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Peter Lei­thart ’81 spoke on campus last week. Adam Rick | Courtesy

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.