Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving

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Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving
Part One: Christianity

Copyright © July 14, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

Peter J Leithart is a conservative Christian writer (PhD., Cambridge) of numerous books, and the pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is captivated by the influence of modernism both on the Church and Western culture as a whole. I have read several of his works, and find his writing deep and thought provoking. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says in this small book (157 pages), but of course, not everything. My disagreements are often less sharp than the cutting edge of our agreements. It takes two angles brought together to make the best blade. Leithart’s theology is well reasoned, but his presentation hard to follow at times. The Apostle Peter said of Paul that he wrote things hard to understand. Peter Leithart's writings are often similarly difficult. Leithart’s polemic (for that is what he is: a polemicist) rises to the point of a prophet betimes, as for instance when he cries “Is it any wonder that the Spirit is grieved?” (Pages 124-128; 132.)

Introductions aside I will now get to the heart of my critique of Against Christianity. What I have written below are essentially revisions of my notes from within the margins of the text. This is not intended as a straightforward book review, but rather an attempt to come to grips with some of the challenges Leithart sets forth. At times I closely follow in Dr. Leithart’s footsteps. Nevertheless I attempt to re-evaluate what he provides in the light of Scripture and my own common sense observations.

Four chapters of five speak against: Against Christianity, Against Theology, Against Sacraments, and Against Ethics. One final chapter speaks for: For Constantine. Let us now look at these five chapters.

Against Christianity.

Christianity is not the same as the world-altering force that drove the early believers in Jesus Christ’s resurrection, shattering the then known world, and reworking all culture up to our present era. Instead, says Leithart, it is, "like Judaism and 'Yahwism' invention of biblical scholars, theologians and politicians..." (p.13 for all quotes in this paragraph). Leithart informs us "Christianity is gnostic and the Church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days." Christianity is designed "to keep Christians and the Church in their proper marginal place." It is the attempt to shelve the power that changed the world 2000 years ago in a jar of formaldehyde so that it can be historically examined and compared to the other jars of dead things without fear of it jumping back up and infecting us. "Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church." Those are pretty strong words.

The life of the Church has nothing to do with a pious set of attitudes, beliefs, ethics, rituals or culture superimposed on a former way of life. It is not “getting religion”. It is impossible to separate our belief system, our faith, from our whole life experience as the redeemed people of God. We are a new way of life. Christian life is not a set of beliefs nor is the Church merely those folks adhering to such set. The Church is a new Nation paying homage to an Eternal King. Neither is our new life the cultic or liturgical trappings of a Christian "system". Our culture and worship is essentially who we are: Citizens of Heaven. It is neither our theology nor our ethics superimposed upon our lives within the community around us. The Christian experience is not a mystical "encounter" informing the rest of our lives, like a near-death revelation. It is not some upper heavenly compartment within us renting house from the earthly landlord downstairs. Francis Schaeffer described the schizophrenia of modern Christianity in his book How Shall We Then Live? in similar terms.

The earliest Church (that of the Apostles) was Christian, having first been given this name in Antioch (Acts 11:26). As Christians they were followers of Christ, but they were not Christianity - that institutionalized hybrid arose later. Modern Christianity developed out of the Reformers' reactions to older patristic Christianity. The patristic religion of the Church Fathers was the result of crossbreeding ancient gnostic heresies with the Church’s doctrinal positions during and just after the apostolic period. Throughout this chapter and really the whole book Leithart compares Christianity to modernity, and shows how it is in essence a modernist infection in the Church. Modernism and modernity, as well as their postmodernist offshoots are a large theme of much of Leithart's writing. Modernity is the essence of the problem with modern day Christianity, since Christians have absorbed the modernity virus and are now little more than hosts infecting all with whom they come into contact. From page 17 we read:

[M]odernity is characterized by "value pluralism," which entails the privatization of religious institutions and religious claims. Every individual and every group chooses its own values, and civil society is the arena where those values enter into combat. Politically, modernity is shaped by "liberalism," the political system dedicated to the one proposition that political systems must not be dedicated to one proposition.

Though it has roots in the patristic period, Christianity in its more developed form is the Church's adjustment of the gospel to modernity, and the Church's consequent acceptance of the world's definition of who we are and what we should be up to. Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization.

Leithart goes further still saying "Christianity is worldliness that has become so much our second nature that we call it piety." (Same page.)

Among Leithart's influences are the theologians of the New Perspective on Paul school. In his preface, he refers admiringly to J.D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, among others. New Perspective on Paul has had it's share of critics, but they have added much to an understanding of who we are as God's people confronting the surrounding nations. Pauline theology sets forth the Church as a continuation of Israel without national or ethnic borders. It is the reconstitution of Israel's eschatological hope for all nations, revealing the Church as the kingdom of God manifest on earth. The Church consists of all peoples, tribes, tongues and nations brought together in Christ to form a new politeuma (commonwealth). We are a new nation created out of many disparate people groups now become the nation of Heaven on Earth. We have a heavenly ethnocentrism, with our own national identity. The former concepts of Jew, Gentile, Roman, Barbarian, Bond or Free, Male or Female, Russian, American, Chinese, or Puerto-Rican, all are secondary to our citizenship, which is in heaven. True Christianity (if I may use that word) is not merely a new religion in the marketplace of religious ideas. It is a whole-life movement of a newly created people. We need make no accommodation to the attitudes and philosophies of this world, as if we should give them equal time in the ideas market. That would be a failure to recognize the superiority of the Kingdom of God and equivalent to treason against our heavenly citizenship.

As James Dunn has made clear in his essays, nationalism ended for the people of God when Paul wrote Galatians 2:16. Faith in Christ ended our bondage to the laws of this world, and we now serve Christ. We do great disservice to the Kingdom of God when we view ourselves primarily as Americans, or Businessmen, or Middle-Class, or even Conservative, or Liberal, or Progressive. The ethnicism, or pragmatism, or classism, or politicism involved in those stances are all unnecessary tags that limit us to boxes of our own design rather than experiencing the true liberty of the Gospel. Our badge is no less than our faith in Christ. The things we were before faith are passed away, and in every way our lives now exemplify the life of heaven colonized upon this earth.

The infiltration of gnostic heresies into the Church led to her failure to understand herself biblically. No longer did the Church view herself as a Society of Heaven colonizing the present world. Instead, the Church took on mystical notions about herself and began to cloister away in convents and monasteries, where they were harmless to the world at large. She began to see herself as one of many competing philosophies that needed to be justified rationally or risk rejection. The Christian life became a construct that one could choose from among others because of it's superiority. But it could no longer prove that superiority because it had forsaken its distinction from mere philosophy. We forgot that we are the only way of life, having laws that should overtake the present. We forgot that we are the Stone cut without hands that destroys the kingdoms of this world, and establishes the Kingdom of God. The foundation of all true government is within the Church, because the Church is the throne of Jesus Christ and the world is His footstool. As Leithart says on page 35, the Church is neither the reservoir of grace as Roman Catholicism teaches, nor is it the support for Christian life for the believer as Reformation theology teaches. The Church is salvation because Christ is salvation and Christ is enthroned in His Church. If the Church really is the city of God than there is no salvation outside of that city.

Modernism separated Christianity from politics - Church from State. Therein lies the heresy of Christianity. We fail to comprehend that we are a political body. The politics, laws and ethics of Heaven are supposed to be in the Church, and will inevitably come out and influence the world around us. If we are not a law unto the world, are not already politically active, we deny our fundamental nature as salt and light. Christianity (in the good sense) is not in conflict with culture. Christianity is culture. But it is a culture in conflict with another culture. It is the culture of Heaven in opposition to the culture of Earth. When Christians step back from the culture of this world, either through fear of becoming soiled or through fear of having nothing to offer, the opposition culture becomes dominant by our retreat. The culture of heaven is no longer a force to regulate, even to crush, the destructive ethos of this world.

Pietism is a failure of momentous proportions and the history of American Christianity is the history of the pietistic retreat. It is the American Church's failure to be salt and light, to be the Ecclesia, the Politeuma that is our God-given responsibility. We don't need to become activists. We need to realize that is who we are by nature of the new birth. Salt cannot help but flavor. Light cannot NOT dispel darkness. It is the nature of the Christian Believer operating in this world to activate, challenge and vitalize everything he comes in contact with.

Leithart, challenging the position of theologian David Wells, says "social and economic factors are always also religious and ideological factors, [and]...religious factors are already operative, and conversely that religion is always already social and economic." (Page 42.) Social and religious are a part of the culture of whatever sort, whether the culture of heaven or that of earth. You cannot separate them any more than you can separate life and ethics. Because man is an ethical being, there is no act he can perform that is not an ethical act. There is no such thing for a moral being as an amoral act. Everything we do is inherently ethical, moral. The psalms say, "Even the plowing of the wicked is sin" and "In sin did my mother conceive me". In the same sense, everything that man does is social and religious, the only difference between Believer and Unbeliever is the social, religious, moral/ethical point of view: this world or the Kingdom of God!

Returning to the error of pluralism (whether ethical or cultural), it is of essence that we realize the Church is not merely a regulator of worldly passions and ambitions, although she does do that. Instead, the Church is the only alternative to such ambitions. The world is challenged by the presence of the Kingdom of God through the Church and is presented with the Ultimatum of Heaven: either enter the Kingdom of God or be judged by it. We don't make democracy possible by moderating the public square (pp. 42-43). We deny democracy by proclaiming the arrival of the King. To the kingdoms of this world we declare that His Law will either subsume you or consume you. You have no alternative but to fall on the Rock or the Rock will fall on you.

Old Testament Theology and pre-Christian Judaism looked forward to the time when all nations would come into the Kingdom of God. The Church is the realization of that goal, being the continuation of God's rule in this earth, only now universalized and separated from the ethnic nationalism of its earlier incarnation. The good news is that the Word of God has gone out to the ends of the earth, to the highways and byways, compelling all men to participate in the covenant promise to Abraham. Old Testament eschatology finds its fruition in the Church, God having made of Jew and Gentile one new people. We have become one heavenly body, married in heaven, with feet on earth. What God has joined together no man can sunder. There are still only two groups of men on this earth as there always has been: those who are saved and walking in covenant with God, and those who are lost. The elect and the damned. The Heavenly and the Earthly.

Our calling as the heavenly seed is not to commingle and be part of the larger whole of society, but rather to realize we are an alternative society propagating the City of God on this earth. We are not a part of this world known as the institution "Church". We are the New World set to take over this world without compromise, even now bringing heaven's laws and life into this arena. The Church is the realization of the Hope of all the Ages. It is the "Kingdom Now!" that pietists hate so much because it insists they get off their duffs and start acting like they believe the Good News. The Church is not one slice of a plurality of ideas pie in the idea market. She is the Eternal thrusting itself into the Temporal and Terminal and overtaking it.

The Terminal generation has existed since Adam and Eve. The culture of death and the philosophies of despair prevailed. The promise of the Abrahamic covenant was that the Kingdom of God would overthrow the lost world of Adam. In Christ, that new eternal world is realized. As such, we are the New Law, the New World, and the heavenly Kingdom to which this world must bow or be destroyed. The Church is the Rock that destroys the Kingdoms of this world. We are not a part of this world, except as colonists from the Next. We are the New Polis that violently eradicates the old Adamic Polis. The City of God tearing down the City of Man.

There is no compromise. Biblical law is no longer nationalistically based as it was in the old Israel. It goes out to the ends of the earth, consuming all that opposes it. Anything less than that is compromise with this world's kingdom and is the heresy that Leithart calls Christianity.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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