The End of Knee-jerk Anti-Roman Catholicism: What I think Leithart was aiming at

A little over a week ago, as I learned at Apologia and the Occident, Peter J Leithart published a piece over at First Things entitled ‘The End of Protestantism.’ Various people have since reacted and responded. R. Scott Clark’s response, ‘Contra Leithart: No, The Reformation Isn’t Over‘ seems to have missed the point of this individual article, caught up in intradenominational crises of the PCA; his piece stumbled over what a lot of people have been saying: Leithart redefines the word Protestant to suit the purposes of the current piece, thus confusing the issue. It struck me that Leithart’s ‘Reformational Catholicism’ wasn’t opposed to the Reformation and certainly doesn’t think the the Church of Rome is all hunky-dorey now.

The bigger issue with the piece was highlighted by Fred Sanders in his piece ‘Glad Protestantism‘ — people in the wider non-PCA audience of Leithart’s piece who already agree with its thesis may feel buoyed up by it, but the people Leithart should be trying to sway will be offended by Leithart’s rhetorical deployment and very probable use of a straw man or two.

And people who already agree sometimes try to convince Leithart to give up being Presbyterian (something, I think, some within the PCA wouldn’t mind).

So what is it that I think Leithart was trying to get across?

The time for knee-jerk, anti-Roman Catholic forms of Protestantism and similar Protestant ideas is past. Simply because something is done by Roman Catholics does not make it bad. Simply because someone is a Roman Catholic does not make him or her damned. Simply because a saint is revered by Roman Catholics does not mean that we cannot learn from and admire him or her.

This sort of anti-Catholic Christianity can be spiritually impoverishing. Rather than seeing the riches of a long, wide, broad Christian heritage that spans millennia and transcends national boundaries, many people have a vision of church history that has an enormous gap from the Apostles to Martin Luther or John Calvin or Menno Simons or George Fox. Or a smaller gap from Chalcedon to Luther. Or perhaps they fly from the Apostles with a touchdown on St Augustine of Hippo and then on to the Reformers or their own denominational founders — sometimes a detour to early mediaeval Ireland is involved. Anyway, I think you get the picture.

Why is such a view spiritual impoverishing? Such a view is spiritually impoverishing because of the beauty and truth and holiness expressed by Christians throughout all of those ‘dark’, ‘Catholic’ centuries in the middle. Rather than seeing the grace of God working in human lives for salvation everywhere, even when the institution of the Church was at its most corrupt, we see a belief that verges on people believing that all Christians of the ‘Dark Ages’ (that is, mediaeval era) are burning in Hell because they believed in saints and transubstantiation and hadn’t figured out Luther’s justification by faith formula ahead of time.

What Leithart envisages is a Christianity that embraces the glorious riches of those ancient and mediaeval centuries alongside the Reformers and modern heroes — although the Reformers, et al., get sidelined in the piece, he does mention them as being important for us today.

Opposed to knee-jerk anti-Catholicism, such a Christian vision would allow us to revel in God’s truth and God’s word as expounded in word and deed not only by St Augustine of Hippo (often the only Father known to many Protestants) but also by Sts Ambrose and Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Sts Leo and Gregory the Great, St Maximus the Confessor, the Venerable Bede, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and more, right up to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker — but also John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, for the Most Holy Trinity has not abandoned the Roman Church, for all its error.

He also calls for a return to more liturgical forms of worship, or at least an acknowledgement that they are not simply empty ritual. A friend of mine who recognises the importance for a simpler worship in the 1500s thinks that perhaps Protestants — and not just Lutherans and Anglicans — are ready for expressing themselves with more ritual and liturgical expression. I don’t think your local Baptist church should suddenly blast out the incense and tinkle a few bells. But I do like the PCA church I’ve heard of where they have done some responsive, liturgy-lite using the creeds as well as the Shorter Catechism. Why not?

The riches of Christian history — of liturgy, theology, exegesis, private prayer, ethical exhortation, etc — should not be kept hidden or avoided simply because they are used by the Church of Rome or come from the pen of those she has canonised ‘saints’. To do so is to forget where we’ve come from and who we are, to lose the transhistorical reality of the God Who dramatically entered history in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

2 thoughts on “The End of Knee-jerk Anti-Roman Catholicism: What I think Leithart was aiming at

  1. Great post! I agree with you 100%. This from a member of a PCA congregation who very much appreciates (all of) church history. In fact, I can’t sing a song like “The Church’s One Foundation” without thinking of my fathers and grandfathers in the faith.

    • Andy,

      Glad you agree! I hope that someday people of such opinion could form a critical mass within both the conservative and liberal establishments to help us all rediscover our ancestors of the faith, whether we are Anglican or Presbyterian or Baptist or Lutheran or Roman Catholic.

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