01 May 2014

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle. Or, What Was Left Out of the Conversation

Warning: Inside Reformed/Evangelical/Charismatic/Catholic baseball.

The other night I watched the live internet stream of "The Future of Protestantism: A Public Conversation." You can watch it by going here. Peter Leithart had launched the opening shot with his article at the First Things blog with a pointed remark: "The Reformation isn't over. But Protestantism is, or should be." To no one's surprise, Leithart's thesis drew many comments.

In my words, Leithart argued that Protestantism has no long-term future because it is primarily reactive. Protestants have historically primarily understood themselves as not Catholic. But being "not something" is an increasingly weak raison d'ĂȘtre in the face of growing secularism and the post-Counter-reformation, post-Vatican II Catholic church. The doctrinal truths of the era of the Reformation, by contrast, remain true but need not be encased (or perhaps better, encrusted) in fissiparous, antagonistic, and ever-more isolated Protestant denominations.

The Torrey Honors Center at Biola University decided that Leithart's thesis deserved a response and so with the joint sponsorship of First Things and the Davenant Trust there was a "conversion" among Leithart, Fred Sanders of Biola, and Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary. (Trueman also publishes regularly at the First Things blog.)

I won't attempt to summarize fully the speakers' initial remarks (Matt Jenson does a nice job here) except to express some surprise that Leithart did not argue for his initial thesis that Protestantism was due to end. Instead, he laid out his vision for a post-Protestant but "reformational Catholic" future. His take was interesting and even valuable as far as it went but Leithart simply worked from the assumption that Protestantism should end rather than arguing for it. His forward-looking suggestions centered around what I would characterize as grass-roots ecumenism and a revitalized commitment to liturgical seriousness. (Revitalizing the sacramental approach of John Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology for those who play fantasy Presbyterian baseball.)

Interestingly, Trueman stated what he believes might account for the end of Protestantism when he talked about the fast-growing anti-Christian bias of aggressive secularism. His solution, however, was not in local ecumenism or the sacraments but in preparing church members for the coming oppression. And key among the tools for living in a secular dhimmitude are the doctrines of the Reformation, doctrines including the possibility of assurance of salvation. A strongly pastoral but pessimistic emphasis.

Sanders's Trinitarian analysis of Christian ecclesial and social life was interesting but didn't garner much traction in the conversation.

But here's the missing piece of the puzzle: What about the charismatic/Pentecostal movement sweeping much of the world? There were a couple of mentions of the "world-wide renewal movement" but largely ignoring the fastest-growing branch of the Christian faith brings to mind the old metaphor about deck chairs on the Titanic. Where was my colleague (and First Things blogger) Dale Coulter when he was needed?

Most Protestants think of most charismatics as simply another "flavor" of Protestantism, one with quite a number of peculiarities and eccentricities but nonetheless Protestant. That seemingly straightforward conclusion, however, is due in large part to the "Protestant as non-Catholic" perspective that Leithart seeks to eliminate. Many charismatic groups are Protestant in respects other than contemporary manifestations of certain of the gifts of the Spirit. But many charismatics, especially those outside North America, do not look back to the Reformation as the fountainhead of their ecclesial and doctrinal (and certainly not their experiential) existence. This world-wide phenomenon is much more rooted in the near past and present rather than events of 500 years ago, which characterize Reformationally-minded Protestants. And in terms of growth, the charismatic phenomenon is eating the Protestants' lunch.

The widespread "we're-not-Catholic" mindset of Protestantism is also missing from the charismatic wing of contemporary Christianity. Exhibit A could be this week's Regent University chapel address by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household since Pope John Paul II. The Catholic church has well-established relationships with many parts of the charismatic and Pentecostal communities and thus is leap-frogging traditional Protestants and developing the sort of "on-the-ground" ecumenical relationships that Leithart is urging. 

My comments about Catholic-Pentecostal rapprochement are not doctrinally significant. They are empirical observations only. Yet, their absence from a conversation about the future of Protestantism suggests that the participants may be oblivious to what should be obvious.

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