Leithart's future-end of Protestantism V: What happened to the flood?

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Paragraph One, "The Future-End of Protestantism":

Protestants often act as if the Reformation were the end of history, the moment when the Church reached its final condition. For these sorts of Protestants, the future of Protestantism can only be more of the same. This cannot be. God is the living Creator, still at work in his world, and that means that the Protestantism of the future will be something new, and, given the pattern of God's creativity, something better.

Keeping in mind what I pointed out in an earlier piece, that Dr. Leithart originally titled this project "The End of Protestantism," it's clear Dr. Leithart has his work cut out for him in proposing Protestantism's "end" as a positive move. Paragraph one sets up Leithart's metanarrative. He prods readers to stop "acting" foolishly. We are to put aside our sectarian tribalism and hop on board his Train called Hopeful headed into a "better" future because an always-better future is "God's pattern of creativity."

In his second paragraph, Leithart moves on to build a sort of Biblical foundation for his metanarrative:

Paragraph Two, "The Future-End of Protestantism":

In the beginning, God created the world in six days, and each day improved on the previous one. He spoke light, separated light and darkness, and said it was good. Come the next day, and first-day good was not good enough, so he separated the waters below from the waters above and inserted a firmament between. After he tore the waters and called earth to fruitfulness, he said that was good too. Another evening and morning, and again good was not good enough, so he spent the fourth day hanging lights in the firmament, the fifth calling swarming things to swarm in the sea and birds to hover on the face of the sky, the sixth filling the earth with animals and creating man male and female in his image. Each day was good, but each was followed by darkness and dawn that made good better. When he finished, Yahweh God pronounced it very good and rested in what he had made.

Nice, that turn of phrase "tore the waters." Leithart enters the days of creation and the state of perfection to show God violent in his intense commitment to improvement: God tears things. Certainly, then, we may expect He'll tear things after the Fall, also. It's just His way: He tears things to improve things...

Dr. Leithart declares "each day improved on the previous one." Yet Scripture itself saves the category of better for the sixth day of creation when God replaces "it was good" with "it was very good." Actually, Leithart's claim to see a theme of improvement all through the six days of Creation seems meaningless: everything God does is good, so each good added by God to the previous good (increasing good in the conglomerate) is more good than before. The equation would seem to be:

g + g = b (where b is "better").

The point is taken. But what indeed is the point?

Paragraph Three, "The Future-End of Protestantism":

Something of the same rhythm continues after the Fall, with God's judgment a critical addition, with God tearing down in order to build up. After the scattering at Babel, he tears Abram from among the nations and sends him wandering through a land not his own, offering sacrifices at oaks and oases. The Lord mid-wives his son Israel through the travail of Egypt and carries him to Sinai, where he teaches him to worship in his tent and live in the land of promise. Solomon reorganizes tribes into districts and builds a temple, a well-watered Eden on Mount Moriah, with the king's palace hard by Yahweh's. Divided, the people of God take a new name, Israel-and-Judah, until Yahweh tears them from the land of promise and melds them together in exile into one new man, now all Jews, now all "Judahites," incorporated into the royal tribe. Through the cross and Resurrection, we are all separated from our native tribes and nations and grafted into the people of God, taking the name Christian.

With Leithart's third paragraph, we move into the Fall and its fruit of God's judgment and curses. Before I had read Dr. Leithart's piece, I would have thought that the Fall is not positive, but infinitely tragic; that it is the most awful moment in man's history. Yet Dr. Leithart is intent on carrying us along on his hermeneutical wave of "each day better than the day before," so He does not intend to allow the Fall to subvert his project. What does he do with the Fall?

It would be scandalous to speak of it in purely positive terms, so Dr. Leithart deals with it by taking us on a sort of J-walk:

Something of the same rhythm [of improvement] continues after the Fall, with God's judgment a critical addition [to that rhythm of improvement], with God tearing down in order to build up.

Reducing the Fall to a speed-bump on the path of God's "building up" is carried off by equivocating through the use of the word 'critical.' The word can mean "negative" or "bad,' but it can also mean "indispensable" and "vital"—as in "convincing people that the Bible is best understood through a hermeneutic of improvement is mission-critical to my project of calling Protestants to reunite with Rome."

Which meaning does Dr. Leithart intend—"bad" or "vital"?

Both. Between "negative" and "indispensable" is more than enough space to reduce the reader to a confusion that causes him to want to leave the Fall behind; to move forward into more of the good-getting-better and all its attendant vibes of positivity. Quickly then, the Fall and God's judgment and curses are left passed by.

Had Dr. Leithart bluntly stated that the Fall was every bit as much a part of God's rhythm of creativity and improvement as the six days of Creation, the simple-minded would have been scandalized. Instead, the word 'critical' is let loose in an ambiguous way to allow readers to feel as if Leithart is conceding the Fall's earth-shaking negativity. But he's not.

Dr. Leithart is locomoting his train with not the slightest intention of slowing down for the infinite tragedy of the Fall and the endless misery and suffering it has caused throughout history, most particularly the terrible suffering of our Lord in His life, ministry, trial, and death—on the Cross.

And as we slip past the Fall, note this recurrent theme of God's "tearing."

Something of the same rhythm [of improvement] continues after the Fall, with God's judgment a critical addition [to that rhythm of improvement], with God tearing down in order to build up.

As God tore things in Creation, so He tears things with the Fall. Thus the Fall is simply the "tearing down" God needed to do in order to continue His pattern of "build(ing) up." Leithart continues to deal with man's rebellion in this way:

After the scattering at Babel, he tears Abram from among the nations and sends him wandering through a land not his own, offering sacrifices at oaks and oases. The Lord mid-wives his son Israel through the travail of Egypt and carries him to Sinai, where he teaches him to worship in his tent and live in the land of promise.

Man's sinful building of the Tower of Babel and God's response of judgment is simply the occasion of God's "scattering." Then we're off to the same "tearing" God did to the waters in the state of perfection with Abram now being torn from the nations and sent "wandering through a land not his own." Are God's actions in Babel and Ur positive developments for the men of Babel or Ur?

No. The babble of languages and the departure of Abram are both occasioned by the sinfulness and rebellion of man. The builders of Babel and the souls of Ur are not seeing or enjoying God's pattern of creativity that leaves everything better. They are left worse, unable to communicate with each other and abandoned by our faithful father Abraham. And if the response were given, that Dr. Leithart is recounting history as salvation history, from the perspective of God's people rather than the perspective of unbelievers, I would respond by pointing out that Scripture is not as chipper as Dr. Leithart in its own treatment of terrible evils and judgments such as the Fall, Babel, and the Great Flood. These events are not dismissed with cutesy phrases like "God tearing" and "God scattering." Scripture goes to great lengths describing the evil of the Fall and the tragedies that have resulted ever since, but our day does not have much patience for scribes who are negative. Dr. Leithart gets it, so after a few florid phrases, he moves on.

By the way, what did happen to the Great Flood? Was that just one more tearing in God's creative pattern of every day in every way the world getting better and better?

But as I said, it's a no-show and I suspect Dr Leithart skipped the Flood because it's a cosmic faultline in his metanarrative. As the Holy Spirit inspired the history to be writtten, it began with this statement:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7)

Think. How would Dr. Leithart manage to include the condition of the earth at the time of the Flood in his metanarrative in such a way as to maintain his hermeneutic of God's constant pattern of better, particularly when God Himself declares, "I am sorry that I have made them." Seems like no statement in history has ever communicated decayed, rotten, or worse as clearly.

Not to worry, though; in Leithart's metanarrative, God's regret over His Creation and His terrible judgment of the Flood are no-shows.

Paragraph Four, "The Future-End of Protestantism":

God creates Israel as tribes, then as a kingdom, then scatters them among the nations, then sends them to the nations, each good, each followed by the darkness of the tomb, each bringing good brighter than the good that preceded it. At each juncture, God calls his people to shed old ways and old names, to die to old routines and ways of life, including ways of life God himself has established.

And again, we're off and running up and down, back and forth, high and low, this way and that with scattering and sending, "each good," "each bringing good brighter than the good that preceded it." But do keep in mind that such wonderful good, betters, and bests come at a cost. Those who want to ride the train must "shed old ways and old names." 

Like Protestant and Reformed, for instance?

They must "die to old routines and ways of life."

Like the Westminster Standards, for instance?

Even old ways and old names and old routines and ways of life "God himself (sic) has established."

Aha! I think I'm getting it. Those who want in on Dr. Leithart's metanarrative of constant improvement must be willing to have the old-and-in-the-way torn from their grasp and scattered.

Did I mention that Dr. Leithart's project was originally titled, "The End of Protestantism?" Do keep that in mind.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!