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. Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Pts. 2-3

(See the Intro and Pt. 1 here.)

Pt. II: Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross

Ch. 9: Superficial Providence

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

How have you used the doctrine of providence in your own life?  Has it been a comfort in true adversity, or a way of complacently avoiding self-examination?

How have Christians misused the doctrine of providence in interpreting American history?  Has it blinded us against a truthful examination of our nation’s history?


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Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Intro and Pt. I

Long-time readers will recall that last year around this time I embarked on a gargantuan endeavor to offer a thorough critical review of my erstwhile teacher and mentor, Doug Jones’s, long-awaited book, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross.  After seven installments and some abortive interaction from Mr. Jones, I had to abandon the project for lack of time, and repeated intentions to resume it have never come to fruition.

In lieu of a full review, then, I am offering here, in two parts, an extended set of discussion questions that I prepared for a book group this past month.  In these questions, I attempt, as I did in my reviews, to capture both the positives and the negatives of the book: on the one hand, prodding readers to take the book’s challenges seriously and try to apply them in our own churches, but on the other hand, critically examining the deep theological and ethical ambiguities of the book and how it might hinder, rather than help, the task of Christian discipleship.  I hope these will be of service to individuals and churches as they wrestle with these important issues.

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How *Not* to Do Historical Theology

I have been known to be in various times and places a fan of John Williamson Nevin, but re-reading his articles on “Cyprian” last night, I was a bit shocked and disappointed at his duplicity.  He sketches in the starkest terms the contrast between “Cyprianic Christianity” (which he takes to be normative for the early church as a whole” and Protestantism, always in terms flattering to the former and disparaging to the latter, and then constantly pulls back and says, “Hey, I’m not passing any judgments, man!  Just settin’ some historical facts on the table for your consideration.”  This shiftiness reaches proportions that can only be described as despicable at the conclusion of the fourth and final article, at which point, having ostentatiously declared the fundamental incompatibility of Protestantism with the early church, he says,

“If it be asked now, what precise construction we propose to apply to the subject, we have only to say that we have none to offer whatever.  That has been no part of our plan.  If we even had a theory in our thoughts that might be perfectly satisfactory to our own mind, we would not choose to bring it forward in the present connect; lest it might seem that the subject was identified in some way, with any such scheme of explanation.  What we have wished, is to present the subject in its own separate and naked form, not entangled with any theory; that it may speak for itself; that it may provoke thought; that it may lead to some earnest and honest contemplation of the truth for its own sake.  The importance of the subject, the nature of the facts in question, is not changed by any theory that may be brought forward for their right adjustment with the cause of Protestantism.  This or that solution may be found unsatisfactory; but still the facts remain just what they were before.  There they are, challenging our most solemn regard; and it is much if we can only be brought to see that they are there, and to look them steadily in the face.  We have had no theory to assert or uphold.  We offer no speculation.  Our concern has been simply to give a true picture of facts.  The difficulty of the whole subject is of course clearly before our mind.  We feel it deeply, and not without anxiety and alarm.  But we are not bound to solve it, and have no more interest in doing so than others.  We have not made the difficulty in any way.  We are not responsible for it, and we have no mind or care at present to charge ourselves with the burden of its explanation.  There it stands before the whole world.  It is of age too, we may say, full formed and full grown; let it speak then for itself.”

Reminiscent of “contraceptive historiography” at its worst, one has to say.

The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More