Book Review: On Earth as in Heaven, by Peter J. Leithart
Peter J. Leithart, On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals. Lexham Press, 2022. 460 pages.
Almost every week I have conversations with church leaders on the state of Western culture and the church. Most, if not, all are less than positive.
Many rightly lament our deteriorating cultural environment that embraces norms that are not merely indifferent to Christian orthodoxy but are openly hostile to it. Others are rightly vexed by an American evangelicalism that seems riven by petty disputes, mired in scandal, and in search of an identity. Proposals for renewal are varied, diverse, and often in conflict with each other.
Into this milieu, Peter Leithart, no stranger to provocative theses, offers a manifesto of sorts—a bold idea that is not some new, catalytic, socio-political movement, but an embrace of the church’s mission. On Earth as in Heaven: Theopolis Fundamentals emerges from Leithart’s leadership of The Theopolis Institute, a Christian think tank and training center in Birmingham, Alabama. It is the city of God, the theopolis, that is the locus of God’s work in the world and must be the center of the Christian’s focus.
Leithart identifies his ideal reader, not only pastors and church leaders, but also laypeople who “attend worship at least once a week, but wonder if there isn’t more. . . [and] sense there’s something deeply wrong with today’s world, and you’re anxious for the future. But you don’t want to turn the clock back, you don’t want to stand with the doomsayers, and you think that politicization of Christianity does more harm than good.”
What Leithart delivers in the next 400 pages is a rich biblical theology and doctrine of the church. “The theopolitan vision is a view of the church and her role in the world. . . the church is an outpost of the future city of God. The city of God exists now, in the present as a real-life society among the societies of men. This real-world, visible community is the family of the Father, the body of the Son, the temple of the Spirit.” The church exists, writes, Leithart, “to transform and renew human societies, inside and out, top to bottom.”
To be sure, this is an overly expansive definition. Yet let me defend him first. Leithart isn’t a transformationalist in the sense that he’s calling for congregations to appropriate every social cause. Instead, he’s calling for a renewal of rich theology and true worship that transforms individual Christians into agents of change in their communities and within their specific callings. His focus begins on the church, not the nation.
Yet here’s the word of caution. Leithart’s view of the church’s mission roots in postmillennialism, which yields not just an optimism about the future, but risks placing an eschatological and redemptive burden on Christians’ work in the world. Further, this paradigm presupposes a world in which Spirit-filled, theologically rich, liturgically formed Christians will automatically be accepted into society and be able to enact positive social change. This has sometimes happened in church history. There are many places where faithful Christians have seen the fruit of their faithful witness result in flourishing societies and movements for justice.
But this is not always the case, and, what’s more, how quickly have we seen good work get undone as the futility imposed by the curse settles in again. Consider a house church in China, an underground church in Iran, or a congregation in Kenya threatened by terrorist networks, as just this last Sunday a Kenyan pastor testified about his own congregation while visiting a friend’s church in the States. And remember, Kenya is an evangelized nation, where seventy percent of the population professes Christianity.
So I would have liked to see a bit more instruction on how the priorities Leithart so rightly encourages in church life—liturgy, faithful preaching, fellowship—are met with opposition and even persecution where Christians have not been able to “transform societies top to bottom.” This is where I think post-millennialism tends to put a bit more burden of expectation on churches than a more chastened eschatology.
Those criticisms aside, there is much to commend in Leithart’s work here, as he seeks to recenter Christians on their primary task as members of both the local and universal church.
The book is divided into four sections: Theopolitan Vision, Theopolitican Reading, Theolopolitan Liturgy, and Theopolitan Mission.
THE CHURCH AS THE FUTURE OF THE CITY
For Leithart, the church’s primary work is worship. “Our practice and understanding of worship must be shaped by the whole Bible—from Genesis through Leviticus and Chronicles to Revelation. Worship should be saturated with Scripture.”
Though all credo-Baptists will diverge from his commitments to a paedo-baptism, and many will disagree with his spiritual presence view of the Lord’s Supper, all of us will cheer his exhortation to active, sacrificial, bodily participation of believers in local church life: “If you want to commune with your Creator, you are going to have to do it with other real men and women and children with real bodies and souls, who also want to commune with their Creator.”
To change the world, as it were, you don’t begin outside the four walls of the church; you begin when the people of God gather, worship, read Scripture, and are equipped for mission. “Your mundane, apparently pathetic little church is the greatest mystery in the universe.”
And yet Leithart’s vision isn’t a call to a narrow, unengaged piety. When the church rightly understands her mission, when she rightly worships, when she understands what it means to live out the mission of God, it should result in Christians moving through the city with gospel purpose, animated by their identity as citizens of another kingdom. “The early Christians,” Leithart writes, “believed their assemblies—their ekklesia—determined the future of the city where they assembled.”
Many chapters, with rich prose, trace important themes such as Adam, Eve, the world, and others through Scripture to give readers a robust vision of the Christian life.
On Earth as in Heaven specifically calls pastors to step into their vocations with courage and clarity, taking seriously their job to preach the Word faithfully and shepherd their people actively. “When the church has no shepherds,” he warns, “or weak, vacillating shepherds, she is prey to wolves, false shepherds, and dragons.” In Leithart’s formulation, pastors are “angels at the gate.” Pastors are commissioned, he writes, “to teach your church everything Jesus commanded.” Not merely the spiritual disciplines, but what it looks like to serve Christ in varied vocations Monday to Friday. The book fleshes out a doctrine of creation and a theology of making, connecting work life to the eternal mission of God.
A JOYFUL MISSION
All of this is wrapped not in ominous tones of cultural doom, as so many manifestos are, but in otherworldly joy. Leithart is animated by the church’s mission in the world as he walks through the Bible’s vision for the church, the family, and culture-making. Though a committed Presbyterian, he expresses a catholicity bound by orthodoxy, urging local congregations to find healthy cross-denominational partnerships where appropriate. He urges humble, intellectual pursuits: “A full curriculum for Bible readers quickly becomes a curriculum about everything under the sun and many things beyond the sun.”
If you are looking for a tome on the appropriate relationship between church and state, for a manual on political theology, or an ethics text, you’ll be disappointed. Leithart does see the church as the most important institution and social change springing from within her walls. “In the sanctuary-ark of the church, Jesus nourishes new forms of compassion, which, over the centuries, have transformed the world.”
On Earth as in Heaven is not the first word, nor the last, about spiritual and social renewal, but it is one that will be engaged for years to come.