The End of Protestantism

Usually, I spend my time writing about stuff I disagree with. It is easier to poke holes in other people’s boats. However, I’m sitting in a boat too. There are positions I believe to be true that others can poke at and it’s only fair I give the opportunity.

I am about fours years behind. I watched a lecture/panel discussion at Biola (I attend their seminary, Talbot School of Theology) on Peter Leithart’s controversial article titled “The End of Protestantism“. Leithart is an author, theologian, and now the President of the Theophilus Institute.  Upon watching Leithart’s opening lecture, I ended up wholeheartedly agreeing with most of what he said. I also found his responses during the panel discussion to be fair-minded even though I’m not sure what to do with his prescriptions yet. Yet there is a void in my understanding of Leithart; I’ve never read the original article!

Based on what I saw in the lecture, I’m looking forward to starting with the original article from four years ago and seeing where the conversation has evolved since. Here it goes!

 Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic. Whatever Catholics say or do, the Protestant does and says as close to the opposite as he can.

This is accurate. In my conversations with fellow Protestants, any view resembling Catholic theology is vigorously dismissed out of hand. When I say “resembling” I do not mean ideas that align with Catechism. I mean ideas that might possibly be something a Catholic could agree with are vehemently rejected without taking the time to find out if the idea is biblical. We are defined by what we oppose.

Mainline churches are nearly bereft of “Protestants.” If you want to spot one these days, your best bet is to visit the local Baptist or Bible church, though you can find plenty of Protestants among conservative Presbyterians too.

This is also true in my experience. My family and I are just coming out of a church transition and we visited several churches to find a new home. In the five churches we visited in only one of them could I imagine this Protestant desire to define themselves by what they are against. Four of these churches were varying degrees of large and successful with diverse church cultures.

Protestantism ought to give way to Reformational catholicism. Like a Protestant, a Reformational catholic rejects papal claims, refuses to venerate the Host, and doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints; he insists that salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith and confesses that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.

I do not quite know what Leithart means by a Reformational catholic church. His description above does not sound like a return to Roman Catholicism, which is a good place to start, but what kind of church practice is he prescribing? In the lecture at Biola Leithart only offered that he thought a Reformational catholic church would take the Eucharist each service. That would be different than the liturgy I am used to but does not sound unbiblical.

In the lecture, Leithart was pushed by the other panelists and during the Q&A to further define the liturgy of these churches. He did not commit to a specific structure because he believed the Holy Spirit would inform the reform and it was beyond his ability to see where the Spirit would take it. That is reasonable but my Western thinking brain still wants more to go on. Maybe Leithart’s vision of these churches has come into sharper focus in the last four years.

Though it agrees with the original Protestant protest, Reformational catholicism is defined as much by the things it shares with Roman Catholicism as by its differences.

I do not know how to convince people to hold in tension the necessity of the Reformation and the faithful witness of Catholic history which gave us the doctrines of the Trinity (Constantinople, 381 CE) and the Hypostatic union (Chalcedon, 451 CE). Did the gates of hell prevail against the the Church for 1500 years before the Reformation?

A Protestant exaggerates his distance from Roman Catholicism on every point of theology and practice, and is skeptical of Roman Catholics who say that they believe in salvation by grace.

I also do not know how to convince people to read the Catholic Catechism. When you do, you will find much to disagree with. However, you will also find that Catholics believe they are saved by grace. They do not believe that getting baptized saves them. They believe that if you believe in Jesus then you will get baptized. If you do not get baptized, then you do not actually believe in Jesus. The physical demonstration of faith and faith itself are not wholly separate entities under Catholicism. You may disagree, but is that wholly unreasonable and unbiblical? If so, how?

A Protestant believes (old-fashioned) Roman Catholic claims about its changeless stability. A Reformational Catholic knows that the Roman Catholicism has changed and is changing.

Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.” To a Reformational Catholic, it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a billion-member Church of Jesus Christ centered in Rome. Because it regards the Roman Catholic Church as barely Christian, Protestantism leaves Roman Catholicism to its own devices. “They” had a pedophilia scandal, and “they” have a controversial pope. A Reformational Catholic recognizes that turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church is turmoil in his own family.

Leithart put to words the direction I have been going for the last two years in a way I could never have. I will not try to improve them except to say that seeing brothers as “other” is something I need to repent of.

A Protestant views the Church as an instrument for individual salvation. A Reformational Catholic believes salvation is inherently social.

This is one of the biggest problems in the Protestant understanding of the Gospel and I scarce know where to begin. Perhaps it is enough, for now, to say that we have allowed the radical individualism of our culture to warp how we see the biblical text.

A Protestant’s heroes are Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and their heirs. If he acknowledges any ancestry before the Reformation, they are proto-Protestants like Hus and Wycliffe. A Reformational Catholic gratefully receives the history of the entire Church as his history, and, along with the Reformers, he honors Augustine and Gregory the Great and the Cappadocians, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, Thomas and Bonaventure, Dominic and Francis and Dante, Ignatius and Teresa of Avila, Chesterton, de Lubac and Congar as fathers, brothers, and sisters. A Reformational Catholic knows some of his ancestors were deeply flawed but won’t delete them from the family tree. He knows every family has its embarrassments.

Not acknowledging this history is one of the easiest ways to see Catholics as “those weird guys over there” instead of our brothers.

[The Reformational catholic] knows there are unplumbed depths in Scripture, never dreamt of by Luther and Calvin.

Amen.

A Protestant is indifferent or hostile to liturgical forms, ornamentation in worship, and sacraments, because that’s what Catholics do. Reformational Catholicism’s piety is communal and sacramental, and its worship follows historic liturgical patterns.

I must confess I do not know how this works and considering it gives me the hee-bees. I do not know how to separate the historical liturgical patterns from the corrupted practices of the Reformation-era (and at least two centuries before that) Roman Catholic Church.

A Protestant wears a jacket and tie, or a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, to lead worship; a Reformational Catholic is vested in cassock and stole. To a Protestant, a sacrament is an aid to memory. A Reformational Catholic believes that Jesus baptizes and gives himself as food to the faithful, and doesn’t avoid speaking of “Eucharist” or “Mass” just because Roman Catholics use those words.

While the politically correct language of the Protestants is an annoyance, I do not understand the importance of the cassock and stole. Why must we take on that bit of church history in order to acknowledge it as our own?

Reformational Catholicism meets George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism coming from the direction of Rome, and gives it a hearty handshake.

Great, something else I have to read.

Protestantism has had a good run. It remade Europe and made America. It inspired global missions, soup kitchens, church plants, and colleges in the four corners of the earth. But the world and the Church have changed, and Protestantism isn’t what the Church, including Protestants themselves, needs today. It’s time to turn the protest against Protestantism and 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.

As Leithart said in his lecture, God has always done something new. Sometimes that new thing went against what He previously told His people to do. I do think now is time for another new thing. The Reformation has become something the Reformers did not envision. It has served its purpose. It is time to reform again. Is not that what the Church is about?

While some of Leithart’s prescriptions make me uncomfortable, I do not have the historical or theological knowledge to call them unbiblical. I agree with his assessment of Protestantism and his call for reform, but I need to keep studying and discussing with my Christian brothers to see what shape that reform should take.

 

 

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