Westminster in the Dock: Reflections on the Peter Leithart TrialOct 24th, 2011 | By Andrew Preslar | 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.” 
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. 
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.” 
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.”  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.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.