Peter Leithart has been writing some really interesting stuff about Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox relations lately. I’ve catching up on some of them, and was struck by two reflections on why he is, as he puts it, “too catholic to be Catholic,” that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches (as well as many Protestant churches) are sectarian in their practice of the Lord’s Supper. You can find his reasoning here and here. His first post concludes:
One final reason has to do with time. 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.
After the first of these posts, he received a lot of feedback, and wrote a follow-up. He believes that the division of the kingdom of Israel offers wisdom in a time of a divided church. He explores the analogy, and concludes:
With this figural history in mind, we also have a basis for celebrating the faithfulness of men and women in parts of the church where liturgical idolatry remains in place. I have often said that I regard John Paul II as the greatest Christian leader of the last century; yet I would also add that, like Asa and Jehoshaphat, he did not remove the high places. Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar are among my favorite theologians, and their labors cast down idols and falsehoods; yet they did not remove the high places. Alexander Schmemann is a prophet to Orthodoxy, and another of my favorite theologians; yet he did not call for a removal of the high places. These and other great figures in recent Catholicism and Orthodoxy are my brothers; yet they did not push their reforms to the limit. They did not remove the high places.
Eventually, kings arise who did remove the high places – Hezekiah and Josiah. And the latter not only removes the high places in Judah but also destroys the shrine of Jeroboam at Bethel (2 Kings 23:15-20) and other high places throughout the northern territories (2 Kings 23:19; 2 Chronicles 34:33). That is to say, Josiah’s purge of the land extends into the territory that once belonged to the northern kingdom of Judah. When he calls the great Passover in his 18th year, Josiah not only gathers the people of Judah but invites the people of the conquered northern kingdom as well: The feast is celebrated by “all Israel and Judah who were present” (2 Chronicles 35:16-19). One can imagine that not everyone liked what Josiah was doing: Israelites from the north might complain about the arrogance of the Davidic king asserting his power in their lands; Judahites in the south would no doubt be hesitant to share a Passover with former calf worshipers of the north. But it happened: After centuries of political and liturgical division, Israel and Judah were reconstituted as one people – as “all Israel” – at a great feast.
Josiah’s reign gives us a vision of the church’s future devoutly to be wished: Brothers separated for centuries sharing one table; a divided people guilty of multiple idolatries restored to fellowship with God and with one another. If the history of Israel figures the history of the divided church, Josiah’s reign gives hope that the rending of the corporate body of Jesus is not permanent, and that like the rending of Jesus on the cross it will in time be followed by a glorious corporate resurrection.
Are we in a “Josiah moment” when the divided church can finally share a single feast? I believe there are signs that it is such a moment. If it is, then the agenda for every branch of the church is the double agenda of Josiah: Remove the idols, whatever they are, tear down the high places, and join with all brothers and sisters at the one table of the one Lord.
As you’ll see if you read the whole post, Leithart does not think that Protestants are perfect. Roman Catholic and Orthodox readers would doubtless like to see him discuss Protestant shortcomings more.
I’m not posting this because I necessarily accept the entire analogy, but because I’ve enjoyed chewing on it, and thought that you might as well.