Westminster in the Dock: Reflections on the Peter Leithart Trial

Oct 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Last weekend, Called to Communion’s Tim Troutman and I got together for drinks with a fellow that Tim sponsored in his parish’s RCIA program. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I had been reading the transcripts and other documents pertaining to the Peter Leithart trial in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Tim’s friend, a former Baptist, had never heard of Leithart, the PCA, or the Federal Vision, but he instantly interjected: “Wait a minute. Are you saying that this guy is on trial because of his doctrine?” Thinking that a stock modern objection to that sort of thing was about to be raised, I responded, “Yeah, but its not like Joan of Arc, or Calvin’s Geneva, or the Galileo trial, where the power of the secular sword stood behind the ecclesial court. Leithart is not going to be killed or imprisoned or anything.” But besides stating the obvious, I had misread my man. “Of course not,” he responded. “I am just glad to hear that someone still takes doctrine seriously.”

This Baptist-turned-Catholic went on to say that, in addition to his love of history (think of Newman’s famous aphorism), it was his passion for doctrine that led him to the Catholic Church. Those who are to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church must first make the following profession of faith: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” So, when the Catholic Church “believes, teaches, and proclaims” that something has been revealed by God, every Catholic is solemnly bound to believe and profess the same, with the full assent of faith, with no exceptions. That, at the very least, is what it means for a Catholic to “take doctrine seriously.” [1]

In their own way, confessional Protestants also take doctrine seriously. The Leithart trial is evidence of this. Leithart was charged “with holding and defending theological views that strike at the fundamentals of the doctrinal system of the Westminster Standards, against the peace, unity and purity of the Church, and the honor and majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the King and Head thereof” (source). Specifically, Leithart was charged “with contradicting the Westminster Standards and Scripture” on five counts; namely, in his teaching concerning: (1) baptism, (2) the covenant of works, (3) justification and sanctification, (4) imputation, and (5) union with Christ and apostasy. [2]

I am not particularly interested in the question of whether Leithart is guilty of contradicting the Westminster Standards. One could say that that is none of my business. (As it turned out, the Standing Judicial Commission, in a unanimous decision, declared Leithart not guilty on each charge.) However, I am interested in those aspects of the trial that bear upon issues that have been discussed and debated here at Called to Communion. These include (though are by no means limited to) the differences between the prosecution and the defense on the necessity of conjoining “and Scripture” to “contradicts the Westminster Standards” in the charges against Leithart. Sorting through the different perspectives on the place of Scripture in this controversy of religion led me to wonder, “What is ultimately at stake here? What of real consequence would follow if Leithart’s views are shown to be incompatible with the views expressed in the Westminster Standards?” This aspect of the Leithart trial, which calls to mind the extensive Sola versus Solo Scriptura discussion at CTC, is the subject of the reflections in this post.

Scripture within the Limits of Westminster Alone

In its opening statement (from Transcript of Proceedings, PCA v. Leithart), the prosecution claimed that “we [ministers in the PCA] are not Biblicists who insist on retaining ultimate interpretive authority but are members of a confessional denomination that is supposed to take very seriously the theological tradition handed down to us.” Furthermore, the prosecution maintained that Leithart’s views being in some sense based on Scripture is a “non-issue,” due to the facts that Scripture needs to be interpreted and Leithart has vowed to uphold the interpretation of Scripture put forward in the Westminster Standards.” [3]

As related in Attachment B: Chronology, no reference to Scripture was made in the original charges against Leithart. The defense requested that “portions of the word of God” which Leithart is supposed to contradict be listed in the charges. The prosecution amended the indictment, adding “and Scripture” to “contradicts the Westminster Standards,” together with 20 Scripture citations. The prosecution refused, however, to assume the burden of proving the case against Leithart from Scripture. This was presumed to be unnecessary,

Given that (1) our denomination’s constitution already states that the Westminster Standards are “standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture,” and (2) in our ordination vows all PCA ministers promise that they “sincerely receive and adopt Westminster Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” the prosecution’s answer to the defense is that we will neither comply with request #1 by confirming for the record that we will attempt to prove that TE Leithart violates each and every passage listed in the indictment….

Nor is it our aim to prove to the court that the Westminster Standards provide us with the Bible’s system of doctrine (since we have already vowed before God and his Church that such is the case).

Given that “the Westminster Standards provide us with the Bible’s system of doctrine,” it would seem to suffice, at least for the “us” for whom those Standards are a given, to resolve the issue with reference to the Westminster Standards alone. The prosecution continues:

Our aim is not to reinvent the wheel or to reconvene the Westminster Assembly and redo all its hard work. Our aim, rather, is to take seriously the vows we affirmed at ordination and demonstrate that Leithart’s views and teachings, while perhaps proof-textable, are not confessional and, therefore, are not biblical either.

In the second sentence of this statement, the first clause should probably be taken as qualifying the second, to the effect that Leithart’s views are “not confessional and, therefore, given our ordination vows in which we all affirmed that the Standards are biblical, not biblical either.” That is, this statement of the prosecution is probably not meant to imply that the views set forth by the Westminster Assembly are ipso facto biblical. Nevertheless, it remains a strong assertion of confessional authority.

By contrast, the defense’s interpretation of how Scripture and confession are related as standards by which Leithart should be judged was made evident in its response to the prosecutor’s comments about how Scripture relates to the indictment and the trial. The defense was quite eager to appeal to the “supreme judge” in this controversy of religion, relegating the confession to a subordinate and “helping” role:

It is an absolute and fundamental confession of our heritage and faith that the only rule of faith is the Word of God. To set this rule aside in judicial process within the church courts, the highest place in which the rule must be kept, would be to set aside one of the fundamentals of our system of doctrine, if not strike at the vitals of religion. To assert that one need only appeal to the constructions of the Westminster Assembly to act as a judge by which this controversy of religion is to be determined, would be an assertion in direct violation of the very standard adopted by that Assembly:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1:10.)

As a theological and historical note, it is impossible to overestimate the centrality of this statement in the Confession to our Reformed tradition. To set it aside for any reason, so that the decrees of a council might act as the judge in this matter with only indirect or secondary reference to the Word of God would amount to a repudiation of the driving doctrine of the early Reformed churches and the principle by which all Reformed churches derive their name.

Pursuing the thesis that judgment in a religious controversy must ultimately depend upon the law of Scripture alone, the defense went on to quote F.P. Ramsey (1856-1926) from his Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States:

But if [the church] should be on the point of judicially prosecuting for something  contrary to the standards indeed, but not to the Word of God, she must not enforce the standards as law rather than the Scriptures; for only the Scriptures is law in this Church.

In human government, where the legislature is as fallible as the judiciary, the interpretation of the law by courts may be treated as itself law, within certain limitations; but not in the Church, whose law, the Scriptures, is infallible, but whose standard interpretation, the symbols of doctrine and order, are fallible.

In its appeal to Scripture, the defense seemed to be pulling back the lens, so to speak, indicating that the significance of the charges against Leithart is not ultimately relative to the opinions found in a fallible document affirmed by the ministers of a single denomination. The defense appeared to be urging the prosecution to go to the heart of the matter, i.e., the truth or falsehood of Leithart’s views, by appealing directly to the absolute law that alone can bind the (Protestant’s) conscience–the written word of God.

Clearly, the prosecution did not want this trial to devolve upon its own interpretation of Scripture versus Leithart’s interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, the Westminster Standards were invoked as the interpretation of Scripture having authority in the PCA, as containing, by the common agreement of the ordained ministers in that denomination, the essentially correct interpretation of God’s word. In which case, the charge that Leithart “contradicts the Westminster Standards and Scripture” reduces to “contradicts Scripture as understood within the limits of the Westminster Standards.” In what follows, I will examine the significance of the charge that Leithart has contradicted God’s word in the relative sense of contradicting the Westminster Standards.

Confessional Authority and the Rules of Golf 

Appeal to confessional authority is only as good as the authority of the confession to which one appeals. Almost everyone agrees that the Westminster Standards are both fallible and (in principle) subject to the higher authority of infallible Scripture. But being both fallible and subject (in principle) to an infallible authority is not sufficient for derivative or secondary authority, at least, not in any interesting sense of “authority.” [4] Every (Protestant) interpretation based on the Bible is both fallible and (in principle) subject to the word of God, but not every such interpretation is authoritative. This is, I think, the point that the prosecution was making in its opening statement: “basing one’s beliefs on the Bible is easy as long as we remain the ultimate arbiter of what the Bible means. In fact, it’s not just easy, it’s almost tautological and self-evident.”

The Westminster Standards are obviously distinct from the private interpretation of a single person in that they are the result of the collaborative effort of some 150 men working together for six years towards the reconstruction of the Church of England, as instructed by the Long Parliament in the context of the English Civil War (cf. The Westminster Assembly). However, given the prosecution’s claim that “we are not Biblicists who insist on retaining ultimate interpretive authority but are members of a confessional denomination that is supposed to take very seriously the theological tradition handed down to us,” it is ironic that the men who produced the confession to which the prosecution appeals did not take seriously the theological tradition handed down to them, nor did they take seriously the secondary authority by which that tradition was handed down, as evidenced by the fact that they cast aside both the doctrine and the bishops of the Church of England, and set up themselves, and their own doctrine, instead. In other words, the Westminster Standards represent a repudiation of church authority. Granted that a stream cannot rise higher than its source, the authority of these Standards cannot be ecclesial authority, at least, not in the conservative sense of passing on a tradition that has been received from the ecclesia.

Nor are the Westminister Standards authoritative in the sense of being the collective interpretation of Scripture that is agreed upon by the majority of people who desire to be subject to the supreme authority of Scripture. The Standards are consensus documents, but they do not represent the consensus of most Bible believers. Furthermore, the environment of collective interpretation of Scripture is a competitive one. The Westminster Assembly does not stand out among the groups of Bible believers who have composed collective interpretations of the word of God, either by virtue of institutional prestige, or scholarship, or antiquity, or some other indicator of relative authority, so to be able to say, with distinct authority, that such-and-so is the system of doctrine taught in Sacred Scripture.

Instead, what seems to be the case is that the Westminster Standards are authoritative in the way that club rules are authoritative for everyone who plays golf at a particular course. Club members do not, in principle, conflate the authority of their club rules with the authority of the rules of golf. They simply insist that, if you are going to play golf at our course, you play by our rules.

Something like the latter sense of authority was obviously involved in this trial. Leithart’s club membership (i.e., his place among the ordained ministers in the PCA) hung in the balance. However, it seems almost as obvious that the prosecution had something more in mind, in its appeal to the Westminster Standards. In fact, those who adhere to the Westminster Standards as authoritative in matters of religion commonly claim that this authority depends upon the conformity of those Standards to the word of God. The prosecution appeared to be maintaining that the Standards conform to the word of God in such a way that to break the club rules on a matter that is essential to those rules (as Leithart was accused of doing) is to break the rules of golf. Thus, the “club rules” sort of authority, while applicable here, does not cover the case. The prosecution, as made clear in the revised indictment, was charging Leithart with breaking the rules of golf (contradicting Scripture), as judged by the authority of club rules (the Westminster Standards). And that, if nothing else, makes this case a matter of interest for everyone who plays golf.

Westminster in the Dock

How do its adherents, including (by profession) all parties in the Leithart trial, know that the Westminster Standards are conformable to the word God, such that the system of doctrine set forth in this confession is essentially that system of doctrine taught in Scripture? Having the correct interpretation of Scripture is not an essential property of an ecclesial community not protected by the gift of infallibility. So one would have to argue that the Westminster Assembly, as it so happened, discovered the authentic meaning of Sacred Scripture and set forth that meaning in an essentially correct manner. Unfortunately for those who appeal to the Westminster Standards as a secondary authority, being correct in this way does not involve any interesting sort of authority, since any individual or group can be “authoritative” in the sense of happening to be correct in its interpretation of Scripture.

Furthermore, this sort of “authority” is obviously unhelpful as an indicator of the correct interpretation of Scripture, that is, for those who have qualms about begging the question. In the prosecution’s own words, “basing one’s beliefs on the Bible is easy so long as we remain the ultimate arbiter of what the Bible means” and “basing one’s own doctrine upon one’s own interpretation of scripture apart from being sort of obvious is tantamount to saying that one agrees with himself….” These claims, made in the context of arguing that Leithart’s views should be subject to the confessional standards of the PCA, have the same force when applied both to the assembly that created the Westminster Standards, and whatever group subsequently adopts them as its own. The “we” who remain the ultimate arbiter of what the Bible means includes the Westminster divines and the ministers of the PCA, whose “biblical basis” is just as tautological as Leithart’s own biblical basis, which is essentially that each party is convinced that they (he) is correct in their (his) interpretation of Scripture.

The prosecution asserted, and the defense agreed, that the Westminster Standards were not on trial in the case at hand. However, the significance of that case does depend, from the prosecution’s point of view especially, on the intrinsic authority of those Standards. Thus, if we wish to understand what is ultimately at stake in the Leithart trial, we must put the Westminster Assembly itself in the dock. That is what I have tried to do, briefly, in this post. Bryan and Neal, extensively and more generally, have done something similar in their article on Sola Scriptura and the question of ultimate interpretive authority. If these analyses are right, then the authority of the Westminster Standards is in principle no greater than the authority of one’s own interpretation of Scripture, since this confession is not authoritative in any sense other than being the club rules of one among many denominations, and the only way to judge of the correctness of those rules is by private interpretation of Scripture.

I can appreciate the fact that the prosecution was, at the very least, concerned to maintain the relative doctrinal integrity of the PCA, to hold a brother presbyter accountable to their common, agreed-upon (though in principle reversible) system of doctrine. But that system of doctrine, insofar as it originated from men who were contradicting and rebelling against their own church’s doctrine and government, and insofar as it is not unique in kind nor notably distinct from its competitors in any respect other than content, cannot plausibly be taken as a correct exposition of the teaching of Scripture on grounds other than private interpretation; i.e., agreement with the Westminster Standards is not in principle distinct from agreement with oneself.

Insofar as the Leithart trial was an internal matter of the PCA, and was not a case involving a proposed revision of its doctrinal standards, this fact is irrelevant. But insofar as the trial involved absolute truth claims on matters of doctrine, then the status of the Westminster Standards as an indicator of doctrinal truth is relevant to anyone interested in assessing the truth of various doctrines, including the doctrines of baptism, grace and works, justification and sanctification, imputation, and union with Christ and apostasy. For the reasons given in this post, it seems to me that the Westminster Standards are not particularly significant as an indicator of doctrinal truth. This does not entail that the collective opinions of the Westminster Assembly, as adhered to by their denominational posterity for some 350 years, are in all respects insignificant (far from it), only that they do not bear such marks of authority as should make for a substantial difference (say, anywhere from indicating probability to being decisive) in the hermeneutical process of discovering the doctrinal content of Sacred Scripture.


[1] Presumably, most readers of this website will already agree that doctrine is important. However, for the sake of clarity, I should at least define the term. Christian doctrine, in the most general sense, is the concise, propositional expression–that which is believed, taught, and confessed–of the content of divine revelation as interpreted by the Church, the churches, or individuals. It is true that doctrine, in this sense, is not to be simply conflated with divine revelation; i.e., the Church’s doctrinal definitions, even those that are considered to be infallible, are not inspired. It is also true that the Church’s way of life, her tradition, is much more than an exercise in doctrinal development. But the Church’s tradition is not less than doctrinal, and the way that her doctrine develops has profound consequences for her life.

 [2] Leithart’s views on each of these matters are well worth considering, especially his “socio-theological,” or personalist-relational, understanding of Baptism. At one point in the trial, Leithart and his interlocutors touched on the question of how a priori theological commitments can dictate the way we interpret what Scripture says about Baptism. This is something that was considered on this website a couple of years ago in the post, Baptism Now Saves You: Some (More) Prolegomena. Leithart also alluded to the relation of Baptism to personal assurance of being a part of God’s family. This topic was discussed at CTC as well, in the post, Protestant Angelina, Catholic Angelina.

[3] It might be instructive, however, to compare these claims to the first of the “Preliminary Principles” in the Preface to the PCA’s Book of Church Order:

God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.

I am not sure that the above conclusion follows from the stated premises, but in any event the affirmation of a universal and inalienable right to private judgment in all matters that respect religion seems a lot like individuals “retaining ultimate interpretive authority.”

[4] By “derivative” or “secondary” authority, I mean the sort of authority that, even if fallible, constitutes a reason for believing something to be true. Authority can serve as an independent indicator of truth in cases where simply verifying the authority by which a proposition is asserted gives us a reason to believe that proposition. In this way, authority is a kind of evidence. For example: If I know that my doctor is fully-qualified to practice medicine, then there are circumstances in which I can reasonably believe that the drug he prescribes for my ailment will really counter-act that ailment. Of course, I can consult other experts, and if I find that they contradict one another on this matter, then medical authority would cease to be a sufficient reason to believe. Expertise does not automatically confer authority, but consensus among experts, all things being equal, does seem to constitute a sort of “epistemic authority.” In allowing for the existence of relative yet genuine authority, I am following up on the point made by Neal Judisch in the second part of a comment in the “Solo versus Sola” discussion thread.

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  1. Andrew,

    This is helpful as I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly went on with this trial. I get that pastors in the PCA have agreed to follow the WCF and so should be disciplined or “excommunicated” for rejecting important parts of it.

    It seems ironic to me that these Reformed Christians are arguing over the interpretation of the WCF (whether Leithart’s beliefs are compatible with it or not), since presumably one purpose of the WCF itself was to provide a clear summary of Reformed teachings based on their interpretation of the Scriptures. But apparently the WCF is not clear to all the leaders of the PCA, as some (the prosecution) think Leithart’s beliefs fall outside of it while others (the defense and, apparently, the judges) think they fall within the WCF’s bounds. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Hey Devin,

    I don’t think that the debate over the compatibility of Leithart’s views (and the Federal Vision generally) with the Westminster Standards is problematic from the standpoint of the clarity of the Standards, since they were not written with the FV in mind. The same sort of thing can be seen, for example, in Tom B.’s recent post and some of the follow-up discussion on the compatibility of Vatican 2 with, e.g., Florence on the doctrine of EENS. Florence simply did not consider or anticipate certain aspects of the matter, which became clearer over time.


  3. Hi Devin,
    You said:
    “presumably one purpose of the WCF itself was to provide a clear summary of Reformed teachings based on their interpretation of the Scriptures. ”

    One thing that might help you understand more is that you will be hard pressed to find a Reformed guy saying that the WCF is based on an “interpretation”. That is just not how they think about it. And imo, there are precious few things one could definitively show that contradicted the WCF in many of the FV beliefs. Paedocommunion is one, because the WCF IS clear on who should partake. Otherthan that, what Andrew said in #2 comes into play. The divines in the 17th century simply did not have the FV in mind. They need a magisterium, but instead they just split and form new churches. That was one of the things that lead me to seriously lose faith in the Reformation.

    Viva il Papa!

    David Meyer

  4. I’m trying to understand all of this, too. This is what I’ve gathered from your post and a few on some Reformed blogs. The prosecution’s stance was that the interpretation of Scripture in the Westminster Standard is authentically biblical and is, therefore, the “confessional” lens through which the Scriptures must be interpreted. This is the stance that was used to chop off the defense at the knees, for Leithart’s personal interpretation of Scripture, no matter how well grounded it may have been, would be irrelevant if the authoritative documents had become the Westminster Standards rather than the Scriptures themselves. Essentially, it appears that the prosecution shifted authority from the Good Book to their confessional codex of the Good Book, thereby (unintentionally, I’m sure) subjugating its authority to a set of traditions or interpretations (not setting it on equal authoritative footing because they took the “Scriptures” off the table by only accusing the defense of not following the Westminster Standards).

    In the end, the prosecution was not convincing enough and lost the case. This should be extremely problematic for the PCA, especially those who “sided” with the defense. First, the choice to strike the accusation that Leihart’s views contradict Scripture directly (which was a good strategy) left them with proving that Leithart’s views contradicted the interpretation of Scripture in the Westminster Confessions. As I said before, that puts them in the position of admitting that personal interpretation of Scripture is not allowed in their Protestant confession and the only interpretation that is acceptable (the only one guided by the Holy Spirit) would be that which is contained in the Westminster Confessions, obviously elevating Westminster to a position of authority that is either equal to Scripture (if they had not stricken the accusation that Leithart contradicted Scripture directly) or that Westminster is of higher authority than Scripture (which seems to be the case here). The fact that they lost the case implies that their peers do not hold that the prosecution’s interpretation of the interpretation of Scripture in the Westminster Standards is biblical. So, the prosecutors are now on an island, it appears. Their peers within their confession, to them, necessarily hold an unbiblical view of the Westmister Standards and vice versa. Either the Westminster Standards are unbiblical altogether and both sides are wrong in this case, or, out of necessity and intellectual honesty, the sides have to part ways and yet another Presbyterian offshoot is about to be born.

    Unless I’m not understanding something. I’ve read a few comments on Reformed blogs where PCA members have taken the stance that Leithart and those who agree with him are not Christians at all and they are severely distressed over this decision. If that’s any indicator, then I believe my assessment to be rather accurate. I posted here because I dare not post this on a Reformed blog and stir the hornet’s nest.

  5. Andrew,

    I see what you’re saying. But that fact makes me think that, in effect, this group of Presbyterians have what amounts to a catechism and a magisterium: the WCF is the catechism and the leaders of the presbytery (the magisterium) clarify the meaning of the document when new challenges arise that were not foreseen. Not unlike the Catholic Church, though of course with some important differences.

  6. Joseph,

    In my opinion, the prosecution’s appeal to the Standards did not have the effect of undermining Sola Scriptura, but was simply a logical move (and, as you note, a good strategy) based on the premises that all the parties involved have already signified their agreement with the system of doctrine (in its essentials) set forth in the Standards, and no one is raising an objection to that system. So we can all save a lot of time and effort by starting with Westminster, even though, in principle, we don’t start with Westminster, we start with Scripture alone.

    The defense’s victory did not necessarily signify a rejection of the prosecution’s own doctrinal views. What it signified, given that the defense made a point of appealing directly to Scripture, despite their contention (and subsequent arguments to the effect) that Leithart’s views are compatible with the Standards, is that, whether or not they are being explicitly challenged, the Westminster Standards are perpetually up for grabs, per the principle of Sola Scriptura.

    There are contrasting paradigms within the PCA, including but not limited to the Federal Vision and its opponents. This is to be expected, and is not of course unique to that denomination. Are these various visions and doctrines consistent with unity in faith on essential matters? And who, ultimately, says so? Within Protestantism, the second question can only be answered, “I do,” with the result that disagreement over the first question perpetually ends in schism.

  7. All,

    I was the prosecutor (in case you didn’t know). I haven’t had the time to read the entire article or all the comments, but I just wanted to clarify something.

    Unlike the Bible, the Westminster Standards are amendable, and there is a specific process by which some statement or section of them, if shown to be incorrect, can be changed. So the claim that “if PCA ministers are bound to the Westminster Standards, then that elevates those Standards to the same level of authority as the Bible” is untrue. We can’t change Scripture, but we can change the Westminster Confession.

    Maybe this all seems odd to you Catholics since you don’t typically discipline your own renegade theologians, I don’t know. But in a confessional denomination like the PCA, you simply don’t get to teach things that strike at the vitals of the system of doctrine set forth in our confession and catechisms.

  8. Hey Jason,

    I debated with myself whether to use “the prosecution” or “Jason” in this post. On the whole, it seemed better to follow the example set in the trial, and go with the former: “prosecution” and “defense” (though maybe I should have used the third person plural pronoun, rather than the impersonal singular). Anyway, yeah I knew that you were the prosecutor.

    I cannot find the claim that “if PCA ministers are bound to the Westminster Standards, then that elevates those Standards to the same level of authority as the Bible” anywhere in the comments. It is not a claim that I make in the post, and I agree that it is not true.

    The trial does not seem odd to me, insofar as it is a matter of holding someone accountable to a common profession of faith. In that sense, the trial seems good to me, as I tried to indicate in the first part of the post, as well as in the concluding paragraph. The case seemed odd, even paradoxical, for other reasons, ones that have been discussed before and that I raise again, though with a slightly different twist, in the body of the post.


  9. Andrew,

    I may have hastily read this:

    Essentially, it appears that the prosecution shifted authority from the Good Book to their confessional codex of the Good Book, thereby (unintentionally, I’m sure) subjugating its authority to a set of traditions or interpretations (not setting it on equal authoritative footing because they took the “Scriptures” off the table by only accusing the defense of not following the Westminster Standards).

    and misinterpreted it. If so, sorry.

  10. JJS,

    Maybe this all seems odd to you Catholics since you don’t typically discipline your own renegade theologians

    This apparently derogatory comparison between the ever-vigilant disciplinary arm or the PCA and the lax Magisterium of the Catholic Church really ought to be offered in conjunction with some demonstration of the implied discrepancy. As it stands, the remark strikes me as little more than a rash side swipe. Here are just a few considerations that might keep a Catholic from hiding his head in shame upon reading that sentence.

    1.) Leithart (and the FV dispute in general) has been out there for quite some time prior to this recent action. How does that fact differ in principle from Magisterial discipline of theos like Hans Kung and other theologians since Vatican II, other than perhaps the time lapse between first public awareness of controversial writings and public discipline for the same? I am not even sure that the disciplinary action directed at Leithart was sooner in coming than was the case of various dissenting Catholic theologians over the last few decades. Even if it was demonstrably quicker, the difference in disciplinary timing amounts to a prudential pastoral decision. Catholic theologians have been roundly disciplined, and they can be named – even if you want to argue that the discipline was comparatively insufficient in either speed or severity or both.

    2.) Many “Catholic” theologians are not pastor/priests of parishes. Nor have they taken any vow or oath of fidelity to the Magisterium (though I wish to God they would) on a par with Leithart’s profession concerning the WCF. Hence, the grounds for dicsipline would not even be similar. By comparison, are we to believe that there are no heretics among theologians teaching at any number of universities throughout the US who describe themselves as “Presbyterian” or even attend a PCA church on Sunday? Presumably there are, and presumably (since no vows of fidelity to the WCF or PCA took place) there is not a thing in the world that the PCA can do about it other than let the world know that such theos are not “really” Presbyterian (or at least not of the PCA Presbyterian type). The Catholic Magisterium has not only disciplined priest/pastors who have vowed obedience; the Magisterium has ALSO disciplined teaching theologians by formally announcing the removal of a theologian’s license to teach AS a Catholic theologian. Legally, the Magisterium cannot force him or her to no longer teach, but she can let the world know that his or her teaching does not accurately represent the Catholic faith. This the Magisterium has done. Has the PCA done anything similar regarding non-pastor Presbyterian theologians (I ask in all sincerity with the hope that the PCA has)?

    3. The Catholic Church is many, many, many, many times larger than the PCA in terms of total Catholics, as well as total theologians. Given as much, it is no suprise to me that human inattentiveness or unawareness may result in more dissent slipping through the cracks than one would hope. Yet one might wonder, would the PCA organ(s) of discipline really be any more vigilant or successful, or radically different in prudential approach to theological dissent if it were attempting to manage a worldwide organization as large as the Catholic Church?

    I am all for quicker and clearer action on the part of the Magisterium with regard to publicly damaging theological dissent. I have no investment in arguing that the Catholic Magisterium is doing the best job it can, or even that it does a better relative job than the PCA – maybe it does worse. Still, I really think your comment is somewhat uncharitable – at least its implications ought to be supported if the remark is to be made at all.

    Pax Christi,


  11. Ray,

    You’re reading more meaning into my sentence than I intended it to convey, honestly. I only said it because (1) there seemed to be some genuine confusion among Catholics about what on earth we were doing in this trial, and (2) I have heard Catholics say (in response to Reformed people when they criticize the CC for doctrinal laxity) that unlike with the Reformed, discipline is not a “mark” of the church for Catholics. I wasn’t intending to offend, and I apologize if I came across as dismissive.


  12. “Maybe this all seems odd to you Catholics since you don’t typically discipline your own renegade theologians”

    “This apparently derogatory comparison…”

    What’s derogatory? For the most part we don’t. I’m all for standing up for the Faith, but I don’t see anything to take offense at here.

  13. Ray Stamper writes: … are we to believe that there are no heretics among theologians teaching at any number of universities throughout the US who describe themselves as “Presbyterian” or even attend a PCA church on Sunday? Presumably there are, and presumably (since no vows of fidelity to the WCF or PCA took place) there is not a thing in the world that the PCA can do about it other than let the world know that such theos are not “really” Presbyterian …

    Good point, Ray.

    Harold Camping at Family Radio presents himself as an authoritative expositor of Calvinism. Who has the authority to discipline Harold Camping?

    Christ commanded that his disciples must listen to the church that he founded or suffer the pain of excommunication. Both the Catholic Church and the PCA believe they have the authority to excommunicate members that refuse to listen to the church. Obviously, the PCA and the Catholic Church do not listen to each other. So the task for a person that desires to be a disciple of Christ is to first identify the church that Christ founded, before worrying about being excommunicated from some “church” that has no divine authority to excommunicate anyone. The Catholic Church claims to be the church that Christ founded, and her claims need to be examined. The PCA, on the other hand, cannot possibly make a plausible claim that the PCA is the church founded by Christ, since the PCA is obviously a church founded by mere men. The PCA, being merely an institution established by men, has no more authority to interpret the scriptures than does Harold Camping.

    Appeal to confessional authority is only so good as the authority of the confession to which one appeals. Almost everyone agrees that the Westminster Standards are both fallible and (in principle) subject to the higher authority of infallible Scripture. … What seems to be the case is that the Westminster Standards are authoritative in the way that club rules are authoritative for everyone who plays golf at a particular course.

    Likening the authority of the Westminster Confession to club rules for golf at a particular country club is an apt analogy. The PCA has no authority to excommunicate anyone, because the PCA is not the church founded by Christ. To be excommunicated from the PCA is like losing membership in the local country club. Sure, if I want to be a member of a country club, I have to obey the rules of that country club. And if I want to be a member of the PCA, I need to accept the rules of the PCA. But if I lose membership in the country club or the PCA, what of it? The scriptures do not teach that either the local country club or the PCA has any spiritual authority that I must listen to.

  14. Mateo,

    Just to be clear, Leithart did not face excommunication, but deposition from ministry in the PCA. Without a doubt, the PCA has the authority to appoint and depose its own ministers. Excommunication, according the PCA’s Book of Church Order,

    is the excision of an offender from the communion of the Church. This censure is to be inflicted only on account of gross crime or heresy and when the offender shows himself incorrigible and contumacious. The design of this censure is to operate on the offender as a means of reclaiming him, to deliver the church from the scandal of his offense, and to inspire all with fear by the example of his discipline. (BCO, 30.4)

    Whether the PCA has authority to excommunicate anyone depends upon the intended referent of “the Church.” If the referent is simply the PCA, then such authority does seem to belong to that body. If the referent is the universal Church, i.e., the Church that Christ founded, then the question becomes that of the relation of the PCA to the Church that Christ founded. (A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary once told me that, for the Reformed, excommunication is tantamount to a declaration that, in the eyes of those delivering the sentence, an individual is not a part of the invisible church, i.e., the community of the elect, as evidenced by “gross crime or heresy” in which “the offender shows himself incorrigible and contumacious.” It appears that this is one among several Reformed views on the significance of excommunication.)

  15. Jason / Charlotte,

    Jason says he meant no offense, I therefore take him at his word and presume that I misinterpreted his intent in implying that Catholic disciplinary management of theological dissent is less vigilant or timely or decisive (or some other such thing), than is the management of theological dissent by organs of the PCA. Nevertheless, the suggestion that the recent action of the PCA should subjectively ‘seem odd’ to Catholics appears intelligible to me only if the person postulating that subjective state of affairs among Catholics presupposes that this PCA action differs in some significant way from the various disciplinary actions that the Catholic Magisterium has directed at her own dissenting theologians (and yes, she has disciplined theologians even if we believe too few and far between)? Hence, that Jason’s comment remains an assertion (we now know well intended) concerning the non-equivalency of the dissent-managing efforts of the PCA compared to the dissent-managing efforts of the Catholic Magisterium, seems to be an unavoidable implication of the quotation I initially took issue with. Nor do I have any objection to someone arguing for the truth of such a non-equivalency claim. Jason says he had no derogatory intent in mind when making his statement. Good, I believe him.

    Nevertheless, I stand by my argument that such a claim ought not to made at all unless one is going to offer an argument (not just assertion) for the claim. Of course, defense of the non-equivalency assertion entailed by Jason’s comment would not necessitate a defense of the proposition that the Catholic Magisterium is, or has been, vigilant enough about theological dissent (I might argue that later point myself). No, the defense required (if one is going to make the claim) is that the PCA does a comparatively better job at managing theological dissent than does the Catholic Magisterium. I gave some reasons for thinking that such a conclusion is not just obvious. I am not trying to be pedantic or else an overly sensitive defender of the Church. I happen to think that non-equivalency assertions concerning religious institutions should be defended not asserted – otherwise they ought to be left un-asserted.

    Pax Christi,


  16. One thing is for sure, the Catholic church would really do well to do a better job of addressing dissent because it is definitely out there. And, you got to hand it to the PCA in this respect because they take theological seriously enough to address it head on like this.

  17. One thing is for sure, the Catholic church would really do well to do a better job of addressing dissent because it is definitely out there.

    Sean – You are obviously right here and certainly Christians need to take seriously the sort of high level dissidents that is the subject here. But the thing that never ceases to surprise me about both Protestant and Catholic congregations is their often unwillingness to deal with rejection of even basic theological and moral truths on an individual congregational level. The foundational role of the overseer (bishop), as laid out in Scripture, is to guide and protest the people of a given congregation. It is this episcopal responsibility that has always been such a part of Reformed praxis and something which is sadly lacking in so many congregations in Evangelical world who seem to have skipped overall of those inconvenient biblical passages concerning discipline.

    The higher level disciplinary actions such as those of Leithart are Acts 15 extensions of this process where congregations in a region come together to deal with issues that where an individual congregation cannot or won’t deal with a matter.

  18. But apparently not seriously enough, Sean, to notice its own theological dissent from the one true Church.

  19. Brian.

    True, and don’t get me wrong, what Ray laid out in #11 is worth considering. It is definitely easier to single out a dissenter in geographically singular (US of A) denomination that is small enough to fit all members at Talledega Motor Speedway than the Catholic Church. And, there are examples of the Catholic Church addressing dissent ‘head on.’ One such example, I documented in this thread.

  20. David Meyer wrote:

    The divines in the 17th century simply did not have the FV in mind. They need a magisterium, but instead they just split and form new churches. That was one of the things that lead me to seriously lose faith in the Reformation.

    Same with me. Upon committing to Calvinism in 2005-2006, I was warned about the Federal Vision and how eerily close their beliefs were to Catholicism — “salvation by works, pastors wearing robes, paedocommunion! ” They even recite the Collect! In 2010, I came to a conclusion that they were “truer” to the Scriptures and WCF than the “truly Reformed” were. But in the mainstream Reformed circles, they were already judged as heretics. I wonder how this Leithart trial will impact the dialog. Will the truly Reformed respect “church authority” or defer to their private judgment. Ultimately, I determined that whether FV, Horton Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, was all based on private judgment and one’s agreement with its interpretation of scripture.

  21. Its not central to your discussion, but one factual note should be made. It was not the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA that unanimously ruled in Peter Leithart’s favor, but rather the Judicial Commission of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA. Its altogether possible that the SJC may well be called upon to make a ruling in this case, but that will depend on whether or not an appeal of the Presbytery’s decision is made to the higher court. Only if this is done will the SJC meet to determine if the Presbytery acted correctly in its proceedings and judgment.

  22. David,

    Thanks for the note. As noted at the beginning of the post, this was a trial in the PNWP of the PCA. The verdicts, accordingly, were that of the SJC of the PNWP of the PCA. The document to which I linked, in reference to the verdicts, is simply titled, “Judgment and Reasoning of the Standing Judicial Commission to the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest.” I suppose that could be confusing for some, despite the context. So thanks again for this clarifying comment.


  23. “The divines in the 17th century simply did not have the FV in mind. They need a magisterium, but instead they just split and form new churches.”

    From what I’ve gathered at other Reformed blogs, it appears that they are appealing to Tradition and a Magisterium of sorts (at least the prosecution did). I’ve asked about this and they have said, no, that is not the case. But I don’t see how that makes any sense. I’m not going to keep pressing because it may be that I’m lost in translation and it will just end up appearing like I’m trying to stir a pot.

    Andrew, can you explain to me how the prosecution’s approach to this case is not making an appeal to a pseudo-Tradition and a pseudo-Magisterium that, apparently, are on the same authoritative level as Scripture? I’m really struggling with this and I think that’s simply because it’s beyond my grasp.

  24. Andrew, yes, noted the context and your initial comment, but wanted to simply make sure that all understood it was a Presbytery decision as opposed to a decision of a body representing the entire PCA. Always good to read the articles here. And yes, we do take our doctrine seriously, as you note. Best regards!

  25. Mark Horne’s reply to TF’s critique of Leithart is on the right track with respect to the nature of baptism, but the problem with Mark’s position is that Protestantism has no visible catholic Church. The PCA (of which Mark is a member) is not the catholic Church Christ founded — the PCA was formed in 1973. So to speak of “the Visible or Institutional Church” one must hold some kind of branch theory. But without a visible principle of unity [“There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ”] there is no principled way of distinguishing between a branch within the visible catholic Church Christ founded, and a schism from the visible catholic Church Christ founded. There is no principled way of distinguishing between a person excommunicated from “the visible Church,” and a branch planter within “the visible Church,” between a schism from the visible Church, and a ‘splant’ within the visible Church. And thus the whole notion of the “institutional Church” is reduced to a chimera, because if in fact there were no such thing as the “the Visible or Institutional Church,” but only a plurality of sects, some claiming to belong to some “visible catholic Church” and each, if asked, listing a different set of denominations that belong to this “visible catholic Church,” nothing would be any different from the present Protestant situation. That’s why folks like Goligher tiptoe around the question of visible unity and schism. And that’s why Horton just redefines ‘schism’ as heresy.

    There is no need for a Protestant debate concerning whether baptism introduces one into “the Visible and Institutional Church” when there can be no such thing in Protestantism as “the Visible and Institutional Church.” Underneath the semantics of a “visible catholic Church” is a gnostic ecclesiology (because of the rejection of the sacrament of Holy Orders) that is presently collapsing, and for which the only solution is an ecumenism of return.

  26. Joseph (#24),

    I just saw your last comment/question here (albeit months after you posted it), posed to Andrew, and I’d like to take a stab at answering it.

    I should say, first, that I have never been a member of the PCA, and when I did hold to Calvinistic convictions, it was as a “Reformed Baptist,” not a Presbyterian. However, my Reformed Baptist church did have an historic Protestant confession– the New Hampshire Confession of Faith.

    All prospective church members were expected to affirm the New Hampshire Confession and to sign it as part of the process of becoming church members. Certainly, the *official teachers* of Scripture in the church (such as the “senior pastor,” and the other “teaching elders,” who actually preached from the pulpit almost as often as the “senior pastor” himself) were expected to teach according to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. If they did not do so, then they could be removed from their teaching positions, and presumably, eventually disciplined by the church leadership. This situation never came up, regarding a preacher or teacher of Scripture, while I was a member there, but according to the church disciplinary process, if such a dilemma had come up, it would have probably been addressed in those ways.

    Anyway, about the PCA and the Leihart trial. Knowing what I do know (from my reading and from PCA friends), in regard to the Westminster Confession’s role in the PCA, and the disciplinary process for ministers who are suspected of not being teaching faithfully (according to the Confession), there would decidedly be *no* appeal to “tradition” or “magisterium” in this process. I know that this seems very foreign to the “cradle Catholic” mind, which has always been taught, rightly, to hold to both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. I’ll try to explain it, from my knowledge and experience as a former Protestant.

    For those Protestant ecclesial communities who do choose to adopt a specific, historic Protestant confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession, “tradition” is simply not seen as part of the equation– or at least, not as the primary part. In the PCA, the Westminster Confession is affirmed, as a document, because it is simply seen as being a faithful statement of what is *already* taught in Scripture. This is why the PCA affirmed and adopted the Westminster Confession as the “official historic confession” for the denomination. In PCA thinking, the Confession is only valuable in that it is (according to the Biblical exegesis of those who founded the denomination) “faithful to Scripture”– and Scripture *alone*.

    It’s important to note the distinction here, especially for cradle Catholics, who have, presumably, never had “Scripture alone” as part of their mindset. All that the Catholic Church officially, definitively teaches, via the Magisterium, on faith and morals, is *faithful* to Scripture. Nothing that she definitively teaches can be contrary to Scripture. For example, as Catholics, we would affirm that the Marian teachings of the Church are faithful to Scripture. They do not contradict anything found in Scripture. They are actually *based* on what Scripture itself teaches us about Jesus. However, one will not find the Immaculate Conception of Mary explicitly stated, as such, in Scripture. It is *based* in Scriptural *reasoning*, as part of the apostolic deposit of faith in the Church. It is not contrary to Scripture in any way– but the Church would not even claim that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a matter of the teaching of “Scripture alone.” The IM is a matter of both Scripture and Tradition– in accordance with St. Paul’s clear admonition in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

    By contrast, for the PCA, the Westminster Confession is affirmed according to the “historic Reformed standards” of “Sola Scriptura.” It’s important to note that these Reformed standards do not posit that tradition, itself, is an absolute *evil*. In fact, where tradition is understood (according to a particular denominations’s exegesis of the Bible) to be “faithful to Scripture,” it can be affirmed. However, Scripture alone is seen as the only *infallible authority* for faith and practice. It is on this basis that the PCA requires its ministers to affirm, and to teach according to, the Westminster Confession. The Confession itself is not viewed as infallible, but it is seen as being a faithful statement of Scripture infallibly teaches.

    However, the well-catechized Catholic knows that this does not settle the issue– which goes back to your comment. How has the PCA determined that the Westminster Confession is faithful to what Scripture infallibly teaches? On what basis does the denomination require its leaders to affirm it and teach according to it? Ultimately, it is on the basis of the Biblical exegesis *of the founding PCA leaders* who determined, from their studies, that the Westminster Confession is faithful to what Scripture alone (supposedly) teaches. This exegesis, and the adoption of the Confession, according to it, have an “authority” of sorts within the PCA. Leaders can be brought up for discipline, as with Peter Leithart, if they are believed to be publicly contradicting the Confession. However, in the end, even if they are excommunicated, they can very well found their own new “historic Reformed” denominations, which hold to *their interpretations* of the Bible and the Westminster Confession. As can be seen from the multitudes of “historic Reformed” denominations (to say nothing of Protestant denominations in general), this process is virtually self-perpetuating, given that there is no Magisterium, within Protestantism, to even try to define any theological and ecclesiastical “non-negotiables” (as the Magisterium authoritatively does in the Church).

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