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.

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.

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.”

It was too much to expect that the PCA GA would do anything about their Standing Judicial Commission’s shoot the messenger approach to the Complaints in the Leithart and Meyers trials. The Overtures asking the GA to take up these matters were ruled out of order (is that a polite way of saying, “blown off?”) by the Moderator. One blog has asked whether there is any accountability of the SJC to the GA. The answer is, “no.” Whether or not this outcome is correct according to the PCA Book of Church Order (I’ll leave it to BCO wizards to decide that), the PCA appears helpless if its SJC goes rogue. The way the Leithart case (and maybe the Meyers case) has turned out at the GA places a huge question mark over the notion of a Standing Judicial Commission at the broadest level of Presbyterianism. The PCA’s GA is not the highest court; a “sub-court” that may or may not be truly representative of the denomination is the highest court. The reasoning of Overture 19 is rather strong, showing that the SJC’s notion that they can’t overrule a Presbytery trial that appears to be conducted in a supposedly orderly fashion reduces the SJC to essentially a paper-shuffling committee. They look at a doctrinal trial, make sure everything is “in order,” ignore the constitutional questions, scold the complainant and move on. Might as well go ahead and make Presbytery rulings final!

All that is left is for a potentially silly (and I suppose, inevitable) process of appealing to the same court that already delivered the questionable rulings (very much like the futility of asking Pacific Northwest Presbytery to have the courage of their Westminster Confession). Another three Overtures seeking relief in the Leithart case have been referred to the SJC! How many times will this “eternal recurrence” of asking a court in the PCA to review something and the court responding, “yeah, we already reviewed this and we haven’t changed our mind” continue? The wheel may spin until good men tire of repulsing revisionist attacks upon Reformed theology. The PCA has a more fundamental problem of an essentially anti-confessional element firmly nestled in the denomination. That will be the subject of the next post in this series.

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.