The Future of Protestantism and ‘Reformational catholicism’

debate An interesting debate happened a couple of weeks ago across the pond at Biola University in response to a provocative article Peter Leithart had written concerning the future of Protestantism. In essence he argued for the end of Protestantism with all it’s sectarian and tribal mentalities, and for the birth of a ‘Reformational catholic’ church to be born. The debate/discussion involved Leithart himself along with Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman. You can watch it here:

I think the issue addressed is an important one because it touches on that old and thorny problem of how you draw boundaries regarding who is in and out of the one church of Jesus Christ. Here’s my reflections on how the debate went.

  • I thought Peter Leithart made some powerful points regarding the oneness and expressed unity of the one church of Christ. At points in his opening presentation his call felt almost prophetic. He is clearly grieved by the ever increasing fracturing and fighting within the family. He made the point (and Sanders and Trueman agreed) that in the Reformation the Catholic church was still considered a church – albeit a deformed one. If that’s the case Leithart’s question is to what extent we have a responsibility toward brothers, or is it a problem over there that we have no interest in. Do local pastors on the ground engage with their local catholic, orthodox, and liberal leaders to seek to build unity, and to seek to correct and help? If not, why not?
  • Fred Sanders made some good points about how this debate is perceived on the other side of the Catholic and Orthodox fences. It’s all well and good us wanting to pursue semper reformanda but Russia and Rome aren’t going to be waiting with open arms and warm hugs. Practically it’s difficult to see how a ‘Reformational catholic’ church ever gets off the ground. Leithart responded by saying it’s a bottom up, on the ground, local thing, rather than a top down global thing. Which leads to Trueman…
  • Trueman spoke as a pastor and raised some of the pastoral difficulties with Leithart’s vision. Trueman argued that it’s all well and good finding Nicene and Chalcedonian commonality but in the real world we have to talk to people about why going to the Catholic church down the road isn’t a good idea. For Trueman the issues that the Reformation was fought over are just as important as the issues Nicea and Chalcedon fought over. For Leithart, the Reformation is less important that Nicea and Chalcedon. I have to say I found myself in more sympathy with Trueman on this point.

And here’s three (minor) critiques of how the discussion proceeded:

  • There was a failure to clearly distinguish between the church visible and invisible. Of course there is one church of Christ – one body, one Lord, one baptism – it’s the invisible church of Christ made of up the elect. But there is also the visible representation which is a mixed entity. Some people will say ‘Lord, Lord’ to which he will reply ‘I never knew you.’ Baptism into the Roman Catholic church no more guarantees membership of the church of Christ than wearing a Man Utd shirt makes you a Man Utd player.
  • There was a failure to clearly distinguish between the church as organism and organisation. No-one is denying that there are genuinely regenerate Christians in messed up churches of every stripe. Of course you can be genuinely saved by grace through faith and attend a Catholic, Orthodox, or even liberal church. That’s church as organism. But on the church at organisation level surely we have some bigger concerns. The Catholic dogmas set down in Trent, Vatican I & II have some well dodgy stuff in them. The Pope is still infallible, the host is still venerated, Mary still worshiped, and justification is still a combination of grace and works. It seems to me that if someone in those churches is saved it is because they don’t believe in the dogmas of the organisational church. Church as organism is a fraternal body; Some ‘churches’ as organisations are heretical and even anti-Christ.
  • Minor grump: I perceive that some of Leithart’s vision (and Trueman’s to some degree) is about style more than substance. Trueman made an off hand comment about Presbyterian worship being an ‘adult form of worship’ which got some laughs but felt like a dig at charismatics, Pentecostals, or low church folk. Given those churches are growing fastest globally it wasn’t his finest contribution. Leithart similarly, towards the end, mentions that he wants a church where preachers don’t tell anecdotes or reference the news. Well that’s me out then. Again, that’s a style thing and actually a context thing. Surely Leithart’s vision is for a Reformational catholicity is about more than services for the educated middle classes. Rant over. If you can, have a watch and leave your thoughts in the comments section.




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