Receiving Rebuke

There is an issue in the blogosphere (and not only here!) that needs addressing. It is rather pressing. I have seen it over and over on my blog. No doubt many who read this post will think, “Physician, heal thyself!” Some who are less charitable might be thinking, “You two-faced hypocrite!” I will attempt to forestall such thinking by admitting that I am the first person who needs to heed Scripture on this, and that I often fail. By God’s grace, I do not always fail. I have admitted mistakes on the blog before when they have been pointed out. But there is no doubt that I can do better. Please (and most especially if you hate my guts!) pray that I will do better about that. So I am preaching to myself first, folks.

The problem to which I refer is the problem of people not receiving correction very well. There can be a number of reasons for this. Undoubtedly the first and foremost problem is pride: Rule 1- I am always right. Rule 2- If I am not right, see Rule 1.

Pride can be present for a number of reasons. One is that God has given some people many gifts, and it is easy to be very complacent (not to say proprietary!) in our contemplation of those gifts. A second reason we are often proud is that sometimes we are often correct. And when we are, we can often think that our personal worth is tied up in being right. That harmful unity of self-worth and correctness must be severed. Contrary to what we might think, it is not the end of the world if we are wrong. It does not mean that we are worth less (or worthless, for that matter!) if we are incorrect on something. It does mean we are human.

Proverbs 9:8 is critical here. I will put it up in several translations:

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you (ESV). Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you (HCSB). So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. But correct the wise, and they will love you (NLT). A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you (NRSV).

One could go so far as to say this: if there is one Bible verse that is being ignored/transgressed more often than any other in the blogosphere, this would have to be that verse. At the very least, it would have to rank pretty high up there. The reason we ignore this verse is because we think that disagreement equals personal attack, and that rebuke is an even worse assault. But the verse says that part of wisdom is receiving rebuke well. It means that rebuke does not immediately send the wise man into ecstasies of thin-skinned apoplectic rage. Instead, the first question a wise man asks himself upon receiving rebuke is this: “Despite my initially irritated response, is there any merit to this rebuke? Is there any way that I can put myself into the other person’s shoes, see it from their angle, and acknowledge that there might be something in this?”

Full disclosure: to a certain extent, I am writing this post out of a strong sense of self-preservation. The amount of moderation might be significantly reduced if we all took Proverbs 9:8 to heart! And then my blood-pressure might return to normal, and the stress level lessen, and I might worry a bit less about what happens here at the GB.

Embracing Kantian Divides in the PCA

Overture 22 is asking a question that embraces the Kantian divide. What do I mean by this somewhat cryptic comment? The overture asks for a study committee on whether a person can hold to women’s ordination as an exception while agreeing not to practice it. The Kantian divide is the idea that what we believe is in a completely different realm from what we do. Put another way, the realm of belief is not an object of knowledge in the way that the realm of what we see is. We can’t know what is “up there” in terms of belief. We can only have faith. We can have knowledge about the world that we see. That is the Kantian divide: stuff “up there” can only be believed, whereas stuff “down here” can be known. Kant wound up with the categorical imperative: It has resulted in many other divides that have been hurtful not only to the church, but even to entire fields of knowledge. It has resulted in the increasing fragmentation of knowledge.

The overture asks if we can allow someone to hold to a belief without practicing it. The very question of whether we can do that on any issue is a highly problematic assumption that is not spelled out in the overture. The Puritans would never have dreamed of separating doctrine and practice in this way. The apostle Paul makes it crystal clear that the commands for us to do something are always based on doctrine. The imperative (the command) is always based on the indicative (what has already happened in Christ). Overture 22 would separate this biblical connection, and allow us to hold a belief that we agree not to practice.

Of course, the other major example of this in the PCA is the issue of paedo-communion. Many Presbyteries allow men to hold (and even teach!) paedo-communion without practicing it. I would strongly challenge whether we can separate belief and practice this neatly and this completely. Sooner or later, the age of children allowed at the table gets earlier and earlier until they are playing footsie with their vows. It is utterly naive to think that a person’s beliefs will not affect his practice. Besides the fact that paedo-communion actually runs contrary to about 17 places in the Westminster Standards, our current practice in the PCA is Kantian, and not biblical. Kantianism is the underlying assumption of all modernist philosophy and the secular West.

Some Thoughts on General Assembly

These thoughts are not in any particular order. But I did want to address some of the issues, and try to explain them in such a way that the average ruling elder in particular would be able to understand and follow the important things that are going on.

First up is the evening of confessional concern and prayer being held on Monday night. One thing I had not noticed about it the first time I read it was that it is an RSVP event. So please remember that and RSVP if you are planning to attend. The second thing I want to say about this (a thing which isn’t entirely clear in the Aquila Report) is that this evening of confessional concern and prayer is a shot across the bow of “wake-up call” for the PCA. EDIT: I have changed this language at the request of people I respect, as it is liable to misunderstanding: what I mean by it is simply that we are concerned about the direction the denomination is going, and we are going public with that concern. This is not merely a discussion of the major issues facing the denomination at the General Assembly. This is a group of people who are seriously concerned about the direction the PCA is headed. This is the beginning of action being taken about that direction. CWAGA folk (“Can’t We All Get Along?”) and liberal progressives take note. Now, this might not be the intention of everyone who will be there, or even everyone who will be presenting. I cannot speak for them. However, the design and original intention of this meeting is as I have outlined.

The second issue I want to talk about is the Insider Movement report. The Insider Movement (IM) is a missiological trend whereby people are being encouraged to identify themselves as both Christian and Muslim. Closely associated with this is a trend in Bible translation that removes references to the sonship of Jesus to the Father in favor of other terms like “Messiah” or “highly favored one.” The intended or unintended (not to prejudge!) consequence of this action is seriously to jeopardize the Scripture’s witness to the eternal sonship of Jesus to the Father. The report exposes these errors. This is not a peripheral issue of doctrine, but one that is absolutely central to the Christian faith, as the doctrine is present in every single creed in Christendom that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of the eternal Father. If Jesus is not the eternal Son of the Father, then He cannot bear the infinite guilt of our sins on His shoulders. Why did this trend get started, you might ask? The alleged reason, according to the report, is that translators were discovering that Muslim people tend to think of biological sex being involved when they hear the phrase “Son of God.” They find that offensive, and so the move to eliminate references to Jesus’ sonship in the Bible.

The third issue is the request by Philadelphia Presbytery to have a study committee report on women’s ordination. Now, the request is specific. It is asking about whether a person can believe in women’s ordination if he is not willing to practice it in order to conform to our BCO. I should note that one of the “whereas’s” reads as follows: “Whereas, our constitution does not clearly delineate or define ‘the general principles of biblical polity or their relation to male only eldership.” I had to scratch my head on that one. I thought our BCO clearly said that the offices of elder and deacon are open to men only. The BCO is part of our constitution. So I’m not quite sure how they came up with this statement, which seems on the face of it to be completely false. To be perfectly blunt about this, if we open this question we are denying everything the PCA has stood for since its inception. This denomination was founded in part because of liberalism on women’s issues (the other major piece being the doctrine of Scripture itself; the two are intimately related, of course, because of how one has to twist and distort 1 Timothy 2 or deny its authority in order to achieve women’s ordination). So, if we open the question of women’s ordination, then we also need to open the question of Scripture’s authority, since the only way you can get women’s ordination is to deny that Scripture has the authority to prevent it.

The fourth issue I wish to talk about is theistic evolution, being brought up to the GA by means of Overture 32. There are some in the PCA who deny that theistic evolution is being taught by anyone in the PCA. I would say that such people have their head in the sand. According to a Christianity Today article, Tim Keller believes that it is the job of pastors to promote a narrative for Biologos:

Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups. But less formal, grassroots educational initiatives, often centered on homeschooling, have won over the majority of evangelicals. “We have arguments, but they have a narrative,” noted Tim Keller. Both young earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists tell a story tapping into an existing cultural narrative of decline. To develop a Biologos narrative is “the job of pastors,” Keller said.

Unofficially connected with Redeemer Church (as in, he has no official connection, but has done many Sunday School seminars and the like) is Dr. Ron Choong, a man who clearly espouses theistic evolution, and opines that no one at Redeemer has had any problems with his teaching.

Fifthly and lastly, there is the issue of the Standing Judicial Commission and the lack of oversight of that commission that currently exists. No doubt many will want to point out that the SJC is often dealing with cases that are extremely complex. No doubt that is true. However, no organization or group of people in the PCA should be without oversight and accountability. Reports of Presbytery commissions have to be approved. Therefore, what the SJC does needs to be approved or rejected by the body as a whole. This is true even if there is a difference between judicial commissions and other commissions.

A Response to Leithart’s “Staying Put”

Over at First Things, Peter Leithart has written a short essay on why he doesn’t want to leave the PCA. This question arose as a result of his participation in the Biola conference which David G commented on here, and I commented on as well.

His reasons for staying put are primarily pragmatic. He would have to navigate an unfamiliar landscape, and figure out who his friends and enemies are. As if in anticipation of possible objections, he writes that “Even pragmatic reasons aren’t entirely pragmatic.” What he mans by that is explained in the next sentence (referring to James Buchanan): “[T]he status quo isn’t decisive, but it does have ethical weight.”

He states that his primary reason is theological. I wonder about that. Put simply, his primary reason seems to be that since we don’t know what the church of the future will look like, he will stay put for now, because God is constantly overturning our expectations.I wonder why that is a reason for not joining the RCC. The unknown future cannot determine our actions in the present. There are only some things we know for sure: Christ’s second coming, judgment, glorification, things that the Bible has revealed. But the Bible also has things to say to us about determining our present course of action based on the unknowns of the future (“There’s a lion in the street!”). One wonders why he says later in the essay that we cannot know what the church of the future will look like, but earlier he seems rather confident that “Though both are crucial to the future of Christianity, neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy is the Church of the future.” How does he know that? (I am here basing my question on his presuppositions, not my own).

He has additional theological reasons (Purgatory, Marian doctrines, Papacy, icons, and “ambiguities” regarding justification and tradition) for staying put. But if these do not constitute reasons for believing that the RCC is a false church, then they also cannot trump church unity, can they? I still come back to the idea that if the RCC is a true church, then we ought to be a part of it. My own position is that the RCC is a false church because of these reasons (though I would not phrase the RCC position on justification as “ambiguous.” There is hardly any ambiguity in Trent’s doctrine of justification). They do not have the gospel. They twist the sacraments into something unrecognizable, and their version of church discipline is surely wide of the mark in the papacy. The marks of the church are therefore either so twisted as to be negligible, or else non-existent. The ultimate reason (for me) for not viewing the RCC as a true church is its own self-understanding as an extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is idolatry of the church. It is man worship, church worship. It takes what belongs only to Jesus and gives it to the church, despite its own claims that it does not do that.

He then goes back to the more pragmatic reasons related to what he would have to say about his Eucharistic experiences (this is the by-now familiar charge of his that becoming Roman Catholic would be for him a step backwards in catholicity).

In response to this essay, I would answer that pragmatic reasons, even if he thinks they are not purely pragmatic, are not a reason to trump church unity. Would he use the same reasons about the Eucharist in counseling a person who was contemplating leaving the RCC? Would he counsel them to leave or stay if they said that they would be leaving behind their social group, and that they would have to learn an unfamiliar terrain? The theological reasons he adduces are not enough for him to declare the RCC to be a false church.

Tribal Congregationalism and future of the PCA

Posted by Bob Mattes

I have used the term “tribal congregationalism” several times in recent blog posts and comments. I stated the basic definition most succinctly in this post as:

The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

I have been asked to expand upon that definition, hence this post.

Amongst the important elements of good leadership are empowerment and accountability. Empowerment includes the idea of delegation, wherein I assign a task or function to a person or group. When empowered, that person or group then has the tools and authority to accomplish the assigned task or function, along with clear expectations and desired outcomes.

With empowerment must also come accountability to the leader who assigned the task or function. Accountability can include things like deadlines, progress reports, specific intermediate goals, etc., as well as the actual final outcome. A good leader delegates tasks and functions, empowers those assigned to those tasks and functions with the tools and authorities necessary, provides clear expectations and desired outcomes, and holds the empowered accountable for the results.

We see these principles generally at work in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). We have three levels of church courts, each with specific tasks and functions assigned, specific expectations, and each empowered to carry out their tasks and functions as delineated in the BCO (BCO 1-1, 1-5, 3-2, 10-1, 10-2, 11-4). Through review and control (BCO 11-4, Chapter 40), each court is held accountable to the broader courts. That is, sessions are held accountable to presbyteries through the review of their minutes and general knowledge of their activities. Presbyteries, in turn, are held accountable via the same tools to the General Assembly. That’s Presbyterianism 101.

When that process breaks down, we have processes for church discipline (BCO Chapters 29 to 40). Individual courts hold their members accountable through investigations, counseling and, as a last resort, trials. Each court’s execution of the discipline process is reviewed by the next broader court for their fidelity to our Constitution – the Westminster Standards together with the BCO. That’s Presbyterianism 102.

Unfortunately, while the theory is sound, the execution is found lacking in the PCA these days. We created an outlier judicial commission, the SJC, which as constructed differs from the actual church courts (BCO 15-3) in that it is not directly accountable to the General Assembly (which created it) for its specific actions or decisions (BCO 15-5). Therefore, the three court structure, the courts being one (BCO 11-3), is broken in the PCA because of an unaccountable judicial commission (BCO Preliminary Principle 7).

The breakdown of the above basic leadership elements and processes that implement them has been manifest in recent decisions in the PCA. The Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records rightly called out a specific presbytery’s decision accepting officers who hold to paedocommunion (the unbiblical serving of communion to infants and toddlers in violation of 1 Cor 11:27-29; WCF 29, WSC 96, 97; WLC 168-177) to the General Assembly, but the latter decided not to hold that presbytery accountable. The General Assembly permitted, by inaction, officers that practice of intinction, which also violates the Scriptural model for communion (Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-29) as well as the Westminster Standards (WCF 29.3; WLC 169) and the BCO (58-5). The SJC gave a pass to the teaching and practice of Federal Vision errors by church officers in the Leithart and Meyers cases by choosing to decide those cases based on technicalities rather than directly addressing the underlying heresies (Mt 23:22-24).

Perhaps just as bad, progressive political parties now operate freely but in secret in the PCA, outside of any accountability to the church courts. The National Partnership and Original Vision Network seek to turn the PCA into a “broadly Reformed” denomination without defining “broadly Reformed.” Given their tolerance of intinction, paedocommunion, female deacons, etc., I think that we can guess which way they lean. I sincerely believe that the word “confessional” is used as an byword in their secret emails and meetings. Secret hearts and sorry tales will never help love grow.

The net result of this lack of accountability for officers and presbyteries tolerating, holding, teaching, and/or practicing serious errors has been the creation of a system which I call “tribal congregationalism.”

The tribes refer to presbyteries that tolerate officers holding, practicing and/or teaching specific errors within their boundaries. I witnessed first hand that seminary graduates know which presbyteries are likely to accept their paedocommunion views, for example, and in which presbyteries to avoid even attempting ordination. Federal Visionists have a very good idea of which presbyteries they shouldn’t bother transferring into (Leithart obviously isn’t as smart as some folks think he is). And so on with intinction, theistic evolution, female deacons, etc. Each erroneous officer or candidate seeks out safety in his applicable tribe. Some tribes overlap or tolerate multiple errors, others do not. Safe conversations seek out supporting tribes.

The congregationalism part of the term comes from the lack of accountability outside the tribe. We nod and wink at specific presbyteries that tolerate officers who practice or teach Federal Vision, paedocommunion, intinction, female deacons, theistic evolution, et al. A majority of the commissioners at General Assembly have apparently consistently desired to avoid offending or judging deviant officers. Net result = no accountability. Specific errors thrive within the bounds of each tribe without accountability to the denomination at large. That’s what I call tribal congregationalism, and ultimately it will destroy the PCA.

Sound too drastic? Consider PCA congregants who travel or transfer around the country, which describes many in our mobile society. I have seen families bring their little toddlers up for communion, only to be refused by faithful officers who take the Scriptures seriously. Even when reached out to after the service, these families rarely return to a PCA church in a faithful presbytery, usually winding up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). On the flip side, I get emails from families traveling or moving to questionable presbyteries, wanting to know which churches are faithful to our Constitution, and hence to the Scriptures since PCA officers swear that our Standards contains the system of doctrine taught in holy Scripture. Sadly, sometimes I point them to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) or Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) or other more consistent denominations because I cannot name a faithful PCA church in their area of interest. The PCA is sowing division and confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind (Hos 8:7).

I hear, especially from young officers, that the PCA must reach out to and welcome the diverse cultures in our country, because we won’t survive if we don’t do so. I agree. You won’t find a more diverse cultural settings than the greater Washington D.C. area in which God planted the church in which I am honored to serve. I see first-hand every week that the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no cultural boundaries. People around the world share one overarching characteristic – they are all sinners in need of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, with the Scriptures as the only inerrant and infallible rule for faith and practice. That sentence is the most missional statement that you’ll ever see outside of Scripture itself.

That welcoming of sinners from diverse national, ethnic, economic, etc., backgrounds won’t break the PCA. Rather, by God’s grace that people-diversity will strengthen His Church. What WILL break the PCA is the diversity of theology and worship beyond the bounds of our Constitution and the regulative principle, both firmly based on Scripture, now found and growing in the PCA.

The empowerment and mutual accountability of Presbyterianism is fundamentally incompatible with tribal congregationalism. So, I’ll say it again: The PCA is sowing confusion in the wind, and will reap the whirlwind. We need to decide if the PCA will follow the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6) or the church in Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) and act now on that decision. May God give us the wisdom to take after that faithful church in Revelation 3:7-13.

Posted by Bob Mattes

A Qualification

As my good friend David has written a critique of Carl Trueman’s comments, and Carl taught me at WTS, I thought that I should go ahead and listen to the whole thing and see if I agreed with David. As these are two very dear brothers in Christ, it behoves me to be extremely careful in what I say. You can listen to the whole thing here. Also, there are a lot of comments on this post that are extremely thoughtful and well worth pondering.

I would say that I agree, by and large, with David’s assessment of the weaknesses of Trueman’s presentation, but that I would want to offer a qualification of it. This qualification is based on what Trueman used to tell me in conversation, and I believe he said it in class as well. He said that we need to have a principled reason for not belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, and that it has to be doctrinal. If we do not have that, then we are living in sinful schism. Schism is a terrible sin. This is why Leithart’s position is, to my mind, completely incoherent. If the differences between Protestantism and Rome are not salvific in nature, then Leithart is living in sin by not being a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Leithart is, in effect, saying that Trent did not anathematize the gospel, a point that Jack Bradley brought up quite ably.

When I use those statements by Trueman that he made before, I come to about the 1 hour 17-25 minute mark, and notice Trueman strongly challenging Leithart on the issues of doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Trueman plainly believes that it is doctrine that separates us from Rome, and that these doctrines that separate us are of a first order nature. They are salvific. They are gospel issues. So, ultimately I believe that Trueman is being inconsistent. He believes that gospel issues separate us from Rome, but he seems willing to admit (or at least refrain from denying) that Rome is a true church. I agree with David that acknowledging RCC baptism is not a sufficient condition for considering Rome a true church (I think that the Southern Presbyterians, particularly Thornwell, got this one right, and that Hodge was inconsistent). For one thing, the Reformers who had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, were baptized before Trent happened. No Reformer would have said that Rome had completely apostatized before Trent happened. Now, I firmly believe that Rome is no true church. So Trueman is in the awkward position of denying that Rome has the gospel, and yet of admitting (or not denying) that Rome is part of the true church. I do not think that this position can ultimately stand the test of coherency.

A Disappointing Discussion

Posted by David Gadbois

Last year Peter Leithart posted an article, The End of Protestantism, over on the First Things web site and among other things asserted that we Protestants (including, of course, us confessional Presbyterian and Reformed folk) needed to adopt a more “Reformational Catholic” perspective and start to consider those in Roman Catholicism to be part of the same Christian family along with us. That is,

Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.”

Several critical responses followed, including one article from Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders, one from Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark, as well as assorted others throughout the blogosphere.

leithart_conference

The Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University and First Things organized a public discussion of the issues raised in Leithart’s article last month between Leithart, Sanders, and Carl Trueman. I assume Sanders recruited Trueman to represent the traditional (confessional) Reformed position. You can watch the whole discussion here, and you can read Leithart’s follow-up post here.

Unfortunately Trueman offered a timid and inadequate rebuttal to Leithart’s errors. I attended the public discussion on the campus of BIOLA University, and I felt both disappointed and aggravated that my own Reformed tradition was neither accurately nor forcefully represented before an audience of Bible college students who primarily hail from Baptist churches, EV Free churches, and various non-denominational evangelical churches.

Trueman is usually a reliable exponent of reformed and presbyterian theology, so I was surprised that the discussion turned out the way it did. The premise that cannot be granted Leithart is the assumption that Roman Catholics are our brothers and that Rome is a true church of Jesus Christ. If that is granted, then Leithart’s logic and conclusions must follow, and there can be no objection to his central thesis that we are all one family in Christ who need to learn to get along with each other. Trueman essentially granted this premise, and the only difficulty seemed to be some pesky logistical issues and pastoral concerns. All four men on the stage seemed to be on board with this faulty premise. But this represents a failure of basic pastoral discernment.

If my assessment seems harsh, click the video link and watch for yourself. I had a brief opportunity to challenge this point during the Q&A session toward the end of the night. I pointed out that as Reformed Christians we identified true churches according to the 3 Marks of the Church (see, for instance, the Belgic Confession). At least as early as the French Confession (1559) it was explicitly held that Rome failed this test:

In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments. Therefore we condemn the papal assemblies, as the pure Word of God is banished from them, their sacraments are corrupted, or falsified, or destroyed, and all superstitions and idolatries are in them. We hold, then, that all who take part in those acts, and commune in that Church, separate and cut themselves off from the body of Christ.

It will not do to hold up as a fig leaf the fact that Roman Catholic baptisms were accepted as valid and rebaptism was rejected. It is true that the rite ought to be considered as valid when administered in the name of the Triune God, but even granting this that would only make it a necessary, not sufficient, basis for a credible profession of Christian faith. And, as I pointed out during the Q&A, the Reformed barred Romanists from the Lord’s Table. Shouldn’t that be sufficient indication that this ecumenical attitude is out-of-step with our tradition’s earliest belief and practice? It is true that one can find exceptions to this traditional view (at least in some respects), but I have found most of such anecdotal examples to be quite late (e.g. Machen, Hodge) and certainly never rising to the level of a confessional standard (of which there are a great many).

Turning aside from the historical considerations, you will notice that this ecumenical premise of Leithart’s does not ground the brotherly or ecclesial unity he seeks in the Gospel, but only in baptism and a shared Trinitarian confession. In fact, did anyone even mention the Gospel by name in that entire discussion? I certainly don’t recall. Sure, there was talk of justification by faith and such but nowhere was our unity explicitly grounded in a shared Gospel of Jesus Christ. Leithart is, of course, aware that Rome rejects justification by faith alone, and trots out the old chestnut about it being possible for people to be saved by faith in Christ who don’t realize they are saved by faith in Christ. A critical thinker would observe that that is beside the point. There are many true believers who simply exercise extrospective trust in Christ, and nothing else, for their salvation and are not particularly self-reflective about the nature of their faith nor the precise mechanism God has used to unite them to Himself. The problem is that Rome explicitly denies that we are justified by faith alone and sets up false objects of faith that deny Christ’s completed and sufficient work. It is not a matter of simple ignorance but of essentially setting up false co-redeemers alongside Christ. As Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 reads:

Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare from “saints,” themselves, or anywhere else?

No; although they make their boast of Him, yet in their deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus; for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.

The Reformers saw in the errors of Rome a direct parallel with the Gospel-denying doctrines of the Judaizers that Paul anathematizes in Galatians, the core of which is the idea that some good work needs to be wrought in addition to the faith-received righteousness of Christ in order for the sinner to receive justification before God. “Faith” in Christ becomes nullified by competitors. In his commentary on Galatians Calvin writes:

[Paul's] greatest severity of language is directed, as we shall see, against the false apostles. He charges them with turning aside, not only from his gospel, but from Christ; for it was impossible for them to retain their attachment to Christ, without acknowledging that he has graciously delivered us from the bondage of the law. But such a belief cannot be reconciled with those notions respecting the obligation of ceremonial observance which the false apostles inculcated. They were removed from Christ; not that they entirely rejected Christianity, but that the corruption of their doctrines was such as to leave them nothing more than an imaginary Christ.

Thus, in our own times, the Papists, choosing to have a divided and mangled Christ, have none, and are therefore “removed from Christ.” They are full of superstitions, which are directly at variance with the nature of Christ. Let it be carefully observed, that we are removed from Christ, when we fall into those views which are inconsistent with his mediatorial office; for light can have no fellowship with darkness.

The book of Galatians, in fact, furnishes for us the reason why rightly distinguishing between wayward brother and false teacher is a critical pastoral task. For the former we offer loving but firm rebuke and call to repentance as Paul has offered the Christians at the church at Galatia along with the Apostle Peter. The sin is temporary and the rebuke is met with repentance. It is like the discipline of a child or family member. But for the false teachers we are to follow the NT and regard them as pseudoadelphoi (false brothers), pseudoapostoloi (false apostles), dogs, serpents, and deceitful workers with whom we should not even eat nor wish godspeed. The attitude and orientation is entirely different for the impenitent apostate. It is our obligation to paint a clear and bright line between those in the covenant community and those outside of the visible church of Christ. And surely we compound our sin of cowardice if we also extend the false hope of eternal life to those who are in the state of impenitent apostacy, by telling them that they are simply misguided but still in Christ. That is simply partaking in a lie that leads to the damnation of souls rather than spurring saving repentance.

Other matters could be discussed at length that I will only mention briefly. The idolatry of the mass was shamefully glossed over in the discussion, even though Heidelberg Q&A 80 calls it “nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” It is also unfortunate that Trueman did not mention the fact that the errors in Leithart’s essay should come as no surprise, inasmuch as he is a primary leader in the heretical Federal Vision movement within the Reformed and Presbyterian landscape. Many (most?) of both the systemic and particular errors of the FV movement and Leithart in particular are errors shared with Rome. So it naturally follows that he would have a rather ecunemenical spirit toward Rome. It should have been mentioned that this movement has been unanimously condemned by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. It should have also been mentioned that, while Leithart’s presbytery acquitted him of heresy charges, a good many people in his denomination (the PCA) are outraged by the acquittal and would like to see him out of the denomination. Obviously these matters have been documented and discussed at length on this blog, but I doubt that more than a handful of people in the room at BIOLA that night were aware of this crucial background knowledge.

I do find a bit of irony in the fact that Leithart mentioned the practice of praying the imprecatory psalms against the enemies of the church. In a qualified way I can agree with that practice, but one has to at least be able to identify friend from foe to do so. We are only a few decades away from the 500th anniversary of the Council of Trent, wherein Rome anathematized the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and since has done nothing but dig into her errors while ignoring the calls by Reformational Christians to repent. There ought not be any debate or mystery amongst educated believers over what we are dealing with here.

A tale of two letters

Posted by Bob Mattes

The Founding

On 7 Dec 1973, a new denomination sent A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Througout the World from the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. The NPC changed names to the Presbyterian Church in America shortly thereafter. The PCA had split from the liberal-and-becoming-worse PCUS. The Message to All Churches laid out the reasons for the split (similar to the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and served as a notice of the new denomination’s beliefs. At the top of the list stood the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and their role as “the only infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and practice.”

Against the big-tent liberalism of the PCUS, our founders wrote:

We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. [my bold]

Note the “without reservation” adherence to the Westminster Standards. There was no “good-faith” subscription in view there. The PCA has already headed down the PCUS road on this issue. More on that later.

On the subject of theological error and church discipline, our founders wrote:

Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine or polity of a confessional Church ought never to be tolerated. A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice.

When a denomination will not exercise discipline and its courts have become heterodox or disposed to tolerate error, the minority finds itself in the anomalous position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.

Anyone watching the two most recent cases against blatant teachers of the Federal Vision errors (pdf file), both of whom are now fellows at the latest incarnation of an attempted Federal Vision seminary, knows that the PCA has already started down the PCUS road in that regard. The PCA has become a tribal congregationalist denomination where particular errors find toleration in specific presbyteries that remain unaccountable to the denomination as a whole.

Please read that open message as it provides an anchor for the PCA as it considers its future. As the philosopher Santayana wisely observed: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The PCA is showing that it is not immune from that wisdom.

The Revision

A small group of 18 teaching elders who were around during the founding of the PCA in 1973 recently signed a letter (pdf file) to the new generation. I want to be clear up front that I respect these 18 elders for their sacrifices for, and contributions to, the church of Jesus Christ over many years. Nothing that follows is meant to reflect negatively on that respect. Nonetheless, my respect for them does not negate my critical thinking on the matters that they publicly present.

Early in the letter, the 18 signers endorse “good-faith subscription”:

Several years ago, after lengthy discussion, we affirmed “good faith” subscription which was a declaration of our commitment to love and respect each other and affirm doctrinal orthodoxy without becoming too broad or too narrow in the way we embrace our confessional standards.

So, since our 1973 founding, the PCA has “progressed” from “committed without reservation” to our Standards, to a “good faith subscription” approach that has opened the PCA’s door to paedocommunion, intinction, female pseudo-officers, Federal Vision, theistic evolution (e.g., Biologos), et al, all of which depart from the Scriptures and the Standards.

After observing that some think that the PCA is too strict and narrow while others think that the PCA is too broad, the 18 opine that:

…these differences of opinion reflect a healthy breadth of views and perspectives that produces an ever present need for love and mutual respect. It does, however, present the PCA with the need for our leadership to always be searching for the center so that unity might be maintained and our mission might be accomplished.

With all due respect to the 18 signers of this letter, that argument represents a significant departure from the vision laid out by the bulk of our founders in the Message to all Churches in 1973.

Keep in mind that only 18 men who were present at our founding signed this letter. Although many founders have gone to be with the Lord, many remain and did not sign the letter. Dr. Morton Smith comes immediately to mind for one. As our first Stated Clerk he had his finger on the pulse of the initial direction of the PCA. Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din provided a PCA manifesto in the months leading up to the separation. Please read Dr. Morton’s address at the link.

Connections

While I do not believe that the positions from the new letter accurately reflect the consensus of the bulk of elders who founded the PCA in 1973, and hope that I have demonstrated this from original documents, I do believe that the letter agrees well with the more recent Original Vision Network started by TEs Paul Kooistra and Larry Hoop. While I appreciate the contributions that these men have made to PCA missions, their network steers us back to the PCUS “big tent.” For instance, they revised our founders’ words in the Message to All Churches to a vision that would now have us believe that our founders wanted:

a denomination committed to a broadly Reformed theological position, steering clear of both a formless evangelicalism with sketchy theological commitments and a narrow sectarianism that could consume our energies building a theological fortress;

Please go back and read the Message to All Churches and see if you can find a vision for a “broadly Reformed theological position.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back? Couldn’t find it? That’s because “committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms” doesn’t describe a “broadly Reformed theological position.” The latter represents a slide back to towards the old PCUS “big tent.” If the founders had really wanted a big tent, they would have stayed in the PCUS committed “to love and respect each other.” Instead, our founders left an apostate denomination that trampled on both the Scriptures and the Standards.

Conclusion

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – the chief weapons buyer for the U.S. Department of Defense – has a great sign on his door. It reads: “In God we trust, all others bring data.” The point being that opinions are nice, but we need to see the data on which one based those opinions.

So, when I read the letter by the 18 elders, the first thing that I did was hunt up the original Message to All Churches and read it to see if the two documents were consistent. That’s what everyone should do whenever any assertion is made from history. History is best learned from original sources, not commentators decades or centuries later.

In this case, the recent letter by the 18 elders seems more in line with the revisionist and euphemistically-named Original Vision Network than the bulk of the PCA founders’ intent in 1973. The original vision is readily available for all to read in the Message to All Churches and Dr. Smith’s How Thy Gold Has Become Din. Please take the time to acquaint yourselves with these documents if you have not already done so.

In closing, I again want to be clear that I respect these 18 elders for their contributions to the church of Jesus Christ over many years. That said, I am not prone to hero worship, so although their work and sacrifices earn them a hearing by other elders like myself and the denomination at large, it does not earn them automatic agreement without the original historical context being considered. In this case, I find that the original documentation does not support their thesis.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Some Thoughts on Ezekiel

It is a well-known fact that Ezekiel, in addition to being a prophet, was also a priest. However, it is not usually asserted that Ezekiel also performed some kingly functions as well. For instance, as I look at the infamous passages of 16 and 23, I wonder whether or not those passages (which are surely covenantal lawsuit passages) are meant to portray Ezekiel as exercising some kingly functions in addition to prophetic. Of course, he would be acting as Yahweh’s proxy in the prosecution of the case. But who judges cases in Israel? It is true that the priests were supposed to carry out this function. However, when the kings came along, they took that role for themselves. We find Solomon being the judge in Kings. In exilic Israel, the role of judge would certainly be seen as a kingly function, not so much a prophetic or priestly one.

If this is true (and I haven’t yet done a lot of research on it to lay out the argument), then Ezekiel is a prophet, priest and king. This might help enlighten for us not only the reason why God calls Ezekiel “son of man,” but also why Jesus found the title so very appropriate for Himself. Most people tend to think only of Daniel as being the background material. However, a good case can be made that Ezekiel is more in the background of Jesus’ self-designation than Daniel, or at least that they are equal.

Daniel Block has made a strong case that the phrase in Ezekiel means “mortal human being” (or something very like: I don’t currently have Block’s book in front of me). If so, then a comparison with Daniel’s use of the phrase (which certainly points to deity) yields the following interesting result: Ezekiel’s use of the phrase points out the human side, and Daniel’s use points out the divine.

Put all these thoughts together, and you have a perfectly clear portrait of why Jesus would use the phrase to describe Himself. It is just ambiguous enough not to cause immediate riot because of blasphemy (people would remember Ezekiel’s use of it to describe himself), and yet has enough background meaning to cover not only the offices of Christ, but also His natures. Throw in the additional tidbit that Ezekiel might point to humiliation, and Daniel to exaltation (this is a very tentative point on my part), and you have the perfect set of OT backgrounds for Jesus all wrapped up in the phrase “son of man:” three offices, two states, and two natures.

Taking God at His Word

by Reed DePace

Others have said more and better about this new book from Kevin DeYoung, but I wanted to give it a brief plug as well.

Taking God at His Word

This is not a simplistic book, but it is simple. This is not a scholarly book, but it is studied. In short on this short book, this is one of the best books on the doctrine of Scripture available. Inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, perspicuity, authority and necessity, DeYoung covers all the essential components.

He does so in his relaxed apologetic style. He offers not simply an easy explanation of the Bible’s teaching on each of these topics. He does so with a gentle and persuasive expression of why we need these characteristics in the Bible.

I think everyone who cares to confront the resurging denial of the Bible as God’s own word needs to have multiple copies of this book on hand. This is not for their own reading necessarily (as most will care because they’ve already done some study on the doctrine of Scripture), but for giving out to others. This book is great for young converts and immature believers, for those who find a post-modern approach to life appealing or alarming, for those who never quite learned this subject, or who worry about some loved ones who appear to be jettisoning this essential subject to the ministry of the gospel.

Pick up a few copies and give them away. You will be glad you did.

by Reed DePace

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