Peter Leithart has posted an excerpt from his Reformation Day sermon. I suppose I should find this encouraging to see a man who does not wear tradition readily, but enjoys the â€œcreative tensionâ€ that he learned at least while studying at Westminster Seminary, affirm the blessings of Protestantism. But like so much that Leithart writes, the points that lead to agreement are cheek-by-jowl alongside matters of serious contention.
So first for the encouraging bit. To the question, â€œIs the Reformation dead?â€ Leithart responds without hesitation:
We donâ€™t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get at central biblical truth.
But then comes the contentious part. Standing for the Protestant Reformation may not mean maintaining the doctrines of the sixteenth century in a dogmatic way:
If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to (or claiming to assent to) the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, carry on in the way the Reformation churches have always carried on; if being Protestant means we stay still â€“ then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism.
If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of traditionalism. The Reformers called for a reform of the church according to the word of God, but the Reformers knew that the work of reforming the church would not end in their generation, or ever.
If being Protestant means simply trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die.
This hostility to tradition evokes similar words from John Frame with whom Leithart studied at Westminster. In his defense of biblicism, Frame wrote that â€œThe notion that Scripture addresses, to some extent, every important human question, produced at Westminster a high quality of theological creativity. We often associate orthodoxy with stagnancy and traditionalism. But at Westminster, the commitment to sola Scriptura propelled it in the opposite direction.â€ Frame added:
During my student years, I was never asked to read any of the Reformed confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, except in small bits. I never read any official standards of church government or discipline, not to mention Robert’s Rules of Order. We used Hodge and Berkhof in our systematics classes, but for the most part we were graded not on our reading but on our knowledge of Murray’s lectures. After graduation I became ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and I confess I was rather surprised at the seriousness with which my fellow ministers took the Confessional Standards and Presbyterian traditions. Eventually I became more like my fellow Orthodox Presbyterian (and later Presbyterian Church in America) elders, but not without some nostalgia for the openness of theological discussion during my seminary years.
Would Leithart say the same of his years at Westminster? The answer is anyoneâ€™s guess. But the idea of theological creativity is one that links Leithart to Frame and Westminster Seminary of a certain era. As valuable as questioning and creativity may be in Reformed theology, the Federal Vision is not a very good way to carry on the tradition of the Reformation. I would assume that Frame agrees with that assessment. Leithart obviously does not (though I am not sure that even the Federal Vision capture and tame the footloose and highly original Leithart).
The oddest and least successful part of Leithartâ€™s sermon comes in his paean for justification by faith:
For Paul, justification is not only a work of God but a work of all of God, a seamless work of the Father, Son and Spirit, like all Godâ€™s works.
When we do that, we find that justification by faith includes or implies everything that we want to say about a twenty-first century Reformation.
Justification means being made right with God through Christ, through the faithful death of Christ.
Justification by faith means that righteousness is given to us, not through the law but through the cross, which we receive by faith.
Justification means that Christ lives in me, and I no longer live and the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.
Justification means that God has created a community of the justified, a community united without division of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Lutheran or Methodist, Baptist or Catholic.
Justification means that righteousness has come, the righteousness by which God will restore the world.
Justification means that Godâ€™s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that we are swept up in that fulfillment.
Justification means that God is blessing the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham.
Justification means that the Spirit has been given to those who hear with faith, the Spirit that fulfills the promise to Abraham, the Spirit of righteousness and justice, the Spirit of life and renewal.
Justification, finally, means that this is all Godâ€™s work, and that all of God has done all this. The Father sent the Son whose death brought righteousness, which is the gift of the Spirit. The Father counts as righteous those who are in the Son, and shows His acceptance of us by giving us the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit. Justification means that the Triune God is God, Just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.
Justification means that in Christâ€™s death and resurrection, the Triune God has revealed His righteousness, the undying commitment of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to their own eternal communion, the eternal, undying, triumphant commitment to incorporate us, the seed of Abraham, into that communion.
Maybe, but why can’t justification simply mean an act of Godâ€™s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone?
That is a whole lot clearer than Leithartâ€™s list of meanings, and it indicates why some of us still prefer the era of Reformed orthodoxy to the one of Reformed biblicism â€“ itâ€™s just better.