Leithart, Wilson, and What is this “Church” Thing Anyway?

Yesterday, New Saint Andrews College played host to a little-advertised but intensely interesting informal debate between Peter Leithart and Doug Wilson on the topic “Ecumenism and the Marks of the Church.” Any time when you get to see these two erstwhile Muscovite co-belligerents square off is a treat, but this topic held particular interest for me. After all, last year around this time I was working on an article for Theology Today which could readily have been given the same title as this session (the published title was “Sectarianism and Visible Catholicity: Lessons from John Nevin and Richard Hooker”). And last year on the same very date, April 29—a coincidence that Leithart failed to remark on—I was helping run a big event down at Biola University, starring the same Peter Leithart and on roughly the same theme: “The Future of Protestantism: A Public Conversation.” Indeed, I would almost like to self-servingly think of the gentlemanly little exchange yesterday as “Future of Protestantism” 2.0, only of course much smaller, without the livestream, and more importantly, without the #Stache.

The precipitant for both events was various summonses to “Reformational catholicism” issued by Peter Leithart on First Things, and in both cases, his interlocutors quite naturally wanted to know how the brand of catholicity or ecumenism he was advocating did and didn’t relate to classical Protestant ecclesiology. Yesterday’s event, like last year’s, was much too short and much too gentlemanly to bring nearly as much clarity as many of us might’ve liked, but there were still a few revealing moments.

Wilson kicked things off with an opening statement taken more or less straight out of the redoubtable Paul Avis’s magnificent Church in the Theology of the Reformers. Wilson noted that although Luther and Calvin focused their ecclesiology primarily on “defining the center” of the church, its communion with Christ through word and sacrament, from early on in Protestantism, there was a temptation to try and draw the circumference, by adding the “third mark,” discipline. Given that it is the very nature of discipline to be boundary-policing, it ought be no surprise that those who most stressed the use of discipline as a “third mark” were often quite preoccupied with defining the circumference of what counted as right discipline, and thus what counted as the church. Wilson sensibly observed that, although you won’t hold on to sound word and sacrament for very long without decent discipline (just as you mightn’t have a good garden for very long without a fence), that still leaves discipline as clearly a matter of bene esse, rather than esse.

Of course, Wilson did not note what Avis goes on to note, which is that even word and sacrament can come to be treated as circumference-markers, rather than center-definers, if you lay too much stress on the adverb “rightly” that goes along with them in the Augsburg Confession—the “word rightly preached; the sacraments rightly administered.” It goes without saying that they must be rightly preached, but if we feel like we have to decide just what counts as “rightly” to know what is and isn’t a church, then we may quickly get caught up in a lose-lose game of mutual excommunication. So I would’ve pointed out, but Wilson did only have a few minutes for his opening statements, so fair enough.

However, this is worth pointing out, because it highlights something of an ambiguity in Wilson’s position which took some time to clarify over the course of the discussion. After all, he opened by saying that the first step to talking about ecumenism is figuring out who we’re supposed to be ecumenical with, and who we aren’t. That is, who we cultivate brotherly ties in Christ with, despite profound differences (e.g., Roman Catholics), and who we evangelize as unbelievers (e.g., Mormons). Which means we need to know what the marks of the church are. Ergo, word and sacrament. This way of stating the matter implied that our first and most important task is to determine “who’s in and who’s out,” and we use the marks as our litmus test for doing that. But of course, as Avis shows, applied zealously, that turned out to be a dead-end in the 16th century. In the course of further discussion, Wilson did clarify that such “tidy-mindedness” was not really what he was after. On the contrary, he considered this the besetting sin of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, like any form of sectarianism (even a church as big as Rome can still just be a big sect), concerned as it is with drawing and policing clear visible boundaries to the church. The preeminent virtue of Protestant ecclesiology, Wilson would go on to say, was its willingness to live with messiness, accepting the provisionality of our boundary judgments as we wait the return of the Judge of all. Of course, this isn’t to say we can say nothing about who’s in and who’s out. There are some obvious “yeas” (why, the Reformed, of course!) and some pretty universally agreed-upon “nays” (Mormons, for instance), but there will inevitably be a substantial gray area, and we needn’t be too bothered by that. It is simply the nature of the case. At least, so I took Wilson’s overall position on the question to be, though I may just be imputing to him the conclusions I argued in my “Sectarianism” paper. But Wilson’s initial ambiguity determined Leithart’s initial line of questioning, which I will consider in a moment.


But first, a bit about Leithart’s opening statement. As might be expected, Leithart chose to take a biblical-theological, rather than a systematic-theological or historical-theological line. He talked a lot about Ephesians, and insisted that our starting point must be the affirmation that the Church is one in Jesus Christ. Indicative precedes imperative. If we start out thinking of ecumenism as our task of making multiple churches into one, then we’ve got it wrong to begin with. (This is a point I made in my recent post on “Two Kingdoms Ecumenism.”) Not that this affirmation of the indicative is just some feel-good reassurance, “Don’t worry, God’s got it all under control.” Rather, it is a rather demanding indicative, because it demands that we actually accept that all these branches of the church that we like to speak of contemptuously as “them” must actually be owned as part of “us.” (Although Wilson professed his agreement with everything Leithart said in his introductory remarks, this is one point where I have generally felt much more comfortable with Leithart’s practice than Wilson’s; Wilson’s rhetoric, whether or not he intends it this way, often tends to reinforce “us vs. them” dynamics.) So this indicative drives us straight to the imperative: “Walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” Get your act together and start acting like you are one. Leithart echoed here, and at other points in the discussion, his emphasis in First Things posts and at last year’s “Future of Protestantism” that the division of Christendom for the last 500 years is a grievous scandal, a harm to the church’s witness to the world, and likely a cause of many of the evils of modern secular society. He would later cite Brad Gregory (I couldn’t help wincing) to the effect that the divisions unleashed by the Reformation helped create “secularism,” and also argued that they were responsible for the rise of “statism” (I winced again, but Wilson piped up, “Now you’re just saying that to get me on your side!”).

Leithart’s use of the indicative-imperative framework, while salutary, left certain ambiguities of its own that, unlike Wilson’s, only deepened as the discussion went on (indeed, similar ambiguities were evident in his remarks at “Future of Protestantism” last year). For the claim that the church is actually at this present day one body on earth—Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, crazy episcopalians and crazy backwoods Baptists—it itself rather a Protestant claim. It is not one that the Catholic Church would have made; even after Vatican II, Protestant communions are not really deemed to be part of the one church, so much as somehow hanging on to Christ by the hem of his garment, by some special dispensation of good favor. In other words, to talk this way is to suggest that it is not institutional unity that is particularly essential, since the church is undeniably institutionally fractured at present. What Leithart seems to be calling us to, rather, is to a unity of spirit, of mutual charity and respect, rather than making more of our denominational differences than we ought. Of course, this does not just mean warm fuzzy feelings—it means also seeking to manifest that unity credally, liturgically, and in common works of ministry, as Leithart elaborated in response to a later question by Chris Schlect. But all of this, it seems, could be done to at least a considerable extent (presuming that nothing approaching full credal unity will be found this side of the eschaton), within the midst of existing institutional distinctions. The problem, on this understanding, is not that, since the Reformation, Catholics and Reformed and Lutherans and Baptists have all occupied separate communions, but that they have often hated and despised each other, and often still do. Fix the attitude problem and we’re well on our way to “walking worthy of the calling with which we are called.” No?

Well, perhaps not. For in fact, Wilson himself articulated something like this at various points, particularly when he invoked Lewis’s notion of the church as a house with different rooms. The fact of different rooms is not in itself a problem, so long as people get out of their rooms and mingle amicably in the hallways and common spaces on occasion, and all pitch in together to keep up the yard, etc. (That’s not to say that, on this understanding, all of the rooms need be unproblematic; some, perhaps, really need to be coaxed to knock down their walls or at least clean up their messes.) For Wilson, this meant that the diversity created by the Reformation, while certainly the result of some grievous misdeeds by various parties, and while certainly continuing to manifest all kinds of sins against charity, is in itself a good and healthy thing. Leithart begged to differ, but it was not always clear why. Perhaps he was just more pessimistic that the inhabitants of the various rooms were getting on in any kind of neighborly fashion, but was it also because he wanted all the walls broken down at some level? Was it, after all, an institutional unity that he wanted? One prominent thread of the discussion certainly suggested that this was the case.


I noted above that Wilson seemed at least at first to be keen on the importance of drawing very clear boundaries to the church in advance—i.e., are the United Methodists brothers and sisters to be loved and rebuked, or are they now unbelievers to be preached to? Leithart asked at several points, “Who is it who makes the judgments about the boundaries? What is the process for ruling people out? There has to be a process.”

Now, it was not entirely clear to me whether Leithart meant this line of questioning as a reductio or as an imperative. That is, was he saying, “In order to make those kinds of definitive judgments, you need a universal authority, and obviously you can’t have that, so you shouldn’t try to make such definitive judgments”? Or was he saying, “In order to make those kinds of definitive judgments, you need a universal authority, and we need to make those judgments, so we obviously need a universal authority”? Well, I asked him when we got to the Q&A, and he answered unhesitatingly, “the latter.” That certainly brought clarity, but at the same time confusion. For why would you want to say that? For the only way to effectually draw a definitive boundary line as to who’s in and out of the church (as opposed to making a mere pronouncement that leaves opinion almost as divided afterward as before), is to do so on behalf of an authority who has the power not merely to pronounce but to enforce. That is to say, to say conclusively exactly who does and doesn’t count as part of the church requires that you have a universal church judicial authority to make sure the outsiders stay outside. In other words, you need a pope and his whole apparatus. No?

I asked something more or less to this effect as a follow-up, but Leithart didn’t accept the line of reasoning. The Council of Nicaea, he answered, didn’t have a pope to make its resolutions binding. Why couldn’t we have something like that? I confess I was a bit surprised by the question, coming as it did from someone who’s written the best modern book on Constantine. “Well because we’d need a Christian emperor, of course!” I answered. In vain, it seemed, so I will press the point here.

What was it that made the ecumenical councils ecumenical, as opposed to all the others ones? Well, because they were called by the Christian emperors and subsequently given imperial authority. Beyond the boundaries of the empire, they only had as much authority as people chose to give them, which for a long time wasn’t necessarily that much—hence the long persistence of Arian and non-Chalcedonian churches outside of the bounds of the Roman and Byzantine empires. To be sure, conciliar decisions may and do, over long periods of time, often gain a widespread, even universal respect and can come to function, roughly, as boundary-markers. (Though once one tries to make them really concrete and sharp-toothed, they turn out not to be all that useful on their own. Leithart opined that all we would need was to agree to use the “Nicene Creed correctly interpreted” as the boundary of who all did and didn’t count as a church. But of course that adverbial phrase is the kicker. According to the Orthodox Church, none of us Westerners interpret it properly. According to plenty of orthodox Protestants, Leithart’s own Trinitarian theology is highly suspect, and conversely, according to his view, theirs is highly suspect, though presumably he would not unchurch them…but why not, really?) Wilson, at any rate, was quite happy with the idea of emerging consensus as a guide to the credal shape and visible boundaries of the church. But this takes hundreds of years, hardly providing the definitive authoritative boundary-drawing that Leithart wants to see. For that, you an enforcer—either Pope or emperor, and Leithart professed to want neither. So I remain confused.

Nor do I see why we need this boundary-drawing. As Christian individuals, we extend a judgment of charity to all who have outward profession of faith and baptism as brothers and sisters. Church leaders and denominations must be stricter for certain purposes, but they can also be pragmatic and case-by-case, depending on the issue in question. They do not need to co-sponsor a ministry conference with an apostate TEC church down the road, for obvious reasons, but they will probably still accept its baptism. They do not need to come to some definitive ruling about exactly how it does and doesn’t count as a church.

And indeed, at many other times (as in the Future of Protestantism event), Leithart spoke much more in terms of grassroots local ecumenism, rather than some grand global agreement as to who all recognized whom as members of the same family of Christ. On this, he and Wilson seemed to sing much the same tune. Ecumenism needs to start with local churches getting together with other local churches and looking for like-mindedness in ministry and public witness, and it gradually works out from there. Amen to all that! But none of that, so far as I can tell, requires any kind of firm or comprehensive a priori boundary-drawing.


Three other notes, and then I’m done.

1) One of the questioners thought he had pinned down the difference by saying that whereas Wilson was quite happy with the fallout of the Reformation, Leithart was sorry such a regrettable thing had happened. And indeed, Leithart can occasionally (not least in his “End of Protestantism” post a year and a half back) sound a bit like John Henry Newman on this. But he soundly rejected the contrast, insisting that he warmly embraced the Reformation as a necessary witness then, and indeed in most respects still now, even if the legacy of division it has left us is lamentable. Wilson, on the other hand, had no trouble acknowledging that the split between Luther and Zwingli, for instance, was the result of a fair bit of sinfulness, especially on Luther’s part, and should never have happened. So what is the difference here? It’s not altogether clear; it depends on how we sort out the confusion above. Is it that Leithart thinks that even if the rupture was necessary in the past, it needs to be institutionally repaired now, and the longer delayed, the greater the scandal? Or is it simply that he tends to look out and see mutual hatred and suspicion between Christian denominations, whereas Wilson looks out and sees cheerful cooperation? Hard to say.

2) Whatever their respective optimisms about Protestantism, it was at least clear that Leithart has a considerably rosier view of contemporary Roman Catholicism. While acknowledging that Catholic ecclesiology had been sectarian, he insisted that Vatican II had changed things rather substantially. To my mind, this is a rather hasty judgment to jump to at a time when the Catholic Church is quite sharply divided amongst itself on how it understands the legacy of Vatican II, or whether it wants to pull back on all that “opening the doors to modernity” business altogether. Leithart also protested against Wilson’s judgment that Catholic ecclesiology betrayed the tendency of a “tidy-mindedness” that wanted to draw clear lines and not accept the messiness of the church in history. Quite the contrary, he said—most Catholic theologians he knew were more than happy to embrace the messiness. But that does not seem altogether to the point. The question is about the mindset evinced by Catholic dogma, not the personal dispositions of Catholic theologians; no doubt one can easily find every psychological type in almost equal abundance among both Catholics and Protestants.

3) The most revealing moment of the whole event came near the very end, as each was making their closing remarks. Wilson said, “I think one of the great problems in the history of the church has been a temptation toward an overrealized eschatology, wanting to see the church in history take on a form and a clarity it can only have when Christ himself returns.” Having just read Eric Voegelin’s masterful treatment of this issue in the New Science of Politics, I was nodding vigorously all through those lines. Thus, I was rather taken aback, to say the least, when Leithart rejoined, “On the contrary, I think the great problem in the history of the church has been an underrealized eschatology.” And I suppose, given Leithart’s apparent neo-Hegelian futurism, this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it did. Now, to be sure, it is not difficult to say that there have been many times and places in church history where lethargy and apathy prevailed, where the church refused to truly be what it was called to be, and very well could have been, at least in considerable part, if it had expended more effort. To this extent, the danger of “underrealized eschatology” is present whenever we simply accept the reality of the sinful status quo in the church and make no attempts to change it. So both Leithart and Wilson could have a good point, I think. Nevertheless, even if the temptation to underrealization might be numerically more numerous at most points in church history, comprising the large mass of nominal and slothful believers, it still seems clear to me that far more damage can be done by one “Spirit-anointed” revolutionary who thinks he is called to usher in the future than by ten apathetes waiting over-complacently for God to do the work. Moreover, from the standpoint of ecclesiology and ecumenism at least, it is hard not to be on the side of Wilson. Whenever the church has tried to define in history the eschatological scope of Christ’s kingdom, it has done some pretty horrible things; indeed, almost all of the post-Reformation divisions that Leithart so laments were the product of such preemptive definition.

Of course, the problem with any complaint that something has been under-realized is that it’s a lot easier to point to the defects of the present condition than to point out exactly what the future condition is supposed to look like, and how you’re supposed to get there. Hooker knew all about this (sorry, I just had to get Hooker in there somewhere). So I felt at last year’s Future of Protestantism, and still feel that it is with much of today’s fashionable ecumenism. We are quite certain that something is wrong with the present state of affairs, but we remain rather nebulous on what is supposed to succeed it; however, if we spend enough time and energy banging on about how bad the present state is, we rarely have to get around to elaborating on that latter question.

16 thoughts on “Leithart, Wilson, and What is this “Church” Thing Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Leithart & Wilson on Ecclesiology | New Saint Andrews College

  2. Nathanael Johnston

    Thanks for the write up. I am curious about your comment that Leithart’s Trinitarian theology is highly suspect. I don’t know much about Leithart’s Trinitarian theology so could you please elaborate (or direct me to some good sources on the subject).


    • There is pretty sharp disagreement at present that cuts across confessional lines (i.e., you’ll find these two camps among orthodox Protestants, liberal Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox) between “classical Trinitarians” and “social Trinitarians.” Of course, there’s a spectrum there, and my understanding is that Leithart wouldn’t classify himself as a full-fledged social Trinitarian, but he leans more that way. Classical Trinitarianism, as one finds it articulated pretty consistently in medieval, Reformation, and early modern dogmatic theology, emphasizes the divine unity and insists that although there is a real ontological threeness, it is not such as has many analogues to our creaturely experience. The three persons are certainly nothing like “three people,” three individual personalities, centers of consciousness, etc. Social Trinitarianism is by and large a development of the last fifty years, and prefers to speak of the Trinity almost as three fully distinct persons in the human sense of person, living together in profound harmony; accordingly, social trinitarians think that the Trinity can provide a pattern for human community, of diversity living together in unity. Much of the debate, of course, centers over how best to understand the Church Fathers. The Western Fathers were clearly in the classical Trinitarian camp, but some of the Eastern Fathers, like the Cappadocians, are much more debated. Plus, some, like Leithart, would say that regardless of the dogmatic tradition, we need to go back to Scripture, which emphasizes the plurality.


  3. Pingback: Wilson and Leithart Debate the Church - Notes from Mere O

  4. It seems to me that Leithart isn’t coming down on the social Trinitarian side so much as taking some of the insights of that school and interacting with them and opening them up to his own people/tradition. Just as I don’t see how the different models of the atonement necessarily contradict each other but are many facets of the same thing, so I don’t see why both emphasizing the oneness and emphasizing the threeness of the Godhead need be mutually exclusive. It seems to me that all Leithart says about the social, interrelational aspect of the Trinity in no way takes away from the unity and oneness of the Trinity. When it comes to traces of the Trinity in creation, especially in human relationships, it is not going to be mirrored exactly in miniature versions because we are not ourselves triune. We as individuals can bear and reflect the image of God because God is one. But human creatures need the interpersonal relationships of God’s created order to bear and reflect the threeness of the God-head: the man and woman/husband and wife together bearing God’s image and the children proceeding from them just as the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son.


  5. Sorry for the piecemeal comments…
    It seems to me that Wilson’s comment about the temptation to overrealized eschatology is absolutely correct when applied to doctrine and discipline within the various historic streams of formal church government and Leithart’s underrealized eschatology comment is equally correct when applied to practice (in other words, the love and fellowship of the saints). Is that a fair way to summarize their respective points in your 3rd thought above?


    • Leithart actually explained to me in subsequent correspondence that, “I meant that Christians (dispensationalists, for instance) don’t take the alreadyness of the kingdom seriously. Abrahamic promises are to be fulfilled in history, not merely consummated at the eschaton; the kingdom, new creation, etc comes in the first Advent. This would touch on interpretations of Revelation and the Olivet Discourse.”
      In other words, preterism. In which case, I’m more or less with him after all.


      • That’s a good clarification, thanks. I don’t find that much disagreement between Wilson and Leithart, especially when one takes what they say above in light of all their previous written work where they overwhelmingly agree (though not always). On most of their debate points, it seems like they would agree in principle but differ on emphasis/focus as well as practical application.


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