I’ve been following with some interest the recent exchange between Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart on his “End of Protestantism” post at First Things, in conjunction with the publication of his book of the same title (here, here, and here).
I’m not going to comment on the whole exchange, in which I think Pastor Wilson has been on-point and persuasive, but rather about one part of it where I find myself disagreeing (I think) with both parties: the question of “institutional unity.” Pastor Wilson and Dr. Leithart seem to agree that it ought to and will happen, but disagree about the time-frame. This raises the following question: is institutional unity one of the ends (or teloi–sic!) of Protestantism? Should it be?
Pastor Wilson writes:
Peter suggests that my leading error is my use of “institutional” unity as some kind of a scary thing. But I don’t believe it is a scary thing at all. I believe it is the overarching goal toward which all our efforts should be bent. Institutional unity is not un-Protestant unity at all. As a postmillennialist, I do believe that a governmental and institutional unity for the church is in fact coming, and as an activist I am laboring toward that end. But it is not here yet. To return to an earlier image, to oppose harvesting the buds is not opposition to harvest.
I’m going to nitpick for a moment at this juncture. I am not, however, attempting to be pedantic; I think my nitpicking gets at something very fundamental about a Protestant ecclesiology, though I believe it is something with which Pastor Wilson ultimately would agree. At the outset, I’d like to drive a wedge between “governmental” and “institutional” unity, for rhetorical and theological reasons.
At the deepest and most foundational level, a Protestant, first, will confess that we already have “governmental” unity, even if we do not have “institutional” unity; and, second, a Protestant will want to ask, as I mentioned above, whether “institutional” unity is even a desideratum or part of God’s design for the church–“institutional” in the sense, at least, of global political-juridical authority over the corpus Christianum being invested in one individual or group of individuals, perhaps an ecclesiastical version of the UN Security Council (I cannot envision “institutional unity” as involving anything other than a supreme mechanism or office by which it is governed, whether it be monarchical or conciliar–though, again, from everything else he has said I doubt this is what Pastor Wilson really means. It is not even absolutely clear that this is what Dr. Leithart means, though it does seem to follow from what he says in paragraphs 6-8 of his rejoinder, and particularly in the way in which he envisions the end of the denominational system elsewhere). And that Protestant may well answer “no” to the question of “institutional” unity because of what he has already confessed about “governmental” unity.
That is, at the “deepest and most foundational level” referred to above, all members of the body of Christ, scattered throughout the world, already do have “governmental” unity, in the sense in which the Westminster Confession of Faith describes it: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ” (25.6). There is global hegemony in the church, but it belongs only to Christ, and on the basic principles of the Reformation it would be wrong for any individual or group of individuals to arrogate the prerogative to himself or themselves. It was taken for granted that there would be regional variations in matters of worship and administration among those who held to the Christian faith.
In the view of the magisterial Reformers, then, there was never any question of global, supraregional jurisdiction in the church. The highest type of “institutional unity” that occurred was at the regional level, vested in many instances in the office of the prince.
Does this indicate that they had no operative view of transregional or transnational unity among Christian believers? It does not; and perhaps what we ought to be attempting to retrieve is the outlook and posture toward “ecumenism” that they held; I put the word in quotation marks because it is not the right term, coming, as it does, from the modern denominational system. Perhaps it would be better to say, their “outlook and posture toward Christian cooperation and commonality,” which seems much closer to what Pastor Wilson said in his initial post.
Rather than demanding “institutional unity”–the very problem they saw as intrinsic to and characteristic or the Romanist system, and which they regularly described as tyrannical–the Reformers sought instead to come to a common and shared confession of the Christian faith through discussion, debate, and persuasion. We see this in documents such as the Wittenberg Concord and the Variata version of the Augsburg Confession.
Mutatis mutandis, the same is true in the case of liturgy (also foregrounded by Dr. Leithart) as in the case of administration–which is to say, they did not seek liturgical uni(formi)ty (I switch now to this ugly hybrid term because, though each party has been referring to unity, uniformity seems to be what Dr. Leithart is really after, at least with respect to liturgy) throughout Christendom. I should point out that this does not have anything to do with my own preferences, which, in the liturgical realm, are probably quite close to Dr. Leithart’s: I prefer sung liturgy, a basic calendar, and chanted Psalms rather than metrical ones. But these are precisely preferences (with the possible exception of the last), and preferences cannot be made principles. That is to say, the “unity” of the church, and its visible expression, does not hinge on whether all congregations sing the Venite, or sing it in the same part of the service.
Why did they not seek such uni(formi)ty, in administrative or liturgical terms, while they did seek broad dogmatic consensus? With the heart one believes, the Apostle says, and with the mouth one confesses. Again, at the deepest and most foundational level, the Christian faith is the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in response to God’s electing love and efficacious call. The first order of business is confessing the faith, of realizing a shared grammar for Christian speech about God. This concern does not seem to loom large in Dr. Leithart’s account of “ecumenism,” though I’m sure it would in Pastor Wilson’s.
But even if common confession is the first order of business, the Reformers did not conclude from this that liturgical or administrative uni(formi)ty was the second order of business. To have insisted on such would have been to ignore the pluriformity of men and nations, and thus would have been to some extent unnatural and counterproductive. That’s really a pragmatic point, though. The more important insight of theirs was this: it was not necessary.
Without and apart from it, the Reformers were perfectly able to envision themselves as part of one global body, whose various parts or members cooperated together internationally through shared networks of communication and instruction, while respecting regional diversities in matters of administration and liturgy. Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer, Melanchthon: all were already part of one church, and saw themselves as such. There is a model here, I think, if we would heed it. The Reformers make it possible to imagine other, and corrective, frameworks for interchurch cooperation than the oppressive obsession with institutions that characterizes the modern ecumenical movement. It is a mistake to think to think that that is the only, or best, way to envision the relation of the world’s churches. Why let a bunch of guys (and gals) in late Roman costumes set the terms of the discussion?
On the other hand, the emphasis on confession and de-emphasis on liturgy and administration appear to me to be reversed in Leithart’s model, which has included in the exchange thus far very little concern for dogmatic matters and very much concern for a sort of compulsory global uniformity. He comments that his project is necessary because Protestants haven’t been Protestant enough. This is doubtless true in certain respects, but on this issue his charge is more applicable to himself, it seems to me. From the very first, Protestants have sought confessional concord and allowed for diversity in liturgy and polity, all while cooperating as members of the same “church.”
Wilson rightly commends Protestant ressourcement in his first post; and it is precisely on central and controverted questions such as that of the principles of church cooperation and the deep ground of supraregional Christian unity that such ressourcement can do us the most good.