A rejoinder into the Leithart foray

My first round of disputatiorum with Orthodox Bridge was seen as combative.   I still do not know why, but I hope this will be more irenic.  I am not actually trying to attack or refute Orthodoxy.  I am simply responding to a response of a weak critique of Orthodoxy.  No more, no less.

 He begins by noting the “exodus” of Protestants from Protestantism toward high-church traditions.  He calls it a “crisis.”  I don’t think it is.  There is a crisis in Reformed self-reflection today, of which I will elaborate below, but not in an exodus from the Reformed church.  The truth is, I think a lot of these numbers are overblown and as one commenter noted, shall we inquire of the number who leave Orthodoxy?

He notes the men who have left Protestantism for higher traditions.   Fair enough, but with the possible exception of Stellman, these men, with all due respect, represent mainstream, lowest-common denominator Americana evangelicalism, not robust Confessionalism.    He then picks up the Gillquist narrative and even mentions Frank Schaeffer (he probably shouldn’t have mentioned Schaeffer.   I think Schaeffer has abandoned theism altogether, in which case he functions as a counter-argument to Orthodoxy, for he left Eastern Orthodoxy!)

He comes to his thesis:  My assessment is that Protestantism having lost its theological center has become a fractured and confusing, if not volatile and unstable. Troubled by this state of confusion many are seeking refuge in the historic early Church. This is the backdrop to Leithart’s recent column.

That’s probably a fair assessment, though I would like to point out that he risks equivocating on evangelical and protestant.  I define historic Protestantism as a full commitment to the historic Reformed documents, especially as they pertain to worship (Regulative Principle), government (rule by elder, classis, synod, assembly) and doctrine.  This is how the Reformed traditionally saw themselves (cf. Scott Clark, 2008).  Such a definition rules out almost all of the examples he gave.

Now on to the substance of the matter.  He then gives a brief and fairly accurate summary of recent Evangelical history.  He notes the Ancient-Faith and Emergent Church movements.  He then turns to Leithart:

Leithart and his FV colleagues believe themselves to be on the cutting edge of “the-future-church” and much closer to getting it right than say the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). In actuality, they are just another “new-and-improved” Reformed splinter group.

Sadly, that probably is how they think.  I have no disagreements with that paragraph.  I am going to assume that Arakaki has gotten most of Leithart’s argument correct.  The problem is, though, that Leithart wrote this as a very short blog piece.  There are sections of it where both he and I would like to see Leithart flesh out his argument, but that simply isn’t possible.   Full critique and analysis must simply wait another day.


Clark, R. Scott.   Recovering the Reformed Confession.  Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2008.

He writes,

This evolutionary approach to church history is congruent with postmillennialism favored by Reformed theologians. It reminds me of Mercersburg Theology’s Philip Schaff who posited that church history is the outworking of a Hegelian dialect, that over time division will be resolved into deeper unity, and that over time heresy and error will be resolved into deeper truth. This is radically at odds with how Orthodoxy understands truth and what the Bible teaches.

This is probably true, though one should point out that Leithart’s postmillennialism has little in common with any of the postmillennial schools in the past, but is an aberration of his mentor, Jordan.   Further, the Mercersberg theology has been rebuked and resisted many times in Reformed history (Charles Hodge had already pointed out the Hegelianism of the movement).

Leithart’s portrayal of time is based on a false characterization of the Orthodox understanding of time. Time is not the issue here. The issue here is the promise of the Holy Spirit Christ made to His Apostles in the Upper Room discourse (John 13-16).

Let’s assume that is the case.  Here is what Leithart didn’t say and should have:  Orthodox will occasionally employ the same idea of progress but will never call it such.   Notice the difference in reflection and content from Justin Martyr to Gregory Palamas. One is hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that one simply passed down the faith to the other.   True, we could argue that the latter (and I am just using these two men as examples) was merely responding to controvesies and so he would be different.  That’s true, but let’s ask a different question:   Did Justin Martyr believe in the essence/energies distinction that Palamas did?   If you say “no,” then you concede Leithart’s point.  If you say yes, then you have committed the fallacy of asserting the consequent (if p, then q; q, therefore, p).

Even acknowledging that the Holy Spirit was with the Church, and few Reformed deny that, then what precisely follows?  That every council would be infallible?  That doesn’t wash with the Robber Baron’s council or with Heira.  He then links to Ralph Winterr and the “Blinked Light” theory.  This is disingenuous.   Christianity Today may hold that position, but even a surface-level reading of Calvin, Turretin, or Owen (to name just a few) will disprove that.

He then refers to Jude 3 and 2 Thess. 2:15 (The faith once deliverd and traditions, respectively) and argues that this disproves Leithart’s evolutionary theology.  It very well may, but my same challenge returns:  without begging the question and asserting the consequent, show us that your traditions today match the apostle’s (presumably unwritten) traditions?  (Unwritten tradition by definition resists verification).

I am sure Orthodox apologists have a response to this, but to the layman on the street, this objection is fairly substantial.  I remember my own interest in Orthodoxy and Holy Tradition.  I’m no mean theologue myself.  I’ve read more than 99% of laymen today, and yet my wife stopped me in my tracks with the above type question.

He then concludes with a discussion of chairos time and chronos time.  He then gives an exegetical analysis of the Greek language of several passages.  What’s interesting is that it looks (at least in method) exactly like what evangelicals do!  Which raises the question, any appeal to Scripture by the Orthodox apologist presupposes that the Protestant can understand Scripture independent of Orthodox tradition, otherwise why quote the verse?  This is starting to look a lot like sola scriptura.

The Church is the city of the living God, not in the process of becoming the city of God.

Yet, one cannot help but see a whole lot of “becoming” in church history.

Thus, if Rev. Leithart’s theological argument is flawed, then Protestants should give serious consideration to converting to Orthodoxy.

This only holds good if Leithart’s argument fully exhausts all Reformed self-identity, but on everyone’s account, Leithart is a recent mutation (I say that with respect).

He ends with an anecdotal conversion account.   I will end with a few more comments.

RA mentions the eucharist and iconography.  I’ve raised several problems both with the EO understanding of Eucharist and Icons (which, ironically, is the same objection).


6 comments on “A rejoinder into the Leithart foray

  1. Most honest Orthodox historians will not make the claim that the modern liturgy is identical to the worship of the Apostles. There was a definite growth in pageantry once the Empire embraced Christianity. This is also why monasticism flourished at the same time.

    We will make the claim that the structure is the same and base this on scriptures and early writings. The apostles began their worship in the temple or synagogue where they would have sang their hymns and read from the scriptures. This corresponds to the first part of the modern liturgy- Liturgy of the Word.

    They then moved to the homes to partake of the agape meal which we claim is the Eucharist- Liturgy of Thanksgiving. The detailed account of the Last Supper and it’s significance in the Gospels also serves as our guide.

    It is the knowledge that the Apostles still participated in Temple Worship and combined it with their Christian worship that allows us to make the claim that we hold the tradition of the Apostles. But there is no doubt the liturgy went through changes though it hasn’t for a very long time.

    There is no denying a progress though you have stated the reason for allowing a progress (which we would prefer termed clarification). We would be uncomfortable stating that Chalcedonian Christology was progress, or innovation, and would claim this was always true though needed clarification against the heretics.

    There is also no denying we employ scriptural exegesis. Of course we do! Our problem with sola scriptura is not the use of scriptures to form doctrine; no doctrine can be independent of scripture. We have a problem with saying all truth can be found in scripture outside of the guidance of Holy Tradition. In truth, all Protestants are not true proponents of sola scriptura seeing they interpret scriptures within a tradition of their own. Unfortunately dissenters have a much easier time claiming a new tradition within the Protestant world.

    Regarding the Eucharist, icons, Mary, one must remember that all of these are statements regarding the nature of Christ as determined in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the only truly infallible councils in our view, though even the canons which came from those councils must be employed with mercy.

    • I know most Orthodox historians acknowledge a development of liturgy (which is one of the reasons so many got angry with Schmemann on this point). It’s just annoying to hear converts boast about worshiping the way the apostles did.

      Yes, Protestants do have tradition. Here’s the difference: we make no pretensions about an unverifiable oral tradition, so we don’t commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent when it comes to identifying that tradition.

      As to icons etc: I know councils have dealt with this. That doesn’t remove the problems I’ve raised.

      • As a convert I can say I have found excitement, and comfort, in seeing a link between our liturgy and that of the Apostles, even if it is not identical. Would you say that the Apostle’s worship was at least liturgical in nature? Seeing how they still participated in worship within the synagogue? I’m sure you have heard the claim that the silence of the scriptures concerning forms of worship is due to the idea that it was most likely an understood issue.

        Nevertheless, the true concern with traditional worship for Orthodox is the adherence to the sacraments as well as Trinitarian and Christological theology which I know you have addressed. I was planning on responding to your last post concerning Mary, but I have a question about the Eucharist. Wouldn’t a strict literal reading of the Gospels point to the centrality of the communion meal in worship and it’s transformation? Otherwise, isn’t it just a mostly insignificant ritual? Forgive me if I am asking you to repeat yourself.

  2. As to the strict reading: a strict literal reading becomes problematic because Jesus never said, for example, that the wine is his blood. He said the *cup* is hte New Covenant in my blood. As to frequency and centrality, when I was a proponent of frequent communion, I had to admit that there was no text mandating that.

    • But what about these verses? Every synoptic gospel says the same thing. “This IS my body.” And also, “this IS my blood of the new covenant.”

      Luke 22:19-20; Mark 14:22,24; Matthew 26:26,28

      As if to drive the point home, it is reiterated in John as to what we are to do with the body and blood.

      John 6:48-58

      What is most convincing for me is Luke 24:27-31. The apostles cannot recognize the risen Christ until one, they are shown the scriptures, and two, bread is broken. In the Orthodox interpretation, Christ leaving their sight at the moment of the breaking of bread shows how we now experience the Risen Christ in that broken bread.

      I’m not trying to convert you, I just want to show there is very solid scriptural evidence to see the transformation of the Eucharist. It wasn’t pulled out of thin air. In fact the scriptures are very strong in their support of this.

      • I will answer in a longer post later. The gist of it is this: Scripture often uses the copula to represent something else and not necessarily to signify a transformation or “becoming.”

Comments are closed.