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The Nature and Future of Protestantism

A month after the Future of Protestantism discussion at Biola, I think it is fair to say that by all accounts it was a great success. I am honored to have been part of it. The discussion was very well attended— the chapel was packed, in fact, and thousands watched the live stream— but most importantly, the conversation has very profitably continued between the participants and also between a great number of auditors, and this was what those of us who arranged the event had most hoped would come of it. It is a conversation which we very much need to be having.

A number of fine summaries from listeners have been posted as well, and I simply will point to four of the best, from, in no particular order, Dr. Littlejohn, Jake Meador, Derek Rishmawy,  and finally, Alastair Roberts. I don’t have much to add to what they’ve said by way of description or summary, but I will offer some reflections on the use of terms in the conversation, and some extended considerations on the position of Dr. Leithart, whose essay last October was what led to the event, and whose position has become somewhat clearer in the ensuing discussion.

As I said to the very genial Dr. Jenson of the Torrey Institute, despite the title of the event I do think we talked primarily about the nature rather than the future of Protestantism, but I also think that it was important that we do so. One must know what something is, after all, to have any idea of where it might be going.  Each speaker had his own idea of what Protestantism is and ought to be, and I will sum them up and give my take on those ideas in a bit.

But first of all, why these three? Dr. Leithart, of course, wrote the essay which provoked the controversy which led to the Biola discussion. Dr. Sanders was an early responder to Dr. Leithart’s essay, from the position of a broad  and broadly representative evangelical churchmanship, so he made perfect sense. But Dr. Leithart is a minister in a Reformed federation, and so it seemed right to include an eminent representative of the classical Reformed tradition too. Dr. Trueman’s fairmindedness, rigorous historical sensibilities, and profoundly pastoral fidelity to the Confessions all qualified him to take that role.

And all three care for the good of the church, and see much in need of reformation. This could be heard very clearly in Dr. Sanders’ expression of dismay at popular televangelism, “these are not my people,” in Dr. Trueman’s wry admission that converts to Rome from popular evangelicalism finally at least get “an adult form of worship,” and in, well, almost everything Dr. Leithart says.

I think it was exactly the right representation. Much has been said by commentators about the affinities of the three interlocutors, and who wasn’t represented— more on that in a moment— but I’d like to make the matter of affinity even more concrete. I’d say that each interlocutor represents an an element of the patrimony of modern American Protestant faith, elements which can be given names. Dr. Trueman’s profoundly pastoral and rigorously learned  confessionalism reflects something of the spirit of J.I. Packer; if this is “neo-Puritanism,” as it has lately been called, it is the heir of the best of Puritanism, and anyone who thinks that such a thing can’t be a faith for all of life has not read Baxter’s Christian Directory. Dr. Sanders’ broad but creedal evangelicalism and attention to the necessity of glorifying and serving God with mind and imagination exemplifies the legacy of C.S. Lewis, and even that of Francis Schaeffer, though Dr. Sanders is at once both more pacific and more professorial in demeanor than the bristly Alpine prophet. And Dr. Leithart? It’s harder to range what aspect of evangelicalism he represents under a single personal name, but it can be tied to a corporate one. I’d say he represents the legacy, for better and for worse, of the old liturgical mainline and especially of the Protestant Episcopal Church, once the prince of mainline denominations. Specifically, the legacy of what one might call its Broad Church and moderate Anglo-Catholics. Dr. Leithart, because of his principles, would rather not think that his position is reducible to something already extant, but it is, and a moment’s examination will suffice show that this is the case.

The Key Terms of the Conversation

The conversation did just what it was meant to do— it explored the basic elements of the question, and started a longer discussion. As I said, I don’t have much to add to the summaries of the event already offered by my friends. But if I might continue in a moderating vein, there were a number of unexamined terms and tropes (Dr. Leithart especially seems to think in tropes) in play. I did what I could to get some of them clarified, but couldn’t of course deal with them all. I will review a few of them.


First of all is “Protestantism.” The event was titled “The Future of Protestantism,” but really the conversation is about the future of Christendom (sorry for the lack of trigger warning there; one can also say “Christianity,” for the sake of the weaker brethren), and what role the orthodox will play in it, particularly in North America. Not that North America should be regarded as the center of the world; but it happens to be where we live and it is, for now, the world hegemon.

For Drs. Sanders and Trueman, the orthodox— those holding evangelical faith— are not the most part of the Christian world; for Dr. Leithart, the orthodox are the most part of the Christian world, because of the way he draws his boundaries. For him, the ancient creeds suffice for orthodoxy, and everything since seem to be more or less important theologoumena.

I disagree with Dr. Leithart’s general approach, about which more in a moment, and agree on the whole with that of Dr. Sanders and Dr. Trueman both, but be that as it may. The important thing is to note two things: first, Protestantism shouldn’t be regarded as some hermetically sealed thing wholly apart from other Christian communities; it is rather the place within Christendom which is most in form with regard to certain very important matters. Whatever one thinks of Dr. Leithart’s project as a whole, this way of looking at things is already deeply in accord with the best of what he has to say. Those who confess the name of Jesus are one great people, and the Reformed cannot forget they are still one body with the unreformed; we have one future.

But more about “Protestantism”: if it is the place within Christendom which is most in form with regard to certain crucial truths, this is not to say that is absolutely one thing or itself in the best shape it could be. In North America, and increasingly throughout the world, it is not clear that Protestant faith and “evangelicalism” are quite the same thing; as I have put it elsewhere, evangelicalism has become a feral sort of Protestantism, and it turns ever more feral by the day. While for Dr. Leithart this is a problem obviated by the coming annihilation of all presently existing communions and schools of Christians into an unforeseeable unity, for the rest of us, it is perhaps the most pressing question regarding the “future of Protestantism,” even more so than our relations with Rome or the East. For Dr. Leithart, the future of Protestantism, in both its combobulated and discombobulated forms, is to simply get out of the way for the coming church, while handing on a thing or two to posterity. Thus for him, there isn’t even any necessity for us to put our own house in order first before turning to other Christians to discuss our differences— the kairos cannot be arrived at by even Biblically-minded prudence (which would mandate tending our own problems first); one must simply leap into it. For us, however, it is precisely a question of how to put our own house in order.


Second is “Liberalism,” the specter of which was invoked by Dr. Trueman expressly. He meant it in Machen’s sense, that is, an anti-supernaturalistic redefinition of the terms of faith as metaphors of human experience. I agree with Dr. Machen, and Dr. Trueman, that such a thing exists, and that it is not in any way a form of the Christian religion. And such a thing is certainly present unofficially in a number of mainline denominations, though none of them as of yet officially assert it.  But, as Derek Rishmawy has astutely pointed out, the “liberalism” which looms larger for us now is the curious phenomenon of post-evangelicals who often enough hold to the doctrine  (or at least the letter) of the creeds, but differ, for instance, from historic teaching on sexual ethics, which is almost invariably permitted by what strikes orthodox Protestants as a lax approach to the authority of Scripture. This large and growing sector of the Protestant world wasn’t mentioned in the discussion, let alone represented in it, but, as Derek suggests, I think it should have been. It is easy to define ourselves against anti-supernaturalism, and this is especially tempting for those whose ecumenism wouldn’t have much of chance in peacetime, since having to burrow into catacombs and hop into trenches means that otherwise intractable differences get sidelined by emergency necessity. But it is not nearly so easy to define our relation to fellow churchmen who affirm Nicaea but also affirm a very different sexual ethic than that of the historic church, and the future of Protestant faith in the global North will have much to do with how we do negotiate that question.


Next is “sacramental,” which perhaps ties with “incarnational” for the sorry prize of worst weasel word in Christendom. Dr. Leithart has made much of this note of the coming reformational catholic church, and the term got used in different senses in debate; one of the several ways in which the three men talked past each other, in my opinion. It is worth noting here that Dr. Leithart’s own view, although it has more classical antecedents, depends upon two things: so-called relational ontology— the idea that there are no substances, only relations, and thus that persons are made of relations— and speech-act theory. Normally, speech acts refer to performative institution in the conventional order; but if this concept is applied to nominalistic “relational ontology,” they suddenly become magical, actually creative. And that is a very big part of what makes up Dr. Leithart’s sacramental ecclesiology. The degree to which his doctrine is or isn’t actually some sort of older wine in the newer wineskin of postmodernist argot is not really my concern here; I am simply interested in pointing out what he means by “sacramental.” Since there are no substances for him, his view does not entail transsubstantiation. Think what one will of it— and I do not share Dr. Leithart’s postmodernism— he is not expressing by it some half-Papalist doctrine.

Dr. Trueman didn’t see this very clearly and seemed to take Dr. Leithart to be expressing precisely a semi-Papalist point of view, to which Dr. Trueman opposed the idea of “Word-based ministry.” I sought to remedy the situation by mentioning Calvin’s doctrine of sacrament as visibile verbum, but I’m not sure that effected the harmonization of understanding I had hoped for on this point. But this term warrants further analysis as the conversation continues.


Another undefined term was “liturgical”. Given that this nowadays means something very specific, namely, “the practice of solemn ritual-dramatic celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of worship,” which itself would require some qualifications before being said of orthodox practice, but usually also, “observing a sacred calendar”, this requires some specification before saying the Reformers’ program was “liturgical”. It cannot really be said that the Reformers on the whole were “liturgical” in the modern sense, which seems to be the sense in which Dr. Leithart means it. It would be mistaken to suggest that modern mainline Protestant liturgical practices, which are for the most part only a hundred years old or so, are something that the Reformers wished to impose on us but from which evangelicals have somehow strayed. Evangelicals have many grave liturgical problems indeed, but the ritualized Supper of the liturgical mainline, with its paramented altars, is not an answer to them that Calvin would have given. But this is not the place for prescription.

Further Reflection on Dr. Leithart’s Vision

Dr. Leithart’s position, as expressed during the Biola conversation and since, merits some closer consideration here. It was, after all, his First Things essay last October which provoked responses from Dr. Sanders and myself, and finally led to the proposal of the recent discussion, and it is Dr. Leithart who makes the more apparently radical claim about what is wrong and what needs to be done. Perhaps most simply, his is of the most interest because the other speakers were, in one way or another, responding to it. My view of his Reformation Day essay has already been expressed, and I will not in my following remarks offer a complete review of Dr Leithart’s general project; I aim simply to review it for the purposes of the conversation as it has developed.

As I said earlier, Dr. Leithart seems to think in tropes. This make its difficult to get him to be very clear about what he means. But when pressed, as in the Biola event, he makes many of the appropriate distinctions and qualifications. Whether this relativization is merely pragmatic is hard to say.  Dr. Sanders now seems persuaded that Dr. Leithart is actually Reformed, and is simply pursuing a strategy of rhetorical kenosis, so to speak, limiting critique entirely to the mote in our own Protestant eye while graciously foregoing any mention of the beam in the Pope’s. I am not so sure. Dr. Leithart’s prettty relentlessly negative presentation of Protestantism, defining it almost entirely by its accidents and its vices, seems to me reminiscent of Nevin’s rhetorical subterfuge. Too, the fact that Dr. Leithart doesn’t seem to think that the classical Protestant position on justification is really all that crucial also tells against Dr. Sanders’ charitable reading.  It is true however that Dr. Leithart, when pressed in the discussion, seemed to grant that the unreformed would have to give up more— a lot more— than evangelicals would in any reunion of communions, which is to say, Dr. Leithart seems to recognize that evangelicals are more orthodox;  though I wish he seemed to care as much about justification as he does about icons. But what is true in any case is that what Dr. Leithart has to say isn’t primarily about doctrinal truths known to intellect so much as it is about how Christian communities imagine each other and what this means for the possibility of arriving at some sort of harmony.

First, though, I will say a little more about what seems to me his inheritance of the old mainline Protestant Episcopal tradition and his inability to recognize it. Although he has expressly rejected overtures from Anglican friends, and remains in the PCA, what he seems to me to represent is very much the 20th century mainline Protestant tradition, especially moderate Anglo-Catholicism, which has long since become very much a part of intellectual evangelicalism here, for good and for bad.  That he is in fact the heir largely of this is obscured by what mainliners would call his “fundamentalism” regarding the time of creation and sexual ethics, and also by his radical historical progressivism.

I think it is only because Dr. Leithart believes on principle, given his progressivist view of the church, that his general take on things cannot be reduced to any previously extant school that he rejects this intellectual identification with the mainline of the last century . But in fact, once one subtracts the peculiar progressivism, and the postmodern metaphysics along with the peculiar sacramental language which follows from that, the parallels are apparent.

The closest Presbyterian affinity he has is to Mercersburg, which itself owed much to the Oxford Movement. His doctrines, so far as they can be defined, seem to echo the Caroline divines, Thorndike, some of the Non-jurors, and Daniel Waterland (though without any of Dr. Waterland’s extraordinary precision). Moving forward to modern Anglican writers,  many of Dr. Leithart’s  ecclesiological leitmotivs, the good and the bad, can be found in F.D. Maurice, Richard de Bary, and Lionel Thornton. His understanding of sacrament is not far from that of M.F. Sadler. His view of the liturgy owes a great deal to moderate Anglo-Catholic liturgical thought, and interested readers can trace similarities to Gregory Dix, A.G. Hebert, and G.W.O. Addleshaw; although he also has close affinities with elements of the liturgical thought which came out of Maria Laach and St. Serge, it is worth recalling that the modern Eastern and Roman Catholic liturgical movements owed a great deal to ceremonialist Church of England scholarship. I could of course extend the list of parallels. Keeping a wary distance from canonical Protestant confessions is an old Anglican habit, of course, and similarly, Dr. Leithart’s apparent aversion to the clarity of systematic theology, in favor of a canon of orthopraxy and a liturgical Biblicism, was a hallmark of the old Church of England. And most notably, his ecumenical project, about which he spoke so passionately a month ago, is reminiscent of the Muhlenberg Memorial, though in a Presbyterianized version, and it resembles the vision of Abp. Nathan Soderblom even more so.

None of this is meant to “expose” Dr. Leithart as some sort of secret Anglo-Lutheran. It is simply to say that far from solely representing a really new “reformational catholic” future, he represents a very particular stream of the American Protestant past— namely, the old high-liturgical mainline, which, through several connections and circumstances, met the stream of American evangelicalism in the pages of Christianity Today. This sensibility eventually came to inform Eerdmans, so that by the 1990s that fortress press of Dutch-American Calvinism was publishing everyone from Thomists to Palamites, and all sorts of very modern (or rather, postmodern) neo-orthodox speculative theologies. Dr. Leithart wants the Eerdmans editorial sensibility to become a principle of churchmanship. What is new in him is that this Anglican-ish legacy, in his deployment of it, departs from the old model in that it disavows the criterion of the “historic” and asserts rather that the origin of these ideas is from the impinging Spirit as mediated through a new reading of the Bible, and are a sort of event horizon.

Despite the shrieky alarms of certain overheated Reformed writers, Dr. Leithart has never seemed to me about to convert to anything, not so much because he is a classical Protestant— he seems on the whole not to be, and rather to be an heir of a number of figures on the margins of Protestantism, and then of the modern mainline when it was being more incautiously irenic than confessional— but rather because to his mind, no existing church is the church to come, and it is that church to come, whose first manifestations are breaking out everywhere within the standing communions (meaning that no one has to move from where they are), which he is devoted to. It is clear that his belief is in that church of the future, not in any extant church. The ones who do sometimes convert are many of his readers, whose adherence to evangelical principles is subverted by Dr. Leithart’s rhetoric (doubtless against Dr. Leithart’s intentions), but who have a less progressivist notion of history and a greater interest in canonical dogmatics than he does, and thus are understandably more attracted by the weight of Rome or the East than to the visionary insubstantiality of a church which does not, in fact, exist.

But subtract the postmodernism on the one hand, and on the other, the peculiar progressivism, which makes Dr. Leithart want to say that his ideas come from the future rather than from the past, and what one is left with is the old mainline legacy, for better and for worse. That is extremely important to note for this conversation about the future of evangelical faith.

Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and the Grounds of Unity

Dr. Leithart says he doesn’t want to relativize the truths of the evangelical confessions (or any of the supposedly divisive confessions, which includes the Tridentine as much as Augsburger), and I believe him of course. But he does seem to think that what the separated communions regard as the truths expressed in those confessions occupy a place in the hierarchy of truths such that one who doesn’t subscribe to them, but does confess Nicaea and Chalcedon, is still an orthodox Christian, unlike a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon. Dr. Leithart’s demand that we recognize as Christians those who confess Chalcedon even if they abominate the Augsburg Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism is, he says, a pragmatic relativization, not an essential one; our confessions are true, but adherence to them is not necessary for Christianity.

The relative relativization of creeds is a Protestant principle, and only a Protestant principle. Is Dr. Leithart simply a classical Protestant here? Let’s not be fretful about importing tribalist connotations; the predicate “classical” should suffice to dispel those. What makes me think he isn’t taking a classical Protestant line here is that the evangelical tradition relatively relativizes all creeds, Nicaea as much as Dordt, whereas Dr. Leithart seems to want to only relativize those formulations of Biblical truth confessed by us.

So this would make the evangelical confessions expressions of secondary truths, and the old ecumenical councils expressions of primary truths. John Armstrong, “ministerial-ecumenist,” has expressed such a position very clearly here. It is a common one nowadays amongst a certain sort of weary evangelical. Of course the problem with this is that the authors of the evangelical confessions did not believe they were treating of secondary or tertiary truths. They very much believed they were confessing primary truths, truths about the Gospel, the very gist of the Word of God. To be sure, a different set of primary truths than Nicaea or Chalcedon expounded, but no less primary. And those who confess those confessions think likewise. I think the words of Dr. Trueman can serve well to underline the point:

The prioritizing of the doctrine of God over against the doctrine of salvation which seems explicit in Peter’s Nicene proposal and perhaps implicit in Fred’s attitude to Eastern Orthodoxy, is a move that I cannot make without ceasing to be Protestant and giving up all that makes me doctrinally distinctive. But should I nevertheless do so? Are the doctrinal differences over salvation simply not important enough for me to keep my church doors open when there is an Eastern Orthodox church across the street?

I find that Protestants who want to be “catholic first” and “Protestant second” often seem to operate on the confused assumption that order in time directly reflects order of doctrinal importance, so that Nicaea and Chalcedon are foundational as much for when they happened as for what they treat of.  But this is actually taught by no one. Further, to privilege Nicaea and Chalcedon over Protestant confessions is a reversal of the order of knowing. The Gospel is proclaimed very clearly in the Scripture, but the Trinity less clearly; it is a shorter road to get to the Augsburg Confession from the letters of Paul than it is to get to Nicaea from the Gospels, and Nicaea and Chalcedon occurred precisely because of reflection upon the divine and Biblical background of our proclaimed salvation, that is, the Gospel. And although Dr. Leithart refers, in a recent post about the Biola event, to the controversy over justification being about “ambiguities,” the fact of the matter is that Luther or Calvin would be rather startled to hear things put that way; for them, matters were considerably clearer than that. The Popes agreed with them on this point; and weak modern whitewashes like the so-called Joint Declaration have changed nothing at all.

At this point, we could also ask why Dr. Leithart wouldn’t be willing to sideline Nicaea and Chalcedon vis-a-vis the Armenian and Ethiopian churches, as he is willing to sideline the Reformed confessions vis-a-vis Roman Catholics. It’s an important question, and I foresee no satisfactory answer to it from him.

If he maintains the Nicaea and Chalcedon are central, but that the WCF— or Trent for that matter— is peripheral, then he has to explain how that is the case given what I have said above.  If he wants to say simply that all creeds have to be relativized, so that the Bible is the only creed, well, that’s Chillingworth, and unless he takes that idea in precisely a Protestant direction, he will end up having to let Channing in the door that Chillingworth holds open.

Orthodoxy and Proximity

For Dr. Leithart, the important thing is to discern the one body, and this body exists primarily as a political unity in territorial space; this primacy of territory follows in part from his failure to rigorously draw a distinction between the visibility and invisibility of the church, and from downplaying orthodoxy as a measure of communion.

By downplaying the distinction between the visible and invisible church, he is led to ascribe to the visible church certain kinds of unity which only the mystical body possesses, and here, his doctrine of the church approximates that of the Anabaptists or Roman Catholics. It means he hopes for complete organizational unity, something quite unnecessary from the evangelical point of view, and that he regards all baptized persons in any given region as not just in a moral unity, but further, as in a single jurisdiction. Their failure to act like it is, in his eyes, a culpable anarchy.

For him, the fact of Christians all being Christians in any given place trumps the particular doctrinal inflections of their Christianity. He sees Lutherans, Papalists, the Reformed, and diaspora-national Constantinopolitans in any given place as all first and foremost Christians in that place, and he considers that they should act and worship as one in it, but unity here has an organizational sense. Now what is elided here, of course, is precisely the question of orthodoxy. But each of those schools takes the criterion of orthodoxy to be constitutive of the church, and each would violate their principles were they to replace the canon of orthodoxy with what one might call the canon of territorial proximity. Each of the great communions believes that mystical proximity, so to speak, is the real principle of visible unity, not external territorial proximity. The fact that the Dispensationalist lives one block from me doesn’t automatically put him in closer fellowship with me than the Reformed man two counties away, and mutatis mutandis, the Papalist or the Constantinopolitan would say the same thing.

But Dr. Leithart would say that all those churches are orthodox insofar as they confess the ancient creeds. Yet it seems to me that he has not given us any good reason why those two councils should be the boundary-markers. The Bible is more basic than those councils; why not simply make the Bible, and, say, baptism, the criteria? I am not suggesting this as an alternative to Dr. Leithart’s proposal, but I am adducing it in order to show that his conciliar criteria seem to be very arbitrary. In fact, once the Protestant confessions (or Trent, for that matter, if one is Papalist) have been relegated to secondary status, Nicaea and Chalcedon immediately fall into secondary status along with them, for they are of one cloth of orthodoxy. Exempting Nicaea and Chalcedon seems simply an arbitrary move aimed at keeping Mormons and the like out, with the Monophysites and Nestorians as collateral casualties, caught like dolphins in the tuna net meant for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is only if one supposes a radical relativization of the question of orthodoxy that one can arrive at Dr. Leithart’s idea of the corpus christianorum in any one place as an assemblage of baptized households whose primary bond, beyond baptism, is territorial proximity. His hope, I think, is that this de-confessionalized mass will rally around orthopraxy instead, which for him seems to mean certain niche ideas of liturgy implemented by like-minded clergy. But this army of Levites in white is in fact a minority even within the CREC, and doesn’t really exist at all outside it; so Dr. Leithart’s reformational catholic laos is going to be quite bezpopovtsy, unless all their extant denominational ministers suddenly accept Dr. Leithart’s peculiar principles, which seems an extremely unlikely event.

Now if the churches were to all relativize their creeds in favor of orthoprax unity, what would follow is an emphasis on corporate unity at the expense of doctrinal clarity— exactly what we see in the The Episcopal Church (™) today. But as soon as the inspiring tropes were examined more closely and resolved into definitions, the members of that church would find themselves in marked disagreement.

Thus, his “Christendom” is in fact non-existent, and were it to exist, it would exist as a private clerically-led association within the secular commonwealth, operating on ecclesiopolitical and disciplinary principles curiously similar to those of “The Local Churches.” Which means it would, in the end, be simply another denomination. Dr. Leithart’s idiosyncratic list of concrete proposals, such as they are, end not in a new Christendom. His church of the future, liturgically and otherwise, would look like a morally conservative version of the present bureaucratic ECUSA/ELCA combine. Some of Dr. Leithart’s personal desideranda and credenda, such as mass incantation of imprecatory psalms or six-day creationism, would either never catch on or would be rapidly set aside as primitive zealotries originally useful for maintaining revolutionary vigor but no longer necessary. What would remain among the “reformational catholics” would be the theology of Jenson and cassock albs, and what would remain outside is precisely an outside— that is, the fact of ecclesiastical difference. I think it would last about as long, and for much the same reasons, as the Irvingites did.

There is however another way to such an idea, one which does not involve any radical relativization of the question of orthodoxy, but it is a way which Dr. Leithart, I think, will not want to take. It involves the figure of the Christian sovereign and the classical two-kingdoms distinction. Of course, one might quite justly object that Christian sovereigns are even harder to come by than Dr. Leithart’s luminous Levites. But I will say something about that in the reflections to follow this essay.


If Dr. Leithart really thinks that the doctrinal formulae of the Reformation are to be transcended, there is really no reason to suppose that Nicaea or Chalcedon shouldn’t be as well. If ministers of the one church really do set to hashing out the differences in love, it cannot be the case that those differences will all be equally sublated in a future synthesis, or else the church has never been in possession of truth. If no one is currently right about justification, then why should we believe that anyone is currently right about the nature of God, or the natures of Christ?

The “look” of the future— and the specious is the realm of the “look”— will be determined by changes in the realm of accidents, the realm of adiaphora, and in that regard, yes, the churches of the future will look different— in some regards, we can hope they will look very different— from what they do now in any case. But whatever the future might look like accidentally, unless one wishes to totally relativize all the modern creeds— in which case, again, one would have to render the ancient ones reformable too— some one line of them will be the canon of rectitude for the belief of posterity regarding the matters in question. I maintain that in the old Protestant confessions, fallible though they be, the light of the Word is mirrored most clearly and brightly, and that the church of times to come will, insofar as it is led by the Spirit, walk by their light. Those in other communions will think the same of their particular confessions, and it is a complete mistake to pretend that the controverted questions have been happily resolved. Only one of the answers on offer can be right; if none are, then we have no reason to think the church was ever right about anything. But is has been. And we are.

I think Dr. Leithart’s ideas and proposals are not new; the only novelty is in his idiosyncratic and inimitable combination of them. But if they are not new, then by the very standards of his own postmillenialism, they fail to be answers to present problems. However, I think we must part company with Dr. Leithart in his progressivist ecclesiology, just as I think we must part company with him in his postmodernist metaphysics. But precisely because we must part ways with him on these points, it means we are free to judge his ideas and proposals not by a standard of novelty or futurity, but rather simply by standards of verity, regarding doctrine, and utility, regarding practice. The tradition in Anglophone Protestantism which, despite himself, he represents, has any number of things which we can readily and usefully appropriate, as he himself has, sometimes brilliantly and provocatively; and this means he has things to give us. Peter Leithart might not be speaking on behalf of any coming catholic church, but even just speaking for himself, he has much to offer, and what we do with it will play some some part in the future of Christendom.

Above all, his passionate plea that Christians be completely unwilling to complacently settle for truly serious division is one we ought to hear, and too that we must profoundly reform in order to meet the needs of the hour. And he is right that this will require extraordinary courage and really daring imagination; I hope he would agree with me that it will, however, require absolutely no compromise of truth.

Later this month I will post some of my own thoughts about the future of evangelical faith and practice. As will be seen, I think Dr. Leithart, far from being too radical, is in fact nowhere near radical enough.


By Peter Escalante

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

8 replies on “The Nature and Future of Protestantism”

At least within Presbyterianism, won’t viewing the evangelical confessions as equal in primacy to the ecumenical creeds lead to strict/full subscriptionism? In the choice between relativizing the ancient creeds or ultimatizing reformational confessions, for now I think I’d go with the messiness of the former.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Christian Sovereigns, but I am wondering if your avoiding the use of the term “thoecracy” is disingenuous. Perhaps, I am just unfamiliar with the term and your solution to the problem of the future and nature of Protestantism will not just be one more political movement.

Mr Moya,

As I said, the Protestant position “relatively relativizes” *all* orthodox creeds; this follows from sola scriptura. Whether strict subscription accords with that depends on how one understands strict subscription. The Protestant position does not however absolutely relativize them or abolish creeds, because it acknowledges them as publicly useful and relatively authoritative expressions of consensus exegesis of the Word. But what Protestantism does not admit of (nor does Romanism!) is any relativization of 16th c creeds vis a vis earlier creeds, or vice versa, I might add. My point in this essay was one cannot coherently privilege Nicaea and Chalcedon *over* the WCF or the Augsburg, as if the former treat of really basic things and the latter do not, in order to diminish the differences between us and Rome. On the Protestant account, getting justification straight is as important as getting the two natures straight, though not in exactly the same way.

As for political theology, you’ll just have to wait and see what I have to say.


Peter, thanks for your observations here (and for your role in the Biola forum). I’m not sure where your concluding teaser will take this discussion eventually (not “radical enough”?), but I look forward to hearing more. Unfortunately, I found your comments above a bit difficult to reconcile with the Good Doctor L I know. First, his ecclesiology and soteriology–in practice and in the pulpit, certainly (Peter was my pastor)–are thoroughly evangelical and Protestant, but not in the “mainline” or “separatistic” senses of the Modernist-Fundamentalist categories you invoked. Your use of those categories (which are far more fuzzy than conservatives like to admit) to sort through Leithart’s views seem to muddy the waters more than clarify them, by my reckoning. Second, I understand your desire to “locate” Leithart’s view on the historical-theological map, but that method of critique itself has a history of its own, as you well know, and it isn’t a particularly pretty one (think Vollenhoven, e.g.). Such an approach typically brushes aside the important, subtle nuances in the key arguments that aren’t so neatly pigeon-holed in the Received Categories. I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I believe Leithart is more creative and subtle than most of his critics, who tend to cram his nicely roundish views into their rigidly square boxes. I may be wrong, but I fear your approach (or rhetoric?) here may be at risk of doing that. And finally, I was critical of Peter’s rhetoric in his original “Future” post and I think many concerns voiced about that post have stumbled, in part, over his rhetoric. That has encouraged some then to go on to misinterpret the substance of his piece in light of the Received Categories. Unfortunately, separatistic Protestants, who I understood Leithart to be challenging, rarely see the need to get out from the sectarian pit they have dug for themselves. There may be too many words from all sides now to sort through them adequately in the blogosphere, but I’d sum this up by saying that I think your criticisms may miss the mark as much as Leithart’s rhetoric missed his. I’m just hoping there isn’t any collateral damage from all the stray shots flying about (and hoping this isn’t another one). Blessings.


Thanks much for your comment. Let me say that I am certainly not fool enough to think that Peter Leithart’s mind can be put in any tidy boxes- one of the things I most appreciate in him, even though I often disagree with him (and markedly!), is precisely his wide ranging mind and intellectual independence.

You’ll note that I was careful to say things like “largely the heir of” the high-liturgical old mainline; I did not say not say that he is *entirely* the heir of, or wholly reducible to, the old mainline in general. I was careful also to say that his closest affinities are with peripheral (but interesting) figures; and I would add here that those figures, because they were in fact so idiosyncratic, do not together constitute any kind of single “received category”.

I am simply pointing out that much of what he’s saying isn’t actually new, and that the reason this isn’t recognized more often is because most don’t actually know much of the relevant history and thus miss the evident affinities. I also think I was very careful to point out the role postmodernist philosophy plays for him, and not only *that* this is the case, but exactly *how* it is; furthermore, in doing so, I defended him from charges of “Rome-leaning” sacramental doctrine. So I don’t think I can fairly be said to have missed his nuances or the distinctiveness of his personal synthesis. But I do think that much of that synthesis is unique to him and inimitable, and that thus, if it is going to be profitably engaged, it must be resolved analytically into its several elements which can then be considered on their own.

But saying that much of what Dr Leithart teaches or muses isn’t new is *not* to say that it isn’t worth hearing; it’s only to say that the grounds for hearing it cannot be that it is the doctrinal event horizon of some semi-inspired paradigm shift. As I said, I think he does have a lot to offer, and we can estimate all that by the measures of verity and utility. And for the record, as I hope was clear during the event, I agree with Dr Leithart in his critique of Protestant tribalism. As I pointed out then, though, this is a failure of Protestant *imagination* and Protestant charity, whereas the tribalism of Rome is actually built into what it is. But I am just as much for remedying our failures of imagination and resolve as Dr Leithart is, though I differ from him, as my essay above makes, regarding what that means.

And regarding the teaser: the second installment won’t deal with Dr Leithart at all- it will be my own reflections on the future of Protestantism, next to which Dr Leithart’s proposals, I think, will look fairly tame. But perhaps he would agree with them! As you say, he’s not easy to pigeonhole or predict.



Peter, in your section on Orthodoxy and Proximity, you summarized Dr. Leithart this way: “For him, the fact of Christians all being Christians in any given place trumps the particular doctrinal inflections of their Christianity.”

Could you clarify that a bit more. In my understanding of Leithart’s position, the above statement is true when seen from a brotherly love, cultural engagement, ethics standpoint, but not in the same sense from a doctrinal standpoint. If that was truly his thinking on doctrinal differences, he would probably just have found the biggest church which holds to Nicea and Chalcedon and plugged himself in there, but he hasn’t and I don’t believe he would. I think PL takes Christ’s prayer for unity very seriously, believes it will one day be reality (as in fact it will be), and is holding forth the argument that this must be at least as important and defining, or possibly more so, to the present life of the church (as represented the myriad denominations) as their understandings of the many points of theology upon which they differ. The fact of our certain future unity must be a defining factor in our present life of faith and the trajectory each local body of Christ walks. That is not to say that we should consider doctrinal differences unimportant, but rather than we ought to elevate the unity of the Church higher in our estimation than we currently do and in how we actually think and live.

I think PL’s holding forth the Nicene Creed and Def of Chalcedon as a definition of orthodoxy is not so much because he thinks the various denomination’s views on justification or the authority of Scripture are less important than the nature of the Triune godhead or the deity of Christ but rather because he is looking for a starting point for the unity project. Also, far from thinking of further doctrinal clarification as unimportant, he recognizes that doctrine is of key importance in any consideration of unifying the church, but knows the conversation will best begin if started on common rather than long disputed ground. I highly doubt he is advocating for a theological lowest common denominator version of overall church doctrinal unity, but that isn’t actually a bad place to *begin* a unity project. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that we are to be of one mind as well as one in practical love. Taken along with the ethical big “E”s on the eye chart – abortion, sexuality, encroaching ethics of other world religions, etc., – upon which much of the church agrees, this seems to be a good place to begin a conscious effort toward building unity. But if we begin with WCF or Trent (as a starting point), we won’t get anywhere. However, I fully appreciate and take your point that RC’s have “built-in” authority of their counsels in a way Protestants don’t and shouldn’t. However, assuming we have willingness for the unity project with other Christian traditions, we need to begin doctrinally as far along historically as we can. If we go all the way back to Scripture (don’t hear me wrong on this…I believe Scripture is the ultimate authority for all doxy and praxy…sola Scriptura, what what) in our first overtures and practical steps toward unity, we will likely only reproduce something very similar to Nicea and Chalcedon, and we will end up where we already are.

As for why PL seems so much more critical of Protestantism than of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, perhaps the key also lies in Philippians 2, where Paul is exhorting the church toward unity. Here he says that the key to that unity is found in humbly thinking of others more highly than yourself, lowering yourself to the place of a servant even though in reality you are equally image bearers of God with your brothers and sisters and could insist on being treated and recognized as such (just as Christ could have, being as he was in very nature God). Paul tells us to follow the example of Christ in our attitudes. Perhaps this is at the heart of PL’s unity efforts. Perhaps he doesn’t think reformed doctrinal distinctives are unimportant or even subordinate to other factors, but that because that is currently the main factor that divides us, it ought to be the very thing each party takes a humble approach with. Maybe PL holds to the high importance of many reformed doctrinal positions (as you note, he hasn’t converted) but he holds Christ’s prayer for unity as even more or at least equally important, and so we must start to act like it. Perhaps he views a common life of worship (liturgy) and standing side by side in on issues of ethics and praxis as a good foundation from which to begin the project of unity, since doctrinal discussion has very often been the starting point in the past and it has usually resulted in further division. Perhaps PL is thinking that sharing a meal together at a table over which the Lord Jesus himself presides will have the effect of waking us up to the fact that we really are unified and that we need to figure out how to life in light of that reality.

I eagerly await to see your more radical proposals.
Dan Glover

Thanks for the follow up to my comments and clarifications to yours. Your note about tribalism was helpful, and prompted this thought: Rome and Byzantium are tribalist to their cores, but deny it; Protestants are prone to be card-carrying tribalists and count it as their defining virtue.

Thanks for weighing in. I am also looking forward to hearing your vision of the future of Protestantism. I also will say that I suspect I am coming round to your opinion; I have never quite felt so urgent about denominations as Leithart (though maybe I should). However, I have two questions. You say, “The Gospel is proclaimed very clearly in the Scripture, but the Trinity less clearly; it is a shorter road to get to the Augsburg Confession from the letters of Paul than it is to get to Nicaea from the Gospels, and Nicaea and Chalcedon occurred precisely because of reflection upon the divine and Biblical background of our proclaimed salvation, that is, the Gospel. And although Dr. Leithart refers, in a recent post about the Biola event, to the controversy over justification being about “ambiguities,” the fact of the matter is that Luther or Calvin would be rather startled to hear things put that way; for them, matters were considerably clearer than that. The Popes agreed with them on this point; and weak modern whitewashes like the so-called Joint Declaration have changed nothing at all.” Yep, Luther and Calvin are quite capable of using language I think most of wouldn’t repeat in polite discourse and I don’t blame them; after all, they were in life-or-death circumstances, not necessarily the place to draw reasonable lines. I haven’t read it carefully, but Hooker’s sermon on justification seems closer to the truth. Now, you may respond that drawing the line with the Trinitarian creeds brings the same problems. Fair enough: Armenian and Ethiopian churches might be all right. But, hang it all, when the JWs or Mormons deny the creeds, they’re denying Jesus’ divinity which is a non-negotiable of the faith in a way that a particular doctrine of justification is not. Doug Wilson likes to point out that we’re not justified by believing in justification by faith alone, but by faith alone. So we can say that, in some cases, justification is indeed relative. Putting aside the categories of tradition (about which I am hopelessly uneducated), isn’t Leithart just following after the tradition of C.S. Lewis and others who recognize that the debate over works and faith is more complicated than Luther thought? In fact, your remarks about the ancient creeds makes me more suspicious of the former rather than more credulous about the latter. To sum it up, mightn’t the Reformation day Catholics have had brains that made them see valid insights into justification that we might very well learn from as from brothers? Second, you keep alluding to Leithart’s postmodernism as if it had been a thing drawn and quartered; could I see the moratorium on that? It’s always felt like Renaissance commonsense about man’s finitude to me (and hence not new at all). To apply it to this situation, again might not Luther have said something that people needed to hear, but wasn’t quite what Paul said and now what we need to hear is something different. Thanks for keeping the conversation alive. Shalom.

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