THE CHURCHES MUST DIE TO BE RAISED ANEW by Peter J. Leithart August 2014

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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.

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 sixth filling the 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.

Something of the same rhythm continues after the Fall, with God’s judgment a critical addition, with God tearing down in order to build up. After the scattering at Babel, he tears Abram from among the nations and sends him wandering through a land not his own, offering sacrifices at oaks and oases. The Lord midwives his son Israel through the travail of Egypt and carries him to Sinai, where he teaches him to worship in his tent and live in the land of promise. Solomon reorganizes tribes into districts and builds a temple, a well-­watered Eden on Mount Moriah, with the king’s palace hard by Yahweh’s. Divided, the people of God take a new name, Israel-and-Judah, until Yahweh tears them from the land of promise and melds them together in exile into one new man, now all Jews, now all “Judahites,” incorporated into the royal tribe. Through the cross and Resurrection, we are all separated from our native tribes and nations and grafted into the people of God, taking the name Christian.

God creates Israel as tribes, then as a kingdom, then scatters them among the nations, then sends them to the nations, each good, each followed by the darkness of the tomb, each bringing good brighter than the good that preceded it. At each juncture, God calls his people to shed old ways and old names, to die to old routines and ways of life, including ways of life God himself has established.

We do not like this. We do not want our world shattered, even if God rebuilds from the rubble. We do not want to die. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it, “Christianity and future are synonymous” because Christians confess that the world ends and begins again and again. Christianity and future are synonymous because resurrection faith alone enables us to meet the world’s end and “to die to our old habits and ideals, get out of our old ruts, leave our dead selves behind and take the first step into a genuine future.”

As we reflect on the future of Protestantism it will not do to say that history is change, that the world is always coming to an end in the straightforward sense that today will become tomorrow. History is not a seamless garment. It has gaps and tears, some quite rough. We know that from our own history. The Reformers reached deep into the Scriptures and the catholic tradition, but they were revolutionary innovators for all that. A world came to an end five hundred years ago, and the Western Church was reborn in an unprecedented form—as Catholic-and-Protestant. New kinds of Christians began to appear for the first time, with new names like “Lutheran” and “Reformed” and “Anglican.”

But if God is alive, why would we think that the Church reached its final form in 1517 or 1640? Why would we think that the Reformation marks the end of history? Why do we think we can keep these names forever?

We cannot. Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s Church. Luther’s protest against Rome was necessary, and we should reverently say that the division of the Church, like the division of Judah and Israel, like the division of heaven and earth at the beginning, was in some mysterious sense “from the Lord.” Yet if the Gospel is true, this division is at best provisional. Jesus prayed that we would be “perfected in unity,” and this unity must be visible enough for the world to notice and conclude that the Father sent Jesus (John 17:23). Paul told Peter that refusing to eat with Gentiles was an offense to the Gospel and an assault on justification by faith. Jesus is our Peace, who died to make the two into one new man in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The promise of unity is internal to the good news.

We can putter around with counterfactuals: What if the early disputations between Catholics and Protestants had been fruitful? What if Lutherans and Reformed had mended fences by 1600? What combination of theological principle, myopia, politics, and pride prevented it? Reconciliation might have happened sooner. But it didn’t.

Now, however, there are signs that reconciliation is possible. For a century already, the ecumenical and liturgical movements have been chipping away at the old divisions in dogma and ritual. With regard to the proper role of ritual and ecumenical passion, I have often thought it my vocation to play a role in dragging conservative American Protestants, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. Yes, the twentieth, that’s not a typo.

That century was one of ecumenical awakening, something we’ve been participating in even if too often unaware of—or unable to admit to ourselves and our congregations—the consequences. In the U.S. we have seen a foxhole ecumenism develop during the culture wars. Evangelical Protestants—historically the most anti-Catholic sector of the American Church—meet vibrantly faithful Catholics on the pro-life picket line, while Catholics realize that their best allies for upholding the definition of marriage happen to be Evangelicals. Old boundaries become permeable as theological differences get swallowed up in co-belligerency.

What happens at the picket line happens in seminaries and pastors’ studies. These days Protestant pastors read papal encyclicals for edification, and Western Christians discover unexpected wealth in the works of Orthodox liturgists. From the Catholic side, Vatican II, for all its excesses and false moves, has made the Catholic Church sound more Protestant because it has become more attuned to common biblical and patristic sources. Swimming the Tiber has become a popular Evangelical sport, partly because of the manifest attractions of Catholicism, partly because the Catholic Church is more hospitable to Evangelical concerns than anyone could have imagined in 1870 or 1950.

Among Evangelicals, the most decisive signal of our new situation is our growing revulsion at the divisiveness of Protestantism. The modern age has seen more than its share of horrors, but none so stupefying as the spectacle of Christ re-crucified in our divisions. The only horror that might rival it is our complacency before this cross. The revulsion I speak of is not war-weariness or relativism; it is a recovery of the New Testament. Evangelicals are increasingly convinced that unity is a demand of the Gospel and that we are complicit in profound unfaithfulness so long as we acquiesce in permanent division. Evangelicals are finally making it into the last century.

The living God has reached into the post-Reformation Church and has begun tearing apart the sagging fences that have mapped our territories and discarding the badges that have named us. This is happening to the entire Church, and for that reason we should not be talking about the future of Protestantism but about the Church of the future. If we focus on the future of our particular enterprise, we perpetuate the tribalism we should renounce. If we rebuild what God is destroying, are we not transgressors?

What are we to do now? What kind of Church will emerge from the cauldron of exile? Each of us necessarily begins from where he is as we enter the future that God is preparing for all of us. I am Protestant, and therefore I must speak as one. Here, then, is my partial wish list—still Protestant in focus, tone, and priorities, but provisionally so, I hope—for the sake of the future Church:

  • Churches where “faith without works is dead” is heard as frequently as “justification by faith.”
  • Preachers who teach the whole Bible in all its depth and beauty and who draw on the whole tradition of commentary as they prepare sermons. The word of God is active, a two-edged sword.
  • Pastors who form friendships with, pray with, learn from, and study the Bible with local Catholic and Orthodox priests, as well as other Protestant pastors. Pastors who take the time to cross the street to befriend a pastor from another denomination. For we are one body.
  • Seminaries where theologians are encouraged to follow Scripture wherever it leads, even if we have to admit that our opponents were right all along. Seminaries that pass on the tradition of the whole Church, rather than flatter tribal instincts. Professors who teach other traditions accurately.
  • Churches willing to give up some treasured tribal slogans and symbols for the sake of unity.
  • Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly, where all the baptized are welcome. Evangelical Protestants who do not consider it “Catholic” to have a regular Eucharist, a sung liturgy, set prayers and responses, dialogic worship.
  • Churches whose members know Psalms as well as any medieval monk, whose hymns and prayers and praise are infused with the cadences of the Psalter. Be filled with the Spirit. Churches with enemies enough to make imprecatory Psalms meaningful. Break the teeth of the lions.
  • Churches that pray for the specific needs of churches from other denominations in public worship and know the specific needs of other churches.
  • Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music.
  • Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the Eucharistic assembly. Do not forbid them.
  • Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness, and patience—but use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy.
  • Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, rather than receiving rebels from neighbor churches. For we are one body.
  • Lutheran pastors who teach obedience (as Luther did!), Anglicans who exercise discipline, jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity, Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition, Baptists who acknowledge hierarchy, liturgical Bible churches.
  • Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where the pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with one voice to civic leaders. Pastoral associations that include representatives of every church—Evangelical, mainline, charismatic, Catholic, Orthodox. Local pastoral associations that discuss theological differences, and do so honestly, vigorously, charitably, striving toward a common confession of the faith.
  • Churches that take the pedophilia scandal, or the upheavals of the Anglican Communion, or the persecution of Orthodox believers as crises among our people—not problems for someone else over there. If one suffers, all the members suffer.

Protestants who recognize that they are already members of a Church where some venerate icons, some believe in transubstantiation, some slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception. For we are one body.

Let’s call the resulting churches “Reformational Catholic Churches.” Will they still be Protestant? Though they will look more like Catholic churches than many Evangelical churches do today, they remain Protestant in many respects. My wish list will appear odd only to those who have lost connection with classic Protestantism.

Yet insofar as definitional opposition to Catholicism is constitutive of Protestant identity, to the extent that “Protestant” entails “of-another-Church-from-Catholic,” insofar as Protestants, whatever their theology, have acted as if they are members of a different Church from Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Jesus bids Protestantism to come and die. For either side to persist in a provisional Protestant-vs.-Catholic self-identification is a defection from the Gospel. If the Gospel is true, we are who we are by union with Jesus in his Spirit with his people; it then cannot be the case that we are who we are by differentiation from other believers.

Some might take this as an exhortation to abandon the passionate pursuit of truth. It is the opposite: If Rome is simply outside, we can leave it to its errors. If we are one body, Rome’s errors are errors in the Church of which we too are members. Brothers correct brothers, and certainly the correction is mutual. It is easy to criticize from a distance; it is much harder patiently to correct family members. Some might take this as an exhortation to “convert” to Rome or Constantinople. Again, it is the opposite: No one has to leave home to become a full member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church, despite Catholic (and Orthodox) claims to the contrary. If I were addressing a Catholic audience, near the top of my list would be the wish that Catholics would abandon—repent of—even the moderated exclusivism of Vatican II. Catholic tribalism is no more defensible than Protestant, no matter that Catholics have a bigger tribe.

Someone once asked me how I respond to the charge that Reformational Catholic Churches do not exist. My response is, “That’s right. They don’t.” There are pockets; any church may become a Reformational Catholic congregation in spirit. But as a visible body it is a Church of the future, a city yet to come. That may be bewildering, but it is where Protestants always are; it is where all Christians ought always to be. One of the great contributions of Protestantism has been our insistence that we walk by faith not sight: Here we have no lasting city. Being a Reformational Catholic Christian is a circus ride, a high wire act with no net but the loving arms of our faithful Father. Christian faith is not safe. Don’t follow Jesus unless you are willing to have your world upended, again and again.

It is only in this faith that we can embrace the death that God demands of us. I dearly hope that Protestant tribalism dies; I will do all in my power to kill it, not least in myself. I long to see churches that neglect the Eucharist blasted from the earth. I hope to see fragmented Protestantism, anti-liturgical and anti-sacramental Protestantism, thinly biblical Protestantism, anti-doctrinal and anti-intellectual Protestantism, anti-traditional Protestantism, rationalist and nationalist Protestantism slip into the grave—and I will not hesitate to turn that grave into a dance floor. Insofar as these are the things that make Protestants Protestant, I am hoping for the death of Protestantism.

But death is never the last word for the Church of the living God, the God who is faithful to death, and then yet again faithful. Christianity and future are synonymous. If Protestant churches must die, they die in faith that they will be raised new, more radiant with glory than ever. For the Creator who said in the fifth and ninth and sixteenth centuries “It is good” will not finish his work until we come to the final Sabbath, where everything will, once and for all, be very, very good.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House, Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct senior fellow at New St. Andrews College. He is author, most recently, of Gratitude: An Intellectual History.