Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute and adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. This book is an appeal to Protestants to “abandon their tribalism,” their denominationalism, and “to strive in the Spirit toward a new way of being church” (p. 5). He briefly summarizes the problem:
We have found a way of being church that lets us be at peace with division. Denominationalism allows us to be friendly with one another while refusing to join one another. It allows us to be cordial while refusing to commune together at the Lord’s table. It permits us to be civil while refusing to acknowledge that another’s baptism is truly baptism, or another’s ordination truly ordination. It makes us forgetful of our divisions and our defiance of Jesus. (p. 3)
He calls his agenda “Reformational Catholicism,” which will be “the end of Protestantism” (p. 6). Leithart concedes that denominationalism has served a purpose in extending God’s kingdom, but he argues that it hinders Christians from exhibiting the unity that Jesus calls for (p. 6).
The book unfolds this agenda in four movements. “Church United” presents the biblical case for unity, a unity that is not merely spiritual but actually present on the earth. He argues that this “is essentially what the church was for the first several centuries, what the Western church was before the Reformation” (p. 27). Although this view of church history might be a bit simplistic, it is true that denominational proliferation is one the consequences of the Reformation. He looks forward to this “future reformed Catholic church” and asserts that among its characteristics is that it “will be sacramental and liturgical. By ‘liturgy’ I mean a formalized pattern of worship with a double focus on the Word and the sacrament of Communion, the Eucharist” (p. 30). He says nothing about the sacrament of baptism in this section; it would be helpful to hear how the multiple Christian views of baptism could be brought together in this future united church.
The second movement, “Church Divided,” defines denominationalism and describes its strengths. But the bulk of this section, not surprisingly, is devoted to criticism. Leithart writes, “Denominational boundary-marking has two damaging effects on the church. On the one hand, denomination churches are homogeneous and unflavored and therefore immature. They are not bodies but collections of eyes, hands, brains, and other disembodied parts. On the other hand, they are set off from each other by a host of symbolic barriers. Symbolically divided, they have few obstacles to further division” (p. 73). He demonstrates how schismatic movements tend to continue to divide.
In the third movement, “Divided Church Dissolving,” the author argues, “Cracks have appeared in the walls separating denominationalism. Just as importantly, the hold of the American way of life on the churches has weakened” (p. 160). The examples he cites, from the international and American church, do support specific cases of unity over denominational loyalty. Whether or not these are sufficient to indicate significant cracks remains to be seen. Surely this is an overstatement: “What we are looking at is not only the collapse of the Protestant establishment, not only the erosion of the American civil religion that depended on the Protestant establishment. We are witnessing the hollowing out of the Protestant establishment” (p. 161).
Finally, in “United Church Reborn,” Leithart gives some specific ways forward toward Reformational Catholicism. Among them is a paragraph addressing baptism: “On the baptism issue, those who resist notions of ‘baptismal regeneration’ should be willing to admit that there are passages in the New Testament that sound suspiciously like baptismal regeneration. Whether Paul was talking about baptism when he referred to ‘the washing of regeneration’ (Titus 3:5) is disputed, but it is not obvious that the statement is not about baptism” (p. 177). It is hard to imagine how such a simplistic claim advances the conversation and encourages those who do not think the Bible teaches baptismal regeneration to accept the position. More helpful is a call for a “renewed appreciation for pre-Reformation modes of reading and interpreting Scripture” (p. 179). He argues what is needed is a reading of Scripture that sees Scripture as the story of Christ which makes demands of his followers “precisely because it is the story of Christ” (ibid.).
Christians of every denomination could agree with the basic thesis of this book. Jesus prayed for the unity of the church and that she would exhibit this unity in the world. Leithart writes, “This is what Jesus wants for his church. It is not what his church is” (p. 1). The author makes some provocative suggestions and some stimulating proposals. That seems to be the point, to encourage Christians to consider how to move outside of denominationalism toward unity. This work is recommended for church leaders, pastors, parachurch ministers, theology students, and educated laypeople. It would be a great book to read and discuss together, integrating into the conversation people of a variety of denominational convictions.