Okay Peter! I’ll see your Stellman and raise you one Schlissel (updated)

2012/08/07

If it isn’t bad enough that Presbyterian pastor Jason Stellman has undergone a swift metamorphosis into a internet advocate for Protestants turning to Rome, we can look back at how Peter Leithart jumped on the chance to respond to such depressing news with more of the petulance and rhetorical luxuriousness that characterized the case for his defense at his ecclesiastical trial, now over a year old. Leithart seized upon his prosecutor’s implosion to make absurd, score-settling claims about how the Confessionalist critics of Leithart’s idiosyncratic and revisionist theological project are the ones really closer to Rome in their deference to tradition and, what is more, how Leithart’s theology is the antidote to Reformed defections to Rome. I say these assertions are absurd because for one thing, Leithart, in discussing his antidote, cites his use of the word “Eucharist,” his wearing a white robe while leading worship and his love of reading certain Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians. At best, such things are neither here nor there.

The irony of Leithart making Stellman’s sell out to the virtual hucksterism from Called To Communion a natural outcome of confessional fidelity is found in some of Stellman’s reasoning in a post at calledtocommunion.com. Stellman explains his giving up the Gospel, because,

As a Protestant minister, I had always operated under the assumption that the fullest treatment of the gospel, and of justification in particular, came from the apostle Paul, and that the rest of what the New Testament had to say on these issues should be filtered through him. But as I began to investigate again things that I had thought were long-settled for me, I began to discover just how problematic that hermeneutical approach really was. If justification by faith alone was indeed “the article on which the church stands or falls,” as Reformed theology claimed, then wouldn’t we expect it. to have been taught by Jesus himself, somewhere? Moreover, wouldn’t John have taught it, too? And Peter, and James? Shoot, wouldn’t Paul himself have taught the imputation of alien righteousness somewhere outside of just two of his thirteen epistles?”

He continues this thought, in part, this way:

Having realized that I was using a few select (and hermeneutically debatable) passages from Romans and Galatians as the filter through which I understood everything else the New Testament had to say about salvation, I began to conclude that such an approach was as arbitrary as it was irresponsible. I then sought to identify a paradigm, or simple statement of the gospel, that provided more explanatory value than Sola Fide did.

The striking thing about this line of reasoning, especially the bit about the “few select passages from Romans and Galatians” is that we’ve heard something quite similar years back from one of Leithart’s Federal Vision colleagues, Steve Schlissel. Schlissel opens his rebuttal of John Otis in their Federal Vision debate by challenging Otis to articulate Biblical Justification without reference to Romans and Galatians. Listen to Schlissel beginning @ 30:00. Schlissel originally delivered the spiel about an over-reliance on Romans and Galatians in the Federal Vision conference lectures in 2002 and 2003 at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, LA. I remember receiving a shock at hearing a purportedly Reformed pastor use such specious reasoning to downplay Justification by Faith Alone when I first listened to the Auburn conference tapes. Over the years, I haven’t heard a successful answer to the challenge that Schlissel needs to complain about a Reformed “reliance” on Romans and Galatians because Paul’s teaching in those epistles is decidedly inconvenient for his legalistic version of Justification.

Now to bring it all together, both Schlissel and Stellman will undoubtedly reply that I’m missing the point. The point, I’ll wager they’ll say, is that the historic Reformed doctrine of Justification ought to grow out of the entire Bible and not a “few select passages.” Sadly, I’m afraid that it’s difficult to miss a point that isn’t a point. In other words, Schlissel and Stellman are begging the exegetical question. For someone to announce that these epistles figure too prominently in the Protestant doctrine can be just as much evidence of an legalist’s epistemic need as it is an evidence of Protestant selectivity. What really comes out in this rhetorical construct is a side-stepping of what Paul actually says in Romans and Galatians. For instance, Paul says in Romans “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). If Schlissel and Stellman want to challenge the Reformed to discuss Justification from the whole Bible, a rich and lively tradition of Reformed reflection on the Bible is happy to oblige. Regrettably, Stellman and Schlissel are using a sophist’s trick, implying fallaciously that the Reformed doctrine is based only on carefully selected passages, while the rest of the Bible is supposedly ignored. Further, they want to say that the real doctrine of Justification grows out of the wider Biblical picture but this is a smoke screen to prevent the unwary from seeing how troublesome Paul’s doctrine is for both Schlissel’s legalistic formulation and Stellman’s newly embraced Roman Catholic doctrine.

For Leithart, the fact that Schlissel and Stellman use the same verbiage is also decidedly inconvenient. Leithart’s blustering triumph over his Confessionalist foes on the occasion of Stellman’s apostasy rings hollow when Stellman, rather than reasoning like a Confessionalist, joins a Federal Vision leader in committing a glaring non sequitur. Nice try, Dr. Leithart, but your “guilt by association” jab at confessional fidelity isn’t going to fly.

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One Response to “Okay Peter! I’ll see your Stellman and raise you one Schlissel (updated)”


  1. […] response to Jason Stellman’s defection to Rome (you can read my reductio of Leithart’s post here). The caricature of confessionalism stems from a number of misunderstandings. The confessions are […]


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