Leithart, Peter J. The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.
Note to the Reader: A draft copy of the book with no page numbers was provided to the Prince on Preaching blog in exchange for an honest review; hence, any references to the book are by chapter.
Postmillennial eschatology. Very simplistically, postmillennialists argue that the world will gradually become an overwhelmingly Christian place as time moves forward, that persecution of Christians will eventually come to an end, that righteousness will slowly begin to reign over all the nations of the earth as it is in heaven in these days as the kingdom of Christ marches onward until its completion at the revelation of King Jesus. Postmillennialists, generally speaking, have a very positive outlook for a Christianized world future before the return of Jesus. In The End of Protestantism, Peter Leithart evaluates present day ecclesiology and argues that, through what he calls Reformational Catholicism—meaning the adoption of the World Council of Churches 1961 New Delhi statement on unity, the denominational divisiveness of the modern church might begin to be done away with in favor of a unified church to which Jesus Christ calls his believers in texts like John 17:21, 1 Corinthians 1, and Ephesians 4 (ch 2, 3). There is a Postmillennial-like hope that the modern church could positively change to become the unified church of eternity future while still in the present.
Leithart begins by arguing for a united church as the goal of Christ the King and by hypothetically demonstrating what unity of Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians might look like. Leithart then describes the divided church being mostly concerned with American Protestant denominationalism: a history of the Reformation, a defense of denominationalism, the case against denominationalism, and denominationalism’s dividing walls. In the third section of the book, Leithart attempts to show that the divided church is dissolving in America under the restructuring of global Christianity and under new cross-denominational alliances. Finally, the last section of the book proposes a way forward to create a unified global church under the death of denominationalism.
It is very clear that Leithart opposes the division found within the modern church. While he longs to see Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants reunited as one church, he certainly finds Protestant denominationalism most unhelpful because of the divisiveness present when so much commonality exists. Leithart states, “I dearly hope that the Protestant tribalism of American Denominationalism dies. I will do all in my power to kill it, not least in myself. I long to see…Protestantism slip into the grave—and I will not hesitate to turn that grave into a dance floor” (ch 12). From a biblical perspective, his concerns over the acceptance of division within the church and the effects of said division on evangelism and the glory of God from a lack of unity in the present appear legitimate (ch 12). However, it must be stated that unity does not demand uniformity in all things. A church, for example, can be a unified congregation in the gospel of Jesus Christ though full of non-uniform people from various socio-economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. The same principle applies to doctrine and truth as people are to be “fully convinced in their own mind” of what they believe, having examined the Scriptures, based on the fact that we only “know in part” in this age until Christ returns, at which point we will “know fully” the truth of the gospel of God (Rom 14:5, Acts 17:11, 1 Cor 13:9-12). “Being fully convinced in their own mind” implies a category of permissible division among Christians that doesn’t compromise unity in the gospel, in the oneness found in Ephesians 4:1-6, contra 1 Corinthians 1-4. In Protestantism, we can be unified as the church of God “Together for the Gospel” though, in practice, non-uniform over secondary issues such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, being convinced in our own minds, as we await the fullness of knowledge in the appearance of Christ. Perhaps denominationalism is not as divisive in the Lord’s eyes as it appears to some in this present age; perhaps ecumenism in doctrine and unity in the sense Leithart proposes is truly a product of the consummated kingdom of Christ and is a noble but over-realized eschatological dream for the present.
One of the great aspects of Leithart’s work is his focus on church history and culture and how understanding the previous five hundred years of the two brings insight to the present denominational structure found in American Christianity. See chapters four and five in particular. In the midst of the wonderful history lessons and cultural analyses, it is striking that Leithart basically points the finger at American religious liberty as the basis for the “institutionalization of division” he calls denominationalism (ch 1). Leithart writes, “A denomination only wants a level playing field where it can compete against other denominations: and may the best person win. It is a courteous way of being church. Denominationalism fits contentedly, cozily into a pluralistic system,” i.e. a system of religious freedom with no state religion. He continues, “Denominationalism is a meta-eccleisal system for a religiously pluralistic society. A denomination is not a disestablished church. Denominationalism is the established church of pluralism” (ch 5). Yet, to rage against denominationalism and pluralistic societies, giving post-Reformation state-churches a pass on the matter of denominational disunity, misses the entire point of the issue. The reality is that division within the Protestant church is fundamentally a hermeneutical issue and a conscience issue that has little to do with whether or not society is religiously pluralistic or monopolistic. The same divisions that are religiously protected in the pluralistic society of America existed in the state-church days of post-Reformation Europe; the only difference is that the existing division within the European state-churches was often squelched by coercion of the conscience or the chopping off of heads. While religious liberty and pluralism may enhance denominationalism, the fundamental issue dividing Protestants is hermeneutical, and the hermeneutical issue exists regardless of the state of religious liberty in a particular society.
One of the most illogical comments Leithart makes comes in chapter six when he declares, “Competitive pluralism in American religion “encourages religious groups to cater to people’s existing preferences, rather than their ideal.” Religious consumers look to congregations not “as an external force that places radical demands on their lives” but to “fulfill their needs.” Since pastors are financially dependent on, and beholden to, congregations that tend to support the status quo, pastors have incentives to restrain their prophetic pronouncements.” Prophetic voices can take hold, but typically only when they are translated into the terms of the American way. Thus doth denominationalism make cowards of us all.” To say that denominationalism in a religiously free society can be a temptation that pastors can use to subvert the gospel into a message to be manipulated for their well-being is one thing, but to declare that pluralism makes cowards of all people is a non-sequitur argument that does not necessarily follow. Because religious freedom can be twisted and perverted by unfaithful pastors who choose to serve men, money, and status rather than God does not mean all pastors are idolatrous cowards any more than having the freedom to eat food means that all people who eat will become sinful gluttons.
Finally, doctrinal fidelity is always an issue with discussions on ecumenism. While he states in chapter 12 that his proposal for an ecumenical way forward does mean that doctrine matters, Leithart seems to disagree with his Protestant confession about the nature of Roman Catholicism. He declares, “Yet, in fundamental ways, the Roman Catholic Church self-evidently exhibits these marks. They affirm foundational truths about the Triune nature of God and the God-manhood of Jesus; they confess the gospel, which is the narrative of Israel, incarnation, death, and resurrection” (ch 12). While the gospel, simplistically, is the narrative of Israel summed up in the person and work of Jesus Christ leading to a redeemed creation, Leithart seems willing to take a broad approach toward the doctrine of the gospel for the sake of unity contrary to the specific approach with which the Bible addresses gospel issues such as justification, sanctification, faith, and how they properly work together. Consequently, with good intentions, it seems difficult to see a way forward with Reformational Catholicism that avoids compromise over doctrines fundamental to the faith.
While some works of Peter Leithart are very helpful, such as his Old Testament survey called A House for My Name, The End of Protestantism is lacking. Because the historical analysis is moderately helpful, though insufficient at key points, and because many of the logical arguments assigned to the problem of denominationalism are really grounded in explicit sin rather in pluralistic societies, the book fails to properly ground division in the American church in denominationalism associated with religious freedom in a pluralistic society. Furthermore, because he does not take into serious account biblical issues such as freedom of conscience and the lack of perfect knowledge in this age, it seems as if the problem of modern denominationalism may not be as problematic in the eyes of the Lord as it is in Leithart’s eyes. While attempts toward doctrinal unity are commendable, The End of Protestantism carried a Postmillennial-hopefulness on global ecclesiology but did not convince.