Liturgical Protestantism PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 16 December 2009 09:40

Where should evangelicalism be going ? D. G. Hart thinks he knows.  Evangelicalism has capitulated to American pragmatism and needs to move in a Confessional direction if it wants to recover its soul. For Hart, Confessionalism’s strength lies in its recognition of a strict separation of holy and profane.  The church’s business is the salvation of souls, not the improvement of human life in time or the shaping of the public square, and the church attends to this business by pastoral care through word and sacrament.  As this sacred/secular divide focus the church’s attention on its spiritual ministry, it simultaneously frees Christians to participate fully in a pluralistic public world.

I disagree.  Instead of Confessional Protestantism, I believe that the model of “liturgical Protestantism” provides a more fruitful path for the future.

Why?  For starters, Confessional Protestantism as Hart describes it represents a profound accommodation to the world – as fundamental as the accommodation he finds in evangelicalism.  For if evangelicalism falls prey to the pragmatism of American culture, Hart’s Confessional Protestantism falls prey to the myth of the secular that is the dominant myth of the modern era.  Liturgical Protestantism represents a preferable alternative because it not only challenges the pragmatism of evangelicalism but also the dichotomies of sacred/secular, public/private, religious/political of Hart’s version of Confessional Protestantism.

Liturgical Protestantism challenges these dichotomies while recognizing the virtues of Confessional Protestantism and without falling prey to the often unfocused, more often unchurchly, activism evangelicals have indulged since the nineteenth century.  Like the Catholic nouvelle theologie, liturgical Protestantism recognizes that Christianity is essentially social and public, and insists that the church engages the world precisely in being church.

Liturgical Protestantism is fundamentally catholic.  It is catholic not because it reduces Confessional requirements or advocates a pietist non-Confessionalism.  It is catholic because it recognizes that the center of the church’s life and identity is not humanly constructed Confessions but the God-Man Jesus, communicated to His people through word and sacrament.

Finally, liturgical Protestantism coopts Confessional Protestantism and drags Confessionalists, kicking and screaming, into relevance.  For Confessional Protestants, Hart argues, religion exists for religious ends: “For both Calvinists and Lutherans, the church formally considered has specific tasks to perform, most of which are transacted or revolve around public worship.”  Such forms are “crucial elements of confessional Protestant devotion since they provide the nurture that the life of pilgrimage requires.”  It is evident, then, that “confessional Protestants construe religious activity much more narrowly than pietists.”

Hart is right, but Confessional Protestants are far more relevant than they imagine or wish to be.  They are Jonahs, surly prophets who keep transforming pagan sailors and cities in spite of themselves.  Every time they open their mouths in prayer or song, they change the world of baking and banking, without ever leaving the precincts of their sacred space.  Every time they share a common meal of bread and wine, they enjoy the new creation in the midst of the old, and the resurrection life given in baked bread and fermented wine seeps out into the world of baking and banking.

I have a dream: My dream is that Confessional Protestants, having devoted themselves to their rites and hymnals, having assembled for Eucharist and common prayer, having studied to be irrelevant, will find that their trumpets have brought down the walls of a city, and, standing stupefied before the rubble of Jericho, they will stare at the evangelical hordes that surround them, and ask, What next?

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Last Updated on Thursday, 17 December 2009 12:29