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Discussing Denominationalism

Discussing Denominationalism

As I continue through Peter Leithart's The End of Protestantism, I remain a little off put by the order of presentation. The actual content of the book is quite good. Leithart says many good things, but their order sometimes leaves me with questions.

One such situation deals with his diatribe against denominationalism. Leithart begins by saying a few kind words about denominationalism (Chapter 5) before making a case against denominationalism (Chapter 6). But in the midst of this, Leithart is really making a case against American denominationalism — which is not entirely evident at specific points. Some of his criticisms reflect what he calls the "free market" of American denominationalism,

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"Baptist some Presbyterians formulate their theologies and in teaching in order to provide continuing justification of their separate existence. Baptist have to minimize or neutralize the force of text that might lend support to paedobaptism; paedobaptists about this have to skim past passages that seem to support Baptist views. Calvinists have their favorite text and avoid others; ditto for Arminians. These tricks of teaching and doctoral formulation not only betray a cavalier attitude towards scripture but also help reinforce doctrinal and ecclesiology divisions. Honest Baptist and Presbyterians, honest Calvinists and Arminians, who acknowledge the strength of their opponents' arguments, run the risk of being expelled from their own ranks. Anyone who fails to defend the denominational barricades must be a traitor, a heretic at best and a liar at worst." (82)

Or as he says later in the book,

"Virtually every tradition within the Christian Church has gone beyond these fundamental affirmations. And in many churches the further elaborations function as identity markers that justify division from other Christians. Doctrinal formulations function as shibboleths to expose and exclude those who mispronounce. This use of doctrine is inherent in American denominationalisim, since every denomination has to justify itself by claiming that its distinctive doctrines and formulations are important enough to the defense of the Gospel and the advance of Jesus's kingdom to keep its people in a separate church. If they flinch and acknowledge that this or that is not essential to the gospel, if they concede that this other church has a good point, or that this particular formulation is relative to very particular historical circumstances, then it becomes difficult to explain why a separate church need still exist … There must be a way of insisting on doctrinal truth while simultaneously striving to overcome doctoral division" (172-173)

One might believe that Leithart simply wants all the denominations to collapse upon themselves into one large group. But this is not the case. Leithart's problem which he labels "denominationalism" is truly tribalism. He is set against denominationalism that exists for no other purpose than propping up different name tags on our church doors. In fact, early in his chapter "The Case Against Denominationalism," he makes a statement which insinuates denominationalism could be part of the future catholic church,

"In theory, denominationalism can coexist with catholicity and unity … In such a world, denominations would be genuinely companionable, offering mutual support as well as timing timely rebuke … In such a world, the denominations would acknowledge each other's discipline, cooperate rather than compete in ministry, strive to resolve theological differences, and come to one mind. In such a world, the various denominations would find unity in their mutual share in the body of Christ and their communion in his Spirit. They would be united above all at the Lord's table and in their common baptism. Every denomination would see itself not merely as an American church but is part of a global network of churches. A world of denominational cooperation would be ideal, but we do not live in a perfect world, and the forms of unity that we can achieve will always be wanting in many ways. Denominationalism might be a way of being the church that we will be." (87)

It is things like this that leave me wondering what Leithart wants his final word to be. In his concluding chapter, Leithart depicts the "intermediate ecclesiology" in very cross-denominational communion — not a collapsing into one church. I find myself regularly nodding my head with Leithart only to wonder if I am contradicting myself alongside him.

Freed for Confrontation

Freed for Confrontation

Defining Protestantism

Defining Protestantism