Ecclesiological Darwinism: Reformed Catholicity’s Denial of the Foundation of the Reformation

It has always been one of the central claims of the Protestant Reformation that what was being reformed was a distortion of Christian life. The foundational narrative of the Reformation has always been precisely one of return, which is why the watchwords ad fontes (“to the sources”) rang with such power. With an embrace of sola scriptura, it was believed the Protestant Christian was getting back to the fundamental, pure, primitive Christianity taught by Jesus to His Apostles.

Of course, both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics have arguments against that basic vision of Christian history, and such arguments go back to the Reformation itself.

Recently, however, I became aware of a new argument concerning the Church, something I’d never heard before. Here’s how Dr. Peter Leithart, a prominent spokesman for the view in Reformed circles going by the name Reformed Catholicity or the Federal Vision, puts it in his now much-discussed Too catholic to be Catholic:

I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology. At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us. We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church. We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come. Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know. We worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.

In another post put up by Leithart to give further explanation for his attitude toward Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, he publishes a piece by Rich Bledsoe (another writer in the Reformed Catholicity camp) which includes this bit toward the end:

I doubt the sophisticated American convert really reverts to the real practices of Russian peasants of 200 years ago, and I suspect he really transforms icons, etc. into a kind of ideology and that this theology functions that way just as much as the worship of the Westminster Confession among Protestants….

Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy seem to be in the same soup as Presbyterians and Lutherans and Baptists in terms of the kind of idolatry that we are really struggling with. Converts to earlier forms of the church have simply complicated things by making ideologies of childhood toys. (emphasis added)

I bolded the bit that really jumped out at me here: For Bledsoe, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy represent earlier forms of the church.

This really is something new. Consider this: The Reformation’s claim all along was that it was restoring true Christianity, that Rome (and, by implication, Orthodoxy, especially after the Tübingen theologians figured out that the Ecumenical Patriarch wasn’t a Greek Lutheran) had betrayed Christ and the Reformers were bringing Christians back to Him. Almost every Protestant communion is founded precisely on this essential claim, with later generations of them adding into their list of traitors their fellow Protestants. Yet here were have Reformed Catholicity claiming not that Rome and Orthodoxy have betrayed the true Christian faith, they they were apostate movements, but that they are earlier forms of the Church. By implication, therefore, they were formerly legitimate, but the Church has essentially moved on.

This should astound us, because I think it is indeed quite a new idea.

Now, to be sure, the left-leaning sides of the Reformation have implicitly been making this claim for decades, though not in ecclesiological language at all, but rather political and cultural language. That is, liberal Protestantism has cast off the prejudices of yesteryear and is embracing its fellow man, the downtrodden and marginalized, representing a new dedication to justice, etc. Yet even in this claim is a judgment being laid on the past: Those Christians before us were wrong, and we are more enlightened and better than they are. Jesus really was a socialist, progressive, etc., and we have revealed His true teachings, which are nothing like those vile, racist Tea Partiers, etc.

But that’s not what’s going on here. With the claim that the historic churches represent “earlier forms” of the Church, we are presented with a new way of understanding Christian history, one specifically designed (I believe) to inoculate potential converts to Rome or Orthodoxy away from Protestantism who become familiar with the details of the Christian past—ironically enough, quite often through these Reformed Catholic types.

Why should such an inoculation be necessary? The best summary for this comes from the famed saying of John Henry Cardinal Newman: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” That is, once the Protestant discovers that his version of Christianity is, from the view of history, an innovation, its authority is called into question. But what might appear to be a slam-dunk argument from Newman is countered by Leithart:

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Is it? Certainly the Reformers thought that all they needed was “behind” them, “delivered once for all” to the Apostles, who had been guided by the Spirit “into all truth.” Here’s another gem from Leithart, celebrating the chaos of Protestantism:

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In singing the praises of Protestantism, Leithart repeatedly does so not on the basis of its dedication to a return ad fontes, but because it represents a newer, better, more evolved form of the Church. He admiringly quotes 19th century Calvinist theologian Philip Schaff (one of the coiners of the phrase Reformed Catholic, though certainly not quite in Leithart’s camp) when he says that the “Reformation is the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church.”

Thus, the partisans of Reformed Catholicity have lit upon a new way for the Protestant to deal with Christian history. The old way was to dismiss it all as so much apostasy. The most common way is simply to be ignorant of it. (“I don’t believe in history,” a fellow priest’s Baptist mother once told him. I don’t believe they’re related to the Fords, however.) And now we have a new way: Christian history is legitimate, but the Church has been improving over time, and Protestant denominationalism is in fact a higher and better version of the Church.

If you think about it, I believe that this really is the only way to hold on both to denominationalism (multiple, competing, contradictory doctrines and communions who are somehow all legitimately the Church) and keeping any semblance of historical integrity. After all, the arguments for apostasy are pretty watery. Once you accept the canon of the New Testament (and most Great Apostasy advocates do), you then have the sticky problem of dealing with all that liturgy and sacraments and bishops and such that seem to dominate the world that canonized the Bible. (One way to get around that problem is to take Joseph Smith’s approach: God gave me new revelation, and the old one was probably always corrupted, anyway. This is actually getting more common these days than we might like to think.)

I really have to hand it to these guys, because this is an ingenious way of dealing with all this data—you get to hang on to your own denominational (or non-denominational) loyalties, recognize those whose doctrines oppose yours as true Christians, and also subsume into your own legitimacy the Christianity of the past. You can even quote the Fathers and stir in a little of their liturgy into your otherwise bare walls echoing with sermons!

Never mind that historic Christianity still actually exists in “earlier forms of the church” whose membership represents the vast majority of living Christians. You can dismiss them as “childish.”

But that’s not the deep problem in this historiographical scheme. The deep problem is twofold. The first is the problem of knowledge: How am I supposed to know the truth? If the Church is always evolving (the real semper reformanda?), how can I be sure I’m actually on the Way? How am I to know that Reformed Catholicity is actually a better, legitimate offspring, “the greatest act of the Catholic Church,” and not just an egg it laid that turned out to be a dud? How do I know that that which has survived (for now) is really the fittest?

The problem is still the same problem of the old-style Reformers. Once you admit of either a Great Apostasy or of ecclesiological Darwinism, you have unmoored yourself entirely from the possibility of being sheltered from the storm by eternal truth. Leithart’s crew would have us believe that the “unruly” waves of the Protestant sea are to be celebrated, but shouldn’t tranquility be the character of Christian truth? If we never know what zany thing the Church is going to be next, how is it the pillar and ground of the truth?

That does not mean that the true Christian’s life will always be peaceful, but he will withstand the attacks of the Enemy only if his house is built on a rock, not on shifting sands.

The second problem here is one of Christology, which is what most clearly shows this ecclesiology to be heretical: If the Church is evolving, that can only mean either that Christ is evolving or that the Church is not the Body of Christ. Biblically (and certainly Patristically), it is quite proper to say that the Church is Christ. But what does it mean therefore to say that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy represent “earlier forms of Christ” or that in the future “of that Christ we know nothing except that He will be like nothing we know”?

Leithart and company really do sell the Reformation’s farm with this one, but perhaps all they are doing is giving theological voice to the inevitable—denominationalist Christians who encounter Christian history and, instead of being convicted by what they see or even just saying “So what?” instead look at themselves and say, “Yeah? That was fine then, but now we’re better.”

As something of an epilogue, I will quote (with permission) from a comment left on a post I wrote earlier about Leithart’s Too catholic to be Catholic. I do not know much about this myself, but it may at least partly explain the source of some of this kind of thought. I was intrigued when I read this comment, which identifies some of Bledsoe’s language as coming from Owen Barfield, whom I’ve known of primarily as a literary critic. It’s long, but worth a look:

More importantly, I think, is the next point, as it reveals something about his theology that seems suspiciously modern and dialectical: “But I think the real crisis for Rome and Orthodoxy is not being played out in tribal and original participation Africa, but in final participation Western Europe and United States. I am not sure we are psychically capable of believing what Frankish tribesmen, or even Irish peasants of 150 years ago, were capable of believing. I know we are not capable of believing what New Dehli taxi drivers are capable of believing about the idols on their dashboards.”

Here is the suggestion that consciousness is evolving. In fact, the use of the terms “original participation” and “final participation” bring to mind Owen Barfield’s use of the same. Barfield was a post-Kantian idealist who came out of the tradition of British idealism of the 19th century. He argued that consciousness is something that evolves from a state of “Original Participation,” whereby premodern people perceive a greater reality behind external phenomena, to that of modern thought, which is thoroughly rationalist and materialistic, and finally to “Final Participation“, where participation is regained in an inward sense in the self-contained ego.

If Leithart is subscribing to this thinking (and I have never heard those terms used in any other context) then he is playing with heterodoxical philosophy and theology. Such thinking is predicated upon a post-Kantian dialectical process of evolution (the specific principle is known as “polarity” in Barfield’s thinking). It also requires an anthrolopogy that makes room for a self-contained or transcendental ego, which is opposed to the thinking of the Fathers, who understood humans as a psycho-somatic whole. They also challenged the Plotinian dialectic, which subjected the human soul to a totalizing principle in its reconciliation to the One, which denied the sanctity of the created world in all its multiplicity. Many of the German and British idealists, such as Fichte, Hegel, Coleridge and the theosophical movement (both of which Barfield drew upon), and others, were enamored with Platonism. They transformed the Plotinian dialectic into an idealist one that had consciousness reconciling itself to the world through the resolution of contradictions inherent in reality — Barfieldianism relies upon very similar thinking.

This is, as they say, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Such a perspective, as it follows Descartes and Kant, is a human-centered, as opposed to God-centered, philosophy and theology — all things have to be evaluated as they are reflected in the mind, as it is in human consciousness. It is also gnostic and totalizing, positing an absolute and impersonal principle (i.e. “polarity”) that regulates and reconciles the external world with human consciousness. This problem leaves me the most befuddled, as Leithart himself has acknowledged that Hegelian thought is heretical. Further, it is also Euro-centric: It’s us “Western Europeans” and “Americans” that are at the forefront of the evolution of consciousness and moving toward “final participation,” while those “Africans” stuck in “original participation” are left behind.

If Leithart really is a Barfieldian, this would explain much of what he has written in the past (and in this linked post) suggesting that Protestantism is the completion of Catholicism. He is relying upon a progressive view of history in order to make this claim. This is a very different form of Protestantism than we are used to: not one that claims that it is a return to the past, but one that is justified on a continuing evolution of Christianity. The Fathers and Apostles then, were stuck in a period of “childishness” and lacked the fullness of the faith as it was revealed by Christ. In this thinking, the Catholic and Orthodox are doubly idolatrous because they are not only idolators, but “immature” idolators, who still believe that there is a greater reality behind physical reality (how Leithart’s thinking can avoid the charge of gnosticism at this point is beyond me).

In short, Barfieldianism relies upon a modern, totalizing, and violent metaphysics that relies upon an impersonal process that completes reality, and one that is human-centered, not God-centered. This is precisely the type of thing that David Hart writes against in his “Beauty of the Infinite.” Ultimately, not only does is it seem heretical — and this should be obvious to Protestants, not just Catholics and Orthodox — it is also extremely patronizing. Why would anyone want to commune with someone who calls them theologically and spiritually “immature” and stuck in “childishness”?

Of course, I may be wrong about characterizing him as a Barfieldian, but then if this is the case, he needs to clarify what he means by the use of these terms, “original” and “final” “participation.” I have been unable to find their use in any other context — and the way they are referenced in that post looks like classic Barfield.