Dr. Peter J. Leithart ’81 is an author and theologian as well as the president of Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies. Leithart spoke on campus last week about the “achievement, failure, and promise” of the Reformation in the final keynote lecture of the series “This Far By Faith: The Reformation at 500.” He sat down to speak with the Collegian about uniting the divisions of the modern church, changing his plans as a Hillsdale student, and interpreting the works of Jane Austen.
Your most recent book is “The End of Protestantism.” Why did you choose that title? Who is the book written for, and what is your view for the future of Protestantism?
The book is addressed to my own “tribe:” conservative Protestants who historically have not been inclined to ecumenical or Catholic visions for the church. They’ve tended to be kind of separatist and sectarian. So I’m partly trying to persuade conservative Protestants who need to be persuaded from Scripture that Scripture teaches that the church is and ought to be one in a way that’s visible to the world. John 17 has been a major text of the ecumenical movement since the early 20th century: Jesus prays that the church will be one so that the world would see that the Father sent the Son. Invisible spiritual unity is not all he’s talking about; it’s apparent to the world.
Part of the book is also an effort to assess the cultural and ecclesial moment: Where do we stand? I make a case for the idea that we’re in a time when pursuing deeper and more visible unity in the church is a timely effort. I think there are already signs that certain barriers have been weakened if not broken down. The culture wars have put conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants together on one side, and that has dispelled a lot of the prejudices on both sides. Charles Colson described this as an “ecumenism of the trenches.” If you’re picketing with Catholics, it’s hard to have the same kinds of anti-Catholic prejudice that Protestants have often had.
So you’ve seen members of churches working together in politics and the daily life of the Christian community, but members of denominations still find themselves divided on some essential understandings of what it means to be Christian. How do you think they should go forward in difficult doctrinal conversations?
I have confidence in a future unified church only because I believe that’s what God is doing. It’s not because of the ingenuity of theologians or pastors or laypeople. It’s not about our ability to politic and manipulate a solution. It’s a work of the Spirit. I think that is inherent in the story of Scripture as I see it, that God is uniting nations together in the body of his son. If you start from that premise, it relaxes you somewhat because it’s ultimately God’s work. It puts the emphasis on prayer because if it’s God’s work, then you need to be asking Him to achieve it. We’re not freed from responsibility, but that puts us in the right frame to act even in what seem to be the most intractable impasses.
It’s a mistake to enter into those kind of discussions on the assumption that the only alternatives are those that have already been formulated, and one or the other party has to win.
One of the practical consequences of a divided church is that if you go with the New Testament image of the church as a body, if you have parts of the body that aren’t functioning, or if you have a church body that is really more the concentration of one organ — Presbyterians tend to be brains, and if you gather all the brains together, then you have a really high-functioning brain, but you don’t have the hands and the feet that some other traditions might bring. So I think the whole church is weakened by the fact that we aren’t sharing each other’s gifts.
How did your faith form your education and your vocation as a preacher and theologian before, during, and after your time at Hillsdale as a student of history and English?
I grew up Lutheran and met my future wife at Hillsdale, and when I started going to her home church in Atlanta, I started hearing a kind of preaching that I hadn’t heard in the Lutheran churches — a depth of Biblical teaching that I hadn’t gotten from the Lutheran church. After we got married, I joined a Presbyterian church, and I’ve been in Presbyterian churches since then. I’m more appreciative of the Lutheran tradition now than I was when I was a Lutheran. I don’t think I grasped what I had. I’ve become much more sympathetic to the liturgical Lutheran tradition than I was before I moved to a Presbyterian church.
As far as my vocation, I pastored at a couple churches, but my inclinations and makeup are really more suited to the life of a theologian than a pastor.
I also had some good history professors who steered me in the humanities direction. And as I read more theology, partly guided by my wife’s pastor, it became clear that my real love was in theology. I still do some work in history and literature, but theology is my overriding interest.
You’ve written books on Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, and other literary giants. Are those primarily literary works, or do you look at literature from a theological perspective?
I feel like I’m doing theology no matter what. I’ve written two books on Jane Austen; one was a biography where I emphasized her upbringing in the Anglican church, which is sometimes downplayed by critics. But I also have a book that’s a study guide for high school students on Austen’s novels. In those, just as a result of my training and inclination I gravitate to what I think of as theological themes in the books. I hope I’m doing justice to the text as a literary artifact, but I know that I zero in on themes that interest a theologian.
What poet or author addresses theological themes in a way that speaks to you most strongly?
I’ve gotten theological insights from Shakespeare. I have an interest in political theology, and I think Shakespeare’s history plays, English and Roman, and the political dimensions of the tragedies, show that he’s very aware of the theological import of what he’s doing. The whole sequence of the English history plays is moving from one model of Christian kingship in Richard II to Machiavellian kingship in Richard III and you see the breakdown of this medieval idea of kingship where the king was the anointed of the Lord breaking down over the course of that sequence of plays.
Coming from an education at Hillsdale that was formative in your faith and your intellectual interests, and looking at the political and theological climate that Hillsdale students today are in, what do you have to say to students who are having these discussions about faith and thinking about what it means to be a Christian?
I see hopeful trajectories in various areas in the United States.
I think there are opportunities for positive Christian witness that can be persuasive. I think Americans in general are confused about where our country is going, and thoughtful Christian witness has a real potential for being heard. I think Christians should be prepared to face resistance and be prepared to witness faithfully.
That’s the original meaning of the word “martyr:” it’s a witness, a person who is faithful in the face of dangers or threats.