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How The Reformation Continues To Fail

Martin Luther Posting the 95 Theses

A Reply to Dr. Peter Leithart’s “How the Reformation Failed.”

Reverend Leithart writes:

The Reformers did not start out with a plan to establish separated churches. Their goal was to reform the entire Latin church. In this they failed….

Some have charged that the Reformers were willing to split the church because they had little interest in visible unity, but that is false. All the Reformers and all Protestant confessions stressed the unity and catholicity of the church. Calvin lamented the “mutilation” of Christ’s body….

As Lee Palmer Wandel ( The Reformation ) has pointed out, the fragmentation of the church was pervasive, deep, and unprecedented. In 1500, the word “Christian” was univocal; by 1600, there were a variety of definitions of the word, and Christians of one sort didn’t necessarily recognize Christians of other sorts as Christians. In 1500, a Christian could travel from one end of Europe to another without fear of persecution; by 1600, every form of Christianity was illegal somewhere in Europe. In 1500, the Latin Mass was the church’s liturgy throughout Western Europe; by 1600, several different, mutually exclusive, Eucharistic liturgies were enacted across Europe.

The division penetrated to families and neighborhoods. Catholics whose children married in non-sacramental Protestant weddings considered their own grandchildren to be bastards. Time was reckoned differently in different parts of Europe: Catholics and Protestants lived in different time zones.

How did this happen? How did a Reformation committed to the gospel, catholicity, and unity shatter the Western church and European civilization?  [Source]


Luther’s Good Intentions

In his recent article “How the Reformation Failed,” Peter Leithart is right to assume Luther had no intention to create a rival Church when he posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church. Yet it must be noted that in the 3⅓ years between Wittenberg (Oct. 1517) and the Diet of Worms (Jan. 1521) much had changed. Facilitated by the the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses and other of his tracts were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and distributed widely across Europe. For example, Luther’s 95 Theses spread through Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in two months!

When he attended the Diet of Worms, Luther was all but certain of his excommunication should he refuse to recant. It is most unlikely that a new Church, at least a separated National Church under his political protector, Frederick the Wise, had not occurred to him. Indeed, the Reformation must not be simplistically reduced to mere theological considerations. The political lust for power and independence was a growing presence throughout Europe’s socio-political realm at the time. In his excellent book, Rock and Sand, Fr Josiah Trenham suggests,

A strong argument can be made that the Protestant Reformation itself was more a land grab by the Protestant princes than about ecclesiastical renewal, and that without their cooperation Martin Luther would have been a flame that quickly ignited, but then rapidly dissipated. (Trenham, p. 8)


Speaking Outside the Bubble

We are thankful that Peter Leithart is a not only a scholar; he is a gentleman as well. He tries to be measured in his writing and analyses. We grant that he sees himself (as one cohort of his is apt to say) “riding the brake” on innovation. His scholarship has broadened his vision so he speaks from outside the bubble of Reformed sectarian purity. Rev. Leithart has given up the glasses of naïveté that so often prevents one from seeing the log(s) in his own tradition’s eye. This has enabled him to observe insightfully:

Yet, the Reformers eventually turned their considerable rhetorical powers against each other, creating stark polarities and treating every dispute as a cosmic war of light and darkness, truth and error. Reformation polemic descended into propaganda, which bolstered the group of identity of separated communions by demonizing other churches. For all the virtues of polemic, Lutheran and Reformed would often have been better served by gentle answers.

Remarks like these are commendable for their insightfulness and courage.


Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

Protestantism’s First Failure

While it is wise to see logs in our own small traditions, we must point out that Pastor Leithart remains unwilling to confront the root problem destroying ecclesiastical unity even among Protestant churches, the departing from Holy Tradition. This problem showed itself some twelve years after Luther’s 95 Theses at the Marburg Colloquy. This historic meeting between Luther and Zwingli provides tragic and telling lesson about Protestantism. Fr. Josiah Trenham’s comments are on point here:

The greatest of these [controversies] took place at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. This official gathering was designed to unify the Protestant theologians, but instead served to express the deepest of divisions between Luther and Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli on the subject of the eucharist. Luther thought his teaching on consubstantiation was the clear teaching of Scripture, and neither could understand why the other was being so hardheaded and disobedient to the ‘clear teaching of Scripture.’ The Marburg Colloquy and Protestant eucharistic controversy revealed the greatest weakness of the Protestant embrace of the doctrine of sola scriptura, and proved the absurdity of any dependence on the clarity of Scripture alone to establish common doctrines. Luther felt very deeply on this matter, and said ‘Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope. Accomplished Protestant leaders like Carlstadt, Zwingli, Oecolampadius in Basel and Bucer in Strasbourg disavowed Luther’s teaching on the sacraments and church polity. We Orthodox Christians are led to ponder: where is the reality of sola scriptura and the perspicuity of Scripture if even those bound by faculty, friendship, politics and faith cannot agree on the meaning of the central Christian act of worship? (pp. 36, 37)

The failure at Marburg – the inability for sola scriptura to generate a unified understanding of Scripture and a shared Eucharist – has been repeated over and over in the history of Protestantism resulting not just in the shattering of church unity, but its pulverization into thousands of Protestant denominations.





Marriage Advice to a Friend

What do you say to a very likeable, knowledgeable and engaging man [hypothetical/ not Peter Leithart!] who is a friend of yours who claims he loves his wife dearly and wants to reconcile with her. But, he refuses to end his open marriage relationships with other women? You tell him as gently but as firmly as possible, “My dear friend, your commitment to your open marriage and other women is destroying any chance you have for marital Unity. You must repudiate and give up this destructive open-marriage commitment.”

Sadly, and all to similarly, Protestant hubris (old & new) seeks a ‘Unity’ centered around their own current & morphing take on sola scriptura. They do so while spurning the Unity which held together the Church through the major controversies in the first millennium until the tragic Great Schism of 1054. There is no Unity that can arise from sola scriptura’s exegetical and ecclesial autonomy. The Church (not autonomous exegesis) is the Pillar and Ground of Truth. Nor will there be any lasting unity without Her renewed centrality as the proper guardian of Scripture.

Thus, we bid our Protestant friends to do what Luther and the Reformers should have done upon leaving Rome and her errors — forsake sola scriptura and return to the One Holy Orthodox Church. Thankfully, it is far easier today than it would have been for them. Lord have mercy.

David Rockett and Robert Arakaki



Peter Leithart. 2017. “How the Reformation Failed.” In Theopolis , April 18.

Lee Palmer Wandel. 2011. The Reformation: Towards a New History. Cambridge University Press.

Josiah Trenham. 2015. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Theology. New Rome Press.


Review – Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism”

An Orthodox Assessment

The Rev. Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church is more than an expanded version of his well known article “Too Catholic to be Catholic.”  Leithart has brought a more nuanced and sophisticated level of analysis to his critique of Protestant denominationalism by drawing on social science literature.  He has done more than criticize denominationalism; he has also provided concrete examples that exemplify his vision of a reunited Christianity.  His writing style – passionate, scholarly, and eloquent – while easy to read, is not lightweight.

Leithart’s book deserves attention because he is on the forefront of a movement of Protestants seeking to reconnect with the Ancient Church while also addressing Protestantism’s tragic divisions.  Another reason for an Orthodox assessment is that Leithart has included Orthodoxy in his quest for Christian unity.  Indeed, Pastor Leithart even addresses part of the book to Protestants who increasingly are being drawn to Orthodoxy – curiously seeking to dissuade them from re-uniting with the historic Orthodox Church!


Breaking Ties With the Ancient Church

It is widely acknowledged that one of Protestantism’s fundamental problems is its divisions.  While most Protestants agree that denominational divisions are not good – division, even divisiveness has historically been its dominant characteristic – starting from the very beginning with Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  Protestants have taken several approaches to the problem of a divided Christianity.  Many Evangelicals posit an invisible Church comprised of all true believers.  What unites this invisible Church is not shared doctrine but the subjective “born again” experience.  Another is the Branch Theory which holds that church unity is found in the three historic branches: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism.

Being a good Protestant, Leithart rejects the claims either of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy to be the true Church.  As a high church Protestant, Leithart rejects the unity of the invisible Church.  What Leithart proposes is that there will be a visible, unified Church in the future.

The unity of the church is not an invisible reality that renders visible things irrelevant.  It is a future reality that gives present actions their orientation and meaning.  Things are what they are as anticipations of what they will be (p. 19, italics in original; cf. p. 26).

This future-oriented ecumenism is not new.  Gabriel Fackre – Andover Newton Theological School’s Samuel Abbott Professor of Christian Theology Emeritus – in an essay written in 1990 described the United Church of Christ’s ecumenism.  This essay  anticipated Rev. Leithart’s future oriented vision of church unity by 25 years.

Diversity is not the foe of doctrine.  It stretches those who honor it toward catholicity.  May we live out the enriching unity we have and toward a larger unity to come (Fackre p. 149; italics in original, bold added).

Pastor Leithart has an evolutionary understanding of the Church in which doctrine, practice, and worship evolve over time.  The danger of Pastor Leithart’s solution is that it entails a parting of ways with the Ancient Church.

One weakness of Protestantism has been its wholesale neglect of church history, especially the first 1,000 years. The ironic tragedy of Leithart’s unified church of the future is that this church would have been rejected and excluded from Holy Communion by the early Church Fathers. Mercersburg theologian John Nevin in “Early Christianity” describes the estrangement between Protestantism and the Ancient Church:

The great Athanasius, now in London or New York, would be found worshipping only at Catholic altars.  Augustine would not be acknowledged by any evangelical sect.  Chrysostom would feel the Puritanism of New England more inhospitable and dry than the Egyptian desert (p. 271).

And, given the many changes that have taken place in recent decades, one has reason to wonder: How many modern day Evangelicals and Protestants would be welcome at the Eucharist in Luther, Calvin, and Bucer’s church?  Readers of Leithart’s book should be aware of the high cost that comes with Leithart’s proposed solution: broken fellowship with the early Church.


A Protestant Solution

For all Pastor Leithart’s sweeping ecumenical vision, his solutions are surprisingly Protestant. Leithart gives with one hand, but then takes back with the other.  At first he “retracts” certain Protestant positions then he quietly reinstates the same Protestant positions.

Mary will be honored as God-bearer.  Saints will be celebrated.  Church buildings will be bright and colorful.  But in the reformed Catholic church, there will be no prayers to Mary, no appeals to the saints, no veneration of icons.  . . . .  Formerly Presbyterian and Baptist churches will paint their walls and put in stained glass (p. 32; emphasis added).

Pastor Leithart remains resolutely Protestant.  This is evident in his flat out refusal to subject the Protestant Reformation to critical scrutiny.

The Reformation recovered central biblical and evangelical truths and practices that Protestants ought not to sacrifice.  Even after Vatican II and the ecumenical movement, even after the joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on the doctrine of justification, many of the traditional Protestant criticisms of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (of the papacy, of Marian doctrines, of icon veneration, of the cult of the saints) hold (p. 169).

While many of the criticisms the Reformers directed against Roman Catholicism were valid, Protestants like Rev. Leithart need to come to terms with the fact that the Reformation took place in the 1500s, a long time after the early Church, and that it has introduced many doctrinal and liturgical innovations not found in the early Church.  The discrepancy between Protestantism and early Christianity is something that Protestants must give account for.


So What’s New?
Reading Leithart’s book brought back memories of my former denomination the United Church of Christ (UCC).  The future church which Pastor Leithart described with moving eloquence in Chapter 3 sounds much like the mild liberalism of the UCC in the 1950s and the 1960s.  In line with the title of his book, Rev. Leithart calls for Protestant denominations and churches to “die,” that is, to cease to exist in their present forms in order for new forms to emerge.  He writes:

We are called to die to our divisions, to the institutional divisions of denominationalism, in order to become what we will be, the one body of the Son of God (p. 165; emphasis added).

Similar language of death and rebirth as a means to church unity can be found in the UCC’s 1957 “The Preamble to the Basis of Union” which reads:

Affirming our devotion to one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our membership in the holy catholic Church, which is greater than any single Church and than all the Churches together;

Believing that denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor and, if need be, die; and

Confronting the divisions and hostilities of our world, and hearing with a deepened sense of responsibility the prayer of our Lord “that they all may be one” . . . . (Emphasis added.)

All that Rev. Leithart has done in End of Protestantism is to update the ecumenical vision of the 1950s that gave birth to the UCC.  So what’s new?


 The Challenge of Liberal Theology

Peter Leithart’s vision of the future church is one where church unity takes priority over doctrinal specificity.  Love and inclusion takes priority over exclusivist fundamentalism.  Theologically, the future church will embrace the rich multiplicity of confessions but with no one confession binding on all.

Confessions, however, will cease to serve as wedges to pry one set of Christians from another.  Confessions will be used for edification rather than as a set of shibboleths for excluding those who mispronounce (pp. 27-28; emphasis added).

There is a subtle disparaging tone here in Pastor Leithart’s understanding of how creeds function to protect the Church against heresy.  He decries what he calls “shibboleths,” but there have been instances when so-called minor differences have had tremendous consequences.  Historically, the Nicene Creed functioned to protect the Church from heresy.  While the Nicene Creed was being formulated, there was a debate over whether the Son was homoousios (same Being) with the Father or homoiousios (similar being) with the Father.  The difference in just one letter – one iota – meant the difference between affirming Jesus’ divinity or denying it.  (See Peter Brown’s article about the iota of difference.)  Leithart’s inclusive approach to creeds, by relativizing the authority of the creeds, opens the door to heresy.

A striking similarity can be seen in the way Pastor Leithart and the UCC both sought to read Scripture in the context of the historic creeds.  Leithart writes:

Confessions and creeds will remain in play.  Churches will unite around the early creeds and will continue to use the treasures of the great confessions of the Reformation, of Trent and the Catholic Catechism, and of the hundreds of creeds and confessions that the global South will produce between now and then (p. 27).

The UCC’s Basis of Union “Section II. Faith” shows a similar inclusive approach:

The faith which unites us and to which we bear witness is that faith in God which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments set forth, which the ancient Church expressed in the ecumenical creeds, to which our own spiritual fathers gave utterance in the evangelical confessions of the Reformation, and which we are in duty bound to express in the words of our time as God Himself gives us light. In all our expressions of that faith we seek to preserve unity of heart and spirit with those who have gone before us as well as those who now labor with us (emphases added).

Gabriel Fackre, one of the UCC’s leading theologians, described the UCC’s approach of using creeds to interpret Scripture in a similar way:

As the scriptures are the source of our understanding of Christ, the historic ecumenical and confessional tradition is a key resource in construing its meaning (p. 141; italics in original).

For those who grew up in the provincial sub-culture of Evangelicalism all this might sound daring but for those who grew up in mainline Protestantism this is familiar territory.  Within a matter of a few decades the UCC’s inclusive ecumenism degenerated into radical liberalism.  For those of us who had to struggle against UCC’s tragic apostasy from historic Christianity Pastor Leithart’s confessional eclecticism strikes us as naive.

Many Evangelicals are unaware of how insulated they are.  They hold in high esteem teachers and pastors for their “unique” and “brilliant” insights into Scripture not knowing that much has been borrowed from others.  What seem to be bold and innovative teachings are often drawn from one of the early Church Fathers or, worse yet, a revived heresy.  This is why knowledge of church history is so important for sound theology.

One of the flaws of the UCC has been its susceptibility to theological liberalism.  When my former home church voted to withdraw from the UCC, I was struck by two things: (1) how so many liberals were enraged at my home church’s decision to exercise congregational autonomy in order to hold to what the Bible teaches and (2) the casual disregard the liberals had towards the doctrinal issues that prompted my former home church to withdraw.  Surprisingly, Peter Leithart devoted very little attention to the threat of Liberalism (p. 78, 178).  This makes me suspect that Pastor Leithart seriously underestimates the danger of liberal theology.  From my time in the UCC, I can say I’ve experienced Peter Leithart’s “reformed Catholic church.” It is like a delightful and colorful Indian summer before the cold grey and grim winter sets in.

I have several questions for Pastor Leithart:

  • When you described the future ‘reformed Catholic church,’ are you not reiterating the mildly liberal United Church of Christ of the 1950s and 1960s?
  • And given the UCC’s later apostasy, what safeguards will your ‘reformed Catholic church’ have to ensure it remains in historic orthodoxy?



Post-Evangelical Eclecticism

The Evangelical subculture in many ways is a closed off, provincial religious ghetto.  Most who grow up within this bubble are all but completely unaware of this rich heritage to be found in the two thousand years of church history.  When they do discover this bigger world many become enthusiastically inclusive and eclectic in their theology and practices giving rise to what many have dubbed “post-Evangelicalism.”  This post-Evangelical shift can lead to a quest for church unity.  Peter Leithart’s ecumenical vision reflects this optimistic post-Evangelical eclecticism.

Former Lutherans will discover fresh insights in the writings of former Mennonites and Calvinists; former Baptists will study encyclicals from Rome with appreciation; former Methodists will deepen their insights into the liturgy by studying Eastern Christian writers.  . . . .  Origen and Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Barth will be remembered and honored (p. 27)

What Pastor Leithart writes above is nothing new.  In my early days, I felt stifled by the literature of popular Evangelicalism, so I was delighted to discover the theological richness of the Heidelberg Catechism and Calvin’s Institutes.  Later, I began to explore Roman Catholicism, reading John Paul II’s encyclicals, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and GK Chesterton.  To balance things out, I also read up on liberation theology: Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff; and contemporary Catholic spirituality writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen.  While I was reading up on covenant theology and Mercersburg Theology, I was also trying to keep up with the Charismatic Renewal.  At first, all of this reading was exciting, but after awhile it became tiring. I was like a tourist constantly on the road, visiting new and exotic locations.  I never really settled down for long, and when I did come back to my Protestant home, I found that the neighborhood had changed quite a bit.  I felt at home with the people of my home church but did not really feel at home theologically.  Many American Christians today likewise drift from one new and grand theological insight to the next, religious nomads looking for greener pastures.

Ancient Chinese Map


Our theological systems are like maps.  They purport to tell us where we came from, where we are at present, and they guide us to where we wish to go – to our destination.  Not all maps are accurate.  As a matter of fact, bad maps will take us into great danger.  One could  collect maps as a hobby, but when on the road, one needs to commit to one good map to reach one’s destination.  Constantly switching maps does no good if one is lost and trying to find the way home.  Post-Evangelicals who enthusiastically read across religious traditions are like avid map collectors.  They may enjoy seeing the wide world out there but sooner or later they will have to decide where their spiritual home is.  Eventually, after reading extensively across traditions, I found myself drawn to the ancient wisdom of the early Church Fathers which helped me discover the historic Orthodox Church.


Jesus’ Prayer for Unity – An Exegetical History

One key premise of Rev. Leithart’s book is that God will fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for a future unified Church (pp. 13, 115, esp. 173).  We read in John 17:

My prayer is not for them alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23, NIV; emphasis added)

Leithart made John 17 foundational to his quest for church unity:

We can know that God will keep his promise to make his people one as he is one with his Son.  Somehow, someday, reunion will happen, because the Father gave his Son to make it happen (p. 26).

To achieve anything resembling this vision, every church will have to die, often to good things, often to some of the things they hold most dear.  Protestant churches will have to become more catholic, and Catholic and Orthodox churches will have to become more biblical.  We will all have to die in order to follow the Lord Jesus who prays that we all may be one (p. 36).

But does Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 apply to Protestantism’s divisions?  To answer this question, we need to look at how historically the early Church Fathers interpreted this passage.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) understood this reference to unity as an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity.  In Of the Christian Faith Book 4 Chapter 3 §34 he writes:

But who can with a good conscience deny the one Godhead of the Father and the Son, when our Lord, to complete His teaching for His disciples, said: “That they may be one, even as we also are one.”  The record stands for witness to the Faith, though Arians turn it aside to suit their heresy; for, inasmuch as they cannot deny the Unity so often spoken of, they endeavour to diminish it, in order that the Unity of Godhead subsisting between the Father and the Son may seem to be such as is unity of devotion and faith amongst men themselves continually of nature makes unity thereof.  (NPNF Vol. X, p. 266, cf. p. 227)

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) understood Jesus’ reference to his unity with the Father as an affirmation of his role as divine Mediator.  In his homilies on the Gospel of John Tractate 110 §4 Augustine notes:

And then He added: “I in them, and Thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”  Here He briefly intimated Himself as the Mediator between God and men.

But in adding, “That they may be perfect in one,” He showed that the reconciliation, which is effected by the Mediator, is carried to the very length of bringing us to the enjoyment of that perfect blessedness, which is thenceforth incapable of further addition. (Homilies on the Gospel of John; NPNF Series I, Vol. 7, §4; p. 410)

In The Trinity Augustine understood John 17:21 to be an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity and his office as mediator.  He writes:

This is what he means when he says that they may be one as we are one (Jn 17:22)—that just as Father and Son are one not only by equality of substance but also by identity of will, so these men, for whom the Son is mediator with God, might be one not only by being, of the same nature, but also by being bound in the fellowship of the same love.  Finally, he shows that he is the mediator by whom we are reconciled to God, when he says, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected into one (Jn 17:23).  (The Trinity Book 4, Chapter 2 §12; p. 161; Transl. Edmund Hill; italics in original, bold added; NewAdvent.org  On the Holy Trinity Book 4 chapter 9)

The context for mediation here is that unity between God and sinful humanity, not a unity among rival denominations.

Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200/210-258) received a letter (date 256) from Firmilian, the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, which contains a reference to John 17:21.  Firmilian used the passage to affirm the Church’s unity in the face of geographic separation.  He also understood John 17 as referring to the Christian’s union with God.

And this also which we now observe in you, that you who are separated from us by the most extensive regions, approve yourselves to be, nevertheless joined with us in mind and spirit.  All which arises from the divine unity.  For even as the Lord who dwells in us is one and the same, He everywhere joins and couples His own people in the bond of unity, whence their sound has gone out into the whole earth, who are sent by the Lord swiftly running in the spirit of unity; as, on the other hand, it is of no advantage that some are very near and joined together bodily, if in spirit and mind they differ, since souls cannot at all be united which divide themselves from God’s unity.  “For, lo,” it says, “they that are far from Thee shall perish.” But such shall undergo judgment of God according to their desert, as depart from His words who prays to the Father for unity, and says, “Father, grant that, as Thou and I are one, so they also may be one in us.” (Epistle LXXIV §3, NPNF Series 2 Vol. V, pp. 390-391; emphases added)

The controversial Alexandrian theologian Origen (c. 185-c. 254) interpreted John 17:21 in light of Neo-Platonist philosophy.  In De Principiis he describes how the end will be like the beginning.  He notes that where the Fall consists of humanity and creation lapsing into complexity and diversity, the end will consist of the restoration to unity promised in John 17:21 (ANF Vol. IV, De Principiis Book I, Ch. 6 §2; pp. 260-261).

John Chrysostom (c. 344/354-407) notes in Homily 82 in the series on John’s Gospel that verse 21 refers to concord among the Christians and that verse 23 means that peace has greater ability to persuade men than miracles (NPNF Series 2 Vol. XIV, p. 304; New Advent Homily 82).

To sum up, a review of early Christian writings fails to show anyone interpreting Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 in a manner similar to Rev. Leithart’s.  This lacuna – the failure to consider other possible readings of John 17 – raises significant questions about the validity of Pastor Leithart’s exegesis.  The absence of patristic precedence suggests that Leithart’s ecumenical reading of John 17:20-23 is a novelty.  This in turn suggests that he has wrongly applied the Johannine passage to the Protestant predicament of division and denominationalism.  The dubiety of Leithart’s exegesis turns his future-oriented ecumenism from inevitable to improbable.  If the biblical basis for Rev. Leithart’s evolutionary ecumenism is flawed, then it needs to be revised or even discarded for another approach to church unity.

Is Closed Communion Divisive?

Pastor Leithart laments the “divisiveness” of closed communion (p. 170), but he should take into consideration the benefits of closed communion.  Historically, closed communion, by protecting the Church against heresies, upheld the unity of the Church. Interestingly, Protestant churches have overwhelmingly (until recently) taken their cue from Calvin, Luther, and other Reformers who practiced closed communion. It was not until the 1970s that open communion became widely accepted in Protestant circles. In other words, Leithart’s call for open communion is a novelty at odds with historic Protestantism and ancient Christianity.

Receiving Communion in the Orthodox Church is a sign of one’s sharing the same faith with the Ancient Church as well as with fellow Orthodox believers today.  What makes this possible is that every local Eucharistic celebration is carried out under the bishop who is part of the chain of succession going back to the Apostles.  For example, the local Greek Orthodox parish through its bishop has a direct historical link to John Chrysostom and the Ecumenical Councils.  The local Antiochian Orthodox parish through its bishop has a direct historical connection to John of Damascus and Ignatius of Antioch. This historic connection is something no Protestant church can claim due to the schism underlying the Reformation.

Pastor Leithart is more than welcome to partake of Eucharist at an Orthodox church providing he is willing to accept Apostolic Tradition and come under the teaching authority of the Orthodox bishops, the successors to the Apostles.  But if he wishes to hold on to the doctrinal innovations of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s then he should accept the fact that he has chosen to walk in a different tradition.  Protestantism and Orthodoxy are not theologically compatible.  Where many Protestants view theology as negotiable, for the Orthodox Apostolic Tradition is a treasure to be safeguarded for future generations until the Second Coming.


Leithart’s Questions for Inquirers

The solutions put forward by Pastor Leithart seem to be intended for the divisions within Protestantism.  He does not devote much attention to Protestantism’s differences with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  However, he looks askance at Protestants who are interested in Orthodoxy.  To Protestants contemplating conversion to Orthodoxy, Leithart posed two questions:

  • “What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople?”  and
  • “Are you willing to start eating at a eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome?” (p. 170)

My answers to Rev. Leithart’s questions are as follow:

  • With respect to the first question, I would say: “I am deeply indebted to Protestantism for introducing me to the Bible.  I am looking forward to joining the Church that gave us the Bible.”
  • With respect to the second question, I would say: “To be Protestant is to be cut off from eucharistic fellowship with the Ancient Church.  It is regrettable that Reformers have rejected certain key doctrines that were affirmed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  Your proposed solution is intrinsically schismatic, even if that is not the intent.”


What Defines Orthodoxy

Pastor Leithart is under the mistaken impression that Orthodoxy defines itself on the basis of differences with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (p. 38).  The starting point for his paradigm of church history is the Church being broken into many pieces – while we all have different pieces of the puzzle; no one has the whole picture.  This forms the basis for his evolutionary approach to ecumenism which assumes that the various parties should come together and negotiate theology.  Implicit to this view is theological relativism; in this paradigm there is no doctrinal orthodoxy that holds across time and space.

. . . all disputants must acknowledge that we see through a glass darkly, now only in part.  We should all be ready to be corrected by brothers and sisters, whatever tradition they inhabit.  We should all do theology with a prayer for brighter, more comprehensive light (p. 173).

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has a different starting point.  What defines Orthodoxy is fidelity to Apostolic Tradition. This is the Tradition of the Apostle spoken of repeatedly within Scripture (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 1:13-14).  This is THE Faith once and for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).  The phrase “once and for all” means a one-time only giving of Apostolic Tradition, not a progressive, gradually evolving of the Christian Faith.  Athanasius the Great summarized the importance of Holy Tradition for Orthodox identity:

But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called. (Epistle 1 to Serapion §28)

Orthodoxy insists on keeping the Apostolic Faith intact – unlike Roman Catholicism which has added to Holy Tradition and Protestantism which has rejected parts of Holy Tradition.  This can be ascertained through a comparison of the Orthodox Church today with the Ancient Church. Leithart’s evolutionary approach is radically at odds with Orthodoxy’s two thousand years of safeguarding Apostolic Tradition.

To readers who find Pastor Leithart’s vision of a reunified church that includes Orthodoxy appealing, I want to say in all charity and truthfulness: “That’s not going to happen.  We’re Orthodox; we don’t change.”  This means that those who wish to remain Protestant should realize this means walking on a separate path from Orthodoxy.  We can have friendly relations, but we will not share in the Eucharist.  I am not opposed to what Leithart referred to as “strategic alliances” (p. 64).  This is very much needed as we move into a post-Christian American culture.


My Assessment

Despite his commendable intentions, Peter Leithart’s End of Protestantism suffers from several serious flaws.

First, Leithart’s evolutionary approach to church history creates a division between present day Protestantism and the Ancient Church.  The notion of an embryonic Apostolic Faith is nowhere to be found in Scripture or in church history. The Faith, once and for all delivered by the Apostles to the Church, was never assumed to be an infant or immature Faith that continually morphs and evolves throughout history. They understood it to be a mature Faith from the start.  Many Protestants are unaware that their doctrines and worship would bar them from receiving Communion in the Ancient Church.

Second, Leithart’s book provides a dubious Protestant solution to a Protestant problem. His refusal to even consider relinquishing Protestant beliefs serves only to reinforce the schism with the Ancient Church.  For example, none of the Church Fathers taught the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  While the early Church Fathers did affirm the authority of Scripture, they taught Scripture IN Tradition.  With sola scriptura the Protestant Reformers introduced the novel notion of Scripture OVER TraditionBy jettisoning Holy Tradition, sola scripura opened the door to Protestantism’s hermeneutical chaos and the unprecedented proliferation of denominations. It is only with the repudiation of sola scriptura and the return to Apostolic Tradition that Protestantism can find healing for its divisions.  Protestants longing for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church need to break out of the Protestant paradigm of sola scriptura and embrace the paradigm of Apostolic Tradition. 

Third, Leithart’s proposed Reformational Catholicism sounds very much like a repeat of the ecumenical approach taken by the United Church of Christ which has since succumbed to theological liberalism.  Church history contains many valuable lessons.  It behooves Pastor Leithart and readers of his book to heed the warning from the tragedy of the UCC lest they repeat the UCC’s ecumenical disaster.

Fourth, the premise underlying Leithart’s ecumenical vision – John 17:21-23, is based on a novel reading at odds with historic exegesis.  Because Protestants revere Scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God, they value the right interpretation of Scripture.  The questionable exegesis underlying Pastor Leithart’s ecumenical vision should give thoughtful Protestants pause.

Fifth, with respect to Protestantism’s schism with Orthodoxy Rev. Leithart’s greatly underestimates how his Protestantism sabotages any attempt to reconcile the two traditions.  Protestants need to realize that they are walking in a tradition separated from Ancient Christianity.  In 1672, the Orthodox Church in the Confession of Dositheus formally condemned Reformed theology.  The formal conciliar nature of this rejection of Protestantism is something ecumenists like Leithart cannot avoid.  Peter Leithart’s optimistic future oriented ecumenism holds that the two paths will one day meet up but this review has raised issues that call this into question.  Leithart has not taken seriously the difficulty of merging Protestantism with Orthodoxy.

Indeed, Protestants must come to terms with their duplicity toward the early Church, particularly the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. One cannot at one and the same time mine gems of theological truth and wisdom from the Church Fathers then later scorn and vilify them as idolaters or immature theologians. 

As a theological map Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism is flawed.  It will likely take its users into dangerous territory and cause them to waste valuable time that could be used more productively. There are two alternative paths to the future for the reader.  One is to exclude Orthodoxy from Leithart’s ecumenical vision.  This is the path if one wishes to hold on to one’s Protestant identity.  The other is to be willing to measure Protestantism against the Ancient Church and being open to making changes in light of Ancient Christianity.  In addition to the example of Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox, there is the more recent example of Joseph Gleason in the article “A Calvinist Anglican Converts to Orthodoxy.”

“Who’s your bishop?”


A Thought Experiment

Imagine that Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons appear at Pastor Leithart’s church in Birmingham, Alabama, one Sunday morning. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, Apostle Paul’s home church (see Acts 13:1-3).  He authored several letters just before his martyrdom around 98/117. Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons, a city on the western edge of the Roman Empire.  He was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of Apostle John, and wrote Against Heresies prior to his martyrdom circa 195. Both men lived in the second century shortly after the Apostles had passed on and were known for their zeal in defending the Christian Faith. What would they say to Leithart over coffee after worship?

Likely, Ignatius’ question would be, “Who is your bishop?”  As a good Calvinist, Leithart’s answer would be: “We don’t have bishops.  We’re Reformed Presbyterians.”  Ignatius’ follow-up question would likely be: “But you do know that without a bishop’s approval you don’t have a valid Eucharist?  You would know this if you read my letter to the Smyrnaeans.”  Irenaeus would then chime in, “Reformed Protestants?  I never heard of these words.  Is this part of Tradition received from the Apostles?  I was talking with one of your parishioners and he told me that the Protestant Reformation began in the 1500s!”

Let us say that a little later bishops Ignatius and Irenaeus were to sit down for lunch with the local Orthodox priest with Pastor Leithart joining them.  In the course of the meal Ignatius would ask the Orthodox priest: “Who is your bishop?”  The priest would quickly answer: “His Grace Bishop Alexander of the Diocese of the South of the Orthodox Church in America.”  Irenaeus would follow up with, “Do you teach the Tradition of the Apostles?”  The priest would answer: “Our church home page has this statement of purpose: ‘The community is committed to keeping the Faith as transmitted by the Apostles to the first Fathers of the Church and preserved in the Holy Orthodox Church.’” At some point Pastor Leithart must reckon with the reality. First, the saints of old would find the innovations of Protestantism strange and at odds with Apostolic Tradition.  Second, they would recognize the historic Tradition of the Apostles preserved and guarded in the local Orthodox parish.  A sobering reality indeed for Protestants.


Protestantism’s End

We are thankful for Protestant men like Pastor Leithart who seriously seek Church unity and wonder if the title of his book tells us more than he intended?  If Protestants are truly sincere about uniting with Orthodoxy, they would need to embrace the Orthodox Church in all its fullness and historicity.   This, to play on the title of Leithart’s book, would mean the end of Protestantism.  It can be done.  Peter Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox tells how a group of Evangelicals transitioned from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.  The transition was not easy.  Returning to the Faith of the Ancient Church required their relinquishing certain Protestant beliefs, but in 1987 some 2000 Evangelicals were received into the Orthodox Church.  Readers who wish to know more about what is involved in transitioning from Protestantism to Orthodox will find the article “Crossing the Bosphorus” helpful on the theological and practical levels.

Robert Arakaki



Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Unintended Schism: A Response to Peter Leithart’s ‘Too Catholic to be Catholic.’”  OrthodoxBridge (12 June).

Robert Arakaki.  2013.  “Crossing the Bosphorus.”  OrthodoxBridge (15 January).

Athanasius the Great.  1951.  The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit to Bishop Serapion.  Trans. and ed., C.R.B. Shapland.  Uploaded by Mark Walley 2014.

Augustine.  1991.  The Trinity.  Translator, Edmund Hill, OP.  New City Press.

Peter Brown.  2014.  “The Homoousios Controversy and Semi-Arianism.” Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicea and Constantinople.  (Version 7 updated 5 October).

Fr. Stephen Andrew Damick.  2013.  “‘A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic?’: Evangelicals Reaching for Tradition.” OrthodoxyAndHeterodoxy (25 June).

Gabriel Fackre.  1990.  “Christian Doctrine in the United Church of Christ.”  In Theology and Identity: Traditions, Movements, and Polity in the United Church of Christ.  Edited by Daniel L. Johnson and Charles Hambrick-Stowe.  Pilgrim Press.

Peter Gillquist.  2010.  Becoming Orthodox.  Conciliar Press, 3rd edition.

Joseph Gleason.  2013.  “A Calvinist Anglican Converts to Orthodoxy.”  JourneyToOrthodoxy (24 October).

Peter Leithart.  2016.  End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.  Brazos Press (a division of Baker Publishing Group).

Peter Leithart.  2012.  “Too Catholic to be Catholic.”  First Things  (21 May).

John Williamson Nevin.  1978.   “Early Christianity.”  Catholic and Reformed, pp. 177-310. Editors, Charles Yrigoyen and George Bricker.  The Pickwick Press.

Andrew Tooley.  2007.  “Emerging Church: Evangelical or Post-Evangelical Pioneer?Catalyst ( 1 November).

United Church of Christ.  “Basis of Union.”

Brian Zahnd.  2013.  “A Premodern Sacramental Eclectic.”  BrianZahnd.com (24 June)

See Also

David George Moore.  2016.  “End of Protestantism (a review of Peter Leithart).”  Jesus Creed (22 October).

Kris Song.  2016.  “Is This the ‘End of Protestantism?’ A Review of Peter Leithart’s Latest Book on Church Unity.”  The Two Cities (27 October).

Fred Sanders.  2016.  “Does Protestantism Need to Die?”  Christianity Today (21 October).

Douglas Wilson.  2016.  “The Purported End of Protestantism.”  Blog and Mablog (2 November).



Evangelicalism Falling to Pieces?

2016 State of American Theology Study,” a survey sponsored by Ligonier Ministries and carried out by LifeWay Research, gives an intriguing and sometimes disturbing overview of what Americans believe.  Care was taken to ensure that the 3,000 people who took part in the survey reflected the U.S.’s diverse population.

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-11-34-35-amThe results of the survey have generated considerable discussion among Protestants.  In a recent article in First Things, Matthew Block bemoaned the spread of heretical beliefs among American Evangelicals.  He notes that among “Evangelicals” – those who hold to core Evangelical beliefs – 71 percent believed Jesus to be a created being and 56 percent believed the Holy Spirit to be an impersonal force.

Mr. Block’s article just scratched the surface of the survey.  Other significant findings include: (1) the majority of Americans (60 percent) agree with the statement “Heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones;” (2) 49 percent of Americans agree with the statement “Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin;” and (3) 77 percent of Americans agree “an individual must contribute his or her own effort for personal salvation.”  (See the Research Report pages 3-5)  To put it another way, 60 percent of Americans are universalists, almost half do not think fornication to be sin, and more than three quarters believe in salvation by works.

While reading the survey findings it is important to note that two groups were being surveyed: Americans in general and Evangelicals.  Thus, it behooves the reader to make sure that the percentages enumerated are applied to the right group.  For example, the findings in the previous paragraph pertain to Americans in general, not American Evangelicals in particular.  One need not be surprised if a substantial percentage of the American public are said to hold deviant beliefs; however, it should be a matter of concern if a similar percentage of Evangelicals hold deviant beliefs.  For example, in the section “Ethics” (Statement No. 39) it was found that only 52 percent of self-identified Evangelicals agreed with the statement that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin – a startling shift away from historic Christian morality.


On the other hand, in another section (Statement No. 18) it was found that the more often one attends church the more likely one is to disagree with the statement that one can contribute to one’s salvation through good works – affirming salvation by grace alone, through faith alone which are core Protestant beliefs.  It should be noted that the graphics are not accompanied by percentages.  For scrupulous researchers this is quite frustrating.

Some Caveats

Readers who wish to examine the survey research and analysis are advised to visit the following sites: (1) the 26 page Research Report (White Paper) which summarizes the findings (2) the 103-slide PowerPoint presentation of survey results, (3) Bob Smietana’s easy-to-read overview, and (4) Ligonier Ministries’ analysis.

I found the survey very informative but noticed one important omission, the religious identity of the respondents.  In the latter half of the PowerPoint presentation, the responses were broken by region, ethnicity, economic status, and age, but not by religious affiliation.  It would be helpful to know how Evangelicals stand in relation to liberal mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, and secularists.  This kind of demographics profile would help make sense of the data especially as America becomes increasingly pluralistic with the rise of the so-called “Nones” and the growth of the non-Christian population.

Another matter of concern is the confusing manner in which numbers are presented.  The Research Report finds that 95 percent of Evangelicals affirm the statement: “The Bible alone is the written word of God.”  In contrast, only 42 percent of the general American population believe that.  However, I find this puzzling because when I add 33 percent of “strongly agree” with 19 percent for “agree somewhat” I get 52 percent.  The inconsistent numbers presented raise questions about the validity of the survey.


p. 15   Link


Evangelicalism Falling Apart?

As a Protestant convert to the Orthodox Church, I found the responses on how Evangelicals understand the church striking.  The responses suggest that American Evangelicalism, at least in its corporate expression, is falling to pieces – becoming increasingly fragmented doctrinally and ecclesially.

p. - Link

p. 19  Link


In response to the question: “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church,” some 59 percent of Americans agreed, while 29 percent disagreed.  In the caption underneath the graphic, LifeWay noted that Evangelicals were less likely to agree, giving the percentages of 42 percent versus 63 percent.  First, even if 42 percent of Evangelicals agree that’s still quite a high percentage that has abandoned the traditional view of the Church.  Second, I have no idea what the number 63 percent refers to.  I don’t think it refers to those who agree versus those who disagree because the total should come close to 100 percent, not the 105 that results from adding 42 to 63.  This is where the LifeWay survey falls short.  Greater precision is needed in the presentation of the findings in order for readers to benefit from the research project.

This devaluing of church membership seems to support the rise of the “Nones” and the “Dones.”  See Mark Sandlin’s article “The Rise of ‘The Dones’ as the Church Kills Spiritual Community” in which he attempts to explain how the current dysfunction in Evangelical churches is alienating and driving away committed people.  In his explanation of the emergence of the “Dones” – unaffiliated believers, Mr. Sandlin writes:

The Church is killing spiritual community or at least killing it in an ever-growing portion of our population. The Dones’ experience with the Church killed their desire to ever go to that place of spiritual relationship in community again.

He elaborates:

The Dones are right. The communities making up far too many churches are much more soul sapping than they are spiritually nurturing.

This growing disenchantment with church life, while quite different from doctrinal orthodoxy, ought to be of concern to Christians.  Christianity’s future in America depends not just on right doctrine but also on life in community.

What really caught my attention were the responses to the question: “My local church has the authority to withhold the Lord’s Supper from me and exclude me from the fellowship of the church.”  Some 45 percent of Christians who attended church on holidays or more frequently “disagreed strongly,” while another 17 percent “disagreed somewhat.”  Those who agreed, strongly or somewhat, comprised only 29 percent.  It seems that Evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ has taken on more extreme forms, with many unwilling to accept the authority of the Church.

p. 20 Link

p. 20 Link

This is contrary to the historic Protestant understanding of the three marks of the Church: the pure preaching of the Word, the pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline (See Belgic Confession, Article 29).  What is concerning about this rejection of church discipline is that it constitutes a rejection of the Church as the Mother of the faithful.  It may surprise Evangelicals to learn that John Calvin believed this.  Calvin wrote:

“For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder,” so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. (Institutes 4.1.1)

Calvin’s high view of the Protestant (Reformed) Church, reflects his qualified view of the Ancient Church. (Calvin alternately praised and scorned the the early Church Fathers — depending on whether they were in agreement with him.)  Cyprian of Carthage, a third century Church Father wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (On the Unity of the Church §6)

The implication here is that in dispensing with Christian life in the visible Church — whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox — Evangelicalism has become doubly estranged from its historic Christian roots: both in the Reformation and the early Church.  As Evangelicalism, especially its Anabaptist variants, take on more extreme positions, it becomes a religion that neither the early Reformers nor the early Church Fathers would recognize as Christian.

Scripture and Creeds

One surprising finding is the positive regard Americans have towards creeds.  There was a largely negative response, 58 percent, to the statement: “There is little value in studying or reciting historical Christian creeds and confessions.”  This suggests an openness to using historic creeds or doctrinal statements to offset the emphasis on private interpretations of Scripture.

The next question then becomes which creed ought to be used?  Each Protestant denomination has its own creed or confessions.  For example, a Lutheran might tout the Augsburg Confession (1530), a Reformed Christian the Westminster Catechism (1646), and the Anglican the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563; see Note 1).  For those interested in the early Church there are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Sola Scriptura?

The authority of Scripture cannot be understood apart from the interpretation of Scripture.  It was found that half of the American population (51 percent) believes that “the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.”  The Research Report (p. 14) noted that only 30 percent of Evangelicals agreed with this.  That as many as a third of Evangelicals hold this view, (as opposed to half of the American public) while positive, should still be a matter of concern.  Augustine of Hippo wrote:

If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.

Augustine here was warning against private interpretation of Scriputre.  It is curious then that so many Protestants love this quote as IF Augustine agrees with their own doctrines and view or the gospel! This is simply not true. As a fourth-century Bishop of the Church, Augustine held firmly to an episcopal form of church government – the local church under the rule of the bishop. This is in sharp contrast to the presbyterian and congregational polity favored by modern Protestants. Augustine believed in authoritative Apostolic Tradition, the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, the sacrament penance, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the possibility of falling from grace, prayer to the saints and praying or the departed — all common practices of the ancient historic Church but which have been rejected and vilified by many of today’s Protestants and Evangelicals. See Joe Wilcoxson’s “Was St. Augustine a Protestant?” This narcissistic private reading of Augustine and the consequent distorted understanding of church history is tragic to say the least.

Much of the independent reading of Scripture can be traced to low-church Evangelicalism.  As a remedy to this Matthew Block prescribes high-church Protestantism.  Where popular Evangelicalism favors solo scriptura — reading the Bible independently of outside sources, historic Protestantism favors sola scriptura — reading Scripture with the creeds and in the larger Church (See Note 2).  Mr. Block writes:

If we are going to address the rise of heresy in our churches, then Christians must rededicate themselves to reading the Bible in community—with the local church, yes, but also with the Church throughout history. If the Bible is truly the authority Evangelicals say it is, then we must also recognize that God has exercised that authority over Christians other than ourselves. The history of the Church, in its creeds and confessions, is a witness to other Christians who have been shaped by and wrestled with the Word of God. (Source)

However, Matthew Block fails to explain why Lutheranism, especially his brand of Lutheranism, offers the best remedy for the ills uncovered by the LifeWay survey.  For all its affirming the authority of Scripture, Protestantism has historically suffered from fragmentation, in terms of doctrine, worship, and polity.  Ultimately, Protestantism’s denominationalism is rooted in the private reading of Scripture implicit in sola scriptura.  For example, one who joins a Lutheran church is following Martin Luther’s reading of Scripture.  With the proliferation of mega-churches and many smaller community churches private interpretation of Scripture has become pervasive among Protestant churches today.  Wheaton College Professor of Theology, Beth Felker Jones, attributes the doctrinal confusion to the rise of pastor-centered churches:

I fear that we’re spending too much time in cults of personality around charismatic superstar pastors, who often focus more on their personal theological idiosyncrasies and pet ideas than on basic Christian orthodoxy. (Source)

Much of Matthew Block’s prescription for the ills of Evangelicalism is sound but does not go far enough.  He prescribes the classical Protestantism of the 1500s but an alternative is Ancient Christianity of the first millennium, e.g., the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers.

What the best of Protestant pastors must confess is this: Luther’s appeal to his own views can easily become the appeal of all sincere Protestants — who can appeal like Luther did to his own conscience and take his own stand even if it differs from Luther’s.  Protestantism is full of little Luther’s taking their own stand for biblical truth giving rise to denominational differences that trouble Protestants who desire a visible unity for the Church.

Implications for the Future of Protestantism

The LifeWay survey poses significant challenges for Rev. Peter Leithart recent First Things article, “Is There a Future for Protestantism?”  In this article Rev. Leithart approaches Protestantism doctrinally and sociologically.  He asserts that as a sociological entity Protestantism does indeed have a future.  He optimistically sketches a future where non-liturgical churches will adopt liturgies, non-sacramental churches will start having weekly Eucharist, and become more open to the rich heritage of historic ancient and medieval Christianity.   The problem is that Rev. Leithart fails to present empirical evidence to support his claims.  If anything, the evidence presented in the LifeWay survey and the analysis by Ligonier Ministries point to the spread of deviant doctrines and a growing disregard for church discipline and common worship on Sunday mornings.  What we see here is more wishful thinking than facts-based realism.

Safe Harbor

Unlike Protestantism, which has been marked by denominational fragmentation, and even more disturbing, the inability to provide doctrinal and liturgical stability, Orthodoxy is marked by a stability that has endured for two millennia.  Protestants tired of constantly changing doctrines might want to seek shelter in the Orthodox Church.  The words of John Chrysostom, the fourth-century church father, still resonate today:

Just as a calm and sheltered harbour provides great security to the ships moored there, so does the temple of God: when people enter it, it snatches them away from worldly affairs as from a storm, and gives them the capacity to stand and listen to God’s words in calm and security.

This place [the Church] is the bedrock of virtue and the school of spiritual life…

You need only set foot on the threshold of a church and at once you are liberated from the cares of daily life.  (Source)

More Reforms Needed?

It is regrettable that Rev. Leithart insists on rejecting Orthodoxy and its ancient patrimony of ancient liturgies, Church Fathers, Desert Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, and bishops who can trace their lineage back to the original Apostles.  He calls for even more reforms for Protestant churches, but who knows where it will take them?  Already much of what passes for “Protestant” churches today would be unrecognizable and abhorrent to the original Protestant Reformers.  Those troubled by the predicaments and quandaries of Protestantism should heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;

Ask for the ancient paths,

Ask where the good way is, and walk in it,

And you will find rest for your souls.”

(Jeremiah 6:16 NIV; emphasis added)


Robert Arakaki


Note 1: Some Anglicans might dispute that the Thirty Nine Articles are a creed, pointing out that Anglican rely on the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  However, the fact that several sources refer to the Thirty Nine Articles as a “doctrinal statement” indicates that it delineates the distinctiveness of Anglican identity in a way that the three aforementioned creeds do not.

Note 2: Keith Mathison coined the phrase solo scriptura to highlight modern Evangelicalism’s divergence from historic Protestantism’s sola scriptura.  See my review of Prof. Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura.


Is There a Future for Protestantism?” by Rev. Peter Leithart.  First Things 13 October 2016.

Survey Finds Most Americans Are Actually Heretics” by G. Shane Morris. The Federalist 10 October 2016.

Evangelicals, Heresy, and Scripture Alone” by Matthew BlockFirst Things, 4 October 2016.

Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies Revisited by Researchers.” by Caleb Lindgren.  Christianity Today 28 September 2016.

Americans Love God and the Bible, Are Fuzzy on the Details” by Bob Smietana.  LifeWay-Research, 27 September 2016.

An Orthodox Remedy for Evangelicalism’s Heresy Epidemic” by Robert Arakaki.  OrthodoxBridge, 11 January 2015.


2016 State of American Theology Study – Research Report by LifeWay Research.

PowerPoint Presentation by LifeWay Research.

State of Theology: Key Findings by Ligonier Ministries.

Orthodox Resources

A Pocket History for Orthodox Christians by Father Aidan Keller.

An Online Orthodox Catechism by Bishop Alfeyev Hilarion.

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