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The Future of Protestantism

The Future of Protestantism: A Public Conversation will be hosted tomorrow night at Biola University in La Mirada, CA. Notice that it begins at 7pm Pacific Standard Time. A live webcast will also be available, and you should subscribe to it on the link at the right side of the webpage in order to stay updated. The Event is sponsored by The Davenant Trust, First Things, and Biola’s own Torrey Honors Institute.

We here at TCI are very excited about this event and, along with most of you, are eagerly awaiting that day when we will no longer have to see Peter Escalante’s visage as through a glass dimly. More seriously, the topic of discussion is of utmost importance. Dr. Fred Sanders gives some explanation of how it all came together here, saying:

This particular conversation has an online backstory. In November of last year, Peter Leithart used his regular column space at First Things to declare The End of Protestantism and provoke his readers to “envision a new way of being heirs of the Reformation, a new way that happens to conform to the original Catholic vision of the Reformers.” A minor social-media uproar ensued (at least among some of my friends, students, and alum). So here at Scriptorium Daily, I posted “Glad Protestantism,” an objection to at least the rhetorical strategy, and some of the substance, of Leithart’s post. Peter replied to my post (“Deploring What’s Deplorable“) by focusing helpfully on two questions:  1. Do anti-historical, know-nothing Protestants exist, and 2. what should be done about it? I was about to write another post (is there a word for a rejoinder to a surrejoinder? I hope not.), when Matthew Anderson intervened with the suggestion that it would be better and more fun to get together and talk things out in a public forum. Great idea: and Matt has been instrumental in pulling this together.

This is the immediate context, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s an even larger context for this conversation. Dr. Leithart’s essay, “The End of Protestantism,” was not the first time he has expressed his views on these ideas. Indeed, the larger “Federal Vision” controversy/conversation is relevant here. Back in 2007, Dr. Leithart had this to say about the Federal Vision:

Broadly speaking, Christian theologians spent the twentieth century with ecclesiology, the ecumenical movement and Vatican II being the most visible results. “Federal Vision” theology is an effort to drag conservative Reformed theology, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. (That’s not a typo or mistake; I know it’s the twenty-first century.)

He continues:

After the Reformation, Reformed churches found themselves striving not only with Catholics but with Lutherans, and as a result both Reformed and Lutheran dogmatics developed along the lines of a one-sided, though historically understandable, via negativa . Reformed theology had its own resources on which to draw, but at many points, and particularly on issues of ecclesiology and sacraments, defined itself as not-Lutheran and not-Catholic. Lutherans did the same. My church history professor at seminary said that Lutheran dogmatics texts had a threefold structure: The Catholic Error, the Reformed Error, and the Lutheran Truth. Reformed theologians followed (and some still follow) a similar method. Reformed theologians and churches, as a result, formed their identity as Reformed by distinguishing their views and practices from Lutherans and Catholics. In the wake of the fundamentalist controversy, Presbyterians added another element to this theological method – we are not-liberals. The badge of inclusion in the Reformed world was not teaching any form of baptismal regeneration.

“Federal Vision” theology messes with these boundaries. It attempts to follow the lead of Scripture, even when that seems to conflict with Confessional formulae and seems closer to Luther than Reformed orthodoxy. It develops a baptismal theology that is not starkly at odds with Luther, appreciates de Lubac on the doctrine of the church and Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharist, finds Barth and Lindbeck intriguing and helpful at a number of points, and is stimulated by Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. As a result, “Federal Vision” theology challenges conservative Reformed culture as much or more than it does Reformed theology, for it questions the performances and boundaries that once defined this culture. Though the specifics of the debate can appear to be so much gnat-straining (particularly to those few outside the Reformed world who pay attention), the debate touches a nerve and provokes profound reactions because it’s not just a theological debate but an identity crisis. The Federal Vision challenges some of the identifying symbols, the boundary-markers of Reformed communal identity, and that kind of challenge cannot help but provoke a heated response.

As can be seen from these quotes, Dr. Leithart’s vision is for a Protestant complement to Vatican II, one which unites diverse strands of theology around ecclesiology. This union would itself, ideally, allow for an even broader union between Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. This was a big part of his version of “the Federal Vision,” and “The Future of Protestantism” will be perhaps the first time that this vision will be talked about publicly together by theologians on opposite sides of the issues. And we couldn’t ask for more capable interlocutors than Drs. Sanders and Trueman.

The question that quite naturally arises is whether this can be done in a way that preserves the essential distinctives of each Christian body, distinctives they themselves believe to be essential to the Christian faith, or whether this union actually requires the passing away of each of these traditions for something wholly new. This is surely one of the major points that “The Future of Protestantism” will take up.

But it will also be interesting to hear Drs. Sanders and Trueman give their opinions of one another’s ecclesiological standing, as well as Dr. Leithart’s vision of the future. For instance, Dr. Sanders describes himself as representative of “the great unwashed evangelical forms of Protestantism.” Is this a neighboring species of the larger genus “Protestantism,” sitting alongside Dr. Trueman’s “self-consciously “confessional Protestant” position, anchored in public, historic, Protestant confessions of faith,” or is it something different entirely? And even more to the point, what does one’s answer to that question say about the deeper issues of ecclesiology?

These are some of the questions with which this event should engage. Be sure to watch the webcast if you can’t attend in person.

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.

6 replies on “The Future of Protestantism”

No, I am expecting the birth of a daughter any day now, and so traveling was out of the question. I wish I could be there, but I think I may have the more important obligation.

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