Divided Israel, divided church

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.



  1. Leithart lets himself off far too easily in these essays. He holds himself to an entirely different standard than what he holds others to (see http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/06/04/leithart-on-the-eucharist/) and never engages the Biblical and historical arguments in favor of not admitting people like himself to the Eucharist. “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself,” was what Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Since Leithart doesn’t discern that the Eucharist is really, truly the body and blood of Christ, it is for his own good that he is excluded. It is his own arrogance that demands others subvert historical Christian interpretation of Scripture in favor of admitting folks like himself, and which pushes him to say he is “too catholic to be Catholic.” Leithart can no more stand 1st-3rd pre-Constantinian Catholic teaching on the Eucharist than he can post-Trent teaching. http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/father/a5.html#clement

    Maybe it is invincible ignorance that drives Mr. Leithart to say such things. I hope so. He certainly doesn’t seem to understand Catholic teaching, or he wouldn’t say silly things like the following, “Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession,” So, Catholics/Orthodox claim Leithart lives a sub-Christian existence?!?! Really?!?! Who said this? Which Catholic document can he look to to back up that assertion of Catholic or Orthodox belief? It’s much easier to beat up on straw men than to actually engage the ideas of others and hold oneself to the same standard that one holds others to in a debate/dialog. Would that Leithart hat taken the high road here.

  2. Doug, sorry for my late reply. Your response and the one that you linked to are both good. I need to look at the other links that you provided about the Eucharist.

    When I read Leithart’s line about “a sub-Christian existence,” I figured he was referring to the document that had called Protesant churches “gravely deficient.” But then I looked that up after reading your comment and found that it had not meant that. If Leithart is basing it on that, it would be a huge mistake on his part. Perhaps he is basing it on something else.

    But I do think that he has a reputation of engaging with other Christians fairly well, since he writes for First Things and Touchstone, which cross the various branches of the Christian faith. In the piece from First Things, he writes:

    I have shared meals in diners, French restaurants, and at Indian buffets with Rusty Reno, David Mills, David Bentley Hart, Francesca Murphy, Matt Levering, Robert Louis Wilken, Vigen Guroian, George Weigel, and Robert George. At those tables, we were family, and I am exceedingly grateful for that warm expression of communion in Christ and in one another. Such friendships are a heartening sign of ecumenical progress.

    Sure, anyone can name drop, and I don’t know Leithart personally, but I get the impression that these are real friendship and that he is respected across the dividing lines.

  3. Scott,

    A) No, not anyone can namedrop, especially like that. Certainly, nobody I personally know can, and I know some people with vastly better connections than myself.
    B) I don’t doubt that Leithart has good friendships with people and that his writings are often insightful. Nor do I doubt that he is sincere and loving in his attempts at engagement with Catholic theology. However, I would question any assertion that the people you listed think Leithart was substantively engaging actual Catholic theology in his post. I honestly think his blind spots are too large to allow him to do so and doubt even Leithart’s relatively close Catholic theologian friends would disagree with me.


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