Do the differences swallow Protestant “orthodoxy”?

Kullervo was kind enough to point out that Protestant theologians have been tackling the Christian Unity problem lately in the form of a written debate and discussion of Peter Leithart’s call for a visible sign of unity between traditional Christians (during the oral discussion he explicitly said that Mormons wouldn’t be at the table.)   The links Kullervo shared give a good rundown of the discussion held at Biola University and the aftermath.

If anything, it was good to know that somebody very smart can point to what seems a huge problem in Christianity with few, if any, practical suggestions on how it can be accomplished.

Leithart said something during the discussion at Biola that resonated with my observations of Protestantism:

All members of Christ, recipients of the spirit, baptism and confession of certain truths, is a visible expression of unity, but those expressions of unity have become meaningless in the face of our differences.

I think this is on point.  Mormons are outside the boundaries because they don’t accept the summative doctrines of the creeds, but the differences between other Christian groups add up to dramatically different religious experiences, doctrines and spiritual foci. For a Mormon, the protestant world looks like a bunch of camps, with a barely visible unity, that essentially boils down to the Trinity, and often that doctrine is presented in a misleading or straightforwardly incorrect way.  The lack of unity, or even a path toward unity makes the Christian world look less-than-Christian to those who are (by definition) outside the tent.

Also, even if Mormons are properly excluded from the big tribe Leithart advocates, the way Protestants deal with Mormons shows some of the same sort of tribalism he feels is a leprosy on the body of Christ.  Identifying the tribalism on the margins of orthodoxy may help identify tribalism within.

From my perspective the entire discussion was very enlightening, and gives a very broad view of the differences between traditional Christians and why those differences matter theologically and historically.  I would recommend it to non-traditional Christians as a snapshot of what matters between the varied versions of Christianity, and how the differences grew and how they are sustained.


45 thoughts on “Do the differences swallow Protestant “orthodoxy”?

  1. I don’t think Protestantism can ever expect unity. Because the raison d’etre of the entire movement is rejection of institutional authority, centralized ritual, and limited Priesthood authority. Advocate for any of those things, and you basically threaten Protestantism itself. The entire movement is premised on organizational dysfunction.

    And they’re just going to have to live with that choice. Or go back to being something more along the lines of the Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.

  2. It’s interesting that Mr. leithart’s first name is Peter. Just sayin’.

  3. The real visible expression of unity would be the opening of the Communion railings to those in different denominations.

    Some of us Lutherans do that. Others do not.

    We believe all baptized Christians who believe Christ to be truly present in the meal are welcome at His table.

    Jesus didn’t set up barriers to His pure gospel. But we feel we must.

  4. And they’re just going to have to live with that choice. Or go back to being something more along the lines of the Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.

    Right. I think Leithart’s underlying vision of a Reformed Catholicism, at least within the U.S. Churches, is impossible to achieve in a calculated way. It would have to be a contagious social movement, that could break down institutional barriers. And he is explicitly hoping for a miracle here that will open hearts in the way that ideology closes them. He almost explicitly says that want’s all Christians to accept responsibility for all the problems within Christianity, and then act from Christian principles based on that sense of care and responsibility– a tall order.

  5. It’s interesting that Mr. Leithart’s first name is Peter. Just sayin’

    Are you saying that life is a synchronicity of chance?

  6. Leithart’s view of unity is very Protestant.

    I agree Leithart’s position is very Protestant and what he asks from the Catholics is another tall order. The Catholics don’t acknowledge the existence of any church outside theirs, they hold substantially the same position they did at the time of the Reformation. What he is asking is a big dogmatic shift that the Reformation and all that followed has barely nudged from a dead stop.

    The question for Protestants posed by the debate are interesting, and yet unanswered,i.e. what is “orthodoxy” from a protestant perspective (“mere” Christianity), how much of it is worth having (at what cost to the mission of the church), and what form should it take?

  7. So, I have sympathy for Dr. Leithart’s position that unity will begin with The Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. A liturgical renewal would be a great place for Protestants to start a self examination. But, you cannot have the renewal of word, sacrament and discipline that Dr. Leithart is calling for within the context of looking for “mere” Christianity and I am not sure that is the direction he was calling for.

  8. I don’t think “mere” Christianity it is the direction Leithart is trying for, but it seems like the obvious path to considering a huge group of diverse believers in diverse believes into “one body.”

    I think Leithart seems to be advocating extending Christian concern and interest across this group and tolerance for divergent believers, if not their beliefs. He clearly believes he has the basics of Christianity correct (i.e. Protestant-style), but is willing to embrace the heterodox communities in concern to the extent that they are part of the one body.

    The zone of concern is actually a very important point. Christian Unity presents the same sorts of theoretical problems as does international justice. Without the sort of broad zone of concern Leithart advocates (as impractical or vague as his suggestions may be), justice and unity across groups becomes almost theoretically impossible.

  9. I’m not sure how much Leithart you have read, but as Dr. Trueman pointed out in his remarks giving up the material principle of the Reformation in exchange for an undefined form of ecumenical Constintinian Christendom doesn’t seem like a fair exchange. Besides the questionable assumption that ecclesiastical unity is to be most valued it doesn’t do justice to theological views of any segment in Christianity.

    I stand by my view that Nicaea and Chalcedon bring Protestants imminently closer to the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox than to a non-Christian, I can cooperate with other Christians on a host of issues, but I would much rather have a principled disagreement than an artificial unity.

    To paraphrase John Owen, private Christians and ministers must be able to satisfy their consciences, as to their duty towards God, in conformity unto the will of Christ, in the observance of all his institutions and commands.

  10. After watching the discussion and reading Leithart, Sanders and Trueman, I thought Trueman was the most convincing in his arguments. He saw Protestants of his variety as dramatically separate from the Catholics not just in belief, but also in how the church deals with how individual members practice the faith —very solid points. Basically nothing has changed since the Reformation on these points, and those points were what the Reformation was about. He also pointed out convincingly that as a practical matter, Catholicism didn’t care enough about Protestants to even move an ideological inch. Protestant churches are not churches as far as the Catholic church is concerned.

    Sanders’ rhetoric about the Trinity also seems pretty convincing. The Trinity is an well vetted summation of an entire worldview. The Trinity seems like the only flag of Christian unity that you can practically wave.

    Yet I still have a soft spot for Leithart’s romantic optimism that somehow God will find some way of molding two similar peoples analogizing the Christian rift with the rift between the kingdoms of Isreal and Judah that was mended through exile. I still think mere vision that unity is possible–no matter how far it currently is from practical reality–is a good place to begin.

    I actually should re-listen to the discussion, (I am surprised how much this geeks me out)

  11. “He also pointed out convincingly that as a practical matter, Catholicism didn’t care enough about Protestants to even move an ideological inch. Protestant churches are not churches as far as the Catholic church is concerned.”

    The issue for the Catholic Church is that the authentic Church of Christ must have apostolic succession, a valid priesthood, and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It’s nothing to do with caring. These are essentials. Asking the Church to “give” on these would be like asking Protestants to give on the inerrancy of scripture, or Mormons to give on belief in the living prophet. It just can’t be done without asking us to apostatize.

  12. Asking the Church to “give” on these would be like asking Protestants to give on the inerrancy of scripture, or Mormons to give on belief in the living prophet. It just can’t be done without asking us to apostatize.

    I don’t think these issues are as black and white as they are made to out to be. Catholics don’t have to apostatize to find a way to embrace Protestants as siblings. Including Protestants within a zone of care requires continued engagement with Protestant as groups of believing Christians, even if they are errant.

    Mormons do this all the time without apostasy. By most commonly held doctrine, LDS Bishops have stewardship over all people who are within their ward boundaries, regardless of those people’s beliefs.

  13. I was addressing specifically your statement that “Protestant churches are not churches as far as the Catholic church is concerned”. This is true. (See Dominus Iesus at 17 p]. What makes them not authentic Christian churches, from the Catholic perspective, is (basically) lack of apostolic succession, priesthood and sacraments.

    I agree that engagement with Protestant churches is a good thing, but you were talking about the Catholic Church being unwilling to “move an idealogical inch”, which, to me, is something different. To the extent that “engagement” doesn’t occur, I don’t agree that it’s solely because of Catholic unwillingness or “idealogy”. The Church has already admitted, at Vatican II, that Protestants are Christians and therefore brothers (see, again, Dominus Iesus 17; see also Unitatis redintegratio []). Therefore “engagement” of one kind or another is not precluded, although I’m not sure specifically what you mean by that term.

  14. The Orthodox Bridge reviewed the Biola event commenting that…

    “Basically, what Leithart calls “Reformational Catholicism” is classical Reformation, one that Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, Bucer and others would have been very comfortable and familiar with. Furthermore, Leithart’s attempt to reappropriate the early church fathers resembles the Mercersburg Theology and Oxford Movement of the 1800s.”

    …and asking…

    “The discrepancy between modern day Evangelicalism and the original Reformation caused me to wonder: Are Evangelicals even Protestant?”

    It is triumphalist but interesting.

  15. On the other hand this response made me wonder if Christians have actually been providentially protected from institutional authoritarian unity in either its Erastian and Constantinian modes?

  16. I liked this thought from site Gundek pointed us to:

    “My pessimism [that Reformation theology will survive until past 2100] is rooted in what I call Protestantism’s fatal genetic flaw. Lacking a stable binding hermeneutical framework (Holy Tradition) sola scriptura gives rise to multiple readings of Scripture. This gives Protestant theology a fluid quality, one that results in theological incoherence. It also results in numerous church splits as evidenced in Protestantism’s fractured and decentered denominational landscape. Leithart’s failure to address the sociological consequences of sola scriptura constitutes a serious weakness in his presentation.”

    I think this makes sense. Leithart believes he can see (in a glass darkly perhaps) stable common ground when the principles of the Reformation do not provide any conceptual framework for unity.

  17. But the principals of the Reformation do provide the framework for unity, they just don’t embrace a One True Chruch © authoritarian enforcement mechanism.

  18. Protestants would say that the “framework for unity” is the Holy Ghost. The problem is that the Holy Ghost is invisible, so people tend to think that they see him in different places, and that he is saying different things, the result being disunity.

  19. I don’t think it should be controversial to say the framework for unity comes from our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit. I think a Protestant would also add the ministry, Scripture, and ordinances of God as the outward and ordinary means to call God’s people together

    The more I learn about ancient and church history, not to say theology, the more incredulous I become of One True Church© claims from anybody Rome, Moscow, or Salt Lake. Holy tradition has not brought unity to the Roman, Eastern, or Oriental Churches and the apostolic succession claims of Monson make as much sense as Kirill or Francis.

  20. First, for Catholics it’s not “holy tradition” that is supposed to bring unity. Unity comes from being united with your bishop, and the bishops being united with the Pope. If A is united with B and B with C, then A is united with C.

    If you mean that this hasn’t brought unity in the sense of eliminating any and all disagreements among Catholics, you’re certainly right. But it was never intended to do that. Ours is a mystical unity conferred by virtue of the sacraments, primarily baptism and the Mass, which are what give us communion with one another.

    When we accept this communion via baptism, we profess to believe all that the Church teaches. Those, therefore, who refuse submission to the Church’s teachings are disobedient in varying degrees; some merely by negligence in educating themselves, others more deliberately. But our sacramental unity remains; we remain one body (saving those who choose to cut themselves off from the body by mortal sin or obstinate heresy).

    This is the “principle of unity” as I see it. It’s not a mere matter of making everyone believe the same thing by reference to, or enforcement by, a central authority. It’s more organic than that, just as a family are united by blood even if some of the children are disobedient.

    Of course Protestants can say the same thing, that they’re all organically connected to Christ via the Holy Spirit. And they may be right. But whether and the extent to which each member is so connected with each other, is certainly a lot more subjective — from the Protestant perspective, that is. The Catholic Church acknowledges that we’re united with our Protestant brethren, objectively and organically, by valid baptism. It’s Protestants who tend to make unity dependent upon subjective belief in the correct things (on which basis they exclude Catholics), while yet lacking a final arbiter of orthodoxy.

  21. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

    1Tim. 2:5

    There is unity. Christ knows His sheep.

    There are believers and unbelievers in all manner of churches where His gospel for the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. The wheat and tares grow together.

    He will sort them out.

  22. Yes and the classic take away, “Exempting Nicaea and Chalcedon seems simply an arbitrary move aimed at keeping Mormons and the like out, with the Monophysites and Nestorians as collateral casualties, caught like dolphins in the tuna net meant for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

  23. I liked the way the author pointed out the problems with setting one particular doctrine as a unifying creed:

    “I find that Protestants who want to be “catholic first” and “Protestant second” often seem to operate on the confused assumption that order in time directly reflects order of doctrinal importance, so that Nicaea and Chalcedon are foundational as much for when they happened as for what they treat of. But this is actually taught by no one. Further, to privilege Nicaea and Chalcedon over Protestant confessions is a reversal of the order of knowing. The Gospel is proclaimed very clearly in the Scripture, but the Trinity less clearly; it is a shorter road to get to the Augsburg Confession from the letters of Paul than it is to get to Nicaea from the Gospels, and Nicaea and Chalcedon occurred precisely because of reflection upon the divine and Biblical background of our proclaimed salvation, that is, the Gospel. And although Dr. Leithart refers, in a recent post about the Biola event, to the controversy over justification being about “ambiguities,” the fact of the matter is that Luther or Calvin would be rather startled to hear things put that way; for them, matters were considerably clearer than that. The Popes agreed with them on this point; and weak modern whitewashes like the so-called Joint Declaration have changed nothing at all.”

  24. Another interesting point:

    It is only if one supposes a radical relativization of the question of orthodoxy that one can arrive at Dr. Leithart’s idea of the corpus christianorum in any one place as an assemblage of baptized households whose primary bond, beyond baptism, is territorial proximity. His hope, I think, is that this de-confessionalized mass will rally around orthopraxy instead, which for him seems to mean certain niche ideas of liturgy implemented by like-minded clergy.

    Interesting observation. Mormons are not unified in doctrine or creeds derived from scriptures as other Christians are. Mormonism seems to have done something like radically relativized orthodoxy and adopted territorial proximity and orthopraxy as a basis for unity. In some sense Mormons believe in a “mystical unity” of all people that live within ward and stake boundaries,whether or not they are baptized members.

  25. Mormons may not be unified by creedal definitions but from the outside the hierarchy seems to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy pretty well. You don’t see women being ordained in some parts of the church.

  26. The United Kingdom is no less a constitutional monarchy just because they don’t have a written constitution.

    The fact that Mormon orthodoxy is not located on a written creed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Jared, sometimes I am baffled by your dogged determination to find something exceptional about Mormonism.

  27. Jared, sometimes I am baffled by your dogged determination to find something exceptional about Mormonism.

    Mormonism is obviouslyexceptional in many ways to many forms of religious practice. I’m not searching. Understanding Mormonism and how faith in Jesus Christ works in that faith vis-a-vis how it works in other Christian religions is the subject of this blog. That is what I am interested in– what believing traditional Christianity is, what believing Mormonism is, and what makes them exceptional and interesting as forms of life.

    From your comment it seems you think creedal Christianity is the same sort of thing as Mormon Christianity— i.e. that the LDS are not exceptional in the way they practice religion, just erroneous. Am I right? Do you think Mormonism the same sort of religion as Protestantism?

  28. Well, it depends on how you define “creed.” Under a general definition the Article of Faith are a creed, but that’s not really interesting in this discussion. (e.g. Mormons are absolutely Christian by that sort of broad definition, but such a definition doesn’t help define the real differences between Mormons and other Christians.)

    But after investigating how traditional Christian creeds seem to work in the faith and liturgy of other Christian traditions, I don’t think the Articles of Faith are functionally equivalent to a creed such as the Apostles Creed or Nicene creed. To follow your political analogy, both a king, a president, and a prime minister may all act as heads of state in different governments, but they are generally very different in character and not necessarily functionally equivalent.

    Sure, there are mechanisms that stabilize Mormon doctrine, but I don’t think they are the same as creeds in part because I don’t think Mormons read the scriptures the same way Christian theologians do.

  29. Perhaps the closest thing Mormons have to a written creed are the baptismal and temple interview questions:

    “Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
    Do you believe the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God?”

    But I see these as very different than traditional creeds in enough ways to make it confusing to call these the “LDS creed” in the context of this discussion.

  30. But of course counter-cultists might try to counteract this opinion, a prophet has discussed what the Mormon Creed is:

    “Let us observe the “Mormon Creed” – let everyone mind their own business. Everyone has weeds enough in his own garden to attend to without attending to the weeds in his neighbor’s garden, for while you are attending to the weeds of your neighbor, those in your own will grow very thick and tall and will finally spoil the good seed.”

    –Brigham Young, February 6, 1853, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young 2:618.

  31. Right, just like believers in Jesus the Christ are Christians. Its not a controversial view, but its not uncommon to hear people define “Christian” a bit more technically.

  32. I guess I wonder exactly what function you think creeds have functioned in Christianity?

    I read the temple recommend questions don’t find them particularity creedal.

  33. I guess a comparison would be a little more clear. These are the 5 questions for membership in the PCA, along with a personal confession of faith:

    1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
    2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
    3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
    4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
    5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

    While I think they show a significant distinction in doctrine from the temple interview these aren’t creedal definitions.

  34. How do you imagine that creeds work in the faith and liturgy of other Christian traditions?

    How do you imagine that Christian theologians read the scriptures?

  35. One other thing, creeds are going to be different from the LDS articles of faith in both history and practice simply because creeds are historical documents of the Churches corporate doctrinal understanding at a particular time. Creeds are Conciliar in essence and historical by nature.

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