On Defining Conservatives, Liberals, Latitudinarians, and Good Behavior

Pastor (Teaching Elder) Brian Carpenter has an update about the FV controversy in the Siouxlands Presbytery (PCA).  In two PCA presbyteries men are doing the hard work that needs to be done for the sake of the peace and purity of the church. As I keep saying, orthodox committee reports and passing statements at GA and Synod are important first steps but the work does not and cannot end there. The work of protecting the sheep from clever and disingenuous wolves (e.g., the FV movement) must be worked out in presbyteries, classes, sessions, and consistories. It is not something that “someone else” has to do it is the work that you, pastor, and you elder (i.e., ruling elder) swore to do when you took your ordination vows. Church discipline isn’t just about dealing with wayward laity, it means speaking to your brothers at presbytery and classis and it means putting the truth ahead of friendship and influence.

There are stages to a controversy. When the FV controversy began it didn’t have a name. I called it “Shepherdism” after Norman Shepherd (see the “Tuning In” post below) or “covenantal moralism.” These were two aspects of the error. One aspect was their direct corruption of the doctrine of justification (Shepherd) by teaching acceptance with God through “faithfulness” (trusting and obeying) and the other aspect was their indirect corruption of the doctrine of justification via a moralistic covenant theology (in by grace, stay in through grace and cooperation with grace). The leading proponents gave their views the title, “Federal Vision Movement.”  Now the movement/error had a name and now there were faces to a hitherto amorphous, vague movement. As it seemed to spread and gain influence and begin to show up in sermons and sunday school lessons more of the orthodox began to take notice. Arguments which began online moved into print and into committee meetings and into reports and then finally into ecclesiastical action in broader (synodical) or higher (GA) assemblies.

There are perhaps three reasons some in the Reformed churches (NAPARC) don’t want the churches to do or say anything about the FV movement.Obviously, the Federal Visionists themselves have no interest in seeing the FV theology and practice (e.g., paedocommunion) rejected by the Reformed churches. The second is party is composed of those who simply want more latitude in the churches, i.e., they want the churches to tolerate a broad range of teaching regardless whether or not that teaching is confessional. These latitudinarians may (or may not) be orthodox themselves but they don’t think that everyone should have to agree with the confession on covenant theology and justification. Some of them think that the pressing cultural (or culture war) issues are such that it is foolish to spend time discussing the niceties of covenant and justification. Other latitudinarians realize that if the FV movement is excluded from the churches they themselves may be next so they defend the FV in order to protect their own interests.

These tensions have been present in American Reformed and Presbyterian churches for a long time. They were certainly present during Machen’s struggle for the soul of American Presbyterianism. In Machen’s day, there were who professed a great passion for what today is called “mission,” but who thought that the doctrine of Scripture wasn’t worth a fight. Others professed orthodoxy but were tolerant of error in the PCUSA and thought Machen too strident in his defense of the confession and Scripture. As much or more than the liberals it was the latitudinarians who did in orthodoxy in the PCUSA and enabled the liberals to drive Machen out into the wilderness.

The other connection between that controversy and the present is the tendency by those who want to shelve some aspect of our confession and by their latitudinarian accomplices is to charge the critics (e.g., Machen and the confessionalists) with being immoral or bad people. What many may not realize today is the degree to which the “liberals” in the early 20th century were actually quite “moralistic.” They were deeply concerned about public morality. Today, when we say “liberal,” one might think of a social or political point of view associated with the tolerance of public vice (e.g., sexual immorality) or the promotion of policies and laws at odds with traditional Christian morality (e.g., abortion). In the early 20th century, however, many of the theological liberals were, ironically, what today some might call social “conservatives.” They favored using the coercive power of the state to force abstinence from alcohol. The liberals and the fundamentalists largely agreed the prohibition was a social good and both parties were deeply suspicious of Machen’s libertarianism on that question and on others. Thus, his opponents, both fundamentalists and liberals, accused him of being a drunkard or of making his money from the sale of booze.

Today, the alignment of the parties and the issues have changed but the tactics have not. In this case, the confessionalists are the “conservatives,” insofar as they are trying to conserve the teaching of Scripture and the confession (and not incidentally, the Reformed tradition) on covenant and justification. Even though they are typically staunchly conservative on social issues, the Federal Visionists are relatively liberal (tolerant or even progressive) on theological  issues such as covenant and justification. They think the churches should permit a broader range of teaching and practice. From a confessional perspective they may be said to be strict (on social questions) where they should be tolerant and tolerant or liberal where they should be conservative of the church’s confession.

Like the liberals and latitudinarians on the early 20th century the Federal Visionists of our times use similar tactics against the confessionalists. They have tried to silence the confessionalist critics through shame or through implied or express suggestions of ecclesiastical or professional pressure. When that doesn’t work, the other tactic is to suggest that the confessionalist critics are immoral or somehow disreputable. Just as in the case of Machen, the liberals and latitudinarians would rather have the churches focus on the ostensible bad behavior (or incorrect social views) of the confessionalists  rather than upon the deviant doctrine or ecclesiastical practice of the theological revisionists.

When J. Gresham Machen was driven out of the PCUSA, the liberals and their latitudinarian accomplices did not “get him” on a doctrinal charge but on a charge of not playing nice with others. He refused to abandon his support for the Independent Board of Foreign Missions (confessionalists do care about the lost AND getting our theology right) so they charged and convicted him in a sham ecclesiastical trial of being disobedient to the church. In light of the developments, in the PCUSA, in the decades that followed the idea of trying and disciplining a minister for supporting an independent (non-denominational) missions agency is amusing but they were able to get away with it then because they had control of the levers of power and because they had the cooperation of the latitudinarians.

In the present controversy, so far the confessionalists and orthodox have won the day in the courts and assemblies of the churches but the controversy isn’t over. The FV movement persists and it is still being taught in NAPARC congregations. It is one thing to say “aye” for orthodoxy in a voice vote at Synod or GA but it’s quite another when one’s FV friend or colleague has to be charged and tried for teaching contrary to the confession. The latter is considerably more difficult and painful than the former.

So the question comes back to vocation. Consider one of the most important biblical metaphors for the minister’s office: pastor. It’s Latin for “shepherd,” i.e., one who cares for and protects the flock. Consider another Latin title “minister,” i.e., one who serves someone else. Do not both these titles themselves tell us what our duty is? When we gather at classis and presbytery we may wish only to hear good news and to discuss building, bodies, and budgets but we have a higher and harder vocation: to protect the church and even to lay down our reputations (what others say about us) for the sake of the well being of the flock. If you doubt the value of such self-sacrifice consider our Lord who gave himself up for us. What did the latitudinarians and fundamentalists say about him? Consider also the PCUSA. Only a handful took the difficult confessionalist route and look what became of the mainline. Today, the question in the PCUSA is not the doctrine of justification but whether or to what degree the Bible is God’s Word and whether or to what degree it can norm personal experience or behavior. In the PCUSA a Barthian, who denies the historicity of Adam and the confessional doctrine of Scripture, is regarded as a “hard right” conservative! Does anyone, could anyone, think that, if ministers in NAPARC churches act like latitudinarians, that the NAPARC churches can avoid the same fate as the PCUSA?

Actually Related Posts

Something Weird in the Siouxlands.

The FV Isn’t Gone.

For Those Just Tuning In: What is the Federal Vision?

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  • 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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  1. “…When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of others. The church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we ask only for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them. From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating, it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church’s faith, but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate that faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it…”

    (From Charles Porterfield Krauth. The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1872, pp. 195-96.)

  2. I visit your blog daily and have recommended it to others, but the google advertisements that are coming up on your site may be misleading to some. Have you considered putting up some kind of disclaimer? Its strange that on your site there are ads for earning online seminary degrees and finding the one true church (the Restored Church of God). These ads seem to be a newer part of your site. Could you explain why? Thanks.

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for reading the HB.

    I have no control over the google ads. WordPress generates revenue through them. I guess the only way to get rid of them is to host the HB on a server which means I would have sell ads to offset the cost of renting space on a server, unless of course HB readers want to start donating money to keep the HB ad free. I don’t see that happening. So, unless or until I move the HB to self-hosted site, the google ads will remain. I trust that HB readers understand that they work by google algorithm which operates by word association.

    • Dr. Clark,

      You can get rid of the automatically generated “possibly related posts” by going to “Appearance,” click on “Extras” and check “Hide related links on this blog.”

    • Daniel – I don’t see the ads, but then I’m using Firefox v 3.0.17 with settings that screen pop-ups and other unwanted paraphernalia. If you’re using Google Desktop as an Internet “shell” you probably won’t be able to do this. Try downloading and setting up a copy of Mozilla Firefox with virgin access to the Web so these other intrusions won’t affect your session regardless of what Google does and just use Google as a search engine whenever you need one.

    • I understand. I guess I am just more concerned about referring your site to new reformed christians and them being directed to sites that are directly opposite of the HB. The ads almost appear to be part of the newest post giving the appearance of the HBs approval. Again I understand, I just wondered if it was a neccesary thing. Thanks.

  4. Is John Frame a Latitudinarian? Are he and those who listen to him and complain about those who don’t read his crap, the members of the visible church who are causing the sort of harm that ousted Machen and derailed the PCUSA?

  5. Due to a confluence of influences–one of whom was Machen–I have become attracted to civil libertarianism. What utterly confounds me is that, as I have dropped in on certain libertarian websites–like lewrockwell.com–I have discovered that at least one major figure within the FV Movement and one defender of Norman Shepherd either have in the past, or currently do write for lewrockwell.com.

    Doug Wilson had written at least two articles for the site, but now they are nowhere to be found. Gary North is a regular contibutor to the site. I cannot understand how theonomists can be invited to contribute to a political website that not only believes that the State should not punish victimless crimes (e.g., prostitution, pornography, civil disobedience, etc.), but believes that the State should not exist at all! Murray Rothbard must be “turning over in his flaming coffin” with Gary “don’t-just-execute-sinners-stone-them” North and Doug “ecclesiastlically-I-make-Stalin-and-Hitler-look-like-lambs” Wilson contributing to his movment.

    • Chris,

      The theonomy connection is indeed curious, but I also wonder: to the extent that you seem to think of libertarianism as a political ideology that eliminates the state, exactly how does Reformed confessionalism square with such a notion? Confessional Protestantism not only assumes the legitimacy of the state but also its goodness, its being an instrument of God himself to commend the good and punish evil (Romans 13), etc. What is attractive about an ideology that trends toward an end that Protestant theology clearly abhors?

      • Hi Zrim,

        Good question. The answer is that I do not find anarchism attractive for the very reasons you suggest (and more). But I’ve discovered that, like other ideological developments, “libertarianism” is not monolithic. Broadly speaking, there are two basic camps within civil libertarianism: anarchism and minarchism. Anarchists believe in radical self-government based solely on the non-aggression axiom, whereas minarchists believe that a very small government ought to do a very limited range of things like enforce contracts and prosecute aggressive acts.

        Machen would fall squarely into the category of minarchist, if we can apply the label anachronistically, and so would I.

        I was just marveling that theonomists and anarchists would get along. Something does not add up.

  6. Is Latitudinarianism more of a flaw in character that is developed in places like university graduate schools? (I suspect that is the case.)

    As an academic, would you agree that the majority (80%-90%) of university faculty and Ph.D. holders behave and think like Latitudinarians? (I think that they do. As far as my personal samples of those professors who have principles and stick to them (non-latitudinarians), it is around 1 in 10.) 9 out of 10 professors/Ph.D. holders I dismiss for not holding to certain principles. I remember at Georgia Tech when one of my roommates (we were both Ph.D. candidates at the time) was dismissed from his teaching/research position when another graduate student (someone who wanted his position presumably) told his advisor that he saw him giving his resume to recruiters at Georgia Tech-sponsored recruiting conference.

    I won’t name the professor, but in any case no other professors did or apparently would stand up to this particular prof. (who was an IEEE fellow and had all sorts of impressive awards and achievements at least on paper).

  7. RSC- Very good analysis, since latitudinarian-ism is even for confessional types often seen as the easy way. Discipline is hard and unpleasant work, but without it, as we agree, any NAPARC church can find itself just like the PCUSA.

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