Proposed by SJC Panel: Indict Leithart

A panel of two teaching elders (ministers) and two ruling elders (elders) has recommended to the full Standing Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church in America that the complaint against the Pacific NW Presbytery of the PCA, which refused to prosecute the Rev Dr Peter Leithart for his FV views, be upheld. As Jason Stellman reports (quoting the panel’s recommendation): “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 presbytery has been instructed by the Standing Judicial Commission to prepare an indictment against him. The report of the SJC is available here. Contrary to those in the presbytery who criticized the original presbytery committee report, the SJC characterized the “work product of this Committee, including the Committee Report, the Minority Report, and Leithart’ Response,” as and “excellent BCO 31-2 investigative report.”

The panel found that the presbytery erred in two ways:

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 of the views of Leithart are “out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards.”

The panel rejected the argument of those in the presbytery who argued that there was not enough evidence to find a sufficient presumption of guilt so as to proceed to trial. Indeed, the panel concluded that exactly the opposite is true: “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.” The SJC says that 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.”

Yes, the panel concedes, Leithart is orthodox in certain respects but the ways in which he is orthodox do not constitute an

…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 panel also remonstrated rather forcefully with the presbytery for seeking to use their interpretation of Scripture (that is that of the majority in the presbytery) to leverage the interpretation of Scripture published in the confession.

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.”

Thus far the Rev Dr Leithart has been convicted of nothing but now there is to be a trial and, as the SJC reminds the presbytery 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.” The Presbytery of the Pacific NW, however, has been convicted, as it were, by the panel of reflecting the QIRC-y, biblicist spirit of the age. It is most heartening to see churchly, presbyterian, confessionalism in action, to witness real confessionalists in action who are willing not only to affirm formally the Confession of Faith but to insist on a substantial adherence to the Confession of Faith and who are willing to use it, and not one’s private interpretation of Scripture, as the basis for judicial proceedings. The minority of the presbytery is to be commended for its perseverance. Despite all the obstacles and despite the temptation to “let it go,” they sought to do the right thing in the first instance and then appealed this case even though their appeal was bound to win them few friends in presbytery (or elsewhere). God bless that persistent minority.

According to the panel, the minority was not only right theologically but pastorally. The majority in the presbytery “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.” Now let us pray that a duly chastened presbytery will take to heart the instruction by the SJC. Let us pray that the presbytery comes to the same conclusion as the SJC that the “statement(s) and writing(s) of Leithart… place him out of accord with the fundamentals of the Standards….”

We should also hope and pray that those assemblies in the PCA (and everywhere in NAPARC) currently harboring Federal Visionists will also take instruction and encouragement from the panel and will begin to act in a way that is consistent with their ordination vows.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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21 comments

  1. Thank you for the encouraging update. May this be the beginning of the end of the Federal Vision’s destructive impact in the PCA.

  2. As per one of the authors of this decision, it is only a _proposed_ decision at this point.
    Earlier this morning on the Puritan Board forum, TE Fred Greco stated:

    “This was not a Decision of the SJC. It is a Proposed Decision of the SJC Panel to whom the case was assigned (composed of 3TEs, 2REs and two alternates). The SJC will not rule on this until March.”

  3. This is an encouraging development. (In deference to Wayne’s comment, I call it a development and not a decision or official indictment.)
    I’m thankful for men like Jason Stellman who has pursued this through the proper channels (and said he was willing to drop it and submit to the ruling if the SJC found in favor of Leithart.)
    Part of the difficulty is that Leithart is so insightful in other areas and, apparently, is a very likeable brother and has been a cooperative participant in the process. (It would probably be easier to draw lines of distinction if he were being obnixious.) But if, indeed, the heart of the gospel is at stake, an eccesiastical court is the proper place to deal with it. I hope bloggosphere will allow the court to do it’s duly appointed work.
    None of this is pleasant. The FV morass has done enough damage to the church that we will continue to feel it’s effects for years. Guilt by association is not something that we should engage in promoting but Peter Leithart’s affirmation of FV and the PCA’s clear statement regarding it should not be taken lightly.
    The ball is now in the Court’s court. Let’s PRAY (my weakest area) that the Lord will give wisdom, clarity and unity to His church and will use this in the lives of everyone involved for the furtherance of His kingdom.

  4. I have no way of assessing the personal cost of this but, for the sake of Christ’s Church, I hope this goes to trial. If Dr. Leithart choses to leave the PCA prior to a trial, that may resolve personal conflicts but will accomplish little in establishing both the peace and purity of the church.

  5. Does anyone know if Leithart has indicated any willingness to stick around? Or, can we expect him to go the way of Wilkins?

    I suppose we’ll find out in March assuming the whole SJC agrees with the “proposed Decision of the SJC Panel.” I agree with Mr. Booth, I hope and pray Leithart sticks around. I just can’t figure out what incentive he would have to stay? Ego? Pride?

  6. David,

    I for one would actually prefer he spare the church the time, energy, and money it will cost to try him. I have no desire to prosecute a case against Peter (though I will if need be). His case is unique in that he already ministers in a CREC in Moscow, so he has little to lose by just joining the denomination that best fits his theology. I mean, what good would it do for him personally or professionally to be deposed from a NAPARC church? He has to know that that’s what will happen if he insists on staying.

    • Jason,

      Seems if he was going to leave he would have done so already. He may want yet another NAPARC church to hear the “arguments” for FV before he leaves.

      BTW – I liked Dual Citizens. Thanks for the work.

    • Jason,

      Unless there is a trial the boundaries of orthodoxy in the PCA will not be clarified. No trial = no precedents.

      I don’t know Dr. Leithart – so I have no idea what his personal motives might be. Two possible reasons for staying and fighting are: (1) He may think that the Presbytery will vindicate him; or (2) He wants to the PCA to go on record as ruling out of bounds what he considers to be the Biblically orthodox view.

      David

    • Rev. Stellman,

      I believe this will be the first time any kind of “court” or “commitee” interacts directly (by directly, I mean in person, allowing response and defense in the sense of a trial) with FV. I believe (just my opinion) that as long as there is no “witch hunt,” (which I hope will not happen, but also doubt will happen) Dr. Leithart will be exonerated. So no, I don’t think the outcome is obvious to him (though I haven’t asked him) in the way you are implying.

      • I hope he stands on his convictions of conscience, goes to trial and accepts the results. This needs the full and educational benefit of the deliberative process.

        A preliminary review of the SJC comments sounded unfavourable for Mr. Leithart.

        “Just the facts, Maam.” (SGT Joe Friday, Dragnet)

        Hope to follow this one.

      • Daniel,

        Did I hear you rightly, that you believe Leithart will be exonerated? I assume you mean by the PNW Presbytery, in which case I believe that he would probably win a trial. But then we would most likely be right back where we are now, with an appeal to SJC which he would probably lose. This is why part of me wishes he would spare us all the time and money and energy and just join the denomination whose theology he agrees with.

        But I can’t possibly presume to know what motivates people to do what they do. Maybe he wants to force a trial so as to demonstrate just how sectarian the confessionalists within the PCA are, I don’t know.

        • Jason,
          Daniel’s father, Francis Foucachon spoke recently at the New St. Andrews Calvin Lecture Series on Calvin and the Hueguenots .
          That might explain his opinion of the Leithart affair.

          IMO your last paragraph sums up the reason Peter might want to stick around quite well.

          • Bob S, I appreciate you backing me up there – you’re right, I do actually know the people in question. You should try to get to know Leithart and Wilson too – you might be surprised. You might be surprised to find two fairly shy men, who both love to preach/teach, love the bible and know it in and out, and love the confession, particularly the Reformed heritage.

            A tendency I see in some of the Reformed circles is to love the confession, which I think could be called a tool, by putting it under glass. Leithart and Wilson love the confession, so they go out dig ditches in the mud. Sometimes I wonder if all this isn’t about the mud.

        • Rev. Stellman, yes, I do believe Leithart will be exonerated. As I said, the FV views have been condemned only in the abstract; reactions to written material with no real opportunity to respond to any kind of real charges. This will be a first. Proverbs. 18:17.

  7. After reading the decision made by the panel of the SJC I’m almost inclined to agree with Pastor Stellman and that it all might be a waste of time and money. According to the decision it seems clear that Leithart will not be charged with teaching dangerous heresy or that he is advancing what is without question — and as the report even demonstrates — a false gospel, but rather something more akin to favoring worldly recreations on the Lord’s day.

    I found this particularly disturbing:

    The only conclusion that a court should reach…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 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.

    I did find it interesting that the PNW report exonerating Leithart reached its conclusion in light of “The dialectical character of biblical teaching famously produces tensions that remain difficult, if not impossible to resolve.”

    BTW, Dr. Clark, I am just finishing up a review of your piece in the Strimple festschrift that will, God willing, be published in the near future.

      • Not being in the PCA, I don’t really understand the SJC. Still, it strikes me as odd that they would declare – prior to an actual trial – that anyone is not a heretic. This is different than assuming that pastors in good and regular standing in the PCA are not heretics. This panel of the SJC seems to be making a legal declaration that Dr. Leithart is not a heretic. Does this preclude the PNW from declaring that he is a heretic? That said, I still think a trial would be beneficial to the broader Church.

        Pastor Stellman believes that the PNW might vindicate Dr. Leithart at trial (prior to this decision being appealed to and overturned by the SJC). If that is the case, it is important for both the PCA and the broader Church have this clearly revealed. Yes, trials cost money, time, and enormous emotional energy. Yet, isn’t it precisely a situation like Dr. Leithart’s, where defining the boundaries of orthodoxy are at stake, where we should be willing to expend such resources?

        Has not the last 150 years taught us that the reluctance to hold trials contributes to the erosion of Confessionally Reformed Orthodoxy within supposedly reformed denominations? If that makes me one of Machen’s warrior children – I’ll wear the T-shirt.

        • The SJC is the PCA “Supreme Court” (Standing Judicial Commission; they also have a “Senate”, the supercommittee B&O where they actually deliberate on Church policy). The PNW-PL case has gone through a preliminary hearing, where it was judged by a 3-4 member panel of elders. Their decision gets reviewed by the full SJC later, which also examines the merits.

          Decisions of special bodies are passed along to the General Convention, er, General Assembly where they are rubberstamped, er, voted up or down (no discussions).

  8. I am a minister of a Liberated Reformed church (Gereformeerde kerk vrijgemaakt) in The Hague, The Netherlands. As an American who studied at Westminster seminary Philadelphia, and the Theologische Universiteit (seminary) of the Reformed churches (Liberated) in Kampen, I have a fairly good knowledge of the theological background to this dispute. Apparently the FV is taking some good, Biblical and Reformed insights about the status of a covenant child too far (as far as I can judge). In Acts 2:39 Peter says on the day of Pentecost that “this promise (of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit) is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself” (ESV). This is a classis proof-text for infant baptism, indicating the “promise structure” of New Covenant life in Christ. The precise meaning of “the promise is for you” is difficult to circumscribe, but at least it involves the revealed intention of God to give the benefits of redemption to believers and to their children. The scope and character of this “promise” or “revealed intention” of God is the point which is it at issue. It seems to me that Rev. Leithart pushes Biblical language too far and finally is in conflict with our Reformed standards in the various Reformed churches of the world. I can live with his own intentions, but I would agree that he needs to bring his language and preaching in closer harmony with the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. I’ll be praying for him, for PCA, for the dialogue between the URC and the Canadian Reformed churches, and in general for all of us seeking to be true to Christ and His Word. in Him, Kim Battteau

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