Three Presbyteries Overture GA to Assume Original Jurisdiction in Leithart Case

Three Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) recently approved an overture requesting the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over TE Peter Leithart, a teaching elder member of Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

Calvary Presbytery approved the overture at its April 25, 2013 meeting, and Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley Presbyteries approved the overture at their respective meetings on May 7, 2013. The vote at all of the meetings was unanimous or at least without audible dissent.

The Presbyteries were acting under the provisions in Book of Church Order (BCO) 34-1, which requires at least two Presbyteries to request General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction. The provision states:

Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal and two other Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction (to first receive and initially hear and determine), the General Assembly shall do so.

To assume original jurisdiction means that a higher church court can assume jurisdiction and handle issues affecting PCA members if their church court is not doing so, especially with regard to judicial process.

The questions about TE Leithart and his theological views have been before Pacific Northwest Presbytery for a number of years. The Presbytery had conducted an investigation of his views but did not find a strong presumption of guilt. A formal complaint was filed with the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) alleging that the Presbytery failed to find some of TE Leithart’s views contrary to the teachings expressed in the Westminster Confession and Shorter and Larger Catechisms, which define the PCA’s theological positions.

The SJC ruled that Pacific Northwest Presbytery had failed in not finding a strong presumption of guilt and sent the case back to the Presbytery for action. The Presbytery decided to file charges against TE Leithart alleging that he held and promoted views that were contrary to the Westminster Standards; specifically charges in five areas: on baptism, the covenants, imputation, justification, and union with Christ.

In June 2011, Pacific Northwest Presbytery held a trial, and the Presbytery found TE Leithart not guilty of the five charges. In November 2011, one month after the Presbytery met and adopted the judgments on the five charges, a complaint was filed against the actions of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. In April, 2012 the Presbytery denied the complaint at which point the complaint was carried to the SJC.

The SJC heard the complaint, RE Gerald Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery (Case 2012-05), in March 2013 and decided to deny the complaint, which means that the action of Pacific Northwest Presbytery that found TE Leithart not guilty of all charges had been affirmed. The vote of the SJC was 15 concurring, 2 dissenting.

As a result of the SJC’s decision, the three Presbyteries voted to approve the overture asking the PCA General Assembly to, “Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear ‘Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart,’ because PNWP has ‘refused to act’ per the provision found in BCO 34-1, by not declaring a mistrial in this case because of its chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest, stemming from his transition into membership of the Roman Catholic church.” »

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  1. “…chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest…”

    To hear his side of the story, he completely compartmentalized the whole thing, and he behaved a totally dispassionate attitude the whole time. Talk about a blind spot.

  2. I have reason to believe Stellman was prejudiced well before the actual trial began, yet after his appointment as prosecutor. In a post on FV’er Mark Horne’s blog, a number of months prior to the trial, Stellman participated in a thread on the FV (and thus Leihthart’s) view of baptism in which he said (paraphrasing) he wished Leihthart’s view on baptism had not been part of the official complaint. In context, the logical implication was that he indeed had some sympathy for it. Being that the whole baptismal issue was probably the strongest point on which a prosecutor could have made their case, this seems a pretty egregious conflict of interest.

    I have since searched Horne’s blog several times for the post, but it seems to have been expunged. (As I recall, shortly thereafter several FV’ers began removing posts from their blogs that might implicate their kind in cases like this. They were feeling the heat at the time from places like Wes White’s blog.) Perhaps a tech savvy person would have a way of recovering the thread from the ethersphere…

  3. Show me from the trial transcript where Stellman’s prejudice showed. Having read it, I don’t see it. On the other hand, I’m curious to know if the SJC read the entire trial transcript or just the complaint filed. Just curious…

  4. Maybe someone can confirm this or not… I did read over at Green Baggins that Stellman made a decision to argue primarily not from the WCF or Catechisms but from Scripture. If true, I find that quite curious as the Westminster standards are the church’s confession and measure of Scriptural truth and the standard that Leithart subscribed to. Seems like undermining your own case by not highlighting your best witness. Any way since this critique is out there I hope it can be confirmed or knocked down.

    • My impression from reading the transcript is the opposet. He argued primarily from the WCF, and the terminology he used almost exclusively throughout the case was confessional vs. nonconfessional. In fact, his opponents seemed to at times take advantage of this and make arguments that sounded similar to things one might hear from a biblicist. FV is a parallel doctrinal system, to really see how far it diverges from the confession, one almost has to examine it as a system, rather than point by point. The defense’s arguement was that while some of Dr. Leithart’s terminology differed from the traditional usage, it was just semantics, and even if it’s more than that, the PCA needs to be a big enough tent to allow for his views.

    • A snippet from Stellman’s opening statement as prosecutor, it’s fairly clear right off that he’s going to make a confessional arguement:

      “One such question is whether or not Dr. Leithart is a good man, a godly man, and a scholar. No one in this room denies that these things are true. But none of these is the issue. Another distracting non-issue is whether Dr. Leithart believes the Bible and can cite proof text for his theological views. Having read his work and having engaged him in doctrinal conversations personally. I do not doubt that he doesn’t just pull ideas out of his hat but seeks to conform his own views to Scripture. But of course this is not enough. Since just about all professing Christian theologians do the same whether they’re Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics or Mormons. In a word, basing one’s beliefs on the Bible is easy as long as we remain the ultimate arbiter of what the Bible means. In fact, it’s not just easy, it’s almost tautological and self-evident. But we are not Biblicists who insist on retaining ultimate interpretive authority but are members of a confessional denomination that is supposed to take very seriously the theological tradition handed down to us. One of the ways this works itself out is by our humbly submitting our own reading of Scripture to the mind of our church. Thereby displaying our willingness to try our best to understand the Bible in such a way that is not at odds with the doctrinal standards of the PCA. Thus the claim we will most likely hear from the defense that Dr. Leithart is basing his theological views on scripture is a non-issue that begs the question for every text of scripture needs to be interpreted. And basing one’s own doctrine upon one’s own interpretation of scripture apart from being sort of obvious is tantamount to saying that one agrees with himself and is hardly a robust defense when the conclusions one reaches are out of accord with the very Confession and catechisms one has vowed before God to uphold.”

    • And another snippet from his opening statement:

      “This trial is about five things. Namely, the five charges that have been brought against Dr. Leithart. As you hear various testimonies over the next couple days, just ask yourself throughout: Does Peter Leithart teach a view of baptismal efficacy that contradicts our standards? Does Peter Leithart teach a conflation of the covenants of works and grace that undermines our system of doctrine? Is Peter Leithart’s insistence that the actions of Jesus are not imputed to us, a teaching that is contrary to the Westminster standards. Does Peter Leithart confuse justification and sanctification by insisting that justification and definitive sanctification are the exact same thing. And does Peter Leithart‘s teaching that by baptism we are ex opere operato, regenerated, united with Christ, adopted as God’s sons and married to Jesus. And that we can lose all these blessings contrary to our Confession and catechisms. “

  5. Biblicist? Well, Leithart and the FV-ers are the ones who are Biblicist – insisting that Scripture be read without due regard to the analogia fidei and in consonance with the theological system of the WCF and the Reformed faith.

    And semantics? Again, it’s not semantics. Never was but on the interpretation of the theological terms. Is water Baptism synonymous with Spirit Baptism for the non-elect? Is predestination subsumed under or subordinated to the proclamation of Word and Sacraments? Is perseverance a separate gift in the ordo salutis or an integral and inseparable and unbreakable aspect thereof? Pastorally speaking, how can one be ASSURED of salvation in Leithart’s scheme? Is there a “way” to distinguish between the elect and non-elect?

    Not that I’m Reformed, but I do have a dog to fight. Yes. I’m a Lutheran who sees Leithart as a dangerous false teacher and a heretic. Leithart’s views and the FV cannot claim the support of Augustine, Luther and the like.

    Predestination is co-related to perseverance – which means that the salvific will of God is *limited* only to the baptised elect. This is not the position of Leithart. Leithart wants to say that perseverance is a gift whilst simultaneously affirming human response as sharing the *same* logical status as the gift. IOW, faith = obedience.

    For Augustine, Baptism expurgates the guilt of Original Sin. But only the additional actual grace of perseverance enables Actual Sins (concupiscence) to be overcome during the lifetime of the Christian. IOW, justification will always be incomplete (since it is sanctification). Hence, grace of Baptism whilst initiates conversion and prepares for the gift of perseverance is NOT saving. Leithart insists otherwise. Baptism is the rite of initiation when together with the Lord’s Supper is simply the incorporation into the MYSTICAL body of Christ – which is not necessarily identical with the historical, literal and corporeal Body of Christ. That is simply to say, that Augustine had the habit of referring to sacramental elements of bread and wine in symbolic-spiritualist terms.

    As for Luther, Leithart simply flattens out the distinction between theology and proclamation. Baptism as 1st order discourse (I-it-thou) is different from Baptism as 2nd order discourse (in the 3rd person abstract). One cannot and does not infer from the particularity of the language of proclamation to a general or universal conclusion in theology. Leithart as he unabashedly/ unashamedly does (so much for being a Reformed minister) end up undermining the omnipotence of God as the hidden God Who does all in all – “neither deploring nor taking away death” and the efficacy of the external Word in the form of the promise where it does what it says and says what it does. That is *both* theologically and pastorally DISASTROUS. It does no favour whatsoever to believing parents in his congregation and elsewhere who are influenced by FV. None whatsoever.

    The views of Leithart and the FV-ists approximate the Roman understanding much closer – where initial justification is monergistic but final justification is synergistic. He should just do a Jason Stellman, and leave the Church of the Reformation for good.

  6. The Word of God as interpreted by the WCF says that only the elect receive the grace of Baptism. Leithart therefore may not depart from the Word of God as interpreted by the WCF. There is no big tent to accommodate.

    Whilst one may wish to have a high view of the Lord’s Supper where the Holy Spirit is the Agent/ Agency mediating the very flesh and blood of Christ from heaven, one CANNOT teach that the non-elect take part in the same way as the elect – objectively.

    The particularity and efficacy of saving grace is only for the elect and elect alone.

  7. The problem with Leithart is the same problem also with those who want to say that we are to “live the Gospel.” IOW, whilst affirming the gratuitous and monergistic character of the Gospel in its CONTENTS, these folks want the Gospel to FUNCTION like LAW. This is what the FV is all about. This is pastorally disastrous and very dangerous. Ultimately, there is no clarity about the distinction between the function of the Law and the Gospel. Lack of clarity either leads to presumption or despair. If despair, Rome would be the only logical and natural and attractive place to end up since the theology IMPLICIT in the FV has all the trappings of grace and theological infallibility.

  8. I’m sick tired of the likes of Leithart and the FV. It’s not that they have a high view of the Lord’s Supper; it’s not that they are liturgically-minded; it’s not that they want to reformed catholics; it’s all about the un-Reformed, un-Reformational and un-Catholic doctrine – a theology which risks rendering the Reformed tradition as SECTARIAN much in the same as Rome. The Reformed faith can claim pedigree and continuity with the broader Augustinian tradition.

    Can Leithart and the FV-ers claim the same?!?!

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Given the number of years that the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest (PNWP) has been dealing with these issues I find it entirely implausible that they don’t know what Dr. Leihart’s views are. Which leads to an obvious question: If the SJC assumes original jurisdiction and finds Dr. Leithart guilty at trial what would that mean for PNWP?


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