Response to Peter Leithart's "Why Protestants Still Protest"

August 18, 2007


In the August/September (1995) issue of First Things, Peter Leithart wrote "Why Protestants Still Protest". As far as I know, there was no published response to Leithart's article. Here I want to respond to his main points.


He first discusses the experience of some Catholics who had left the Catholic Church to join conservative Protestant denominations. These Catholics tended to describe themselves as becoming Christians when they left the Catholic Church, or as leaving the Catholic Church because they became Christians. How does it happen, asks Leithart, that Catholics can grow up in the Catholic Church and not know or believe that they are Christian? Leithart considers a few reasons, but then writes:


But I would go still further to suggest that the tendency to obscure the gospel and to displace Christ is inherent in Roman Catholic theology and practice. At this point, a Protestant might be expected to launch into a defense of the Reformation doctrine of justification or an assault on the papacy. In my view, the more theologically fundamental point dividing Roman Catholics from conservative Protestants is the doctrine of revelation, and specifically the relation of Scripture to tradition. The nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff called sola Scriptura the "formal principle" of the Reformation, but this "formal principle" affects piety and religious experience in very substantial ways.

At the beginning of the quoted paragraph he is not yet providing an argument in support of his suggestion that Catholic theology tends to "obscure the gospel and displace Christ". The argument for that suggestion does not begin until the last line of the quoted paragraph. Implicit in the last line of this paragraph is the notion that the truth or falsity of sola scriptura can be determined pragmatically by its effect on piety and religious experience. But this only raises deep questions. How does one measure sola scriptura's effect on piety and religious experience, and control for other variables while doing so? How does one make a principled distinction between endorsing this sort of pragmatism while rejecting that of Finney and the "New measures" of "mourning benches" and "altar calls"? Who gets to determine what counts as increased piety and religious experience? And given sola scriptura, where in Scripture does it say that formal principles of theology and liturgical practices should be tested by their pragmatic effect on piety and religious experience? In other words, does the pragmatic test for sola scriptura pass the test of sola scriptura? Part of the essence of sola scriptura is the rejection of sacramental magisterial authority, as I have argued here and here. Implicit in Leithart's pragmatic test is the rejection of sacramental magisterial authority. And what is entailed by that rejection is an individualism which says that the individual, not the sacramental magisterial authority, is his own determiner of what piety is, and what most increases it. That individualism is what is responsible for the widespread ecclesial consumerism that says "I should worship where I am getting fed the most, as determined by me, schism or no schism." So Leithart is using a pragmatic test that carries with it an explicitly anti-Catholic theological assumption, but he does not explain or defend that assumption.


Leithart then discusses the prevalence during the time of Calvin of relics thought to be from the life of the incarnate Christ and the Virgin Mary. He writes:


Calvinís attack on relic veneration, however, was grounded in an evangelical insight that lies at the heart of the Reformation. "The first abuse," Calvin wrote, "and, as it were, the beginning of the evil, was that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory."


First, Leithart appears to grant without argumentation or substantiation Calvin's assumption that veneration of relics is "evil". If Leithart thinks veneration of relics is evil, then I wish that he would explain why. Second, it is important to keep in mind that "abusus usum non tollit" (abuse does not nullify proper use). Third, Calvin and Leithart seem to show here an either/or form of reasoning. The idea implied is that if a person venerates a relic, then that person is distracted from Christ in His Word and sacraments. So Scripture and sacraments are assumed to be in competition with the veneration of relics, such that if one pursues the latter, it detracts from the former (and possibly vice versa). That either/or mentality applied to this case needs to be supported with some argumentation. Otherwise, love for Christ could be pitted against love for the Father. And love for one's brother could be pitted against love for Christ. And the study of the Scripture could be pitted against the reception of the sacraments. And doing good works could be pitted against faith. And going to church could be pitted against private prayer. But if Leithart wants to avoid pitting all those things against each other, and yet claim that veneration of relics [inherently] competes with or detracts from union with Christ in Word and sacraments, then to avoid making his claim ad hoc and stipulative, he needs to support it with some argumentation. After all, when the woman touched the hem of Christ's garment, was she being distracted from Christ Himself?


When certain evangelical leaders claimed that 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina were God's punishment of the US for the actions of homosexuals, we recognized that they were engaged in opportunism. Now, when the general state of Catholic catechesis and seminary education is at a low in the West, Leithart pins the blame on what is "inherent" in Catholic theology. That is a bit of theological opportunism that is myopic at best. How did all the Catholic saints become saints when Christ and the gospel were so obscured and displaced by what is inherent in Catholic theology and practice? Look at what has happened to all the mainline Protestant denominations. Does that mean that the descent into liberalism is inherent in sola scriptura theology? There are many persons who grow up in Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and Reformed congregations who in their mind 'become Christian' for the first time in their campus fellowship during college. Does that mean that the tendency to obscure and displace Christ and the gospel is inherent in the theology of those traditions? The congregation that Leithart pastors belongs to a denomination less than ten years old and with less than seventy congregations. It is easy to hold the bar high when getting rid of the problems is as simple as starting a new denomination. That is not an option for the Catholic Church. When Leithart's denomination has 1.1 billion members, it may very well be that there will be cases where persons grow up in his denomination but think of themselves as finally becoming Christian only when they go to some other denomination.


The Church is often like the muddy smelly Jordan River, and we are like Naaman, being told to dip seven times (for the seven sacraments) in it. The Church is in a way like Christ is described in Isaiah 53:2, full of quite ordinary human beings with ordinary problems and quite ordinary lives. Just as it required a divine revelation for Peter to grasp who Christ was, so likewise it takes a divine revelation to grasp what His Body, the Church, is. The temptation is to wish or expect that every Catholic (and especially every priest) would be another St. Athanasius, or St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis de Sales. A reoccurring theme in the history of the Church can be seen in the Montanists, Novatians, Donatists, and Albigensians and Waldensians. They were all referred to as Cathari (or Carthars), a term which comes from the Greek word 'katharoi' [pure ones, or puritans]. They believed that the Catholic Church was not pure enough or strict enough or holy enough, and this led them to make a schism intended to be pure (in comparison to the Catholic Church). But two wrongs do not make a right. Making a schism (or remaining in schism) is not the way to increase the holiness and peace of the Church.


Leithart's perspective is myopic because it focuses narrowly (both in time and space) on a small slice of Catholicism. This past Easter, around 100,000 persons were received into the Catholic Church, just in the US. Those persons are rejoicing that they have been granted the privilege to enter the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and to be joined to Christ through baptism, confirmation, receiving Christ Himself [body, blood, soul and divinity] in the Eucharist. What does that phenomenon say about what is inherent in Catholic theology and practice? Leithart does not say. His article only focuses on Catholics who leave the Church.[1]


Leithart then discusses Calvin's critique of the Catholic liturgical tradition. Leithart writes:


In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin offered a similar critique of the liturgical tradition of the medieval Church. Formally, Calvinís argument is that many medieval ceremonies were human inventions, unwarranted by Scripture. It would be a mistake, however, to reduce his argument to a trivial quarrel over the warrant for this vestment or that gesture. Calvinís principal concern was evangelical and pastoral; he wished to direct sinners to that "place" where they could encounter the living God. Ceremonies, he argued, "to be exercises of piety, ought to lead us straight to Christ." Ceremonies and devotional practices that fail this test are best removed from the Church.


First, Leithart uses the phrase "unwarranted by Scripture". That phrase carries with it the assumption that sola scriptura is true. But if sola scriptura is a fundamental point of division between Catholics and Protestants (as I believe it to be), then instead of using sola scriptura as a critique of Catholic liturgical traditions, Leithart should go right to the crux of the disagreement, and explain why sola scriptura is right. Obviously this would need to be an exegetical exercise showing from various texts of Scripture that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is taught in Scripture. A careful review or point-by-point refutation of Not By Scripture Alone, edited by Sungenis, would go right to the heart of the Catholic-Protestant divide.


Second, the last two sentences in the paragraph quoted above amount to the same pragmatic test I pointed out above, and raises the same sort of questions that I raised above regarding that pragmatic test. How does one measure the degree of straightness by which a ceremony leads us to Christ? Who gets to determine this? And where in Scripture are we taught that liturgical ceremonies should be tested by the degree of straightness by which they lead us to Christ? The fundamental problem with this pragmatic test that both Calvin and Leithart are using is that implicit in it is the presumption that there is no sacramental magisterial authority. If there is a sacramental magisterial authority, then we should be submitting to that magisterium, not telling it how to do its job. The very act of "protesting" to the point of remaining in schism, and using pragmatic tests for evaluating the Church's devotional and liturgical practices, implicitly declares that there is no sacramental magisterial authority in the Church, or that if there is, we know better than the magisterium how to do its job, and that we will not submit to that magisterial authority until that authority conforms to us. So these pragmatic tests of Catholic devotional and liturgical practices hide the real issue, i.e. the denial of sacramental magisterial authority.


Leithart then writes:


For Calvin, then, sola Scriptura was inseparable from solus Christus. Solus Christus and sola Scriptura were the Reformationís answers to two fundamental religious questions. Solus Christus answered the question, How can I have communion with God? Sola Scriptura answered the logically prior epistemological question, From what source do I learn how I can commune with God? Solus Christus means Jesus alone can bring sinners into true life, the life of fellowship with the Triune God. Sola Scriptura means the Scriptures are Christís unique revelation of the way to life; it means that Scripture alone, being the Word of God, identifies where the living and life-giving Christ can be found. The Reformers found in Scripture that Christ had promised to meet with His gathered people through His Spirit, His Word, and the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. To see Him elsewhere is to search in vain.


Notice that this paragraph is not an argument, but a series of statements about what Calvin and the Reformers thought. It is not a justification or defense of what the Reformers thought, and thus not a justification or defense of remaining in schism.


Leithart makes his strongest case here:


At this point, Calvinís attack on relics and superfluous ceremonies strikes at the foundations of Roman Catholicism, both medieval and modern. While Jesus promised to offer Himself to His people through bread and wine, Calvin argued, He never promised to encounter them through icons or relics. While Jesus promised that sinners could gain access to the Father through Him, He nowhere promised access to the Father through the saints or Mary. While Jesus promised that Scripture gives wisdom leading to salvation, He never promised to communicate that wisdom through papal decrees.


Here he uses sola scriptura to criticize the use of icons, relics, praying to Mary and the saints, and the authority of the papacy. Of course Leithart knows that sola scriptura is the point in question. Why then does he appeal to theological positions dependent on sola scriptura as grounds for remaining in "in protest" and in schism? Why not simply give his defense of sola scriptura? One possible explanation is that this is his defense of sola scriptura. He (and other Protestants) want the Church to be a certain way (free of relics, icons, the papacy, prayers to saints, etc.). Adopting sola scriptura would presumably make the Church that way. Therefore, sola scriptura's undermining of these practices and beliefs [relics, icons, prayers to Mary, saints, etc.] is the reason why the Catholic Church should adopt sola scriptura (or Protestants should stay in schism until she adopts sola scriptura). If that is his defense of sola scriptura, then again, it is based on the assumption that there is no sacramental magisterial authority. If there is a sacramental magisterial authority, then that magisterium gets to determine what the doctrines and practices of the Church will be.


Leithart continues:


The Roman Catholic Church had, Calvin admitted, preserved the Word and Sacraments, so that one could come to know God truly in the Catholic Church. But the Word and Sacraments had been so shrouded by layers of tradition and distracting ceremony that Christ could be perceived only with difficulty. Calvin charged, in short, that Roman Catholicism taught people to look for God in all the wrong places.


How many layers of tradition and "distracting ceremony" are sufficient to justify schism? One layer? Two? Three? Leithart does not answer that question. But it is the wooly mammoth in the room. And how does one measure the number of layers of tradition? Of course one cannot. Hence in practice the schism-warranting 'number' of layers is whatever seems to the individual like too much tradition. When do the statements "I shall make a schism", or "I shall remain in schism" become justified? As long as we avoid those two questions we can seem (to ourselves at least) to be justified in making a schism simply by pointing to problems in the Church. (And there is no shortage of such problems.) But any problems in the Church that do not justify schism should not be mentioned in this article, for in that case they are red herrings. As for the claim that the Catholic Church taught people "to look for God in all the wrong places", this statement assumes that Christ is not found in the Church's sacraments. (If Leithart thinks that there are some particular Catholic ceremonies in which we should not expect to find Christ, I wish he would make those explicit. Staying at the level of generalizations makes it easy to broad brush without needing to substantiate his claims.) Leithart's appeal to Calvin implies that Calvin has some ecclesial authority, and that we should listen to him. But from a Catholic point of view, Calvin had no ecclesial authority, having never received sacramental orders. His opinions about what are the right and wrong places to find Christ are no more authoritative than those of any other non-Catholic. So again, Leithart's use of Calvin here begs the question regarding sacramental magisterial authority. Leithart's reasoning throughout this article is based on the assumption that there is no sacramental magisterial authority. But that is the very heart of the division between Catholics and Protestants, and therefore it should be the focus of his article.


Leithart's concluding paragraph reads:


Ultimately, this is a question of truth. If the Reformers were wrong about sola Scriptura, they were wrong too about the source of errors in the Catholic Church. For myself, I stand with Calvin, who, I am certain, would be as heartened as I to hear the recent calls from Roman Catholic leaders to reaffirm the centrality of the gospel, Jesus Christ, and Scripture. Given even a modest open door, the Word of God can take care of itself; it never, Scripture says, returns void. Though Protestants believe that Roman Catholic teaching continues to veil the Christ of the gospel, we know that God has a habit of rending veils.


I agree that this is a question of truth. And I agree that if the Reformers were wrong about sola scriptura, they were wrong about the source of 'errors' in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately Leithart does not show why sola scriptura is true. His article assumes that sola scriptura is true, and that there is no sacramental magisterial authority. But since that is the heart of the Catholic-Protestant divide, that is where "Why we still protest" essays should focus. I can say here exactly what I said at the end of my response to Carl Trueman's "Better than Chick Lit II":


"The most disappointing thing about this article is that it never addresses the fundamental point of disagreement, the point on which all the other disagreements rest. We cannot expect to restore full visible unity if we do not address that fundamental point. As long as we address only the secondary issues, that is, only the implications of the fundamental point of disagreement, the division between Catholics and Protestants will remain. We have to focus on that which lies at the very root of the division, the source and fundamental cause of all the rest. And that root and source is the rejection of the sacramentality of magisterial authority."


At the same time, the most encouraging thing to me about Leithart's article is found in the title of the article. It shows an awareness of the schism, a desire to reconcile the schism, and a willingness to dialogue in order to explain what is presently preventing the reconciliation of the schism. That alone is an enormous stride forward. I'm also encouraged by the tone of the article, which is neither bombastic nor polemical, but sober and measured and sincere. I was reluctant to write this response to his article because there are so many ways in which Leithart is saying the right things, in the right ways. But the unity of the Church is an extremely important issue, one most worthy of pointing out where we disagree, as Leithart has done in his article. I'm also encouraged by one piece of common ground. Peter Leithart says, "Ultimately, this a question of truth." Another Peter (Peter Kreeft) says, "So how do we get reunion? By finding the truth. Truth is the only possible basis for reunion." And when both sides are determined to find the truth, then both sides welcome the sort of truth-seeking dialogue that Leithart has provided in his article, and that I'm trying to provide here.


We are only ten years away from the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And five hundred years is too long to remain divided from each other (1 Cor 1:10). Not only do we know from John 17 that the unity of all Christians is a strong desire of Jesus's heart, we also know from Jesus that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

[1] Why do Catholics who leave the Church (to become Protestant evangelicals) believe that they became Christians only when they believed the Protestant gospel? We can say for sure that the religious education they received to prepare them for confirmation (if they received confirmation) was entirely inadequate. They were not adequately taught why and how they became Christians at their baptism. And so they were susceptible to a sinner's-prayer conception of salvation that made them think that for all those years until they said such a sinner's prayer, they were not even Christian.