Peter Leithart’s “The Tragedy of Conversion” to Catholicism or Orthodoxy

Oct 18th, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts

Peter Leithart recently wrote an article in First Things titled “The Tragedy of Conversion,” in which he laments the conversion of Protestants to Catholicism and Orthodoxy as tragic. Orthodox subdeacon Gabe Martini, whose work is well worth reading, replied here, and Orthodox writer Robert Arakaki replied to Leithart here. So I’m a bit late. But perhaps I can add something to what Gabe and Robert have already said.

The ancient chapel under the house of Ananias on Straight Street in Damascus
photo by Jenn Helvering

In his article Leithart first writes:

I’m talking about cross-Christian conversions, from Protestant to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or the opposite. In calling such conversions “tragic,” I’m not suggesting that they always have adverse consequences for the convert. They may do, but not necessarily. In my view, someone who converts from drifting, unanchored liberal Protestantism to join a vibrant Catholic parish has made a step in the right direction, a step in the direction of Jesus.

In what sense then are these conversions tragic? Leithart continues:

What I have in mind is the logic behind some conversions, namely, the quest of the true church. Protestants who get some taste for catholicity and unity, who begin actually to believe the Nicene Creed, naturally find the contemporary state of Protestantism agonizing (as I do). They begin looking for a church that has preserved its unity, that has preserved the original form of church, and they often arrive at Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

What Leithart is criticizing as tragic is the quest for the true church. But the quest for the true church is a false quest only if there is no such thing as the true church. If there is such a thing as the true church, then we should seek it out. But, so far, Leithart has offered no reason to believe that there is no such thing. Simply presuming that there is no such thing begs the question against those testifying that there is such a thing. By subsequently wording the search as the search for “a church that has preserved its unity, that has preserved the original form of church” rather than as the search for “the Church Christ founded,” Leithart implies that he does not yet fully understand the “logic” of those he is criticizing. He still sees this logic as a search for qualities (e.g. unity, original form) rather than concrete identity, i.e. the very Church Christ founded. True church gets translated into “a church that has preserved its unity” and “original form.”

Protestantism defines ‘apostolicity’ in terms of form, not matter, whereas the Catholic (and Orthodox) understand apostolicity not as having certain platonic qualities (unity, form, truth) that could be instantiated into any community at any time, but among other things as being the very body, the very people, the very same community that, after Christ’s ascension, was composed of Mary and the Apostles, and into which they then poured their lives; that very same body that was in that sense built on the Apostles has spread all over the earth in organic continuity through time and space. By treating these converts’ quest as a search for unity and original form, Leithart overlooks the role of the paradigm shift these converts have undergone in their understanding of apostolicity, namely, from form, to body. The question for them is no longer “Which form?,” and the endless ecclesial consumerism that entails. Rather, the question is “Which body is the one Christ founded?” Therein do we find Christ’s form. Therein do we find Christ’s unity. Therein do we find Christ’s truth. One does not rightly become Catholic or Orthodox (according to either theology) because of their form or age per se, or the incense and candles, but ultimately because of their claim to be the Church Christ founded.

Leithart continues:

Apart from all the detailed historical arguments, this quest makes an assumption about the nature of time, an assumption that I have labeled “tragic.” It’s the assumption that the old is always purer and better, and that if we want to regain life and health we need to go back to the beginning.

Here again Leithart shows that he does not fully understand these converts. They do not think that the older Church is purer or better than the present Church. Holiness is one of the four essential marks of the Church (see here); the Church is not becoming less holy over time. Their “logic” has nothing to do with time per se. It has to do with matter, being incorporated into the very same body Christ founded. Which of the Apostles’ bones lies under an altar in Moscow, Idaho? Is that the Church Christ founded, or in full communion with the Church Christ founded? That’s a window into their logic.

He writes:

That, I think, is a thoroughly un-Christian assumption. Truth is not just the Father; the Son – the supplement, the second, the one begotten – identifies Himself as Truth, and then comes a third, the Spirit, also Truth, the Spirit of Truth. Truth is not just in the Father; the fullness of Truth is not at the origin, but in the fullness of the divine life, which includes a double supplement to the origin.

Of course nothing about believing that Christ founded a visible Church that has continued up to the present day, and into which we must be incorporated, either presupposes or entails or requires believing that Christ is not the Truth, or that the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of Truth. Leithart’s line of reasoning has gone wrong at the beginning, when he assumed that these converts’ logic was about a search for old form and old age, and not about identifying and entering the very Church Christ founded. He treated what was sought per accidens as what was sought per se.

Next he writes:

History is patterned in the same way. Eden is not the golden time to which we return; it is the infancy from which we begin and grow up. The golden age is ahead, in the Edenic Jerusalem.

And the church’s history is patterned in the same way too. It’s disorienting to think that we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia, disorienting because we can’t know or predict the future. But it’s the only assumption Trinitarians can consistently make: The ecclesial peace we seek is not behind us, but in front. We get there by following the pillar of fire that leads us to a land we do not know.

Here Leithart mischaracterizes the convert’s goal as “safety,” rather than as being in the Church Christ founded. He asserts without any supporting argumentation that “we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia.” Why we have to choose between these options he does not say. He seemingly implies that persons who look back into history to find and trace forward through history the Church Christ founded, are not being consistent in their Trinitarianism. But here too he gives no supporting argumentation, only offering a mere assertion. He concludes by asserting that the way to ecclesial peace is not behind us, but only in front.

What is presupposed in such a claim? Such a claim presupposes that the Church Christ founded is invisible, and hence that there is no such thing as schism from the Church founded, and no such thing as full communion with the Church Christ founded. If Leithart were correct, the Donatists did not need to look back to their separation from the Catholic Church in 311 to know the way to ecclesial peace with the Catholic Church. From that point on they should have marched forward blind to their history, blind to the fact of their being in schism from the Church Christ founded, studying Scripture and hoping that the Spirit would lead them into ecclesial peace.1 But that’s not how Sts. Optatus and Augustine addressed the Donatists. Sts. Optatus and Augustine articulated to the Donatists the history behind the schism, in order to make the case that the Donatists needed to return to the holy mother Church from which they had previously departed. And while Leithart acknowledges that he finds the “contemporary state of Protestantism agonizing,” his just-keep-swimming prescription implicitly assumes an invisible church ecclesiology according to which he should not find the contemporary fragmentation agonizing. The agony testifies to the required visible unity of the Church, but if Christ founded a visible Church, we must look back in history to trace her forward to the present, and make sure we are in full communion with her. The notion that unity comes only from the future presupposes that either Christ did not endow His Church with unity when He founded her, or that this unity has been lost. Both presuppositions, however, are not theologically neutral. The former entails that pursuing unity in this age outdoes Christ; the latter entails some form of ecclesial deism.

So Leithart’s admonition not to look to history to find the Church Christ founded is not a theologically or ecclesiologically neutral prescription. It presupposes that Christ did not found a visible Church, only an invisible one such that schism is only through apostasy. But that’s precisely one of the points in question between Protestants on the one hand, and Catholics and Orthodox on the other. So his prescription to these converts and to potential converts, is a question-begging prescription. It presupposes precisely what is in question between the paradigms.

In short, Leithart thinks these conversions are “tragic” because he thinks they are based on a faulty logic about time, a logic inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity and thus with Christianity. The problem with Leithart’s claim is not only that nothing about searching for the Church Christ founded is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, but fundamentally that he goes after a straw man, by construing the logic of these converts the way his own paradigm treats apostolicity, such that finding the Church Christ founded is reduced merely to finding a church that has preserved its unity and original form. And it goes without saying that knocking over straw men is a tragic sort of logic.

  1. See comment #7 in “The Bible Made Impossible” thread. []
Tags: Conversion, Ecclesiology, Schism

Leave a comment »

  1. From my experience, Protestants who become Catholic might initially be impelled in that direction by a reaction against liberal Protestantism, and they might be impelled in that direction by a search for something beautiful or “otherworldly” in a more ancient, and fixed, form of worship, which lifts us out of the contemporary.

    But that it not what keeps them moving in that direction. They would never make it through the nine months of RCIA if that was all they wanted. What keeps them moving in that direction is the certainty that truth is to be found there. Their conscience and their integrity are ultimately what get them to the Easter Vigil, not their sense of nostalgia. If they find that the “ancient Church” has preserved the fullness of truth from the beginning until now, that reaffirms them in the truth—but it doesn’t replace it or stand higher in their estimation.

    I would never have become Catholic if I were not convinced that it is the true church. The fact that it is “older” than Protestantism matters not a bit. Paganism is older than Catholicism; but I’m not a pagan, because paganism isn’t true.

  2. I agree with Scott. I didn’t leave Protestantism simply because the Catholic Church was older. That almost implies a sort of superficial conversion. What Leihart fails to recognize, at least in this article, is that intense spiritual experience of both heart and mind that a convert goes to on the way to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. For me, it wasn’t just the history, it was an objective fact of reality; it was the sudden realization that this Church is the Church.

  3. I saw Leithart’s essay elsewhere, and didn’t care to write the required longish response, essentially addressing the same issues you did. I felt he 1) didn’t or couldn’t understand why many of us have left the Evangelical church (I don’t know of any liberal Protestants who have made the move — why would they??) for the Catholic church, 2) set up straw men in his attempt to address the question, and hence 3) largely wasted his breath and ink in the endeavor, adding more heat than light.

    Additionally, in my experience, most of my friends who have left the Evangelical church, usually for the Anglican church (Catholicism is still too much beyond the pale), ARE looking for a historical church that embraces and encompasses more than their brain. In that sense, there is often little theological understanding of or seeking to understand (at first) what they’re walking into, they’re just generally unhappy and deeply unsatisfied with the insipid flatness/shallowness of many Protestant churches and find something in traditional worship that feeds ALL of themselves. Hence, I’ve found many American Anglican churches full of disaffected Evangelicals who are reacting to something they’re not entirely clear about, but feel they’ve found something that actually feeds them spiritually.

    For myself (and others) it’s been a 35-year journey, through the Evangelical, Episcopal and charismatic (Protestant and Catholic) churches, essentially knowing I would end up in the Catholic church, because 1) it’s the only group that knows where it comes from, and why, 2) theologically and practically is able to embrace the whole of human life and experience (no neo-Gnosticism or neo-Manicheanism, or unease with rationalism), 3) is unapologetic and unembarrassed about its orthodoxy, 4) can be traced back to the Apostles AND Jewish worship, 5) can enfold many differing yet orthodox expressions of our faith into itself, and 6) is completely cross-cultural. My journey has been entirely theological, feeling that Protestantism, particularly the Evangelical form, carries within itself the theological seeds of its own destruction, particularly now that there is less centripetal force keeping actual practice (orthodox) and popular theology (not entirely orthodox) together and to the orthodox center. The latter has gone off to its logical conclusions and their concomitant daily outworking in my lifetime. After finishing Lowney’s book, Heroic Leadership (on the Jesuits) I was both encouraged and depressed, realizing I’d spent the preceding 30+ years coming to the same place, as in the late ’70’s I had begun seriously considering the Jesuits — until I met my wife!

  4. It’s interesting that since becoming Catholic, I have become more generous in giving someone the benefit of the doubt in their convictions. Dose not mean I agree with them, but I am much more sympathetic to their emotional reasons and process of discovering who Christ is. In light of this article I hope more Catholics and Protestants can give people the benefit of the doubt in their pursuit of truth, not having to agree with them, just simply being less malicious and more loving to others in those discussions with each other.

    I find it frustrating at times when (some, not all) Protestants who ask me about my conversion are constantly analyzing me for some hidden deception in my responses, rather than taking me at my word. There is a huge difference between disagreeing with someone for reasons of theology, history, etc. and disagreeing because you “feel” their hiding their true reasons and are being deceptive.

    The question that always seems the most loaded to me is “what do you like about Catholicism?” I think that question has lead to assumptions like that of Leithart. I have since learned to respond with, “first let me tell you why I am Catholic?” After that, I feel more free to talk about all the beauty that flows from becoming Catholic. Does anyone here disagree with my hesitation on answering that question first? I think a Protestant talking to a Catholic could have that same hesitation as well.

  5. Where are these principled conversions to Protestantism Leithart invokes? One of the most compelling aspects of the investigation is the witness of so many perceptive, disciplined, and informed minds that have left Protestantism. It certainly seemed to me that if Protestantism was right in its claims that the paradigm would boast of just as many perceptive converts. Where is their Newman or Chesterton? Or anyone that comes anywhere close?

  6. Derek (#5), Luther and Calvin come to mind as Protestant counterparts to Newman and Chesterton.

    I don’t expect there to be any former Catholic theologians or clerics adopting of the more conservative Reformed or Evangelical strains. Though, I wouldn’t be as surprised to find a former Catholic adopting Anglicanism or any of the more liberal strains of Protestantism — especially among academics.

    I’d love to learn about those I may not know about.

  7. I became a Catholic (from having been a member of a Reformed church) precisely because I was looking for the ‘true Church’ – meaning the unique organisation that Christ intended all Christians to belong to. I had been taught by my Reformed pastors that the Church was intended by God to be visible, and to have authority. I recall saying to my wife, during my struggle, that at the end of all this, either I would be a Catholic, or else I might be some sort of Quaker – following the ‘inner light;’ that if the Catholic Church (which seemed to me the only plausible candidate for the position) were not the Church Christ had founded and intended Christians to belong to, that there was no such thing; that I would not believe in Church authority again, though I might join this or that body for pragmatic reasons; that, indeed, I would have to assume that the Scriptures themselves were sent from God only insofar as they provided me with some sense of spiritual profit.

    I believe that instinct to have been correct. I was received into full Communion with the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church on 24 December, 1995. I did not go from a “…drifting, unanchored liberal…” Protestant body to a “…vibrant Catholic parish…;” I went from a committed, serious, and vibrant Reformed congregation (which I had helped to establish) to a fairly run-of-the-mill and muddled Catholic parish – and to the mystical Body of Christ on earth and to His sacramental Body in Communion.

    I consider myself to have been infinitely the winner in the exchange.


  8. Eva Marie (#6) – I do have a number of formerly Catholic friends who have gone the other direction and joined charismatic or Evangelical churches, because of a spiritual deadness within their churches growing up, including someone who was supposed to be helping me through RCIA, but was actually moving towards becoming an Evangelical himself! LOL But in my personal experience, my liberal Catholic or Protestant friends stay where they are, simply finding a church or parish to their liking — or do a lot of complaining, or leave church altogether.

    Additionally, I’ve increasingly found the parishes I’m in able to easily appropriate some traditional Protestant hymns and charismatic praise songs (especially from Hillsong), much to my pleasant surprise, which only further broadens the already rich options available to parish musicians.

  9. Besides, his Trinitarian theology is all wrong. The processions in the Trinity are from eternity. That is, there was never a “time” before the Son or the Holy Spirit. Even that statement is problematic because the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit created time. One can forgive someone making a mistake about the technicalities of the Trinity, but to build an argument based on such an error is pretty poor theology.

  10. John Thayer Jensen, beautifully well said, brother.

  11. Thanks Fr. J, (re: #9)

    I was aware of that problem, and considered discussing it (in part because of my conversation with Leithart’s Trinity fellow James Jordan on God maturing in His divine nature — see comments #51, #53, and #58 in the “Doug Wilson weighs in on the Eternal Fate of Faithful Catholics” thread), but decided not to bring it up because Leithart’s entire appeal to the Trinity here is already based on a misunderstanding of the “logic” of these converts.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  12. Hunter, I think your hesitation to answer the question “what do you like about Catholicism?” is right on. Among Protestants there is a fair amount of church shopping. There is a lot of spoken and unspoken tallying and comparing the merits of this or that church against some other. The choosing of a church then is an expression of my preferences, some practical and some perhaps theological.

    Many who join the Catholic Church do so in a sense against their preferences. There may be much that that leave behind that they really love. For many they feel compelled to become Catholic because somehow they have come to see in her historical and theological truth. It isnt about what we like anymore.

  13. Hi everyone,

    I’m Lutheran and I’m pretty sure I don’t know what he’s talking about.

    What does this mean? “Truth is not just the Father; the Son – the supplement, the second, the one begotten – identifies Himself as Truth, and then comes a third, the Spirit, also Truth, the Spirit of Truth.”

    Is this a “Part D” supplement to salvation that I haven’t received yet?

    Levity aside, I read it to mean that he’s calling tragic the decision to switch from either an emotional response or after becoming disallusioned, they look for something with stability. But then he says, “someone who converts from drifting, unanchored liberal Protestantism to join a vibrant Catholic parish has made a step in the right direction, a step in the direction of Jesus.” How is that “tragic”?

    It seems like he forgot to say what this article is about; like I’ve walked in on the middle of conversation.

    I’m certain now, I’ve no idea what he’s saying.

  14. I said once to a Protestant friend who deplored my becoming a Catholic, and who accused me of seeking high liturgy, “If you want bells and smells, don’t become a Catholic. Become Orthodox, or high Anglican.”


  15. @John Thayer Jensen – What, in practical terms, would be the difference to your friend had you become Orthodox instead? Most of the things Protestants hate about Catholicism are also true about Orthodoxy: our rejection of sola Scriptura and sola fide, iconography, even some mariology.

  16. Paul DeYonghe (#15

    What, in practical terms, would be the difference to your friend had you become Orthodox instead? Most of the things Protestants hate about Catholicism are also true about Orthodoxy: our rejection of sola Scriptura and sola fide, iconography, even some mariology.

    Interesting – I don’t know what my friend would have said, but it is the case that during the period when I was struggling with the issue, one or two did suggest Orthodoxy. I have the feeling that for many Protestants, anything is preferable to Rome – even Orthodoxy.

    If that is what he would have said – and, as I say, one or two did suggest Orthodoxy, with a tone in the (written) words that amounted to what I said above – “at least you wouldn’t be Catholic” – then I suspect he would have, again, believed that what I was really seeking was either high liturgy or historical continuity. I was not. I was asking whether there was, indeed, one body on earth that Christ intended His followers to belong to.

    And of course Orthodoxy could not answer that, since Orthodoxy is not one body.


  17. Brian,
    Thank you so much for all the writing you do! This was excellent! Pray for me. I am in my first year at seminary for the priesthood. I entered the Church Easter 2011. I’ve passed this on to some of my friends who I have had good dialogue about the Catholic Church. This problem of not understanding why people convert is really a central issue. Most protestants presume a lot about the reasons. Much of the other people who have commented have already said what I would have said. God bless all of you!

  18. Scott, (#1) I agree with you. Other factors may certainly play a role, even in ways one cannot articulate at the time, both negative factors for leaving, and positive factors that may attract. However, as you say, quite soon in this process one is confronted with a paradigm difference in which the fundamental question is no longer “do they have the gospel” but “is this the Church Christ founded.” And once one has confronted that question, one cannot go back to ecclesial consumerism.

    Philip (#3), indeed, “more than their brain.” And more than shallow ditties or sentimental sap or condescending manipulation or dominance or entertainment by some type A center-stage. It is a longing for truth and substance over mere emotion, and authentic sacramental union with Christ over mere theological stimulation. To get beyond mere opinion, one starts looking for authority. To get beyond sectarianism one starts looking more deeply into history, to answer the questions: How did we get into this mess? How do we get out of it? What is schism? If I were in schism, how would I know? But Leithart says not to look back.

    Hunter (#4), I generally don’t answer that question, because the question presupposes ecclesial consumerism. See my post on ecclesial consumerism in which I describe a conversation of that sort.

    planaoprobaton (re: #13), Leithart thinks it is “tragic” because it is (in his opinion) based on a faulty logic, by which he means bad reasons. These converts are looking back in time to find a church that has preserved its unity and the original form of church. But, thinks Leithart, history develops and grows like an organism, like the Trinity matures (since, according to Leithart, creatures’ maturation mimics and reveals God’s maturing), and so the best is yet to come. If we want truth and unity, we need to look into the future, not the past. The problem with that position, as Fr. J pointed out, is that it is not only heterodox Trinitarian theology, but it is bad philosophy. God is not in time, and God is not maturing, or growing in any way. Such a notion violates the principle of causality: nothing can give what it does not have, and nothing can come from nothing. All that exists except God, has its being from God. So God cannot come to have more of something, because there is no place from which the *more* can come, and it cannot come from nothing since nothing can come from nothing.

    Michael (#17), Thank you, I will pray for you. I’m especially grateful for our seminarians. I had the great privilege of teaching at Kenrick for a year, and it was a tremendously rewarding year, and gave me greater hope for the Church, and a respect and admiration for all that seminarians go through to prepare for their vocation. May our Lady’s prayers be with you, and those of the North American martyrs, whose triumph we celebrate today.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  19. Hiya Bryan,

    Thank you for your response. I am impressed by the candor and the respect that is shown here, even when those commenting are less than ‘charitable’.

    I almost feel there’s a bit of a theological shell game going on in Dr Leithart’s article. I become wary when I sense something like that.

    He goes through disjointed steps to discusses the apparent lack of insight people have when changing ‘churches’. The church the ‘drifter’ is going to isn’t what the church will be, so they don’t base their choice on a valid reason of not being able to discern the proper church they should go to because it hasn’t formed yet.
    Then he opines to the end talking about a ‘dialectical” future church. The final line “We get there by following the pillar of fire that leads us to a land we do not know.” Sounds good, but leaves me feeling like I just read a James Cameron novel where nothing really changed, just some time passed and a few people died.

    Does that sum up Dr Leithart’s article? (Not the dying part).

    Your brother in Christ

  20. planaoprobaton (re: #19)

    Thanks. We made a commitment when we started this site always to uphold a high standard of civility, courtesy, and sincerity; neither rudeness nor insincerity are allowed, though playful good-natured levity is fine (and sometimes needed but lacking!). Without a commitment to civility, there is no possibility of fruitful dialogue, because discussion can quickly descend into something ugly, from which participants almost immediately withdraw in frustration or disgust back into the security of isolated communities each talking to itself. But that commitment to civility doesn’t mean that we cannot present criticisms or objections to positions. I’ve criticized Leithart’s position on idolatry, his view of justification in comment #171 and comment #174 of the “Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide? thread, I’ve critically evaluated his view of the authority of tradition in the body of this post, and his view of original righteousness and original sin here. So civility does not mean that we cannot express where and why we disagree. But we express our criticisms of these positions in the hope that it will help us all understand better why we are still divided, so that we can overcome the division.

    Leithart and the FV believe that all Christians should stay where they are church-wise, except when persons find themselves in liberal heterodoxy. And this stay-where-you-are notion is due to their view of catholicity, to which Matt Yonke has responded in “Too catholic to be Catholic: A Response to Peter Leithart.” (And I offered some comments in the combox under that article.) It is also because from the beginning FV was accused of being a gateway to Rome. I wrote some thoughts about that back in June of 2007. In response to this criticism, FV leaders have strongly voiced their opposition to Catholicism. The problem for them, however, has been that the conversions to Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue. Last summer I responded to a Leithart tweet in which he suggested that Protestants were becoming Catholic because it is a “cool and edgy thing to do.” And if you went to the link in the lone footnote above, you would see the following Leithart quotation in the context of a discussion about the problem of radical interpretive pluralism:

    Belief that the Bible is God’s word written encourages diligence and perseverance in the always unfinished task of interpretation, and it gives confidence that the Spirit will lead the church to truth as we stick to the Word He inspired.

    That’s Leithart’s solution. Don’t look back. Don’t jump denominations. Look into Scripture, and through the Scripture the Spirit will lead us all into unity. The problem with that proposed remedy, as I pointed out above, is that it begs the question against a good many of those from whom Leithart is now separated. If Scripture is meant to be interpreted within the Church, and there is such a thing as schism from the Church as something distinct from heresy or apostasy, and Leithart’s notion of catholicity is mistaken in the way Matt Yonke’s article explains, then continuing to appeal to Scripture alone only presupposes precisely what is in question, because what is in question *fundamentally* is not some interpretation or other, but how we are to come to Scripture, whether with the guidance of the Church or not, and if so, where is that Church, and what is the basis for its identity as *the* Church? In the order of inquiry all those questions precede questions about the interpretation of any particular passage. And those meta-level questions are the places where the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants lie. So to jump over them to first order questions is already to presume to have answered them in a particular way, and thus to have begged the question, i.e. presupposed precisely what is in question.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  21. Five years ago Michael Horton et al on the White Horse Inn did a program titled “What is a true Church?” which they reposted today, and which is very relevant (because virtually identical) to Leithart’s conception of Church in terms of form apart from matter:

    White Horse Inn: What is a true Church?” Oct. 26, 2008

    Notice that during the entire program, the four marks of the Church laid out in the Creed’s statement about the Church (“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”) are not mentioned once, not even once. Would Horton et al deny that line of the Creed? Of course not. But in practice, they are. Their ecclesiology takes shape as if that line of the Creed does not even exist. At one point one of them says (as a criticism of Evangelicalism) that it would be nice to have a church older than Billy Graham. Wouldn’t it also be “nice” to have a Church that was older than the sixteenth century, one at least old enough to be guided by the Creed?

  22. Thanks Bryan,

    “from which participants almost immediately withdraw in frustration or disgust back into the security of isolated communities each talking to itself. ” Which is why I feel comfortable here, I can sense a genuine spirit of peace. I’ve been lurking here for about 2 months, reading different articles, but more importantly; reading responses and the dialogues.

    So according to Dr Leithart, I should’ve stayed Baptist, or Assemblies of God at the least. I was still under my parents roof when we became memebers of the A/G. Since then my spiritual journey has taken me ’round the horn of Anglicans and into the Bay of Luther. (There were a few shipwrecks and founderings along the way). :p
    Although today I attended service with my mom at a Church of Christ, that’s a longer story, I can’t drive right now-short version-back injury, but I digress.
    According to Leithart’s notions, I’m a ‘tragedy”. Which may have some truth ;) On the one hand, what I’m thinking is that his view has a lot of presumptions. So how, on the other hand, does he setup the criteria for deliniating the range of the decision process?
    I’ve read about FV somewhat but not in any depth. So if/when I say something that isn’t valid, it’ll be out of ignorance. As you stated if it’s part of the FV’s paradigm, it seems almost passive/aggressive in it’s psychology. Is that a proper conclusion?

    Thank you Bryan

    your brother in Christ

  23. Bryan,

    Congratulations on your assessment of Leithart’s assumptions. He does indeed offer a “just keep swimming” approach to ecclesiastical unity, but in despair relies on a unity that is only achieved in the eschaton.

    Poor guy. He is strapped into the bus of Protestantism and its invisible driver.

    His trust is rather impressive, though, is it not? Somehow this driver will take him into an invisible future. And then, he labels this driver the supplemental God: the Father plus 2. hmmm.

    Well, I think you are correct to call him out on it. But then again, do you see your own assumptions at play?

    If there is such a thing as the true church, then we should seek it out.

    You can quote Cyprian, Augustine, Aquinas, and even Calvin if you wish. If the true church and false church dichotomy is what you want to believe in, no one can stop you.

    But the apostles and their Lord will not affirm your apodosis: “If there is such a thing as the true church.” Simply put, the adjective “true” is never taught by them to Christ’s disciples as a way to understand “church.”

    The Bible never calls a church true, or a church false. So you must swim, like Leithart. Exegesis of the Word of God is not your friend in this matter either. You swim back to schism’s origins. He swims forward to schism’s demise.

    I’d love for you both jump out of the pool and into the firm ground of Scripture.

    And just ask the question, “Is the idea of a “true church” taught in Scripture?”

    I would like to answer. “No. It is not.”

    Jesus calls the church in Sardis dead (Rev. 3:1). But it is a true church, for it exists, and He calls it a church. Were it a false church, would He call it “church?”

    The Lord of the church also calls the group in Laodicea a church (Rev. 3:14). Yet they are about to be spit of His mouth. Staggering, really.

    He, the Lord, calls them “church” and pledges conditional rejection of them if they don’t repent. They repulse Him, spiritually.

    Now for Him to call them “church” requires us to agree that they truly are a church (or else we are not His disciples) while at the same moment agreeing they are repulsive to Him. They aren’t holy, but they are true church.

    True church and false church aren’t categories Jesus teaches, but confounds.

    The Lord’s holy apostles never taught disciples of Christ to seek a true church as opposed to a false one. That’s a historic development based on centuries of schism. Leithart rejects the idea of finding a true church, though out of despair, not exegesis. Hence he stays on the bus. But true churches are everywhere. Ever see a church not gather?

    Do not seek the true church. Seek an obedient church, as I’ve written here:

    Enjoy, and thanks for the posting privileges.

  24. Ted, (re: #23)

    Congratulations on your assessment of Leithart’s assumptions. He does indeed offer a “just keep swimming” approach to ecclesiastical unity, but in despair relies on a unity that is only achieved in the eschaton. Poor guy. He is strapped into the bus of Protestantism and its invisible driver. His trust is rather impressive, though, is it not? Somehow this driver will take him into an invisible future. And then, he labels this driver the supplemental God: the Father plus 2. hmmm. Well, I think you are correct to call him out on it. But then again, do you see your own assumptions at play?

    I think this sarcastic approach is entirely unhelpful. If you think my own assumptions are at play in what I wrote, you should explain how. But if you wish to participate here, please drop the sarcasm.

    You can quote Cyprian, Augustine, Aquinas, and even Calvin if you wish. If the true church and false church dichotomy is what you want to believe in, no one can stop you.

    That’s fully compatible with the truth of what I wrote.

    But the apostles and their Lord will not affirm your apodosis: “If there is such a thing as the true church.” Simply put, the adjective “true” is never taught by them to Christ’s disciples as a way to understand “church.” The Bible never calls a church true, or a church false.

    In relation to Catholics, who believe that the Apostolic deposit is not limited to what is written in Scripture, the argument that since something isn’t written in Scripture, therefore the apostles and the Lord will not affirm it, is a question-begging argument.

    Jesus calls the church in Sardis dead (Rev. 3:1). But it is a true church, for it exists, and He calls it a church. Were it a false church, would He call it “church?” The Lord of the church also calls the group in Laodicea a church (Rev. 3:14). Yet they are about to be spit of His mouth. Staggering, really. He, the Lord, calls them “church” and pledges conditional rejection of them if they don’t repent. They repulse Him, spiritually. Now for Him to call them “church” requires us to agree that they truly are a church (or else we are not His disciples) while at the same moment agreeing they are repulsive to Him. They aren’t holy, but they are true church. True church and false church aren’t categories Jesus teaches, but confounds.

    You are using examples that pertain to particular Churches, whereas I am speaking of the universal Church that Christ founded. What can and cannot be said of a particular Church is not identical to what can and cannot be said of the universal Church that Christ founded.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  25. Bryan,

    No sarcasm intended (honest). I thought your analysis thoughtful and perceptive, and meant no disrespect for the man.

    In relation to Catholics… it is a question-begging argument.

    Actually not. I wrote, “the apostles and their Lord will not affirm your apodosis.” You, my friend, made the jump to Apostolic Deposit and affirmation. I reference what they actually said. You jump, not me.

    I am speaking of the universal Church that Christ founded

    Again, actually not. The universal church includes all those presently in heaven with Christ (Mat. 16:18) in addition to all those on earth who have a living faith in the Lamb of God. Those in heaven are not a part of the Roman Catholic Church. You speak of something unknown in the Scripture – a universal church that is strictly on earth.

    So again, I call you be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He called a true church something unholy in Rev. 3:14-21. You should do the same, and not seek the ideological construct of a “true church” but an obedient church.

    Again, thanks for the privileges of posting.

  26. Ted, (re: #25)

    Actually not. I wrote, “the apostles and their Lord will not affirm your apodosis.” You, my friend, made the jump to Apostolic Deposit and affirmation. I reference what they actually said. You jump, not me.

    Your argument that I am mistaken is based on the claim that the Apostles did not teach that Christ founded a true Church. But that premise is based on your assumption that everything they taught is contained in Scripture. When you use in an argument a premise that is not accepted by the person to whom you are making the argument, you beg the question. Since you used in an argument you made to me an assumption I do not accept, you begged the question.

    The universal church includes all those presently in heaven with Christ (Mat. 16:18) in addition to all those on earth who have a living faith in the Lamb of God.

    I agree.

    Those in heaven are not a part of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Again, that claim begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question. Christ doesn’t have two brides. For the Catholic, the membership of the Catholic Church Christ founded is not limited to those presently on earth. The Church Militant, Church Suffering, and Church Triumphant are not three Churches, but three parts of the one Church Christ founded.

    You speak of something unknown in the Scripture – a universal church that is strictly on earth.

    The universal Church I spoke of is not only on earth. So your statement [“You speak of something unknown in the Scripture – a universal church that is strictly on earth”] is a misunderstanding of what I said.

    So again, I call you be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He called a true church something unholy in Rev. 3:14-21. You should do the same, and not seek the ideological construct of a “true church” but an obedient church.

    If exhortations are the way to resolve disagreements, then I call you to submit to the Church Christ founded, and become Catholic. If, however, that doesn’t resolve the disagreement between us, then perhaps it is not realistic to expect it to persuade me. Exhortations are not substitutes for reasons and arguments, except when the person has no good reasons and arguments. Exhortations can be retorted with contrary exhortations, and thereby cancel each other out, just like ad hominems. That’s why in rational dialogue it is better to discipline ourselves to give reasons and argumentation, and refrain from insults and exhortation.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  27. Bryan,

    that premise is based on your assumption that everything they taught is contained in Scripture.

    Or, at least, that all we have of everything they personally wrote is contained in Scripture. Paul mentions two others letter to the Corinthians that are not contained in Scripture. They are presumably missing.

    Do you know of the location of these two letters? Do you know of other extant apostolic writings? Can you produce such?

    If not, then you are the one question-begging since you illogically jump from real apostolic writings to the writings of other men (which writings you want to call apostolic) even though you admit these other men who wrote these writings weren’t apostles.

    Bryan, my exhortation does not come without reasons and argument, but is accompanied by it: “I call you be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He called a true church something unholy in Rev. 3:14-21.”

    That argument either disproves your ecclesiology or is misunderstood. Therefore, either change your ecclesiology, or show why the Lord’s words are misunderstood here.

    To bring in the universal church at that point doesn’t actually deal with the argument: There is a church. It is called the church in Laodicea. It is unholy. Therefore, in it’s present condition, it cannot be a part of the universal church, which is holy.

  28. Ted, (re: #27)

    Do you know of the location of these two letters? Do you know of other extant apostolic writings? Can you produce such? If not, then you are the one question-begging

    You seem to be unaware of the Catholic position on this, which is that there is another option besides lost writings of the Apostles. That other option is the handing down of the oral Apostolic Tradition. See Section VIII of my reply to Michael Horton. That’s the Catholic position against which you’re begging the question in your claims above.

    He called a true church something unholy in Rev. 3:14-21. That argument either disproves your ecclesiology or is misunderstood. Therefore, either change your ecclesiology, or show why the Lord’s words are misunderstood here. To bring in the universal church at that point doesn’t actually deal with the argument: There is a church. It is called the church in Laodicea. It is unholy. Therefore, in it’s present condition, it cannot be a part of the universal church, which is holy.

    It is a true Church because it retained the Eucharist and Holy Orders, and thereby retained the means by which its members may be made holy. But its members were not living holy lives. From the fact that its members were not living holy lives, however, it does not follow that it could not be part of the universal Church. The universal Church is holy in the same way, even when its members are sinners, as is explained in “The Holiness of the Church.”

    At this point we’re far removed from the discussion of the post above, so for the sake of readers who would like to discuss the post above, I’m ending the rabbit trail here.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  29. Tim (re: #22)

    Welcome to CTC. Thanks for the comment. I don’t think it would be fair to Leithart to attribute to him the claim that any particular *person* is a tragedy. In his view, it is the *logic* (i.e. reasons) of certain persons converting from Protestantism to Catholicism and Orthodoxy that is tragic.

    So how, on the other hand, does he setup the criteria for deliniating the range of the decision process?

    Good question. You would need to ask him.

    I’ve read about FV somewhat but not in any depth. So if/when I say something that isn’t valid, it’ll be out of ignorance. As you stated if it’s part of the FV’s paradigm, it seems almost passive/aggressive in it’s psychology. Is that a proper conclusion?

    I don’t think so. At least I haven’t seen any evidence of that.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  30. Thanks Bryan et al, Good to be here :)

    “Don’t look back. Don’t jump denominations. Look into Scripture, and through the Scripture the Spirit will lead us all into unity.” Overall, not a very comforting…. Kinda reminds me of “Endeaver to Persever”.

    I’m wondering if what Dr Leithart is talking about, essentially as an “ecclesial consumer” choice, is mostly an American phenomenon?

    More importantly though, unity isn’t something that’s just ‘going to happen’, like the sun coming up tomorrow. It is going to be through hard work and sacrifice. We’re called to be workman, working with the Holy Spirit. This a great priveledge we’re given; God allowing us to participate in His work. How awesome is that? :D

  31. Bryan (#28),

    From the fact that its members [the church in Laodicea] were not living holy lives, however, it does not follow that it could not be part of the universal Church.

    Bryan, I’m sure if see how nonsensical your argument is.

    The universal church is holy and overpowers death, thus going to heaven (Mat. 16:18).

    The church at Laodicea, being unholy, gets spit out of the Lord’s mouth and goes to hell.

    Thus, it can’t be a part of the universal church.

  32. Ted, (re: #31)

    Bryan, I’m sure if see how nonsensical your argument is.

    It is a claim, not an argument. I claimed that one thing does not follow from another thing.

    The universal church is holy and overpowers death, thus going to heaven (Mat. 16:18). The church at Laodicea, being unholy, gets spit out of the Lord’s mouth and goes to hell. Thus, it can’t be a part of the universal church.

    As I said above, that conclusion does not follow from those two premises. And that’s because a particular Church remains holy in virtue of the Eucharist and Holy Orders, even when its members are not living holy lives and are not in a state of grace, as is explained in the second link I provided in comment #28. The holiness of the Church is not identical to the sum total holiness of her members. From the fact that the universal Church is holy, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her, it does not follow that every member of the universal Church is holy and elect-to-glory, already possessing the gift of guaranteed perseverance. And the same is true of particular Churches. The holiness of a particular Church is not identical to the holiness of its members.

    But as I said above, this is way off topic for this thread, so please let’s not continue it.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  33. I wouldn’t be hanging out here if I didn’t agree with the observations about the shallowness and overall flimsy nature of the modern evangelical Reformed church. In my city, it’s hard to tell the Presbyterians from any other generic evangelicals and leadership (even in the big PCA church) has responded by almost apologizing for baptizing babies. You never hear anything about the meaning of the Covenant and its implications for the believer. They don’t want to offend all those Baptists who are out church shopping!

    But, one of the biggest reasons I haven’t bailed is that it’s the evangelicals, and especially the Young, Restless and Reformed Types, who are having the biggest impact in my city when it comes to ministry to the poor. And they do it in a way that involves really getting their hands dirty – actually moving into the blighted neighborhoods, starting schools, getting involved at a truly sacrificial level.

    I know that many Catholic churches are indeed engaged, but I don’t see many RC lay members actively engaged. Lately a few have been actually getting involved in Young Life, but it just seems much more sporadic and less “intentional” than it does amongst the Reformed evangelical churches. When I probe about this with my Catholic friends, it always catches them by surprise. After fumbling around, they will mention that they do
    support mercy causes financially, or they volunteer occasionally. But it seems like it’s almost always having to do with something that the Church is sponsoring, such as an Irish or Italian Festival that does indeed benefit charity.

    I know that many folks here can respond with their own testimonies that are contrary to my observations. I don’t wish to insult anyone. I am simply sharing what I’ve seen, and heard. Even amongst Catholics I know who identify as conservative don’t think of mercy ministry (on a personal basis) to be a priority.

    My point is, sending lay members out into the community is an ancient practice. Seems to me that while Catholics can justifiably claim to have preserved the ancient faith in so many ways, it’s the evangelicals who are
    winning when it comes to the ancient practice of loving their neighbors.

  34. Jim Hale,

    I too am here because of questions, Doctrinally and historically speaking Catholics do have a place growing on me. But yes, where I live Catholics are here, but the work they do is hard to see. There are a few that I know who seek more charisma and evangelism, but because of the Church structure it hard for them to gain momentum. I’m not saying that Catholics, i.e. Bishops are against evangelism on a wide scale, just that by my observations, because of their long standing place in history they are pretty set in their ways. They haven’t had to start from go when a parish is built. There is no denying that evangelicals and some reformed are known for their action. However, I don’t think that implies either doctrinally speaking are are true, just by that standard alone.


  35. Hi Jim,

    I definitely need to do better on the mercy ministry part myself. But I know lots of lay Catholics who do great at it. I know lay Catholics in the Catholic Worker movement who exactly live out the model you described above right here in my home town. There are a bunch of them. I don’t know of any evangelicals who are doing it here, but I hope and pray they are as well. I’ve actually never lived in a town where the mercy ministry was not preeminently Catholic. But who can say whether your experience or mine is best representative of the average?

    At a larger level: why ignore the vowed religious communities? That was big in the early Church as well, as you will recall.


    K. Doran

  36. This conversation about who is doing the most direct service to the poor is fascinating to me. I remember a time not so long ago 70’s and 80’s when it was Catholics who were known for their direct service to the poor. After Vat. II, there was an instrumentalist view that took hold of the Church–that the Church only had value as long as it was making a practical difference. Lay ministries expanded and exploded all over the place. In these years it was common for Protestants to dismiss this work as “works righteousness.” Then something happened which has many causes–Evangelicals started rolling up their sleeves in the 90’s. Meanwhile, Catholics began to reject the instrumentalist view and return to value the sacred for itself. Devotions that had nearly disappeared came back with great force, Eucharistic Adoration, for example. Now we have Protestants chastising Catholics for not doing enough for the poor.

    Pendulums swing folks, and they swing on both sides of the fence.

  37. Well Said Fr. J

    I agree that many evangelicals along with all other flavors and denominations of Christians and also Jewish, Muslim and secular groups are doing great things in many place – it just may not happen to be in one’s own neighborhood, or certainly it is very possible to be unaware of what is going on right down the block because the people involved don’t happen to be within in our sphere of circulation.

    Beyond that, true for all but especially true for Catholics is that quite frequently people are involved in all kinds of groups and ministries that are outside of any particular church or parish organization. I think this is especially true among Catholics because there can be many Catholic associated ministries that are operated by different types of groups that are either only loosely associated with the diocese or that are independent. Evangelicals can and do certainly work with other groups associated more closely with another church or denomination, but Catholic groups have a particular strength in that Catholics generally feel very comfortable supporting and getting involved with Catholic organizations not directly associated with their home parish.

    A strength of the evangelical / protestant approach is that is probably easier to build a church community that has a very particular and focused ministry while Catholic Parishes are organized first around the Sacramental and liturgical life. Still, there are some Catholic Parishes – such as St. Andre Bessette – Portland that are incredibly focused on service to the poor as well as functioning fully as a parish with the Sacramental and Liturgical ministry. I admit that such parishes are far from the norm. What I caution is the sort of simplistic thinking that just because my parish doesn’t have [x] number of ministries to the poor we aren’t involved because we are, just not that directly. In general Catholics have a long, long history of community involvement and service and though that may wax and wane somewhat parish to parish and decade to decade it is not to be dismissed on the basis of casual observation.

  38. K Doran,

    No disrespect, but your comments illustrate my original point – that lay Catholics tend to instinctively look to organized ministries of the church and fully staffed organizations to do outreach in the community, as opposed to taking the initiative themselves.

    In my city we have a PCA church with a membership of about 700 on one end of a busy street and a huge Catholic parish on the other end, less than a mile away. Right in between lies a large, government housing apartment project which is home to refugees from all over the world.

    Many of those refugees are placed by Catholic Social Services. The amazing thing is, CSS relies on the PCA church to help these people! Where are the catholic lay members? I’m not trying to pick a fight here, but this is the reality.

    The PCA church has dozens of adult and teenage volunteers who help tutor kids, go on field trips, participate in regularly scheduled sports events, assist with medical needs – you name it.

    The Catholic Church is probably five times as large, and they are nowhere to be found.

  39. Wow. That is totally untrue. We have tons of people doing just what you described. And the catholic worker is lay people, not vowed religious. Just because the lay people have organized themselves doesn’t make it count less.

  40. The conservative Catholics I know want nothing to do with the Catholic Worker movement and its Marxist roots.

    What I have described is true in my city. Catholics may have been active at some time and they may be getting around to addressing the problem, but I haven’t seen it.

  41. I don’t much like Catholicism, in so far as I have experienced it.

    (I’m well aware that the tiny sliver of it which I have experienced is too small a sample set to be representative of the whole.)

    In my experience, the priests and other homilists are lousy at preaching, Father always assigns the same penance with no obvious regard for the nature of my confessed sins, the facilities are poorly maintained, and all things which ought to be done with excellence to honor the Lord – – from catechesis to music at Mass, from the art and architecture of the building to the outdoor festival on the parish grounds intended (?) to draw in the neighbors — all are shoddy, slipshod, mediocre, delivered in a weak and apologetic manner.

    If I were to go church shopping, the Catholic church would not be my last choice. For all my deep love of C.S.Lewis and Oswald Chambers, I find the Episcopalians are institutionally and doctrinally apostate beyond hope of recovery. So I’d take the Catholic church before them. And Westboro Baptist Church would likewise fall below the Catholic Church on my list, were I church-shopping.

    But I’m not church-shopping. My duty is to be in the Church Jesus described as His church, subordinate to the authority He instituted, if it still exists at all. (And if it doesn’t, then He is not God. But He is God. So it must still exist.)

    I became a Catholic because THAT Church is Jesus’ Church, with the fullness of the authority He placed in it to teach the world “whatsoever [He] commanded” and to render final judgments after which, if the person judged disregarded the decision of the Church, they would be put out of communion by the whole Church worldwide.

    So it is out of pure gut-twisting teeth-grinding obedience to Jesus Christ, that I am what I am. It isn’t a matter of my preferences. I wish my Protestant brothers and sisters, among whom I was raised and for whom I have great respect and love, would do me the courtesy of understanding that I did not become a Catholic because I like incense or sit-stand-kneel calisthenics. There are churches less to my liking than the Catholic church, but there are a boatload of churches more to my liking, also. But the Bride of Christ exists to please Her Husband, not to satisfy my peculiar whims.

    And if I can help with the bad sound systems with my offerings and my volunteer time, I will. And as for those things with which I cannot be of any help, I will pray about them and I will “offer it up,” as my new brothers and sisters are fond of saying.

    But I am in Jesus’ Church, and out of His Church I will not go. It’s not my job to be happy about the benefits of my membership, as if it were a health club. It’s my job to hold on to Jesus, by teeth and fingernails, until He comes to take me.

    Incidentally, it occurs to me:

    If all the Christians who’re so excellent at doing great worship songs, great architecture, great this, great that, great the other, in other denominations would just reconcile with Christ’s church and help the Catholic parish with equal vigor, I don’t suppose I’d have anything to complain about.

    So, one more reason to pray for reunion.

    P.S. A CAVEAT: I love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and the voice of His spokesperson granting me absolution in the confessional. And these things are of such inestimable value that I suppose, now that I have had them, I would not give them up even if my parish started doing the Agnus Dei as a rap. But I didn’t know, before I became Catholic, what those parts would be like. In my comment I was focusing on the parts I could know about, from the outside. Those, I found pretty lame. But they aren’t the reason to be Catholic.

  42. Jim Hale,

    Interesting point. I live where it is roughly 5% Catholic. Most I know are Calvinists who hate Catholicism, and the rest, don’t even know a Catholic, nor any church history. So I wonder if most in my area are sort of afraid to evangelize or if it is a cultural thing? It seems as though the Catholics in my town are for the most part very humble people about their faith, yet come across as very stale. I wonder if this is who they truly are, or if this is as one friend put it, ” a different culture.” If I’m honest, I would say a lot of this Christian social influence started as an evangelical movement more than a “Protestant movement.” Locally evangelicals and reformed are definitely the more visible, serving and preaching with the homeless population, and trying to stop sex trafficking, etc. However, I don’t think this satisfies those questions of, we do seem to have more fruit, in an influential and impact sense, but does that make what I believe right? Theologically speaking. Maybe Catholics are just behind when it comes to individual social action? I had a meeting with a young priest in my town. When I asked him about the problem of Catholic laity being uninvolved, he agreed completely and told me he is concerned about it and is trying to help change that. Maybe they have been playing defense so long they forgot that offense is the main calling. Don’t know, but I for one am not rushing to judgement on the matter. It is a long and very complicated history.


  43. Hi Jim,

    OK, let’s get one thing straight. Your perspective of Catholics being slow to do charitable works and live a simple charitable life has no correspondence with my experience whatsoever. It also completely disregards facts that are easily obtainable if you want to learn them. The huge discrepancy between what you’ve said and the Catholics I know — the huge discrepancy between what you’ve said and the Catholics you can easily learn about with an internet connection — is a problem.

    Let me tell you about the Catholics I know. The Catholics I know love the Eucharist and go to daily Mass. They love the scriptures and read them reverently. They love prayer and make it a center of their lives. They love the traditions of the Church and read the words of the saints regularly. They love the moral teachings of the Church and live chaste and honest lives. But you know what else they love? They love prisoners. They become friends with prisoners while they’re behind bars, and seek to help them lead better lives when they are released, giving them a whole car if that was what was needed to find work and get started. They love the poor, and voluntarily live among the poor, keeping few possessions so they can experience poverty in solidarity. They love expectant mothers, and founded (yes founded, not just joined) pregnancy centers that must serve about one out of every three pregnant mothers in our area.

    The Catholics I know give at least ten percent of their income away even when their income is below the poverty line. The Catholics I know go spend Thanksgiving day cooking a feast for the poor around our parish, and eat it with them side by side. The Catholics I know spend their free time in nursing homes visiting forgotten elderly and befriending those whose own families are too busy to care. The Catholics I know choose to live in Sudan and Haiti for years so they can take Ivy league educations and put them at the service of the poorest refugees you’ve ever seen or heard of.

    And that’s not all. The Catholics I know have five or six or eight kids even when it’s hard, because they love kids and they love each other and they are generous with God. And their families are places of light and joy and peace in the community. They are the cheerful givers that St. Paul exhorts us to be.

    And that’s just the lay people. Why forget about the others? Does service not count when it’s done so completely that it comes with a religious vow? Is it uninspiring to see young women and men give up every earthly hope and become Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom? When you see religious communities who spend all day singing and praying and working and living among the poor, with nothing held unless it is held in common, with eyes fixed on the kingdom and hearts joyful in their embrace of the cross, does that really not count for you? It’s not a fruit of Catholicism? Because it’s a fruit for the lay Catholics I described above, inspiring them to do just what you claimed we don’t do.

    You know what else? I know some evangelicals who do these things too. Some of them have now converted and become Catholic. But not all of them. But even though the vast majority of this work is done and lived by Catholics, you will never see me contacting Evangelicals and telling them they’re just not good enough. To me that smacks of at best bigotry and at worst pride.

    So, if you want to change your tune and make this about repeatedly insisting that I personally am not good enough to be compared with your super-holy comrades: go right ahead. I appreciate your concern for my soul. But have a care to be honest about the Catholic Church. There is no excuse to be otherwise.

    And as for your claim that conservative Catholics don’t like the Catholic worker movement. The most orthodox Catholics I know are their big supporters.

    You claimed initially that you were ready to hear a different perspective. If you really are ready, then accept that many people know very different Catholics then you know, and offer praise (and, frankly, an apology) where it is due. Not all are called to be teachers, brother. If you want to teach, then you have to be ready to learn. Learn this: the Catholics I know do more of what you described then anyone else I have ever met.


    K. Doran

  44. Jim and Zeke and others (on the topic of Catholics, Protestants, and social/cultural witness),

    Good conversation, brothers! Jim and I are actually friends off-line, and we have discussed this subject in the past. I do agree that, in the last few decades, lay evangelicals and lay Reformed have become much more active, in terms of a broad social/cultural witness, than many “conservative” (theologically orthodox) lay Catholics (at least in my experience. For example, I would like to see more lay middle-class and upper-class Catholics moving into poor neighborhoods and having a vibrant evangelistic and social/cultural witness. I think that it’s also important to remember, though, that these sorts of movements, among American evangelicals and Reformed Christians, are largely developments of the last few decades.

    Here is an example of what I mean. In 1947, Carl F.H. Henry, a “Calvinistic” Baptist (he was a long-time member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C.), published the classic book, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.” At that time, “fundamentalism” was much more of a broad, umbrella term than it is now, covering conservative, Bible-believing Protestants and evangelicals of all denominations, including the Reformed. Dr. Henry was very concerned about the almost complete *lack* of social/cultural witness among American evangelicals and Reformed Protestants (other than with Prohibition in some instances!). At that time, there was a wide unwillingness, among theologically conservative Protestants, to get involved in social and cultural action, because it was seen as a supposedly “liberal” tendency that would take one away from the “pure, Biblical Gospel” and into the “Social Gospel.”

    Now, fairly close to the same time, in another nation, the Reformed author and politician Abraham Kuyper held a *very* different understanding, and he was *highly* culturally and politically active, but by and large, conservative Protestants in America tended to be on a different, much less socially and culturally-engaged page. As Fr. J. pointed out above in his comment #36, pendulums swing, and at that time, Catholics were widely suspected of “works-righteousness” by conservative Protestants, and therefore, the American conservative Protestant tendency (lay and clergy) was to preach the Gospel and not get too involved in “other issues” (involving social and cultural witness).

    Since the early-to-middle 1980s (largely due to the pivotal influence of Francis Schaeffer, and, more recently, Tim Keller and Francis Chan), theologically conservative (orthodox) Protestants have moved in a more holistic direction, seeing social and cultural witness as an important part of an overall *Gospel* witness. Redeemer Pres. in NYC is a very visible example of this movement, as is my friend Jim’s Presbyterian church where he lives. By contrast, as Fr. J wrote in #36, in the last few decades, theologically conservative (orthodox) Catholics have been moving back to more of a focus on Eucharistic adoration, Marian devotion, and Biblical/theological study that is in conscious continuity with the Sacred Tradition of the Church. In other words, orthodox lay Catholics have been rediscovering and re-focusing on some of the things that too many Catholics lost, for various reasons, after Vatican II (but *not* due to the teaching of the Council itself!). In the process, many committed lay Catholics have become less focused on social and cultural action/witness. There is always a need for balance. It can be hard to maintain, but it should be sought.

    One last thought on the subject of mercy ministries: Catholics (both clergy *and* laity) have long been in the forefront of the pro-life movement. Since the mid-to-late 1970s (again, largely due to the influence of Francis Schaeffer), conservative Protestants have become more and more visible and active on that front. Thanks be to God that Protestant pregnancy counseling centers exist all across America, helping women in need and saving the lives of unborn babies! Let’s not forget, though, while we are discussing the lack, at times, of Catholic social/cultural lay witness, that Catholics, both lay and clergy, have *always* been active on the pro-life front. (Surely, that is a “mercy ministry”?) Catholics were there long before Roe vs. Wade– and many conservative Protestants (even the most fervent ones who believe that the Catholic Church preaches a false, damning gospel!) will say that the Catholic Church helped to wake conservative American Protestants up, in the first half of the 20th century, to the importance of protecting unborn human lives. Even now, when I attend the massive, annual March for Life in D.C., it is an overwhelmingly, visibly “Catholic” march. To be sure, some of our Protestant brothers and sisters are there, marching with us too, but when I was a Protestant, I heard little to nothing about the March from my Protestant friends, and I didn’t know anyone who actually went to it. If or when we considered it, the answer seemed to be, basically, “Preach the Gospel so that souls are saved, and hearts and minds are changed to be pro-life. Until that happens, it’s putting the cart before the horse to march about abortion.”

    I agree that more lay Catholics should be actively loving their neighbors in a bold, “take-the-initiative” way. I should do more to reach out to my neighbors. I’m not completely *inactive*, but I could and should do more. If I did not have a physical disability (and struggle with chronic pain issues now), I would love to be doing so, so much more… but even in my current condition, I should more actively love my neighbors. Thanks for that brotherly challenge, Jim and Zeke!!

    Last thoughts: Zeke, as a Catholic “revert” from the “Reformed Baptist” movement, I agree with you that *most* lay Catholics have a long way to go to even catch up with *many* conservative lay Protestants in the specific area of the vocal proclamation of Christ and His Gospel to those who who haven’t heard (and to those who need to hear again and come to faith in Christ!). I believe it was back in the 1950s that the great Catholic novelist and short-story writer, Flannery O’Connor (beloved by Catholics and Protestants and secularists of all stripes), wrote in a letter to a Protestant friend that most lay Catholics seem reticent about vocally, publicly expressing their faith. She wrote, “Perhaps you ain’t noticed that reticence about me!” :-) I like her way of thinking and want to embody it and live it out more and more, as it’s really a deeply apostolic, Biblical perspective and approach. For many reasons, over the centuries, far too many (but certainly not all) lay Catholics have tended to leave verbal evangelistic proclamation of Christ and the Church to ordained priests and to members of the religious life (nuns, brothers, etc.). Unfortunately, sometimes, *some* Catholic clergy have even encouraged this mistaken and unbalanced approach, which is part of a larger mistaken perspective called “clericalism.” People have been fighting against it for centuries from *within* the catholic Church. St. Francis de Sales is one notable example. St. Francis is another. Frank Sheed is a more recent example. Today, among lay Catholics, we have Peter Kreeft, Patrick Madrid, Scott Hahn, and many others– some of them known and published, but many of them not!– who are openly evangelizing and encouraging other lay Catholics to do so. St. Paul Street Evangelization, a lay Catholic movement which is becoming active in more and more cities across America, is an encouraging development. I’m hoping to help found a chapter of it in my area with some of my friends. Hey, wait, apparently, now there *is* a chapter in my general area! I have to make some phone calls! :-) Blessings, brothers (and any sisters who are reading)!!

  45. K. Doran (re:#43),

    I hear your passion in your reply to Jim. You seem offended by what he wrote. I’m not saying that I completely share his perspective, but he is speaking from what he has personally seen and experienced among both Catholics and Protestants. I know Jim. He attended Mass at orthodox Catholic parishes for years, while attending Reformed services too. He is not speaking from ignorance of Catholics. The Catholics in your area seem to be very, very vibrant in their witness. I fervently wish that this were the case in every part of the country, but there is still much progress to be made among lay Catholics (including me in certain ways). As a Catholic “revert,” I can easily admit that without compromising anything about the objective Catholic faith and my subjective (and glad!) submission to it. I understand what Jim is saying. If he were to become Catholic, I think that he would see more of what he would like to see from lay Catholics, but we’re all on a journey with God here. Some people struggle much more, and struggle with integrity, about the Catholic Church than others. I do believe that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be. I also know that Jim is my beloved brother in Christ, my personal friend, and, *far* from being an anti-Catholic bigot, is very Catholic-friendly, as are some of his Reformed friends.

    Again, K. Doran, I know that you are writing from conviction and passion here. I know that Jim is writing from his experiences too, both encouraging ones and frustrating ones. I only want all of us, myself included, to be careful to not alienate anyone from the discussions here who wants to be involved in them. Blessings to everyone!

  46. Hi Jim and Christopher,

    It’s not right that a small percentage (but large number) of Catholics should do so much for their neighbors out of Love for God, and then get ignored and dismissed in conversations like this. You’re darn right I am going to stand up for them. And I would do the same if someone claimed that Evangelicals don’t have a social witness.

    In my area, I’ve seen almost no protestant witness on anything that wasn’t started by Catholics first. But I would write an even more withering reply than I wrote above if some Catholic tried to generalize that observation to make (what I would view as) a sectarian critique of Evangelicalism in general.

    My suggestion to those of you who live in your area and are disturbed by the lack of Catholic social witness there is to honestly, really, and truly listen to people from other areas like me. Don’t just try to dismiss our experience as exceptional. Maybe your experience is exceptional. Then go on the internet and check out the fantastic groups of Catholics living radical lives all around the country. I think you’ll find that there are a lot of Catholics doing a lot of work, and that in many areas the Catholics are carrying almost the whole load on their shoulders. These brothers in Christ need your support, not your critiques.

    I get angriest when I see people judging others as not as holy as they are. If that wasn’t what you meant, Jim, then I apologize.


    K. Doran

  47. And Jim, I’m very glad you’re in this discussion, and I hope I did not alienate you from participating! I am honored to have a good man like you as my brother in Christ.


    K. Doran

  48. Don’t wish to offend anyone. Thought this is a place to share experience and perspective and it looks like many other commenters agree with my main point. I would probably be Catholic if it were not for this issue.

  49. Well, Jim, do you know that my experience is exceptional? Or do you doubt what I’ve said? If the answer to either is no, then I don’t see why you’re so sure that Catholicism is inherently associated with a lack of social witness. Don’t let this get between you and the sacraments. I can assure you that I am flabbergasted that anyone has agreed with you that Catholics lack social witness. It has no association with my experience. I encourage others to chime in with their stories if Bryan is up for it. When it comes to social witness, Catholics are not ashamed to roll up their sleeves. From what I’ve seen, they’re often the ones in charge. I encourage Bryan to share with you what he’s seen too, if he’s willing.


    K. Doran

  50. Here’s a ‘factoid’ from Sherry Weddell to help put things in perspective:

    In 2011:

    Over 61 million children and young adults were educated in well over 200,000 Catholic institutions world-wide. About 2/3 of the universities were in the third world.

    The Church ran over 121,000 hospitals, orphanages, clinics, dispensaries, counseling centers, and homes for lepers, the elderly, and disabled.

    221,055 parishes and 190,000 missions provided formal and informal assistance.

    EPIC :120 English from Catholics Come Home on Vimeo.

  51. Jim,
    I guess there’s little point in arguing personal observations. As a non-Catholic, I agree largely with K. Doran, although I find your comments not so much offensive as mystifying. I can’t imagine in what universe Evangelicals are doing more social ministry than Catholics, but maybe we’ll just agree to disagree.

    Where I’m really confused is in your admission that this is the one thing keeping you from swimming the Tiber. Are you saying that you believe that the Catholic Church is the church Christ founded, and that the Pope is His vicar, but you’re still holding out due to the (perceived) inactivity of Catholics? Or is this (perceived) inactivity conclusive evidence for you that the CC is not the church Christ founded? If the latter, don’t you think you should expand this research (into Catholic social witness) beyond your own locale and time period? Or was this all shorthand for something else entirely?

  52. @Jim #48 – Just a bit of perspective – my brother-in-law credits precisely this issue as the main reason why he converted *to* Catholicism from Protestantism. My experience (I am also a convert) is that Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in general do a miserable job of caring for the poor compared with Catholic Churches. You cite one parish – for which I am very glad, btw – which bucks this trend, however I don’t believe that one parish constitutes a norm for an entire denomination. I’d be very, very surprised (and pleasantly so) again based upon my experience in Protestant Churches of several varieties, including Reformed and Presbyterian, if the one parish you cite was representative of Presbyterianism as a whole, or of any one particular denomination within Prebyterianism.

    That is not to say that we Catholics can’t do better – my own parish, for example, needs to do a lot more work in this area, whereas my brother-in-law’s parish is doing a stellar job. Even within the same diocese, there can be parishes that are doing wonderful work, and others which are barely managing to do anything at all.

    BTW, I don’t mean to imply that I don’t believe we should be talking about these issues, because I’m glad that we are – and I’m glad that there does seem to be more interest in caring for the poor amongst Evangelicals and Reformed – that’s definitely all to the good. I also believe it is right to look at this issue when evaluating motives of credibility for Catholicism – I just think that a fair-minded and thorough look at the Catholic Church’s work on behalf of the poor is going to back up the Catholic Church’s claims rather than undercut them.

    Pax Christi,
    Jeff H.

  53. @Jim #48

    BTW I should also add, in case it wasn’t already clear, that, while I believe that the work that Catholics do on behalf of the poor is a great motive of credibility for the claims which the Catholic Church makes about herself, that there is no good reason to convert to the Catholic Church if the Catholic Church is not the very Church Jesus founded. And if it is true that the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus founded, then that is the Church that we need to be members of, regardless of how well or poorly it does this or that. And, need it be said, God might be calling you to become Catholic precisely because he wants you to breath some new life and energy into the Church’s efforts on behalf of the poor in the area where he has planted you.

    Just a thought…

    Pax Christi,
    Jeff H.

  54. K. Doran,

    To be clear, I meant that I understand what Jim is saying, in that I think he does have a point, regarding many (not all!) lay Catholics in *some* areas of the U.S. Some regions of the country really are in rough shape, with faithful Catholics having to travel some distance simply to find Masses without liturgical abuses and homilies without errant teaching. In these areas of the U.S., many (perhaps even most) Catholics might not be nearly as well-formed and vibrant in their witness as Catholics in your Diocese or my Diocese, where there are *many* good parishes. Even in my area though, in the spirit of honest self-criticism, I can see room for more of a holistic social/cultural witness from orthodox *lay* Catholics (like me), who tend to be strong on pro-life issues and defending traditional marriage but not always nearly as strong in personally reaching out to suffering people in the inner cities (and definitely not to the point of actually moving into those neighborhoods and living there, as some people from Jim’s Reformed fellowship have done!).

    I get that the Catholic lay witness is more active and much bolder in your area in this regard. That’s great!! In my and Jim’s respective areas of the country though, in his and my experience, there is much room for improvement from lay Catholics, as far as living truly *radical* lives of reaching out to the suffering– the kind of radical lives which cause secularists to be curious and inquisitive, in a positive way, about Catholicism.

    Here’s an example. I live close to Washington, D.C., where the Catholic University of America is located. It doesn’t bother me at all that the University is near to some of the rougher, inner-city regions of D.C. I see it as an opportunity for loving, incarnational lay Catholic witness. However, beyond the St. Paul Street Evangelization, which has more recently begun in the area, I am not aware of much *lay* Catholic activity in these parts of D.C. To be careful here, I could be missing (and missing out on) a good bit. I hope that I am. I truly do. (I also hope that if I am missing it, I do find more of that lay Catholic witness!) In any event, I find myself challenged by Jim’s words to find a way, even with my physical disability *and* my chronic pain issues, to actually get out to D.C. myself, in my wheelchair, and try to *be* more of that radical Catholic lay witness that I want to see in others! Therefore, I thank him for the challenge that he gave to me and other lay Catholics!

    However, I also wrote that I don’t *entirely* share Jim’s perspective (obviously, as I’m Catholic), and I wrote that I think he would see more of the lay witness that he perceives to be lacking if he would actually become Catholic. Actually joining the Church and being an active member of a parish can lead one to see more encouraging things than one can see through only, or mostly, attending Mass (even for years) at a parish as a Protestant. Even more importantly, if the Catholic Church truly has kept the ancient faith better than contemporary Protestantism (which Jim seemed to say, at least to some extent– Jim, please correct me if I misread what you wrote!), then in my view, that should trump a lacking Catholic social witness which *could* be improved by one’s own coming into full communion with the Church! Of course, I would say that, as I am Catholic– but I say it, ultimately, because if the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, then that consideration truly should trump all others.

  55. I would probably be Catholic if it were not for this issue.

    Be Catholic. Come home. You can help transform the parish you lament, and in so doing, not just impact a church, but The Church. Be the right kind of Luther.

    Pax Christi,


  56. The tragedy is not that Protestants with “a certain logic” convert to Catholicism, the tragedy is that so many Protestants (and Catholics) can misread their motives and logic and reduce their motives and logic to something easier to put on blast in a quick post.

    Whenever you summarize the “logic” or “argument” of another whom you intend to refute, it’s a good rule of thumb (and, more importantly, of charity) to (if possible) always ask them whether they recognize that logic or argument as belonging to them. If they can, you have successfully engaged in the first responsible step of dialogue. If they cannot, you may be like an adult referee who, after the adults leave the gymnasium, lowers the height of the standard basketball goals to about 7 ft. so you can do fancy slam dunks with nobody guarding the rim and compare them to the less impressive highlights from the games you just refereed. It’s easier to lower the rim and attack it when nobody is defending it than it is to attack it at full height while guarded.

    In other words, for charity to fully imbue polemics, you must engage in the type of dialogue that first of all seeks to actually confirm from your opponent as best you can that you have understood her logic and reasoning. If you can’t state their argument in a way they recognize as their own, you haven’t completed the first and elementary step of charitable polemics–which must begin with dialogue *before* it reaches polemics if it is to be truly charitable. Otherwise your just clothes-lining scarecrows and beating up shadows hoping others with be impressed.



  57. So according to Leithart I should never have went from Pentecostal to Reformed? I should have stayed somewhere I thought was untrue and had my children grow up in it because someday all churches will have unity? What about the Truth? I was a postmillenialist when I was Reformed, and certainly believedthere would eventually be only one Church… but I thought it would be a Reformed church. How can there ever be a unified body of Christians if no one leaves their denomination!? I really don’t understand what Leithart is saying here. Shouldnt we go where the truth is?

  58. Bryan,

    I am just now stumbling upon this post, but I wanted to thank you for your kind words. I appreciated your thoughts, as well.

    In peace,

  59. In November of 2013 Peter Leithart posted “The End of Protestantism” in First Things. That blog article provoked much discussion, including this reply from Fred Sanders, and this reply from Leithart. Two days ago, Biola hosted a panel discussion between Leithart, Sanders, and Carl Trueman on this question, the video of which I have posted below.

    (Thank you Gabe, and you’re welcome!)

    Update: Doug Wilson’s reply is titled “Keeping the Cathedral.” Carl Trueman replies at FT with “More Questions than Answers on Protestantism’s Future.” Peter Leithart followed up with “What Does Love Look Like?.” Brad Littlejohn’s response to the event is “The Uncertain Future of Protestantism.” Jake Meador sums up the round-up of responses.

  60. […] temp­ta­tion to respond, but Bryan Cross and Jason Stell­man had already given good responses here and […]

  61. In “Staying Put,” (May 23, 2014) Peter Leithart writes:

    My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.

    The implication here is that if you believe that Christ founded a unified visible Church, and she still exists, and one is obliged to be united to her and not remain in schism from her, then you must believe that God is dead. That’s not a safe assumption. It is odd to say in one breath that God “frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon” and then make projections about the future. Yes, Christ asked the Father to make His disciples one. And that is why unity is one of the four marks of the Church. Christ’s prayer in John 17, and His gift of unity to His Church does not prevent persons from falling into schism from the Church, as can be seen in the cases of the Novatians and the Donatists. The Novatians and Donatists also could have used the very same line of reasoning Leithart uses here, i.e. We don’t need to return to the Catholic Church; the united church won’t look anything like any of the “products” presently on the market. But that would not have justified the Novatians and Donatists remaining in schism from the Catholic Church. Leithart’s notion that the Church Christ founded either ceased to exist, or lost her unity, is the problematic presupposition, for reasons I’ve explained here and here and here. He treats schisms from the Church as cases of the Church losing her first mark, i.e. unity. But just as the Church did not lose her unity when the Novatians and Donatists separated from her, so she did not lose her unity when subsequent groups separated from her. Leithart’s “products presently on the market” metaphor aptly connotes the ecclesial consumerism that bypasses the more important questions: Where is the Church Christ founded, and what is the principled difference between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church?

    He continues:

    Creation itself is a process of tearing and reunion, but Day 2’s reunited cosmos wasn’t a repetition of Day 1. God divided Adam to make Eve and told them they would be one flesh, but Adam-and-Eve together doesn’t look like Adam. When Judah and Israel were divided, the future didn’t lie with one or the other but with a new Israel, as different from old, exilic Israel as fleshy bodies are from dry bones. The Jesus who rose was the same Jesus who was torn on the cross, yet he was so transformed that even his disciples didn’t immediately recognize him.

    All that is fully compatible with the present existence and continued unity of the Church Christ founded. Given Leithart’s reasoning, if only the Church Fathers had known about the Genesis story and the history of Israel, and the post-resurrection accounts of Christ, they would have known that it was fine for the Novatians and Donatists to remain in schism from the Church.

    God hasn’t stopped frustrating expectations. Who in 1900 expected that there would be 150 million Pentecostals and Charismatics in Latin America? Sure, charismatic prophets predicted it, but everyone knew they were mad. In 1900, there were 9 million Christians in Africa. Now it’s pushing half a billion, and many are members of AICs—African Independent (or Initiated or Instituted) Churches—that have no counterpart in the North and West. Who saw that coming?

    From the fact that the future surprises us, it does not follow that forming a schism or remaining in schism is justified. That would be like arguing from the fact that the future surprises us to the conclusion that foregoing baptism is justified, or foregoing conversion is justified. Such a conclusion does not follow from the premise.

    Present trends never continue. We’re never called to jump on the train we think is moving fastest. Why do we think we can spot the rising star and hitch ourselves to it? What makes us think the rising star is even visible? Whatever’s coming will be as different from what we imagine as a seed is from a tree, as surprising as global Pentecostalism, as fresh as a corpse brought to life.

    Again, the Donatists could have said the same thing. But as St. Optatus argued against them, the surprising nature of the future to us does not justify forming a schism from the Church, or remaining in a schism from the Church. God’s promise to provide our needs does not justify being lazy and not working. So likewise, Christ’s prayer of unity does not give us the green light to sit back and wait for God to do the unifying. We have a moral and theological responsibility not to form a schism or remain in a schism. It is a strange monergism that attempts to justify staying put [among the divisions], on the grounds that God will fix the divisions.

    I have additional reasons for staying contentedly on the Wittenberg/Geneva side of the Tiber and to the West of Constantinople. For all my profound admiration for Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and for all the vibrant renewal in those churches, I continue to have standard, biblically grounded Protestant objections to Purgatory, to Marian doctrines, the Papacy, and icons, as well as lingering puzzlement about ambiguities concerning justification and the role of tradition.

    Peter, let’s talk about these objections. Where are they? What are they? If you want unity, let’s dialogue.

    Though both are crucial to the future of Christianity, neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy is the Church of the future.

    This, of course, is a mere assertion. (How Leithart thinks he knows this, he does not say; he merely asserts it.)

    If I were to become Catholic or Orthodox, I would have to conclude that I have never participated in a full Eucharistic service. I would have to conclude that neither I nor my pastor friends have ever stood in loco Christi in the liturgy. I would go from a church where every baptized Christian is welcome at the Eucharist to a church that excludes hundreds of millions of validly baptized Christians, and I would never again share the Lord’s Supper with Protestant friends or family members. Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would, in my estimation, make me less catholic, not more.

    Matt Yonke has thoroughly addressed this objection in ““Too catholic to be Catholic?” A Response to Peter Leithart.”

    Leithart continues:

    Staying put is never staying put, of course. Always and everywhere, we respond though we will be changed. Lumen Gentium’s claim that the Church is “always in need of being purified” applies to every church, and unity will come as we all pass through deep, wrenching conversion. We should pursue this not in isolation but by cultivating what Paul D. Murray calls “receptive ecumenism.” Protestants have things to teach Catholics and Orthodox, and we love to do it. As many Protestants have discovered over the past century, we also have much to learn from other traditions—from Chinese house churches, charismatic Hispanics, and African Independent churches as well as Catholics and Orthodox. A catholicity of gift exchange, an ecumenism of mutual receptivity, arises from acknowledgement of lack, weakness, and failure. It is, as Murray says, an “ecumenism of the wounded hands.” Such humility isn’t unity, but it is already a precious gift of the one Spirit who animates the one body.

    I agree with the idea of “mutual receptivity” and an ecumenism of “gift exchange,” especially as a starting point. But Leithart’s proclamations regarding what God is going to do in the Church sound something like Pat Robertson’s prophecies. Does Leithart think he (i.e. Leithart) is a prophet? If not, then why should we believe his prognostications? But if he does think he is a prophet, then does he wish to be held to the standards of a prophet? (Deut. 18:20-22) If so, he needs to be more specific, so that we can test whether what he says comes to pass, and thus whether he is from the Lord. Moreover, if the Church is indeed “one body,” then she must have visible unity. But if she does not have visible unity, then she is not “one body.” Which is it?

    In the meantime, we live with the paradox of aiming at a target we cannot yet see, which is the paradox of faith, the blessed strain of following a living God.

    This is just one more denial that Christ founded a visible Church. And if Christ did not found a visible Church, it would be wrong to attempt to outdo Him in forming one, as I argued here. But if Christ did found a visible Church, then it would be wrong to presume that ecclesial deism is true, and that the gates of hell have prevailed against her, such that only her spirit remains, and not her unified body. Leithart’s teaching isn’t a Catholic-Protestant transcending position; this is Protestant invisible-church ecclesiology. I’m thankful for his words about the importance of humility, but it is difficult to see how simply asserting the falsehood of Catholic doctrines concerning the nature of the Church and the nature of schism from the Church, and claiming that converting from Protestantism to Catholicism or Orthodoxy is a “tragedy” are expressions of humility.

    Update: Devin Rose responds to Leithart here.

  62. Rusty, ultimately there is only one sufficient reason to become Catholic, namely, the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded. Any other reason treated as the ultimate reason, is ecclesial consumerism.

  63. I always find it odd when anyone professes a religion for any other reason than the conviction that it’s true. But then I am an INTP with philosophy in my blood and always tend to burrow down to first principles.

    It is not wrong per se to consider the “attractions” of Catholicism (or Protestantism, or any other belief system) but we have to be careful with this way of speaking and append the crucial qualifier — often missed — that the presence of these qualities has value insofar as it renders credibility to the claim itself — that is, makes it more likely to be true. I don’t know if Reno framed the article as he did for ecumenical reasons or if that’s just how he sees the issue but I am surprised by how consumerist he sounds here.

  64. @ CCK,

    I always find it odd when anyone professes a religion for any other reason than the conviction that it’s true. But then I am an INTP with philosophy in my blood and always tend to burrow down to first principles.

    I think reality is much more complex than will allow for such an expectation. Some examples: First, people’s convictions for why something is true could be based on very little sound reason, as is the case with most faithful Christians in the world who are not skilled in the learned art of philosophy and at best can parrot the arguments they hear from others. Second, people’s convictions about what “makes sense” to them is usually based primarily on experience and very little on broadly accepted knowledge, as is the case with most faithful Christians in the world who have never researched arguments for or against their religion in any substantive way—and perhaps the majority of which do not even have access to the luxury time it would take to do so or the books they would need to read to be informed even if they did). Third, those who do have access to books and luxury time are very selective in what they choose to investigate. Most Christians I knew in Seminary read mostly books written by other Christians, for example. By the time they read anything written by a non-Christian (if ever they ventured), they had already been indoctrinated to interpret what they were reading in a certain way, just the way many atheists who get indoctrinated with the “new atheism” are prone to interpret Christian writings a certain way.

    People can come to a conviction that something is true in many ways other than a calculated philosophical (and informed) estimation of what is most likely to be true (which raises the question of how one would know what criterion to use for how to determine why one thing would be more likely than another in the first place), and (I’ll be happy if you can point to a contrary consensus here, but) the path to religious conviction has been well established (from my understanding of empirical studies) to have little to do with research, the skilled use of learned philosophy, a quest for what is most likely to be true based on reason, evidence and argument, etc. Even the most educated people in the world (the minority) who have had the most luxury time to research and think as carefully as possible end up coming both to different convictions, and to same convictions for different reasons. It’s difficult to argue that the determinative factor in people’s decision to believe in a religion or not (whether educated or uneducated, well skilled in logic and philosophy or not) is something other than personal experience.

    In light of this, aesthetic judgments, intuitive impressions, experiential exposure, etc. (the sorts of reasons given by Beaumont in the post) are the most common reasons why people become religious in general–that is, they are the most common reason people become convinced that a religion is true. I agree people shouldn’t choose their religion or religious affiliations based on the perks of that religion in a case where they don’t actually believe the key doctrines of that religion, but to expect that all people come to the conviction that a religion is true for reasons of a different kind that what is mentioned in that post seems backwards to me, given all broadly accepted “facts” about human nature and what is actually the case.

    Your thoughts?

    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

  65. Regarding Leithart’s latest article “Tradition and the Individual Theologian: Newman was Mistaken,” (Aug 1, 2014), he makes a fundamental mistake here. He disconnects the theological truths discovered by authentic development from the deposit received by the Apostles, treating them not as part of the Apostolic Tradition, but instead treating “Tradition” as non-Apostolic, only post-Apostolic. In this way he (a) implicitly endorses ongoing revelation, (b) treats openness to the discovery of new truths in sacred theology as thereby allowing dismissal or rejection of Tradition, (c) removes any principled barriers to false innovation or accretion, (d) denies the Apostolic authority of Tradition, and (e) repeatedly conflates what historically was actually the development of doctrine as if it were merely the creation or invention of doctrine.

    By denying the Apostolicity of Tradition he loses the distinction between Tradition and tradition, and thus reduces tradition to “the persuasive claims of an individual, repeated,” and undercuts the permanence and established certainty of any Tradition, which is why he criticizes as ahistorical the treatment of “doctrinal formulations, creeds, and confessions as if they were permanent features of the landscape.” Given Leithart’s position, everything is up for grabs. Nothing is established. Not the Trinity, not the Creed, not the canon, nothing. This is theological pyrrhonianism, and Leithart calls us to follow him in it. But theological pyrrhonianism is self-refuting and self-defeating. If for Leithart nothing is established, and everything is up for grabs, then nothing distinguishes him from the tyro or uncatechized child, and we therefore have no reason to follow him into his pyrrhonian pit.

    Leithart’s argument that Newman was mistaken begs the question by redefining “Tradition” as if it allows any sort of innovation to be ‘authentic,’ including Luther’s. The problem with that argument is that Leithart’s redefinition is itself an innovation that contradicts the Tradition, and thus his argument begs the question by presupposing precisely what is in question, i.e. the nature of Tradition. I have laid out a summary of the Catholic understanding of Tradition (and traditions) in “VIII. Scripture and Tradition” in my reply to Michael Horton’s last response in our Modern Reformation interview. If tradition were nothing more than “the persuasive claims of an individual, repeated,” it would have no actual [even subordinate] authority, a consequence Leithart wants to avoid. And the persuasive-to-whom problem is the problem I address in my reply to Matthew Barrett, my reply to Mark Galli, and my reply to Carl Trueman (in comment #89 of the Brad Gregory thread).

  66. Bryan,

    I was frustrated by Leithart’s failure to distinguish innovation from development. It not only opens up the possibility of new revelation, but also completely relativizes previous developments. But Leithart is not unique, as I mentioned in the post “How Not to Defend the Reformation.” (/2012/03/how-not-to-defend-the-reformation-why-protestants-need-the-antichrist-2/)

    I’ve noticed several historically aware Protestants who realize that Luther was an innovator. But rather than abandon Luther, they invoke a completely rootless version of doctrinal development, in which ANY development is theoretically possible.


  67. Ave Maria
    @Bradley #64

    You make very good points; however, I would point out two things that may deepen your considerations:
    1. Grace. Life cannot be considered without a generous place for the action of God in the soul and the person’s cooperation or resistance to it. In my own conversion to Catholicism, for the first few years I would describe the path as a series of ideas, books, and realizations. But having more time to reflect on it, I realize that grace was working in subtle but powerful ways, and that much of my conversion, while there was an intellectual process, it was being lead by God’s grace. I am not saying that those who haven’t converted to Catholicism are resisting grace, rather, they may not have that grace at this point.

    2. The human person is radically orientated towards God. Therefore, there is a reaction deep in the will to the things of God. Whether this is the liturgy, the example of a holy person, beauty, ect., it resonates in the soul. If the person is searching for God, it will react positively to these stimuli, but if he is not, he will react in a hostile way. This sense is more developed in some people than others, and one of life necessities is developing a sensitivity to the presence of the divine in all things (Dietrich von Hildebrand’s concept of “response to value” fascinates me).

    Essentially, God is knocking, and we should be listening. This is a fundamental note of the spiritual life, and any explanation of spiritual life which ignores these is missing a foundational concept.

    Unfortunately, time will not permit me to discuss this any further.

    In Cordibus Christi atque Mariae,
    fra Charles

  68. @fra Charles,

    Thanks for your thoughts, which are not at all incompatible with what I had said. What is interesting to me is that grace, whether in Protestantism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, very seldom uses the type of reasons only attainable through a thorough rational investigation and critical philosophical learning. Most of the time and for most people around the world who become religious (including Catholicism) grace is operating in the lives of individuals quite apart from any responsible philosophical rational scrutiny. I ponder what this might imply about grace, and by extension, God.

    Thanks for your thoughts,


  69. Re: #59

    In his article titled “The End of Protestantism” (November, 2013), Peter Leithart argues that Protestantism should be over. He then defines ‘Protestantism’ as the negative theology of opposing the Catholic Church. He claims that Protestantism “ought to give way to Reformational catholicism.” Then he defines ‘Reformational catholicism’ by way of adherence to a number of Protestant positions. ‘Reformational catholicism,’ he claims, is defined as much by the things it shares with Roman Catholicism as by its differences.” Then he claims that the “Reformational catholic” should claim the upper-case ‘C.’

    Peter is right about at least a few things here. First, the disposition to define oneself in opposition to some other group, such that by default one is inclined to assume the contradictory of whatever the other group affirms, is a vice. Only if some form of Manichean dualism were correct could such a disposition possibly be justified. But this vice blinds its host to solidarity and the common ground by which the fruitful conversation aimed at resolving remaining disagreements can begin. Second, Peter is right in the common ground he recognizes and positively affirms. Third, Peter is right to recognize, at least in some way, the authoritative weight of Catholic tradition.

    However, what makes a Protestant a Protestant isn’t fundamentally a conscious attitude or disposition, but belonging to a tradition with a particular history. Merely swapping out labels (“Reformed catholicism” for “Protestantism”) is one more example of the nominalism inherent in that tradition. (See The Spirit and the Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer.) Just as one does not make oneself thin by calling oneself thin, and one does not make oneself fit by calling oneself fit, and one does not make oneself ‘catholic’ (or “Catholic”) by calling oneself ‘catholic’ (or “Catholic”), so likewise one does not cease to be a Protestant by thinking more positive thoughts about Catholics, and forgetting the feud and the schism by which one’s tradition came into existence. Protestants who have no idea what is the history of Protestantism, are still Protestants, just as Catholics who do not know the history of Catholicism are still Catholics, and US citizens who are clueless about US history are still US citizens, Scientologists who don’t know the history of Scientolology but are favorable toward Catholics are still scientologists, and Freemasons who do not know the anti-Catholic history and philosophy of Freemasonry are still Freemasons, even when they are personally friendly and positively disposed toward Catholics and the Catholic Church. More concretely, Montanists, Novatians, and Donatists, do not cease to be Montanists, Novatians, and Donatists by changing their name and being more open and friendly toward Catholics. Nor does their being in schism from the Catholic Church disappear merely by changing labels and dispositions. If a KKK member finds himself favorably disposed toward non-whites, then rather than stick a new label on his tradition and use that new label to deny that he is KKK, he should leave his tradition. The tradition we inhabit, and its history, defines our identity regardless of our awareness of its history and regardless of our attitude or stance toward that against which our tradition came into existence. So while Peter’s willingness to affirm common ground and reject antagonistic contrarianism is a positive step, he is still a part of the Protestant tradition, no matter what label he puts on himself or others, because though a tradition can change, a tradition is necessarily defined by its history. The very coming into existence of the Protestant tradition is by way of separation from the Catholic Church, and the [alleged] daily justification for the Protestant tradition’s continued existence as a tradition separate from the Catholic Church is only on account of Protestantism’s judgment that the reformation of the Catholic Church is [allegedly] not yet over. (See “Trueman and Prolegomena to “How Would Protestants Know When to Return”.”)

  70. In comment #59 above I posted a video of a Biola panel discussion entitled “The Future of Protestantism.” Biola recently hosted another such discussion, with mostly different participants, this time titled “The Future of the Church.” I’ve posted the video below. Discuss.

Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting