A Review of “The End of Protestantism” by Peter J. Leithart


The full title of this book is “The End of Protestantism – Pursing Unity in a Fragmented Church.”

The first thing that has to be stated is that I received my copy of this book free with the promise that I would review it and post the review.

When I agreed to review this book I presumed that this book in some way would address the idea of Christianity in the 21st century.  We live in a time of great moral uncertainty and, at a time when there needs to be a source of moral certainty, there is none.  The one institution that should be the source of moral certainty, the Christian Church, is both part of the cause of the moral uncertainty and is dying.

There may be a number of reasons why one can say that the Christian Church is dying but it would seem that the lack of a clear and concise statement of purpose by the variety of churches and the varying degree of interpretations offered by the denominations of the church are part of the cause.

In this book, Dr. Leithart suggests that unifying the church again will solve the problems.  And while unifying the church may solve its problems, I feel that the solution that Dr. Leithart offers fails to achieve that goal.  I will address this in later paragraphs but, for me, Dr. Leithart’s solution is to turn the clock back, back to a moment prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Second, Dr. Leithart’s solution is theological in nature and thus can only be considered by those with a sufficient theological background.  To be honest, as a lay person, I understand that there are differing opinions as to who may be baptized but I do not totally understand the theological basis for baptism and why that would cause splits in Christianity.  For the average lay person, they would simply say that they understand how baptism works in their denomination but not why it works that way.

To resolve such issues must take place within the laity as well as in the clergy and I am not convinced this is addressed in the book.

Second, while Dr. Leithart does address a number of issues that have are the basis for the many theological issues that have divided Protestantism over the years and arose from the Protestant Reformation, I don’t think he addressed what I would consider the major one and the one that lead Martin Luther to seek a reformation of the church.  And this singular issue was the corruption in the church and the effect that corruption had on the church.

For me, the central issue behind Luther’s efforts was the rationale for the issuance of indulgences as a means to bankroll the church in Rome while offering a false promise to the people who bought them.  This issue is still prevalent in today’s society with the prominence of pastors preaching what is called the “prosperity gospel”.

The second issue that Dr. Leithart does not address directly is the dominance of a particular conservative brand of Christianity that seeks a return to a rigid, authoritarian style of faith that fails to recognize that each individual is just that, an individual capable of making their own decisions.  And it is this point which is the primary cause for the failure of the church in today’s society.

The conservative church in today’s society seeks a church where the identity of the individual is second to the identity of the group and subject to the decisions of church authorities.  I am not saying that liberal church is succeeding in this, for while it may offer the individual the freedom to be the individual, it does not offer a framework under which the freedom can be successful.

My impression throughout the entire book was that Dr. Leithart was advocating a return to a more Biblical and perhaps conservative approach.  But in stressing the Bible, I feel two questions were not asked nor addressed.

First, which Bible would be the basis for any discussion?  Shall we use a more modern translation?  Or we will perhaps use the Bible as it was originally written, in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.  If we were to use the original versions, then will it be a requirement that all members of the church have a working understanding of these languages?

I believe that Dr. Leithart acknowledges part of the difficulty representing in deciding which Bible would be used by the way he treats denominational differences on other topics.  The rise of denominations within the Protestant Church arose from legitimate concerns about theological differences.  Unless these differences can be completely and totally acknowledged and there be a complete and total acceptance of all viewpoints, then unity will be a goal and a dream never realized.

And, second, where does science fit into this mix?  One of the great issues in today’s society is the view by many conservatives and fundamentalists that the view of Creation as expressed in the opening verses of Genesis is the only acceptable version of Creation (which tends to ignore the other versions expressed in the Bible and other societal versions as well as the acceptable scientific explanation).  There are also other societal issues expressed in the Bible that would run counter to current societal views; views as how slavery is viewed in the Bible or the role of women in the Old Testament, for example.

Dr. Leithart also expressed that thought that communion should be at least a weekly occurrence in the new church.  In the case of Methodism, this was also the expressed belief of John Wesley, who took communion on a daily basis.  That not all current United Methodist Churches do so today is more a reflection of the historical nature of communion and the requirement that only ordained clergy can offer communion than a decision by the pastor and/or congregation to forgo a weekly schedule.  In the early days of the church, when the ordained clergy where circuit riders visiting a church once every four to six weeks, weekly communion was not possible.  This is the basis for the schedule of communion in many churches today, at least in the United Methodist church, not some obscure or profound theological difference.

In the end, I applaud Dr. Leithart’s effort to find a way to unify the church.  But in a world that must move forward, I don’t think that moving backwards will work.  And while acknowledging and recognizing the differences that have generated the broad and diverse nature of today’s church, I don’t think that one can ignore the causes that lead to that diversification.

A new and unified church will be one that looks to the future with unity defined in terms of the goal we all seek to reach rather than the methods by which we reach that goal.

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