Friday, October 7, 2011

Leithart Declared Not Guilty by PNW Presbytery

The news just broke earlier today that the Standing Judicial Committee of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery unanimously declared Peter Leithart not guilty of teaching Federal Vision theology. The presbytery then, according to the Aquila Report, approved of the ruling "overwhelmingly." Regarding how the votes broke down, Prosecutor Stellman says the following on his blog:
Concerning the voting, the commission's verdict on each of the five charges was voted on separately, with votes like 33-3-2 or 33-5 (in favor of the commission's not guilty verdict) being pretty representative.
The trial, which took place June 3-4 of this year, concluded with a gag order which was not lifted until earlier today.

TE Lane Keister and Michael Horton both testified at the trial, which was prosecuted by TE Jason Stellman. Stellman says that he will be sharing information on the trial in the near future (presumably via his blog) - although there are evidently limits to what Stellman is allowed to discuss publicly.

The Aquila Report has more information on the ruling here, and Lane Keister has some of his thoughts, along with his testimony here. Without any intention of impugning the elders within the PNW Presbytery, I must say I am bewildered. Those of us within the PCA who have even a cursory knowledge of the writings and teachings of Dr. Leithart cannot help but be stunned that any governing body which is under the Westminster Standards could rule that Dr. Leithart's views are in keeping with those standards.

To put it bluntly, if Peter Leithart does not exemplify and embody Federal Vision theology, then King David wasn't Jewish.


Wes White discusses what is next in the process at his blog. I recommend it, especially for the curious.


  1. The presbytery voted Unanimously? So Jason voted for him being found not guilty? Or did the commission vote unanimously and then the presbytery voted overwhelmingly in favor of the commissions recommendations?

  2. I should be clearer. The SJC of the Presbytery voted 9-0 on all five counts. According to Aquila, the report was received "overwhelmingly." I would be shocked (as would you be) if Stellman voted against the case he was prosecuting. I think I'll change that sentence to make the facts clearer. Thanks, Andrew.

  3. Perhaps it shows that the charges against Leithart were mere caricatures of his and "federal vision" theology. As a Reformed pastor, I've always found Leithart to be a dynamic Reformed theologian who is willing to submit cherished formulations to scriptural scrutiny while respecting his ordination vows. May his tribe increase!!

  4. Bill, I should be clear that I would not personally question that Leithart or the FVers are my brothers in Christ. This is a matter of subscription to the Standards.

    Do you think the ruling means that the differences between Leithart and his detractors are merely semantic?

  5. Adam, I've found critiques of Leithart and federal vision theology to be very simplistic, superficial, and inattentive to nuance. To provide an example, Leithart claims that baptism does something, and his detractors immediately allege that he holds a Roman Catholic ex opere operato view. It's clear from his doctoral dissertation and his popular book on baptism, however, that Leithart believes that baptism's efficacy involves a sociological occurrence, not a magical one. As Leithart himself says: he or she who is baptized is never the same; never again can the person baptized be denominated unbaptized. That sounds like a truism, but baptism is indelible, and its indelibility is consequential, i.e., there are serious consequences in store for those who devalue their baptisms, despise their incorporation into the body of Christ, and spurn their induction into the covenant.I hope this helps.

  6. I should add, Adam, that I acknowledge Leithart's theology to be innovative--subversive is too strong--and unashamedly biblical in orientation. He has no interest in perpetuating cherished theological formulations simply because they are part of his tradition. He's probably not the best person to read if you're interested in patting yourself and others on the back for the pristine and unassailable theological tradition of the Westminster standards. On the other hand, if you want to read someone who is oriented to this rich tradition, but is simultaneously willing to subject it to biblical critique and even to reformulate some of it, he is the person to read. Throughout his life, Leithart has always found his theology, even those areas where doctrines are reformulated, to be in conformity to the system of doctrine as found in the Westminster Standards. The recent judgment of the SJC of the PNW Presbytery indicates that others agree.

  7. Bill,

    If you take the time to read Lane Keister's testimony before the PNWP you will see that he does, in fact, acknowledge the sociological dimension Leithart's theology of baptism. There is no caricature.

    I wouldn't expect you to read everything by Leitharts detractors, Bill, just as I hope you will not fault me for not having read all of Leithart's works. But have you at least read Lane Keister's testimony before the PNWP? If you did, I think you would see a very fair-handed approach which reflects a desire to accurately state as well as criticize what Leithart believes. Thoughtful, careful statements such as Keister's ought to be representative of Leithart's most able opponents, not merely the loudest polemicists (myself included).

    I have no doubt that Leithart believes that the Westminster Standards can be read in such a way that there is conformity between his view and the documents. However, isn't it true that the PCA has removed the need for debate over whether Federal Vision theology is in keeping with the standards via the GA's 2007 Study Committee Report? At this point, the question is not, is Federal Vision biblical (much to the dismay of FVers, I'm sure), but rather (from a denominational perspective) is it a theology which our denomination has already ruled is NOT in keeping with the Standards? I mean, if Leithart is not advocating Federal Vision, then who IS?

  8. Fair enough, Adam. When I have a minute I'll read through Keister's critique; I admit to wondering whether it advances anything beyond the traditional and inadequate critiques I have read (by OPC, URCNA, RCUS). For thorough interaction with the URCNA report, at least, visit my blog, and start here:

  9. Bill,

    Are there any FV critics who, in your view, at least rightly understand the FV? If so, who? If not, what accounts for this?

  10. When I see FV critiques, and especially recent blog comments on posts about the Leithart trial, there seem to be two categories of people. Some are content to say FV is simply outside confessional bounds and so really has no place in the PCA. And some call FVers "wolves," "Christ deniers," "heretics," etc. Stellman, who helped prosecute the trial, falls into the first category, still acknowledging Leithart as a brother in Christ.

    I think people in the later category should take a cue from this, and from the unamimous "not guilty" vote, and cool it with the "heresy!" rhetoric.

    And that's two cents.

  11. Daniel,

    In which "category" do you fine Bring the Books to be?

  12. Josh, you're supposed to be enjoying the Canadian long weekend. Part of the difficulty with your question is that FV is nebulous; I accept the label for myself, but don't embrace key tenets (e.g., postmillennialism) held by leading figures affiliated with the school of thought. As for critics, I thought Jerry Visscher gave a fairly accurate appraisal of FV some time ago; it's hard to go wrong when you use the Joint FV Statement.

  13. To follow up, what accounts for the sloppy critiques of FV? Hard to say. People in some quarters are under tremendous pressure to say something critical of FV and so they violate the exhortation of Scripture to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Orthodoxy these days is often measured by your ability to undress someone theologically. The URCNA Report on Federal Vision is an example. Here we have a document that was penned by some very respectable figures but included some uncharacteristic and inexcusable blunders, not least basic factual errors. The emotional rush to condemn sometimes bypasses reason, I guess.

  14. Josh, from what I've seen, mostly the former. Adam's comments have been fairly restrained even though he obviously opposes the verdict.

    But the 2007 GA report only concluded that the FV didn't fall within confessional bounds. It did not declare it heresy or claim that its proponents were deniers of Christ and wolves in sheeps' clothing. And here's something from Calvin for those who make a fuss about a corporate election in the church distinct from eternal election unto final salvation:

    "I grant, indeed, that many which are the children of the faithful, according to the flesh, are counted bastards, and not legitimate, because they thrust themselves out of the holy progeny through their unbelief. But this doth no whit hinder the Lord from calling and admitting the seed of the godly into the fellowship of grace. And so, though the common election be not effectual in all, yet may it set open a gate for the special elect." - Comments on Acts 3:25.

  15. Bill,

    The difficulty with the "Joint FV Statement" is that it appeals to the lowest common denominator. That is not to say that there are not troubling statements in the Joint Statement, but it does shave off the hard edges of many in the FV. Further, you cannot put a statement on trial, only people.

    Plus, as we all know, there is much more that goes into a trial of a minister than strictly his views held in light of the standards. It is hard to cast a vote against a good friend. I agree with Adam, and others, that say that the FV is outside of the Westminster Standards, but not outside of Christianity. I think that some in this discussion, both for the FV and against it, forget this at times. They think if they depose a FV minister then they are saying he is not a minister, or worse not saved. But that is not what they are saying, all they are saying is that that particular minister should not minister in our denomination. That is a far cry from saying they are not a believer.

    As a minister in a federation that holds to the Three Forms of Unity, and not the Westminister Standards, what are your thoughts on the FV's compatibility with the Westminster Standards?

  16. Josh, Beyond the FV Statement, FV is very nebulous; all you're left with are individuals with a loose affiliation to a broad school of thought. In some sense you can no longer speak of FV, but only of Leithart and Wilkins and DeJong.

    I'm heartened to hear that you believe those who hold "FV" teachings are Christians; I'm disheartened to think that there may be some debate here. We extend the right hand of fellowship to Lutherans and Baptists. Why deny those who are Reformed the same fellowship?

    I believe that the teachings of the Joint FV Statement are compatible with the Westminster Standards and, even more so, with the Three Forms of Unity.


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