being Protestant based on very rigorous definitions but then many Lutheran churches would also fail that test. I’m just saying that they are here because of the Protestant Reformation and they have ADOPTED beliefs of the Radical Reformation. I think that makes them Protestant unless you do not consider the Anabaptist movement to be Protestant. Not scholarly but here’s where I was mostly looking at: http://tinyurl.com/phzpnqs (Wikipedia)

    Anyway, this is not a big point really to me so I’ll shut up about it, also I don’t want to get the discussion off topic.

    • robertar says:

      David,

      You’re right: It’s not really a big issue. You and I are on the same page with respect to Evangelicals being part of the Protestant stream of Christianity and that they resemble the Radical Reformation in many important aspects. But the main focus is not the 16th century but the Protestantism of the 21st century. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

      Robert

    • Anastasios says:

      Whether Anabaptists are Protestant or not depends on how you define Protestant. If you define it as synonymous with “low church”, then Anabaptists are Protestant but (say) High Anglicans and Lutherans are not. (There are many Lutherans and Anglicans today who consider themselves “Evangelical Catholics” and reject the Protestant label).

      If you define Protestant as adhering to the 5 solas, on the other hand, then Anglicans and Lutherans are Protestant, but many Anabaptists are not. Quite a few of the Anabaptists rejected sola fide, using the book of James (which Luther didn’t like, but they loved) as their proof text. Some of the more “enthusiastic” Anabaptists (like the Abecedarians, Zwickau Prophets, various millenarian sects, etc.) rejected sola scriptura, considering the Bible a “Paper Pope” and preferring direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, making them sort of proto-Pentecostal.

  8. David Lindblom says:

    OK, you said:

    “Lacking a stable binding hermeneutical framework (Holy Tradition) sola scriptura gives rise to multiple readings of Scripture. This gives Protestant theology a fluid quality, one that results in theological incoherence. It also results in numerous church splits as evidenced in Protestantism’s fractured and decentered denominational landscape.”

    This is one of the best descriptions of the problem I’ve read. It’s short and gets the point right. While there have been break-offs/schisms from Orthodoxy they have mostly withered and died out or remained some small little enclave w/ no influence or much interaction w/ anyone else. The Oriental churches seem to be somewhat the exception but then there is question on whether our split was even legitimate. Whereas w/ Protestantism these break-off groups often grow and prosper and even eclipse their former denomination then someone splits from them an on it goes.

    I’ve also noticed that throughout history the heretical groups seem to always follow a similar pattern, someone w/in the Church decides they have a better way, they gather a group of followers around them and off they go to create their own little church. I would suggest, w/ my limited historical knowledge, that every Protestant denomination all the way back to the Reformers themselves follow this same pattern over and over again. Protestants endlessly repeat the actions of the old heretical groups. It’s like a guy in my church said, what the Protestants call cults (Mormons, JWs etc) are really only different in degree not in kind from the main Protestant groups. They’re all claiming to be more accurate, have better worship, to be more holy whatever….it’s all the same claims.

    I view people like Leithart and co. as being like a guy who keeps modifying his TV antennae. Adding more wire, more prongs, turning it this way and that trying to get that pure signal when all along TV signals are digital. They can never be received by this antennae no matter how much fixing and tweaking are done. The antennae needs to be abandoned. So does Protestantism.

  9. David says:

    I really liked and appreciated Leithart’s speech, and I had many of the same overall qualms. I think, though, that if Evangelicalism continues to fracture and melt away, and a “Reformed Catholic Church” arises from the mire, and we are left with these fewer, yet larger communions to be in conversation with one another, ecumenism may actually get a little easier.

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