About two weeks ago, I examined Dr. Peter Leithart’s vision for the Future of the Church through a conversation between him and Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Readers could tell from the way that conversation was structured that my sympathies lie with Dr. Lloyd-Jones.
Much has been written in response to Dr. Leithart’s proposals, as well as the Fox News article he wrote on Reformation Day declaring that the Reformation had failed. Today, I’d like to critique Dr. Leithart on two points that have tended to be missed in all of the debate.
Old vs. New: How God Makes the Future
Dr. Leithart emphasizes in his writings that the Church of the Future will be a big, bold, new thing that God will bring into existence out of the ashes of the churches of the Present. Not only will Protestantism have to die, we are told, but Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as well, though the accent has tended to be on Protestantism’s death.
Dr. Leithart wants us to see his vision in the sweep of redemptive history, yet in redemptive history, I notice that when God does a New Thing He never completely obliterates the Old Thing He is renewing or renovating. When we get new wineskins, those wineskins have a striking resemblance to the old wineskins. The principle of wineskins is still very much in force.
The New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant, and the New is certainly better than the Old, yet principles and echoes of the Old Covenant remain. That’s why we aren’t going around marrying our sisters. I don’t know about you, but the thought of boiling a calf in his mother’s milk is creepy to me--and that arguably falls under what is called the ceremonial law.
As Presbyterians, Dr. Leithart and I tend to emphasize the continuity between the covenants, the ways where they are similar to one another. For example, Dr. Leithart has said repeatedly that infant baptism will be a principal part of his Church of the Future. He appeals to the similarity of the Old and New Covenants to make his case for paedobaptism.
Any appeal to the Old Covenant must be based on the eternal truths of that covenant--truths that did not disappear when the New Covenant was ushered in. God the Father is not Karl Marx, and Jesus Christ is not Leon Trotsky--we aren’t busily redacting the words of Moses from our Bibles, nor airbrushing father Abraham out of the family photos.
As Luther may have asked, “What does this mean?” It means that God doesn’t start from scratch when He sends us a New Creation. We are still to remember the truths taught to us in the Old Creation. We shouldn’t marry our sisters, or eagerly boil calves in their mother’s milk, or labor seven days a week, work without end, Amen.
Not only are we to remember the truths and principles God teaches us in the Old Covenant or the Old Creation, but as Dr. Leithart himself has reminded us, we are to live those truths. Truth always entails our obedience, our reforming our lives God’s law. We don’t merit justification through our obedience, but God justifies us so that we can obey, so that we can become new creatures in His New Creation.
What truths does Protestantism contain? How ought those truths be obeyed by Christians? Is it still wrong to peddle God’s righteousness through indulgences, sacraments, holy relics or works of supererogation? Is Scripture still the norming norm, the final court of authority over matters of faith and practice?
We shouldn’t ask first whether Protestantism divided the Church. We should first ask if Protestantism is true, and if true, how should we obey?
If Protestantism is and was a thing from God, a move of His Spirit in the ongoing redemptive history of humanity, it will never end. Our gratitude for the Reformation will never end. The forms of Protestantism will change, but the truth of God recovered and preserved within Protestantism will not.
If Protestantism is true, it cannot and will not die. If what Catholicism teaches in opposition to Protestantism is false, it must and will, of necessity, die. This is part of what it means to live in a world with Jesus as King, subduing His enemies until the last enemy, death, is defeated.
Truth on the Ground
In the Future of Protestantism discussion at BIOLA a few years ago, Dr. Leithart said that his doctrinal basis for unity among Christians would be adherence to the Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the first four ecumenical Church councils, up to Chalcedon in A.D. 451.
Peter Leithart’s vision for the unity of the Church is not at truth’s expense; he locates the truth in the great Trinitarian creeds, and is willing to leave Protestant confessions up for negotiation and debate. In his words, this is a pragmatic dividing line. Agreeing with Leithart that our dividing lines should be practical and useful, it is not clear that the central truths of the Reformation era confessions and catechisms are less helpful or less useful than orthodox Trinitarianism.
When street evangelists like Joseph Spurgeon, Mark Cox or Aaron Sabie share the Gospel, do they start with the nature of God? Do they explain the intricacies of the Trinity, perichoresis, the eternal generation of the Son, and so on? No, they begin with God, man, sin, righteousness, the coming judgment, and the necessity of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They open up the Bible and explain these things.
Everything about their evangelism is based on the truths of the Reformation. Even the way they do their evangelism, opening up the Bible to explain the Gospel to strangers, is based on Sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation.
Am I saying that the Trinity is unnecessary? No, far from it! Belief in the Trinity is necessary to confess Christian faith. Without the Trinity, the Good News is no news at all.
Getting a man in the door of the Church is not the same thing as catechizing him within the Church. In order for someone to become a Christian, they must hear the Gospel preached. The Gospel is clear, simple and obvious in a way the Trinity is not. A fresh convert who opens up his New Testament and starts reading Romans and then reads, say, the Heidelberg Catechism, will immediately see how the one leads to the other. The same cannot be said of the Trinity. The Trinity is taught in Scripture, and ecumenical creeds confirm that teaching, but the teaching is admittedly more subtle, less clear and less obvious.
Relativizing the truths of the Gospel (which is what the Reformation recovered) in order to agree on the Trinity doesn’t make logical sense. It only makes sense if you rank theological truths by the age of the controversy.
Even then, the Church could not have confessed great Trinitarian theology without first understanding the Gospel clearly. The Church in every age is established by the clear preaching of the Gospel. The clear preaching of the Gospel was not controversial during the fourth century in the same way that the nature of God was.
I’m indebted to Peter Escalante for making these observations far more cogently than I just did. I’m repeating them here because I don’t think they’ve been pressed nearly enough by Dr. Leithart’s critics.
There is no obvious reason why Christians should rank Trinitarian orthodoxy, which concerns how God was able to become man and make atonement for His people’s sins, as more important or vital than the truths of the Gospel, which concern how God saves sinners in real time, and makes those sinners into a New Creation, created to do good works. Both stand or fall together. Both are the essence of Christian faith.
The Gospel, clearly defined, explained and defended, is the heritage of every Christian. The Protestant Reformers, in recovering the Gospel, recovered no mean thing, nor did they start unnecessary theological fights about words to divide a pristine medieval Church. What they recovered was Truth itself.
While God is always in the business of New Creation, God is not in the business of revolutionary New Creation. Redemptive history is given to us in Scripture in order for us to remember the old paths and not to depart from them. The New Covenant makes God’s Law in the Old Covenant more real to us, more weighty, more full. We understand His purposes more clearly.
The Protestant Reformation recovered real truth. As such, it will always be relevant for us. Protestantism cannot end anymore than the Kingdom of God can fail to fill the whole Earth as the waters cover the sea. If Protestantism is old and in the way, we would have to say also that the Old Testament is old and in the way.
The Future of the Church is a Protestant Future, a future in which the Gospel will be triumphant and the name of Jesus will be above every other name. Amen!
 “What does this mean?” is a frequent question in Luther’s Small Catechism.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
Ben Carmack is a member of the Sovereign King Church launch team. He lives and works in Louisville, where he was born and raised, with his beautiful wife, Dannah, and daughter.