The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

In a cheery response to my ponderous (and as-yet unfinished, I am sorry) review of his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart counters my charge of an “addiction to novelty” with a declaration of his commitment to “the past for future’s sake.” It is hard to quibble with the substance of his response; indeed, my organization, the Davenant Trust (which Leithart is kind enough to plug in his post) could almost adopt as its motto “The past for the future’s sake”— maybe it should, come to think of it; Leithart always has had a better flair for marketing than I. Of course we should return to the treasures of the past, beginning with Scripture, “to find resources to edify the church of the present, which is, even while you’re reading this, rapidly becoming the church of the future.” Of course we should seek to “to reach back and rocket forward at the same time,” rather than treating the church’s past as a tunnel to crawl into where we can huddle for safety so as not to face the myriad new challenges that the present assails us with. It should go without saying that there is no disagreement here.

Leithart manages to imply that this is the point of disagreement by omitting the last clause of the sentence which he takes as the summary of my objection: “[novelty theology works by] somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries.” Now admittedly this clause is one that might make my marketing consultant wince, and so perhaps Leithart thought he was doing me a favor by omitting it—“conventional categories” are pretty thoroughly out of style, and “refined over the centuries” sounds like a pretty tedious business. But my complaint is not an antiquarian one; rather, it is a very practical one: the past keeps us honest.

Here’s what I said a few lines further on:

“It is only too tempting for theologians to try to repackage fairly traditional ideas as fresh new insights, and there are two particularly convenient ways to do so. One is to misrepresent and indeed caricature traditional doctrines, making them sound transparently ridiculous, so that one can then present a “solution” which is in actual fact fairly traditional, but which has “New and Improved” plastered all over the label. The second is to avoid answering some fairly fundamental questions about the new doctrine, leaving it vague enough that it can appear genuinely new, although if really pressed on these questions, the doctrine would seem to reduce into one of a couple of age-old types, one pretty orthodox and thus unexciting (to modern readers), and one probably heretical.”

In other words, my complaint about Leithart’s method, and others like it, is that it yields conclusions that (1) aren’t really that new and (2) aren’t really that good (or at any rate, not nearly as good as they could be, though in Leithart’s case this often means still pretty good). Somehow, Leithart managed to miss these fundamental prongs of my critique, aiming his rebuttal instead at an imaginary foe who denied that one should ever say or do anything new.


An extended metaphor might help us here.

The Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, and we should examine every step we take in its light lest we plunge into a pit or tread on a viper. And yet sometimes (most times!) it is useful to be able to see a bit of the broader landscape. This is what the dogmatic tradition of the church supplies. Think of a systematic theology as being like a map (or, in the case of some of those 17th-century guys, a full-blown atlas), which offers us an overview of the vast and treacherous terrain of trying to speak about our God and who he has called us to be in this world, as it has been revealed by intrepid explorers over two millenia. With the aid of this map, one can quickly gain a sense of the well-traveled paths that are tried-and-true ways of getting to one’s destination, as well as the craggy and unexplored heights which the more adventurous might want to explore one day. It warns one of dead-ends that will end on the edge of a sudden precipice, and of boggy morasses where the unwary pilgrim might lose his way for days or weeks. It shows where one can expect to find friendly shelter and protection among trustworthy comrades, and where one is liable to be waylaid by thieves or lured away by deceivers.

Now imagine someone comes along and declares that ours is a new era, that the landscape has changed so much since the maps were made that it is time to start from scratch and explore anew.[1] Now, he might be right from time to time (for the landscape does slowly change), but one can also imagine him triumphantly declaring that he has discovered a new pass through the mountains when a look at the map (or indeed, the recently-used campsites scattered around him) would tell him that it is one that has been in use for centuries. This would be a foolish error, but a harmless enough one, if he did not also pause to make a speech, deploring the oversights of his predecessors, who had been too blind to discover this wonderful mountain pass—more proof, if any was needed, that their maps should not be trusted. (This, of course, is one of my greatest complaints about Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements—he offers us soteriological insights that are often quite reminiscent of what the Reformers mined from the Scriptures, while telling us over and over how confused and unreliable those Reformers were.) So our intrepid explorer, in his zeal to do something new, would find himself more often than not, doing nothing of the sort.

Not only would such an explorer tend to tread well-worn paths while claiming to be a trailblazer, but when he did succeed in charting new paths, they might not be very good ones, or at any rate very useful at present. They would turn out to be rocky and circuitous, plunging through heavy vegetation so that any trying to follow after would be liable to get lost in the thickets and wander over a nearby precipice. Until our intrepid explorer had succeeded in clearing, smoothing, and signposting this new trail, the majority of pilgrims would be wise to avoid it, whatever its theoretical advantages. So it is with Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements—when it comes to the features of the book that seem most genuinely new (such as Leithart’s theories about “nature” and “natures,” and what it might mean for the church to be a “poststoicheic society”), they are also the most confusing and opaque. The nice thing about the well-worn paths is that they are, well, well-worn. The footprints of thousands of adventurers have crushed the brambles and smoothed out the treacherous bumps. Doctrines that have been refined over centuries, whatever their weaknesses, at least usually have the strength of having gained remarkable clarity (at least, for those patient enough to examine them) and having weathered the barrage of centuries worth of objections, becoming ever more refined through the process. Brand-new doctrines, like brand-new trails, don’t have this advantage. Indeed, they are often hard to make out at all, so that anyone trying to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazer is likely to miss the new path entirely and wander off a cliff. This is not to discourage the important work of trailblazing (whether in mountaineering or in theology); simply to note that any trailblazer needs to recognize that he has a lot of work to do (more than he can probably do single-handed) before he is ready to advertise his trail to the public and say, “Come and follow me!”


Let me close on a personal note. In his post, Leithart, as my teacher and mentor for many years, playfully reproaches me with a “Well he should talk”:

“During his time at New St Andrews College, he started new clubs and organizations left and right, and wrote a book-length study of Romans 13 on the side. During his PhD studies on Hooker at Edinburgh he found time to be serve as founding editor of a new collection of volumes on the Mercersburg theology and, more recently, he has become one of the principals at the freshly formed Davenant Trust. He wears me out.”

It is true that I have something of an addiction to novelty, that I am always trotting around trying to do something or start something new, instead of settling into one of the many perfectly decent pre-existing slots that the church and academy have to offer. You want to talk about wearing people out—just ask my poor wife! But it is precisely because I recognize this temptation in myself that this is something that I worry about so much and that I want to build safeguards against. I have learned to ask myself, “Is this really new? Is no one else saying/doing this, or am I just wanting to pretend it’s new so that I can have the glory of being the first to say or do it? If someone else is saying or doing it, is there anything that will make my version an improvement on what they have to offer? If not, I need to either go back to the drawing board and improve my proposal or else ditch it and focus my energies elsewhere?” The reason that I wrote a “book-length study” of Romans 13, rather than an actual book, to the annoyance of my publisher, was due to this realization; when I was two-thirds of the way along with it, I finally started studying the map of historic Christian political theology more thoroughly and decided that the trail I was trying to blaze was neither as new nor as good and useful as I had imagined it to be. No doubt I will find as time goes by that the same is true with other things that I have been rash enough to publish.

I also think there is something of a distinction to be made between ideas and institutions; the latter are likely to become worn-out and in need of replacing much sooner than the former. Accordingly, much of my work, inspired in large part by my mentor Peter Leithart, is dedicated to trying to breathe new life in to the old bones of Christendom by building new projects and institutions where the old ones are no longer quite serviceable. When it comes to doctrines, though, I have come increasingly to the view that you will generally get further by starting from a tried-and-true model, even if it can use some improvement and updating, rather than building from scratch. Leithart is a good enough biblical theologian (one of the best I have ever read, in fact, and certainly the best I have ever known personally) that when he builds from scratch, the result is frequently awe-inspiring. But even the best builder can only do so much working solo; there will be cracks in the foundation and loose joints in the woodwork. And one day it may all come crashing down on the unwary occupants. This is the danger of novelty-theology that I am concerned to warn against.


[1] A friend tells me that this metaphor is one that Chesterton already used in the introduction to Orthodoxy, thus proving my point in this section with beautiful irony.


One thought on “The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

  1. Pingback: On Theological Novelty and Cultivating Catholicity (Or, A Bit On Leithart) | Reformedish

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