You can read for yourself Illiana Presbytery’s motion to have the SJC reconsider the Leithart case. I had a chance to read it before the Presbytery voted on it, and I thought it was very well done. It brings up a very important point, even an obvious one, which I had neglected to mention so far in the blog posts about the Leithart case, and that is simply this: the SJC decision did not actually address the substance of the complaint. The complaint was about the Presbytery exonerating someone who was not teaching biblically and confessionally. The SJC decision has for its one and only question whether the complainant proved the case. Whether the complainant proved the case is neither here nor there when it comes to the actual basis of a decision on the complaint, which must rest entirely on the record of the case. Therefore, what the SJC needed to do is to read the ROC with the sole purpose of determining whether PNWP did the right thing in exonerating Leithart. In other words, the SJC made the oral and written arguments of the prosecutor the basis of their decision, instead of the ROC.
April 12, 2013 at 8:33 am (Federal Vision)
Doug Wilson has weighed in on the controversy here. He makes two basic points, one to the critics of the FV, and one to the FV’ers. His point to the critics is that they should dial down the rhetoric against the FV because a court of the church has spoken. His point to the FV’ers is that they should become more careful with their terms in order to avoid confusion. Alas for Doug, neither point will be followed. This critic will certainly not dial down the rhetoric (although I try to avoid rhetoric, actually, preferring straight logic). And the FV’ers can’t help their use of terms, much. They delight in ambiguity and multivalency.
On the first point, even though a church court has spoken, that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it, nor does it mean that church court decisions are above criticism. Or will we start saying that Machen should just have stayed quiet and been a good boy? Not to mention Luther. There have been many already who have wished to use this decision of the SJC as a way of shutting up people like myself. This is ironic, when many of the people who voted for the decision in the SJC still think of the FV as being outside the boundaries of the confession.
This brings us to another important point to consider: the SJC would almost certainly not agree with Doug’s take on the decision (as vindicating Leithart’s theology so that it is within the boundaries). The SJC decision regards itself as ruling on a primarily procedural matter (that the complainant did not prove the case). The “damage control” clauses and paragraphs are certainly intended to go in this direction.
However, in another twist, I agree with Doug on the practical impact of the decision: that it pronounces Leithart’s theology as being within the boundaries. And the reason I say that is simple: why in the world would the SJC encourage PNWP and Leithart to work on clarity of expression and avoiding ambiguity, if the SJC were not pronouncing on the confessionality of Leithart’s theology? That paragraph in the decision gives the decided impression that the only real problem is ambiguity and misuse of terms, in other words, semantics. To put the matter in an even more pointed fashion, how can the SJC say that it is not pronouncing on Leithart’s theology, when that paragraph pronounces on Leithart’s theology? De jure, the SJC may be able to distance itself from Leithart’s theology. De facto, they have pronounced that Leithart is confessional, and yet careless with terms, and that he merely needs to clean up that little (!) problem.
This is now an edited version reflecting some recent conversations I have had, and, I believe, has a more accurate picture of the situation.
I am continuing to talk to people about the Leithart case (sometimes it seems like that is the only thing I am doing!). I am gaining a somewhat clearer picture of the situation, and if this post is seen as something of a mild corrective to the previous post, so be it. I still believe that the SJC decision is the wrong one, and I am still convinced that there was a way to reverse the PNWP decision.
What I want to address here is the polity of the PCA. When he of blessed memory, Jack Williamson, helped to write the BCO, fresh in his mind and in the minds of those with him were the ecclesiastical abuses of the PCUSA. So, Williamson and Co. set out to write a BCO that would prevent ecclesiastical abuse. This worked fairly well as long as the denomination was unified around the truth. However, what it wound up doing was creating some ambiguities, which, over time, have been interpreted by the SJC in certain directions. Certain terms are being interpreted extremely narrowly, like “constitutional.” The SJC now seems to be interpreting this term to mean “procedural,” as if doctrinal matters are not covered under the consideration of the constitution.
Furthermore, what we have in our denomination is centralized power located in the wrong place. It is located in the committees and agencies, rather than in the highest court. As a result of this, the presbyteries are pretty much autonomous. There is now really no way of disciplining rogue presbyteries as long as they follow the “procedure.” This is not Presbyterian polity. This is a hybrid of congregationalism and presbyterianism. It is presbyterian with regard to sessions and presbyteries, but congregationalist with regard to the relationship between presbyteries and general assembly. Only we like to call it “grass roots” Presbyterianism. At this point, looking back on it with hindsight, that is a bit like saying “congregationalist presbyterian.”
Is there any way of fixing this? I tend to doubt it. Attempts have been made, and have failed. Our fathers did not foresee the problems that would arise from this form of government. It seems that grass-roots Presbyterianism is a failure at polity. The ambiguity of our polity is to blame (at least partially) for this disaster. As I said before, I still think there was a way to correct the PNWP, even with our ambiguous polity. However, our ambiguous polity sure didn’t help. There are still sections, some of which have been brought up in the comments, that clearly allow the SJC to reverse the lower court’s decision.
Here is a copy of the decision in Word format for easier reading (the pdf’s are always a bit dim). This decision was written by friends of mine. I know who they are and I respect them, even though I deeply disagree with their decision. In short, I believe they selectively used the Book of Church Order, and failed to condemn erroneous opinion. What follows below is the decision in blockquote, and my commentary interspersed. You can read the summary of the facts yourselves, and I have no comments on them. I will start with the statement of the issue, Roman Numeral II.
II. STATEMENT OF THE ISSUE
Did the Complainant demonstrate, based on the record in this Case, that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery violated the Constitution of the PCA when it concluded that the accused was not guilty of holding and teaching views that are in conflict with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards?
It is important to realize that the basis for the decision must be the record of the case, not how well the prosecutor did in his job. So, the real question here is this: did the record of the case demonstrate that PNW Presbytery violated the constitution when it concluded that the accused was not guilty?
In the reasoning and opinion, the decision cites RAO 17-1, BCO 42-5, BCO 39-3.1 and BCO 39-2.4. I will not quote them in full, as they are in the document. I want to point out a couple of things in those very quotations that I think were ignored by the SJC. Firstly, the SJC needs to apply the Constitution of the church in resolving the matter (BCO 39-3.1). No doubt the SJC thinks that it did so. However, as we will see, it did so selectively. Secondly, there are provisions for a higher court reversing the lower court’s factual findings, and “matters of discretion and judgment:” there needs to be a clear error on the part of the lower court. Notice especially that this language is NOT limited to procedural matters only, but also to “matters of discretion and judgment.” Thirdly, the great deference normally shown to a lower court does not equally apply in matters concerning the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church. Does the Leithart case involve matters relating to the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church? It certainly does. The relationship of Leithart’s views with the Westminster Standards is most certainly a matter involving the interpretation, not only of Leithart’s views, but also of the Standards. So, in this case, the great deference normally shown to a lower court does not apply. There is clear error on the part of PNW Presbytery, and the case involves the interpretation of the Constitution, both very good reasons why the court should not defer to PNW Presbytery.
What follows is the first of several attempts to distance the SJC theologically from Leithart’s views. On the one hand, I believe these statements to be true expressions of the writers. On the other hand, since there is now no way of forcing Leithart to leave the denomination, this caveat is a bit moot. The horse is already out of the barn. It says, “In short, our review in this Case is constitutionally limited to the information developed in the Record dealing with this specific Case. Thus, nothing in our Decision or reasoning should be understood as rendering any judgment on any ‘school of thought’ within or without the PCA.” It is difficult, however, for this principle to be carried out, since the record of the case itself is chock full of information on one particular member of the school of thought known as the Federal Vision. Any ruling on the ROC is going to include an implicit ruling on the school of thought laid out in the ROC. Ruling on the ROC cannot be so easily separated from ruling on a school of thought.
What follows is the statement of the question as the decision sees it:
Our review could focus only on: (a) whether the Complainant demonstrated that the Presbytery committed procedural errors in its handling of this matter; (b) whether the Complainant demonstrated that Presbytery misunderstood TE Leithart’s views; and (c) whether the Complainant demonstrated that TE Leithart’s views are in conflict with the system of doctrine.
One procedural error that is not mentioned in this decision, but which should have been addressed is the failure of PNW Presbytery to condemn erroneous opinion (BCO 13-9f). This is a procedural matter. Even though the wording is that it has power to condemn, in context all the actions noted are actions that Presbytery is responsible for doing. So it is not just that it has the authority to do so, but also that it has the responsibility to do so, especially when it involves views that endanger the peace and purity of the denomination, and there are few opinions more dangerous to the peace and purity of the denomination than the Federal Vision. I have never seen anything so divisive. Secondly, there is a problem with letter b. We said above that the conditions of this case were such that great deference to the lower court is not required, and in fact should not be followed. Why is the SJC then claiming that the complainant has to demonstrate Presbytery’s misunderstanding of Leithart’s views? The basis for making a decision on whether PNW Presbytery erred is surely Leithart’s own writings, not what anyone’s opinion about them is. With letter c also, it is phrased in such a way as to suggest that the complainant has to do the proving. The ROC is what proves that Leithart’s views are out of accord with the Standards. On this particular issue, it wouldn’t matter whether the prosecutor proved anything. Even if (only to take the devil’s advocate position for a minute) the prosecutor did a complete slam dunk, the SJC still could only rule based on the ROC, not what the prosecutor derived or failed to derive from it.
It is my understanding that the Prosecutor did raise the procedural concern of failing to condemn erroneous opinions (BCO 13-9f). Therefore the following statement not only has an error of fact, but also one of judgment: “The Complainant raised no procedural concerns. Further, it is our conclusion that Presbytery carefully complied with all the procedural steps required by the Rules of Discipline.” All except condemning erroneous opinion.
The decision goes on to quote the Presbytery’s words in finding problems with Leithart’s teaching. I am a bit puzzled by this section of the decision. Why is PNW Presbytery’s recognition of problems in Leithart’s theology sufficient to get PNW Presbytery off the hook with regard to what they should or shouldn’t have done with Leithart? PNW Presbytery failed to condemn erroneous opinion. They noted problems, and then failed to do anything about it except mention it. This is not a condemnation of erroneous opinion. Whatever it is, it is not that.
One of the most important paragraphs is on the last page. I will quote it in full:
Presbytery’s Commission, however, concluded unanimously that the Prosecution did not prove TE Leithart’s guilt with regard to the five charges against him (hence the finding of “not guilty” on each of the five specifications) and, with regard to all the examples noted above (and other issues), TE Leithart’s differences with the Standards amounted to semantic differences. They noted that in his testimony that TE Leithart qualified many of his more provocative statements in ways that the Presbytery’s Commission concluded brought them into conformity with the Standards. In addition, the Presbytery’s Commission pointed out that TE Leithart expressly affirmed his subscription to specific statements in the Westminster Standards that were included in the indictment or raised during the trial. Presbytery overwhelmingly adopted the verdicts recommended by its Commission. We do not find that the Complainant provided sufficient evidence that TE Leithart’s statements affirming his subscription to the Standards were incredible or that Presbytery’s decision in finding TE Leithart “not guilty” of the five charges was in error.
There are several problems with this paragraph. First of all, as we have been noting before, there is much too much deference being paid here to the Presbytery’s opinion of what Leithart taught rather than to what Leithart actually said. The logic here seems to be that if the entire Presbytery says it, it must be true. Truth is not discovered by counting noses. The issue of whether Leithart qualified his statements in the trial is not to the point. He did not repent of any of his statements that were the most problematic. Affirmation of the standards is also irrelevant, since FV proponents understand something completely different by what the Standards say than what they actually say. All FV proponents have professed allegiance to the Standards at some point or other, with the possible exception of James Jordan. In the last sentence, we find the SJC basing part of their rationale on Leithart’s own evaluation of his innocence or guilt. Is a person on trial ever going to admit to guilt? There is more than sufficient evidence in the ROC to prove that Leithart’s statements affirming his subscription to the Standards are incredible. Again, the prosecutor doesn’t have to provide that if it is already in the ROC.
But the most problematic of all, and the paragraph that gives Leithart a pass theologically, is the second to last paragraph:
In light of our conclusions, we urge that Pacific Northwest Presbytery continue to encourage TE Leithart to take care that when he uses standard theological terms (such as baptism, justification, sanctification, efficacious, and arrabon) in non-standard ways that he make clear those differences in use and that he continue to clarify how his views in key areas are not in conflict with the Standards.
Implicit in this paragraph is the statement that Leithart’s views are not in conflict with the Standards. All Leithart needs to do, and all the Presbytery needs to do, is to continue to clarify how that is the case. That is all that is needed. There doesn’t need to be any repentance on Leithart for leading people astray by his aberrant views. There is no need for the Presbytery to repent of exonerating him. All that is needed is continued encouragement for the PNW Presbytery, aided by Leithart himself, to clarify and qualify his statements.
Lastly, we have the final paragraph, which is certainly intended as a damage control paragraph:
Finally, we reiterate that nothing in this Decision should be construed as addressing (or thereby endorsing) in general TE Leithart’s views, writings, teachings or pronouncements. The Decision is based on the specific issues raised in the indictment and the Record of the Case as developed at the trial. Our conclusion is simply that neither the prosecution nor the Complainant proved that TE Leithart’s views, as articulated at the trial or otherwise contained in the Record of the Case, violate the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.
Here’s the problem: the indictment and the ROC involve heavily Leithart’s views. How, then, can a decision based on the ROC be NOT addressing Leithart’s views? The ROC is nothing but a discussion of Leithart’s views! The specific issues raised in the indictment and the ROC are Leithart’s views. The bar is set too high here, as well. The complainant and the prosecution, in one sense, do not need to prove that Leithart’s views are out of accord, if the ROC clearly shows that. I am a biased witness, of course, in this matter, as I also said at the trial. But I do believe that my testimony alone is sufficient to prove the case. There were no holes in my research. Their conclusion is that there are no proofs anywhere that Leithart teaches anything contrary to the Standards, since my research, included in the ROC, brought together ALL the problematic quotations of Leithart. That constitutes no proof, according to this judgment.
And, by the way, just for the record, I only started reading Leithart’s works in earnest AFTER I was asked to be a witness in the case. Before I was asked to be a witness, I had read exactly 1 book and 2 articles of Leithart. Hardly a vendetta or an obsession with Leithart, contrary to some things that were said during the trial. No doubt, if I had not read more than Leithart himself recommended to me (which was only The Baptized Body and Priesthood of the Plebs), the defense would have countered by saying that I had not read widely enough in Leithart’s writings to justify being an expert witness. ___if you do, and ___if you don’t.
No doubt, many will say to me, “Who are you to judge the SJC, you little pipsqueak?” I cannot change the SJC’s decision. Nevertheless, courts of the church may err, and in this case, they certainly did. That is my opinion. To my readers, that is worth whatever they assign to my opinion. I am voicing my opinion. That’s all it is. I would heartily encourage the members of the SJC to repent of their decision. It is the wrong decision completely. In time, I pray, they will come to realize just how wrong this decision is. I invite any one of them to talk to me about this. I have already talked to some. And I still respect many of them. It is fortunate indeed that one wrong decision on a court case like this does not condemn us to Hell. The blood of Christ is much, much more powerful than that.
Normally, the Standing Judicial Commission sends a panel to hear a case (usually 3, but sometimes 5 or even 7). In the case of the Leithart trial complaint, the case was heard by the full court. That means that the decision is usually the final verdict, unless a motion (which has to be in order) has been filed to reconsider the case. If that happens, then the verdict will be treated as if it were a panel’s decision. That is what has happened in the Leithart case. The verdict is in, and the verdict is to reject the complaint that Pacific Northwest Presbytery erred in exonerating Leithart. That may be a bit hard to follow. PNW Presbytery exonerated Leithart in the trial. That decision was complained against. The complaint always goes first to the Presbytery, which in this case rejected the complaint. That complaint was then taken to the SJC. The SJC has now concurred with the PNW Presbytery. This is the final decision, since there has been no request for a reconsideration.
To say that I am disappointed in the decision would be a gross understatement. Aghast is more appropriate here. We are not talking about narrow Reformed versus broad Reformed. We are talking about evangelicalism versus what amounts to Roman Catholic teaching. At this point, it will not matter if the SJC decides to try to distance itself from Leithart’s theology. They will have allowed his theology to exist. This decision is completely and utterly wrong. The record of the case should have been enough all by itself to convince anyone truly confessional that Leithart’s theology does not fall within its boundaries. It does not fall within evangelicalism, let alone Reformed theology.
March 6, 2013 at 7:27 am (Federal Vision)
Today the case of the complaint regarding the Peter Leithart trial comes before the Standing Judicial Commission. Regardless of which side my readers think ought to win (and I’m sure there are those on both sides), it is a huge case with large ramifications for the denomination. Both sides ought to pray that God’s truth would triumph, and that His glory be made manifest, that God’s will (not MY will!) be done, and that the gospel would be paramount. Everyone, please pray about this. In my opinion, this is a far more important day than entire weeks of General Assembly have been for the past several years.
Posted by Bob Mattes
My intent was to write a series of posts about the trial once the Missouri Presbytery (MOP) released the trial transcripts. Providentially, I haven’t had time to follow-up in a timely manner. Also, the discussion on the previous post announcing the record release has proven fruitful and that took time.
When I was preparing to travel to St. Louis as a witness for the prosecution, I did not expect to be well received. MOP had already given a pass to TE Meyers several times, and I had no expectation that a trial would turn out any differently. I certainly didn’t go expecting to win a popularity contest.
In fact, I fully expected and was fully prepared to be “Keistered”. I coined that term to commemorate TE Lane Keister, owner of this blog, and the shameful treatment to which he was subjected in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery trial of TE Peter Leithart. Frankly, Lane was treated like a pagan invader rather than an ordained officer of the church. Shameful doesn’t really cover that travesty.
With that background, I am pleased to thank the bulk of the elders of Missouri Presbytery for their gracious reception. A number of elders readily extended the right hand of fellowship. I met a number of wonderful men, and was invited to break bread and share interesting conversation with a dear fellow elder. I’m not saying that they were happy for my reason for being there, but they overcame that unpleasant circumstance to show the love of Christ.
I would be remiss if I did not note the wonderful food prepared by the ladies of the church to support the trial. Well done and much appreciated.
Missouri Presbytery conducted the trial itself in an exemplary manner. Although I think that the time-limit rules, the rush to trial, and a few other pre-trial issues hurt the cause of seeking the truth (more on that in another post), I found the actual trial execution both fair and impartial. Moderator TE Bob Stuart, parliamentarian Steve Estock, clerk Dave Stain, etc., all performed their duties evenhandedly, showing no discernible deference.
The defense team, REs David Yates and Jon Barlow, also treated me with respect. Although I question the appropriateness of some of the defense tactics used in an ecclesiastic setting, at no time did they treat me with anything approaching disrespect. I very much appreciate that. Both defenders extended the right hand of fellowship, and I did the same to TE Meyers.
I also want to say how nice it was to see Dr. Will Barker, who testified for the defense. We see each other from time to time around the PCA, but not often – certainly not often enough. He and I had a delightful conversation while waiting to testify and then later during a break. I wish that we had opportunity to do that more often, and under more pleasant circumstances.
Overall, although I disagree with the inevitable outcome, I appreciate the godly decorum which pervaded the trial. It proved quite unlike the Leithart trial or even the last Wilkins examination, and I am personally grateful for that.
So Missouri Presbytery, thank you for your kind reception and gracious fellowship. May God continue to bless you and your ministries in the gospel.
Posted by Bob Mattes
Posted by Bob Mattes
The transcripts for TE Jeffrey Meyers trial in Missouri Presbytery, PCA, can be downloaded from this link. There’s a lot of reading there. I haven’t been through the transcripts yet. I’ll obviously have more to say as time goes on.
Stellman has opined on the relationship of his struggles with the Leithart case. There have been many who have attacked Stellman for being a less-than-enthusiastic prosecutor of Leithart. Others think that he has been entirely hypocritical. I don’t see any reason to think this at all. For one thing, it is entirely possible (I would argue probable) that he was merely struggling with the issues during the Leithart case. He wasn’t sure what his position was. If that were the case, it would hardly be worthwhile chucking everything out the window. And it is quite conceivable that he could simultaneously be struggling with Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide while believing that someone else who denied Sola Fide should not be in the PCA. Given that he came to that conclusion about himself (that he should not be in the PCA), it seems actually more than consistent. So, I don’t see why people seem to be saying that the Federal Vision has been vindicated. If anything, it has become less stable in its claim to be in line with the standards.
Take Leithart’s post as an example. He believes that confessionalists have elevated their paper pope of the confession to a similar level as the Pope. Leithart would classify himself as more of a biblicist. But (leaving aside the erroneous rhetoric about the paper pope) doesn’t this prove the point: Leithart is NOT operating from a confessional paradigm? He admits that he is not!
Doug Wilson’s post is a bit harder to parse. The problem I have with it is this: I don’t think Jason limited himself to ultra-confessionalists as his dialogue partners. He has loads of commenters on his blog who disagree with parts and/or with the majority of his theology. I think he was fairly well aware of the “broadness” of the Reformed faith. Of course, he was a confessionalist himself, no question. However, the fact that he listened to Romanists for quite a while seems to indicate to me that he is not, and was not naive. I am not defending his decision. That should be clear enough from the last post I wrote on the subject. I just don’t think exposure to the supposed “broadness” of the Reformed tradition would have helped Jason much, primarily because I think he already had that exposure.
I have emailed Jason concerning the actual reasons why he has taken this route, and what triggered it. I have not yet received a response (hardly surprising, given the absolute avalanche I am sure that his inbox is currently experiencing). I assume that explanations will be forthcoming. In the meantime, I encourage people not to speculate.
Peter Leithart has opined on the reasons why he has not crossed the
Rubicon, I mean Tiber. This post has generated considerable discussion, from the Romanists here, and from the Eastern Orthodox here, and from a Missouri Synod Lutheran here. Leithart has responded with an historical argument from the books of Kings here. That’s a lot of reading. The CTC folks, for instance, need to be reminded of what a blog post normally is.
I just want to make a few points about this discussion. Leithart says he agrees with the standard Protestant objections to Romanism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but that those reasons “are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant.” What he bypasses here is a fundamental historical point: if the standard reasons are not enough to keep us separated from Rome, then we should go back to Rome, because the Protestant schism was sinful! A quick glance at the reasons that Leithart adduces, and the way in which the Romanists tear Leithart’s arguments to shreds should be enough to convince us that Leithart’s reasons are not cogent. He argues from historical accidents. “Our past Christian experience” is a mere historical “accident,” is it not? It is hardly a compelling reason for staying away from Rome.
Besides, I wonder if Leithart really holds to a doctrine of justification that is antithetical to Rome’s doctrine. By including definitive sanctification in the structure of justification, Leithart blurs the boundaries between justification and sanctification. In one of his articles on justification, he even admits that in formulating the doctrine the way he does, he is trying to bridge the ecumenical gap with Rome. Make no mistake: if the Reformers were wrong on justification and the doctrine of Scripture, then we should go back to Rome. Only doctrinal reasons are sufficient to keep away from Rome. In other words, with Leithart compromising the doctrine of justification, it’s only a matter of time before the Tiber sounds pretty attractive.