Peter Leithart’s long-awaited new book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, is starting to make a splash among Reformed folk, evangelicals, and political theologians in general. Although in the introduction he expresses his expectation that he will “offend everyone,” the predominant response thus far has been praise. Princeton University’s Eric Gregory goes so far to say, “Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial ‘Americanism.’ But Leithart’s distinctive analysis provides a more complex–and potentially more constructive–biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today” (although one must take back-cover blurbs with a considerable grain of salt).
That being the case, my friend Steven Wedgeworth’s bruising review posted today on The Calvinist International will be sure to cause a certain degree of consternation among Leithart’s many admirers—while gentlemanly and in many respects highly appreciative, Wedgeworth does not hesitate to indict Leithart of some fairly significant historical and theological errors, fundamentally calling into question key aspects of both his descriptive account and his constructive agenda.
As someone known to be a longtime admirer and follower of Leithart, and deeply influenced by his theopolitical vision, yet more recently closely identified with the Calvinist International, some may be wondering what I think of all this. That is difficult to say with any certainty just yet, as I am still awaiting the arrival of my own copy from across the Atlantic, after which point I hope to draft a thorough review of my own. However, I’ve read enough about the book, and know enough of the background to it, that I can form some preliminary conclusions about the aptness of Wedgeworth’s review.
Although I might read Between Babel and Beast somewhat more sympathetically, I expect I would share several of Wedgeworth’s concerns, of which at least four in particular stood out to me in the post; they are worth calling attention to because they are recurrent features of much of Leithart’s recent work in political theology and ecclesiology. (Of course, they are not unique to Leithart, but can be found in much of the broadly Radically-Orthodox historiography and theology that has shaped Leithart’s own diagnoses and prescriptions; and indeed I recognize them in a lot of my own earlier thinking about many of these issues). I will content myself with merely listing them here, and recommend that you avail yourself of Wedgeworth’s thoughtful review, and read the book yourself with some of these questions in mind:
1) There seems to be a proclivity toward an idealist philosophy of history that is content with sweeping explanations of complex historical events as merely the concrete embodiment of pre-existing religious commitments, ideas which necessarily unfold themselves in time. Of course, oversimplification is to be be expected in a book of such wide scope and short length, but the objection is not merely that empirical complexity is being telescoped into something more generalized, but that empirical historiography is never really the method to begin with. This seems a natural product of the kind of grand-paradigm typologies in Leithart’s approach to the historical narratives in Scripture. The problem is that Scripture can be treated in a unified text in a way that history can’t quite—not so readily at any rate.
2) Related to this, but distinct, is an inattentive reading of the Protestant Reformation which heavily relies, in fact, upon Catholic counter-Reformational polemics, rather than the self-understanding of Protestant theologians and jurists as they forged new ecclesiastical and political orders in the 16th and 17th centuries. At a time when such Roman Catholic apologetics are increasingly resurgent, it’s important for Protestants at least to stand up and give their forebears a sympathetic reading.
3) At the heart of the account of where things went wrong and how they might be set right lies an aestheticized account of the Eucharist and of the structures of church discipline and government that surround it which consistently sidestep basic questions about how these ideals are concretely realized. What is a eucharistic counter-politics? If it is merely the cultivation of a new social ethos based on charity, then what exactly is gained by the language of counter-politics? If it entails concrete disciplinary powers for a juridical church authority structure, then exactly how are these to be enacted without becoming sucked into the very vortex of power politics that we are claiming to transcend, as they did in the Middle Ages?
4) Related to this, but distinct, is a systematic ambiguity surrounding the concept “church,” which does not fit recognizably into any established Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox traditions of ecclesiology, simultaneously displaying features of each while disclaiming its identity with any. This ambiguity may be largely masked behind the fashionable language of liturgy and ritual that speaks of the Church as a culture based on a cult, but at some point this sociological account has to make clear distinctions between the church of aspiration and the church of actual practice. How has the Church presented itself to us as a historically embodied reality? Within those constraints, what are the realistic potentialities of the Church as a shaper of politics, and what exactly is gained by using the singular rather than the plural “churches” or even “Christian people”?
I would be eager to see Leithart engage critiques such as Wedgeworth’s, as I think his recent work is rich with insights that need to be heard in contemporary political theology, and it could be rendered considerably more valuable if he could address and resolve some of these sources of ambiguity.