Getting Leithart (edited)

Jon Barlow says something that needs to be said:

It has been interesting to read through the trial transcript of the Leithart trial. I haven’t finished reading it all, so perhaps I’ve missed it, but one of the things I simply assumed, since people in Peter’s presbytery would know him better than most of the internet critics, is that they would home in on the key insight of his theology. In what I read so far, however, I still found the crude “parallel soteriology” allegations that plague most other attempts to understand what Peter is getting at.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the key to Peter’s theology is his relational ontology. In other words, we are social beings – our “in relation”-ness is part of our very being. This is why Peter’s theology of baptism has the appearance of saying more than a lot of people are comfortable with about the sacrament. A person, prior to church relationship, is different (ontologically, even) from that same person, after being brought into the church. Peter is willing to speak in traditional language when needed, but he pushes back against traditional “inside” vs. “outside” language because that isn’t the key power of the sacrament for him – changing someone’s insides. A person is a social being. Baptism is a receptor site for the society of the church. Therefore, baptism changes the person – gives them new responsibilities, new relationships with the head of the church.

If we are social beings and social changes result in changes to who we are, then everything else Peter says about baptism follows nicely. I’m not saying he has a deductive theology. But it does seem like he has a philosophical insight about anthropology that can’t help but inform his exegesis and other theologizing. If “relational ontology” wasn’t on trial, then Peter Leithart’s theology wasn’t on trial.

I’ll add my own observations. Peter Leithart’s understanding is genuinely new in several ways, while within the Reformed tradition. But, within that tradition, Leithart has an obvious close relative: Ulrich Zwingli. (Note look in comments, when I have time, for more nuance. See Pastor Nolder’s question for a starting point)

Leithart is a rehabilitator of Zwinglian sacraments. Unlike Calvin, who with Luther and Trent, claimed that there was a substance in addition to the elements that was received by believers (and only by believers in Calvin’s view), for Leithart this is all unnecessary. Symbols are operative and performative. If a pastor marries a couple, one does not need to claim that some sort of mystical force is present to be joined to the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

I love Leithart’s relational ontology, but I’ve always found the more Calvinistic “dualism” in the sacraments to have an appeal. I can’t even say where I picked all this up about Peter. I think it came for more personal interaction a few years ago when I had such interaction. But on might look on what Leithart has to say about McCormack and Barth and Zwingli to see my point. Perhaps I am wrong and will learn better in the future.

Of course, in all of this, Leithart is obviously well within the bounds of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. I’m just saying that he is located within those bounds quite differently than many people seem to think.

5 thoughts on “Getting Leithart (edited)

  1. B Nolder

    Mark: PJL says in several places that he basically despises Zwingli and virtually pronounces him a heretic. How does that fit with what you are saying here?

  2. Dr. Michael Bauman

    I keep wondering when my Reformed brothers and sisters will realize that the greatest enemies of the faith are not found on the Reformed membership rolls. It seems Coleridge was right: We have more to fear from those who agree with us 95% than from those who do not agree with us at all. It is a point of deep embarrassment that Leithart is being tried by his friends instead of being honored by them.

    Please do remember the noetic effects of sin. We all make our way through a fallen world with fallen minds and twisted hearts. That means It’s easy to be wrong — a fact that includes us all — both Leithart and those who put him on trial.

  3. jon

    I think it all comes down to what we mean by “regeneration.” If by this word, we mean all of the metaphorical/metaphysical language Princetonians used “infusion of a new principle of life into the soul” then it would be impious to impute this to baptism without so may qualifications that it would be meaningless.


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