In a post on the First Things blog today, Peter Leithart declares the “End of Protestantism.” It’s not at all clear, however, that he understands what he wants to end. He begins with a sociological observation about contemporary English non-conformists and uses that to leverage the definition of “Protestant,” which he proceeds to use as a foil to justify his refashioning of Protestantism.
For those who aren’t aware, until recently, he was Wilson’s right-hand man at HQ in Moscow. His mission, in which he seems to have succeeded (at least according to Lane Keister), was to take the sting out of the 2007 PCA GA ruling against the Federal Vision movement. Almost immediately after the ruling he, Wilson, and others issued a statement affirming the very errors rejected by the PCA. He was essentially daring the PCA to charge him. They did and, in what Lane Keister has called a “wagon-encircling kangaroo trial” his presbytery was unable to convict him. On appeal the Standing Judicial Commission voted 15-2 to refuse to consider the record of the trial, deciding to consider only procedural questions. As a result, Leithart remains a minister in good standing in the PCA while openly confessing doctrines at variance what was adopted by GA in 2007.
In the piece he juxtaposes “Protestant” with “Reformational Catholicism.” For anyone familiar with the rhetoric and teaching of the Reformers and their successors, this juxtaposition is just silly. The Protestants (Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Calvin) and more to the point, the Reformed Churches did not cede the adjective “catholic” to the Romanists.
In contrast to the Reformed Reformation, Leithart wants to make Rome a true church. The Protestants and the Reformed Churches were the original Reformational Catholics. The Belgic Confession (1561), the confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches, distinguishes between the true church and the false church and sects (articles 28–29). It consigns Rome, with the Anabaptists, to the category of a false church or a sect. Calvin, in his lengthy response to the Council of Trent (a part of which you can read here) he castigated Rome for becoming a sect. William Perkins, in 1597, stoutly defended the confessional Protestants as the true catholics over against Rome. They accused Rome of becoming a sect because she, for the first time in the history of the church, in council, anathematized the holy gospel. In so doing, she cut herself off from the broad stream of the church universal (which is all catholic means). By definition, Roman Catholic is an oxymoron. There was a pastor in Rome, who arrogated to himself, over time, authority that belongs to no single pastor and then finally he made himself a competitor to the head of the church. For this reason, the Protestants, picking up the rhetoric of William of Ockham, called him antichrist.
Another great problem with Leithart’s analysis is that it doesn’t go far enough. He rejects prayers to saints, papal claims, the veneration of the host (i.e., the transubstantiated victim, which Rome claims to re-sacrifice memorially to turn away God’s wrath), prayers to the Blessed Virgin, and the elevation of tradition above Scripture. He affirms that “salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith” but, as we know from the 2007 FV Statement and his ecclesiastical trial, the the Federal Vision definition of faith in the act of justification is not that of the Westminster Confession (ch. 11).
He doesn’t understand why confessional Protestants are skeptical of Rome’s claim that she believes in “salvation by grace.” I guess Leithart slept through the ECT controversy. Sigh. Protestants who know their Reformation history don’t doubt that Rome confesses salvation by grace. What we reject is her definition of grace as a medicinal substance, with which we are infused, that enables us to cooperate reciprocally with grace unto sanctification progressively toward justification. Real Protestants don’t equivocate on that which Calvin called the “exclusive particle” (in his commentary on Gal 5:6) when it comes to justification. The doctrine of justification is as J. H. Alting, a Reformed theologian, wrote in the early 17th century, “the article of the standing or falling of the church.” A true Protestant knows that Rome defines faith, in the act of justification, as sanctification. We, by contrast, define it as the sole instrument, an empty hand that receives and rests in Christ and his finished work for us. For Rome, justification is an ongoing work in us. In that sense, “in” in the Roman preposition and for is the Protestant preposition. [Before the "union with Christ" folks get wound up, I said "in that sense." We believe in "in" too but that's another post].
Yes, Protestants are creedal. A true Protestant knows and confesses the original understanding of the creeds. That’s why they wrote so many commentaries on the creeds. That’s why Calvin structured his Institutes around the Apostles’ Creed and the book of Romans—it’s both/and, not either/or. A true Protestant, however, isn’t deceived by Cardinal Newman’s theory of “doctrinal development” or by Romanist sleight of hand post-Vatican II. Yes, some things have changed (and are changing still) but have the essential issues been resolved? No. Rome still denies free acceptance with God through faith (trust) alone grounded in the whole, perfect obedience of Christ imputed to us. She still denies the perspicuity of Scripture and its sole, unique authority over the church. We are not family and, according to Rome, the only way we can ever be family is to stop being Protestants. On this point Leithart’s claims are contrary to fact and incoherent.
Liturgical forms? The Reformed published Liturgical forms. Calvin had forms of prayer. Here’s the Heidelberg Liturgy. Calvin’s liturgy is well-known. It is discussed at length in Recovering the Reformed Confession and in “Calvin’s Principle of Worship.” Yes, the Westminster Directory for Public Worship (1644) offered rubrics rather than liturgy but there is strong unity in the Reformed dialogical principle and practice of worship: God speaks in his Word and sacraments and his people respond with his Word in prayer. Our worship is catholic! Transpose Calvin’s service over the 2nd century and it makes complete sense to Justin or Irenaeus or Polycarp. Transpose a Romanist service over the 2nd century and the fathers would repudiate it as collection of pagan rituals.
The Reformation isn’t over, not at least for the confessional Protestant churches, who don’t equivocate, who understand what Rome is really saying, who still submit to the Word of God as the sole, unique authority for faith and life, who affirm the sole sufficiency of Christ and righteousness for us for acceptance with God, for salvation from wrath, and for sanctification, who are resting in Christ and in his finished work for us, and who find their assurance in Christ for us and his promises to us. It’s unfortunate but telling that Leithart thinks these things are negotiable.