I am pleased to publish this guest review from Dr. Coyle Neal of Southwest Baptist University.
Has the modern church reached the point in history where it is time to set aside the albatross of denominations and embrace a “Reformational Catholicism”, wherein the divisions created by the Protestant Reformation (and to a lesser extent the Great Schism*) are overcome in a wave of Christian unity? Peter Leithart argues in The End of Protestantism that, at the very least, we ought to be moving in that direction.
“Jesus prayed that the church would exhibit this kind of unity: Each disciple should hospitably receive every other disciple, as the Father receives the Son. Each church should dwell in every other church, as the Son dwells in the Father.” (1)
(I interviewed Dr. Leithart about the book for The Christian Humanist podcast.)
At the outset it must be noted that several of his specific points about the state of the modern Evangelical church (especially in America) are spot-on. Leithart rightly calls for:
- An end to the consumerist approach to the church (79);
- An end to the American Religion (83-87);
- A deeper understanding of the relationship between prayer and doctrine (173);
- An end to the false caricatures we make of Catholics (175);
- A deeper (i.e. “any”) liturgy in Evangelical worship (179-180);
- A higher view of the Lord’s Supper (181);
- More cooperation between pastors and between churches in local communities; (182-189);
- Exercise of consistent church discipline (throughout);
Even more than these specific points, Leithart’s overall argument is exactly right In the most technical sense possible. Given its beginnings, we all should be praying and working for “the end of Protestantism.” Protestantism started off not with the goal of establishing a legion of denominations, but with the goal of restoring right doctrine and practice to all of those who claim the name “Christian.” In this sense, we should desire to see an “end” to Protestantism. That is, we should long to see the Roman Catholic Church (and all who claim to follow Christ) set aside its perversion of the Gospel and embrace Biblical truth. I can’t argue that Leithart is incorrect so far as this argument goes.
One last strength of the book: Leithart’s writing is engaging and lucid. The End of Protestantism follows a coherent and orderly plan that strives to be rooted in a consistent interpretation of Scripture. Were I reviewing this book on the merits of its style alone, I would have little but good to say about it.
With all that said, The End of Protestantism is simply wrong in its core argument. Even in a lengthy review like this, space doesn’t permit a point-by-point refutation of Leithart’s main claims—nor am I the person to make such a refutation. Instead, I’m going to focus on two main ideas that undergird the central thesis of The End of Protestantism: church history and justification.
In the “Intermezzo,” the chapter in the middle of the book, Leithart offers a reflection on the pattern that church history follows as God moves us “From Glory to Glory.” (101) In this unfolding view of the history of God’s people, Lethart argues that
“God moves the world from glory to glory by tearing and reuniting. Each time he tears and reunites, he makes the world better than it was before. Time moves forward by periodic deaths and resurrections: worlds take form, decay, and collapse, and new worlds take their place. God makes worlds, dismantles them, and rebuilds. This is the pattern of biblical and church history.” (101)
Leithart’s narrative takes us from the creation event through the birth of the church, touching many Old Testament high points along the way—Adam was born as a son of God, which status was torn apart by the Fall, the Flood, etc, and rebuilt in Noah (103-105); the people of Israel were born out of Egypt under Moses and then torn apart and rebuilt by God under the monarchy (109-112), and so on. Leithart then encourages Protestants not to elevate the Reformation to the status of “end of history,” wherein this pattern is broken for all time:
“For such Protestants, the future of Protestantism can only be more of the same. The only possible future is a future of continued division, denominationalism all the way to the world’s end… Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church. The [denominational] names we now bear cannot be our final names.” (114)
Again, in a sense Leithart is correct that Protestants should not view the Reformation as the point where this pattern is broken—but he is wrong to imply that there is not such a point at all. In fact, the particular pattern of sacred history laid out in the Old Testament is broken at the cross.
This leads to my second main objection: Articulation of how we ought to view the church in The End of Protestantism is ultimately based on a deficient view of the cross; which in turn leads back to Leithart’s view of justification. This view is found in chapter four titled (appropriately) “The End of Protestantism”:
“For Luther, the incarnation—God coming near to offer himself to and for us—is the doctrine of justification…. The Reformation teaching on justification should be understood as part of [their] iconoclast project. To say that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone is to say that God alone justifies solo Christo. 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. Justification by faith cuts through the jungle of the penitential system and the distracting cloud of mediators to the heart of the matter. This is the article of justification: God gives himself in his Son by his Spirit. He gives himself in Word and sacrament… Luther’s answer to the questions ‘Who is the true God?’ and ‘How can I know that I have the true God? ‘ was christological: I know the true God because he has revealed himself; the true God is the one incarnate in the womb of Mary and born at Bethlehem, risen and ascended into heaven.” (45-46)
In the definition of ‘justification’ presented here, the cross and the atonement have been collapsed into the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Christian resistance to idolatry. As Leithart explains it, the origin of the Protestant view of justification is in a response to the gross idolatry of the Roman Catholic Church of the Late Middle Ages, and ultimately to be considered only as a subcategory of the Incarnation. Leithart even attributes this view to, of all people, Martin Luther.**
And again, we have to note that there is some truth in what Leithart is saying about justification—the cross does smash idols. Conscientious Christians can never join in the Popish delusion that leads people to bend their knees before statues and images. (We stand firmly with the Council of Frankfurt of 794 AD—and more importantly, with Scripture—on that particular issue.) Likewise, the Crucifixion cannot be separated from the Incarnation (or the Resurrection, for that matter).
And yet, the book’s reduction of the Crucifixion into an emanation of the Incarnation leads to a shift in the doctrine of the atonement that undermines what Christ actually accomplished on the cross. If God fundamentally and primarily justified us by becoming a man, rather than by becoming a man AND by taking the wrath of God against His people on Himself on the cross AND by being raised from the dead on the third day, we begin to lose Biblical perspective on the true nature of man, the true nature of God, and the work that God did to bridge the divide between those two natures.
The result of this demotion of the Crucifixion from an equal status with the Incarnation in the work of salvation to a supporting role, ironically, is that the Incarnation itself is devalued and becomes a mere matter of God crossing a distance rather than serving as the beginning of God’s redemption of sinners from their sin by entering creation and taking the filth of sin upon himself. When the cross is totally overshadowed, both Gnosticism and Unitarian Universalism become logical extensions of the Incarnation (though this book does not go to either of these extremes—it does open the door for them).
Ultimately we must hold the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in appropriate balance not just because they maintain a theological structure that keeps us from heresy, but most importantly because this is what we read in Scripture. Over and over and over, we learn that we are saved—that we are justified—not just because God became man, but because the God-man shed his blood in our place on the cross; because He was a propitiation for our sins; because He was pierced for our transgressions; because He took my debt, nailing it to the cross.
Salvation without atonement, as presented in The End of Protestantism, becomes a matter of bringing those far away near, rather than bringing the dead to life. Instead of being the center of history that breaks all previous patterns and defines all consecutive events, the actual Gospel (Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection) becomes a mere stage along the way—the thesis to the succeeding antithesis that leads to a higher synthesis, with the central event of history being ignored or lost in favor of mere forward motion.***
(Admittedly, Leithart may be neglecting the cross and the atonement in The End of Protestantism because he so recently addressed them in Delivered from the Elements of the World. Engaging that book is beyond the scope of my review here. That said, the lack of attention to the cross and justification in a book about Protestantism is odd, to say the least—albeit not terribly surprising, given that a robust defense of justification by faith alone or of penal substitution would undermine a good deal of Leithart’s attempted ecumenism.)
But! If the atonement is not a subcategory of the Incarnation (and it isn’t); if one cannot speak the Christian Gospel without in some way describing the great act of propitiation that overturned God’s wrath and reconciled us to God (and one cannot); then we should have a radically different view of church history than that presented in The End of Protestantism. In a church history under the shadow not just of Bethlehem, but also of Golgotha and of the empty tomb, the centuries between the closing of the canon and Christ’s return are to be viewed in a different light—as one continuous part of covenant history that exists in tension between the “already” and the “not yet” and will continue to do so until Christ returns. Where The End of Protestantism draws a false equivalence between the progressive development of covenant history in Scripture and the unfolding of history over the past two thousand years, we ought to see that two thousand year stretch of time as a single historical stage.****
To use several crude analogies to sum up the view of history in The End of Protestantism, the Reformation (1517 AD) is to the collapse of the Roman Empire (400s AD) as the Babylonian Captivity (590s-580s BC) is to the Exodus (1500?-1200 BC?)—that is, these are all distinct eras in the history of God’s people that mark points where the way things had been done in the past is broken and set aside. In The End of Protestantism, just as the Israel that left Egypt was not the same Israel that went into exile in Babylon, so the Christianity of the Reformation was something that had been created anew and therefore was radically different from the Christianity of Late Antiquity. Luther is to Augustine as Ezekiel is to Moses. And so on.
This is not how we ought to view the history of the church after the closing of the canon. To be sure, there is a progression of history in Scripture that we can study using the best tools of Biblical theology; but it is improper to apply those tools to non-inspired history beyond the revealed Word. That is not to say we can’t study church history systematically—we may of course divide the last two thousand years of the church into categories that are convenient for education and discussion. The “Patristic Era”, the “Medieval Church,” the “Reformation,” etc are useful ways to talk about how Christianity has changed and developed over the past two thousand years. But these are no more than conveniences. From a Biblical perspective, all of history from Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ is in the same era—if it weren’t too loaded a term I would say that it is all the same “dispensation.” To put it another way, the difference between Luther and Augustine isn’t the difference between John the Baptist and Moses, it’s the difference between Ezekiel and Daniel. Luther and Augustine are in the same era of church history, despite the fact that they are a thousand years apart.
Why does this matter? Why spend so much time on a theology of secular history? Because the core of the book’s argument is that the time for Protestantism has passed. It was useful—even necessary—in the 1500s, but today we’ve moved beyond the denominationalism that seems to be its logical consequence and are ready for a re-creation of the church. This view can only be held if we believe that there can be a “moving on” from the truth held by a given stage of church history.
On the other hand, if we live in the same stage of covenant history as the Early Church, the Medieval Church, the Reformers, and all other believers from Pentecost until the return of Christ, then we need not be on the lookout for big re-creation events. We may of course enjoy and appreciate revivals when and where they come (and be very grateful for the work that God does through them), but rather than seeing such events as breaking us from other believers and moving us into a newer, higher stage of history, we ought to see them as binding us to our brothers and sisters of the past who live in the same tension between the already and the not-yet. The Reformation, like the Great Awakening, like the conciliar movement of the Late Middle Ages, like all great actions of history are not steps ascending towards a glorious unified future, but are rather retrenchments reaffirming that we all hold the same truth in the already as we wait for the not-yet-arrived glorious future to come to us with the return of Christ.
And if that combination of tension (between the already and the not-yet) and unity (between all Christians from Pentecost until now) is the filter through which we look at church history—and I believe it is a Biblical filter—then what we see is that one of the common themes is the division of believers into “denominations.” The name has not always been there, but there have always been Christians who agree on the Gospel (so we’re not talking about actual heretics like the Arians or the Mormons) but who have such different practices and methods that they do not join with each other in regular communion. This did not start with the Reformation, it stretches back through the Medieval Church (Lollards, Waldensians, the Celtic Church, e.g.) into the Early Church (the Novatians, e.g.).
Leithart is right to point out that this is a condition to be bewailed, and that we ought to look forward to the time when Christ returns and the church is made whole. The point of this too-long review has been to say that he’s wrong to see this division as a stage in the development of church history, rather than as the condition we live in until the anticipated end of church history arrives.
So, long review short, I cannot endorse The End of Protestantism in its main argument, though much of what Leithart has to say is otherwise true and useful.
* Leithart engages a large spectrum of denominations and religious affiliations in this text. I am by and large going to ignore his comments about Eastern Orthodoxy not because I don’t have thoughts on the subject, but because it is so large and complex a system of churches that it would take a separate review in itself to do the matter justice. Instead, I’ll just point you towards Timothy Ware’s book The Orthodox Way as a great place to begin reflecting on the nature of Orthodox Christianity. My comments will be confined mostly to the groups that I am more familiar with, including (in addition to several Protestant denominations) Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and Pentecostalism.
** I’m tempted to spend time defending Luther on this point, as Leithart is out-and-out wrong in his presentation of Luther’s theology. However, this work has already been done. Leithart is quoting Luther’s sermons on John 6, which he finds in a book called The Catholicity of the Reformation, and which is summarized in this First Things article. This article is refuted (successfully, in my opinion) by James Kittelson in the work Caritas et Reformatio; Kittelson’s argument is summarized here. If you want my short version of it: any interpretation of Luther that talks about justification without discussing penal substitution is either 1) discussing pre-conversion Luther; or 2) wrong. The Catholicity of the Reformation, and, by extension, Leithart, appears to be both.
*** I don’t know if Leithart is intentionally drawing on Hegel or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he is.
**** I know, I know, “stage” is a crude way to put it—but I’m not a philosopher of history. This gentleman is, so you might find a better term in his work.
Dr. Coyle Neal is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. He is also co-host of the City of Man podcast.