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


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?

He calls himself Baloney but that sure isn’t what he said:

Ironically, Leithart is more sectarian than catholic. All this pretense re: receiving the history of the catholic church as one’s own when so many of his theological views are idiosyncratic nonsense. He is not Roman, not Orthodox, not Lutheran, not Presbyterian. “Leithartism” is a great label.

Thanks Tony.

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.

The Christian Curmudgeon takes a stab at tracing the origin of the original “Truly Reformed.” The post makes for some light, diverting reading. What I find more interesting is how the current use of the term TR reflects the sad divisions within our Reformed churches. The reason there are those “bad guys” called TR’s is that we have all these different kinds of progressives who are going to push their agendas no matter what. Too often conflicts in the Reformed communion are reduced to a backward reaction of hateful throwbacks and hardliners, or dare I say, fundamentalists. But what if we question the assumption that it’s inherently righteous to move the ancient boundary markers? Is it possible that the Reformed churches are divided because we have men who passionately seek acceptance or at least a beachhead for various novel practices and doctrines? Of course!

So, taking a cue from the The Christian Curmudgeon, I’d like to define a TR via negativa. You’ve probably been called a “TR” if you stand athwart the road of history (à la Bill Buckley) and yell “STOP!” at the following agenda items:

1. The Federal Vision: The most recent revisionist program to take the Reformed churches by storm. The movement burst on the scene with the 2002 Auburn Ave. Pastor’s Conference with calls for a retooling and recasting of Reformed Theology. Yes, you heard that right, even though proponents often claim a strong historical pedigree for FV positions. Proponents are likely to call anyone a grumpy TR who isn’t comfortable with FV attacks on the Covenant of Works and their revisions of Justification, Election and Baptism. I’m still scratching my head about the popularity of the FV; why should Calvinists be excited about a movement that redefines the perseverance of the saints out of existence?

2. Paedocommunion: This movement is closely related in my mind to the FV even though they only partially overlap. Paedocommunion has been around longer than the FV, yet it is a relative novelty in Reformed history. In fact, John Calvin rejected it (Institutes, 4.16.30. So much for being more Calvin than the TR’s). Our Reformed fathers were surely aware of the notion but the historic confessions do not support it, especially the Westminster Standards. I’m still convinced that waiting until children can “examine themselves” is solid Biblically so it bothers me that some passionate paedocommunionists like to stir up discontent. I have observed that the zeal for paedocommunion in some circles leads not only to charges about grumpy TR’s (again) but a whole other level of attack. If you reject paedocommunion you starve God’s babies, excommunicate your children, teach your children to doubt and (worst of all?) sound like a Baptist (gasp!). In many ways the paedocommunion debate saddens me because it won’t end well. Certain paedocommunion proponents have already made it clear that they are very disappointed that the Reformed churches haven’t already joyfully adopted the practice. The goal of getting very young children to the table and bypassing that whole “let a man examine himself” thing will inevitably end in power plays. Either paedocommunionists create their own denominations (like the CREC) or they will push through revisions to church orders that aren’t really helpful (if they have the patience for that sort of churchmanship). Meanwhile, impatient paedocommunionists undermine the confessional nature of the church as they openly and loudly chafe under Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 171, 174 and 177.

3. New School/ New Life: I welcome the historians to correct me but I think the New School and New Life trajectories in American Presbyterianism are a good catchall for movements within Reformed bodies to quietly set aside doctrinal rigor and embrace experimental worship, revivalism, social activism, church growth techniques and broad evangelicalism. Here, you’re basically a grumpy TR if you’re uncomfortable with the definition of “Reformed” becoming so broad and diffuse that it doesn’t really mean anything.

Speaking of terms that don’t mean anything, I’d differ slightly with the Christian Curmudgeon.* The problem with the term TR is not that it lacks defining significance. The problem is that term is really a bogeyman; everybody who’s “hip and cool” in the Reformed tradition is defining themselves in opposition to TR’s. But, if TR’s are the ones holding firm on the historic Reformed distinctives found in our confessions of faith, who is really being divisive?

* Though I think he’s right in saying if it means anything, it means a hardline conservative.

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.”

… that’ll fit on a sticky note? It’s even a plan that would save the church money. Too bad it isn’t cool or impressive in the world’s eyes. From Darryl Hart:

The lesson may be that the PCA needs to go from being the Southern Baptist Convention to a truly Reformed church where ministers (even celebrated ones), congregations, presbyteries, and agencies all recognize that they are already partners in a common enterprise regulated by Presbyterian polity, Calvinist theology, and Reformed worship.

The PCA seems very far from this plan after observing this year’s GA. Sadly, the PCA has taken a step away from Reformed catholicity by tolerating two novel practices in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. They are Paedocommunion (the promotion of this view was allowed to stand in one presbytery) and intinction (a practice that appears widespread in the PCA and an amendment against the practice failed to come to the GA for a final vote. Too few presbyteries endorsed prohibition of the practice). These are just two of the contested issues this year. Well, I suppose many commissioners took to heart the sermon of the outgoing moderator: “Conservatives are mean, grumpy people who aren’t on board with what God is doing in the church today” [my summary]. You can find the sermon somewhere in here.

From Rick Phillips on the effort to prohibit intinction* in the Presbyterian Church in America:

It seems likely that this amendment is going to fail to achieve the necessary 2/3 of presbyteries to be approved, so that we will see the novelty of a Reformed Presbyterian denomination approving a procedure historically associated with the Roman Catholic Mass. What is more revealing, and to me discouraging, is the kind of argument being reported in presbytery after presbytery.

Typical arguments include the following:

“People doing intinction are just trying to reach people with the gospel. Why are we giving them a hard time?”

“What is wrong with the PCA that we even debate silly things like this?”

“Are we really going to say that brothers are wrong and force them to do things our way?”

There is, of course, no doctrine or practice that can be excluded under the above arguments, which it seems will carry the day in the PCA.

(emphasis added)

That last comment about the impossibility of excluding any practice hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. It’s now commonplace for sentimental arguments to sway Presbyterian bodies. Whatever celebrates diversity, whatever exalts “love” over common belief and practice, whatever is most “ecumenical” or “catholic,” tolerate these things. (Never mind that novel, unbiblical practices strike at Reformed catholicity). Deep irony rests in the fact that doctrinal and liturgical openness have the potential to destroy the soul of the PCA (and other Reformed bodies) before it becomes the big tent church the revisionist side desires.

True, there are more substantive arguments to be found (even if they ultimately fail) for the progressive positions in the Presbyterian world (eg. paedo-communion, “High Church” liturgy, drama-in-worship, deaconesses, religious images and artwork, recreation on the Lord’s Day). We should hope so, because there is no way one will differentiate a Reformed church from anything using the reasons Rick Phillips lists above.

* Intinction is the practice of dipping the bread into the wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.