The End of Catholicity III, or Calvin Uncatholicized, or Life without St. Ignatius of Antioch

I was going to begin this post with Christ as the Icon of the invisible God, the express image of the Father; and that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Christ. The ultimate end of catholicity (that is, the goal) is unity with our One Lord Jesus Christ. When I started this series I used the title to draw attention to certain things about Peter Leithart’s blogpost which showed that whatever he meant by catholic, it was not what anyone else had meant by catholic, at least for the first 1800 years or so of the Church’s existence. Whether Dr. Leithart is grouping his way toward catholicity I can’t say, but the telos of catholicity, and not its demise, is nothing that Leithart is expounding. He has since gone on to assert all sorts of caveats: the Orthodox are like the Northern tribes, the Orthodox are children who haven’t grown up to a better understanding of the faith, the Orthodox practice idolatry of a different sort than your run of the mill pagan, but it is still idolatry; John Paul II is the greatest Christian of the twentieth century, but Leithart will have communion with anti-sacramentals before having it with him; de Lubac, Congar, and Schmemann were prophets he loves, but who are unheeded by their communions, and also partakers of their sins, whereas he (Leithart) knows better than they.

We are supposed to believe that this is catholic? I wish to be charitable, but as Chris Jones alluded to earlier with a comment  B la Bill Tighe, this is nonsense on stilts. The Reformers not have identified with this. Catholicity is not massaging reality to make it fit your idea of the truth, but is assenting to what the Church has taught, believed, and practiced. I have seldom had the opportunity to cite what was once formulated as one of the Laws of the Pontificator, may his beard be ever long (a former Episcopal priest who eventually left and has now ended as Orthodox) that where Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree, Protestantism is wrong. This may be a nice shorthand, and something certainly to be argued, but on this issue it is not merely the Orthodox and Catholic who are in agreement here, but also Calvin and Luther with the Orthodox and Catholics against Leithart: devotion and discipline are inextricably bound to the table. Let us take Calvin as our guide here, with whom I am far better acquainted.

Many on Dr. Leithart’s camp (e.g., James B. Jordan) make great noise about Calvin wanting communion every week at every altar (ahem, I mean, table). This is true. But Calvin was willing to live without this. What he wasn’t willing to live without was the Book of Discipline. This is what brought about his expulsion from Geneva in 1538 when he and Farel would not back down on their demands, and it was the very thing that brought about his confrontation with the Perrins in the 1550s, and with this clash his ultimate triumph following the Servetus affair (a rather messy moment in Genevan political and ecclesiological life that played no small part in Calvin’s ultimate triumph over his political opponents). For Calvin discipline and devotion were the prerequisites of communion. Now this is something that Leithart would confess, but how seriously can we take his concurrence with Calvin, when any Baptist who denies the reality of sacramental grace could walk into Dr. Leithart’s church tomorrow and communicate. He is barred, or at least that was the practice some ten years ago, by his own larger communion, the PCA, from not admitting them. Calvin never would have stood for this. Is Dr. Leithart now more catholic than Calvin, than Luther? He can maintain all he wants that he is following in Calvin’s train, but Calvin’s train, to mix metaphors, pulled out of his station a long time ago. Ultimately Leithart’s Eucharistic ecclesiology, whatever it is he thinks is happening on the altar, is not Calvin’s.

The reason the Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Lutherans practice closed communion has nothing to do with who is and isn’t a Christian, but whether those in communion with us are just that: in communion ecclesiogically (episcopally for the Orthodox and Catholics, confessionally for the Lutherans). Speaking as an Orthodox, if you don’t recognize the spiritual oversight and authority of the bishop, how can we commune with you? As St. Ignatius of Antioch noted, the bishop is to be honored as the Father. But were we to admit Dr. Leithart to our table, we would not be following what St. Ignatius, and indeed the whole of our Tradition, has taught us, and it would be we who are the schismatics. Ultimately Dr. Leithart has asked us to slight both our Tradition and its rule of prayer, that is, we are united together in one Eucharist with our bishop, and through him with the bishops and Orthodox in the One Christ throughout the world. Why would we ever want to leave that?

About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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11 Responses to The End of Catholicity III, or Calvin Uncatholicized, or Life without St. Ignatius of Antioch

  1. Pingback: The End of Catholicity II & III « Energetic Procession

  2. David Fraser says:

    I have to agree. I would not ask any Christ-follower to violate their conscience or to take steps that take them beyond their own important boundaries on such issues.

    My own communion (PCUSA) approaches this differently. We are “open” or in some cases “restricted” communions. It is not our altar (table) or “supper” but the Lord’s table. We are only servants of the sacrificial meal. Anyone who comes into our presence with a real faith knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is welcome for it is Christ who issues the invitation, not myself as a minister of the Presbyterian communion. I am only an under shepherd who articulates the words in His stead. So anyone who acknowledges the kinship of the family headed by Christ is welcome, whether they understand what is happening as trans-substantiation (RC), sacramental union (Lutheran), real presence (Calvinist), or memorial (Zwinglian) — and whether they come from a closed, open or restricted communion tradition.

    But I must say in contrast with Leithart, I am not offended when I am excluded in closed communions from the eucharist. I think we do need to be true to our traditions until or unless we have different convictions or principles on this (Romans 14-15). I should not expect the Orthodox or any other closed communion tradition to affirm me in that way. Christ’s affirmation is enough.

  3. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  4. Fr. Kimel left Rome and is Orthodox? Really? That’s interesting.

  5. Cyril says:

    Yes, not a year ago. I believe he is in ROCOR. I don’t know if he follows this blog, but perhaps he can email you on the side. I only know the barest of things about it.

  6. DCF says:

    This is a great post. By the way, I’m just a nobody recent convert to the Orthodox Church (from presbyterianism). I have long been an admirer of Dr. Leithart and actually own all his books and still peruse them as time permits. I was actually thinking about Dr. Leithart’s article on my run today and what I could not get past was his praise of Congar, DeLubac, and Fr. Schmemann (Leithart is the one who introduced me to Schmemann) and what I believe to be his utterly arbitrary and subjective borrowing of their theologisms and rejection of the traditions that formed their (the theologisms) respective foundations. The closed communion thing is another huge issue. Would Dr. Leithart commune a liberal episcopalian? If not, why not? Why them and not a baptist who refusess to baptize their children? Where is the line drawn and why is it drawn there (or there, or there, or over there)? Again, great post, great blog and keep up the good work professor!

  7. Cyril says:

    DCF, thanks. I guess it’s the temptation to think that somehow we are more self-aware than those people we praise for one thing and slight at the same time. Dave Fraser talked about the hermeneutic of sympathy, an indispensable tool for a historian, and even as much so for a theologian. .I remember my first intro to Fr. Schmemann was from Ray Sutton who said “if only he understood covenant theology this would be great stuff.” (This is the same mentality we see in someone like R. C. Sproul who maintained that were Aquinas alive today he would be a Presbyterian.) The problem is, Schmemann is so antithetical to covenant theology, but Sutton (or Jordan or Leithart) can’t remove themselves from it long enough to see what Schmemann (or Congar, or de Lubac, or von Balthasar or Lossky) are saying. A good read on this is Karly F. Morrison’s I Am You. The Hermeneutics of Empathy in Western Literature, Theology and Art. Morrison loathed the post-structuralists and deconstructionists, and that is really what makes this a grand read, and a great rebuttal of “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Maybe that should be another post soon. These things are stacking up.

  8. DCF says:

    Thanks Cyril. I will definitely look into Morrison’s book. It’s funny you mention the Sproul/Aquinas thing. I remember listening to a sermon some years back from my presbyterian pastor (and quite a godly fellow) and he was discussing St. Paul’s instructions to the Church at Ephesus (Acts 20) and mentioned that St Paul taught the five points of Calvinism to them. Even as a die-hard, foaming at the mouth Calvinist, that instinctively did not sit well with me. Wonder why…

  9. DCF,

    Your story sounds similar to mine except that I’ve actually be sitting under Leithart’s teaching for the last 8 years in Moscow. He introduced us, and many others, to Schmemann, an inadvertently pointed us in the direction of Orthodoxy.

    “Would Dr. Leithart commune a liberal episcopalian?”

    The answer is yes. They would even be bound to commune a “lesbian Episcopal bishop,” as Doug Wilson is fond of saying. But if you’re looking for a line, well, it’s sort of triune baptism, but it’s also sort of triune orthodoxy, but also Chalcedon, and…well, you get the point.


    Good post. As you know, Leithart doesn’t really care that he’s not towing the pure Calvinist line. After all, he’s a protestant at heart (semper reformanda, and all that). As a result, who knows what his theological children will be saying in a generation’s time?

    Doug Wilson, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, Toby Sumpter, and who knows who else have been on a tear lately. I appreciate your part in responding to them.

    Side note: While Schmemann is antithetical to “Covenant Theology” he makes far more sense, as does Orthodoxy in general, of the covenants.


  10. Karen says:

    Adam, I linked over to your blog and can’t comment there, since I don’t use the platforms you have as options for that feature, but wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading your posts. As a former Protestant Evangelical also still struggling to comprehend and articulate what the Church is and its relationship to my past faith, I found your posts very helpful. Have you been received into the Church yet? Whether you’ve been formally received or not, yet, welcome!

  11. I changed my commenting back to WordPress default and also added facebook comments. That should work. We have not yet been baptized/chrismated.

    Thank you Karen,

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