The End of Protestantism in a Fragmented Church

Peter J. Leithart. The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016. pp. x + 225. $21.99.

Some lament. Others celebrate. As we find ourselves marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the responses are all over the map. In this book, Presbyterian pastor-theologian Peter J. Leithart seeks to describe the way the map is being re-written by calling for what he calls “the end of Protestantism.” While most discussions of Protestantism tend to focus on its roots, his book fixes its speculative sights upon “future church” and the way forward. In particular, he suggests that the time has come to speak of life after denominationalism and, thus, after Protestantism.

Leithart has become a very well-known author in the last decade. He seeks to engage in conversations ranging from the philosophical or the exegetical to the sociological and political. His reading clearly covers vast terrain. Not surprising for those who have followed his literary and pastoral work will be his emphases upon thinking biblically and seeking to avoid parochialism. In many ways, he exudes a post-Protestant ethos and a broad spirit in this theological work; in other ways, his writing ministry has contributed to or served as an occasion for further divisions even within the smaller world of conservative evangelical Protestantism. This book rightly discerns that this year marks a significant occasion for thinking about unity and about what calling might continue to exist for a distinctly Protestant witness, whatever that may mean. Especially as we veer starkly toward an era of increasingly post-Christian cultural dominance in the West, questions regarding the character of the Christian community and its various sub-traditions become ever more notable. Do the old divisions continue? Did they serve us well? What might be new and fresh in this time and place? To speak more theologically, we must ask also, what about our present reality must die and be reborn? Where must we repent and seek the Lord’s provision? Leithart’s book addresses pertinent matters. We need to be thinking about these questions, not simply presuming that things are settled, and we must think well in these areas.

Now a reader might accuse him of laying on the Protestants (calling for an “end of Protestantism” rather than of any other such church or set of churches) and in so doing letting others off the hook, but I do not think such a response to be fair or appropriate here. In opposing “Protestantism” as a valid way forward, he is neither denying that Protestantism served a useful purpose nor suggesting that only Protestants need to change. All Christians are marked by the divisions illustrated by denominationalism; indeed, Leithart has astutely pointed out that Roman Catholicism (perhaps surprisingly or even ironically) runs the danger of a parochial vision of the church that is not catholic enough in its breadth (pp. 169-172). While changes ought to be sought in the East and in Rome, Leithart titles his book as a call for an “end of Protestantism,” specifically because he speaks to his own tribe (pp. 5-6). Thus, I think we do well to remember that Protestantism really reflects a deeper concept – status quo separationism – and is targeted concretely and particularly to remind us of our implicated participation in that failure.

In the remainder of this essay, I will seek to answer two questions: (1) what is Leithart’s proposal for this “future church”? and (2) what are the arguments unto that vision?

What Is the Proposal?

The book may be about an end, but its most substantive claim is found at its very beginning. Leithart notes, as do many in recent decades, that ecclesiology must be shaped by the high priestly prayer of Christ and its way of attesting the evangelical character of churchly unity (Jn. 17:21). This prayer request elicits a vocation and a pursuit: “Jesus prayed that the church would exhibit this kind of unity … Each church should dwell in every other church, as the Son dwells in the Father.” So far, so good, and frankly nothing surprising. Then comes the show-stopper: “This is what Jesus wants for his church. It is not what his church is” (p. 1). Leithart turns in the next few pages to consider possible programs of playing down that claim: perhaps doctrine, fundamental tenets, sacramental rituals, or polity express an underlying unity. In each case, though, he comes back to this judgment: “In reality, every apparent point of unity is also a point of conflict and division” (p. 2).

That first chapter is entitled “An Interim Ecclesiology,” precisely because he suggests that we have sought a coping mechanism in the form of denominational Christianity. “[W]e have created a system to salve our conscience and to deflect the Spirit’s grief. We have found a way of being church that lets us be at peace with division. Denominationalism allows us to be friendly to one another while refusing to join one another” (p. 3). Apparently this was not always so. Leithart calls us back, for “Once there were no denominations. Once the church was not mappable into three great ‘families’ of churches—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Once there was just ‘the church,’ then East and West, and then, over the centuries, the crazy quilt of churches we know today” (p. 4).

The denominational tapestry was woven afresh in response to schisms, and yet it is unwinding and being recast today. Leithart does not simply suggest that matters “may” change or are “remappable” but that they “are” changing and are “being remapped before our eyes” (p. 5). This book, then, is offered to “theologically conservative evangelical Protestant churches” with “an ecclesiological program for the present” that, if enacted, “would move Protestant churches toward full reunion” (p. 5). Leithart refers to this agenda as “Reformational Catholicism,” and he suggests that it “will make Protestant churches more catholic, but that is because it will make them more evangelical. The two go together because catholicity is inherent in the gospel” (p. 6).

Four moves mark the progress of this agenda. First, he offers “a vision for the Reformational Catholic church of the future, arguing that it expresses a biblical and a Reformational paradigm for the church” (p. 6). Second, he suggests that the usefulness of denominationalism has waned. Third, he describes how global expansion undercuts denominational divisions. Fourth, he gives practical guidelines for those seeking to put his vision into action. The outline of the book matches the stated sequence with four parts pertaining to these argumentative goals.

One pattern runs underneath the varied moves. It appears most explicitly in what Leithart terms an “intermezzo” called “From Glory to Glory: The Pattern of History” (pp. 101-115).In this interlude he offers a sprint through biblical and post-biblical history.

“From the opening chapter of the Bible, God moves the world forward from glory to glory by tearing and reuniting. Each time he tears and reunites, he makes the world better than it was before. Time moves forward by periodic deaths and resurrections: worlds take form, decay, and collapse, and new worlds take their place. God makes worlds, dismantles them, and rebuilds. This is the pattern of biblical and church history” (p. 101).

Though this “rhythm” marks all life, he describes how flagrantly this dynamic cuts against the grain of our desire for familiarity and the old (p. 103). Yet the scriptures display the divine will for such novelty: in the flood (pp. 105-106), the line of Abram (p. 106), the exodus (pp. 107-109), the monarchy (pp. 109-112), and the exile (pp. 112-113). He returns to this march of his broader argument only after concluding the interlude with a pointed question: “If God is alive, why would we think that the church reached its final form in 1517 or 1640 or 1965? Why would we Protestants think that the Reformation marks the end of history? Why do we think we can keep these names forever?” (p. 114, emphasis original)

The “end of Protestantism” represents the eschatological calling for the church today from the God who slays and makes alive. A figural reading of the church’s path provides a lens for expecting disruption denominationally. The evangelical promise (voiced in Jesus’s prayer) leads us to expect days of greater unity, which must be expressed institutionally.

What Are the Arguments?

What does one make of “future church” and the “end of Protestantism”? And how do we assess Leithart’s call to view history in this manner and our task in this frame? Many responses can and should come as we assess the overall impression and the particular claims. I have already noted the seriousness of the questions and the breadth which the author brings to the conversation; however, I must now turn to assess some fundamental limits to the argument. I will highlight ways in which the project falters owing to claims that simply cannot be assessed, are unsubstantiated, or seem to falter theologically either for historical or exegetical reasons.

Many pieces are neither right nor wrong but frankly incapable of such assessment. In some cases, these claims are rather obviously speculative. “Uncertain as we must be, provisional as all our imaginations and proposals must be, it is useful to speculate on the future toward which we aspire. So long as we hold humbly, loosely to our agendas, we may find it edifying to ask, What should future church look like?” He notes the extent to which speculation might go, specifying that he means to ask “What will the church look like in five hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand?” (p. 26) Simply saying that something is useful is no claim that we can know it nor any demonstration of why it is useful. And I’m not opposed to speculative theology as such, though I do share Calvin’s exegetical reticence about a certain notion of speculation. But such a posture (pursuing a biblically regulated speculative reason) is not to give a blank check to the theologian. Exegetical warrant for speculative specificity must be shown. Do we really think “what will the church be like in 10,000 years” is a generative and helpful question? Would the patriarchs have fared well or gone far spending time in such endeavors?

Other instances can be adduced, some of which are perhaps more subtle and no less crucial to the author’s overall case. Consider a later claim which may appear random but actually plays a key rhetorical role in the supposed reading of providence (pt. 3) where Leithart claims that the globalizing trends of the church are tilting away from denominationalism. There he attests: “Nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions” (p. 166). Without wanting to downplay the heinous nature of schisms or relent in the call for each of us to seek the peace and unity of the church as much as we seek her purity, I do wonder how this statement could ever be proven or disproven or even shown to be more or less probable. It strikes one as meaningless, albeit rhetorically punchy.

Many lineaments of his argument are helpful and accurate, though I’ll confess that I find them also to lack much by way of evidence. It strikes me that the wisest judgments are found buried deep in the endnotes. I agree that pastors are wise to commend to their congregants that “liturgical forms are biblical” and also that prudence may suggest the wisdom in showing “how liturgically and ritually structured life is in general” (p. 220 n. 17; one can use not only Leviticus and Deuteronomy here, but also some of the more recent studies that help us grasp the sociology of knowledge). I think he overstates his case (at least as a generic call rather than a pointed rebuke) in suggesting that “instituting weekly celebration of Communion is the fundamental liturgical reform” (for whom? how do we know what is the fundamental reform?), but I’m in favor of instituting weekly or at least bi-weekly communion over against less frequent rhythms. I resonate even more with his next liturgical reform, where he says that “After weekly communion reinstituting the Psalter as the songbook of the church is the next most important liturgical reform” (p. 221 n. 18). I’m struck, however, by the lack of argumentation for the former compared to the latter. Seeking to commend weekly communion, he says: “When it becomes clear that the washing and the meal are fundamental themes of Scripture, it will be easier to make the case that the church ought to give more attention to practicing these rituals” (p. 220 n. 17). Saying that a biblical rhythm helps make a case easier to make does not itself a case make. I worry that, absent argument, these more viable claims will be read by the skeptic as being as speculative as the broader case. Such would be lamentable.

Most significantly, claims central to the project seem theologically problematic and either historically or exegetically untenable. A number might be delineated, but I will highlight three which are functionally load-bearing for Leithart’s overall proposal: his claim that there once was unity before the Reformation, his suggestion that recent global trends present an opportunity for new togetherness, and his claim that unity is not our present reality.

First, his repeated use of the trope that once there was unity (see, e.g., pp. 4, 27, 29-30, 51) seems a homogenizing read of early Christianity, not to mention the very pages of the New Testament. One need not go full on Da Vinci Code in one’s assessment of early Christianity to see that there were fissures and cracks within and across communities marked by Christian practice. While it has been necessary for scholars to push back on Walter Bauer’s thesis that in the beginning was diversity, there is an equally unhelpful approach that presumes only unity in that first millennium. Reformed ecclesiology provides categories for a more sober assessment as it takes its cues from the canonical portrait wherein the people of God exist always this side of Eden’s door. There is no primitivist innocence to be found, whether before the sixteenth or the eleventh century. This historically-homogenizing judgment – like the next one mentioned – serves a large rhetorical role in the book, as it suggests that the problem of disunity, in as much as a problem is identified and a cure offered, is with Protestantism or denominationalism this side of the Protestant Reformation. But issues of unity go much deeper than that, for the problem here is both smaller and wider than Protestantism. I worry that, absent a deep enough assessment of the problem, Leithart’s call to unity will actually be far too minimal.

Second, Leithart seems to suggest that the trends of global Christianity are tilting away from denominationalism and that they somehow privilege a move toward unity (pt. 3). While agreeing with the former claim, I think he is fusing two trends in suggesting the latter implication. The rapid spread of Christianity in the majority world does not simply and snugly fit within the denominational map of mid or early twentieth-century ecumenism (p. 127). And there are many conversations across denominational lines where common resources and concerns are made more apparent; indeed, I have participated in some such conversations myself and find them useful at times in a variety of ways (whether making common cause on moral and social issues or in helping resource more advanced theological conversation across ecumenical divides). But I think Leithart is wrong to fuse the two trends.

The existence of journals like First Things, Touchstone, or Pro Ecclesia ought to be celebrated, yet we must note that their concern for vibrant cross-denominational conversation has virtually nothing to do, demographically speaking, with the onward march of majority world Christianity, given that the latter tilts ever more radically toward various forms of charismatic and Pentecostal and even prosperity Christianity. A recent essay pointed out how small the impact of the “New Calvinism” was on the wider Christian world, relatively speaking, by noting the absence of such authors from the top 100 sales list of Christian books for 2016. It is so easy to think our small tribes are in the thick of it, as it were, sociologically speaking. I think a comparable sober-mindedness should lead Leithart (and me!) from considering the rise of organizations and associations that are trans-denominational and ecumenical in scope such as he mentioned in the preface (p. ix) to be in any way directly related to the broad trends of majority world Christianity. That is not to diminish or denigrate them or even to disagree with them per se; it is simply to note that our projects here in the West are really no longer the hub of majority trends in Christianity. Students reading Leithart, perhaps adding sacramental resources upstream to their more evangelical upbringing, do well to realize that their own personal sense of not quite fitting snugly in denominational categories does not map onto the majority world experience with its increasing fragmentation.

Far from preparing the ground for some reborn unity, the global trends seem to suggest a broader fissipariousness and further breakdown, not so much where old lines are lost and new connections are born but where new lines are superimposed on top of old divisions. The puzzle pieces become more numerous as the age advances. Whereas Leithart rightly notes that there is a “proliferation of varieties of Christianity” now, it seems odd simultaneously to say that “the barricades are down” ecclesiastically, so that somehow “there is an opportunity to pursue a catholic future” (p. 128). God may yet work a miracle, but if we can treat increasing global fragmentation as a sign that unity is just around the corner, then, well, anything is fair game as an argument in that direction. That we might guess the nature of such a divine miracle – speculating regarding the form of “future church” up to 10,000 years from now (yet still shy of the eschaton, on which see esp. p. 27 and also pp. 28, 29, 30, 32, 34) – seems a very different and rather unsubstantiated claim. If we are going to pursue the kind of thought experiment suggested by Leithart, then it would be better to turn focus away from the shifting sociological patterns and onto presenting an argument for why the promised unity voiced in Christ’s high priestly prayer must take the form of organized, institutional oneness and, further, to what extent polity must take the form of homogeneity in that kind of “future church.” Is denominationalism always sub-evangelical? Might there be a way in which diversity can be envisioned as a gift and not a goad here also?

Third, Leithart’s first claim is telling in terms of the underlying logic of his argument, in as much as it is sociological and not theological. You will remember that his book began by noting that the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 was a summons, though it was not presently the case. “Every mark of unity is also a sign and site of division. Jesus wants his church to be one. But we are not” (p. 3; see also p. 1 and 166). Of course, there is a sense in which Leithart is getting at something profound here, namely, the festering wound that is Christian divisiveness and ecclesiastical alienation. Most of us, sadly, know the debilitating effects of estrangement, and such ailments occur institutionally as well as personally. But Leithart’s sociological/empirical assessment here is markedly limited by its theological thinness. At a theological level, it is not profoundly helpful for it ignores the most central claim respecting its subject, namely, Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).

Leithart does not ignore this text altogether, of course, but addresses it within his call for “Reformational Catholicism” or what he terms “Evangelical Unity” (pp. 17-20). He rightly notes that “the unity of the church is not an invisible unity that renders visible things irrelevant” (p. 19; see also pp. 21, 33, 41) and helpfully warns against “unrealistic expectations” by “emphasizing the eschatological dimension of unity” (p. 19). But he does ignore its most crucial claim. He moves from saying that the “factuality of the church’s unity” does not render its visible life irrelevant (p. 18) to his central claim that the church is not united (pp. 1, 3). But the law of the excluded middle proves helpful here, for those are not the only two options nor even the most likely options. Why would we not explore an eschatological description of the church’s life that attests its unity as its most fundamental claim and, therefore, that takes Christ’s testimony to the character of his own body given in Ephesians 4:4 (“there is one body”) as more definitive and fundamental than our own perceptions of reality relationally and institutionally? Starting there actually makes other experiences more tragic, not less, precisely because it enables us to say that they cut not simply across our divine design or the summons of divine law or even across the arc of eschatological history but that they straightforwardly oppose reality. But the “evangelical” shape of unity must begin with theological, not merely or primarily sociological, reflection and with the self-attestation of the risen Lord through his emissaries, in this case the apostolic testimony of Ephesians 4:4, where unity is no mere summons or prayer but a present reality.

Leithart’s program of “future church” begins with an empirical observation, he says, that the one church does not presently exist (pp. 1, 3). Drawing on figural hermeneutics of promise (pp. 101-115) and on the philosophy of Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy (pp. 14-15, 103, 168-169), he argues that this oneness will be eschatological and has a future “factuality” (p. 18) and states that this reality does not exist at present. But God reveals oneness first as a gift in the present. This gift comes in the form of grace now and not yet glory or perfection (hence Eph. 4:4-6 must be paired with 4:1-3 as suggested by the soteriology sketched in 4:7-16). Unity must be maintained. Unity can be stretched and even scandalized. And we do feel the stretching and breaking of unity’s embrace in personal and institutional forms. But we do well to allow Christ to set the terms of our intellectual approach by means of his revealing instrument, the apostolic scripture. To Leithart’s empirically based approach (where our relational perception seems to provide the initial orientation of what is not reality), I think we need a theological ecumenism.

While our more activistic impulses may fret at its potential misuse, such an approach is going to need to make fuller use of categories like the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. That potential areas of unity are also sites of division does not negate the fact that they very well may be both unifying and dividing in various ways and, in fact, that the fact that they are places of unity is precisely why disagree prompts such division. In other words, the visible-invisible distinction not only flows from exegesis of texts like Eph 4:4-6 and 1-3 but also makes better existential sense of the liveliness of ecumenical debates. If we worry that talk of invisible unity leads to a lethargic embrace of the limits of the present (as do many of its critics), we do well to remember that Augustine of Hippo articulated that distinction in a time of crisis and employed it not to provide a cop-out but to properly frame the call to order our loves, organize our common life together, and move ahead with zeal and expectancy. In his own way, Calvin’s discussion of the distinction in book IV of his Institutes of the Christian Religion also prompts an active lifestyle of ecclesial repentance, rather than (as many sociologists seem to suggest) a program of presumption and arrogance by the purportedly elect. Admittedly, professing that Christ has redeemed a church which is one even as Father and Son are one (see not only Eph. 4:4 but also Jn. 14:20) demands faith in the face of empirical challenge, but that’s a wager that I’d think Christians are willing to take up. The Nicene Creed reminds us of this wager every time we confess belief (note: not sight!) of “one …. Church” in its third article. The church’s oneness is not a delayed reality (like the way we look unto the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting) but a present gift which we trust to be true.

Anniversaries are useful for culling up our memory and for stoking our expectations for the future again. They provide occasions every so often to assess, to discuss, to pray, and to resolve a way forward. Remembrance of the witness of those early Protestant Reformers in the years 1517 onward can help serve as a useful prompt for our own intentionality that we might be more biblical, more fully catholic, and better connected to the work of the Spirit in every tribe, tongue, and nation. Looking backward and retrieving the wisdom that can be gleaned from the past can help renew our efforts and resource us on the path forward today. Leithart touches on many pertinent themes – catholicity, unity, liturgy, mission – but I would not recommend this volume either as an elucidating look back to church history or as providing a viable forward vision for shaping a theological imagination of the future life of the church. Protestants – like all Christians – do need to continue to be confronted with God’s Word and disciplined by its challenge and its hope alike. The lush rhetoric is at odds with the thin argument of this volume, hence its failure to challenge the sociological imagination of the present enough or to call to a radical enough future promise.[1]


  1. Thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer and Scott Swain for comments on an early draft of this review.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando