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Littlejohn Reviews Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast

TCI contributor Brad Littlejohn has posted a very thoughtful review of Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast over at Reformation 21. Some of Mr. Littlejohn’s observations echo my own review which I posted here some time back. Especially important are these remarks:

Leithart’s ecclesiology seems to suffer from the same kind of overrealized eschatology and opposition between church and world that plagues Hauerwas’s, but without any hint of quietistic withdrawal. The resulting juxtaposition raises troubling questions. Whereas for Hauerwas and Yoder, the whole church community stands apart from political structures, for Leithart, believers should fill the halls of power as well, even as “the church” continues to stand over against the state as “an independent polity or order of its own” (63). Do the lay Christians in power count as part of this polity, or is it defined, as in medieval papalism, in terms of the institutional structures of the clergy? Such a worry does not appear altogether unreasonable in light of Chapter 4’s nostalgic and romanticized portrait of medieval Christendom as a time when emperors deferred to “God’simperium” and sacralized violence ceased, as well as Leithart’s lament that the church does not excommunicate wayward politicians enough (110).

 To be sure, Leithart would seem to prefer, as is fashionable in contemporary political theology, to find the political identity of the church not in insitutional structures per se, but in the Eucharist, defining Christendom as “the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity” (63). But the phrase “quasi-civic order” is veiled in layers of ambiguity, and it is not always clear how Leithart understands the Eucharist to anchor this order. Indeed, we are puzzled to find him lamenting the Reformation as a time when “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center. No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.” After all, hadn’t the late medieval church already undermined the “eucharistic center” by its focus on private masses and exclusion of the laity (who only communed maybe once a year, and even then were excluded from the wine)? The Reformers, by contrast, tried (not always with success) to reinstate weekly participation in the sacrament by the whole church community. The influence of Radical Orthodoxy’s narrative of the Reformation is clear also in Leithart’s claim that in the sixteenth century, “The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty. Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war” (66). In fact, “holy war” was centuries-old by this time (as Leithart’s own narrative has already revealed), and Luther’s writings display a repudiation of sacralized politics and holy war at the center of his theological agenda.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.