Peter Leithart has served up another excrement sandwich for those concerned about his controversial doctrinal formulations. Dr. Leithart, with copious name-dropping, has extolled the virtues of “Reformational catholicism” over plain old Protestantism. The latter is apparently the denizen of (among others) the “confessionalists” in his own denomination that took umbrage rather than applaud his comprehensive overhaul of Reformed theology in tandem with the Federal Vision “conversation” (by the way, everyone involved in the FV should consider Prof. Clark’s Form for the Confession of Sin). Leithart’s lopsided post (unless you’re Roman Catholic or Mainline Presbyterian) has already been expertly answered and also diagnosed as a symptom of More-Cosmopolitan-than-Thou. The post you are reading expands upon those blog entries to identify the Leithart Fallacy. This fallacy is really a cluster of muddled thinking and sophistry. Here is how you’ll know it when you see it (I remember Leithart’s colleagues in Presbytery claiming to know error when they see it, but that’s contested):

1.  First, combine a generous amount of straw man representations of Protestantism or Presbyterian confessionalists with outrageous imputations to the same.

2. Stir in fluff about how the “Reformational catholic” is so much more widely read, so sophisticated, so full of brotherly love across the unfortunate chasm separating Romanism and the “Reformational catholics” who seek rapprochement with Rome. Speaking of the divide Rome between Protestantism, Leithart’s piece presumptuously minimizes it and unfairly loads the blame for its continuation on Protestants (whom he doesn’t fairly represent). In contrast to Protestants, you’ll know the Reformational catholic’s savoir vivre and urbanity by the fact that he’s beyond reading Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, J. H. Thornwell and Jonathan Edwards and now loves Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers like Yves Congar and Alexander Schmemann. He has taken up distinctive ministerial attire similar to High Church Anglican, Mainline Methodist and Lutheran clerics in (and out of) worship, complete with clerical collar and accoutrements of varying colors to match seasons of the Church Year. He is so beyond the two-kingdom debate that he is certain that Constantinianism is the way to go (I suppose the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church is one of those unfortunate results of finding flaws with the Roman Communion, by which the pioneer Reformers risked the Papal Bull or the fiery stake).

3. Now for the main ingredient: Add the amorphous, vague “consensus” around “mere Christianity.” Say to your gauche fundamentalist friends “I answer to a higher power. Judge me not according to your weak, juvenile Protestant confessions. I stand in the strain of Orthodoxy with a capital O!” 

The main ingredient is where we find the principal error. “Orthodoxy” and “the Catholic Tradition” are grand abstractions unless tempered with some historical perspective. All Christians affirm the doctrines associated with this thing called “Orthodoxy” because if it means anything it means affirmation of the doctrinal advances of the great Ecumenical Councils, the historic, unifying statements about the doctrines of God and the person of Jesus Christ. These doctrines are vitally important and a great starting place for seeking agreement but the kind of common ground that Leithart imagines exists with his Roman brothers and sisters is a fantasy. Leithart styles himself as a vanguard of ecumenical development but isn’t joining the Roman Communion and dismisses the Reformed tradition as locked in anachronistic protest. We ought to consider instead the fuller confession to the two traditions to see if Leithart’s tertium quid offers more.

Rome and the Protestant churches have dogmas on many other points besides the resolutions of the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Rome and the Reformed churches have never reduced the teaching of the church to the Nicene Creed or the Definition of Chalcedon. So what is Leithart advocating? He emerges from this metamorphosis not readily Roman Catholic, not contentedly Reformed, but holding a distinctive trait of the Evangelicalism against which the Federal Vision overreacts. Evangelicalism necessarily reduces Christianity to the lowest doctrinal common denominator. Evangelicalism is where historic creeds and confessions are are minimized and replaced by sketchy laundry lists of doctrinal affirmations that can appeal to the widest constituency. The Evangelical world is where it’s spiritual success to please most of the people all of the time. That’s the kind of spiritual tradition that results from occupying the inevitably fluid middle. There are strange consequences for rejecting the Reformed faith for who-knows-what.

Dear Reader,

As we remember the Reformation another time this year, the sons and daughters of the Reformers need encouragement to hold on and not lose heart. The pressures to give up, sell out and make common cause with enemies of the Reformation are all around us. If only the call to change was overt and explicit. No, we cannot fall back into complacency for the dangers are subtle and attractive. Perhaps you have heard something like this:

The Reformed have to compromise because the passage of years have changed the relationship between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant world. Rome really isn’t that bad anymore. Just look, there’s a new, charming, more open Pope! Besides, the forces of secularism are mounting a major push against Christianity and Christian civilization and we need to put old doctrinal disputes to one side. The times are desperate and we have to unite with Roman Catholics against the onslaught of a more militant secularism.

Hopefully you can see through this deceptive call and not allow important issues to roll into one historic panic. Rome still holds to a false gospel, still adds to the word of God and still corrupts Christian worship with many serious abuses. Civilizations in crisis aren’t going to wipe away the Reformation’s conflict with Rome. Let’s reject the false dilemma. There are options besides joining Rome in her errors on the one side and turning a blind eye to the course of the world on the other.

Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with GodChrist the Sacrament of the Encounter with God by Edward Schillebeeckx
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A concise statement of the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of the Sacraments. Schillebeeckx explains the incarnation of sacramental life in the Roman Catholic Church. His book surveys Rome’s seven sacraments. Each of the seven receives some discussion though Baptism, the Eucharist, Confession and Confirmation seem to get the most face time. Schillebeeckx’s perspective is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. The reader will find Aquinas referred to throughout the volume, with footnotes in Latin. Schillebeeckx refers to many other theologians as well (especially Karl Rahner) showing the spectrum of views on some of the finer points of sacramental theology within the Roman Communion. The prose is clear with many engaging passages while others are a bit dry. There is also some unnecessary repetition of certain ideas. Schillebeeckx develops his doctrine with both Scripture and Tradition in mind, but the latter sets the agenda and provides the terminology. Protestants, especially those of the Reformed persuasion, will find his section on the validity of Protestant sacraments interesting. Schillebeeckx seeks a fair statement of the Protestant position, with special attention to the Reformed view. It’s likely he focuses on the Reformed churches due to his context in the Netherlands. He even gives a detailed outline of a Reformed communion service he attended. I would recommend this book to those with theological background that want to better understand the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments. That said, the grid through which this book handles sacramental theology is disappointing from an Evangelical perspective, both in scope and methodology.

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The Well and the ShallowsThe Well and the Shallows by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The least impressive work of Chesterton I have read. Chesterton’s unique pithiness and irony is present, but it shines less brightly in the service of a weak apology for the Catholic Church. Chesterton briefly introduces us to a few intriguing political and literary figures of his time, offering some amusing and instructive examples of modern folly along the way. At the same time, Chesterton’s engagements with his contemporaries are sometimes of too little historical significance to give the reader more than mild diversion. While Chesterton’s brand of satire is amusing and engaging, it has a hallow core on the pages of this book. Chesterton’s treatment of Protestantism is largely dismissive and based heavily on fallacious reasoning. He deploys arrant distortion, attacks upon straw men, ad hominem and post hoc fallacies as his main tools in a strikingly superficial critique of Protestantism. A reader hopeful for a more substantive engagement is conclusively disappointed in Chesterton’s closing essay. In it, Chesterton tenuously links Protestantism to Hitler. Although the book was written before WWII, Chesterton clearly saw the evils of Hitler’s agenda and tactics. The “guilt by association” argument is therefore inexcusable. This is most certainly not the best G.K. has to offer.

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