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 Two: Theology

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

We are dealing with the book Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart, and so far have examined the first chapter, which dealt with the failure of the Church to realize who she is because of centuries long compromise with modernity. Now we want to move on to an examination of chapter two.

Against Theology

Dr. Leithart next takes aim at theology. He does not appear to mean the systematic, historical and biblical practice of examining Scripture for answers to our daily lives and for a deeper relationship with God. He means the conceptualizing of God and things eternal as philosophical constructs, typical of liberalism and higher criticism. Theology has become unmoored from its roots in history, and from Scripture itself. Modernist theology pushes the student away from the Word. The form of a systematics course should direct the student to the Word of God. (If it does not it is useless drivel). Scripture was not written the same way as a text on systematic theology, and even less like the clanging gongs of modernism with PhD’s or ThD's behind their names. The form of properly done theology may differ from the poetry and prose of the Bible, but the presentation of things surely believed by us because they're in our Bibles remains the same.

Theology is criticized as a "theoretical science" only secondarily practical or applied. It is the product of erudite limb-sawyers sitting on the wrong end of the branch. It is possible to do theology without knowing anything about the God of the Bible. It is also possible to theologize how the Church should respond to ever changing issues in the world at large and still have no Biblical basis for our doctrine.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a theological construct. You might be able to call it theoretical since the term is not in the Bible. That does not mean, however, that the concept is not biblical since the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all revealed as manifestations of the One God in the Bible. The Trinity is a historically based revelation. We do not condemn the Church councils for giving us the creeds of Christendom just because they had to use science to arrive at their goals. Our theology, as theirs was, is based on the historical records set forth in the Bible, and our doctrine of the Trinity proceeds from it. Our theology is derivative, but certainly no less important than the record from which it is taken.

Leithart's condemnation of theology uses theology to do so. None of us can escape theology. In the same way that every man is a philosopher, so every man is a theologizer. It is part of our nature to think about things, even to delve into things we really should leave alone. The race of Adam has a quest for the eternal branded in its soul. Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Atheist, or Agnostic, we all are in pursuit of the spiritual missing link, and we all seek a path that guides our daily lives. That is our theology. It may not be a Christian theology, but it is a quest for the eternal. Leithart charges theology with being the product of Christianity, and therefore it is only good for the "timeless truths" in the soul of man. But there, he says, is the real problem: If we are dealing with "timeless truths" than theology has no value for the temporal. It is unable to give us answers for our daily lives. But I have already said that theology is derivative. It is a distillation of what we find in the historical records of the Bible, and it is therefore fully capable of answering our historical lives. Theology is historical truth strained, boiled down, and served in its potency at the point where its medicine is needed the most.

Leithart assumes a modernist approach to theology. After centuries of rationalism and higher criticism being applied to the Bible the assumption is understandable. Modernist theology has been separated from its biblical foundations, but not justifiably. In reality, theology is everything we do, say and believe about any subject as directed by a life-long study of God's written Word. It is whole-life, and organic, growing out of the soil of our lives, nurtured by the fertilizer of diligently searching the Scriptures. Real theology, Christian theology, is Biblical theology. It is Scriptural. It is Practical. It is Historical. It is not noumenal otherworldly nonsense, nor this-worldly philosophy. Theology that stops living on its biblical foundations is nothing more than Christianized philosophy. That appears to be Leithart's real argument: that theology has become separated from the biblical environment from which it was birthed. He says (p. 50):

Before it begins to listen to God's word, modern theology has already decided what the word can and cannot say. This is not only suicide. As Barth discerned, it is disobedience.

While Karl Barth certainly was right on this point, quoting him (a neo-orthodox theologian) is a part of the problem. That is like asking Karl Marx to explain the value of the free market. It nurtures respect for the same madmen that we want to rescue theology from. Leithart's writings are filled with the importance of modern/postmodern philosophers like Heidegger (the National Socialist) and Paul Tillich (the Christian atheist). Theology is not the problem. Philosophy masquerading as a Word from God is the problem.

Leithart (p. 51) disdains theology for using "specialized, professional language, often employing obscure (Latin and Greek) terms", while the language of the Bible is that of "trees and stars, about donkeys and barren women, about kings and queens and carpenters." Earlier I charged Leithart with being a polemicist, but here he becomes a propagandist for his pet hatred. Actually, he has used plenty of specialized terms himself. In the first chapter he gave us ekklesia, oikos, polis, paideia, and politeuma. In this chapter he gives us ontos, ontology, typology, etc. That the Bible is about more than trees, stars and donkeys is obvious from some of Paul's "specialized language": propitiation, reconciliation, justification, imputation, glorification. Theological language if it ever existed. And that's all found in just one book of the New Testament. Which by the way, was written in Greek.

Again quoting Leithart (p.51), "The Bible tells us that God relents because He is God (Joel 2:13-14)". This is the deceptive use of a thrush! The very term "relent" is a theological term and came into our Bibles from the translators of the King James Version. They used it instead of the more regular term "repent" because they did not feel comfortable with that term applied to God. In reality, both terms would have been better translated as "turn". It's hard to have a problem with God turning, which is what the Hebrew word shuv means.

Augustine is the source of our failure to stay with the simplicity of the Word. Leithart rightly states that Augustine put theology on the same level as the pagan philosophers in an attempt to show its superiority to them. In doing so, Augustine brought the church down to the level of a philosophical school (p. 52). His error was placing philosophy above poetry or civics, thus lifting it to the level of the "timeless truths" earlier discussed. That opened the door for pagan philosophy to enter the Church. The Apostle Paul did not meet paganism on the level that Augustine later did. On Mars Hill he presented his argument first with a reference to the poetry of the Stoics and Epicureans (as quoted in Acts 17:28), maintaining them as merely Greek literature. Augustine's attempt to meet philosophy on its own terms was a noble attempt, but does not stand the test of time unless we remember that the superiority of theology is in its Scriptural authority. If, as Leithart says in his footnote 5, (p.52), that philosophy and ethics/civics are coterminus, then they fall together before the Sword of the Lord in the hands of the Biblical theologian.

Leithart presents a two-fold solution to the problem of theology divorced from its biblical foundations. He arrives at the first in a confusing and circuitous way, but basically he says the Church must remember that we have a story of our own. We do not need to depend on philosophy to give us something to believe in. We need to recall our own myths and celebrate them as the unifiers of our Christian heritage. Every ancient culture had its myths which were the catalyst holding the community in unity. Patristic Christianity held the community together using myth as well; Christianized tales for people who could not read the Bible for themselves. Of course, the Catholic Church loved this and maintained it as the status quo position for commoners. (To misquote John Lennon, "Power to the Priesthood, Right On!")

I have a lot of disagreements with Leithart on this approach, mainly because I don't see the Gospel as myth, and I don't think we are held together by anything other than the authority of the Word of God. Second, to return to myth is to return to Catholicism, to medievalism and ultimately to paganism. On the other hand, I agree whole-heartedly that the Church needs to remember who She is! We don't need to add other cultures, values, and stories, to our own. Our sufficiency is the Gospel, our source is Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures Alone), and our King is Jesus Christ who rules from the heavens even now. We are the bride of the King, all-glorious if we will let Him have His way with us (as any good wife would). That is our story. We need no myth, no fairytales or allegories; we need no new typology. Christ has fulfilled the type and is the reality working in our lives, recreating us in His own image.

The early Church made it her mission to instruct, following in Jesus' footsteps. This is evident from the book of Acts. Besides several full-text sermons of Peter, Paul and the other Apostles, we find numerous references to the importance of teaching doctrine as the essence of the early Church's mission. (Acts 2:42; 4:2, 18; 5:19-21, 25, 28, 42; 6:2-4; 8:4, 5, 30-35; 9:20-22; 11:25-26; 12:24; 13:1, 42-44, 48,49; 14:1, 12ff., 21-22; 15:35, 41; 17:1-3, 10-11, 17-18; 18:11, 24-26, 28; 19:8-10; 20:7, 9, 11, 25-32; 28:23, 30-31.) This same theme of doctrinal instruction is consistent throughout the epistles in the New Testament. (Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 12:28, 29; Eph 4:11-12; 1 Tim 2:12; 3:2; 4:13, 16; 5:17; 6:3-4; 2 Tim 2:15, 23-25; 3:10, 16; 4:1-4 [doctrine vs. fables]; v.13; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 15; James 3:1; 2 Pet 3:15-16; 2 Jn vs. 9, 10; Rev 2:14-16, 20.)

Rather than hunting for a new mythology, or trying to piece together a story that rightly belongs to the Church, we would do better returning to Biblical instruction. Today's version of teaching either consists of Sunday School pabulum, or "higher education" (i.e., indoctrination) at a denominational breeding ground. Augustine was right about one thing: the Church is a teaching institution (Hebrews 6:1-3). The Church follows in the footsteps of ancient Israel by teaching the Law of God (Deut. 6:4-7). Nothing is more incontrovertible than that the Church is a school proclaiming the message, laws and teachings of God. Teaching is doctrine. Doctrine is theology. Theology is the Word about God.

The second part of Leithart's solution to the angst of modernist theology is a return to proper worship. Worship is more than just singing a few songs before the sermon. It certainly is not the nonparticipation of the laity in a highly Latinized ceremony, or the mere hand waving of a Christian rock concert. Worship is the whole experience of the congregation regularly united around the common themes of our ordinances, confessions, creeds, psalms and songs, and ministry of the Word of God. Worship is the liturgy (pattern) of a people regularly brought together in faith. The word liturgy is from the Greek leitourgia, meaning "the work of the laity", or "the work of the people". It is the particular patterns of ritual and service that are customary in the local Church, and the congregational response to those patterns.

Our liturgy, or pattern of worship, has been the cast for molding the people of God from the Church in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron to the present. The Psalms were the hymn book of the Old Testament. They continue to have a prominent role in Worship, with the addition of several confessions and songs taken from the New Testament. There is more about worship in the Apocalypse of John than there is about end time events. The whole book revolves around a heavenly worship service. As the liturgy of heaven progresses through the Apocalypse, so do the judgments on earth follow. Therein we see the authority of our Worship to conform us into the image of Christ, and to deliver us from our enemies. This approach should challenge the believer to re-read the Apocalypse from a new perspective - one that is far more heavenly oriented. Our worship, our liturgy here on earth is literally a reflection of the worship in heaven. It fulfills Jesus' model prayer in Matt 6:9-10 (KJV): "After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as [it is] in heaven." Worship teaches us how to live the life of heaven on this earth (Deut 11:21).

Leithart lists five practical things that worship teaches us. Worship is 1) History Class, 2) Language Class, 3) Training in godliness, 4) Political Science, and 5) Psychology Class. He says on the first point "Worship is remembering and celebrating God's saving acts and therefore worship is history class." (P. 72.) The Israelites who came out of Egypt were commanded by Moses to remind themselves and all future generations of the deliverance from Egypt that created the nation. The Church reminds herself weekly of the deliverance from Egypt that created us when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and arose from the dead for our justification. We have already spent much time looking at the Acts of the Apostles. Interestingly, every major speech of the Apostles recorded in the book of Acts reminds the hearers of God's saving history on behalf of ancient Israel and the Church. The Apostles were masters at retelling, because they knew the history could not be ignored the way we can ignore philosophy.

Worship is language class and it trains us in godliness. It is not normal for the new convert to understand immediately what has transpired in his life. Through continued reading, singing, and confession of one's new faith along with other believers, the new convert grows in his relationship to God. He begins to use the language that God has prescribed for His people. He begins to express with his own heart and lips and actions the things that he hears taught to him by his teachers. As a result he begins to understand and assimilate godly attitudes as well. His life and habits change as he is transformed daily into the image of Christ and changed from the man left behind on the cross. Language and life are renewed by our worship.

Worship is political science. This is precisely what my point was above in discussing the Apocalypse of John. Our liturgy is the regular pattern of entering the throne room of the King of kings and realizing that the kingdoms of this world cast their crowns down before Him. Our allegiance is not to Caesar, but to Christ. The kingdoms of this world HAVE become the kingdoms of our Lord. He owns them, and just as Rome fell before His glory, so will every nation that fails allegiance to Him. This is our politics, for we are the body politic of Heaven. Through our worship we enter with heaven in the judgment of this earth. First Peter 2:9-10 (KJV) says "But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past [were] not a people, but [are] now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy". (Cf. Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:6.)

Worship is psychology class. The Psalms of the Bible should be a regular part of our worship, however we incorporate them (see Leithart's very practical footnote on the use of the psalms in regular worship, pp.74-75). It is in the psalms that we identify our struggles as common with all God's people. To quote Dr. Leithart (p. 74):

The Psalms are also a textbook of prayer, frequently employing language that is unnerving in its vehemence. Psalms indicate that an overwhelming desire for justice should animate our prayers, that we should express our disappointments with honesty, that prayer is not "quiet time" but a time of wrestling and passion. Contemporary hymnology, by contrast, gives us words for a small segment of our experience, the happy, fluffy, light experiences of life. If we are trained in prayer by contemporary praise choruses, when we face the pains and tests of life, we will lack the vocabulary to name them.

There is a reason why the psalms have endured as the prayer book of the Church from ancient Israel to the present. In them we discover our own hearts and souls exposed, our joys, and pains, our angers and fears, our love and our hate, our sense of justice and judgment, and of undeserved mercy, our awareness of the callous wickedness of others and of the waywardness of our own lives. We realize that there is nothing wrong with being an emotional people but we also learn how to direct our emotions so that we are manifesting the ethics of the Kingdom of God. We learn that in some respects, true faith is a debate with God, since we don't understand all things, but we know we can go before him without condemnation, with questioning submission to his will, and confidence that he will answer us in due time.

Theology has been separated from its Biblical foundations over the course of the modern world. But that is no reason to reject or oppose it. Rather, it is our responsibility to return it to the foundation. We do that through regular study of the Word and through corporate and personal devotion to God through worship. Doing these things, we will grow in true theology which is the Revelation, (the Apocalypse), of God. We grow in that which overcomes this world, even our faith.


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


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