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A “Leitharted” Response

To God’s holy people in /rel/, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and Peace to you from God our Father. As I began my exploration of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, my father began sending me books and articles in an attempt to answer some of my many qualms about the protestant Church. This article, written by Peter Leithart was one of these many pieces my father sent me. As I read, I realized that there was a lot of good thought on Leithart's end of things, but I realized too that he was misrepresenting a great deal of what Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold dear. When I finished reading, I knew that I needed to respond; to break down the arguments and “debate” Leithart's argument within the article itself. The raised text is Leithart's article, verbatim. The plain text is my response to each paragraph. My hope is that all readers will not only be able to better understand the protestant belief system, but that they will also be better able to argue for traditional Christianity.
So, without further ado, I present to you: A “Leitharted” Response.

My friends tell me that my name has been invoked in various web skirmishes concerning Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, sometimes by people, including friends, who claim that I nurtured them along in their departure from the Protestant world. My friends also hinted that it would be good for me to say again why I'm not heading to Rome or Constantinople or Moscow (Russia!), nor encouraging anyone to do so. Everything I say below I've said before in various venues - on this blog, in First Things, in conference presentations. But it might be useful to put down my reasons fairly concisely in one place, so here it is.

Before I really start in on this, I want to clarify that I agree with a great deal of Leithart says, and a lot of what he’s said in things I've read (i.e. First Things). I know that he is highly educated and respected by Christians of many different backgrounds/traditions. For these reasons, I am VERY open to critique of my critique of this article. If I'm analysing something incorrectly about what he’s saying or if I'm misunderstanding the Catholic faith, feel free to discuss with me and show me where I'm wrong. Anyone is welcome to message me on Facebook.

One of the major themes of my academic and pastoral life, and one of the passions of my heart, has been to participate in the healing of the divided church. I have written and taught a great deal on ecclesiology; I participate in various joint Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox ventures ( Touchstone , First Things , Centre for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue). I consider many Catholics and Orthodox friends as co-belligerents in various causes, and I think of Catholicism and Orthodoxy as allies on a wide range of issues, not only in the culture wars but in theology and church life.

This isn't just a theological niche for me. It’s a product of a deep conviction about the nature of the church. I still remember the pain I felt when I first understood (with James Dunn’s help) what Paul was on about in Galatians 2, when he attacked Peter for withdrawing from table fellowship. The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in. I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church). What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified? Christ is not divided. I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division should be deep mourning and repentance.

I think that there are some interesting thoughts here. To me, it seems obvious that there is always going to be some sort of contention as long as we are unable to see the whole truth. There will be disagreement, even between true believers. There is, however, closure to the disputes within the Church. The dispute over Arianism is long settled within the majority of Christendom, so why is it that the Protestant Church is divided on this?

My Protestantism, my reformed catholicity, isn't at all in conflict with that passion for church unity. There is no tension at all. On the contrary, it’s because I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am. My summary reason for staying put is simple: I'm too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox.

Leithart puts it nicely here, the problem is that the Catholics (as far as I have read and discussed with them) believe the same thing—at least in terms of desiring unity. They consider the Orthodox (and some Protestant denominations) to be brothers in Christ. Not only that, but they are catholic to the point of engaging as much of God’s Kingdom as possible. The veneration of saints involves asking them for intercession—a . If we believe that they are alive in Christ, and a part of the “great cloud of witnesses.”

More I agree with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I;

My guess is that Leithart is referring to Timothy 2:5, the “one mediator” between God and man. Mary and the saints are not mediators in the same way that Christ is a mediator. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who are interceding for us. Is asking for intercession wrong? In times of trouble, should we ask our friends and family for prayer? If we believe that Christ makes us fully alive, are the saints not fully alive? Are they not a part of this powerful community? We can certainly approach God, but He gives us a community of prayer for a reason. Not only this, but we know that the saints are praying for us. These men and women are great, not because of what they have done, but because of what God did through them. Where is this not permitted in scripture? I would like to see his references.

I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God. I'm encouraged by many of the developments in Catholicism before and since Vatican II, but Vatican II created issues of its own (cf. the treatment of Islam in Lumen Gentium).

Anyone can make an idol out of anything. We can make an idol out of our own. Icons themselves are not worshipped, rather they are used to point to Christ—the one who is worshipped. If the focus is on church attendance numbers, that’s an idol. If it’s focused on the quality of music, that’s and idol. The icons are art inspired by the word of God. Many of the great icon painters spent their whole lives studying the word of God and meditating in prayer. Venerating the Host would most certainly be idolatry if it were believed to be anything but the body and blood. But if that is the truth of the sacrament (which seems quite apparent in John 6 and has been passed on as a sacrament for 2000 years), it is not the physical traits that are worshipped, but Christ Himself.

I agree with those objections, but those are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant. I have strong objections to some brands of Protestantism, after all. My Protestantism - better, reformed catholicity - is not fundamentally anti-. It’s pro-, pro-church, pro-ecumenism, pro-unity, pro-One Body of the One Lord. It’s not that I'm too anti-Catholic to be Catholic. I'm too catholic to be Catholic.

Again, I think that all the “pros” he listed are already Catholic to a degree. Like I've said before, the divide is not over the love of Christ, the divide is sacramental. If we believe the sacraments are from God to man and necessary to our faith, then we need to question not our salvation in Christ, but rather our treatment of something sacred and holy. Christ unifies us in salvation, the can Catholic/Orthodox unify us in our understanding of the sacraments. “One true Church” refers to a correct way of treating the scripture/tradition in an ancient, non-relativist way.

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome?

If one feels convicted by the Holy Spirit to change their original views on something, they must change, regardless of their previous belief. Leithart scares me here with his lack of insight into why someone might consider converting. If someone grew up Pentecostal and decided to become a Lutheran, we would probably agree that that is a move in the right direction. That person’s background might be Christian, but, there are worse flaws than others. If a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness decided to join the Catholic Church, we would say that’s a wise move, because they would be moving toward trinitarian thought.

I'm not rejecting the foundation of Christ that was laid out for me. Nor am I condemning any of my Christian friends and family. My past Christian experience has taught me several things: God loves us and has freely offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins.

Think of this scripturally: the Bible says that we must self examine ourselves before we partake of the Eucharist, lest we bring judgement on ourselves. Is it not more loving to keep someone from bringing judgement on themselves then to let them partake? The Eucharistic table in the Catholic Church will ALWAYS be open to those who treat it as what it is. It’s not unwelcoming, but it is steadfast in how it should be viewed and treated. No relativism is allowed within the Eucharist.

How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love?

Again, it depends on how one defines sub-Christian. Do we believe that Mormons live sub-Christian lives? Universalists? Muslims? Even if someone is a trinitarian believer (and saved by the grace of God) and not treating the sacraments as they are supposed to, this is highly problematic.

For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus.

True, sacramentally and on certain doctrines.
I like to think of the Church in terms of three brothers whose father has left them instructions on to clean his persian rugs via a note and via a butler, who wrote the note as dictated by the father:

The youngest brother decides to leave home and make his own rug out of cheap materials (although, ironically, due to his raising, his rug looks somewhat similar to his father’s rugs). This represents the Mormon faith/Jehovah’s witness/universalists/etc. They have remade their own religions, but their beliefs look shockingly like Christianity in a lot of ways. The fundamental element of Christ’s total God-man duality is lost to them.

The second brother decides to follow the rules of the dictated note as he interprets them, but not listen to the butler—at least not entirely. This brother wants to please the father, but is confident that he can figure out the note on his own. He follows instructions of the butler on how to beat the dust out of the rug, but then proceeds to wash the Persian rug with bleach, knowing how clean bleach can make things. The butler tries to stop him, but the second son doesn't listen. This brother will always get some things right by intuition, but he relies too much on his own logic and understanding. These are the protestant denominations who have decided to do the sacraments, but by their own understanding of how. The instructions left to them (the Bible), is the only authority they trust.

The oldest brother follows the note and the instruction of the butler. The butler tells him to use club soda on the Persian rug, and the eldest son obeys. He knows bleach has cleaning power, but the butler reminds him that bleach will remove some colours out of the rug. This son listens and trusts the butler. This son represents the Catholic and/or Orthodox churches. The authority of Scripture is best served alongside the authority of the Church, and the effect is the most secure.

In this analogy, for anyone that is confused, the father is God, the dictated note is Holy Scripture as given to Christians. The butler is the early church, who wrote the note as dictated by the father.

The father loves the youngest son, but the youngest son has completely denied
the note and the butler and even left the house to make his own rug. The father might forgive this son, but the son has so completely separated himself from the task, house, and everything else. He has actively done things wrong.

The father will not necessarily discard the second son, because the second son
has accidentally done things wrong in an effort to please the father. The father loves the second son, despite the failure to follow the wisdom of the butler. He is upset that the instructions are not followed correctly, but his love transcends anger in many cases. The brothers are separated but are still brothers. The oldest brother refuses to go along with the ideas of the second—that is what separates us.

To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptised. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptised? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I'm too catholic to do that.

Again, Baptism is a sacrament. If you’re conforming to a new way of viewing the
faith/sacraments, it’s not about making you a real Christian, because by the blood of Christ there are many who are saved. It’s about showing the change of understanding—a desire to do things right in God’s eyes (which is, indeed, Orthodoxy).

<Catholicism and Orthodoxy are impressive for their heritage, the seriousness of much of their theology, the seriousness with which they take Christian cultural engagement. Both, especially the Catholic church, are impressive for their sheer size. But when I attend Mass and am denied access to the table of my Lord Jesus together with my Catholic brothers, I can’t help wondering what really is the difference between Catholics and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or the Continental Reformed who practice closed communion. My Catholic friends take offence at this, but I can’t escape it: Size and history apart, how is Catholicism different from a gigantic sect?>

To answer Leithart's question: because Truth is not relative, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches have been holding fast to certain essential (and biblical) doctrines for over 2000 years. Scripture and the Church Fathers seem to be in total agreement over the seriousness of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. If we are to self examine before we partake to avoid judgement, should we not assume that this act involves something too sacred to be taken lightly (or potentially wrongly)?

Doesn't Orthodoxy come under the same Pauline condemnation as the fundamentalist Baptist churches who close their table to everyone outside? To become Catholic I would had to contract my ecclesiastical world. I would have to become less catholic - less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.

(Or too open minded on sacraments/doctrines to become Catholic).

One final reason has to do with time. I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology. At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us. We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church.

(Mark 3:25, Proverbs 3:5).
I believe that we have to sacrifice some of our individual understanding of Truth and adhere to tradition in order to be unified. It takes a great deal of trust on our end for unity and healing in the church. Otherwise, the Church will continue to divide even more. I'm more worried by the Catholic/Orthodox divide because I see how similar they are doctrinally, yet still divided). I've never read James Jordan, but I don’t think the argument applies to what I'm having problems with. Christ will be the ultimate unifier of the Church, but until then, how do we serve Him best? Who do we trust?!

We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition -
Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding this last phrase, but it sounds as though Leithart is expecting the church to be morphing. I believe that it will change certain things over time, but some things we believe are timeless. We have to be careful with our change of doctrine(s) and NEVER rely on our own understanding. How can you be certain that it is the Holy Spirit is leading you and not something else? Because the Holy Spirit will not lead you into certain things.

Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know. We
worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.

This is all true. Because God is not fully comprehensible to man, there will be many surprises/good, godly traditions that are revealed. There is, however, a need to have order in certain traditional areas, especially on a sacramental level. This is where I get the most hung up. Everybody has differing views on what sacraments are, and even what qualifies as a sacrament. So how do we know? How do we decide? My belief—look to tradition. Christ would not have let us perform something so holy in a wrong manner for over a thousand years. The essence of the sacrament is what Christ ordained it to be, and that is what we must pursue.

As a final thought, I would like to make it clear that I have not yet chosen between the Catholic and Orthodox Church. I am fairly certain that I will enter one of the two, and hope that God will lead me there before too much longer. One thing is for certain, however. The Protestant Church, while full of believers, has struggled to be pleasing—more towards individual tastes over God’s desires. We, as believers, should take a closer look at the unbroken traditions that protected the faith for centuries; for in tradition, we may have a better glimpse of what God is calling us to do.

Original Article can be found here:

L. C. Getz