Christ With Us in a World Gone Mad

Here is my latest column at ChristianWeek. I am very fortunate to be a contributor to this fine publication. If you’re not already familiar with it, take some time to look at its stories and columns. It is an important venue for Canadian Christians to express themselves and listen to each other!

BTW, if the column strikes a chord,  comment, whether there or here!

The Third Year Blues

As I come to my third anniversary at the Epiphany, I find this article quite interesting. I wonder if any others out there can resonate with it or wish to comment on their own experience. I am particularly interested to hear from pastors who made it through. . . . Was this your experience? How did you get through it? Or, how did you avoid it?

The Gifts of Reformational Catholicism

This is a paper I was invited to give to a meeting of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, sponsored by Augustine College, and held at the Laurentian Leadership Centre of Trinity Western University in Ottawa.


On November 8 of last year, the gadfly Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Peter J. Leithart created a significant amount of internet controversy, especially in Reformed and Evangelical circles, by publishing the essay, “The End of Protestantism,” on the First Things website, where he blogs regularly.[1] In that piece, he argued that Protestantism—broadly defined as a perpetual, negative reaction to all things Roman Catholic—needs to, and indeed is coming to, an end. In its place, he hoped a Reformational Catholicism would emerge; a position which, without negating the classical emphases of the Reformation, no longer needed to define itself over against Roman Catholicism, but sought more to accentuate what the traditions held in common: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the first 1500 years of Christian faith, and so on.

The ensuing controversy, as so many things are on the blogosphere, was amorphous and largely nasty. Leithart’s critics were many, and most of these felt he had sold the farm. An attempt toward a more constructive reflection on the matter took place as a public conversation entitled “The Future of Protestantism,” held at Biola University in Los Angeles. Co-sponsored by the Davenant Trust and First Things, it featured Leithart as well as responses by Carl Trueman and Fred Sanders.[2] While the content offered by all three speakers was helpful, I couldn’t help but feel that that Leithart on one side and Trueman and Sanders on the other spent much of the evening talking past each other because of different working definitions of Protestantism. Leithart assumed a largely sociological definition that sought to encompass liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, and all shades in between. He was talking about a movement within history; one that, in his opinion, is now entering its denouement. In his opening remarks, as in his original essay, he expressed the hope—as some have noted, in rather Hegelian fashion—to try to sketch the contours of what would replace it. Leithart’s Reformational Catholicism is to be understood as a great act of Aufhebung, that is,a simultaneous discarding and taking up of the past while going forward into the future. Trueman and Sanders, on the other hand, defined Protestantism both conservatively and doctrinally. It was a system or collection of fairly fixed doctrines that, because they were true, needed to abide and to be defended by any and all perceived attempts to weaken those doctrines. And any attempt at downplaying the differences with Roman Catholicism—and this is clearly what Leithart was up to—needed to be protested.[3]

While the conversation has continued, the positions have hardened and the mutual misunderstanding has only continued. In my opinion, Leithart failed to convince anyone not already sympathetic to his project and the critics failed similarly. Leithart has to my mind drawn a line under the conversation, or at least his own contribution to it, in the recent essay, “Staying Put,” in which he insists he is not about to become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or, me genoita! (since we talked about skoubalon this morning, I thought I’d through that in), an Anglican. He will stay in his Presbyterian denomination, and continue to advance Reformational Catholicism within it.[4] While several reasons were offered, the most important was theological. In Leithart’s own words:

My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.[5]

I begin this paper with a nod to Rev. Leithart because I am in fundamental sympathy with his project. I think the sociological evidence is incontrovertible: Protestantism—in all its varieties and iterations—is dying in the West. What, 25 years ago, was seen as a liberal Protestant disease that led to some conservative sneers is, today, an epidemic across the spectrum. The United States, like Canada and Europe before it, is losing its faith. This is hardly news. The question that Leithart has asked, and his critics have often missed, is what is going to replace it.

I confess, I do not know. From within my own denomination and diocese, that lack of knowledge coupled with the increasing closing of parishes and “streamlining” of budgets keeps me perpetually unsettled. And when that discomfort approaches anxiety, as it does more often these days, it is hard not to look longingly at Rome for the rest it might offer. With Leithart, however, I do feel the call of God to stay where I am, a priest in a church founded by a King who wanted a divorce, I am a priest in a church now tearing itself apart over marriage, but still a church where at least sometimes, the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments faithfully administered. (Those of you of a Reformed persuasion will note I omitted “discipline faithfully applied,” Calvin’s third mark of the church alongside word and sacrament. That was not an accident. It is also a topic for another paper).

To return to the topic I was assigned, if Leithart is right that, going forward into an uncharted furture is not going to be a matter of individual or group conversions to Rome, but some sort of growing together that preserves the gifts God gave to his Church uniquely through the Reformation, what are those things? In the remainder of this paper, I want to advance three. One doctrinal, one liturgical, and one, political.

  • The Centrality of the Word


Doctrinally, Reformational Catholicism would, I hope, continue to insist on the centrality of Holy Scripture  as a guide for both personal and corporate piety. The writings of the Fathers, the Saints, and so on, as helpful as they might be, must themselves be submitted to the scrutiny of the Word of God.  Of course, this touches on one of the neuralgic questions of the Reformation—do we begin with Scripture or Church?—so I need to start with a couple of qualifications.

First, I am not talking about a particular theory of inspiration or infallibility or inerrancy. These issues have their place in Christian theological reflection. But they are simply not what I am talking about here. I am talking rather about how Scripture is deployed in communities of faith. Is its reading and careful application central to decision-making from the highest level down? Second, I am not challenging the place and importance of some sort magisterial organ of interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, in my view, the classical Reformation does not depart from Rome on whether there should be such a thing, but rather, on the matters of what such a thing should and does look like, and whether that magisterium must itself from time to time be corrected. The classical Protestant tradition heartily agrees that sola Scriptura does NOT mean that each unaided can interpret the Bible correctly, but would nevertheless affirm that the Scriptures are themselves the organ used by the Spirit of God to judge, purify, and heal his church when it seems to stray.

In short, beginning with the question, “What do the Scriptures say?” is, I think, a gift Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole Church, and one that I hope it will continue into the future.

To unpack just what this gift in action might look like, I direct us to the French-Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and his understanding of ordination under the Word.

John Calvin broke with the threefold understanding of ordination of deacon, priest and bishop, to affirm instead only two ordained offices: that of doctor (or teacher) and that of pastor. Both offices were further redefined away from sacerdotalism, which by the late medieval era had come to look to many Reformers, both those who remained within and those who either left or were pushed, as a species of magical superstition, and toward a Word centred understanding, which they held to be a needed corrective to late medieval practice.

For Calvin, those called to the office of Doctor were called to the task of training of pastors in the reading and preaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. They were to do so in two ways. First of all, doctors were to write Institutes, which Calvin himself famously did. His Institutes of the Christian Religion first appeared in 1536, and was constantly revised, being republished in 1539, 1543, 1550, and finally in 1559. There is no reason to suppose that the Institutes had achieved some sort of perfection in their author’s mind by their final published edition. Rather, the task of continual revision was interrupted by Calvin’s death. This process of continual revision is important. I’ll say more about it in a moment.

We need to reflect first on Institutes themselves. For Calvin, Institutes were to function on two levels. They were first of all, intended to read for moral formation. Calvin himself makes this plain in his prefatory letter to King Francis of France, a letter which appeared in the 1536 edition, and in every edition thereafter: “My purpose was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[6]

And how did they intend morally to form their readers? By functioning as a hermeneutical guide. This is their second, deeper, operating level. So it is that when one reads Calvin’s Institutes, one does not encounter a systematic theology, per se. Indeed, systematic theology as we know it—a semi-scientific enunciation of Christian doctrine in an ordered way—is a unique creation of the Western Churchfrom second generation of the Reformation. They emerged as a genre as Catholic and Protestant thinkers both sought to vindicate their own theological conclusions over against those of their opponents. And while the Reformed tradition, of which Calvin (with Zwingli and Bullinger) is the source, has produced its share of systematic theologians (for good and ill), Calvin is not a systematic theologian nor do the Institutes constitute a systematic theology. They are, rather, a hermeneutical guideline. They are to make clear the principles by which the contents of Holy Scripture are rightly interpreted, in order that the Scriptures may themselves by properly understood and that, through that understanding, readers might by morally formed.

Of course, Institutes on their own, while helpful, are incomplete. Doctors must train pastors in the application of the hermeneutical principles laid out in Institutes to the text of Holy Scripture. They do so through the writing of commentaries. And again, Calvin is himself a guide here, being a voluminous commentator on Holy Scripture. The purpose of the commentaries was to bring the hermeneutical principles to bear upon the sacred page in order that their contents’ meaning might be made clear. And this might be seen to function both backward and forward—forward into the pastoral tasks of preaching and visitation, which I’ll get to in a moment, and backward into the task of revising the hermeneutical principles in the first place. This is why Calvin’s own Institutes were always under revision. They were always themselves being submitted to the Scriptures in order to make certain that people really were being formed in godliness, and that they were being trained to read Scripture rightly.

This brings me to the second ordained office—that of pastor. Like the doctor, the pastor’s task was primarily directed toward moral formation through the teaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. Like that of the doctor, Calvin conceived that task as functioning in two ways. The difference between the offices had to do with audience and tasks. Where the doctor was charged with the training of pastors, however, the pastor was charged with the training of lay people. Where the doctor wrote institutes and commentaries, the pastor preached sermons and visited his people. Where the doctor was concerned to elucidate the contents of Holy Scripture, the pastor focused on the application of these contents to the everyday lives of their parishioners

Here I think we can move more quickly because the structural similarities of the offices are both deliberate and obvious and also because I intend to reflect on the importance of preaching further on. The sermon is to the pastor as the institutes are to the doctor. The sermon is the general application of the Bible’s contents to the lives of parishioners. The visit is then the space for the specific application in specific situations.

What to take away from this? Not, first, Calvin’s understanding of ordination. As an Anglican, I do think it misconceived. But Calvin does offer the whole church a gift in his insistence that part of the ordained office is teaching, and specifically, the teaching of Holy Scripture. If, furthermore,  the content of that teaching is Holy Scripture, then the goal of that teaching is a biblically literate and shaped laity. The writings of the fathers and the saints, as indeed the writing of the medieval theologians—and Calvin is quite capable of deploying them and not merely as foils—are themselves guides into, and open to the corrections of Holy Scripture. They are not alternatives, or short cuts, to detailed and persistent biblical study. But as Calvin’s own work makes clear, such a study does take place within a community of faith, well-versed in the great tradition, and always on-going. This is the first gift that Reformational Catholicism can offer to the entire church.

  • The Importance of Preaching


A second is an insistence upon the importance of preaching as the activity of the pastor. Again, this can be cast negatively—as a reaction against biblically and theologically illiterate priests and against a sacramentology divorced from the Word from which they received their sense. I would prefer, however, to cast it positively, and say that this should be seen not so much as an attack on sacramental ministry as the attempt to recover preaching and preaching’s place in the saving economy of God. And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Fr. Robert Barron, President of Mundelein Seminary, give the keynote address at the Catholic Media Convention in Denver.[7] When calling his audience to the New Evangelization, he offered six points, all of which are good. But he caught my attention with point #3. “Preach with ardour!” he said to his audience. And I said, “Amen!” to my computer.

We see this throughout the historical documents of the Reformation era. Protestant movements, whether magisterial or radical, were preaching movements. Calvin himself believed that he was called uniquely both to the office of doctor and pastor. And as a result, in addition to the Institutes he continually revised and republished and the commentaries he prepared, he was a preacher. This is even more the case with Martin Luther, whose sermons occupy several volumes of his works. Even church architecture soon spoke of proclamation as the climax of Christian worship, as the pulpit became the focal point of Protestant churches.

I want to highlight just one example from my own tradition—the Canterbury Six Preachers. In 1540, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer responded to Henry’s dissolution of the Christ Church Priory by creating in its place the Six Preachers. Enacted by Parliament in 1541, the six preachers had the right to eat with the dean and canons, to sit in the quire in Canterbury Cathedral, and they were required to preach 20 sermons / year, whether in their own parishes or in a parish dependent upon the Cathedral. And they were to preach regularly in the Cathedral, too. Cranmer’s vision in establishing the Six Preachers, was to stress that the Church of England would be a preaching church. And from 1544 to today, there has been an unbroken succession of Six Preachers. (For those of you interested in Anglican church politics, Archbishop Justin raised eyebrows and some hackles by appointing Rev. Dr. Tory Baucum, of the Anglican Church in North America, as one of the Six Preachers last year).

Of course, I do not deny that much havoc was wrought by some radical preachers—we might think here of the Zwickau Prophets—but abusis non tollit usus. Indeed, the Reformation’s emphasis on preaching led at the time to a preaching renewal also in Catholicism even if only to prevent “conversions,” or to reclaim former Catholics to the One True Faith. Reformational Catholicism would keep this emphasis on preaching and offer it as a gift to the whole church.

One more point before moving on. For some Protestants, preaching is accentuated at the expense of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist. Again, I would counter that Calvin, who tried to arrange his own preaching schedule in Geneva so as to share in the Great Thanksgiving weekly, again provides a good counter-example. For Calvin, preaching is not a substitute for the sacraments; the sacraments are not simple signs that merely point to that which is properly contained in with and under the words of the preacher. The sacraments are means of grace. Accompanied by the Word, they convey the invisible grace they make visible. For Reformational Catholics, preaching is accentuated as the place where the Christ who claims us as his own in baptism and feeds us with his very life in bread and wine, speaks to us in with and under the words of the preacher. Preaching, in other words, is not some kind of dry exposition of an academic text book. But rather, it is the announcement of the promise of God to save all who believe, and it accomplishes that which it announces when it is received in faith. While it is not a sacrament, it is a sacramental act. And when it is diminished, the mission of the church suffers. For when it is diminished, the laity are left unformed, and the sacraments become mute signs, divorced from the promises they express and contain.

  • The Authority of the Church


Finally, Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church a reconception of the Church’s authority. I recognize the potential for misunderstanding here, so I am going to proceed slowly and with an extended appeal to example so that we can avoid many potential pitfalls. First, I want to point to a distinction drawn by Oliver O’Donovan, in his book The Thirty-Nine Articles with respect to two kinds of “political” authority: that is, authority which claims to order our common life. These are the authority to command and the authority to convince.  The authority to command is the authority that uniquely belongs, to use the language of the sixteenth century Reformers, the Prince or the Magistrate. It is the authority that comes with the lawful power to compel obedience through the threat (or use) of force. The authority to convince, on the other hand, is that authority that is derived simply from an institutional commitment to telling the truth. It is the conviction of Reformational Catholicism that the authority of the Church is always the latter.

Now, that might seem obvious in the modern era, but it was not always so! And indeed, in parts of the world today, it is not always so.

More on that in a moment. For now, I want to unpack this a little by looking at Article 20 of the Anglican 39 articles:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and Authority in Controversies of Faith: yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing contrary to Gods word written, neither to may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to Decree any thing against the same; so besides the same it ought not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.[8]


The article opens with a strong declaration of the Church’s teaching authority.  But notice how it goes from there to delimit it significantly. The Church’s authority is bounded by Holy Scripture—it cannot ordain that which is contrary; nor can it set Scripture against itself; nor can it teach as necessary that which is not found therein. Moreover, the Church’s authority not self-generated, but is founded upon the prior authority of Scripture. The Church’s authority rests in the fact that the Church is witness to and guardian of these documents.


There are a number of points that might be worthy of comment here, some of which would take us back into the nettle bush of Reformation debate and disagreement. Without denying the importance of such, I want to focus on the positive. At a time when the Pope could command his own armed forces, this article strictly prohibits conformity to the Church’s teaching under compulsion. Also, the Church’s authority to teach or to convince lies outside the magistrate’s authority to command. While the magistrate may be called upon to use the sword to prevent false teaching, or perhaps less dramatically, help the church organize itself in ways and matters that are indifferent to Holy Scripture (See Article 34), the magistrate may not compel the Church to teach what it believes to be false. A contemporary example that might help us make the distinction here. When Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Baghdad conducts pastoral visitations with the help of a dozen armed guards, he is not compelling people to meet with him, or to believe as he instructs them against their wills or conclusions. Rather, those armed guards are necessary for Canon White to conduct what in Canada or the US would be the frightfully uncontroversial task of having tea with parishioners. There, the authority to command is properly deployed at the service of the authority to convince, so that this particular church can organize itself and go about its business.


The Church’s authority lies, simply, in its calling by God to tell the truth. It does not have the authority to command, but instead, the authority to convince. As Pope Benedict himself put it in 2008, the church does not impose, but freely proposes the Catholic faith.


But there is much more than a good reminder here to be careful when getting involved in political ventures to shore up the faith (though there is that). Reformational Catholicism’s call to rest in the authority to convince as a real authority is needed today as an important part of the chruch’s prophetic witness.


Why is this vision especially needed in our own day? In short because our day is one when those charged with the exercise of coercive power, far more than simply policing the public square so that people of deep conviction and good will can civilly conduct themselves therein, want to use that coercive authority to make sure only like-minded people can participate in public debate. This, it seems to me, is the bedrock of the co-belligerence spoken of by Fr R J Neuhaus and Chuck Colson even as they founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Catholic Church—which I pray encompasses both Roman and Reformational Catholics—stands today as a sign of contradiction to such political visions. And it does so not with opposing armies, but with the insistence that the authority to tell the truth is itself a legitimate expression of authority, that as such serves both to ground and to delimit the authority to command, that indeed without it, the authority to command soon devolves into tyranny.


The tyranny I mean is vividly expressed in Henry VIII’s execution of Thomas More and his daughter Catherine’s execution of the Oxford Martyrs. It is striking to me that More, and on the other side, Latimer and Ridley died for a Church free from the coercive interference of princes. The invocation of martyrs here brings one final point into focus: if the church’s witness to the legitimacy of the authority to convince is going to, well, convince, it will have to be consistent all the way to martyrdom. If our witness to the authority to convince is going to be fruitful, it cannot be short-circuited by an appeal to coercive power for the sake of a greater good (we might contrast here the true King, Aragorn, knowing that he must let Frodo go on his errand with Boromir who wants to use the ring to save the city he loves). In this final instance, martyrdom is not a strategy to overthrow tyranny; it is not an attempt to wrest coercive control back through emotional manipulation. Martyrdom—the bearing of truthful witness by laying down our lives—is what is done when there is nothing left to do. It is a radical act of trust in him who is the Truth, and who has told us that he has already overcome the principalities and powers that would take away our lives, and promised that final vindication will be His.




I hope it is clear that my argument that Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church gifts of word-centred piety, preaching-centred worship, and truth-centred authority, does not imply that contemporary Roman Catholicism lacks these things. I do think that historically, each of these elements was in severe decline in late medieval Roman Catholicism, and that the Reformation reaction against this decline was an expression of legitimate concern for the whole church. Insofar as I see these gifts taken up and received in Roman Catholicism—and I hope it’s clear that I do—I rejoice. Insofar as I see these gifts rejected by those who claim to be the Reformers’ heirs, I weep. In the West, I do believe that the Lord is calling Reformational and Roman Catholics into deeper unity, a unity that will not be the capitulation of one to the other, nor the creation of a new third thing. I believe further that, as has so often happened in the past, the external push toward such unity will be persecution. But that is a subject for another paper.


[1] Peter J. Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[2] See for a recording of the event. Accessed May 27, 2014.

[3] One is tempted to ask how these authors feel about J. Gresham Machen’s similar attempt at rapprochement in the introduction to his classic fundamentalist work, Christianity and Liberalism

[4] Peter J. Leithart, “Staying Put,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. LCC XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 9.

[7] The entire address can be found here:–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx. Accessed, May 29, 2014.

[8]Book of Common Prayer, ed. Cummings, 679.