Dr. Peter Leithart, recently my Theology professor at New Saint Andrews college and now the head of Trinity House Institute in Birmingham, has a fascinating and provocative post at First Things, called “The End of Protestantism.” (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/11/the-end-of-protestantism)
Wait, what? Is it really time to end the Reformation and beg for re-admittance into the Roman church?
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.
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.
This article is, in some places, unhelpfully vague. What does it mean, for example, that Reformational Catholics “[believe] salvation is inherently social?” Not to even mention the semantic danger of using a term in a new way and having it backfire: it simply isn’t true that people who call themselves “Protestants” do the things Dr. Leithart accuses “Protestants” of doing. Some do, for sure, but Dr. Leithart fails to make his new, transgressive definition of “Protestant” stick with the reader.
That said, I believe Dr. Leithart has hit on something deeply true about the Protestant church. We are eager to distance ourselves from Rome, even when that means divorcing ourselves entirely from Christian tradition between the death of John the Divine and the birth of Martin Luther. In our ignorance, we are quick to deny the salvation of the one billion Catholics in the world because Jesus Christ, donchaknow, has cursed or ignored the largest branch of His spiritual descendants since about 1300 A.D.!
I think the deeper lesson here is humility about what we believe. There are non disputanda articles of the Christian faith; you will find them in the great Creeds to which all faithful churches ascribe. There is Scripture itself and its clear pronouncements about human sin and divine salvation. But everything else, and I mean everything, is up for debate in Christendom.
Each little Protestant island is suspicious and ignorant of all the others. Ask someone in the ARP about the OPC. If you really want to feel the heat, ask someone in the URC about the CRC! This comes, first, from a praiseworthy and deeply held belief that we have found the truth. It comes, second, from a deeply destructive pride in this fact, and a serious suspicion that no one outside our own little platoon has really got the scriptural nut of truth.
No one man has even a millionth part of the Truth that we call the Gospel. And a billion of us Christians together have two billion different ideas about our Father God, our brother Jesus Christ, our helper the Holy Spirit. Our minds are very limited, even and especially in the scope of what we deign to call our “reason.”
So, why would we assume that our group, out of all the groups, has found the whole truth, leaving none for the rest? Why would we CREC-kirkers assume that the other little Reformed bands are wrong wherever they deviate from our norm?
“One thing God has said, two things I have heard.” From the root of Scripture, the tree has grown in a fractal pattern, and out on the skinny branches it’s difficult for us to see the trunk that holds Christianity together. But we have to have faith that it is there, that God loves Catholics and Protestants alike and holds us all in His hand.
“But they’re just wrong,” you will say. Of course they are! But I’m advocating for the admission that we are, too. Yeah, it’s humbling to admit that our understanding of Christian faith is error-filled and limited–but isn’t that the point? We should never, ever be satisfied with our knowledge of the things of God, always acknowledge that it is shallow unless the Spirit has given us the grace to plumb the depths.
So, we should love our Catholic brothers and our Methodist brothers and our Anglican brothers and our Pentecostal brothers. Not because it doesn’t matter who is right, but because we are humble, and our level of certainty should reflect that. In the Bible, we are dust, and we are ants, we are sheep, and we are God’s children. Dust, ants, sheep, and children: not renowned for their intelligence, their rationality, or their grasp of scripture.
So Dr. Leithart is right, but not just because the Catholics are less wrong than we think. It’s because we are less right, we have less of a grasp of the truth of the Gospel, than we would like to suppose. That shouldn’t make us nihilists, but it should make us healthily skeptical about our own beliefs.
The Gospel calls us to take it seriously, to live devoutly for God because of what He has done for us. Nowhere does it tell us to take ourselves seriously. We are children, and we should love each other despite and even because of our playground disagreements. When we are grown, we will see clearly and we will all have been wrong about a lot of things, and we will laugh about it. Until then, we must live in humility.