Leithart on Justification and Baptism

Posted by David Gadbois

An alert commenter on this blog has noted some unfortunate (but unsurprising) comments from Peter Leithart in a recent web article that he penned:

Does the New Testament teach that “baptism justifies you”? I think the answer is Yes.

This is from an article that was published on the Trinity House blog, less than 2 months ago. Now anyone who has been following the Leithart trial should have realized that this is the logical implication of Leithart’s theology, but it is useful that he would explicitly state this belief, even if at this late hour. In the balance of the article he nowhere attempts to explain how this doctrine is compatible with the historic Protestant doctrine of justification sola fide. That is, the biblical and orthodox belief that we receive the justifying righteousness of Christ solely by the instrument (i.e. the appropriating organ) of extrospective faith in Christ. In passing he admits that his “argument creates difficulties elsewhere in our understanding of both Paul and Protestant orthodoxy.” Well, no kidding. It is a marvel that so many learned men fail to grasp that “alone” means that everything besides faith, including the sacraments, are excluded in justification. But then, logic was never the strong suit for FV.

Additionally, he repeats in this article his error of defining justification as “deliverict”, combining the forensic declaration of justification with an inward delivery from sin. To top it off, he denies the perseverance of the saints when he states that “God regards [those who will apostatize] with favor, counts them as just, for a time” before they fall away.

Now it is certainly important to answer Leithart’s argument on biblical grounds. This has been done, in some cases more directly and in some cases less directly, in various FV-critical books, denominational reports, and perhaps most effectively in Lane’s written testimony in the Leithart case. And we, the blog authors, together with the many smart, gracious, and orthodox commenters, are prepared to continue a biblical critique of these errors in this forum.

However, it is worth pointing out that this article represents a doubling down of error on Leithart’s part, bringing his public teaching more explicitly at odds with the reformed standards (both the Westminster Standards and the 3 Forms of Unity) and, indeed, a fundamental reformational and Protestant understanding of justification. This ought to be sufficient reason for Leithart’s apologists to either find a more honorable line of work or simply admit that his doctrine is incompatible with basic Reformed and Protestant teaching, even if they consider it to be biblical and true. But let’s not continue to pretend that this teaching has any place in the PCA or any other church that claims the historic reformed creeds as their own. The intellectual case for such an idea is threadbare, even if some would hold up the fig leaf of ecclesiastical process as a cover for such foolishness.

Part 2 of the interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark has posted Part 2 of his excellent interview of TE M. Jay Bennett on the TE Meyers’ Federal Vision trial. In case you missed Part 1, you can find it here. As you might expect, the two flow together.

Part 2 delves a bit more into the unseemly manoeuvring by TE Meyers and his friends in Missouri Presbytery (MOP) to limit the prosecution’s ability to function in accordance with the PCA Book of Church Order. The actions explained by TE Bennett severely hampered the prosecution, whilst providing easy avenues for the defense to “run out the clock”. The transcripts make the tactics obvious even after the fact. Given the magnitude of the issues at stake, the prosecution should have been given both adequate time to prepare and present its case. It was not.

I commented in this post about my involvement as a prosecution witness in the case. In light of TE Bennett’s comments on his cross-examination of TE Meyers, I need to point out that I was not present for that cross because I had to catch my flight home. So, I want to make it clear that my previous post should take nothing away from TE Bennett’s observations about his cross-examination of TE Meyers.

So, where does all this leave us in the PCA? Certainly, there are presbyteries like Missouri, Pacific Northwest, Siouxlands, and perhaps a few others in which faithful officers cannot recommend churches to inquirers without personally knowing individual pastors who are orthodox and confessional. It also means that transferees from said presbyteries must be carefully examined in detail for their views. We saw that with Lusk when he tried to transfer to Evangel Presbytery a few years ago, and Leithart most recently. Though Leithart has not yet been examined, his work out of bounds teaching Federal Vision doctrine in Evangel’s geographic area has been rejected in accordance with the BCO. Faithful presbyteries must be on the watch and guard their flocks from FV wolves.

Dr. Clark’s excellent post on the parallels between Federal Visionists today and Arminians in the Reformed church centuries ago captures this watchfulness issue well. While the Federal Visionists deny on one hand that they hold aberrant views, they openly teach them outside of the view of the PCA courts. Although Meyers, Leithart, et al, remain “in good standing” in the PCA just as James Arminius did in the Dutch church in his day, they would not and should not be welcome in many if not most pulpits in the PCA or should they be permitted to spread their poison at General Assembly seminars. If confessional elders would not invite Arminius or Pelagius into their pulpits, then how could they in faithfulness to their vows invite a Federal Visionist? They cannot.

Confessional, orthodox Reformed elders in the PCA must stay diligent and informed in these trying times until we can change the BCO to correct these recent travesties. In the meantime, although we cannot at this moment directly treat the cancer in some presbyteries, we can and must contain the disease.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Great interview with one of the prosecutors in Meyers’ Federal Vision Trial

Posted by Bob Mattes

Dr. R. Scott Clark, church historian, pastor, and Westminster Seminary California professor, interviewed Rev. M. Jay Bennett for the Heidelcast. Jay was the lead prosecutor for the TE Jeff Meyers’ Federal Vision trial in Missouri Presbytery. The interview comes in two parts, with the second part slated for next week. In the first part that’s posted now, Dr. Clark covers Teaching Elder Bennett’s background, a bit of Federal Vision (FV) background, and the timeline leading up to the Meyers trial. The latter provides some insight into how the discipline process in the PCA proceeds. As usual, Dr. Clark conducts an informative and engaging interview which I highly recommend. Scott and Jay discuss a few anomalies in the case history, but so far haven’t mentioned the big one in my opinion.

In the trial record of case, on page 872, you see that Missouri Presbytery (MOP) was basically pushing TE Bennett out of the presbytery, which would, of course, make him unable to complain against the decision in the Meyers case. In the end, MOP succeeded and the PCA Standing Judicial Commission apparently let MOP get away with this ploy without even reading the record of the case. The bigger story is that MOP had kept men like TE Mark Horne, another Federal Visionist like Meyers, without call for over 3 years. Yet, TE Bennett, who opposes the unreformed FV, was being bounced almost immediately. The politics is pretty clear when looking at the bigger picture.

To be totally up front, I signed the original letter of concern mentioned in the interview and was a witness for the prosecution in the Meyers case, flying to St. Louis on my own nickle (i.e., at no cost to MOP) for the trial. I worked with Jay on my testimony, and found him a fair, honorable, and confessional teaching elder who deeply loves the Reformed Faith and understood the unconfessional nuances in the Federal Vision. The PCA owes TE Bennett a great debt of gratitude for standing firmly for the gospel in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, and check back next week for part 2. And you could benefit greatly by following Dr. Clark’s Heidelblog as many of us do.

I would be remiss without adding that Jeff Meyers, after being acquitted by MOP, now teaches with all the FV heavyweights at an FV school. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Posted by Bob Mattes

Horton Vs. Keister?

In the Leithart trial transcript, Rayburn, in his closing arguments, argued that since I was “confused” about a statement that came from Michael Horton’s writings, and that I wound up disagreeing with Horton, that therefore I was “biased” and my testimony was worthless. There are quite a few other charges levelled against me in the closing arguments by Rayburn (the comments about me start on page 401 of the transcript and continue through page 403 line 5). Those will be dealt with as we get to them. For now, let us examine the trick that Rayburn played on me (which can be found on page 119, line 7, and continues to the next page). Rayburn quoted something that belonged to Horton’s writings, and asked if I was comfortable with it. Then, after stating that was I uncomfortable with that way of putting it, Rayburn said that it was Horton’s writings. In the conclusion, Rayburn uses this as an example of why my testimony is “virtually worthless.”

I have emailed Mike Horton about this particular quotation. Horton agrees with me that Rayburn took the statement out of context, and Horton affirmed that he said the same thing about baptism that I said. I fell for the trick because I naively thought that a Presbytery would treat a member of another Presbytery (who was in good standing) with a modicum of respect. I was obviously wrong in that assumption. The quotation was delivered by Rayburn anonymously and out of context. In other words, it was a lie. This is a trick that many FV advocates and defendants have tried on me over the years. You’d think I would have been ready for it! I had been meaning to address this point long before this, but had never gotten around to emailing Mike about it.

I will now address some of Rayburn’s statements concerning me in the closing arguments. I had admitted to bias in the cross-examination. Of course I was “biased.” I was a witness for the prosecution, and thought that Leithart was guilty. But then Rayburn put a construction on the term “biased” that I had never agreed to. He says, “Bias suggests the failure to put the best construction on what a man says or writes, a determination to find fault and a lack of even handedness in the evaluation of evidence.” He did not mention this definition of bias when he cross-examined me. I do not agree that I am biased according to this definition. Instead, as Rayburn himself says, “It is not biased to believe to be true a certain opinion regarding the facts of the case.” That is where I was and where I still am. I was interpreting the term “bias” to be equivalent to “non-neutral.” In that case I was biased, just as Leithart was biased. But Rayburn put a construction on those words that I never intended. On the first page of my testimony, I explicitly said that I owed Leithart all the charity and care of reading possible. Rayburn just assumed that I was incapable of achieving that.

Then Rayburn says, “Along with competence, the objectivity of an expert witness is his most important recommendation.” Objectivity is absolutely impossible. Is there anyone in the PCA who is objective when it comes to FV issues? Now Rayburn shifts the ground entirely to say that the only witnesses worth anything are those who don’t actually have an opinion.

Rayburn claims that the defense read my testimony. That is seriously misleading. I watched them during the entire 15 minutes (which was all that the defense counsel requested to examine my testimony). All they did was flip desultorily through my testimony. They didn’t read it. Not so as to be able to interact with it. It was not interacted with by the defense counsel in any way, shape, or form. The court asked one or two questions about the substance of the testimony, and then jumped on my statement about Leithart leaving for the peace of the church. The court did not interact with my testimony on any kind of thorough basis either.

Then Rayburn brought up this comment on my blog by Sean Lucas. That Sean Lucas and I would disagree about the import of Michael Williams’s book is taken as evidence that my testimony is worthless. Not sure how this follows. Even if Sean Lucas was were correct in every point of his critique of my review, that would be irrelevant as to whether my testimony in the Leithart case was accurate or not. If Rayburn takes it that therefore I am reading people uncharitably, again it doesn’t follow. Even if I were reading Williams uncharitably (and Lucas’s comment did not convince me of that), that does not mean that I am reading Leithart uncharitably. Every single quotation from Leithart in my testimony I attempted to set in its immediate and broader context so that I was not misreading him.

Rayburn also claims that I am a known controversialist, and that I am known by many as someone who relishes conflict. I do not relish conflict. I only engage in it because I feel I have to contend for the gospel, as Jude directs me to do. This is a blatant attempt at reading my motivation, and I will say flat out that it is a lie. Rayburn had never met me once before the trial. He doesn’t know me at all. He made a lot of statements about me that assumed a greater knowledge of me than he in fact had. To be blunt, he lied about me multiple times in a very public way.

In his sermon (always interesting to be preached about!) Rayburn says that I only pretended to scholarship. I never pretended to anything other than what I actually own. At one time, Jason Stellman slipped up by calling me “Dr. Keister,” and I corrected him on the floor of the PNW Presbytery. When asked whether I was an “expert” witness, I debated in my mind how to reply to that. On the one hand, I did not want to toot my own horn and appear like I was an expert in all theological fields, which I certainly am not. On the other hand, I had read all of Leithart’s theological writings, and about 80% of all the original source FV writings, which put me in a position to say something about the FV, and about Leithart. I can say without fear of sounding too grandiose that I am an expert in FV matters. I have since learned that Rayburn has accused me of being “obsessed” with Leithart. I had read exactly 2 books written by Leithart before Stellman asked me to be a witness in the case. I did almost all my reading of Leithart after being asked to be a witness in the case. No obsession there, unless you want to say that I was obsessed with accurately describing Leithart’s theology, which I most certainly was.

I debated a long time whether to post this or not, because it has a rather defensive tone about it. These accusations that have come my way are very public in nature. The main reason I wished to set the record straight on these matters is, again, the wrongness of the SJC decision. I have written before on how the SJC did NOT need to show great deference to PNW’s decision. This post adds more arguments to that post.

Two Unions?

It’s been a while since I actually posted on a theological topic vis-a-vis the Federal Vision, but I was prompted to do so by this article on the Aquila Report. I have a very high respect for Shane Lems and Andrew Compton both. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one aspect of Shane’s blog post needs a bit of sharpening.

The Federal Vision will typically claim that union with Christ is a losable benefit. When pressed, however, they will usually admit to two different unions: one that the elect have with Christ which is not losable, and one that the non-elect have with Christ, which is losable. The way I have typically described this is that the FV is Calvinistic with regard to the elect, and Arminian with regard to the non-elect who have this temporary union with Christ. However, they claim that the union with Christ which the non-elect have is a real union.

So, the point of Shane Lems’s article that I would gently suggest needs a little sharpening is his quotation of WLC 66 to address the losable union question. That question is explicitly talking about the union that the elect have with Christ. In my opinion, a better way to get at the question is to ask the question of whether the non-elect can have true union with Christ. Exegetical questions would revolve around John 15, in particular, which has been hashed out before on this blog. For other exegetical discussions, see the index.

For the confessional material, it seems easier to get at the issues by referring to those sections that talk about true union belonging only to the elect. WLC 68 is particularly apropos: “Are the elect only effectually called? All the elect, and they only, are effectually called: although others may be, and often are, outwardly called by the ministry of the word, and have some common operations of the Spirit; who, for their wilful neglect and contempt of the grace offered to them, being justly left in their unbelief, do never truly come to Jesus Christ” (emphasis added). Question 63 combined with question 65 is also a clear place to go, since those questions refer to the special benefits that members of the visible church enjoy (none of which includes union with Christ), and the special (or particular) benefits that the invisible church enjoys (which includes union).

Evangel Presbytery Stands to be Counted

On the Aquila Report, you can read of the latest development in the Leithart saga. The account points out the bind into which this decision puts Leithart. He will not be able to stay in the PCA, since he is required to have the “full concurrence” of Evangel Presbytery in order to labor out of bounds at that position at Trinity House. I wish to point out a few of the implications of this unanimous vote by Evangel Presbytery.

First of all, it is quite apparent that the “grass-roots” experiment, which I regard as a complete failure, is nevertheless a double-edged weapon in the hands of those who wish to see our denomination get broader and broader. My puny little comments on this blog are one thing. A court’s decision is quite another thing. All of those who wish me to shut up about Leithart are now going to have to say the same thing to an entire court of the church. I stand with Evangel Presbytery.

Secondly, for all those interpreting the SJC’s decision to be an exoneration of Leithart’s doctrine, please note that if you believe that, then you must also believe that Evangel Presbytery is in direct violation of the SJC’s decision. They are living in full-blown rebellion against a higher court of the church. How about them apples? It will be interesting to see if any of the FV-friendly Presbyteries decide to contest Evangel’s decision (which cannot be complained against, since it was unanimous). For anyone who believes that the SJC decision exonerates Leithart’s doctrine, you will need to do something about Evangel Presbytery.

Thirdly, and building on the previous point, this vote will probably have the effect of cementing the interpretation of the SJC’s decision in the Leithart case in a direction other than doctrinal vindication, especially if the FV-friendly Presbyteries do nothing about Evangel’s decision (which will amount to a tacit agreement that the Leithart decision was not doctrinal). This is, of course, what the authors of the decision intended, anyway. If that is the case (and that is a genuine “if,” since the jury is still out on that one), then the denomination has not publicly pronounced in favor of FV doctrine. The logic would then inexorably lead to this conclusion: the Leithart decision, because it is based on polity, and not the doctrinal issues at all, is a lost battle, and not the war. In that case, we will need to fight tooth and nail in the upcoming battles, and there will be more.

I want to say publicly that I applaud loud and long Evangel Presbytery, and I am thanking the Lord profusely for every member of Evangel Presbytery, who yesterday stood to be counted for the gospel. As for Evangel Presbytery, they will serve the Lord. I hope and pray that other Presbyteries will take similar action.

SJC Answers the Overtures in the Negative

There were three overtures in the last General Assembly requesting the SJC to take over original jurisdiction in the Leithart case. The SJC has ruled on those three overtures in the negative. The reasoning of the overtures was that a mistrial should have been declared, given the conflict of interest of the prosecutor. Given, then, a failure to act (regarding the conflict of interest, NOT the charges themselves: the decision of the SJC miscontrues the overtures on this point) on the part of PNW Presbytery, the SJC should take over original jurisdiction. The judgment concludes that BCO 34-1 does not allow the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over a case that has already been adjudicated. Then, invoking the principle of double jeopardy (though qualifying it by saying that new grounds for charges could emerge in new publications), the decision says that a person cannot be charged for the same crimes after being acquitted (this is the definition of the principle of double jeopardy).

On the key issue of the mistrial, the concurring opinion states that a mistrial can only be declared while the trial is ongoing. It cannot be declared after the trial is concluded. However, the concurring opinion (written by RE Sam Duncan) disagrees with the main decision in one respect, by saying that there was a refusal to act on the part of PNW Presbytery, since the Presbytery did know of the Prosecutor’s struggles, but did not report this fact to the Presbytery. He says that there was a time to request original jurisdiction, and that was during the time the complaint was being handled in the PNW Presbytery. During that time, the decision of the PNW Presbytery could not be viewed as final, and thus there would have been no double jeopardy.

The basis for the main decision, however, is the concept of double jeopardy as it has been viewed in the Western legal tradition and the Constitution of the US. As far as I know, there is nothing in the BCO that even supports double jeopardy. If someone were continuing to commit adultery, and was acquitted the first time in an ecclesiastical court, would that mean that we could not bring up charges again based on his continuing sin? Similarly, the views of Leithart, if they are in error, are continuing offenses. Those books are still being published and sent out. Leithart hasn’t changed his views whatsoever. He still teaches error after the trial is concluded.

Still, this decision does not leave us with a lot of choices. Leithart has moved to Birmingham, AL, which is in the jurisdiction of Evangel Presbytery. There are some issues that will probably come up with regard to that move. It is still disappointing that our SJC refuses to address the doctrinal issues at stake. This decision will not promote either the peace or the purity of the church.

Clear Error and Great Deference

In the PCA’s Book of Church Order, chapter 39, there are a couple of very important paragraphs that bear greatly on the SJC’s treatment of lower courts. Here are the relevant paragraphs, from 39-4:

1. A higher court, reviewing a lower court, should limit itself to the issues raised by the parties to the case in the original (lower) court. Further, the higher court should resolve such issues by applying the Constitution of the church, as previously established through the constitutional process.
2. A higher court should ordinarily exhibit great deference to a lower court regarding those factual matters which the lower court is more competent to determine, because of its proximity to the events in question, and because of its personal knowledge and observations of the parties and witnesses involved. Therefore, a higher court should not reverse a factual finding of a lower court, unless there is clear error on the part of the lower court.
3. A higher court should ordinarily exhibit great deference to a lower court regarding those matters of discretion and judgment which can only be addressed by a court with familiar acquaintance of the events and parties. Such matters of discretion and judgment would include, but not be limited to: the moral character of candidates for sacred office, the appropriate censure to impose after a disciplinary trial, or judgment about the comparative credibility of conflicting witnesses. Therefore, a higher court should not reverse such a judgment by a lower court, unless there is clear error on the part of the lower court.
4. The higher court does have the power and obligation of judicial review, which cannot be satisfied by always deferring to the findings of a lower court. Therefore, a higher court should not consider itself obliged to exhibit the same deference to a lower court when the issues being reviewed involve the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church. Regarding such issues, the higher court has the duty and authority to interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and and understanding, regardless of the opinion of the lower court.

Paragraphs 2 and 3 delineate the circumstances in which great deference should be given to the lower courts. I was re-reading this today when something popped out at me from paragraph 3. The “comparative credibility of conflicting witnesses” constitutes something about which the higher court should exhibit deference to the lower court “unless there is clear error on the part of the lower court.” If there is clear error on the part of the lower court’s judgment about the comparative credibility of conflicting witnesses, then the higher court can reverse a judgment by a lower court. The credibility of the witnesses is a very important piece of the whole process. Discrediting a witness can be a vital key in any court process. It can be the hinge on which the entire case turns.

PNW Presbytery certainly tried to discredit my testimony in several ways. In their final decision, for instance, the PNW’s SJC rejected my credibility for the following reasons: I had (apparently) published no books or journal articles, by which I might rise “above the ordinary in his field” (see page 13). This is false. I have 2 full-length journal articles to my name, published in the Confessional Presbyterian, as well as several book reviews in the same journal, and a pending article in a book, which is a Festschrift to David Wells. By their own definition, someone who has “experience” rising above the ordinary in the field would qualify as an expert witness. Anyone who has read my blog would know that there is no one who has done more debate with the proponents of the FV than I have. There are few who have more experience than I do in actual interaction with FV proponents. They claim that an advanced degree in theology would be a Th.M., or a Ph.D. This definition is completely arbitrary. Why exactly doesn’t an M.Div. qualify as an advanced theology degree? It is a master’s (read “expert’s”!) degree. In almost any other field, a master’s degree in that field is considered an advanced degree. It is completely arbitrary to say that an M.Div. does not constitute an advanced theology degree.

Secondly the decision (pp. 13-14) says that they could not give any credence to my testimony because I had demonstrated bias against the defendant. I have two responses to this: firstly, I was a witness for the prosecution not in a secular trial, but in a doctrinal controversy trial. Of course I am biased in favor of the prosecution! If this reasoning of PNW holds, then why didn’t they reject Leithart’s testimony as demonstrating a clear bias in favor of the defendant? This is not a secular court.

The third instance of clear error in the PNW’s decision has to be quoted in full:

However, much if not all of the controversy concerning Dr. Leithart’s views can be traced to the witness himself and his blog. Leading a campaign against a man, then claiming that, even if the man should be found innocent, the Court should remove him from the PCA because a campaign was waged against him is inappropriate in an expert witness (p. 14).

This is nothing other than libel against me. “Much if not all?” Excuse me, but I had published very few blog posts about Peter Leithart prior to the trial. From June 21, 2007 to October 1, 2007, I published a total of 15 blog posts that were a response to Leithart’s own request to interact with his materials in an exegetical way. The controversy with Leithart started quite a long time before June 21, 2007. Fifteen blog posts out of a total of over 300 blog posts on the Federal Vision is not a huge amount, and hardly constitutes “leading a campaign” against the man. I neither started the controversy, nor led a campaign against the man. As I said, that is libel. They also misread my statements in context. My statements about the court removing Leithart even if he was found innocent were intended to seek to provide a way for people to honor their own conscience while still promoting the peace and purity of the PCA. PNW has attributed far more sinister intentions to my statements on that point than were ever intended on my part.

The point I am trying to make here is that these are clear errors on the part of PNW with regard to the credibility of the witnesses. These clear errors do not have to be pointed out by the prosecution in order for the SJC to see them, if they are in the record of the case, which they certainly were. Therefore, the SJC most certainly could have over-ruled PNW’s decision based on PNW’s flawed apprehension of the credibility of the witnesses (after all, some of the defense witnesses had read none of Leithart’s works whatsoever: so are they credible witnesses in the area of Leithart’s theology just because they has a Ph.D. after their names, whereas I am not a credible witness, because I do not have a Ph.D. after my name, even though I have read all of Leithart’s theological works? Does this not constitute another clear error on the part of PNW in the evaluation of witnesses? I would argue that it shows a deliberate facing away from the evidence).

Please Pray

Please pray for our denomination as it enters the last stage of the Leithart case. The Standing Judicial Commission will meet in early October to discuss the overtures requesting the SJC to assume original jurisdiction. As it looks to this author, the meeting is the last chance for the PCA as a whole to do the right thing. If there is no way of ousting Leithart, then the gospel will be compromised on a fundamental level, and all three marks of the church will be undermined irreparably.

Hilarious Video

My good friend Andrew Barnes sent me a link to this video, which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. It feels like it was made by an FV proponent. But treat yourself to a good laugh. After all, one who can laugh at himself will never lack for a source of amusement…

UPDATE: the video has been removed by its maker.

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