EcumenismTheology & Spirituality

The End of Protestantism | Book Review

Peter Leithart’s latest work, The End of Protestantism, is a grand book. Grand both in the sense that it is imposing and important, but also in its scope. Leithart’s purposes in writing the book are no less than to pray publicly for the unity of the church, outline a biblical theology of God’s actions to unite and renew, affirm the changes of the Reformation, critique the historical outworking of American denominationalism, outline the shifting paradigms of the global church, hail the end of Protestantism, and propose a new vision for the church, all in under 200 pages.

The End of Protestantism is filled with argumentation and critique (as we will see below), deeply concerned with what Leithart believes to be true about the church. However, the book does not come across as spiritually empty or self-righteous. Indeed, Leithart includes himself in his various criticisms of the modern church. The End of Protestantism, contrary to what one might expect by its provocative title, flows out of Christian prayer for the unity of the church. The book begins with Christ’s prayer in John 17, a yearning that his followers “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21).1 This is self-evidently not the present reality of the church, Leithart argues, as “Each disciple [does not] hospitably receive every other disciple, as the Father receives the Son. Each church [does not] dwell in every other church, as the Son dwells in the Father.”2 This reality should pain us, for by Christ’s logic, a divided church appears to the world as a divided godhead.

9781587433771-1The sweep of scripture, Leithart emphasizes, is one that “tells the story of a human race unified, divided, and then reunified.”3 Humanity was originally created in unity, though sin has introduced division. God then called Abram, promising that “the one God would one day bless humanity as one humanity.”4 Through Christ, God has fulfilled his promises, bringing peace to both Jew and Gentile, drawing one humanity into the unity of “God’s triunity.”5 By the Spirit, God calls us into “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The unity of the church is in some sense both a fact (“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”), and a vocation, as God calls us to be “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Phil. 2:2).

The gospel is thus “the good news of reunion, a reunion of God with man and of humans with one another that takes public, historical form in the church.”6 This good news is both a present and future reality. For at the last day, this union will be intensified, as Heaven and Earth will come together as one, and God will once again fulfill his promises to “form humanity into one new man.”7 There is hope in the midst of pervasive disjunction, for God is faithful to his people and to his created world.

And yet, the church’s current divisions, in effect, deny this good news. We’ve chosen to live as if the union of the church was a secondary issue, when in fact it is a gospel issue. Leithart forcefully explains, “If the reunion of humanity has not taken place, Jesus’s death and resurrection had no effect. Unless the gospel comes into social reality as the church, there is no salvation and we are still in our sins.”8 In the face of this splintered church, we are called to reflect what eternity will look like. The eminently quotable Leithart explains, “[The church] is one now because it will be one in the consummation, at the last day. We are what we will be. And we strive to be what we will be. What the church will be is one catholic church. Catholicism is our future.”9

So far, so good. All Christians of any stripe and tradition can at least agree with the basic thrust of Leithart’s biblical theology, prayerful response, and eschatological hope. The book, however, quickly turns hard-hitting and controversial, as Leithart begins answering questions of how did we get here? And, where are we going?

As to the first question, Leithart looks to the Reformation (the book does not concern itself with pre-Reformation divisions). The Reformation created a multitude of unintended consequences that were antithetical to the purposes of the Reformers. The intent of the Reformation, Leithart argues, was “not to destroy Catholicism but to restore it.”10 The Reformers were concerned with reforming the visible church through offering communion to all, revolting against idolatry, restoring true worship, and emphasizing that “to be justified by faith is to trust God’s gracious word of forgiveness, graciously given in the body and blood of the Lord’s table.”11 These impulses and actions resulted in the splintering of the Roman Catholic church. As confessions became solidified and national solidarity was meshed with ecclesial commitment, the divisions of Protestantism became institutionalized.

Looking now to the pluralized American church, Leithart perceives that “denominationalism is the institution of division.”12 Granted, denominationalism has often been marked by “denominational catholicity,”13 such as in interdenominational mission work and parachurch organizations. Indeed, from its origins, the deonominational system had a catholic impulse, Leithart argues, leaving “Christians free in conscience while cultivating the blessings of communion.”14 Though the denominational system has born some good fruit, denominationalism breeds racial and socio-economic homogeneity, “symbolic barriers” to one another, and a lack of wrestling with doctrine.15 Leithart makes a forceful comparison, “Christians of different persuasions live peaceably together primarily because they can do so without resolving their differences. I am sure I would have fewer tensions in my marriage if I never saw my wife, but that would be a legal separation rather than a marriage.”16

In one of the most intriguing arguments of the book, Leithart argues that denominationalism is the established church of America.17 He summarizes, “The price of entering the marketplace of American religion is a commitment to subordinate one’s religion to the generic faith of American civil religion, which…reduces to a religion of civility. All religions are tolerated, so long as they speak in measured, tolerant terms about other religions.”18 Denominationalism fits right at home with American civility, as we can each tend to our own without truly being concerned with the other. A Christianity that caters to individual preference, mono-colored comfort, and mere toleration is not the true church.

So, where will we go from here? Leithart’s answer blends the descriptive and the prescriptive, seeing certain trends of the American and global church as opportunities for the future church to emerge. Leithart sees a plethora of reasons for why the denominational structure is beginning to fracture. These include the spread of non-denominationalism, an increase in consumer culture in Americans’ choice of church attendance, the rise of the “nones”, cross-denominational agreements on certain moral issues, and most importantly, the spread of global Pentecostalism. All of these indicators, Leithart believes, “reconfigure the church and provide opportunities to approximate more closely the unity that Jesus prays for.”19 This point is perhaps the most unpersuasive of his book, for it is unclear how signs of increased disunity, such as Leithart’s argument that Pentecostalism breaks apart the “Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox” triad, could bring about a single unified church. One might just as persuasively argue that non-denominationalism and consumer choice strengthen, rather than weaken, the walls of denominationalism’s divisions.

Leaving these arguments aside, where should we go from here? Leithart recognizes that his description of the signs of the times may be flat wrong, but that would not mean that his prescription for the future church would also be misguided. To remedy the tragedy of the church’s institutional divisions, Leithart argues that what the church needs is to move forward to a new Church. This proposal Leithart calls “Reformational Catholicism,” a Church that will unite all Christians and denominations, therefore marking the end of Protestantism. This future church will consist of four key elements.

First, the Reformational Catholic church will first be “One and Catholic” as the names of Baptist, Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic would no longer be our names. “Each congregation will view itself as a congregation of a single, global communion of congregations. Each congregation will pray for the others that it knows, and will pray continuously for even deeper and broader unity among Christians.”20 The church will also practice what Paul Murray calls “receptive ecumenism,” in which “every Christian tradiition is as ready to receive as to give.”21

Second, this future church will be biblical. The whole Bible will be taught, the entire tradition of biblical commentary and theology will be drawn from, and insight will be gleaned from all confessions and creeds. Absolute doctrinal uniformity is not the aim here, but “the difference between dogmatic decision and speculation will be clearer.”22 No doubt, this will require “more theological battles in the reunited church,” as “Christians of different views will have to learn to live together.”23 Permit me to quote Leithart at length:

In the reformed Catholicism of the future, “faith without works is dead” will be heard as frequently as “justification by faith.” Seminary professors and theologians will follow Scripture wherever it leads. Theologians trained in what used to be the Reformed tradition will acknowledge the stress the Bible places on human choice and will not try to sidestep the many passages out of the New Testament that speak about apostasy. Theologians who have cut their teeth on Arminus wil acknowledge that the Bible teaches predestination and that Paul did write, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (Rom. 9:15) and “He hardens whom he desires” (v. 18)… Formerly Lutheran pastors will teach obedience (as Luther did!). Formerly Anglican churches will exercise discipline. Jolly former Presbyterians will develop a reputation for levity, former Pentecostals will be attuned to the Christian tradition, and former Baptists will acknowledge hierarchy.24

Third, the future church will be sacramental and liturgical. The future church will confess sin and be forgiven, the Bible will be thoroughly sung and taught, the Lord’s Supper will be celebrated weekly at the climax of the service, all “infused with a Pentecostal energy, a spiritual liveliness.”25 All baptized Christians, no matter one’s age, will celebrate the Eucharist. The future church will also follow a unified calendar, will honor Mary as God-bearer, and will celebrate saints. However, “there will be no prayers to Mary, no appeals to the saints, no veneration of icons.”26

Fourth, the future church will be a “Metropolitan Church,” visibly united in a “local and global communion of pastors and overseers.”27 The Church will be interconnected such that each congregation recognizes each other’s discipline of its members, each church “will recognize that if one suffers, all the members suffer.”28 No church will compete for membership. As a result, the future church will have a unified public prophetic voice.

So, in the midst of this undeniable division, what do you think of Leithart’s proposal for the future church? Is he correct about the weakening walls of denominationalism? Beyond this blog, how can we live into Christ’s prayer that his church be one? I would love to dialogue with you in the comment section.

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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