Perhaps the ruckus over Jason Stellman’s decision has passed but one response by Peter Leithart needs some attention, if only because it highlights a general problem in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. It is the way that Reformed Protestantism sits lightly with folks who are officers in Reformed and Presbyterian communions. Not to pick on anyone in particular, but also not to hide behind vagaries, this problem is not Leithart’s by himself. It is also part of the gift mix that John Frame and Tim Keller have bequeathed to many of their readers and fans.
The problem specifically is one identifying more with the Bible than tradition, relying more on exegesis than the common confession of a Reformed communion, exploring more existing church and intellectual concerns than mining paths trod by saints in the past.
Here is Leithart’s version of this impulse (in the context of Stellman’s decision):
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.”)
When I read an argument like this I wonder whether someone like Leithart could just as easily minister in a Free Methodist Church as among Presbyterians. After all, lots of Protestants claim to be biblical and don’t let the past affect what is best for the church today. Or what about the Southern Baptist Convention? Is that set of congregations just as good as the United Reformed Churches? Or could it be that when push comes to shove, a fellow like Leithart really does identify with the Reformed tradition? That something really does differentiate Reformed from other Protestant communions?
I have no idea what Leithart’s response might be to a question about whether to minister as a Presbyterian or Lutheran. But I suspect, even hope, that he would say that Reformed Protestantism is superior in its teaching and practices to other Protestant churches.
If so, it would be a welcome development if he would pay back a little into the Presbyterian heritage fund. I mean, it is one thing to teach and defend the Reformed confessions and another to sit back and let your professional colleagues do it, all the while benefitting from at least some of their labors. It is also one thing to seek unity and discipline in a Reformed communion (through the heavy lifting of service at church assemblies) and allow the efforts of others to provide a cushion for you to do your own work. Furthermore, it is one thing to build on insights of generations of theologians and pastors (after all, Leithart isn’t starting from scratch, not even with his exegesis) and not show some gratitude for what has gone before.
Not everyone has to do the same amount of work or heritage maintenance. But is it too much to ask for everyone to be pulling in the same direction?
It is a free country, of course, and we have Reformed communions that are more or less confessional. So Leithart doesn’t have to do anything to keep up with his teaching, preaching, blogging, and writing. But for the sake of truth in advertising, identifying with his Presbyterian credentials, communicants, and past would certainly be desirable. It would even be responsible.
Postscript: I hesitated to employ “parasitic” in the post’s title but wanted to maintain the alliteration. “Free-riding” is obviously less inflammatory but at least I (always gracious) didn’t use “bloodsucking.”