Let My Old School People Go

The Baylys not too long ago wondered why conservatives in the PCA were so agitated by the Federal Visionaries but calm about Tim Keller. They had a point even if one could return the favor and ask the brothers who are fraternally out of their minds why they are so worked up about Keller and seemingly indifferent to the dangers of Federal Vision (hint: antinomianism versus neo-nomianism goes a long way to explain the difference).

But the recent verdict in the trial of Peter Leithart suggests that the Baylys misunderstand the PCA altogether. Watching the release of different parts of the transcript has been jaw-droppingly astounding. The defense’s cross-examination of a witness against Leithart — Lane Kiester — was something worthy of a Hollywood production. Now comes Jason Stellman’s closing statement for the prosecution (which refers to the committee’s treatment of Kiester). Here are a few excerpts:

When Dr. Leithart was asked, why is it that people misrepresent you or misunderstand you. I was happy to hear that question asked from a member of this commission. That’s a question that I have often desired to ask of various proponents of the Federal Vision or the New Perspective on Paul. Why is it that your critics somehow never seem to be able to represent you fairly in your own estimation? Why is it that you’re never quoted fairly or in context? Why is that anyone who disagrees with you is somehow always misrepresenting you or failing to understand what you’re saying? And a follow up question would be, and why is it that all these people who misunderstand what you’re saying are all misunderstanding you to be saying the same thing? The answer that Dr. Leithart gave was, well, the reason that I’m so often misrepresented is a clash of paradigms. And I think he’s absolutely right. However, I would describe it as a clash of systems of doctrine. . . .

The Westminster Larger Catechism 69 teaches that our union with Christ is “manifested” by our “partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in [our] justification, adoption, [and] sanctification.” WLC 77 distinguishes justification from sanctification, insisting that while the latter is owing to the infusion of grace, the former is the result of the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”

TE Leithart writes:

The Protestant doctrine has been too rigid in separating justification and sanctification, more rigid certainly than Scripture itself…. Justification and definitive sanctification are not merely simultaneous, nor merely twin effects of the single event of union with Christ (though I believe that is the case). Rather, they are the same act.”

The confessional, Reformed doctrine of justification (which TE Leithart calls “illegitimately narrow” and “distorted”) teaches that justification is a legal declaration of God, based upon the work of Christ, by which the obedience and satisfaction of Jesus are imputed to the sinner by faith alone. TE Leithart’s desire to see justification as a “deliverdict” (or, a delivering verdict) that contains within it the deliverance of God’s people from the power of sin (which our Confession calls “sanctification”) is to collapse what Reformed theology has always distinguished (and we have already heard expert testimony to the fact that definitive sanctification is much more closely related to progressive sanctification than it is to justification).

The entire statement is valuable and Jason deserves great helpings of gratitude for his courageous stand against the vagaries and errors of the Visionaries.

But the recent verdicts acquiting Federal Visionaries by two presbyteries within the PCA raise yet again questions about the state, coherence, and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America. Yes, the denomination has studied Federal Vision and disapproved at the General Assembly level. But life on the ground in the PCA appears to be very different from what the Assembly does. Some have been circulating the website of a congregation in the South which describes a female counselor as a pastor (though since our correspondents in the South and Northwest sent word her title has changed). The Baylys have continued to notice the feminist friendly practices of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

But even in much less controversial ways, pastors and congregations in the PCA give evidence of uncertainty about matters Reformed. Over at Vintage73, a blog of young PCA pastors, one contributor comments on three pastoral mistakes he has made so far in his ministry. One was thinking that Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church would be fix what ailed his congregation:

2. Going for the silver bullet- this is the ministry mistake of thinking the latest and greatest will solve all of your problems. A few years ago we were all told that using the “40 Days of Purpose” would increase attendance and giving! Great! How do I order? Where do I sign? Churches of all stripes were using it. Sadly, silver bullets only work on werewolves (or so I’m told). Now the silver bullet may be the latest and greatest in technological advancement. “Hey, if we get a Facebook page, start a Twitter account, and use some video that will turn Andy Stanley green with envy, we’ll turn this thing around!” It’s not that we can’t glean some insights from others, but if you think you’ve found the mystery method that will solve all of your ministry’s problems that doesn’t involve theological reflection, prayer, and repentance, my advice is to take your shiny ammo back to where you got it. Here’s an idea: What about starting with a renewed commitment to the primary tools God put in the church’s toolbox such as the ministry of the Word, prayer, sacraments, worship, and fellowship? Just a thought.

This fellow seems to think that his understands it a mistake to was thinking that churches have easy cures. He also indicates a commitment to the means of grace. But even more basic was the problem of a Reformed pastors contemplating using dubious schemes from a Southern Baptist minister. If he Presbyterian pastors simply had a conviction about following Reformed teachings and practices and using Reformed sources, he Rick Warren’s methods would never have had appeal to PCA pastors considered Warren’s project.

In other words, the PCA seems to need a broken windows ecclesiology. This is the idea that if you pay attention to the little things — like what books you use in Bible studies and Sunday school, elements and order of worship, national flags in the auditorium, avoiding both the church and secular holiday calendar — the big things (Federal Vision and Keller) take care of themselves. This means that a communion that practices a level of ecclesiastical policing (i.e. discipline) at the local level will inevitably reflect that same discipline at the denominational level and in turn will likely discourage the less disciplined to affiliate or join.

Which is another way of saying that the reason why certain figures in the PCA get away with what they get away with owes to the ethos of the communion itself. Folks in the PCA show discomfort with putting limits on its officers and agencies. If Keller and the Federal Visionaries find a home in the PCA it is because the PCA is increasingly spacious. Why the denomination has lost that older sense of combating the broadening effects of liberalism is a real question. When it started the PCA was not exclusively an Old School church. But its officers and members had a shared sense of needing to oppose error and that denominations have a record of going off course. Now that liberalism is supposedly defeated, the PCA does not exhibit such wariness. Only the Old Schoolers have it and some dismiss them as crazy TR’s because — well — everyone in the PCA loves Jesus (as if liberals did not). But for Presbyterians, liberalism was not the only problem. In fact, non-Reformed communions, teachings, and practices were also erroneous. To tolerate or overlook their errors was a form of liberalism.

I cannot fathom how the ending to this denominational story will be happy.

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30 thoughts on “Let My Old School People Go

  1. Dr. Hart,

    It pains and disappoints me that you would quote my blog post without obviously having read it. I was using the Rick Warren 40 Days as an EXAMPLE of a “silver bullet” – a recommendation I was given as a church planter in order to give our work some momentum. I actually close that paragraph with an exhortation to a renewed commitment to the means of grace. While my title may have confused you, I was writing of 3 mistakes I’ve made and SEEN. By God’s grace, I’ve yet to even read 40 Days of Purpose much less use it. “This fellow” to whom you referred is quite Reformed, I assure you, and even has enjoyed your writings… at least until now.

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  2. Pertinent quote from my blog post with caps for emphasis:

    “I’ve made and seen a number of mistakes in the ministry in the almost 20 years since I was ordained and I’d like to ponder them a moment. I won’t distinguish which are the mistakes I’ve made and which are the ones I’ve OBSERVED. Is that due to pride? That’s entirely possible.”

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  3. Paul, I did not selectively quote you. I could have dropped the reference to the means of grace. The problem as I see it is that Gospel Co-Allies also believe in word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship. But these are isolated from Reformed confessions, the regulative principle, and Presbyterian polity (and ordination).

    If you believe I mischaracterized you, I’m sorry. I didn’t think that I had. But would you say that Vintage73 is an expression of Reformed confessionalism within the PCA or a place for the denomination’s diversity?

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  4. Dr. Hart,

    I don’t “believe” you mischaracterized me- you did. You wrote:

    “This fellow seems to think that his mistake was thinking that churches have easy cures. But even more basic was the problem of a Reformed pastor using dubious schemes from a Southern Baptist minister. If he simply had a conviction about following Reformed teachings and practices and using Reformed sources, he would never have considered Warren’s project.”

    As I proved to you quite clearly I was using Warren’s book simply as an illustration and a negative one at that. How you can read a blog post on “MISTAKES” and twist it into some measure of endorsement or consideration is, quite frankly, beyond me and leaves me almost speechless. The point I was making was critique.

    I was a guest contributor and friend of the blog founders. I’ll leave it to them to respond to your question as to Vintage73’s stated purpose.

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  5. Paul, but what do you think, how do you assess Vintage73? The point of the post is about discernment in the PCA not about you. So what does the variety of perspectives at Vintage indicate to you?

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  6. Dr. Hart,

    I have thought for some time (read the last 10 years) that the PCA is headed for a denominational earthquake. These things became apparent when a PCA church I was a member of had a leadership crisis – the TE and REs went head-to-head over some silly issues, but eventually it blew up as a church crisis with both sides sinning against each other in various ways. The local presbytery assigned a committee to examine the issue and the result was, basically, everyone just needs to get along. No mention of the sin committed by the leadership; no mention of confession and pardon; no mention of ordination vows and such. As a result, the TE left for greener pastures and the REs went on a pulpit search.

    Interestingly, the first man seriously examined for a call (hailing from WSC) was deemed as too intolerant of the Federal Vision. At that time, the general laity had never heard of the Federal Vision (myself included) and didn’t know what the fuss was. I took it upon myself to study the issue and came to believe that we most certainly SHOULD have called the first pastor. It was only shortly thereafter that a nearby PCA split because of FV issues. I remember thinking at that time that the local presbytery needed to grow a spine or the FV would destroy more churches (and it has) and that at some point they needed to begin dealing decisively with sin in leadership rather than pretending that we all just need to do a better job of playing nicely together.

    All that to say that I believe the PCA predilection for seeking conciliation rather than biblical rebuke and restoration is an issue that affects the entire denomination, from the GA all the way down to the local churches. Unless this changes, I believe that you’re right – this denominational story will not have a happy ending.

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  7. Dr. Hart,

    According to their presbyteries the editors of Vintage 73 are all confessionally Reformed. According to the PCA Book of Church Order, the denomination we love and write about is also entirely confessionally Reformed. There has always been diversity among the confessionally Reformed and that is the diversity we enjoy as contributors and friends.

    I understand that your post is challenging all this. But so far, I’ve not had any reason to doubt the Reformed orthodoxy of the denomination I love or of my friends with whom I write at Vintage 73. I hope that helps answer your question.

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  8. DGH: Good analysis, Excellent application of the “broadening church” thesis as well as the “broken window” principle.

    Paul Bankson: I think you are overly sensitive and will possible derail the value of both your observations and Darryl’s. Goodness knows, DGH doesn;t need me to defend him, but here’s why I think you are being overly sensitive.

    Your post that DGH linked to and referred to says this:

    I won’t distinguish which are the mistakes I’ve made and which are the ones I’ve observed. Is that due to pride? That’s entirely possible.Ministry mistakes I’ve made and seen

    Since you won’t distinguish between the observed and the attempted, there’s nothing to raise a fuss about.

    Sincerely offered,

    -=Cris=-

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  9. “Broken windows” policing is indeed what the PCA needs. Unfortunately, the window breakers don’t like it. The law and order faction is presumed guilty of “not niceness” and marginalized. Oh, for less niceness of this type.

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  10. This whole thing is indeed quite shocking. It also leads me into a few questions.

    I am a pastor with almost everything in common with the confessional Presbyterian Old School stream outside of the proper subjects of baptism and church government. I realize that these stances may show me to some to be confused in my self-estimation, but I’m truly and honestly trying to think hard about these things.

    This recent situation with the PCA is an illustration of one of the difficulties I have with Presbyterian government. Obviously DGH and Stellman think that the wrong judgment was made. I agree, but where does this leave someone like Stellman and those who side with him in the PCA? When does one leave? I understand that Presbyterian polity is a guard against rogue pastors as Trueman has recently pointed out and I agree, but I look at a situation like this one and scratch my head. Leithart is, in the estimation of many, clearly outside the bounds of the confessional standards. How could one stay in a confessional denomination when the decisions of courts inside that denomination go against ones understandings of the confession?

    I realize that one answer might be that Stellman and the rest of us should join the OPC, but what if the local court of an OPC presbytery went against what one was convinced the standards maintained?

    Any and all help is greatly appreciated.

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  11. Dr. Hart,

    Thanks for the post. It summarizes a lot of what I have witnessed in the PCA – in my presbytery, at General Assembly, and as reported by many like-minded colleagues. All the while ByFaith continues to chirp about redeeming culture. Sigh.

    I appreciate the ‘broken windows’ analogy – it works well.

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  12. This piece, and a number of the comments are valuable for understanding how portions of the visible church “downgrade” into “synagogues of Satan.”

    Joe Holland – the PCUSA/UPSUSA was confessionally Reformed for 31 years after upholding Dr. Machen’s conviction. On paper. Or, if you prefer, the PCUSA was confessionally Reformed in Doctrine, Worship and Discipline, until one “magic” day in 1903 when the WCF was changed.

    The point is that no church, local, regional or national, is one day orthodox and the next day not. The PCA is, on paper, a confessionally Reformed church, and so is every ordained officer. Even those who really aren’t. And the PCA will remain so (confessionally Reformed on paper) until the day that the “paper” is changed to reflect reality. The reality today is that the PCA is a much broader church than she was in the mid 80s, and that process of broadening is quickening.

    The PCA is not now a liberal church. But what will she be in 2036? Or 2073?

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  13. The PCA has always been broad. For decades the denomination provided a welcoming home to D. James Kennedy and his God-and-country-flavored moralistic Christianity. I don’t see Kennedy’s brand of Reformed theology as being any worse than that of Leithart or Keller. But the so-called TRs were utterly silent on Kennedy.

    If the PCA can accept the pseudo-Baptist theology of Kennedy, then it’s hard to find a basis to reject the pseudo-Anglican/Methodist theology of Keller and the pseudo-Catholic theology of Leithart.

    While I believe that 2K theology is most consistent with Scripture, I have to admit that the Reformed tradition is certainly broader than that…to the point that others may see me as espousing a pseudo-Lutheran theology.

    Besides, where were Guy Waters, Ligon Duncan, and other FV critics during this trial? Lane Kiester…an expert? How many peer-reviewed publications has he authored? How many books has he written? In federal court, there’s no way that someone of his (lack of) qualifications could survive a Daubert motion. If Leithart is so dangerous, then it was essential that the TR luminaries testify against him and bear up under the heat of cross-examination. Their absence from his trial suggests to me that they don’t really believe what they write.

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  14. Bob, why would a minister of the word have to produce non-ecclesiastical credentials to be deemed an expert on church teaching? Presbyterianism assumes a parity of ministers and elders. Could it be the Lane has read more of Leithart in particular than Waters or Duncan?

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  15. It seems from personal experience and also discussions with friends who have been, or are currently in, PCA churches that there is a very real push for confessional lite. It seems as though programs and popular methodologies replace word/sacrament. Talks of unity and grace extend much farther than talks of discipline and adherence to the confessions (not in all, but surely in large portions). You don’t have to abandon the confession immediately to downplay it to the point it doesn’t matter, and I think the tendency is there with a lot of the PCA. I think this post hit the nail on the head.

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  16. Dr. Hart,

    My point is that blogs are not the credentialing arm of the church nor do they assume original jurisdiction. They can question credentials or credentialing but not bestow them. Whether or not a man is confessionally Reformed is a decision given to presbyteries subservient to the Scriptures. And since the doctrinal requirement for an ordinand in the PCA is submission to the Westminster Standards, all ordained elders in the PCA are confessionally Reformed. I don’t have any affinity or sympathies with FV, which is why I’m glad to see the church courts continue to take up the issue.

    And no, Keller, does not admit as much about diversity, at least if you’re talking about his GA seminar two years ago. He said that within the PCA there are 3 groups—pietists, doctrinalists, and culturalists. All of whom, as ordained PCA elders, would be confessionally Reformed.

    Thanks for the opportunity to elaborate on my previous comment.

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  17. Joe, thanks for the explanation of church polity but are you really saying that whenever a man is ordained in the PCA he becomes confessionally Reformed? Have you not heard of mainline churches that require subscription? Did you hear of the Free Church in Scotland, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands? The communions they left had Reformed confessions.

    Actually, Keller does admit diversity in that paper and says all groups have errors and that is why they need each other. If all are Reformed confessionalists, and all have errors, then Reformed confessions have errors.

    My head hurts.

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  18. Like others have noted, the PCA was not founded as a strictly confessional church in the model of the OPC. I would argue that the denomination, in large part, subscribed to a broader “evangelical” interpretation of Scripture and church than a strict Reformed one. Culture issues played a role- this was a strongly Southern denomination in 1973 and one that carried some cultural and ecclesiastical baggage from the old PCUS.

    What Dr. Hart and Joe note is a long-standing problem, not only in the PCA but in other Reformed denominations. I am a PCA deacon. In a sense, all PCA deacons are confessionally Reformed since we must subscribe to the WCF, but based on my experiences, I have every reason to doubt that this is how it plays out in actual practice. First, in some PCA churches (such as mine) a prospective officer might be told some general principles of the WCF, but hardly given (or expected to know) any significant knowledge of it. Thus, one may fully subscribe to the WCF in ignorance. Second, one could subscribe to the WCF knowing that he disagrees with some theological points. Whether he declares them or not is another story. Intellectual dishonesty? Perhaps. It could also be a lack of seriousness surrounding the issue. While I am not completely sour on the PCA’s theological positions, I am seeing problems with the way many in the denomination view the local church and what it should stand for.

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  19. Dr. Hart,

    We wouldn’t have put the numbers “73” in our blog title if we didn’t recognize the reality of confessional drift among presbyteries and denominations. I’m only trying to answer your question on how best to determine whether an elder is confessionally Reformed. The best way ordained by God is through presbyteries. That at presbytery or denomination could step out of the confessionally Reformed pail is clearly illustrated by the examples cited in this comment thread. I’m only expressing my support for the PCA as a confessionally Reformed denomination with confessionally Reformed presbyteries that license and ordain confessionally Reformed men—a view that I realize places me in the minority on this thread.

    If our confessions are inerrant then we should canonize them and admit that Rome wasn’t so bad after all. If they aren’t inerrant then we should enjoy the limited diversity of interpretation and practice our confessions have allowed since their inception.

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  20. Joe, I appreciate your interactions but you understanding of the “best” way to determine is someone is confessionally Reformed is to my mind pretty simplistic at this point in Reformed history — meaning, we have lots of examples from the past, the PCUS among them, of this “best” way showing its real limitations. That indifference to the lessons of the past also extends to what seems your blanket endorsement of diversity. I understand that the Reformed tradition from the get go was diverse. But there is diversity and then there is breadth and what the PCA once had — opposition to breadth — seems to be disappearing through a shrug of the shoulders to “limited diversity.” Mind you, I don’t consider Redeemer PCA (NYC) or Leithart’s theology to be “limited.”

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  21. Dr. Hart, I’ve appreciated your responses and your obvious love for Jesus’s church. I suppose time will tell which of our assessments on the current state of the PCA is the more accurate. Thanks for the opportunity to interact on your blog.

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  22. DGH:

    While there may be parity among elders (such that each elder gets one vote in presbytery meetings), that doesn’t mean that all elders are qualified to proffer testimony as an expert at an ecclesiastical trial. Parity at the formal level does not imply that there must be parity at the substantive level.

    After all, there is parity among jurors. But that doesn’t imply that one’s eligibility to serve as a juror is sufficient to make one qualified to proffer expert testimony at trial.

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  23. Interesting post:

    I identify as a Confessional Lutheran, and thought that maybe a Lutheran perspective might be interesting to you.

    Lutherans do indeed say that justification and sanctification are the same act. The Lutheran Confessions (Apology art IV) would even go so far as to speak of Infused Justification.

    Now a clarification to what I just said. Lutherans believe that the words Baptism, Regeneration, Repentence, Sanctification and Faith are synonyms. They are interechangable words.

    Where our insight differs from the Reformed (and likewise Rome) is this:

    We believe that all of the above terms have a “proper” or “narrow” and also a “broad” meaning.
    The Narrow meaning, when used in Holy Scripture speaks to monergism. It is about God acting alone through the Holy Gospel to create something completely New that did not exist before. Scriptures call this the New Man.

    Then Scriptures uses all these terms in a broader sense. In this broad sense we are talking about Law (what we can do that God demands of us) +Gospel (the Person and Works of Another).

    Practical application:

    Regeneration is where the Holy Spirit, active in the Word of God, creates a New Man in the believer. This New man is instantaneously and completely justified. And since that Word is God’s Creative Word it also does what it forensically declares: It makes the new man completely and instantaneously sanctified. We call this infused Justification. Holiness/Sanctification is like being pregnant. One is, or one is not.

    But… the Old Adam that was the whole of the believer before he became a believer by being regenrerated and given a New Man that had not existed in him before, STILL clings to him. So then: That part of sanctification that we can see and do, is where the New Man, with the HS, takes up the Law and proceeds to mortify the Old Adam and kill him. Note that sanctification in the proper sense is wholy invisible. The ALL that is visible then looks like Romans 7.

    This is why Luther and the Lutherans can state that “life IS Mortification (latinate for “deathing”), or Life is Death. The Christian life looks like nothing but dying to Old Adam through daily contrition and repentence driven by the Law. The Life of the Believer is where all and even his best works are hidden in the Works of Another.

    So here on earth, the Good Works of a Christian are identical in every way to those of an unbeliever insofar as they conform to God’s Word. They are driven and extorted out of the Old Adam of believers with the same Law and Mortification as those of an unbeliever. The only difference is that the believer has, in faith, hidden all his works in the Works of Another. That is the only difference.

    So it does appear that FV is stumbling in a rather Lutheran direction. I say stumbling because there are key parts of what they say that indeed appear to say that there are “sanctified works” that are not the moral equivalent of a used tampon (Isaiah on this). But then the Reformed also seem to claim this to be so.

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