Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Too catholic to be Catholic" (Peter Leithart)

Peter J. Leithart
A few folks who know that I've authored a book titled Towards Baptist Catholicity assume that what I have in mind is exemplified most fully by the upper-case "C" Catholic Church. Despite an epilogue chapter titled "What Keeps You from Becoming Catholic?" and explanations in that book and in other publications of the lower-case "c" catholicity that belongs to and ought to be claimed by the whole church, the assumption endures. Last week I was gratified to discover via a Facebook post by my former Campbell University Divinity School student Andrew Tatum that Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart has written a blog post that expresses well many of the qualifications I've sought to make.

I became aware of Leithart a couple of years ago when Robbie Crouse, my former student and graduate assistant at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, introduced me to some of Leithart's emphases. I have to confess that I've read very little of Leithart's literary output (he's produced a good number more books than he has children, and he has ten of the latter), but I'm familiar enough with it to know that I'm too Baptist--and too influenced by people like John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and James Wm. McClendon, Jr.--to join him in Defending Constantine. (Leithart is in fact deeply appreciative of Hauerwas even in disagreeing with his take on Constantinianism.)

I found myself nodding in hearty agreement, however, with much of Leithart's blog post "Too catholic to be Catholic." He begins:

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.

The whole post is worth reading, but this paragraph communicates its essence:

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 offense at this, but I can’t escape it: Size and history apart, how is Catholicism different from a gigantic sect? 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 have to contract my ecclesial 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.

The final paragraph struck a chord with me in connection with my current book project:

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. 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. 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.

I'm in the midst of editing the manuscript for a forthcoming book under contract with Baylor University Press, tentatively titled The Baptist Vision and the Ecumenical Future: Radically Biblical, Radically Catholic, Relentlessly Pilgrim. Leithart's concluding paragraph expresses well the eschatological ecclesiology embedded in the "Relentlessly Pilgrim" portion of the book's subtitle. One dimension of the thesis that drives the book is that part of what is essential to the Baptist vision (and thus to the distinctive ecclesial gifts Baptists have to share with the whole church) is an aversion to overly-realized eschatologies of the church: i.e., a refusal to identify any past or present instantiation of the church as the full realization of what it means for the church to be under the rule of Christ. It seeks that sort of church in the future--as Leithart says, "Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know."

Two follow-up posts by Leithart are worth reading as well: Israel, Idolatry, and Separated Brothers and We're All Protestants Now.


  1. Steven,

    You might also want to see Matt Yonke's reply here:


    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan