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Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Fred Sanders on Leithart

In addition to Peter Escalante’s critique of Peter Leithart’s recent essay, I would also like to point out Fred Sanders’s response. One observation is particularly on the mark:

The most misleading thing in the essay is that it is a massive act of catastrophic silencing, covering over the witness of the Reformers and their heirs. Leithart leaps over the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries of confessional Protestant theology and spirituality, suggesting that there’s nothing there worth investigating. For the purposes of this essay, he’s constructed a new dark ages, though a shorter one and a more recent one. On the far side of the chasm is something called Patristic and Medieval Land; and on this side is an anti-Catholic bigot serving the Lord’s Supper in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. But there’s nothing between them, so choose you this day.

The way this essay is set up reminds me of an awkward stage some of my undergraduates go through. They come to Biola from good families and good churches, and we give them, along with all the Bible instruction, a truckload of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Nazianzus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Dante. They read it, wrestle with it, come to love much of it, and then at some point in the sophomore year they look up and ask, “Why don’t Protestants read any of this great stuff?”

…What bothers me about “The End of Protestantism” is that it gives people like this the message that the trailhead to the great heritage cannot be picked up in their own church. The trailhead must be in some other church or denomination. Leithart’s unfortunate language effaces all signs of the trailhead, covers the tracks that we could follow back, demands a leap. The face of Luther glowers ambiguously from the top of the page, but we are assured that there are ”unplumbed depths in Scripture, never dreamt of by Luther and Calvin.” I expect this kind of dismissiveness from someone who hasn’t spent any time reading the exegesis of Luther and Calvin. But I always assume Leithart’s read everything, so I boggle at his false dichotomy between the Reformers and the ancient church.

I share Dr. Sanders’s astonishment on this. I had assumed for many years that Dr. Leithart was also calling us to find the richness of Reformed Catholicism by returning to true Reformation Catholicism, but this new “Reformational” version sounded a different message entirely. If left to itself, Dr. Leithart’s essay will actually fuel the lamentable undergraduate brand of “catholicity” rather than correcting it.

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.