Nov 25

Against Christianity, by Peter Leithart ★★

This book is Peter Leithart’s latest publication, and with the provocative title, decided it was worth reading. It wasn’t. I have generally appreciated Leithart’s thinking and writing, but this book was a let-down. The preface begins with praise for various theologians, all in the new perspectives on Paul camp, various ethicists (Yoder & Hauerwas) and historian Wayne Meeks.  The NPP theologians have certainly created a stir in the Reformed Theology camps, yet seem to offer a diminishment of the gospel of the Reformers rather than a new enlightened perspective. I wouldn’t call them heretics, but I’d definitely identify them as outside of the Lutheran/Calvinistic tradition. The two ethicists’ writings often lead one to question whether they believe in the God of the Bible. Hauerwas was incidentally poked fun at because of his foul mouth in the final chapter, not exactly illustrative of one who would serve to develop one’s ethic. This doesn’t mean that Yoder and Hauerwas are to be dismissed, as, for example, Hauerwas’ book Resident Aliens is a superb, must-read classic. Meeks also leaves one wondering whether he truly believes the Scriptures to be the word of God, and would be better placed in the camp of theological liberalism. One would almost wonder why Leithart left out Barth and Kung as among his heroes?

The first chapter is titled Against Christianity. Leithart identifies that the word “Christianity” is never mentioned in Scripture, and then selectively identifies “Christianity” as meaning the rituals, cultus, and behavior that Christians experience. Leithart then waxes long against Christianity being a privatized religion, emphasizing instead the cultural and community aspects of living as a Christian. Salvation, according to Leithart, happens in an ecclesiastical context, stating “The Church is neither a reservoir of grace nor an external support for the Christian life. The church is salvation” (emphasis Leithart’s). The theme against the “McDonalization” of Christianity, Christianity rather being a counter-culture to the world, and against all that the world represents. It is opposed to both political conservatism as well as liberalism when the focus is not on the kingdom of God. While I am in general agreement with Leithart’s thesis, his rough edges tend to diminish his message. I disagree that the church is salvation without clarifying what one means by that. I don’t feel that we trash the word “Christianity”, or replace it with the word “Christendom” as he has later in the book.

Chapter 2 is titled Against Theology. The chapter can briefly summarized as Leithart being opposed to a theology that does not beget worship and service. Leithart is definitely NOT against theology, and the title of this chapter is deceptive, since Leithart would take very strong statements against muddled or poorly done theology, no matter how devotional it leaves the practitioner. Leithart says nothing new that many others haven’t already said. JI Packer in particular comments that “there is no God in Berkhof” because Berkhof’s Systematic Theology is good but dry and technical, implying that theology should spontaneously lead to praise and worship.

Chapter 3, Against Sacraments, is not against sacraments, but against the way in which they have evolved in the Christian church, though Leithart also implies the entire ritual of Christian worship as part of the sacrament. Speaking against the Reformers who promoted the preaching of the word above the sacraments, Leithart actually calls for a return to an elevated significance to the sacraments as a form of public worship, and against privatized religion. Leithart then discusses at length whether the sacraments are symbolic or reality, and the answer is that they are totally both.

In Chapter 4, Against Ethics, Leithart speaks not against ethics, but rather spends his time developing an alternative ethic for the church. And this ethic, like the chapters before, is an ethic of the counter-culture church. He refers back to patristic church life making a positive identity in the world by clashing with the accepted Roman ethic. Leithart calls us back to a truly biblical ethical system.

The last chapter, For Constantine, begins as a polemic against the many writers, such as Hauerwas, who have concluded that Constantine was the start of the downfall of the church. Leithart sharply notes that such writers provide only the most pessimistic approach to Christiandom being a seasoning on the whole of society. Yet, Leithart’s argument in this book is quite incomplete. I suppose he expects you to read his Defending Constantine, which is not a bad book but off the topic of this book. He ends by noting that the spirit has abandoned the church, but, somewhere and somehow the church will rise again.

So, how do I provide a global summary to this book? Leithart presents nothing new in this text that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. Oftentimes, the reader is left wondering whether Leithart has been smoking something just made legal in the state of Washington. He reads in a disjointed fashion with a chip on his shoulder. He is out to prove an issue, and not to solve a problem. Thus, in spite of my appreciation for the writings of Leithart, I find it difficult to give this book more than 2 stars.

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4 Responses to “Against Christianity”

  1. Onkel Dennis says:

    Oh, Leithart. Why did it have to be Leithart?

    What irked me about Leithart in the previous book (which I know only through your review) was his penchant for making ludicrous statements that are indefensible. And now in this book, he does it again! To wit:

    “The church is salvation …”

    The only religious organization I know who says this (other than perhaps the Barton Creek Mennonites) is not the one likely to meet with Leithart’s favor. So why does he say it without some very careful explanation? Perhaps he is too light at heart to be rigorous. Then there is this:

    “He refers back to patristic church life making a positive identity in the world by clashing with the accepted Roman ethic.”

    Hopefully, he explains which “paters” he has in mind. I consider some of the “Church Fathers” to be outright heretics, starting with Clement of Alexandria. Jerome was hardly an exemplary Christian and a dubious scholar, as Vigilantius’s visit to him illustrated – a sour old ascetic who wouldn’t tolerate the notion of translational errors in his work, and who thought the cave he lived in was the very arbor of Eden. Reminds me of the Monty Python skit of the Four Scotsmen: “Well, it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of twig, but it was a palace to us!”

    I recommend reading instead of Leithart some truly worthy theologians, like Vigilantius or Lucian. These men were true scholars.

  2. Leithart, in spite of my comments (which does him an injustice), has a great mind. He was a student of Gary North, and holds to most of what North says. In a sense, he is correct about the church being salvation, depending on how you define the church (body of Christ?). It is a worthy discussion to explore exactly what constitutes the body of Christ. Leithart (and I) hold a very high view of the sacraments, which is consistent with Reformed thinking. To what extent we hold the church to be visible vs. invisible remains a topic for discussion outside of my blog.
    Jerome was an interesting person, a bit like you. The best book on Jerome is by J.N.D. Kelley, which I think you would appreciate, and realize that for all his faults (which were many), he was a true giant.

  3. Onkel Dennis says:

    JND Kelly, whose major work I have (Early Christian Creeds, Third Edition), is somewhat of a giant himself and much referenced. Yet notwithstanding, Vigilantius aired the dirty laundry of Jerome persuasively, both in his scholarly and character aspects. Jerome is overblown, and promoted mainly by the papacy.

    Forgotten men such as Vigilantius and Lucian are more than Jerome’s equal and are intentionally forgotten by the papacy. Unhappily, the Reformers did not fully shed their papal predilections when it came to who was important in early church history.

  4. Your choice of model saints leaves me bewildered. Are you too an Arian? Or, you think all of us ignorant fools because we disagree with you?

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