In his First Things column today, Leithart offers a few post-mortem observations.
Inevitably, after an event like the Biola panel on the future of Protestantism, one wakes up thinking of the things one should have said. Here are a few.
1) One thing I did say that I need to reiterate: It seems that the three participants meant different things when we used the words “Protestant” and “Protestantism.” For Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman, Protestantism seems to be primarily about doctrinal affirmations – summarized by the solas. What I mean by “Protestantism” is more concretely sociological and historical. The Reformation was a revolution in doctrine, but it was equally, and for many lay people primarily, a revolution in liturgical practice and piety. It was, whether anyone intended it or not, also a revolution in the church’s relation to political powers and society. As the churches of the Reformation have developed historically, they haven’t simply been communities that hold to the solas, but have been communities with a range of different social and political locations, different attitudes and interactions with Roman Catholics and one another. Protestant churches are far from uniform in their sociological and political contours, but there are common features. I affirm the Reformation solas, but they don’t exist outside historical ecclesial and political configurations.
2) Fred Sanders characterized the Evangelical churches as bearers of a message, particularly of a Protestant message. The church is the pillar and ground of truth, the herald of the gospel. But to say that the church’s message is specifically Protestant is, in the actual circumstances of post-Reformation Christianity, to make the church a tribe. I believe that where Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on the message and the meaning of the message, the Reformers were right. But Protestant churches are called to proclaim Christ and the good news of the kingdom, not to perpetuate a particular Christian tradition. Insofar as we are part of a particular tradition, we hold the particulars of that tradition in order to serve the church as a whole and to proclaim the good news shared by all believers with clarity and power. Talking about a Protestant message also suggests a mis-centering of the gospel. The gospel is not, as NT Wright points out, justification by faith. It is: Jesus lived, died, and rose again to be the world’s Lord. That’s a Christian message, not a specifically Protestant one. Protestants and Catholics proclaim that message differently in important respects, but we should be searching, praying, arguing for ways to proclaim that message in full unity of mind.
More fundamentally, describing the church as a bearer of a message is ecclesiologically adequate. She is the bearer of a message, but she is also the body of Christ, a Eucharistic assembly, a communion in the good gifts of the Spirit, the Bride of the Father’s Son indwelt by the Spirit. I suspect Fred agrees with me about at least some of that, but his way of describing the church functionalizes the church; it is support for the gospel, rather than the goal and embodiment of the gospel.
3) I should have made clearer the force of my argument about what Protestant churches are to do. I gave examples in my talk of ways that the Protestant churches might converge toward a common confession, a common liturgical and sacramental life, a common discipline. That is, I’d like to see Protestant churches converging toward classical Protestantism, but – and the but is critical – without anxiety that this convergence might make Protestants too Catholic. I would like to see every Protestant church celebrating weekly Eucharist and baptizing babies, for instance, without fearing that they will be mistaken for Catholics.
4) Several times Carl Trueman expressed the worry that my agenda would make it impossible for him to give comfort to people with the Reformation teaching concerning justification and assurance. I’m not sure I see the connection. I don’t believe we should use the Reformation confessions as standards for fellowship, but that “relativization” doesn’t eliminate pastoral and governmental uses and applications of the Confessions.
In addition, it’s worth observing that Catholics and Lutherans have come to a joint understanding of justification (the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” the JDDJ) that affirms the importance of assurance of salvation. That document states in part:
“34.We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace.
“35.This was emphasized in a particular way by the Reformers: in the midst of temptation, believers should not look to themselves but look solely to Christ and trust only him. In trust in God’s promise they are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves.
“36.Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life. In this sense, one cannot believe in God and at the same time consider the divine promise untrustworthy. No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.”
5) The JDDJ also addresses the expressed the skepticism and pessimism about the possibility of Christian unity: As the Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity pointed out, for all its flaws and limits, the ecumenical movement was able to make significant progress in coming to a common faith and common liturgical expression. A consensus emerged from the ecumenical movement that the Eucharist should be central to Christian worship, and there was progress in coming to common understanding of some of the doctrinal issues that have divided Protestants and Catholics, Orthodox and Catholics, Orthodox and Lutheran (in Finland at least).
6) Fred Sanders’s opening discussion of the “anchor” of the Trinity was left completely undiscussed. That was unfortunate. His suggestion not only provides a pathway for stabilizing Evangelicalism, but also, in my mind, provides potential avenues for cross-demonational unity. I wish Fred many more years of content-provision for the nascent Evangelical trinitarian community.