Peter Leithart's vision for the future/end of Protestantism...

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You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello

("Hello, Goodbye" by the Beatles)

In the prior post "Leithart smokes his peace pipe...," we began our examination of the Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart's call for a twenty-first century ecumenism Leithart and his Trinity House friends hope will lead Protestants to reunite with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Leithart first set about this project in his blog post on the web site of First Things, the journal founded by Lutheran-convert-to-Roman-Catholicism Richard John Neuhaus (I'm a charter subscriber). Note that Leithart titled this first post "The End of Protestantism." This is low-hanging fruit, but let me point out Dr. Leithart did not title his post "The End of Roman Catholicism." Such a title would have been ill-bred among Roman Catholics. And yet "The End of Roman Catholicism" would have been a more fitting title from an officer of the Presbyterian Church in America since Roman Catholicism still holds that the anathemas pronounced against the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone by her own Council of Trent are infallible.

After posting his first salvo, Leithart engaged in a few short online exchanges with one or two men who still remember the Reformation, but mostly his post played well in Peoria and a few weeks later he received an invitation to present his proposal to Bible college students at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Since the speaking engagement was sponsored by a foundation, I assume the trip was all-expenses paid with an honorarium, which is to say Leithart's journey to BIOLA was quite different from Martin Luther's journey to the Diet of Worms.

Leithart gave the talk at BIOLA April 29, 2014, but his original title "The End of Protestantism" had been changed to "The Future of Protestantism." Afterward, BIOLA uploaded a video of the performance to You Tube where it...

garnered more attention. Then First Things recycled Dr. Leithart's piece, running it as the lead article in their most recent August/September 2014 print edition sticking with the new title, "The Future of Protestantism."

This then is the second installment of our examination of Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart's "The End/Future of Protestantism."

Paragraphs One Through Five: "The Future-End of Protestantism":

Protestants often act as if the Reformation were the end of history, the moment when the Church reached its final condition. For these sorts of Protestants, the future of Protestantism can only be more of the same. This cannot be. God is the living Creator, still at work in his world, and that means that the Protestantism of the future will be something new, and, given the pattern of God's creativity, something better(emphases in the original)

In the beginning, God created the world in six days, and each day improved on the previous one. He spoke light, separated light and darkness, and said it was good. Come the next day, and first-day good was not good enough, so he separated the waters below from the waters above and inserted a firmament between. After he tore the waters and called earth to fruitfulness, he said that was good too. Another evening and morning, and again good was not good enough, so he spent the fourth day hanging lights in the firmament, the fifth calling swarming things to swarm in the sea and birds to hover on the face of the sky, the sixthfillingthe earth with animals and creating man male and female in his image. Each day was good, but each was followed by darkness and dawn that made good better. When he finished, Yahweh God pronounced it very good and rested in what he had made.

Dr. Leithart's first paragraph condemns what he declares to be Protestantism's complacency and pride. Beginning with his second paragraph, Leithart tries to use the Bible's account of Creation to support his biblical theology of change—specifically, the claim that the Biblical narrative of Creation is held together by a basic hermeneutical principle of ever-upwards. Wanting to move his readers toward embracing the end of Protestantism as one more positive step in salvation history, Leithart spins the Biblical account of the six days of Creation as the presentation of God's "rhythm" of "improvement." As he puts it, "each day improved on the previous one." Note that word emphasized by Dr. Leithart ending his first paragraph. Here is his hermeneutic:

God is the living Creator, still at work in his world, and that means that the Protestantism of the future will be something new, and, given the pattern of God's creativity, something better.

God's pattern for creation and history is the pattern of "better." "Better."

I don't want to quibble with Leithart over whether he is right to see God's creative work as ever-upwards or ever-better. It's easy to make the case for good to better to best in the six days of Creation. Even so, most students of Scripture point out something else at the heart of God's creative work, a pattern of growing distinction or growing division. Throughout the six days of Creation, we find God doing the very opposite of the spirit of our Postmodern Age. Postmoderns hate distinctions, but Genesis is all about God multiplying them. Divisions and distinctions are at the heart of His creative work. From an earth that was "formless and void," God multiplies distinctions:

God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:4, 5)

God divided the light from the darkness, the day from the night, the evening from the morning.

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (Genesis 1:6)

God separated these waters from those waters.

Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:9)

God divided the waters from the dry land.

The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. There was evening and there was morning, a third day. (Genesis 1:12, 13)

God distinguished this plant from that plant, each "after their "kind."

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years... (Genesis 1:14)

God separated the day from the night, one season from another, one day from another, one year from another. And so it went, distinction upon distinction, separation upon separation, division after division. Why does this matter?

Starting with the history of Creation, Dr. Leithart is constructing a grand narrative of improvement he hopes to use to draw his contemporaries away from their complacency over what he views as divisive religious "tribalism." Leithart tells us that, starting with Creation, history is God's grand narrative of advancement, improvement, growing positives, and progress with the only negative being our resistance to the change God's progress always forces on us.

Making us ready for the end of Protestantism, Leithart initiates us into his view that history has now arrived at the dawn of a new age amazingly similar to the Age of Aquarius which, only recently, was being welcomed to the filth of Haight Ashbury and the mud puddles of Woodstock:

When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
The age of Aquarius, Aquarius

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the minds true liberation

Aquarius, Aquarius

But let's stop and ask a basic question: if we grant that God's work of creation is characterized by steady improvement, why focus on improvement alone, leaving aside the architectonics of that improvement which are separation and division? In other words, God improved His Creation by dividing His Creation, so why doesn't Dr. Leithart use division as the centerpiece of his interpretation of Creation, and then the history of man including the present. Shall we imagine it?

In the beginning, God created the world in six days, and each day improved on the previous one as God did the work of multiplying distinctions and divisions. He spoke light, separated light from darkness, and said it was good. Come the next day, and first-day good was not good enough, so he separated the waters below from the waters above and divided the firmament from them both. Even more divisions followed as He tore the waters apart and called the earth to fruitfulness, each separate from its kind. And each day he pronounced His creative divisions and distinctions good.

Another evening and morning with still more distinctions and divisions needed, so God spent the fourth day hanging lights in the firmament, the fifth calling swarming things to swarm in the sea and birds to hover on the face of the sky, the sixth filling the earth with animals and dividing man from the animals by placing on him alone His Own Image and likeness.

Yet even then, there remained two final creative acts of division: God divided man into male and female and He divided man as male and female from all the rest of creation, speaking to him directly, commanding him to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Each day was good as Creation continued through the divisions and distinctions God used to make good better and better best. When He finished, Yahweh God pronounced the results of all His hard work dividing and distinguishing each thing from every other thing to be very good, and He rested.

Quite a different thrust, isn't it? Instead of Dr. Leithart walking away with a grand narrative of improvement, he now walks away with a grand narrative of improvement through distinction and division. But you know, postmoderns aren't into distinction and division, nor does a narrative of distinction and division lend itself easily to calling Reformed church officers to go back to Rome where, if we follow through on the details of Dr. Leithart's hopeful narrative, we will request that Rome join us in our pilgrimage back to Constantinople.

Yet how could any serious student of Scripture miss the grand narrative of separation and division that forms the backbone of salvation history? Take the Sacraments, for instance: are they not God's graceful means of distinguishing those who belong to Him from those who do not belong to Him? Is it not His purpose to use them to separate His people from not His people? To mark His flock with physical brands of belongingness? Are they not signs and seals of His covenant of grace?

From the division of light and darkness, to the division of man and the animals, to the division of male and female, the fruit of trees allowed and the tree forbidden, the knowledge of good and evil, the angel wielding his flaming sword at the entrance to the garden, the animal sacrifice of Abel and the fruit sacrifice of Cain, the languages of Babel, those inside and those outside Noah's Ark, Abraham getting up and leaving, Cain being loved and Esau being hated, the Land of Egypt and the Land of Goshen, the utter annihilation of the Canaanites by the Sons of Israel—we see there are divisions everywhere and always on every page of Scripture. Moving from Old to New Testaments, they don't stop but continue on with the division between those who are and those who are not born again by God's Spirit, those with the gift of saving faith and those lacking that gift. And what of the the administration of our Lord's sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper—do they not divide?

Then, at the Last Judgement, see our Lord's division of those on our His right from those on His left, those dressed in white robes and those lacking the robes, those at the table of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and those ejected from that table who, at our Lord's command, are cast out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the final division that all other divisions of Scripture warned us of and pointed toward: the division between the tormented of Hell for whom the flame is never extinguished and the worm never dies and the glorious ones of Heaven for whom there is no longer any sickness or death or sadness or crying, but only the bliss of the eternal presence of the Lord our King Who reigns forever and ever.

If Genesis starts and Revelation ends with God's multiplication and enforcement of divisions; if the good-to-better of the first chapters of Genesis is accomplished by distinctions and divisions; if Jesus announced that He came not to bring peace but a sword, not to unite but to divide family members from family members, husband from wife; if the Apostle Paul never stopped warning the sheep of his flocks against the deceptions and depredations of those in their midst who intended to devour the flock; why is Dr. Leithart not singing the praises of division?

When our Lord prayed his great High Priestly prayer, He did not ask His Father to make the church one with the world, nor did He ask His Father to cloud the minds of the Disciples so they could not recognize error, nor did He ask His Father to turn the Apostles into dogs that could not bark.

The unity He prayed for was not the unity of all those baptized in the Name of the Triune God into the Church Visible. Rather, He prayed as follows:

I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours...

I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. (John 17:9, 14-17)

Guarding the purity of the Church's doctrine and practice is the only way to establish or reestablish Her unity and peace.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!