Even When Doctrine Doesn’t Change Doctrine Changes

Changes in pastoral practice indicate changes in understanding of doctrine:

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on.

Changing doctrine is better than ignoring doctrine. Ignoring doctrine is a bigger change than changing doctrine.

Proto-Protestant On A Roll

And Constantinians (all kinds) should be very afraid:

Leithart’s Christ is not the Christ of Scripture. I say that not as a theological liberal who views Christ as a type of Gandhi and finds the idea of a coming Judgment to be abhorrent. I say this as a follower of Christ who understands the nature of the Spiritual Kingdom and our call to suffer as martyr-witnesses in This Age. The Triumphalism of Leithart is only to be understood in light of the Second Coming and in a context in which sin has been eradicated. A Postmillennialist like Leithart looks for the Church to bring in a millennial golden age, a Church through the force of cultural transformation to all but eradicate sin. Through culture and legislation (and presumably the Spirit) the reign of Christ will be brought to bear on This Age. Christ returns after the world has been Christianized… again a term and concept I would argue is the result of abstract philosophical commitment and speculation, not the fruit of New Testament exegesis.

I’ve always found it ironic that Calvinists, believers in Total Depravity would embrace such a vision of Christianization. I too embrace Total Depravity and believe there’s no Scriptural warrant for this view. They would argue the Spirit will effect this change. The same Spirit inspired the New Testament and provides a very different interpretation of the Old Testament than they will grant or receive and nowhere is there any suggestion that sin will in any way be diminished before Christ’s return or through the cultural efforts and/or political expressions of the Church.

Like the Dispensationalists they prioritize the Old Testament and its prophetic visions over and against the New Testament and its interpretation of them. In their systems The Old Testament interprets the New rather than vice versa. Rejecting the Apostolic hermeneutic they insist (like the Dispensationalists) that a future chiliastic kingdom is the destiny of the Church. The Dispensationalists believe this promise to be centered on Israel of the Old Covenant. The Postmillennialists rightly believe The Church is the New Israel and the inheritor of its promises but it wrongly believes that not only will the Church conquer Palestine, it will politically and culturally conquer the whole world. One camp believes the political millennium will be based on the Jews, the other on the Church but their basic assumptions are the same. They both embrace a politico-cultural doctrine of the Kingdom.

Both schools seek prophetic fulfillment apart from the Christocentric teachings of the New Testament. Both reject the New Testament’s teaching that all the Old Testament promises, types and symbols point to and find their fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1.20).

Tim Asks, I Respond

Instead of a call to communion, Tim Bayly calls for clarity:

After years trying to explain Federal Vision to confused souls, I’ve taken to putting it this way: “Federal Vision theology is a program being carried out by certain men of Lutheran background, tastes, or sensibilities who are working to import Lutheran errors into the Reformed church.” Join me in this effort to promote clarity, will you?

So here goes:

First, the Reformed folks who the BBs most associate with Lutheranism have been (by virtue of the priority of justification in understanding Reformation teaching on salvation) the most critical of the Federal Vision.

Second, the rise of Federal Visionism has much more to do with Reformed teaching on the covenants than with Lutheran sacramental or liturgical or theo-political notions.

Third — and here’s the kicker, Doug Wilson, one of the BBs favorites, has been one of Federal Visionism’s greatest proponents.

You want clarity, Tim? You got it, sans limp wrist or moisturizer.

Should Federal Visionaries Model the Protestant Future?

Peter Leithart clarifies some of the points he made about Christian unity in the discussion of Protestantism’s future at Biola:

One key difference between us is this: Carl thinks that unity is a “desirable” goal. I think that’s far too weak a way to capture the New Testament’s teaching. Unity is an evangelical demand. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say it is the evangelical demand.

When Paul discovered that Peter refused table fellowship with Gentiles, he didn’t say, “Come, Peter. Unity is desirable. Let’s hope that someday we can share a table. I doubt it, but we can desire it.” Paul’s words, as reported by himself, were: “I saw that they [Peter and the rest] were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).

I don’t mean to get personal, but if unity is imperative, why did Leithart leave Idaho for Alabama? Why not maintain the unity that had existed at New St. Andrews and the churches there? And what’s up with the Davenant Trust, the institutional affiliation of Peter Escalante, the moderator at the Biola event? I can’t figure out where Davenant Trust is (from the website), but apparently Escalante works in California.

I understand that Leithart doesn’t necessarily mean organizational unity. But in the United States can union mean anything but living in a place with fixed borders under one government? So why are Federal Visionaries all over the map?


Of course, Old Life is a place where you don’t mess with Machen. So it will come as no surprise that Peter Leithart’s recent objections to Machen’s dying words will receive some vinegary blow back.

It is said that as J. Gresham Machen died, he spoke of the comfort he took in the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, which ensured his standing before God.

I don’t know if that was actually Machen’s dying thought. But leave that to the side. I can see the point, but I can’t help but find this disturbing on two grounds. First, nowhere in the Bible is comfort linked with imputation. The closest analogy is Psalm 32:2, which pronounces a blessing on the one to whom God does not reckon sin. Otherwise, imputation in the full theological sense never plays that role.

Second, when the Bible does talk about comfort, the comfort comes from persons. Sometimes from other humans (e.g., Genesis 24:67), often from God. His faithfulness in the past, His word, His promises for the future, but especially God Himself, the God of all comfort, comforts.

“I am comforted by the imputation of Christ’s active obedience” is doubtless often a circumlocution for “I am comforted by my faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit.” But the way we say things matters, and de-personalizing and doctrinalizing comfort can, contrary to the best intentions, distance the suffering from the God who comforts.

Aside from a certain amount of reverence for Machen, can Leithart really be that tone deaf? This has nothing to do with kicking a man when he’s on his death bed. It does have to do with trying to obfuscate a relatively simple Reformed belief (which is what those of us who observed Federal Vision always thought their MO was — to raise enough questions, debate enough definitions, cite enough biblical texts to wear out their opponents).

If you take seriously the guilt of sin and its ongoing influence in the life of the believer, you would be inclined to take great comfort in the active obedience of Christ. As Machen explained (can you believe it, he’s not talking about w-w?):

That covenant of works was a probation. If Adam kept the law of God for a certain period, he was to have eternal life. If he disobeyed he was to have death. Well, he disobeyed and the penalty of death was inflicted on him and his posterity. Then Christ by His death on the cross paid that penalty for those whom God had chosen.

Well and good. But if that were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.

Here we begin to understand why Jesus’ passive obedience is not enough – if divorced from his active obedience. The passive sufferings of Christ discharged the enormous debt we owe, due to our sins and the sin of Adam. In effect, Jesus’ passive obedience alone would bring our account from hopelessly overdrawn back to a zero balance – our debt would be retired. But having our debt retired and our sins forgiven does not get us into heaven; it simply returns us to the starting point. More must be done if we are to gain heaven. Righteousness must be completely fulfilled, either by us or by a representative acting on our behalf.

Moreover, we should have been back in that probation in a very much less hopeful way than that in which Adam was originally placed in it. Everything was in Adam’s favour when he was placed in the probation. He had been created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He had been created positively good. Yet despite all that, he fell. How much more likely would we be to fall – nay, how certain to fall – if all that Christ had done for us were merely to remove from us the guilt of past sin, leaving it then to our own efforts to win the reward which God has pronounced upon perfect obedience.

But if you think of faith as faithfulness, baptism as regenerational, and salvation as familial, then the forensic character of Christ’s work might seem like an abstraction.

At the same time, why Leithart thinks Machen de-personalized Christ’s work is beyond me. How much more personal could doctrines be that described what Christ actually endured and did in his bodily existence and death on the cross? “My faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit” sure seems to abstract from the Christian what Christ actually did. Then again, figuring out Peter Leithart even if intellectually invigorating has never been easy.

PCA Blues

Maybe I can beat Aquila Report with the scoop on this one (thanks to our chortling correspondent). In response to Lane Keister’s post about how the Federal Visionaries won a rightful place within the PCA, Lee — a Pirates fan who pastors in Nebraska, so he must be reliable (whatever) — posits this (which is “what I’m sayin’” but better said):

Lane thinks the FV guys won and took over, and I think that a 3rd party took the opportunity run off the TR’s (for lack of a better term) and gain complete control. I think the “evangelical middle” as Lane refers to them has always had designs on running this denomination.

Let me take you back to the Presbyterian Pastors Leadership Network and 2002. They pushed Good Faith Subscription and a change in the way of GA taking original jurisdiction. Now the change to BCO 34-1 and original jurisdiction failed, but the PPLN won. 40 Presbyteries agreed, it just was short of the 2/3rds required. Thus the majority of the PCA thought Presbytery discipline was enough. Couple that with the Good Faith Subscription, which in my opinion gave more wiggle room to those who disagree with the confession, and the groundwork is set.

That lead nicely into Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together in 2006 (which is no longer on the internet but my summary is still up). This was a clear call from many men that prosecution of others would not be tolerated. This was not so much the FV men courting the evangelical middle, this was the establishment of the PCA saying they wanted the FV men and could do without the TR guys. Lots of Covenant Theological Seminary men signed this document. This is of course the same year that The Missouri Presbytery Report of FV came out, which was an attempt to split the middle, and would later serve as the basis for clearing Rev. Jeff Meyers, who was on the committee. So, too, by the way, were Bryan Chapell, C. John Collins, and David Chapman of Covenant Seminary.

Then comes the 2007 FV report at GA. Now this was heralded by the TRs as a great moment, but really it meant nothing. This is one reason it was able to get such a wide margin vote. The groundwork had been laid that Presbyteries could let in whoever with Good Faith and that the prosecutors in trials are the bad guys. And this report was in no way judicial so why fight it.

Then Lee goes through the case against Steve Wilkens and finally comes to TKNY:

Enter into the debate now the powerful Tim Keller. Published author, featured in magazines, and pastor of a huge church in New York City. Keller gives a speech in June of 2010 about what is so great about the PCA. While I disagree with a lot of Keller’s historical analysis, the main point of Keller’s paper/talk was to promote the idea that the PCA is a diverse body and should remain that way. Clearly then those who are trying to get rid of a subgroup are in the wrong. There was a lot that went into the Strategic Plan that the PCA bounced around and they did change some of it, but they still created “safe spaces” and they advanced their overall agenda of the PCA being a “big tent” denomination, a “big tent” that included the FV. Only those who do not want a “big tent” are not welcome.

The point Lee helpfully makes is that history rarely offers up watershed moments. Most historical episodes are part of developments that have long been percolating in seemingly insignificant acts or statements. It is only historians (and screenplay writers) who turn the ordinary into drama. (That’s why they pay one of us the big bucks.)

What a Difference Three Decades Make

In 1981 the PCA turned down the OPC’s decision to join the PCA. The context was something called J&R, joining and receiving. The PCA had invited the RPCES (denominational patron of Covenant College and Covenant Seminary) and the OPC to join and be received by the PCA into one denomination. The RPCES cleared the hurdle. The OPC did not mainly because the PCA had reservations about the teaching of Norman Shepherd and his influence within the OPC.

This week the word came that the PCA has upheld a lower court ruling that exonerates Peter Leithart’s teaching. It is an odd ruling because the PCA had approved a study report that argued the Federal Vision theology, of which Leithart is a proponent, was outside the bounds of the communion’s confessional standards.

It is also odd because the affinities between Shepherd’s theology and the Federal Vision are numerous if not always obvious.

This takes the question of how to fix the PCA to an entirely different dimension.