Leithart's future-end of Protestantism IX: liturgy and ritual will lead the way...

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Auburn Avenue was where Federal Vision started and Federal Vision theology continues to smolder in a few hamlets, but in the main the theology part of this battle has divided into two streams that now oppose each other—and may the faithful men win.

One camp we call the oatmeal stout Federal Visionists. Led by Dr. Peter Leithart, this group has decayed into the same old sacramentalism which has proven itself over thousands of years to be instinctual to the sinful heart of man which is intent on denying the Holy Spirit distinction between circumcised foreskins and circumcised hearts.

Fondly these men had put their hope in a Lutheran/Presbyterian theological hybrid, but Westminster archivists bludgeoned them with national pronouncements sufficient to warn timid pastors off, leaving their main support among teachers, not pastors, and teachers high enough in the PCA food chain that they could embrace mongrelism with impunity. Such allies at Covenant Theological Seminary and out in Pacific Northwest Presbytery were sufficient to keep Pastor Jeff Meyers and Dr. Leithart from being convicted in their heresy trials, but Meyers and Leithart have their sights set higher than spending the rest of their lives explaining to their other PCAers that their trials are over and they were acquitted.

Dr. Leithart himself has expanded his vision from the PCA to "conservative American Protestantism" where, as we have been showing in this series of articles, he is aiming to move all Protestants back to Rome. And what is his method?

For years he has been "chipping away at the old divisions of dogma," and hence his being brought up on heresy charges.

Those charges failing to be sustained, though, Dr. Leithart is turning his focus toward the formal structures of worship—especially the sacraments and liturgy. What he terms "ritual" will be the vehicle for bringing "ecumenical passion" into staid Reformed churches. He and Pastor Meyers will bring sacerdotalism (the pastor as presiding priest in worship) into Presbyterian Church in America worship. They trust their sacerdotal and sacramental "ritual" may accomplish what their aberrant theology couldn't. This is Dr. Leithart's self-acknowledged "vocation"...

What PCA man is going to bring him up on charges on his new ritualistic emphasis since the PCA long ago declared the Westminster Standards Directory for Worship non-binding?

For a century already, the ecumenical and liturgical movements have been chipping away at the old divisions in dogma and ritual. With regard to the proper role of ritual and ecumenical passion, I have often thought it my vocation to play a role in dragging conservative American Protestants, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century.  - Peter Leithart, First Things

Note that the center of Dr. Leithart's ecumencial project is not preaching but ritual. His motto may be "doctrine divides but ritual unites." Dr. Leithart has not gotten himself a name arguing for the doctrine of the New Birth by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of the preaching of the Gospel. As always, ritual and liturgy are elevated and preaching is relegated—this is the historical pattern Dr. Leithart and Pastor Meyers haven't shared with their acolytes.

Across Church history faithful men knew that it was the Apostolic preaching of the Cross that brought peace to sinful man and unity to the Church. But Dr. Leithart tells us his ecumenism will be ushered in by "ritual." So then, will his ecumencial unity be born of the flesh or of the Holy Spirit?

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?" (John 3:3-10)

With Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests, Dr. Leithart claims to be a teacher of Israel. So, does he understand these things? Does he emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit directly on the minds, consciences, and hearts of men, or is his emphasis solely on the work of the Holy Spirit mediated through the church, which is to say her priests, liturgies, rituals, and sacraments?

Everyone familiar with Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart knows the answer. Dr. Leithart does not call for reliance upon the direct work of the Holy Spirit on sinful man, but rather upon the indirect work of the Holy Spirit limited to the church, her priests, liturgies, rituals, and sacraments. Dr. Leithart does not call for a return to the Apostolic preaching of the Cross trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to work through that preaching to regenerate the souls of sinful men. Rather he calls for a return to the rituals and liturgies of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism that command men to seek salvation through the sociological inclusion of religious ceremonialism.

And predictably, those who look to them to set their church's agenda are finding themselves and their congregants weighing anchor and setting off on an entirely predictable voyage to the Old Country; to the age-old religious powerhouses of Constantinople and Rome which indisputably are in possession of the riches of gold, bells, smells, Michelangelo, and Sorbonnist traditions that are the envy of every cultured Presbyterian. Which is to say, Presbyterians who follow Dr. Leithart's lead will find themselves turning away from humble reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit in the Apostolic preaching of the Cross as their main pastoral calling, turning instead to ritual, sacraments and liturgical studies. Thus they will find themselves and the souls under their care hankering after cathedrals and candles. It won't take them long to realize that Reformed worship without preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit is ugly. So simple. So bare. So impoverished.

A fellow pastor tells of the time he was listening to a prominent Reformed Baptist giving a lecture on preaching, and the man told the pastors he was addressing, "You should prepare your sermon so that, if the Holy Spirit doesn't show up, at least the people will have heard a good lecture."

Placing our emphasis on intellectual discourse and thus displacing preaching with teaching is almost the main ailment of the worship of the Reformed church today. And it is the prevalent method of avoiding reliance upon the Holy Spirit to work regeneration and sanctification in the souls of the congregation.

But awful as that is, to avoid reliance upon the Holy Spirit working on the souls of the congregation through the preaching of the Word of God, turning our attention instead to sacraments, ritual, and liturgy is worse. 

For starters, we can't compete. Rituals and sacramentalist liturgies have been Rome's thing now for many centuries and thus their worship oozes a sophistication and grandeur Presbyterians' can never compete with from inside our simple, non-stained-glass-window sanctuaries. We may repent of our Reformed past and begin to build cathedrals. We may repent of our avoidance of icons and begin to commission some stained-glass doozies. We may begin to sell candles the faithful may light for secret intentions. We may begin to parade down the center aisle robed, and with large staffs and crosses. Maybe even a very large pulpit Bible carried by a young boy.

But regardless of how many formalistic liturgies, icons, rituals, and sacerdotal accoutrements Pastor Meyers and Dr. Leithart are successful in getting Reformed pastors and elders to adopt, when the sermon comes—and it's inevitable it must come at some point in the ritual—it will be clear to all the souls in attendance that the priest has put his hope of transcendance in beauty and grandeur, smells and bells, robes and albs and processions, pictures and ceremonies and sacraments, and not in the Holy Spirit's direct and immediate work in the hearts of sinful men through the preaching of God's Holy Word.

Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart have told us what to focus on. We are to prepare for worship in such a way that, whether or not the Holy Spirit shows up, the people will have feelings of ecumenicity and transcendence carried along by ritual and nostrums concerning sacramental efficacy. In fact, it would be better if we didn't think about the Holy Spirit showing up—after all, He is the ritual and the beauty and the grandeur, the smells and all the bells. Thus we will finally be free to trust in what Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle referred to in his day as the error of "ecclesiastical regeneration."

There's no way of recovering reliance upon the Holy Spirit in the Apostolic preaching of the Cross without showing its competitors, and in that connection Pastor Meyers and Dr. Leithart are making it quite clear where they are pushing us. With refreshing honesty Dr. Leithart tells us that "the end of Protestantism" has arrived and he aims to bring us into new unity with Constantinople and Rome by the agency of ritual.

Will we open our eyes to see what Dr. Leithart is calling us to, or must we continue to justify our sunk costs? Time is passing by and each of us will give an answer for the souls under our care. The choice is clear: either we will continue to emphasize robes, sacramental efficacy, and liturgical formalism, or we will return to preaching the Word of God in humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit.

Either we will trust in the Holy Spirit working only mediately through the church, her priests, and her sacramentalist liturgies, or we will return to the Protestant way of trusting in the the Holy Spirit working immediately on the hearts of sinful men, and principally through the bold and convicting preaching of His precious Word.

The mediate and immediate work of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men are not mutually exclusive. We do believe in the church, her officers, and her rituals for the salvation and sanctification of God's elect and recognize the failure of twentieth century Evangelicalism to see these things. Yet we must not move from Finney to Rome.

Even if Calvin had been able to get weekly communion in Geneva, those who read only one of his sermons will see clearly that the center of Geneva's worship would never have been anything other than the preaching of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Reformation was history's greatest preaching revival and Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and Knox led it.

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!