Peter Leithart, Catholicity, and the Future of Evangelical Churches

            At the end of the Preface to his great little book The Baptized Body, Peter Leithart makes an interesting macro-level statement concerning the contemporary Church. That such a consideration works its way into the pages of this book should come as no surprise, concerned as it is with ecclesiology. Though a book on baptism, Leithart himself indicates that the most important chapter of the book is the chapter on the Church entitled “‘The Body of Christ’ is the Body of Christ.”[1] In that chapter, Leithart takes aim at the rigid invisible church/visible church distinction that reigns in so much of Reformed theology. He argues that the New Testament concerns itself not with the ecclesiological dichotomy of visible and invisible, but with a distinction between historical and eschatological. The Church is the future people of God, which is concretely instantiated, though imperfectly, in history. His central concern, then, is that the physical, visible, earthly activities of the Church in history, such as baptism, be given their real weight.

            Leithart’s statement in the Preface appears after he briefly situates the writing of the book within the “Federal Vision” debates in the Reformed churches.[2] Because of the controversy his views have generated in the Reformed world, he describes his intentions behind the book thus: “I like to say that the whole project is an effort to drag conservative Reformed churches, all kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century, the century of ecclesiology.”[3] The associated footnote notes that the word “twentieth” and not “twenty-first” was not a typographical error (this book was published in 2007), but was intended to stress, in Leithart’s words, that “one has to start somewhere and temper ambition with realism.”[4]

            The point is polemical. Leithart means to point out, I believe, that the conservative Reformed churches have largely ignored the ecumenical developments of the twentieth century, most notably the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, and the subsequent inter-denominational dialogues that occurred in its wake. The last century saw enormous progress in the goal of ecclesial unity (and hopeful reunification), which in turn generated a great deal of ecclesiological thinking. Yet many in the conservative Reformed world, and in the conservative Protestant world more broadly, have largely ignored this phenomenon.

            Part of the great appeal of Peter Leithart’s theological project is his awareness of this larger ecclesial horizon even as he keeps himself firmly planted in the conservative evangelical sphere. Indeed, he is attuned to the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the Church and world in the last century and frames his theological insights accordingly.[5] One clear example of these shifts is the more substantial entrance of Eastern Orthodoxy into the Western world. Christians belonging to this tradition—with their emphasis upon the earliest fathers of the Church, their commitment to liturgy, and their aversion for secularism in all its forms—happily shake up our predetermined categories for theology and life.

            The most obvious shift emerging from this development is the Protestant-Catholic relationship. On the Protestant side, theological differences with Roman Catholics need to be reassessed in light of Orthodoxy’s commitment to the first thousand years of the Church. If the Reformation was a pastoral reaction to abuses in medieval Catholicism, then what are we to make of the Orthodox Church, who avoided those later abuses and yet maintain practices discomforting to Protestants? From the Catholic angle, it seems harder to assert indissoluble ecclesial unity as an anti-Protestant polemic when Rome’s lack of communion with the churches of the East is brought to light.

            These were the sorts of things Peter Leithart was trying to get his conservative Reformed co-laborers to see. We no longer dwell in the seventeenth century, nor, for that matter, in the nineteenth, or even twentieth. This is not to assert a form of progressivism, as if things were always getting better. Rather, it is to acknowledge the times and seasons in which we live, and to attempt to ask the Lord what he would have us do with the days we have been given. That is why he wanted to “drag conservative Reformed churches, all kicking and screaming,” into our present moment.

            It is significant, moreover, that Leithart claims that he wants to influence Reformed churches and not merely individuals. This distinction is not a case of terminological hair-splitting. For it is possible—and much easier—for a single individual to exit their existing church in order to enter a more historically-rooted tradition. Growing convinced of the need for a robust account of the visible church, many individuals have done just that, and others are going to continue to do that in the coming days. No, Leithart is suggesting something much more radical, and, I might suggest, more pastoral. Instead of inviting individuals to join themselves to communions more grounded in church tradition, which inevitably would attract the more educated and leave behind the majority of those without formal theological training, Leithart is taking churches with him. It is, one might say, a household baptism.

            Now, critics to the contrary, I do not mean to suggest that Peter Leithart is covertly attempting to Romanize (or Constantinopolinize—that’s a mouthful) the conservative Protestant world. Though an admirer of Tradition, Leithart is a sort of biblicist. His vision for church reunification follows this (radically) Protestant framework and hopes for something new, a church yet unseen, neither Catholic, nor Orthodox, nor Protestant, but the best of all three, thoroughly grounded in Scripture. I mean only to point out, then, his desire to reform the Reformed tradition, not by leaving it or by inviting others to leave it, but by beckoning entire churches to engage with the wider Tradition, all under the authority of the Bible and in the hopes of ecclesial unity.

            I have my disagreements with Leithart, but I can’t help but admire the spirit of this project. Insofar as he desires church unity (in a robust, institutional sense), and insofar as he does not want to abandon evangelicals in that pursuit, count me in. It seems to me that it walks the narrow way between two extremes. On the one hand, there is the individual temptation to abandon the evangelical world for a more catholic tradition. The unfortunate outcome of this is the loosening of communal ties that are so necessary to the Christian life, with the result that these converts often unwittingly assert their individual autonomy over their brethren from their former, evangelical churches. On the other hand, there is the sectarianism so prevalent in the conservative Protestant world, which seems to flat-out ignore these historical shifts, and often the vast majority of the Church’s history.

            It is not my intention to make a blanket condemnation of evangelicals-turned-Catholic/Orthodox, nor is it my goal to pretend to understand the particularities of every local church that causes it to be suspicious of other traditions. Both could be warranted, perhaps. I myself cannot be the final arbiter for situations with which I am unfamiliar. Nevertheless, I believe that the way forward is something like what I sketched above, namely, a commitment to the local expressions of evangelicalism wherever possible, with the goal of bringing not individuals, but churches, into the fold of the Church’s Great Tradition, apart from which our faith rests on the shifting sands of our cultural moment.

[1] Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), ix.

[2] I refer readers to Leithart, The Baptized Body, vii-x, for a brief discussion of the central issues of the Federal Vision. I do not wish to wade into the particularities of this debate for a couple of reasons. First, I am not and never have been a member of a Reformed denomination, and therefore am simply a spectator to this internal feud. I will note, however, that the whole affair is highly illustrative of the internal dynamics of that ecclesial sphere to one unacquainted with the variegated and, indeed, dizzying systematic terminology that was thrown around in the kerfuffle (e.g., the imputation of the active obedience of Christ). Second, it seems to me that the particularities surrounding the Federal Vision debate have decreased and are decreasing in importance, with the continual ecclesial sifting I discuss further in the essay, as well as the ascendancy of Theopolis and its increasing turn to catholicity, that is, its constructive engagement with the broader Christian tradition and figures outside of the Reformed tradition altogether (a development I warmly welcome, and one with staying power, or so I predict).

[3] Leithart, The Baptized Body, x.

[4] Leithart, The Baptized Body, xn1.

[5] The key work in this regard is Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016). See also Peter Leithart, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), esp. 215-294, for a positive contribution to a theology of mission in light of large-scale historical change.

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