Now and then, Protestants are stirred to ask whether the Reformation might be bad for the church and the world. Five centuries downstream from 1517, old objections come with the burden of knowing where things occasionally went wrong.
As Reformation heirs prepare to celebrate our 500th anniversary, we do so with a remarkable capacity for self-criticism. At its worst, Protestant self-critique can be a tiresome self-flagellation, a dreary round of virtue-signaling and posturing over the sins of others. But at its best, it can be a time for soul-searching, a source of insight, and a promise of revival.
Two new books show the range covered by the best Protestant self-critique. Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Brazos) and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Brazos) come to the task from very different angles. Vanhoozer comes to the conversation from a deep dive into the depths of the gospel. Leithart comes back to it from the future.
The End of Protestantism is the long-awaited expansion of the provocative shorter remarks Leithart has made in this vein over the past few years. He hasn’t exactly softened his tone. Here, he announces, “Jesus bids Protestantism to come and die.” But there is more: “He calls us to exhibit the unity that the Father has with the Son in the Spirit.” That is, “we are called by our crucified Lord to die to what we are now so that we may become what we will be.” What draws all of Leithart’s arguments forward is essentially a syllogism: Jesus prays for the church’s unity, and Jesus will get what he prays for, so the church will be united.
He sketches an expansive biblical theology of church unity, ranging from the first words of Genesis through Israel’s return from exile to the messianic kingdom of Christ. Anyone who knows his previous work will expect to find this sort of “deep exegesis” from Leithart the preacher. More surprising, perhaps, are the other two modes in which he operates: visionary and journalist.
As visionary, Leithart poses the question “What should the future church look like?” Fully admitting he is not a prophet and does not know how to get to the destination he describes, Leithart nevertheless lays out a vision of a global network of congregations all reading the Bible earnestly, taking the Lord’s Supper weekly, keeping the same calendar, honoring Mary without venerating her, trading in denominational names for geographical labels, and working for the common good.
As journalist, Leithart points to recent movements that are breaking down barriers between Protestants and non-Protestants. He recounts African church leader Kibongi’s formation of the Evangelical Church of Congo around the Mount Tabieorar Festival of the Aladura believers, as well as developments in China and Latin America. In each case, he wants us to see how these lively churches (and global Pentecostalism in general) are Protestant only in the sense that they are not Catholic or Orthodox. They diverge from classic European Protestant churches somewhat less than Luther diverged from Rome, but somewhat more than Wesley diverged from Anglicanism. What Leithart the futurist sketched out, Leithart the journalist sees taking shape here and now in global Christianity.
In the gap between the churches we are and the church we will be, Leithart commends “an interim ecclesiology” with a corresponding “interim agenda.” To move from our present divisions to our ultimate communion, churches should work for “federative unity,” remaining themselves but emphasizing shared resources. His main point is that the Reformers had a particular goal: the reformation of the entire church, not the formation of separate churchlets.
Leithart is sometimes interpreted as calling for Protestants to abandon ship; that’s because he is. He wants us to bail out of our sectarian boats. But he is not calling for anyone to transfer their allegiance to another vessel. For example, he warns evangelicals not to try to join the future church by joining the current Roman Catholic Church. That, he argues, would only cause greater sectarianism, since it would require denying the reality of their churchly existence so far, and it would preclude sharing the Lord’s Supper with family and friends. The ship we should row for, according to Leithart, is not Rome or Constantinople, but what he calls “future church,” when we will all be in the same boat.
Home Sweet Home
Kevin Vanhoozer, on the other hand, offers less a summons to set out on a journey and more a reminder of how good, and how unappreciated, home is.
In Biblical Authority after Babel, Vanhoozer responds to Protestantism’s conventional criticisms without being defensive or dismissive. He focuses on “the fissiparousness that has dogged the Protestant commitment of sola scriptura.” Fissiparous means “inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups.” It’s a word he never comes across “except in the descriptions or criticisms of Protestantism.” What most draws his attention is not the multitude of confessions and denominations, but the underlying crisis regarding “Bible, church, and interpretive authority.”
Vanhoozer’s solution is to retrieve the classic Protestant theology of the five solas: sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone). Compared to Leithart, Vanhoozer may sound past-oriented, but he says that “to retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully.” Perhaps we could picture him looking downward, into the depths of the reality that underlies the solas. He views them “not as doctrines in their own right as much as theological insights into various facets” of who God is, how he makes himself known, and what his purposes are.
This comes through clearly in his discussion of the first sola, grace alone. God shares his eternally self-sufficient life, light, and love, makes himself known to us in the Son and the Spirit, and forms a redeemed community. That is a wealth of theological riches, all from the first sola. Readers who have come to think of the solas merely as post-Reformation slogans may be surprised at how Vanhoozer excavates so much from them.
By the sheer profusion of doctrinal delights, Vanhoozer makes good on his claim that “the solas are essentially positive, rather than negative, insights into the presuppositions, implications, and entailments of the gospel.” In Vanhoozer’s analysis, “faith alone” points to the framework of responsibility and trust underlying all biblical interpretation, which is necessarily communal. “Scripture alone” points to the priority of God’s Word and its freedom to correct the church, rather than vice versa; “Christ alone” points to the gospel as the announcement of just how much there is “in Jesus Christ.” And “the glory of God alone” is fulfilled only when redemption is made known publicly by the people of God. “Discord on Evangel Way,” writes Vanhoozer, “impedes the final purpose of the gospel, and the glory of God.”
Vanhoozer asks how each of the solas can help us “retrieve the promise of the Reformation but not its pathology.” One way he does this is to draw out their implications for the crisis of biblical interpretation and authority. But another way he shapes each of the solas is by introducing “a virtual sixth sola: sola ecclesia.” Knowing that “church alone” does not sound like a very Protestant thing to say, Vanhoozer hurriedly clarifies: “The church alone is the place where Christ rules over his kingdom and gives certain gifts for the building of his living temple.”
So in its own way, Vanhoozer’s discussion wends its way toward the doctrine of the church. Leithart’s book is essentially one vast ecclesiology, a book about the church that also makes room for a few other doctrines that undergird ecclesiology. Vanhoozer’s book is more nearly a brief systematic theology of the gospel, which includes consideration of the church and its public face.
Presents for Protestants
Both books arrive right before the Reformation’s birthday, bearing gifts for Protestants. Leithart periodically describes his gift as the gift of death, which most Protestants are likely to leave unopened. But as Leithart would have it, that same box contains life after death for the churches willing to receive it.
Vanhoozer’s presents seem, at first, to be things that Protestants have possessed all along. But he emphasizes how the five solas are “seeds for a perennial reformation.” In other words, they must bring about change in whoever cultivates them. For all their differences in style and substance, Leithart and Vanhoozer recommend similar practical steps (public cooperation among churches, a focus on shared central doctrines underlying disagreements, hospitality toward the goods of other Christian traditions, etc.). Reading both books at the same time, I found myself sometimes forgetting which author made which claim. Who said, “The only good Protestant is a catholic Protestant?” Answer: Vanhoozer. How about, “Fissiparousness is no match for the gravitational pull of the gospel toward oneness in Christ?” Also Vanhoozer. But either time, it could have been Leithart.
The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope once posed the question, “What objections may be urged” against sola Scriptura? He answered this way: “Only such objections as may rather be turned into cautions,” and went on to warn about the ways sola Scriptura can be, and has been, wrongly applied. Books like The End of Protestantism and Biblical Authority after Babel are profound exercises in the most salutary kind of Protestant self-critique. Ideally, today’s evangelicals will have the grace to apply them judiciously to the tasks of reform.
Fred Sanders teaches theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. He is the author of The Triune God (Zondervan), which releases in December.
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