EcumenismReformedTheology & Spirituality

Thinking About Church Unity as a Protestant: A Lot of Questions With Very Few Answers

A little over a year ago, Biola University held a significant conversation called “The Future of Protestantism,” bringing together the influential Protestant theologians Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman. The discussion revolved around Leithart’s controversial article, “The End of Protestantism,” in which he advocated for the death of a particular brand of Protestantism that defines itself over and against Catholicism, is skeptical of liturgy and pre-Reformation interpretation of scripture, and is unwilling to acknowledge a Roman Catholic as a brother.

“Protestantism” (defined particularly according to the characteristics noted above), according to Leithart, must give way to “Reformational Catholicism.” In keeping with the best of Protestantism, a Reformational Catholic, according to Leithart, “rejects papal claims, refuses to venerate the Host, and doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints; he insists that salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith and confesses that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.”1 However, a Reformational Catholic 1) defines herself as much by similarities as differences with Roman Catholicism, 2) will be hopeful of finding common ground with Catholics, understanding that there already exists many similarities in doctrine and practice, 3) sees the problems of another branch of Christendom as their own problems (e.g. Catholic pedophilia scandal) and sees the successes of another branch of Christendom as their own successes (e.g. Orthodox evangelism to Muslims), 4) “receives the history of the entire Church as his history,” 5) seeks wisdom in patristic and medieval biblical interpretation, 6) and is weekly involved in “historic liturgical patterns,” particularly emphasizing the truth that “[Jesus] gives himself as food to the faithful.”2

(As a brief aside, theologically I find this vision very compelling.)

The conversation that ensued at Biola between Leithart, Sanders, and Trueman discussed the theological, pastoral, and institutional implications of Leithart’s vision. Rather than give a synopsis (here and here) or detailed examination of the discussion, I want to simply print the many questions that result from thinking about Church unity as a Protestant. The first five of these questions were raised during the event, the rest are simply my musings.

Q1: Do Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believe there is something to gain by listening to one another?

Here at Conciliar Post at least, I hope that this rings true. I hope that as a result of the conversation over the past year of CP, any Christian of any tradition that writes or stumbles upon this site, can begin to appreciate a theological emphasis or liturgical practice of another Christian tradition. Likewise, although more difficult, I hope that any Christian of any tradition can see a theological deficiency, liturgical problem, or general blindspot as a result of being exposed to other traditions. I’ll say for myself, that I have certainly been edified in learning from the rich theology of the Orthodox in reflection on the incarnation of Christ (which I believe is lacking in the Reformed confessions), and the sacramental devotion and general emphasis on Church unity of the Catholics (which is generally lacking in evangelicalism).

Beyond the shifting theological imaginations of the writers and readers of this site, how might Catholics/Orthodox/Protestants shift institutionally as a result of truly believing that there is something to gain by listening to one another? This question, I admit, feels almost comical to write, given both the mass splintering of Protestantism and the unwavering commitment of the Orthodox and Catholics that they have the untainted Divine Liturgy or Holy Tradition.

Q2: What doctrines/liturgies are acceptable for the hypothetical “Reformational Catholic” vision?

Leithart argues that fundamentally, the Reformational Catholic vision will be predicated on the three ecumenical councils, and an unswerving commitment to word and sacrament. Carl Trueman, a confessional Presbyterian, has the pastoral concern that this vision is too simplistic. For example, Trueman, as a pastor-theologian, longs for his parishioners to be able to rest in the assurance of salvation proclaimed in the Heidelberg Catechism (“I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ”). Might our visions of church unity disallow the flourishing of the distinctives fought for during the Reformation (and subsequent confessional formulations), particularly assurance of salvation?
Leithart, also a Presbyterian, believes in the Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper (link), affirming that the Christian feasts on the ascended body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist spiritually, by faith, through the Holy Spirit. Is there room for this controversial view on the Lord’s Supper within an end-game Church unity? It seems both that Leithart would not see Zwinglianism as a possible view for a Reformational Catholic, and it also seems that no Orthodox or Catholic would be willing to allow for a Cavlinistic view on the Lord’s Supper within their end-goal Church unity paradigm.

Q3: Are we willing to admit and remedy the tribalism that past and present has characterized both Protestantism and Catholicism?

It seems to me that all branches of Christendom are guilty of tribalism. However, as we will see in Q4, it seems that tribalism is inherent to Catholicism. This seems to result in little room for Q1 (is there anything to gain by listening to one another?) to bear any fruit.

Q4: Protestantism allows for a fluid self-understanding, not understanding one’s tribe as the once and for all True Ecclesia. Is tribalism inherent to the ecclesiologies and self-understanding of Catholics and Orthodox?

This questions seems to be true theologically, as in Protestants do not assume an inerrant interpretation of scriptures, an unchanging Divine Liturgy, or a belief that one branch of Christendom has a monopoly on Holy Tradition. This seems to offer a particular advantage to the Protestant seeking unity. However, sociologically and institutionally, I am very skeptical that Protestants can let go of their tribalism. Trueman noted the fact that every week there seems to be another Presbyterian denomination popping up that confessionally subscribes to the Westminster Confession.

Q5: How might we promote local church unity across traditions?

Peter Leithart proclaimed within the dialogue (paraphrased), “If we [the Church] are to be one in the way Christ wants us to be one, we have to be unified in such a way that the world notices.” It seems to me that this is possible in the local context outside of true church unification. The discussion gave one example of certain ecumenical gatherings of church leaders for prayer that exist within some local communities. Though the question still remains, to what extent/how can Christian traditions be unified in the local context, given that we are not truly unified yet?

Here are a few rapid-fire questions that remain:

Q6: Where does the end goal of Church unity leave women that are currently ordained outside of the two dominant traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy? (The conversation was a wholly male affair.)

Q7: How does the end goal of Church unity have implications for racial reconciliation/post-colonial Christians/cultures outside the North American context? (The conversation was a wholly white North American affair.)

Q8: Related, how does a vision for church unity, “Reformational Catholicism” or otherwise, conceive of the global proliferation of Pentecostalism? (The conversation was mostly a Calvinist affair)

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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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