Archive Peter Escalante Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Reformation Day and Its Critics

All over the world, wherever evangelical Christians are few in number and persecuted, the memory of the 16th century, when believers reasserted the truth against all odds, is still fresh. For them, the Reformation is still ground to stand on, even to die on. And even in largely papalist Slovenia, where the Reformation was snuffed out by violence, the State honorably celebrates Reformation Day out of gratitude for what Protestantism gave that nation.

But for a number of Protestant intellectuals now, Reformation Day is nothing to celebrate. Taking their cue from Stanley Hauerwas’s extremely tedious sermon of 1995– predictably, Francis Beckwith linked to it just before Reformation Day of this year– they say that the Reformation was a tragedy, a divorce, a civil war in which no side was really right, with the implication that if any side was more in the right, it was probably Rome, which was the side of “unity.”

The objections to Reformation Day are are that it is anachronistic at best and uncharitable at worst. That it can be uncharitably commemorated I am the first to grant; that it is inherently uncharitable, I do not. Celebration of truth winning, especially winning against great odds, is never uncharitable.

The charge of anachronism is that being Protestant now is rather like running for US President on a “Down with George the Third!” platform. With Bergoglio rather than Borgia in the Vatican, and the 21st century rather than the 16th, isn’t being Protestant now like being anti-Hanoverian now? But this idea of anachronism presupposes that doctrinal truth, and the life proceeding from it, are the same kinds of thing as transitory political arrangements or fashions.

Privileged Guilt

Dr. Hauerwas’s lament is typical of a certain kind of Protestant self-loathing. Although it sounds at first like responsible repentance for historic sins and the voice of heartbroken charity, a closer reading sees that it is founded on grotesque misconceptions and misleading definitions. It sounds like solidarity with brethren, but in fact, it expresses the opposite of solidarity with persecuted brethren throughout the world whose circumstances make them aware of the preciousness of truth, and of the meaning of Matt 10:34. It is the kind of sophisticated self-doubt masquerading as heroic self-criticism which one commonly finds among privileged people, but rarely among those in really trying circumstances.

One of Dr. Hauerwas’s most misleading definitions is in fact a common one among the uneducated. He takes “Protestant” to mean “protestor” in the modern sense, when in fact it originally meant “confessor,” “proclaimer,” “testifier.”  A brief consideration of this point can be found here. The Reformers were not defined by protest against Rome, they were defined by protestation of the truth.

Protestants are “evangelical” Christians, and evangelical means “of the Gospel” (Remember, the Lutherans were the original “evangelicals.”). This indicates that we stand on the plain meaning of the Old and New Testaments regarding the Gospel, in a way which is less mixed than churches which have not been reformed, although we warmly acknowledge that they are Christians too despite their imperfect understanding or problematic practices. Our faith is Biblical, and therefore “catholic,” which means, “universal.” We are also called Protestants, because the Christians who called the church back to a purer Biblical faith in the 16th century had to bear witness to Biblical truth, and originally, “protest” meant just that: to testify before an audience. And this is what our fathers in faith did.

It is very important to note that the Reformation was precisely a re-form or return to form,  a recovery of the original form, principles, and flexibility of the ancient church. It is often thoughtlessly said, even by Protestants, that Luther and Calvin “left the Catholic Church,” but they most certainly did not. What they did do is distinguish between the true catholic church in the most basic sense, that is, the believers gathered around the Word on the one hand, and secondary institutions and traditions on the other, many of which were actually contradictory to the essential universal faith held by the faithful. Thus, all along, the Reformers stayed right in the heart of the “catholic church” in the genuine sense of that expression and never left it, while the Roman Catholics, though sharing the same basis, claimed that their problematic institutions and traditions were actually an inseparable part of Christianity as much as the Bible or baptism, and thus they refused communion with the reformed catholics, that is, the Protestants. We didn’t leave them; they left us, and, inheriting the papal refusal of Reformation, they remain in imperfect communion with us. And as for our own unity, Dr. Hauerwas fails to note that our definition of what unity is differs from Rome’s, and thus he mistakes basically harmonious difference for disunity.

One also notes how un-ecumenical all this supposedly ecumenically minded Protestant self-criticism really is. A really common and constant feature of Christian history is the belief that creeds are trophies of the triumph over error, and that this triumph is to be celebrated. We differ about what we think error is, and how it is to be handled, but we don’t differ about the idea that a creed is something to be sung in joy. The constant catholic Christian tradition has always, following the example of Scripture, celebrated the triumph of truth. If one actually believes that Luther and Calvin were the great renewers and clarifiers of our religion, then one is going to jump for joy for their accomplishment. One might even observe a memorial and make joyful noise. It seems evident that Hauerwas and his admirers do not regard the Reformation as a definitive clarification of Western orthodoxy, but rather see it from the liberal communitarian angle, wherein “unity” is the chief virtue, and the idea that the triumph of truth might be celebrated is anathema. Too, as Alain Badiou notes, many recent intellectuals have rejected the criterion of truth in favor of the category of “meaning,” a move connected with the retreat to commitment which so many Christian writers have unwittingly joined.

It is really the mournful disciples of Dr. Hauerwas who are the odd men out here; not very catholic at all, in fact. Mumbling creeds with a sad sighing remorse for all the disunity effected by truth claims is not, I think it safe to say, a basis for any Christian unity which would be pleasing to God.

One also notes that this call to be less confident in our convictions is directed almost entirely against us, and almost never against the other regions of Christendom. Do those self-appointed guardians of Christian unity who superciliously post Dr. Hauerwas’s sermon every year ever sound a reproachful note about the Constantinopolitan federation’s Sunday of Orthodoxy? Or the Roman federation’s commemoration of “saints” who were actively involved in persecuting Protestants and suppressing the Reformation? They do not. Their approach resembles those leftist writers in the 30s and 40s who, in the name of true British or American patriotism, never had a good thing to say about their own countries and never had a bad thing to say about the Soviet Union. Lenin, famously, called them “useful idiots.”

Dr. Hauerwas’ invitation to wallow in self-loathing (very self-important self-loathing, as self-loathing always is) and to cease celebrating the triumph of truth is hardly worth the time the laughing refusal it deserves would take. The particulars, which are mostly all inaccurate, are not nearly as important as the assumptions and the ethos, the latter of which being what typically moves the audience.

Peter Leithart and “Reformational Catholicism”

Of considerably more interest is the recent post of Peter Leithart at First Things, in which he claims that “Protestantism” is “over.” It has gotten a great deal of attention. A lot of that attention is applause, and it’s certainly easy to see why. Most of us know all too well what he’s talking about; a “Protestantism” which works solely by negation. If Rome has something, it can’t be good, even though the Reformers themselves would have considered whether the thing was adiaphoron, useful, edifying, or even just inescapably human, before tossing it. Pastor Douglas Wilson, long since a stout Protestant of classical cut, recalls that in his wilder evangelical youth he wanted to wear patched pants rather than newer ones to church, despite the better counsel of his wife, because to do otherwise would be to set out on “the road to Rome.” He goes on to recount that the wisdom of the Reformers changed his approach, and he outlines what that wisdom is. But that fear of the “Road to Rome” still marks a great many evangelicals who have not, unlike Pr. Wilson, acquired the mind of the Reformers, and Dr. Leithart hits a target dead center here.

But Dr. Leithart, like Hauerwas, actually identifies “Protestantism” with that kind of “anything but Rome” attitude, and with “protest” in the modern sense. It is the beginning of his argument, and, characteristically, he doesn’t define the relation of “Protestantism” as he uses the word to actual Protestant orthodoxy. Is it the same thing, or not?

He does outline two approaches: one is a rough sketch based on confessionalism at best and of sectarian Baptist insularity at worst. We all know the type. This kind of “Protestantism” does not and perhaps cannot regard Aquinas or Gregory the Great as ancestors, and cannot regard non-Protestant churches as churches in any sense.

To this he juxtaposes a “Reformational Catholicism,” but this is very vaguely described– I will say more about what he gives as its “nota ecclesiae” in a moment– and whose relation to classical Protestant tradition is also undefined. Is it the same as the vast and rich central tradition of the Reformed divines, or not? Unfortunately, not only is this question left unanswered, the reader is given no sense that such a thing even exists.

The principles and parameters of Dr. Leithart’s “Reformational Catholicism” are in no way clear, but let’s walk through some of his descriptions of it.

First of all, “Reformational Catholicism” does not primarily define itself against Rome, but rather, is defined as much by the things it shares with Rome as by its differences from her.

But which things shared in common? The problem is that if we don’t know what “Reformational Catholicism” is in the first place, we can’t know what it shares and what it doesn’t. Dr. Leithart does give one example, that of creeds. And indeed we do share creeds with Rome, and a common Christendom. But we do our Roman Catholic neighbors a disservice if we fail to acknowledge that “mere Christianity” and “mere Christendom” are evangelical measures, not papalist ones. We are the ones who hold that the Bible is alone inerrant and the sole infallible guide of faith and morals, and that creeds are penumbral formulations of our readings of the Word. Rome does not. Yes, we share the basic creeds with Rome, but we differ about what they are, and we should do Rome the courtesy of acknowledging that they have a very different take on our common creeds than we do.

Dr. Leithart goes on to say that a “Reformational Catholic” welcomes Roman reforms and reformulations. But which ones? The Counter-Reformation was a very energetic reform toward what the papalists took to be truth, and this excluded the Protestants. Further, Roman doctrine holds that its definitions are consistent and cumulative; there is never any reversal of anything said authoritatively. Vatican II presumes Vatican I, and Vatican I presumes Trent. It is extremely presumptuous and, I think, uncharitable to tell Roman Catholics that their doctrine doesn’t have a sort of changeless stability, because they believe– officially– that it does. And this principle has not been in the least rescinded or reformed. Rome thinks it is only changing accidentally, not essentially, and that its essence is truth– a truth which excludes the Reformers’ doctrine. If it ever decides to change that position, things would indeed be very different; but so far it has not.

To continue, a “Reformational Catholic,” according to Dr. Leithart,  acknowledges Roman Catholics as Christians. And here is where that initial problem of failing to define the relation of either “Protestantism” or “Reformational Catholicism” to classical Protestant doctrine leads to confusion. Who is Dr. Leithart talking about? Classical Protestantism has always regarded the Fathers and Medievals as in the family, and in fact, one can find much more extensive engagement with patristic and medieval writers in any Reformed Scholastic divine than one can find in Dr. Leithart’s own works.  Further, the Reformed consensus has always regarded present papalist congregations, insofar as they have Word and Sacrament, as in the family too– just as crazy relatives. This a commonplace of Reformed doctrine. Turretin says it without the slightest hesitation. It is extremely curious that Dr. Leithart doesn’t point back to the tradition, but rather says that such an idea is one of the many contributions of a new “Reformational Catholicism.” But a confessional Protestant would not say that there is a “church of Christ” centered in Rome. He would rather say there are churches of Christ existing in a federation which has Rome as its center, and whose constitution is illicit and founded on false pretensions.

So far, for something which supposedly doesn’t define itself vis a vis Rome, “Reformational Catholicism” seems to have Rome as its center as much as all those Roman congregations do. But let’s proceed.

A “Reformational Catholic” believes salvation is inherently social, and is not suspicious of a public, “Constantinian” church. This thesis lends one to think that “Reformational Catholic” might in fact be the same thing as “classical Protestant,” because classical Protestantism certainly teaches this; it is the principle of infant baptism, and also of the idea of the Christian magistrate. Unfortunately, Dr. Leithart doesn’t give us enough to go on here, so we can’t tell.

A “Reformational Catholic” is open to patristic and medieval allegorism, and is not bound by the historical-grammatical method. This thesis lends one to think that “Reformational Catholic” might not be the same thing as classical Protestantism, because we do think that the historical-grammatical method is exhaustive. 1

A “Reformational Catholic” wears a cassock and stole. I suspect Dr Leithart is joking here, because I rather doubt he intends to claim that a particular kind of vestment, let alone one which made of up of vestiges of Roman administrative costume, is inherently definitive of “Reformational Catholicism.” Certainly our presidents ought to be robed appropriately; we are justified by faith alone, but we are not visibly dignified by faith alone. What Roman administrative dress was in antiquity, a Geneva gown, or even a suit, are now. In any case, Dr. Leithart’s point is sound; Christian worship requires a dignified and properly appointed ceremonial. Classical Protestant tradition has always said so– is “Reformational Catholicism” another name for that, or a different thing which happens to agree with it on this point?

Even at the end, Dr. Leithart has not at all made it clear whether his “Reformational Catholicism” is classical Protestantism or not. As it stands, it sounds rather like a list of his personal predilections, but it would be unfair to judge from such a short and haphazard essay. Likewise, we don’t know whether he thinks that classical Protestantism reduces to his negative “protestantism.” It is however interesting to note that rather than conclude with a doctrinal argument using the measure of truth, Dr, Leithart concludes instead with a historical argument, using the measure of modernity.

He says that “Protestantism” remade Europe and made America2, but that its good run is over. But again, if the question isn’t merely protest against circumstances which no longer exist, but rather, what is true, then Protestantism, if true, can’t be possibly be over. Even regarding the practical application of principles, it is far from over, and won’t be until all the world has acclaimed Jesus King of Kings. One can make a very good case that the French and Russian Revolutions were a result of the fact that Reformation was violently suppressed in those places, and likewise, the radical departure of Ireland, Spain, and Quebec from Christian faith, as soon as the Roman clergy lost the coercive grip. Latin America now is turning in throngs to evangelical faith.

Again, it is difficult to judge from one essay. But one does note in much of Dr. Leithart’s work a postmodern aversion to the question of settled truth. We are not angels, of course, and thus truth is always historically situated; but Dr. Leithart’s account of the church often sounds perilously like a propositionless postmillenialism, wherein something is evolving– we just don’t know what, but we’re assured it’s something grand. In such a scheme, evangelical Christianity might be understood as a phase in a historic dialectic, dialectically appropriate then but not now. This would make the category of “truth” a largely relative one. Indeed, one gets the strong impression that while the term “Protestant,” or even “Reformed,” might stand for a certain set of truth claims, the adjective “Reformational” means something much closer to “progressive,” and thus “Reformational Catholicism” is Catholicism (meaning something close to a sort of institutional or clerical Christianity) which consistently breaks new ground.

But the Reformation, in its doctrinal core, was not simply a dialectical phase toward some future synthesis in which it will be aufgehoben. And certainly, the Reformers didn’t understand themselves that way. They took their Reformation to be rather a set of claims about the meaning of the Word, on the one hand, and on the other, a number of practical programs following from such understanding. If this is the case, then the claims are either true or false. And if the Word is a clear and unchanging Word, then the truth or falsity of claims about it won’t change with the times either. If the Reformers were right, then they are still right, and their accomplishment can never be “over.” Likewise for the first principles of their practical program. But their practical program itself, being a prudential application of those principles to circumstances, can indeed be “over” since circumstances do indeed change over time and vary by place, and thus new prudential applications are necessary. “Protestantism,” as Dr. Leithart defines it, is indeed “over” because it never should have existed in the first place; it is the mistake of insular sectarianism. But the classical Protestant orthodoxy and order, if true, cannot be over, because truth has no expiration date.

Insofar as Dr. Leithart seems to identify Protestantism with sectarianism, and, rather than granting or even considering the claim of orthodox Protestantism to be the fullest and best articulation of biblical, catholic faith, consigns it to obsolescence at best and oblivion at worst, we cannot and should not follow him. In fact, his own essay exemplifies the dangers of his disregard of the orthodox center; in the name of rejecting sectarianism, he repeats its chief methodological mistakes, substituting an idiosyncratic and contradictory list of preferences and cherry-picked precedents for the real community of evangelical tradition. In fact, one could say that it is Dr. Leithart’s proposed church which is most invisible of all, lacking any historic or concrete instantiation.


Evangelical leaders ought to heed, with repentant alacrity, Dr. Leithart’s plea for Protestants to quit instinctively rejecting what is in fact their own patrimony, simply because Rome shares it. As I’ve shown, although we cannot follow Dr. Leithart’s prescriptions or even many of his postmodernist principles, his diagnosis is acute.

Although Dr. Leithart doesn’t mention it, a sounder version of his critique was expressed long before him by the great Philip Schaff, who, in his The Principle of Protestantism, describes all the same problems Dr Leithart does, and exposes their roots. But unlike Dr. Leithart, Prof. Schaff shows how American sectarianism is not in fact classical Protestantism, but rather a feral half-Protestantism, and how the means of overcoming it, and of extending the reign of Christ, are already present in the depositum of classical Protestant faith. While our practical application of the principles of Protestantism– which is to say, catholic orthodoxy– will differ now from those of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformation is continuous not simply as “reform,” but also in its formulated principles. Truth is one and unchanging, and we are always reforming toward it, guided by it. As Badiou says, the right response to the event of truth is fidelity to it. Thus every day is, in a way, Reformation Day. Our annual Reformation Day celebrates the epoch in which that principle was mostly clearly expressed, against very great odds and at very great cost. That the story has villains and heroes is unavoidable; sacred history always does. Jesus celebrated Purim, and we can certainly celebrate October 31st, with nothing but good intentions for our Christian brothers in unreformed churches. And for that reason, we ought to wish not only ourselves, but the whole world too, a very happy Reformation Day. Far from muting our festivities, we should be more festive than we customarily are. We should be dancing in the streets.

  1. There is more to say on this point, but I have already covered this ground in an online review of Dr. Leithart’s Deep Exegesis at Worldview Church, but the review was lost when the site was refurbished. I will be posting a version of it soon here.
  2. Given what he thinks of America, this might not be a compliment. See here and here. Further, it would be a confusion. Although classical Protestantism did long enjoy a position of eminence in high civil society, the country’s most basic religious form is sectarian. Are those the same thing in Dr. Leithart’s mind?

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.