The Future of the Church

El Greco, “Pentecost” (1596)

This past Wednesday evening, I watched ‘The Future of the Church’ seminar from Biola, a successor to ‘The Future of Protestantism’ seminar last year. Peter Leithart’s FT article, “The End of Protestantism,” was the motivation for hosting these discussions.

Here it is, along with my musings below:

I respect everyone involved in both last year’s and this year’s discussion, and I greatly appreciate the work involved by the organizers. However, I have been underwhelmed by both seminars. This may have much to do with my own idiosyncrasies in theology. My biggest complaint, however, is formal and not material. The structure makes no sense to me. We have four talented theologians, invited to lecture and discuss the problems plaguing ecclesiology. So far, so good. But each theologian is given, as far as I can tell, no direction and no guidance on what precisely to evaluate and discuss. They do not know what each other is going to say, and each presentation is a stand-alone monologue — differing in character and content widely from one to the next. This was true of last year’s event, and the same format was chosen this year.

Likewise, the roundtable discussion after the lectures is similarly disjointed. For the most part, the questions are far too broad. Each theologian is speaking, naturally enough, out of his own experiences and peculiar context. If, instead, each was given a common set of questions, preferably with concrete problems and proposed solutions, prior to the seminar, then the results could have been far more fruitful. The dialog could have been far more constructive.

I would love some questions about Protestant iconoclasm, in its tireless pursuit of authentic ἐκκλησία and distrust of forms — to give one example. Maybe the organizers want to appeal to a broader audience, but I doubt the theological neophyte is gaining much under the current format.

Setting aside those complaints, you can still benefit from hearing the various perspectives in each presentation and in the discussion afterwards.



  1. It is typically evangelical to have very minimal structure and look for the “spirit led” serendipities to occur. Maybe the conference requires a “reformational catholic” moderator!! 🙂 Ha!

    Also, i think part of the issue as i see it among fundamentalists is the need for strong bounded set statements of faith, falsely generated insider-outsider paradigms of holiness and too much unchecked egotism. Actually that last statement could be applied to almost any group, however much l like Leithart’s article and mostly agree i do not see the American church changing much. It is too profitable and too many that looks like blessing from God.

    Many protestants/evangelicals are un-critical participants in the dominant culture around us and less interested in becoming people shaped by our tradition (a swear word to many).

    I am also interested in iconoclasm as long as it is directed towards our cultural idols.

    • I think you’re correct that nothing substantial will change so long as the pop-evangelical model is successful and “blessed,” as you rightly demur. We may very well be near the precipice of such a crisis, I hope. As for iconoclasm, yes, it is necessary as directed toward cultural idols, but I have grown very weary of the self-righteous iconoclasm that is endemic in Protestantism, from the fundamentalist preacher to the liberal academic — it’s all the same.

      • ok…clearly context is important. In Canada, we have less of the angry critique between political or religious/theological camps. In my circle, many are critical of the church, yet so uncritical about the social liberal worldview they participate in. I find myself often asking people if they might critique the cultural values that are prevalent or popular.
        This is why i like Leithart. In a similar way he is like Hauerwas in that they point out our cultural captivity. I do not have a specific “brand” of culture i am against but rather want to embrace a more Christo-centric way of living in the world. For me, as an evangelical, i see this happening through the creeds and much deeper understanding and value of the Christian tradition. Also, i think it is helpful to read Catholics.

      • That’s an interesting point. Here in the US of A, we are quite adept at pinpointing our cultural idols, at least among the theologically educated at the local pub. And this includes both the conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning. But perhaps we are indeed more inclined to turn the criticism upon ourselves, which is to say, upon the church. This is definitely where my attention has been directed for quite a while now.

        Ultimately, there is little significant difference between cultural idols and ecclesial idols — including the necessary iconoclasm — since all of us inhabit a common human sphere with common human foibles.

  2. Do you mean iconoclasm in the literal sense of physical objects in worship, or in the metaphorical sense of institutions and persons?

    • Both the narrow and the broad sense. That’s a helpful clarification. I rarely use “iconoclasm” to only indicate the perceived idolatry of artistic representations. I mostly use it to indicate the larger rejection, or general distrust, of “forms,” whether credal or moral or liturgical, as well as institutions and persons. These forms are typically contrasted with an immediate presence or command or intuition of the Lord and his agape. This is true for many liberal Protestants as much as for independent Baptists.

  3. Check out the guy, second from the right, in the El Greco “Pentecost”. Guess who he is. The painter himself! Observe his expression: detached, not passionate; staring straight ahead at the viewer, not caught up in the action with the others whose eyes are raised towards the source of the excitement. In a word, like your good self, El Greco is “underwhelmed” by the whole business (almost, dare one say, cynical?). Good choice of picture, I guess!

    • Ha, I never noticed that. I wonder if indeed he meant to convey something. At the Louvre in the Flemish galleries, I saw some paintings (likewise, late 16th / early 17th century) where the artist would paint himself into the picture and look at the viewer.

  4. Thank you!!

    I watched this as well, and found the entire thing confused, underwhelming and detached from any real serious thought. That’s not to say that any of the men up there were not serious or brilliant, they are. But you have:

    -A pentecostal from the missional/missio-dei kind of movement (more familiar territory for me)

    -A strange idealist psuedo-Hegelian apart of the Leithart gang

    -An incredibly reserved catholic

    -An evangelical who doesn’t even seem to want to be up there

    If there was no form, how will any of these men be able to discuss anything substantial? What is a docetic ecclesiology? What is a solution to the fragmentation in the Pentecostal world? What the hell is Dr. Radner talking about?

    I find Leithart (and James Jordan) very intriguing and bizarre figure in the world of theology. I’m curious of what they think. But the pessimist in me thinks this whole business (both last year and this year) is a way for Leithart to position himself and his organization into the mainstream.

    I mean, who the hell at Biola would ever read (or take seriously) someone like James Jordan?! Hearing the questions fielded from the audience, I don’t think they’d even begin to understand him let alone engage with him.

    • Yep, I had a really hard time following Radner. I know that his prior work, like ‘A Brutal Unity’, has elicited a lot of discussion among theologians, including an entire issue of Pro Ecclesia dedicated to the book. So, he was probably presupposing some prior knowledge of his work. Unfortunately for most of us, it was a bit bewildering. And, once again, it had nothing to do with the other three talks, beyond superficial points of comparison. Of course, I enjoyed a lot of what Radner had to say, albeit in isolated bits.

      I do not know about James Jordan, so I cannot comment. I am in broad sympathy with Leithart, as you could guess.

      • James Jordan is the true genius behind Leithart, Federal Vision, and the deeper Reformed catholic movement that is everything from CREC to Theopolis Institute. He has taught Leithart and has influenced people like Ephraim Radner, Rusty Reno, Steve Wedgeworth and beyond. He is extremely polarizing, being antagonistic to many modern, American Reformed bodies. He is one of the major roots of Auburn theology that became a major thorn in the PCA and OPC.

        I both love and am disgusted with some of his thinking. Quite honestly, of any modern day man, I think he best understands the Magisterial Reformers the best. And that’s why I both love-and-hate his theology, interpretations, and hermeneutics.

        I figure since Radner and Leithart both are working towards the same goal, they both drink from the same psuedo-Hegelian waters. Hegel is not something necessarily bad, but it’s the same pool that people like Schaff and Mercersburg Theology emerged out of. I know you have a high opinion of the movement. I’m undecided. One acquaintance described it as trying to jam two crooked houses (Rome & Magisterial Protestantism) together. The Petrine thesis meets the Pauline antithesis to form the Johannine synthesis. I’m not so sure.

        I want to know more about Chan’s complaint against a docetic ecclesiology. What does that mean? What does real unity look like then?

        That was the real pain, how could that question of catholicity=visibility get a unanimous, 3.75 yes, and fizzle into no elaborations. Obviously Rausch would have to say that true unity would be into the chain of apostolic succession which the bishop of Rome represents. I don’t know what Radner would say…join the biggest church near you…? Sanders would say just be generous and join a local church (which equals his ‘sure…’). And Chan? What does Pentecostal unity actually look like (given his caution)?

  5. Also, another thought for this conversation: Have you read Von Balthasar’s book justifying the supremacy of the Roman see? I haven’t but the description is how Rome embodies many strains (Petrine, Marian, Pauline etc.)

    I wonder if this is helpful for advancing discussions of the Church. How do we keep the Church as the Body of Christ (instead of a collection of individuals who are fans of Jesus), and yet keep the Head from being collapsed into the Body (as in some outlandish Roman apologetics over the centuries, and the modern, liberal proclamation that “we wrote the Bible, we can change it”)?

    • Thanks, Cal, for the James Jordan info. I had no idea. As for Mercersburg, yes, I am very attracted to it, but I have also been critical of its possibilities on the ground. It strikes me as a great “idea,” but I do not see how it takes off within Protestantism, apart from a few isolated places with gifted leaders and an elite group of well-read disciples. It wants the gains of Roman forms and hierarchy without the problematic means by which Rome has been able to achieve its unity and endurance, namely, the universal jurisdiction of Rome. As such, it remains a niche within evangelical Protestantism, like Doug Wilson’s little empire in Idaho. The church is intrinsic to salvation for Rome in a way that it is not for Protestants, for whom justification is extrinsic, so it is hard for me to see how Protestants can succeed at attaining the unity of Rome.

      Yes, I’ve read Balthasar’s ‘Office of Peter’, and I have frequently recommended it to people, alongside ‘Theo-Drama’ vol. 3, which is an extensive discussion of the typologies (Petrine, Johannine, Pauline, Marian) and how they work together. It’s now been a while since I’ve read ‘The Office of Peter’, but I still consider it the best exposition of the Roman papal claims that I have ever read, even though Balthasar did not intend it to be an apologetics nor even written for Protestants at all. He was writing for fellow Catholics, probably trying to correct the historicism of people like Hans Kung.

      • Yeah, and that’s exactly the rub of a lot of issues: where is the connect between intellect and bodily reality? What I mean by this is not merely between the learned and the lay, because that distinction is too stratified and picturesque. It’s more of a question of the rubber hitting the road. Tillich can lecture for hours on an ultimate concern and retire to the arms of a hooker.

        How do we really live our lives? That’s where Mercersburg seems unable to cope. It’s not that people can’t understand it, but whether it makes any tangible sense. It can’t cope with the gap that if the Church is necessary to salvation, where is the visible reality of that?

        This is where Leithart is a vague figure. Ok, Protestantism is dead. But what does that actually mean? Do most Protestants even think of themselves as Protestant? Maybe in the Mainline, but Evangelicals? Pentecostals? Anabaptists? Even Anglicans bristle, depending on who and when.

        XYZ Bible Fellowship Church does not look at itself as maintaining principled resistance to Rome. Leithart seems to say these churches should just be bulldozed and labeled apostate (by who? by what authority? who would care?)

        I’ve been flicking through Mohler’s catholic apology and he points out, with vicious irony, the contradiction the Magisterial Reformers exist in. On the onehand, they make a spirit-defense of their movement from the dead forms of Rome. But on the other, they turn to the Anabaptists and the radicals and ask ‘if you’re inspired, where are your signs and wonders? where does your authority come from? who authorized you?’

        In the conference, this raises the question no one really gave a full answer for: what do you tell the small group of Jesus-worshipers in the jungle to do now? What should they do to find unity?

        Sanders can only give exhausted answers. Radner confused me. But here is where Chan could, and needed to shine. Why not join Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury, legitimate sees in historic continuity? Chan is the only one there who could give a solid defense of why not, if there is a why not. If we are not to embrace a docetic ecclesiology, and we seek real unity, what does that look like and mean?

        My church community is nominally attached to the PCA, but has connections with the ecclesia group which seems to be working out of Chan’s paradigm. It is a strange hodgepodge of mostly charismatic(ish) evangelical(ish), non-denominational churches that reflect Chan’s sensibility. Then there are a couple Reformed(ish) communities. It’s not a denom, nor a replacement for a denom, but a network. The leadership tends to think its the way of the future.

        I’m not sure where I, individually, fall on this. But it seems to me Magisterial Protestantism has no leg to stand on, nor has it had one besides principled separation from Rome in the upper echelons of leadership (I’ve never heard of an average Lutheran who only attends the local congregation until Rome accepts sola fide). Besides in the odd idealism of Leithart (or, even worse, in its instantiations like Moscow,Idaho), it seems the options are a) finding providence in historical form (which means accepting some form of apostolic succession), and move towards Rome, Constantinople, or Canterbury and carry out the conversation there; or b) find providence in the movement of the Spirit, which has its future in the spread of the pentecostal/charismatic/post-evangelical movement.

        How the Spirit and visible reality seems to be the crux of how we are to continue talking.

        PS. Since you’re not a catholic on account of it, what about von Balthasar’s argument of types did you not find convincing?

      • If we are not to embrace a docetic ecclesiology, and we seek real unity, what does that look like and mean?

        Yes, that’s the question that was never competently asked, much less answered. Chan rightly brought it to the table in his lecture, albeit not with as much clarity as needed, and it reappeared in the discussion — but it amounted to nothing substantial. Sanders gave a halfhearted attempt to explain why he is not following a docetic ecclesiology, but he clearly does not believe that visible unity is a big deal. He only seeks real unity insofar as it is a (spontaneous?) working of the Holy Spirit among disparate bodies.

        But I think Sanders may actually be representing the Protestant position the most coherently. There is no ecclesiology for Protestantism/Evangelicalism. It’s just a movement, and the particular commitments of church doctrine are only a matter for the individual churches/denominations involved. Yet, Sanders bemoans the “lowest common denominator” of mainline ecumenism. However, his own low-church evangelicalism is guilty of the same, albeit with different features.

        It’s not a denom, nor a replacement for a denom, but a network. The leadership tends to think its the way of the future.

        That’s very similar to how our ECO Presbyterian church thinks, and you can see this “network” mentality in much of the ECO literature. In other words, we have given-up on ecclesiology, and can you blame us? (Most of our leadership has spent the last three decades embattled in the PCUSA and NCC.) Sure, we’ve still got confessions and a robust theology, but our ecclesiology is free-church, in spirit at least. The magisterial Reformation failed, and we admit it. Obviously, others in our denomination would not speak in this way.

        PS. Since you’re not a catholic on account of it, what about von Balthasar’s argument of types did you not find convincing?

        To be honest, I was left neither convinced nor unconvinced, if that’s possible. Perhaps we could say that I was “nearly” convinced, as I still am. If the coordination of these typologies was the only requisite conviction, then I would be a Roman Catholic. However, I still struggle with the age-old problems of justification and sanctification. I return to Luther’s square one, but I cannot guarantee how long I can do so.

        You would not know it from this blog, but I routinely struggle with the Protestant exegesis of Paul. I would like to find solace in the NPP or the East, but I cannot. The only other option is Trent. It’s a scary thing for most Protestants to believe that, for example, 1 Cor 9:27 is one of many examples (Gal 5:16-21, Eph 5:3-7, etc.) where Paul conditions our salvation upon our works.

      • You’re right that Sanders represents the soul of Protestantism, the concrete reality that both the aged Luther, Zwingli and Calvin utterly despised, but the accepted model for all Protestantism today. Anabaptists really won the day in their consistency (the unsung heroes according to a Dutch Reformed like Verduin).

        So here an interesting reality emerges: Bonhoeffer, and Schaff before him (and psuedo-erudite hipsters today) remarked on how America was Protestantism without Reformation. America was the enclave of, for lack of a better phrase, the spirit of Anabaptism.

        But is this a bad thing? The conversation will have to deal with this. Denoms represented this sort of misfit middle period between a communion and the sort of network that evangelicalism and pentecostalism have maintained and advocated (why para-church organizations have more ‘umph’ and influence than any denominational infrastructure).

        As for justification, I understand your point. I’m less convinced as well. When I first came to know the Lord, I imbibed a lot of Protestant strawmen of what rejecting ‘faith alone’ would mean. This radicalized when I bordered on a gnesio-Lutheran/existentialist mood. But I guess God’s good providence came through a dissertation linking Yoder and Augustine. I was able to marvel, not recoil, at the creation. I was able to rejoice in a robust moral theology, and yet hold out on the supreme grace of God’s saving work.

        Instead of faith alone or faith plus works, I’m seeing the issue between a living faith or a dead faith. I’m not caught in the typical Lutheran scare-mongering of the law as killer, but seeing a difference between a law of life and a law of death. I can see the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee as a battle between a dead faith and a living a faith. The works God accepts are a broken heart, forgiveness. He wants works of love, works of smallness, works of weakness. And if we fear we have done enough, we can trust He will provide the works He has planned for us to do. A robust Augustinian predestinarian outlook keeps us from Pelagian terror. If we’re asking if we’ve done enough, we’re asking the wrong questions.

        I still belong to a Presbyterian church community, but we’re at a sort of cross-road. I’m not sure where I’m at, but the question of ecclesiology is my crisis. Either I move towards a Chan-like responsible charismatic theology, or I move towards Apostolic succession. But I’m confused :/

        Thanks for letting me share some of this stuff. It’s been a burden as I manage these questions while still trying to take care of all my other daily concerns.

        cum amore,

      • Sorry for the late reply, Cal. I appreciate these thoughts, and we seem to have come to the same conclusions about sanctification. “The works God accepts are a broken heart, forgiveness. He wants works of love, works of smallness, works of weakness.” Well said.

        Like yourself, I’m at a crossroads on these ecclesial matters, so I do appreciate how the Presbyterian tradition provides a sort of via media between low and high, between charismatics and bishops, and so forth.

  6. Kevin and Cal– Two of my favorite online intellects talking about my favorite practical locus. You guys are better than the forum was. Gratias.

    (1) Ephraim Radner is giving the Church’s own eschatological future the weight that we usually give its origin and crystalization. The project itself is necessary; you can’t drive in messy traffic with your eyes glued to the rear view mirror.

    (2a) Several of your comments remind me that in my Anglican recollection of the Reformation, ecclesiology and political theology was far more central.

    (2b) In broad strokes, it was the Second Investiture Controversy, and the pope lost. What we might call Papalism was a social experiment with the scope and ambition of Communism, and it deserves respect as an attempt at a Christian political economy on the grand scale. But it enfeebled local magistrates so that order and discipline could not be enforced in either the church or the state, and it implicitly supported the right of popes to introduce innovations in religion.

    (2c) German princes, the English king, and their allies agreed on a northwest southwest partition of the Western church closely analogous in their minds to the East West partition of 1054 effected by the pope. In the northwest, a return to the more christocentric Christianity of the first millennium, and an end to papal control of the means of production and rule; in the southwest, the innovations legitimized by the recently assertive papacy. They succeeded, inevitably, since even France and Poland were thereafter governed without papal interference.

    (2d) But there were two fatefully related complications– (a) Where bishops aligned with the pope instead of the region (eg Saxony, Geneva), emergency order had to be arranged and defended from papal critique (eg Luther, Calvin), and the defenses mounted were turned against the M1 order of things that the alliance had taken for granted (eg Andreas Bodenstein Carlstadt); (b) The economy of the northwest was creating a need for a civic space that believers in the context of Christendom could only interpret as a more laic Church. On the Protestant side, the unforeseen interaction of (a) and (b) was seen in the English Civil War; on the Papal side, (b) is implicit in the French Revolution. The improvised ecclesial space of the Reformation became the civic space of the early Enlightenment.

    (2e) While we today rightly cherish the theological insights of Luther and Calvin, at the time, the new theology on both sides of the partition was ideology for and against the new arrangements of power and wealth. When this ideological function of that theology is lost to view, the best minds of the northwest may tell us much about God, as we might expect, but we completely miss the point of Protestantism.

    (2f) For Americans, the soul of Protestantism has been (b). American Protestants have believed (a) as much as they believe they must to get (b). This, I think, is what Kevin is saying when he says that despite his admiration of M1, the actual sensus fidelium is that they have to have their (a) to get their (b). They are as implacably insistent on a desacramentalized space for laic power as the Tudors were insistent on episcopal order for royal power.

    (2g) Does any Protestant in America today need (b)? The less America resembles Christendom, the less sense it makes for churches to present themselves as little microcosmic republics. And anyway, we certainly seem to have a vibrant civic space, both in our formal politics and in our social media.

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