My general rule of thumb is that if Peter Leithart writes something, I read it.
And he writes a lot, so I’m kept busy. Leithart, president of the Theopolis Institute and adjunct senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, is an enigma to some. He doesn’t sit squarely in one tradition, which causes frustration for those trying to pin him down. Sometimes he sounds Reformed, other times Roman Catholic, other times postmodern, other times premodern. But he’s so well read in all these traditions that you can’t critique him for lack of thoughtfulness.
Leithart calls his newest offering, Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission, his “Big Red Book” about everything. For some, a book about everything would be rather narrow, but I knew that for Leithart everything means everything. So it was with much trepidation that I continued. But could this book about everything hold together?
He admits at the outset that the book is deliberately idiosyncratic but most like a treatise in systematic theology. Still, philosophical, anthropological, exegetical, historical, and typological reflections salt the systematic outline. Leithart’s focus is on the atonement—specifically its sociopolitical dimensions. Atonement theology, he argues, must be a social theory, since the salvation of human society is salvation in history.
Any theory of the atonement that doesn’t engage with the formation of social and political practices is lacking, Leithart contends. We must see the atonement in light of the whole gospel story. Indeed, atonement’s arms must reach into our ecclesiology, our sacramental theology, and our practices.
The main benefit of Delivered from the Elements of the World is meditating with Leithart on how Jesus disassembled and reassembled the world. Since the social dimensions of the atonement have long been ignored, Leithart is a guide leading us down an unworn path. In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of our former enslavement to the “elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:3). What does this mean, and how has Christ has overcome such things? Leithart’s answer is that the elements of the world are the fundamental socioreligious building blocks of the old creation in contrast to the new creation. Showing us the “social physics” inherent in the Bible, he provides a fresh way to weave atonement, justification, and mission together.
Persons outside of Christ (of whom he gives many ancient and modern examples) are under the elements of this world. Through his atonement, however, Jesus brings about a new pattern of life that’s liberated from slavery to these elements. Christ saved us not so we would be rescued from the flesh; he saved us so we would no longer walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
So the takeaway for me was a reminder that the atonement was not only theoretical but historical and actual, and its goal was social and political transformation of the whole creation by the power of the Spirit. Too often we get bogged down in theoretical discussions of the atonement. Leithart grounds it in history and life.
I also appreciate his application to a theology of mission and his focus on “keeping in ranks with the Spirit.” Leithart emphasizes mission as social reform where the church sets itself up as a different sacred space of the existing order. The church is to challenge the existing socioreligious arrangements of the world and rebuke the surrounding society.
Since this is Leithart’s “book about everything,” you get the typical Leithartian view on things: he has a high ecclesiology, attempts to unify Roman Catholics and the Reformed around the word “justification,” and hints at his views of the sacraments. He eschews the natural/supernatural paradigm and argues hard against the dualism that has seeped into so much of our theology. Although I resonate with much in the book, I will register a few points of disagreement.
Leithart presents a case for justification being a “deliverdict.” God’s judgment isn’t simply a legal verdict but is also effective and executive. This is meant to be a middle ground that affirms both Reformational and Catholic emphases. How can and should we respond to this argument?
While the idea that God’s righteousness is effective is certainly correct, it seems Leithart has made a category mistake. While it’s true that all who are justified are delivered, it doesn’t follow that “justification” means deliverance. He seems to be packing other true theology into the word “justification” by expanding the meaning of the term to a point the Scriptures don’t support.
Words still have distinct meanings within a semantic range. So while we can affirm the verdict is effective, the question still comes back to this: Does justification mean making righteous or declaring righteous? Leithart says both. But if justification is forensic, then “make righteous” doesn’t accord with the texts where it’s best understood as a declaration rather than a process.
On the Faithfulness of Christ
I’m also surprised Leithart takes the subjective genitive of Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:21–22. While I admit this problem cannot be solved by grammar alone, it’s telling that none of the early church fathers or Greek readers we know of takes a subjective reading of pistis christou. In addition, Paul often contrasts works and faith and ties it to pistis christou. Finally, there’s not a single unambiguous example of the word “faith” to describe Christ’s obedience.
While I appreciate Leithart’s reflection on the social and political dimensions and his emphasis on mission, on the whole Delivered from the Elements of the World seems uneven and too broad. I’m the first to champion more works that include philosophy, exegesis, systematic, and historical reflections, yet this book needed more coherence. There were points of brilliance, and the main thesis was on target, but overall I felt it was unbalanced. It seemed too far ranging, too unfocused, and sometimes as if the editors gave a pass to pieces that didn’t fit. It was difficult for me to walk out of 30 pages of dense exegesis into a fabricated role-play story of Saul conversing with an Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek about their worldviews (and then the end of the chapter have footnotes in the main text!).
At times I was confused where Leithart was going; at other times I was unsure why we were spending 10 pages on Aristotle. The confessedly idiosyncratic nature of the book was its biggest weakness. The danger in writing a book about everything is that it might turn out to be a book about nothing. That’s harsh—this is not a book about nothing—but at the end I was asking myself, What just happened? This could be my own failing as a reader, but I think a few others will have similar experiences. It was like Leithart tried to pack too much in his suitcase and push it through the TSA scanner when what was needed was only the essentials.