The Decision in the Leithart Case

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.


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.