A Quick Review: "The End of Protestantism" by Peter Leithart

My family is quite diverse for we have Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist roots. Because of my family background, my supervising master’s professor at Union University, and my current church pastorate, I have been intrigued by the idea of ecclesial unity. Another pastor in New Orleans highly recommended that I read this book, for he strongly agreed with the concepts. Finally after 4 years of sitting on my shelf of books to read, I have read the work.

Basic Summary of the Book

Image result for end of protestantism bookLeithart's work begins with asking if the contemporary church fulfills Christ's high priestly prayer for unity (John 17:21). Leithart's conclusion is that the modern church does not fulfill Christ's prayer for unity and denominationalism is the cause of the division. "I propose protestants pursue internal reforms that, I argue, will bring their churches more in line with Scripture as well as with Christian tradition. My agenda 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. ‘I call this ecclesiology and this agenda 'Reformational Catholicism.’”(6)


As one who has been exposed to numerous branches of the Christian church I appreciate him putting into print good observations of the divisions of the church, "the church is divided doctrinally, sacramentally, liturgically, and governmentally" (pp. 2-3). "Denominationalism institutionalizes division." (89) As such, "There is no contradiction in saying, thankfully, that denominationalism has been good for a time and then also saying that its time has come."(56) His firm statement of the ending time is backed with statistical reports of the declining numbers in denominations. He further highlights the growing “non-denominational” movement globally (it should be noted that he includes Pentecostals into this camp). In Leihart’s opinion, the decline of traditional denominations and rise of non-denominationalism is a natural re-unifying of the church (151). He noted of those who desire to remain denominational, "Most people want to satisfy their needs with minimal costs. The cost of living in a radically, economically, or socially mixed congregation is comparatively high. It can be difficult to learn how to relate to people who are very different from ourselves. It requires investment of time and emotional energy, which can be unsettling."( 74) While he is correct about the difficulty of unity (especially in his section on ethnic unity), he belittles doctrinal adherence as noted below.

The first few chapters contained a plethora of good observations and right ideas of purging the American church of the “American religion,” but his primary applications comes at great doctrinal cost. “We need to repent of our failure to follow the Lord Jesus, who prays that we would be one, as well as our failure to pray for unity in and with him” (p. 51). After repenting and praying for unity Leithart calls for us to abandon dogmatic theology and accept the following pluralistic views:

mutual recognition of baptism
common confession of apostolic faith and proclamation of the gospel
common celebration of the Lord’s Supper
common devotional worship (liturgy), petition, intercession, and thanksgiving
mutual recognition of ministries and members

The above list points the reader to the conclusion that Protestants need to rejoin the Catholics and that it is the Protestants’ fault there is no unity. A reason that denominations (namely protestants) need to hear this word is because they are, “homogenous and uniflavored and therefore immature." (73) I, as a denominationally trained baptist, take offense to being called homogeneous, uniflavored, and immature! I know many friends in other camps that would take the same offense! I summarize the con of Leithart’s conclusion as, we must become theological-ragdolls who are open to all views of theology and interpretations of Scripture for the sake of unity. 

Personal Reflections
The entirety of this work hinges upon the quick quotation of John 17:16. The solo quotation leaves out the context and thus proper interpretation. As Jesus prayed, “even as we are one,” the unity noted here is not one of theological-ragdolls, but rather of unique individuals being unique and of one spirit. As Spurgeon noted on this text, “Beloved, those in whom Christ lives are not uniform, but one. Uniformity may be found in death, but this unity is life. Those who are quite uniform may yet have no love to each other, while those who differ widely may still be truly and intensely one. Our children are not uniform, but they make one family.” Leithart, in his premise, does not believe that the church is a viable whole body but rather parts of a dead body laying on the floor in need of Dr. Frankenstein. The truth is that the church is alive and empowered to unique tasks in each individual parish, though holding to different theological views. 

I believe in ecclesiological unity in the church, without abandonment of doctrinal views. Currently, unity in the US comes in the form of coalitions (ie Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier, Acts 29...etc). A survey of these groups shows denominational preference, but missional unity. Leithart wrote this book to primarily call protestants to heel, but these recent coalitions prove that Catholics, Orthodox, and Pentecostal / Non-denoms are the ones who aren’t coming to the table. Thus, Leithart should rework the application points to focus on these groups and to analyze the unique nature of these coalitions where believers hold tightly to doctrines and hold hands for the declaration of the Gospel. I have often said if denominations die off it will be these organizations that replace them. Until the day they do die we must rest in the fact that we believe in “one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism” (Eph 4) and that we will ultimately be unified in glory (Rev 7).

I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, even though he has good observations.

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