There goes Tullian Tchividjian under the bus! I can certainly wish that Greenbaggins would be one blog above cheapshots about some sort of, maybe, kind of connection between Tullian’s fall and his doctrine of sanctification. Lane Keister, after all, knows well what it’s like to go into the lion’s den and get utterly smeared by the PCA’s liberals. I hate to say it, but I think Lane has taken the line of poor taste and used Tullian’s personal flop as a chance to write off his views on sanctification. We get all we need from Lane’s piece– which is nothing. He doesn’t try to demonstrate a causal link between Tullian’s views and his affair because there isn’t one. It’s all very confusing and sad when a minister (especially a prominent one) falls into sin. But at another level it’s rather simple. Tullian certainly knows just as much as his critics that having an affair is wrong. He blew it. Do we really want to go this way? I mean, is every ministerial scandal an occasion for the poor chump’s ideological opponents to say “See, I told you so!”? Well somebody could bring up Mark Driscoll but the Mars Hill debacle is really about a long string of unforced errors.

Lane ought to remember that this same thing played out after Jason Stellman shocked his supporters and gratified his enemies by joining the false church of Rome. Failures like those of Tullian and Stellman just confirm that they were flawed men fighting for a good cause. It’s sad that their theology has to get the blame for their personal failures. We are witnessing that popular fallacy– the circumstantial ad hominem– in all it’s glory. Those of us who want to challenge burgeoning legalism in Reformed circles can’t give up before one of the classic cheapshots. We certainly have a lesson to learn here. Not the platitudes like “But for the grace of God go I” but rather “Vain is the help of man.” We feel the blow of Stellman’s sell-out and Tullian’s scandal just so far as we’ve bought into the folly that the justness of our cause depends on the spotless reputation of our point men. We might as well give in and join the legalists if outward appearance matters so much to us. After all, those who think they can stand before God in their own works are the masters of hypocrisy, the gurus of appearance. But that’s not what we stand for. We know man looks at the appearance but God looks at the heart and in that way we know we have to stand in Christ or fall in our works.

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Internet chat about the Federal Vision frequently goes off the rails because someone asks the loaded question, “Is it heresy?” Someone else invariably chomps on the bait and that someone’s alleged ignorance, lack of charity, lack of discretion, etc. takes the spotlight rather than the propriety of the FV. I do think the question, “Is it heresy?” isn’t as far fetched as many assume. Most confessional Reformed bodies have either handed down opinions against it or commended committee reports to the churches filled with trenchant critique of FV theology. The best of these reports is probably the one produced by the OPC in 2006. Denominational tolerance of the FV is limited to possibly the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (a young body formed to accommodate a novel take on Reformed theology). The PCA is boiling over the FV, but that’s only one of many internal controversies.

Here is how I once offered a corrective to the false dilemma that often derails debate over the FV:

My own view, avoiding the pitfall of “is it, is it not heresy,” is that it is a movement that has unnecessarily divided the Reformed churches through provocation, obfuscation and novel and bizarre formulations. Of course FV proponents say some good things. That’s not the issue at all. It’s the attacks upon the Cov. of Works, the Invisible/Visible church, the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and the positing of a bifurcated concept of Election (decretally elect/ covenantally elect subject to apostasy and hell fire). That’s just a partial list. I tend to think the FV has at best offered us a wobbly ride in a zealous effort to remake the wheel.

Revising a revision

2013/12/23

Whereas my original proposed revision wasn’t up to date with the internet age, and

Whereas so many dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are posted on the internet, and

Whereas many of said dynamic proposals for retooling and recasting Reformed theology are first enunciated at pastors conferences, along with critiques of conventional Reformed theology as hopelessly captive to Enlightenment Rationalism and other “isms” that Doug Wilson doesn’t like.

Therefore, be it resolved that my proposed revision be revised as follows (additions in italics):

Do you mostly receive and reservedly adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as sort of containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you promise that if at any time you find this system of doctrine out of accord with any of the fundamentals of your own system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your flock, pastors conferences and the internet the changes which need to take place in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms due to changes in your own views since the assumption of your ordination vow?

Peter Leithart has served up another excrement sandwich for those concerned about his controversial doctrinal formulations. Dr. Leithart, with copious name-dropping, has extolled the virtues of “Reformational catholicism” over plain old Protestantism. The latter is apparently the denizen of (among others) the “confessionalists” in his own denomination that took umbrage rather than applaud his comprehensive overhaul of Reformed theology in tandem with the Federal Vision “conversation” (by the way, everyone involved in the FV should consider Prof. Clark’s Form for the Confession of Sin). Leithart’s lopsided post (unless you’re Roman Catholic or Mainline Presbyterian) has already been expertly answered and also diagnosed as a symptom of More-Cosmopolitan-than-Thou. The post you are reading expands upon those blog entries to identify the Leithart Fallacy. This fallacy is really a cluster of muddled thinking and sophistry. Here is how you’ll know it when you see it (I remember Leithart’s colleagues in Presbytery claiming to know error when they see it, but that’s contested):

1.  First, combine a generous amount of straw man representations of Protestantism or Presbyterian confessionalists with outrageous imputations to the same.

2. Stir in fluff about how the “Reformational catholic” is so much more widely read, so sophisticated, so full of brotherly love across the unfortunate chasm separating Romanism and the “Reformational catholics” who seek rapprochement with Rome. Speaking of the divide Rome between Protestantism, Leithart’s piece presumptuously minimizes it and unfairly loads the blame for its continuation on Protestants (whom he doesn’t fairly represent). In contrast to Protestants, you’ll know the Reformational catholic’s savoir vivre and urbanity by the fact that he’s beyond reading Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, J. H. Thornwell and Jonathan Edwards and now loves Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers like Yves Congar and Alexander Schmemann. He has taken up distinctive ministerial attire similar to High Church Anglican, Mainline Methodist and Lutheran clerics in (and out of) worship, complete with clerical collar and accoutrements of varying colors to match seasons of the Church Year. He is so beyond the two-kingdom debate that he is certain that Constantinianism is the way to go (I suppose the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church is one of those unfortunate results of finding flaws with the Roman Communion, by which the pioneer Reformers risked the Papal Bull or the fiery stake).

3. Now for the main ingredient: Add the amorphous, vague “consensus” around “mere Christianity.” Say to your gauche fundamentalist friends “I answer to a higher power. Judge me not according to your weak, juvenile Protestant confessions. I stand in the strain of Orthodoxy with a capital O!” 

The main ingredient is where we find the principal error. “Orthodoxy” and “the Catholic Tradition” are grand abstractions unless tempered with some historical perspective. All Christians affirm the doctrines associated with this thing called “Orthodoxy” because if it means anything it means affirmation of the doctrinal advances of the great Ecumenical Councils, the historic, unifying statements about the doctrines of God and the person of Jesus Christ. These doctrines are vitally important and a great starting place for seeking agreement but the kind of common ground that Leithart imagines exists with his Roman brothers and sisters is a fantasy. Leithart styles himself as a vanguard of ecumenical development but isn’t joining the Roman Communion and dismisses the Reformed tradition as locked in anachronistic protest. We ought to consider instead the fuller confession to the two traditions to see if Leithart’s tertium quid offers more.

Rome and the Protestant churches have dogmas on many other points besides the resolutions of the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Rome and the Reformed churches have never reduced the teaching of the church to the Nicene Creed or the Definition of Chalcedon. So what is Leithart advocating? He emerges from this metamorphosis not readily Roman Catholic, not contentedly Reformed, but holding a distinctive trait of the Evangelicalism against which the Federal Vision overreacts. Evangelicalism necessarily reduces Christianity to the lowest doctrinal common denominator. Evangelicalism is where historic creeds and confessions are are minimized and replaced by sketchy laundry lists of doctrinal affirmations that can appeal to the widest constituency. The Evangelical world is where it’s spiritual success to please most of the people all of the time. That’s the kind of spiritual tradition that results from occupying the inevitably fluid middle. There are strange consequences for rejecting the Reformed faith for who-knows-what.

Do you mostly receive and reservedly adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as sort of containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you promise that if at any time you find this system of doctrine out of accord with any of the fundamentals of your own system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your flock the changes which need to take place in the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms due to changes in your own views since the assumption of your ordination vow?

I don’t think I could have said this any better so I will defer to a wise comment over at Greenbaggins. Here is an excellent run-down of why only those who just want Leithart off the hook can really be satisfied with the outcome of his trial:

The main arguments advanced by his supporters in the trial seem to be: “the PCA is too small already, we need to make sure the boundaries of what’s acceptable are large enough to include Leithart”, and “some reformed person at some time in history held one view similar to one of Leitharts, therefore he’s ok” (never mind the fact that finding someone who held to his system of doctrine would be difficult indeed, and that said view is contrary to the standards), and “our witnesses have more degrees than yours, please ignore the fact that they haven’t actually studied what he has written”. If those who support Leithart were loving of their confessional brothers in a Biblical manner, they would have at the trial demonstrated that a plain reading of Leithart and of the WCF (which we have all vowed is a faithful exposition of Scripture) are similar, rather than making the arguments that they did, and thus convince their confessional brethren of their error.

One thing I would add is that partly because Leithart’s defense counsel capitulated to the standards of secular courts did they spend so much effort flaunting the academic credentials of their witnesses (and their own) and playing presbyterian politics in the filth of personal destruction, especially the personal destruction of Lane Keister. Mark B. finishes strong, telling it like it is about the Leithart defense fund in the PCA:

Ask yourself this: Who are those decrying those who oppose the FV the loudest? Is it not those who would like to view our standards as something antiquated and restricting, who have to search for ways to show how they are in agreement with the standards, whose list of exceptions is almost as long as the confession, or who think that the WCF needs an update or rewritten, or maybe just CWAGA folk? Who are those who oppose the FV? Are they not those who see the WCF as faithfully summarizing what Scripture teaches? If we are a confessional denomination, how are we faithful to our vows?

Thanks, Mark B. Those following the judicial phase of the PCA’s FV woes should expect the outcome desired by the big-tent, latitudinarian, evangelicalism-friendly, Westminster-is-passé coalition. By all means pray, but I think it’s just sensible to expect the worst.

Bruce Terrell’s work as Moderator of the PCA General Assembly can’t be blamed for the contentious nature of the 41st. He didn’t help it either. Terrell looked hesitant, confused, lost, and waylaid throughout the debates on the floor. I don’t recall him showing confidence about the next item on the agenda even when the room was relatively calm. Terrell frequently had to redo votes, dismiss and then recall commissioners making motions and speeches, and reflexively turn to parliamentarians and the Stated Clerk for bailouts. He didn’t project understanding of how the GA works or more than a minimal understanding of Robert’s Rules. I was impressed with how humble and apologetic he was about all the confusion and inconvenience. He seems like a nice fellow. Granting that, I don’t see why he was nominated for the position. It’s common in Presbyterianism to honor servants of the church with nominations to lead church assemblies. Why not nominate men with some savvy in parliamentary procedure so that the church business will proceed with excellence? Or, at least with a minimum of embarrassment?

I’d like to imagine some of the commissioners were getting an uneasy feeling in the gut listening to the outgoing Moderator’s sermon. Dr. Michael Ross took the theme of making all things new and steered into conventional fare about how people inevitably lose the fire of their early days. “A convert becomes a conservative.” Yet, this hackneyed theme soon bared its fangs at a segment of the room. Then came the stuff about conservatives as shrill, unloving curmudgeons who defensively react against change. They also aren’t very welcoming. In case some of his listeners were looking for a way of escape, he denounced the straw man of liberals out in the world. He then said, “I doubt sincerely that there is even one progressive, as they like to be called today, in this room this evening. We are conservative people.”

Dr. Ross’ selective scolding starts from poor exegesis. He made an erroneous application of Isaiah 48. It is an abuse of Scripture to make “God making all things new” into a Hegelian justification of new church initiatives and expanding doctrinal boundaries. One would expect that Ross would reject this characterization. And well he should. He should also reject the sloganeering popular with theological liberals for at least 200 years!

The thing that really makes me uncomfortable with Ross’ sermon is that this “God is always doing something new” bit will be painfully familiar to those of us who have already had to leave denominations that have decided that confessional Reformed theology is passé. I was once a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. I remember well that the apologists for that church’s progressive agenda frequently appealed to the Holy Spirit and the New Creation motif as that denomination made its final descent into confessional anarchy in the mid to late nineties. I was even told by one of my pastors, as the consistory forced pop-evangelical worship down the throats of the confessionalists, that the elders were just trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit!

So Mike Ross wants to warn you conservatives in the PCA that conservatism has its dark side. Never mind that liberalism has a dark side, or rather is the dark side! Yes, there is the false humility and self-correction of “I may be wrong and I may be unkind.” If only we’d stop and think about what we’re saying. Ross dismissed the straw man of liberals out in the world only to make a straw man of conservatism and miss the reality of liberalism in the church altogether! If you have to say “I may be wrong and I may be unkind” you’re probably both.

One rebuttal to the call for confessional integrity in Presbyterianism runs something like this: “Insistence on confessional conformity makes the confessions supreme, even over the Bible.” The confessionalist straw man may not appear more blinged out than in Peter Leithart’s 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 held as an agreed upon interpretation of Scripture, not as an addition to Scripture. The confessions are subordinate standards, subject to revision and there are channels for such revision (if only Presbyterians who complain about the confessions would make use of these channels). This is all good, but those within the Reformed churches who believe that the confessions are passé too quickly put the burden of proof on those who hold to the confessions without a thousand qualifications. It’s as though the confessions appeared out of nowhere, swooping down and closing shop on a happy latitudinarianism.*

Oh, how to describe those who desire plenty of wiggle room in confessional subscription? Post-confessionalists or post-confessional confessionalists? Frankly, it’s hard to describe people who freely demur from confessions to which they vowed agreement. Whatever they are, they have their own issues. Men are content to subscribe to documents to which they are not meaningfully agreed. Then they ask the church to tolerate their confused state. I don’t think that’s a good model for ministry.

I want to say that the confessions are living documents. I don’t mean in the sense that relativism reigns and that they can receive free reinterpretation because time has passed at certain intervals. I call the confessions living documents because they are held as the summary of our faith today, no matter how old they are. They are also living in the sense that our long dead Christian brothers who composed the confessions are yet alive in Christ. God is the God of the living. I wonder what would happen if we really thought about this confessional catholicity. Maybe it would prevent so many discontented elders giving only a superficial nod to their confessional standards.


* Latitudinarianism originally described Church of England leaders who emphasized reason over divine authority. I use it in the modern sense of freedom of thought in religious matters; it’s relevant in describing those in Reformed churches who want to think outside the “confessional box.”

Someone seeking a statement of what Presbyterians believe in our time can’t be blamed for running into some confusion. Looking at a spectrum, one side will have the Presbyterian Church(USA) with their Book of Confessions. Not only is the large number of confessions from different times and places in itself daunting, the mainline Presbyterian Church of today really has little regard for the older confessions. Let’s face it, even the Confession of 1967 grows old in PCUSA years.

The opposite side of Presbyterian definition shows up in smaller, staunchly conservative Presbyterian churches. These bodies are likely to see the Westminster Standards as a singular achievement in the history of the church. Even so, some small Presbyterian bodies will readily admit that confessional revision is necessary. Those churches that consider themselves American Presbyterian will have a revised Westminster, especially on the relation of church and state.

The Presbyterian Church in America is somewhere in between. The church contains men who cherish the Westminster Standards as an excellent summary of the Bible’s teaching. It also contains men who, while not theological liberals in the classic sense, declare the Westminster Standards passé. Dr. Robert Rayburn of Tacoma, WA is an example of this latter type. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Rayburn has taken such an active role in defending Federal Vision thinkers in the PCA and that he openly expresses deep dissatisfaction with the Westminster Standards. He has, in his defense testimony in the Meyers case, said the following:

So there’s all of that, but gentlemen,
we’re in a period of transition. Our 350-year run
with the Westminster Standards is coming to an end.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s inevitable. You got to
take — you got to accumulate the learning of the last
long period of time to get you incorporated into the
way in which you’re thinking about. That. [sic]

Meyer’s Trial Transcript, Part 2, pp. 103-104.

Dr. Rayburn isn’t content to wistfully foresee the eventual retirement of Westminster. Readers of his church’s newsletter “Words of Faith” would have recently received a series of articles by Dr. Rayburn thoroughly criticizing the Westminster Standards. It is important to look at the incoherence faced by a person desiring to know what Dr. Rayburn’s congregation believes. On the one hand one will find the Westminster Confession under “Doctrine” on the church website. On the other, you’ll have the pastor deprecating the Westminster Standards in the pulpit, in the newsletter and elsewhere.

Many PCAers adhere to “system subscription:” the idea that there is a “Confession” within the Westminster Confession; that office bearers are welcome to eclectically take or leave statements in their doctrinal standards; that office bearers can teach their congregations that the so-called Confession of Faith is the confession of a distant time and not our own. Such ideas are bound to have consequences. Of all the theories as to why the PCA is divided, the theory that makes sense to me is that its doctrinal standards are increasingly inoperative. This results naturally in doctrinal provincialism, litigiousness, and even anarchy. We’re talking more than an exception here and there, a scruple with this or that formulation; we’re talking a fundamental rejection. Is the best many PCA office holders can say for their confessional identity, “I was for Westminster before I was against it?”