Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More Leithart, Confession and the SJC

It is being argued by some that a tactical error was made by the prosecution, that they argued from the Confession more than Scripture. I think arguing from the Confession was the right move.

Peter Leithart vowed to uphold the system of doctrine taught in the Confession. Accordingly, in many ways it is much more efficient (and effective) to argue from the Confession and not Scripture.
Consider, not all who embrace the Confession use the same verses as proof-texts to demonstrate particular confessional doctrines. Yet those doctrines the Confession teaches are to be upheld regardless how one arrives at them. Yet if one arrives at them in an unsatisfactory manner, it weakens his case. Consequently, tactically speaking it’s safer to reference the clear statements found in the Confession.

What became a slightly more tricky part of the case is that although the WLC Q&A 68 mentions common operations of the Spirit that unbelievers may have, the Confession does not say too much about it; yet the writings of the Federal Vision, including Leithart’s, use this slice of doctrine as a kind of launching pad for their confusion over union with Christ. Their tactic has been to weave into the Federal Vision fabric (i) equivocal statements regarding baptism, (ii) the blurring of the visible and invisible church distinction and (iii) the common operations of the Spirit in the life of unbelievers. Yet even with all that to deal with, the Confession is sufficient to argue against such sophistry because the Confession not only does not affirm what Leithart has written it unambiguously denies his writings on these matters. That’s why I think using the Confession as a primary standard in the case was not only acceptable but even the best course of action.

That brings me full circle. I think it’s disgraceful, this Monday morning quarterbacking regarding what the prosecution did not do. The reason being is that it's most of the same people who are blaming the SJC for not upholding for the prosecution. Yes, the whiners want to have it both ways. They want to find fault with the prosecution's case and with the SJC for not agreeing with the case the prosecution delivered. What's even worse is the SJC is not only being faulted for the outcome of the case, but in the process the committee members are being accused for not being confessional and even worse being dishonest for not siding with the prosecution.

I can only wonder if the SJC would have responded differently to another approach, one that didn’t put Leithart’s beliefs on trial (whether intentionally or unintentionally), but instead ended up prosecuting him for his writings. When Leithart interpreted his writings in a very selective way that was more agreeable with the Confession, it should have been argued that the literal interpretation of his writings do not comport with his exegesis of them. That, of course, would have led to an impasse of sorts, unless something extraordinary happened. Then it might have been established that his writings both presupposed and implied that he thought he had discovered or rediscovered something novel for the church, but given that he really hadn’t it could have been proved that he was, therefore, unaware what Reformed theology has affirmed all along, that the visible church is to be regarded as God’s people. So, either Peter Leithart never understood the Reformed faith to begin with or else his writings were not intended to have been in concert with the Reformed faith in the first place (yet he now interprets them as such.) Again, I only mention this Monday-morning approach to the case because I don’t think the SJC was handed Leithart on a silver platter by any stretch, but they are being accused as though he had been.

Finally, after reading the transcripts I can say that I would not have wanted to have been in Jason’s shoes (or on the stand either). I thought some of Jason’s statements were very good and downright clever at times. I have no hard feelings over how the case was prosecuted and I have nothing but respect for the SJC and all those who poured their hearts into this matter these past several years.

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Saturday, April 06, 2013

How The Leithart Case Might Have Been Argued

Here I first wrote these thoughts (below) on Federal Vision back in June of 2010 on Greenbaggins. I have inserted recent comments in [ ]. Everything else is from June of 2010. Every bit of what is below applies to the Peter Leithart trial, but this sort emphasis and pursuit was for some reason not employed by the prosecution. Rather, witnesses for the prosecution were allowed to get distracted, yielding to hobby horses like the nature of grace and works in the prelapsarian covenant; law-gospel confusion promulgated by Escondido;and the imputation of the "active obedience of Christ" verses Christ's (perfect) righteousness. Now for what might have been basic to the trial, all of which, again, applies to Peter Leithart's theology:

1. FV affirms “that God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune Name” and that “Baptism formally engrafts a person into the Church”
2. FV affirms “ that through our union with Him we partake of the benefits of His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father.”
From 1 and 2 we can discern that Baptism automatically yields in at least a “formal” sense all the benefits of Christ’s work through a union that automatically is transmitted through the washing of water.
3. Yet FV also denies “that baptism automatically guarantees that the baptized will share in the eschatological Church.”
Those statements might seem to imply that existential union occurs at baptism (by the working of the works) yet that existential union can be lost since baptism does not guarantee a place in the “eschatological Church”.
4.However, FV also denies “the common misunderstanding of baptismal regeneration—i.e. that an “effectual call” or rebirth is automatically wrought in the one baptized.”
Accordingly, for me to make sense of all of this (1, 2, 3 and 4), I might be inclined to think that what FV means by 1 and 2 is that through water baptism one is united to the visible Church (this being the “formal” union and engrafting to which they speak), but because baptism does not automatically bring forth the new birth (4), there can be those who only share in the outward administration of the covenant as portrayed in 1 and 2, and consequently not end up saved in this life (4) and the life after (3). [Those sentiments are what Peter Leithart basically affirmed on the stand.] If that is all the FV means, then why not say, as the WLC Q&A 31 teaches, that the CoG was made only with Christ as the second Adam and with all the elect who would be united to him in the new birth? In other words, why not conceive the promise of the covenant of grace as pertaining ONLY to the elect, although administered to the entire visible church? If that is what FV means, then what have they brought to the Reformed church other than confusion (at best)? If that is not what they mean, then what are they trying to say? [The prosecution indicated a sense of this when WCF expert Robert Letham was on the stand. Yet the prosecution never pursued the matter with Leithart, the man on trial.]
I think they mean more because (a) Federal Visionists believe they have more to offer the church beyond the confessions, and (b) they make much to do about the identical union that all have through baptism. One prominent Federal Visionist says that the “same sap” runs through all the branches of the Vine, whether elected unto final salvation or not.

[A key point that remained absent from the prosecution's questioning is that Peter Leithart along with Federal Vision thought they had new insights. After all, Reformed is not enough. Accordingly, if nothing in Leithart's testimony was new to Reformed thought, then either he was not being truthful or he did not understand basic Reformation, confessional-theology in the first place. Either way he his credentials would be suspect. Furthermore, the prosecution applied statements of Leithart's to the invisible church when Leithart claimed they applied to how we are to regard members of the visible church. (Such was even done  as late as yesterday on Greenbaggins by the prosecutor in the case.) Yet the incongruity of the plain meaning of words was not pressed to the point of two possible conclusions, perjury or unclear communication, again both unbecoming of officers in the church.

Yet the real point of contention in the case was the quality of "faith" the reprobate can have even though its "duration" was admittedly not unto glory. Leithart drew a proper distinction, teased out by a lawyer on his side of the case, but the workings of that theology and how it relates to other points of theology was left uncovered by the prosecution. The "common operations of the Spirit," the real crux of the matter, was not thoroughly dealt with. It wasn't even superficially dealth with, which I found odd given that the case boiled down to the manner or degree in which the unbeliever can be united to Christ and participate in kingdom life.]

Case in point – a pastor now associated with Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches candidated at my church prior to our considering and calling our existing pastor. While enjoying a cigar with this man on my porch on the Lord’s Day he preached to our congregation, I challenged him on some of his FV leanings. His position at that time was that there are those who are engrafted into Christ that share in the same operations of the Spirit as the elect. I challenged this man, asking him to elaborate on the elect’s assurance (even infallible assurance) of salvation given his view that some with the same measure of the Spirit can and will fall away from Christ. In other words, if those with the witness of the Spirit can fall away, then how can assurance of final salvation be obtained in this life? His response was concise and without ambiguity. Without pause he said that he took exception to the Confession’s chapter on assurance of grace and salvation. Although we finished the cigar and went back to evening service, I was confident at that very moment that this man would not receive the call. When I emailed the pastor to tell him my verdict and what my recommendation to the search committee and session would be, he responded by saying that he misspoke, went back and re-read the Confession and actually can affirm that men can be assured of their salvation. I was thrilled to hear that he came around on the matter but disheartened that he had such a fragile handle on the matter. That is just ONE reason why I don’t find most Federal Visionsists heretical but rather simply muddled. That man, BTW, was ordained in the OPC and actually at one time had pastored a church in the denomination.

“We affirm that there is only one true Church, and that this Church can legitimately be considered under various descriptions, including the aspects of visible and invisible."
This is one of the most troubling statements of the FV. [Though even that has been met with disagreement of late at Greenbaggins by two non-FV people citing Berkhof and Hodge. See recent post of mind of days ago, which addresses the matter.] The statement communicates that there is only one church, which can be described in terms of its being visible and invisible. The implication of such a construct is that the invisible church and the visible church are the same church. From that false premise comes much confusion and outright error. To make the point more clearly, consider the following modification of the statement: We affirm that there is only one true God, and that this God can legitimately be considered under various descriptions, including the aspects of transcendence and immanence. The modified statement, which uses the same construct of the FV statement, clearly communicates that the one transcendent God is the same God as the immanent God. That is true. Transcendence and immanence are simply two aspects of the one God. Is the FV statement true in this way? Is the visible church the same church as invisible church? The FV statement clearly implies that they are one and the same; for it states that there is “only one true Church” that can be described in various ways, like visible and invisible. How can they claim such a theology and also claim to be Reformed?
In contrast to FV theology, now consider Reformed theology: “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all…The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
Note the difference. Within Reformed theology the invisible and visible churches are not the same church. The invisible church consists of the elect who will all possess Christ, whereas the visible church consists of those who profess Christ. On that basis alone, the FV may not be considered “Reformed” in any sense of the word.
It is not a matter of whether these men are muddled or ravenous wolves; their doctrines are at best confusing and at worst damnable. I also agree with Lane ["Greenbaggins"] when he intimated that this matter would not beep nearly as much on the reformed radar screen if the proponents of FV confined themselves to one locale, say the CREC. In the end, I do believe the fire has been well contained and that the ones who remain within the confines of the PCA are on a very short leash, under close watch and at best smoldering. They have been given a fair hearing in many quarters and consistently have been found wanting. For that we can all be grateful. June, 2010

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Friday, April 05, 2013

The SJC, Whiners and Moving Targets

There are sundry complaints floating about regarding the SJC's decision regarding the Peter Leithart case. (i) The SJC should have overruled the presbytery’s decision. (ii) By not doing so the PCA condones or will be perceived as condoning Federal Vision. (iii) The BCO needs to be amended.
Those three complaints seem to be a progression of thought. Once it became apparent that the SJC might have exercised good principles in not overturning the Presbytery’s decision the unhappy crowd turned to a pragmatic argument, the ramifications of the SJC’s decision not to overrule the Presbytery’s decision. Now that those assertions are being challenged and debunked, the flavor of the day seems to be the supposed weakness in the BCO.

Regarding (i), we must keep in mind that the SJC was not permitted to take into account any evidence other than those things pertaining to the trial itself. Imagine, for instance, the SJC basing a guilty verdict on evidence not argued at the trial. To have done so would have been to find a man guilty without him having an opportunity to defend himself.
Regarding the trial itself two thoughts come to mind regarding Peter Leithart’s testimony. First off, nobody seemed to rejoice that Leithart affirmed Reformed theology under oath. That alone tells me that those going after him (before, at and after the trial) were doing so with a vengeance. It’s a sad day when people would sooner see a man censured than confess orthodoxy. (I saw the same thing with the Kinnaird trial.)

Secondly, a link I was sent included this quote from the Aquila Report.
“Leithart’s tactic in defending himself in trials has been to deny that the language he uses means what everyone for hundreds of years has agreed that it means...”
If that is indeed Leithart’s modus operandi, or at the least his reputation (whether true or not), then why wasn’t it anticipated by the prosecution? Even if not anticipated, if Leithart's testimony was at odds with his writings, then shouldn't he have been pursued at the trial on the basis that if he has not violated the ninth commandment under oath, then he is not fit for the office of teaching elder due to equivocal language on crucial points of theology? Yet that conclusion was not argued at the trial. Given that reality, on what basis could the SJC overturn the verdict? The trial testimony showed Leithart to be Reformed in all his dealings and based upon (i) the SJC was not in a position to try the prosecution's case for them.

Regarding (ii), the PCA does not condone Federal Vision. Their study report was superior and appropriately more nuanced than even the OPC’s, and it spoke out against the theology of Federal Vision. Now I suppose it’s possible for one to sincerely infer that the PCA condones Federal Vision, but I don’t think for a moment that those who are saying such things today really believe it. In any case, let someone bring forth an actual argument that the PCA condones Federal Vision; or that the implication is they do; or that it might be rationally inferred that they do. (One problem is, the ones asserting such things also don’t realize that there were no actual arguments presented to indict Mr. Leithart. Secondly, a movement wasn't on trial, a man because of his theology was.)

Regarding (iii), how is the BCO to be amended without becoming Episcopalian? Do we really want to see Presbyteries rely on the SJC more than it should?

I see all this as a fine providence and outright victory for Presbyterian government. If a man is guilty of something, the presbytery better do its job.

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