Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Ruling of the PCA's Standing Judicial Commission

A panel of the Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America (which is the denomination’s highest court) issued its proposed ruling a few hours ago with respect to the complaint against the Pacific Northwest Presbytery that was filed by me and two others (for background, see here and here). The final ruling will be made in March.

In a word, our complaint was upheld, and SJC agreed that the presbytery erred in its failure to find a strong presumption of guilt on the part of TE Peter Leithart due to his doctrinal views being out of accord with the Westminster Standards concerning various fundamental issues. The ruling can be downloaded here, and some selective passages are pasted below:

Did PNW err in its handling of the reports from the PNW Study Committee appointed to
examine Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder?

Yes. The Complaint is sustained, and the case is sent back to PNW with instructions to
institute process and appoint a prosecutor to prepare an Indictment of TE Leithart and to
conduct the case (BCO 31-2).

The PNW case lies somewhere between these two cases [namely, those of the Louisiana and Siouxlands Presbyteries]. The PNW Study Committee was established after Leithart wrote to the PNW Stated Clerk to lay out his views with respect to the 9 Declarations. The PNW Study Committee was charged with examining Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder in light of the June 2007 General Assembly's receptions of the Ad Interim Committee's Report on the theology of the Federal Vision. In spite of being entitled a "study committee," what was essentially formed was a committee with an assignment to conduct a BCO 31-2 investigation. The work product of this Committee, including the Committee Report, the Minority Report, and Leithart' Response, constituted an excellent BCO 31-2 investigative report. The only conclusion that a court should reach, given the excellent work product produced by the PNW Study Committee, would be that there is a strong presumption of guilt that some of the views of Leithart are out of accord with some of the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Standards.

This does not mean that Leithart is a heretic. He is not. This does not mean that Leithart
is not or whether he is a Christian. He is. This does not necessarily mean that Leithart is outside of the broader reformed community. The sole question to be determined is whether Leithart's views place him outside of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America.

Respondent argued in his brief that someone who holds to various central tenets of the Standards cannot be outside the Standards:

"In considering the views of Dr. Leithart, we are talking about someone who holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, to federal Reformed theology, the five points, penal substitutionary atonement, paedobaptism, and Presbyterianism and confesses his commitment to forensic justification, the necessity of faith for the effectiveness of baptism, etc. What are we saying if we say that such a man with such convictions cannot belong to our little Reformed Presbyterian church?"

But such an external criteria of central tenets is not the appropriate criteria. One could envision such central tenets that would encompass Anglicans within its bounds; similarly, Reformed Baptists could affirm some central tenets of the Standards. This does not mean that either Anglicans or Baptists are within the Standards. In the same way, Leithart appears to hold some views that place him outside of the fundamentals of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America.

The error made by PNW was twofold. First, PNW erred in judging Leithart's views "to be
not out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine." Second, PNW also erred in not finding a strong presumption of guilt that some ofthe views of Leithart are "out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards." Under BCO 31-2, "if such investigation, however originating, should result in raising a strong presumption of guilt of the party involved, the court shall institnte process" (emphasis added). The mandatory language of BCO 31-2 ("shall") means that under our polity, at this stage of the case, the proper procedure for determining Leithart's fitness to continue as a PCA Teaching Elder, as was the charge given to the PNW Study Committee, is to institute process under BCO 32 and 34.

One of the difficulties a court encounters when examining the views of men who hold views
styled as "Federal Vision," is a tendency to justify such views by appealing to Scripture in order to contradict the Standards. What Scripture says about a particular topic is set forth in our Standards.

BCO 39-3 states that:

"[W]hile affirming that the Scripture is "the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined" (WCF 1.1 0), and that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America is "subordinate to the Scriptures ofthe Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God" (BCO Preface III), and while affirming also that this Constitution is fallible (WCF 31.3), the Presbyterian Church in America affirms that this subordinate and fallible Constitution has been "adopted by the church" (BCO Preface, III) "as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice" (BCO 29-1) and as setting forth a form of government and discipline "in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity" (BCO 21-5.3). To insure that this Constitution is not amended, violated or disregarded in judicial process, any review of the judicial proceedings of a lower court by a higher court shall by guided by the following principles.

By appealing to Scripture in this way to justify positions that are out of accord with our
Standards, an individual, or group, is in effect doing just that (i.e. amending the Constitution, not by judicial act, but by personal interpretation). If someone believes that the Standards have incorrectly or inadequately stated what Scripture says about a particular topic, then instead of ignoring what our Standards state and justifying their positions by personal interpretations of Scripture which are not consistent with the Standards, they should propose amendments to the Standards to clarify or expand the Standards, since our Constitution holds them out to be "standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture."

This tension is evidenced by the PNW Committee Report which states:
"Presbytery's study committee cheerfully acknowledges that it approached its task with the intention of allowing Dr. Leithart the greatest latitude consistent with the second ordination vow (BCO 21-5) and of placing the best, not worst construction on his statements."

It is our opinion that PNW, even though confronted with statement(s) and writing(s) of
Leithart that place him out of accord with the fundamentals of the Standards, as adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America, chose to place Leithart' statements in the kindest of light and not engage in critical thinking and reasoned judgment, by stating:
"In the committee' view Dr. Leithart's views are compatible with the teachings of our standards though there are certainly some differences in statement, emphasis, and elaboration. Our brief was to determine whether he denied or contradicted the teaching of our Standards, not to object if he wished to say more than they say or even, in confessing the same truth, to improve upon their form of words. That his positive constructions may seem in some respects difficult to reconcile with the language of our standards is not itself evidence that he denies their teaching. The dialectical character of biblical teaching famously produces tensions that remain difficult, if not impossible to resolve. The opinion of the committee that his views, while in some cases going beyond the formulations of the WCF, are not a denial of them, should not, however, be taken to mean that the committee is persuaded that Dr. Leithart's construction of the doctrines in dispute represent an advance in understanding or that they provide a more accurate account of the teachings of Holy Scripture.

"Much of Dr. Leithart's work purports to provide a more complete picture of biblical teaching than is represented in the systematic presentation of that teaching in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. To that end he draws our attention to the fact that the biblical vocabulary of election, justification, and union with Christ is used in ways other than those uses reported in the Standards. He says often enough that, so far as it goes, the confessional summary is accurate, but he remains convinced that our doctrinal formulations would be enriched by careful attention to the complete biblical usage of this theological vocabulary. The complaint has been that using these terms in other than their accepted usage is unnecessarily confusing. The reply is that these are the Bible's own terms and a faithful interpreter of Scripture is duty bound to reckon with the fact that the Bible employs even these important theological terms in different ways. We likewise do not believe, we cannot believe, "that the Reformed confessions have been formed for all ages and stand in no further need of reformation."

"The committee wishes to say, however, that having read some of Dr. Leithart's works, we do wish he were more careful to avoid unnecessary confusion by stating more categorically and in different contexts what he is asserting in connection with the teaching of the Reformed tradition and, in particular, Westminster Calvinism, and perhaps more importantly, what he is not asserting.

"The committee does not feel that he has done all he could have done [as he has challenged accepted notions or critiqued familiar forms of words. Nevertheless, we are persuaded that at some key points, Dr. Leithart has, in fact, failed adequately to represent the fullness of biblical teaching. It is the view of the committee, however, that in his [Leithart's] positive construction of baptism and its efficacy, he [Leithart] fails adequately to represent the biblical data and the result is a one-sided and confusing, if not positively incoherent construction."

In failing to exercise this critical thinking and reasoned judgment, PNW has failed to guard
the church from teachings and writings "which injured the purity and peace of the church." (BCO 13-9.1) and in doing so has caused much pastoral confusion and harm.

In conclusion, since what amounts to a thorough BCO 31-2 investigation has been conducted by PNW, the results of which PNW should have recognized raised a strong presumption of guilt that Leithart holds views that place him out of accord with our Standards (the Constitution of the PCA), PNW erred in not so doing. In determining what is the appropriate remedy, the SJC remands and sends this case back to PNW with instructions to institute process, based on this finding of a strong presumption of guilt, and appoint a prosecutor to prepare an Indictment of Leithart and to conduct the case.

Please be in prayer for all who are involved in this matter, regardless of which “side” they are on. When it comes to issues surrounding the so-called Federal Vision, there are those who believe the very heart of the gospel is at stake, and on the other hand there are those who feel that mountains are being made out of molehills and our denomination is being turned into a mere sect. But what no one should forget is that intertwined with all the doctrinal debate are the personal relationships and livelihoods of those involved. All that to say that this is no occasion for congratulatory back-slapping. Just as the Reformed distinguished themselves from the fundamentalists in that they left the mainline churches weeping rather than rejoicing, so we who witness the state of our churches would do well to lament our own lack of unity.
There are no real winners here.