Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Future of Protestantism?

The following was originally planned as part of my series on becoming Orthodox, but in retrospect it hasn't been as significant for my journey as it initially seemed. Nonetheless, the whole conversation sparked by Peter Leithart is terribly fascinating and encouraging, and I might as well share my summary in the hope of sparking your interest. For historical context, this post is set in early 2014, when I was processing through my doubts about Protestant teaching, feeling increasingly concerned about divisions in the church, and just beginning to discover the Orthodox Church (still with significant reservations).

In the midst of all of this terribly important pondering about the divisions of the church and discovery of the fullness of the Orthodox Church, I came across a series of web correspondences on ecumenism that I felt could only have been God-sent. It all started when Peter Leithart of First Things, a Christian journal of religion and public life, posted an article ominously titled "The End of Protestantism". In this article he articulated some concerns with the state of Protestantism that were surprisingly similar to my own: defining one's denomination or tradition negatively (in this case, as not-Catholic); looking down on non-Protestants as somehow less than true, "Bible-believing" Christians; focus on individual salvation; a selective take on Christian tradition; a narrow, modern view of biblical interpretation; "low-church" worship that is indifferent or even hostile to liturgy. He advocates instead for "reformational Catholicism", embracing our common ground with our Catholic brothers and sisters, opening ourselves to other traditions, Christian liturgy, even (though not without some bewilderment) the allegorical method of interpretation used throughout much of Church history. It was an ear-opening call for ecumenism, a promising vision of how we might at least move towards closing the gaps between Christian traditions, beginning with admitting the false turns we have taken as Protestants.

A reply came from Fred Sanders of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, titled "Glad Protestantism". He wonders if Leithart wasn't setting up a "deplorable Protestant" strawman to contrast with his bright depiction of the near-mythical "Reformational Catholic". He accuses Leithart of some inconsistency in adopting such a negative view of Protestantism largely for its negative view of Catholicism: "You don’t beat the man of ressentiment by resenting him harder." He tries to show how the kinds of riches of the Christian tradition Leithart says are wanting within Protestantism are really there—for those who look. There is no need to jump ship: "What bothers me about 'The End of Protestantism' is that it gives people like this the message that the trailhead to the great heritage cannot be picked up in their own church. The trailhead must be in some other church or denomination. Leithart’s unfortunate language effaces all signs of the trailhead, covers the tracks that we could follow back, demands a leap." Lastly, he points out that Leithart may be redefining the very term 'Protestant' in a new, negative way: "Wise readers will pick up on the tiny clue here, that the whole point of actual Protestantism (when it’s not having a new meaning forced on it as a term of abuse) is to claim the full heritage of the church while making necessary adjustments in recent deviations."

In his response to Sanders, Leithart wonders if they might merely be disagreeing over language. Both of them find the kind of Protestantism described in Leithart's original post deplorable; Sanders simply objects to the use of the unadorned term "Protestant" to describe it. Neither is he trying to commit a "catastrophic act of mass silencing" of the Reformation tradition in favor of what came before. His focus is on the present situation: call it what you will, but the kind of Protestantism his original post described does exist. What do we do about it? In response to Sanders' accusation of "beating the man of ressentiment by resenting him harder", he says, "I wonder, What is one to do about trends in the church that we regard as 'deplorable'? Should we deplore them? Can we deplore without running the risk of a squint, a stoop, and a cramp?" He clarifies that he never meant to say that the trailhead to authentic Christianity cannot be found in Protestantism; rather, "my aim was to show that Protestants can embrace the whole as heirs of the Reformation, that we can remain Protestants while avoiding the “deplorable” errors of Protestantism."

Eventually, someone had the idea of inviting Leithart to Biola, along with Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, to continue this conversation face-to-face. A summary (with link to the whole two-and-a-half-hour panel) can be found here; Brett McCracken's summary post was what introduced me to the whole conversation. Leithart repeated his point that, "insofar as it defines itself in opposition to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, Jesus bids Protestantism to come and die." He wants Protestants to view Catholics as our brothers (albeit estranged) rather than criticizing them from a distance. He believes that God's creative work in His Church is not done yet and compellingly expresses a vision for a "Church of the future" in which its present divisions are healed. To this end, he gives a "partial wish list" of twenty things he imagines in this Church of the future (summarized in McCracken's post), which is overall an excellent vision of ecumenism and humble willingness to admit error in his own tradition.

For his part, Sanders takes a slightly more conservative tack, calling for Protestants to reclaim the full heritage of their Christian identity much as his students at Biola learn to do. Referencing 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ("all things are yours"), he outlines the value of exploring Christian tradition and calls Protestants to look for the two principles of scriptural authority and salvation by faith throughout. Overall, it is one of the best affirmations of tradition I have heard from a Protestant. Trueman is more of a Christian historian than a theologian, and he agrees that classic evangelicalism (not merely the modern neo-evangelical movement that has taken over the term) has the resources to meet Leithart's critiques. He also takes a pastoral stand for the potential impact of this conversation on pastoral ministry, expressing concern that the proposals of "reformational Catholicism" will obscure the basic solas of the Reformation on which the people of the local church stand for their assurance of salvation.

In his response, Leithart agrees with Sanders' backward-looking vision of classical Protestantism as based on two principles, seeing no incompatibility with his forward-looking vision of the "Church of the future"; he is critiquing Protestantism as it all too often is, not as a set of doctrines. He examines ways different churches often try to collaborate which are often "frictionless", involving little in the way of substantial conversation of comparison of traditions. He raises the perennial conversation behind ecumenical conversations: how do you set the boundaries of who is "in" or "out" of the Church? In his broader definition, he is not denying the core truths of the Reformation, but relativizing them, seeing them as less than mandatory (but still desirable) for the "true Christian". He repeats his call to Christians everywhere to repent of tribalism and to see Christians belonging to other traditions as family, not simply "those people" who get things wrong.

I didn't share much of the panelists' loyalty to Protestantism, but their critical thinking about the bad fruit of their tradition and openness to other ones was immensely refreshing. I learned even more from this humble, reconciliatory attitude than from their actual conclusions (though I still hold up Leithart's "partial wish list" as a great set of guidelines for Protestant churches to pursue ecumenism). I highly recommend that you watch at least part of the conference for an example of how Protestants (or even all Christians) can seek after church unity in the midst of seemingly endless division.

Looking back at this conversation, I think I can still learn much from it. Leihart critiques from within Protestantism many of the things I have called attention to from without. As an Orthodox convert, I am probably at a more real risk than ever of defining my faith in terms of what it is not. Leithart's dream and Sanders' measured responses challenge me to embrace my new tradition with gratitude, but simultaneously not to make it out to be more perfect than it is, and to be open to learning from other Christians of various stripes, as I will cover in the conclusion of my series. As well, the conversation is a challenge for Protestants to look and live up to the fullness of their historical heritage, which is simultaneously a decisive step towards Orthodoxy.

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