Who’s Got the Gateway Drug?


Peter Leithart is reliably thoughtful, and his comments often address the Catholic/Protestant intersection. These are just two reasons why I enjoy reading him. In the following post, he unfolds a helpful insight concerning a potential irony and danger in our Reformed Tradition (or, in light of his warning, I should probably write “tradition.”)

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About a year ago, I was tried by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA on charges of deviating from the Westminster Confession at a number of points.  The Presbytery exonerated me of all charges.  One of the underlying themes of the trial and the surrounding debates over the past several years has been the charge that my views on sacraments and on soteriology lean toward Roman Catholicism.   Some have claimed that my writings and those of my associates and friends have been a gateway drug that led them to convert to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Now, the prosecutor in my case, Jason Stellman, has resigned from the PCA and is heading toward Rome.

One might conclude from this turn of events that conversion is no respecter of persons – Roman fever touches every branch of the Reformed church, from Reformed catholics to hard-core Confessionalists.  Perhaps.  In my view some of the theological assumptions and ecclesial instincts of Protestant Confessionalists provide a smooth on-ramp to Catholicism, or an off-ramp from Protestantism.

Confessionalists, after all, place a great deal of emphasis on the tradition of Reformed theology, embodied especially in Reformed confessions.  Throughout the debates of the past few years, I have presented mainly biblical arguments for my positions, and kept historical concerns subordinate.  My opponents have typically been much more interested in testing my views by the Westminster Confession.  The touchstone of their theology is a piece of the Reformed tradition as much as, and in some cases more than, Scripture. Confessionalists claim that the Confession provides standard exegesis of Scripture, to which Reformed theologians have to submit.  Confessional Reformed theology thus has a natural affinity for Rome that biblicists like me don’t share.  Confessionalists want the Confession to be a paper Pope.  It’s not surprising that some find the paper Pope inadequate, and go searching for a live one.  (If, as some will charge, Scripture is a paper Pope, it’s one whose ring I gladly kiss.)

Behind this Confessionalist elevation of tradition (in practice, over Scripture) is a broader tendency related to what I have critiqued elsewhere as “tragic metaphysics,” the notion that the original and old is necessarily preferable to the derived and the new.  In its Trinitarian dogma, Christianity says the opposite: The Son, though He comes from the Father, is equal to the Father in every respect; in fact, there is no pure, unsupplemented origin, because there can be no Father without a Son.  It says the opposite too in its eschatology: The golden age is not lost in the unrecoverable past but ahead of us in an eschatological future.  Its Trinitarian theology and eschatology give Christian faith an open-endedness that can be unsettling.  It’s unnerving to have to seek foundations in a city that is yet to come. (According to Fergus Kerr, this is exactly what Thomas says –Thomas is an “eschatological foundationalist.”)

This is not at all to say that we learn nothing from tradition.  We learn much; tradition is absolutely essential to the life of the church; no matter what the pastor says, every church has its traditions.  It’s often useful to evaluate the recent past in the light of a more distant past (which is what the nouvelle theologie is all about).  And the church has come to a fixed understanding of some teachings of Scripture over the centuries – the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the early church are the basic ones.  Smaller units of the church have come to other fixed points – justification by grace through faith and election in the Reformed tradition, for example.

Still, essential as the past is, for Protestants the past ought never become an ultimate standard.  Even the fixed points can be freshly formulated (cf. recent developments in Trinitarian theology and in Pauline studies).  Beyond those few fixed points, much remains up in the air (for Catholics and Orthodox too), and will for centuries to come, as Christians continue to pore over the Scriptures and seek unity of mind concerning what they teach.  Scripture remains fixed and immovable, the test and touchstone always of everything.  Our understanding doesn’t stay fixed.  Protestants should be perfectly comfortable with that.

Confessionalists aren’t comfortable with that, and share with many Catholics the instinct to find a place of anchorage at the origin.  Catholics reach back to an apostolic church; Confessionalists reach back to the Reformation or the post-Reformation creeds.  It’s not surprising that some Confessionalists will discover they haven’t reached back far enough.  If you move from Roman Catholic to eschatological Protestant, you change games; to move from Confessional Protestantism to Catholicism is start playing an older version of the same game.   And in a war over venerability, Catholics have a distinct advantage.

Catholics who charge that Protestantism leads to postmodernism are not entirely wrong.  To be Protestant is to believe in some form of differance and dissemination, though to be Protestant is also to believe (against secular postmodernism) that God has spoken intelligibly and will someday speak a final word.  Confessionalists often resist the “postmodern” tendencies of Biblicist Protestantism by anchoring in a tradition; but that is a “Catholic” response to the vertigo of unrealized eschatology.

On the other hand, some Reformed converts to Rome have been motivated by “postmodern” recognition of the historical embeddedness and contextuality of all human knowledge.  All thought occurs within a tradition of thought, and insofar as American Protestantism has been a me-and-Bible Protestantism it has ignored this reality.  I agree with this in large part, but with a crucial qualification – No tradition can keep God from acting in new ways and saying new things in His world; God is Word, and therefore His voice is not simply identified with the voice of the church or the voice of the past.  In any case, the point here is that Confessionalism defended on “postmodern” grounds is structurally similar to Catholic ideas of tradition.

It appears also that certain Reformed versions of the nature/grace duality lend themselves to Roman Catholicism.  Some years ago, I lectured on nature and supernature in the nouvelle theologie at the University of Steubenville, and I was surprised to find myself debating Meredith Kline’s theology with Scott Hahn.  Hahn, a former Presbyterian converted to Rome, defended Kline, while I defended de Lubac.  It was slightly surreal, but it led me to conclude that Kline’s theology of nature and grace (cult and culture, special/common grace, etc. are variations on this theme) makes a very neat match with older Catholic views of nature and the supernatural.   At several points, the Klinean version of Confessionalism is a natural ally of Roman Catholicism.

Along with many friends and colleagues, I have long advocated a sacramental, liturgical form of Protestantism.  We talk a lot about the Eucharist, and actually use the word “Eucharist,” which can send shivers up the spines of some Reformed Confessionalists.  We emphasize the efficacy of baptism, and many of us wear a white robe when leading worship.  When I use the word “catholic,” I usually mean it positively.  Schmemann, de Lubac, Congar are among my favorite theologians.

At first taste, all that can seem a gateway drug to something stronger that is found only in Rome or Constantinople.  But all the basic components of what we offer come from Wittenberg and Geneva.  What I and my friends offer is the antidote to and not the cause of Roman fever.

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