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.

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.

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.

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.

… about the judgment according to works. Read it here. Sure beats worrying whether you’ve been good enough before you die. Or worse, you thought you were counted righteous in Christ, and that you loved Him and served Him in gratitude, but when you stand before the throne of judgment, it’s been a shell game all along, and what really counts is your own covenant faithfulness.