Federal Vision, Peter Leithart & the Reality of Doctrinal Standards in the PCA

I love the PCA, but I am perplexed and heart-broken by the SJC's decision to uphold the Pacific Northwest Presbytery's exoneration of Peter Leithart

I really do love the PCA. I want to believe the best of my fathers and brothers on the SJC. I have tremendous respect for them and great sympathy for the position the PNWP put them in. But ultimately, when it comes to guarding the doctrinal integrity of the PCA, the buck stops with the SJC. In this case, I have to conclude that they failed.

 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those who are confused, this a bit of an “insider” post for PCA people in the know. Peter Leithart is a PCA pastor who has taught and written that when infants are baptized, they are regenerated (“born again”), united to Christ and justified. Thus, baptism is God’s means to truly unite an infant to Christ and to all of His benefits. Of course, an infant could grow up to be an unbeliever, “falling away” from the faith and thus losing all benefits of the previous union with Christ. Thus justification (salvation) is something which can be lost; you can be justified and then lose your justification. This whole scheme of salvation is more in line with the teachings of Roman Catholicism than Biblical Reformed Christianity, as expressed in the Westminster Confession. Leithart expressed these views in The Baptized Body, among other places.]

I love the PCA, but I am perplexed and heart-broken by the SJC’s decision to uphold the Pacific Northwest Presbytery’s exoneration of Peter Leithart. I actually like Peter Leithart and have enjoyed some of his books and articles, but I find it impossible to believe that his theology is in line with the PCA’s understanding of the Westminster Confession of Faith or of the essence of the Gospel itself. I am a fairly conservative Confessionalist and have argued that our true unity as a denomination rests in our faithfulness to the WCF as our unifying standard, our common confession. But in this case, one does not even have to be a strict Confessionalist to be perplexed and deeply troubled by this decision.

Think about the facts:

1. In 2006, we appointed a PCA Study Committee on the Federal Vision theology. Their findings were overwhelmingly adopted by the GA [at the 2007 General assembly]. One thing that strict and “good faith,” conservative and progressive PCA folks seemed to agree on was that the Federal Vision represented a serious threat to the essence of the Gospel.

2. Peter Leithart has been a strong public advocate of Federal Vision theology for many years. His views are well known and a matter of public record in books, articles, conference addresses, etc. The list of nine resolutions on the Federal Vision adopted by the PCA GA in 2007 reads like a point-for-point condemnation of Leithart’s theology.

3. Many of Leithart’s colleagues in the Federal Vision movement withdrew from the PCA after the 2007 GA, men whose views are identical to Leithart’s. Leithart, rather than withdraw when his theology was point-for-point condemned in an overwhelming vote at GA, decided to stay and fight a battle of equivocation.

4. 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. When he was called out for teaching baptismal regeneration and basically every single point condemned in 2007, he responded by saying that every significant theological term he uses (justification, union with Christ, regeneration, covenant, etc.) means something different when he uses it than when anyone else has ever used it in history.

5. Even the Pacific Northwest Presbytery cautioned Leithart that his use of language was confusing and unwise. Yet the books have been written and published, many people have been led astray into a sacramental/Roman Catholic-style “Gospel” and even more people are still more confused than ever following the trials.

6. The SJC overwhelmingly supported Pacific Northwest Presbytery’s decision to clear Leithart and leave his PCA teaching elder credentials intact, despite a long record of writing and teaching things which have, at best, caused massive confusion and which, in fact, have been specifically condemned by the PCA.

So what should I conclude from this decision?

Here’s what I feel forced to conclude, as much as I really don’t want to:

In the PCA, a teaching elder can teach doctrines which are not only contrary to the Confession but which are specifically condemned by the General Assembly. He can do so publicly, repeatedly and unrepentantly, as long as his Presbytery is willing to clear him on the grounds that he didn’t really mean what he said. As long as he can skillfully equivocate, spinning his words to mean something very different from what everyone else means by them, he can teach whatever he wants.

I really don’t want to conclude this. I really do love the PCA. I want to believe the best of my fathers and brothers on the SJC. I have tremendous respect for them and great sympathy for the position the PNWP put them in. But ultimately, when it comes to guarding the doctrinal integrity of the PCA, the buck stops with the SJC. In this case, I have to conclude that they failed.

Without a willingness to enforce doctrinal standards, we do not really have any. Officially, as a denomination, we are not in support of Federal Vision, paedocommunion or theistic evolution. Yet if we continue to allow PCA teaching elders to advocate, write, speak and defend these views without consequence, the positions we adopt against them are meaningless.

I love the PCA, but I am heart-broken- sad, bewildered, confused.  I don’t hate Peter Leithart. I don’t think he’s evil, but I cannot understand how he can still be a teaching elder in the PCA with everything that he has written and taught. It just doesn’t make sense. If we won’t guard the essence of the Gospel (regeneration, justification & union with Christ), what will we guard?

More complete analysis of the SJC decision itself is here.

Another helpful post, which clarifies that the problem in this case does not rest with the SJC but with the BCO, go here.

I suggest an overture to amend the BCO.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Faith PCA in Cheraw, S.C. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.