On the Future of Protestantism

Ah, the busy life of a pastor. I’ve only now (by Internet standards, eons after the event) finished viewing the “Future of Protestantism” discussion held at Biola University on April 30. The participants, as all will know who followed the significant hype leading up to the event and who are still viewing the stream of postgame analysis, were Dr. Peter Leithart of the Trinity House Institute, Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, and Dr. Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary; the conversation was moderated by Peter Escalante of the Davenant Trust.

Just two quick thoughts, mostly for my own benefit (taking notes while things are still fresh in my mind):

First, while I realize the discussion was perhaps geared in a different, more open-ended direction, I thought it would have benefited from a more clearly defined set of questions. The grist for the interaction was Dr. Leithart’s November 2013 First Things article, “The End of Protestantism” and his opening remarks at the event itself; but this left such a breadth of subject matter that by the end it had become clear that the participants were to some extent talking past each other.

Second, a specific issue that I wish could have been more clearly identified is the distinction between the being and the wellbeing of a Christian church. Dr. Leithart, it seemed to me, was predominantly interested in what qualifies a church to be regarded as a Christian church. He wanted to talk about the boundaries, the circumference of the people of God.

Dr. Trueman championed the issue of the wellbeing of the church, expressing grave reservations not about the brotherhood of the Roman and Orthodox communions but about their faithfulness, about their spiritual health and the health of those who live under their pastoral care. He wanted to talk not about the circumference but about the center of the Christian church, the gospel, and the relative fidelity of various communions to that gospel.

Understandably, then, when it came to talking about theology, Leithart looked primarily to the early ecumenical creeds. These, in his view, establish the doctrinal boundaries of the church. Trueman was concerned that this “relativizes” the subsequent theological developments of the Reformation, placing doctrines such as sola fide and assurance in a “different order” than the early doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Leithart’s rejoinder was to ask if the Reformational doctrines are to become tests of brotherhood; in his mind, this would lead to the “Protestant tribalism” he deplores. This, I think, showed the difficulty in the whole debate: the parties really were talking about different things. The issue of what makes a Christian church is different from the issue of what makes a healthy Christian church. We may not need the doctrines of the Reformation to identify the boundaries of the Christian church (that is a matter for ongoing debate), but I for one would want to argue that these doctrines are enormously important for the health of the church (esse, bene esse, and all that).

Anyway, I hope the discussion continues to the profit of all; it has certainly given me a lot to think and pray about so far.

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