Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Current Justification Controversy, by O. Palmer Robertson. Unicoi, Tennessee: Trinity Foundation, 2003. 107 pages. $9.95 (paper). A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy, by John W. Robbins. Unicoi, Tennessee: Trinity Foundation, 2003. 185 pages. $9.95 (paper).
If there could still be such a thing in our doctrinally indifferent and apostate day, O. Palmer Robertson’s The Current Justification Controversy would be a bombshell in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. The well-known and highly regarded Presbyterian theologian reveals the seven years of struggle and political shenanigans at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church over Prof. Norman Shepherd and his teaching of justification by faith and works. During those seven years, until his dismissal from the seminary in 1982, Shepherd was professor of theology at Westminster Seminary and a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Shepherd denied that the justification of the elect sinner is by faith alone, without any works whatsoever. He denied the truth confessed as the official Reformed faith in Lord’s Days 23 and 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism. He denied the truth that Martin Luther rightly called the “article of a standing or a falling church.” Luther intended by the distinction what Article 29 of the Belgic Confession refers to as the difference between a true church and a false church.
For seven years, some on the faculty of Westminster and among the supporting constituency of the seminary struggled to condemn Shepherd’s doctrine and to bring him to account. For seven years, a majority of the faculty and the governing Board defended and protected Shepherd and his doctrine. At crucial junctures of the proceedings, the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was party to the determined effort of prominent, powerful men on the faculty and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to defend Shepherd and his denial of justification by faith alone at all costs.
In the end, the Board of Westminster cravenly “removed,” or dismissed, Prof. Shepherd. The reason, as the Board was at pains to inform the Westminster community, was not his false doctrine. But Shepherd was causing the seminary too much heat. With the connivance of the Philadelphia Presbytery, Shepherd then fled efforts on the part of some to discipline him by leaving the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for the welcoming arms of the Christian Reformed Church.
The tale of Westminster Seminary’s and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s disgrace is told by O. Palmer Robertson. Robertson was a professor at Westminster during much of the time of the controversy and was intimately involved in the history he records. He names names, gives dates and places, and documents the issue. The issue was Shepherd’s heresy of justification by faith and the works of faith.
What a devastating indictment of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church! The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is closely associated with Westminster. It was an active participant in the justification of Shepherd and his false doctrine. For seven years, the Seminary and the Church allowed a professor who, by the admission of all, could not make plain that he believed and taught justification by faith alone to continue teaching young men in preparation for the ministry in Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
If a Reformed professor of theology cannot make plain—plain beyond the shadow of a doubt—in ten minutes that he believes—believes with all his heart—justification by faith alone, apart from works, and that he hates and rejects, with all his heart, the heresy of justification by faith and works, he must be summarily dismissed for incompetence. No one may teach young men to preach the gospel who is unclear on the heart of the gospel of grace.
But Shepherd clearly rejected justification by faith alone. According to Shepherd
Good works were necessary as the way of justification, and not simply as its fruit. Walking in the way of obedience was necessary to maintain justification. The sinner seeking justification might just as well be told to follow Jesus as to believe in Jesus (Justification Controversy, p. 30).
Tapes of Prof. Shepherd’s classroom lectures revealed that “he explicitly had been teaching in the classroom that justification was ‘by works’ as well as ‘by faith'” (Justification Controversy, p. 31). The controversy had arisen because graduates of Westminster were confessing justification by faith and works before their examining presbyteries and were attributing their belief of justification by works to the instruction of Prof. Shepherd.
Denying justification by faith alone, Shepherd was bound to deny all the doctrines of sovereign grace. The faculty and Board of Westminster were well aware of this also. In the course of the controversy
Mr. Shepherd affirmed that a person could lose his justification. He proposed that an individual who was elect according to the election of
could become non-elect if he did not continue to walk in covenant faithfulness (Justification Controversy, p. 22).
Shepherd was known to teach that “the ‘branches to be cut off’ in John 15 first were savingly united to Christ” (Justification Controversy, p. 57).
Westminster Seminary approved this man and his doctrine. It declared that his teachings are in harmony with the Westminster Standards. To the end, a majority of the faculty defended him. The Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church gave him a testimony of soundness in doctrine when it transferred him as a minister of the Word to the Christian Reformed Church.
The result has been the spread of the lie of justification by faith and works throughout virtually all the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. The many students taught by Shepherd, Shepherd’s disciples in virtually all the reputedly conservative Reformed churches in North America, and Shepherd himself as a minister in good standing in the Reformed community are at this hour aggressively promoting the false doctrine that denies the heart of the gospel, the “article of a standing or falling church.”
For this, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as well as individuals from other churches who defended Shepherd and his doctrine, are responsible before the entire Reformed community of churches. More importantly, Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are responsible before God. God’s judgment already falls heavily on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The 2003 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church approved the doctrine of justification by faith and works. It did this by refusing to condemn the doctrine, and advise the discipline of a teacher of the doctrine, in a case brought before it on appeal. The details of this case are contained in the companion volume to the book by Robertson, A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy (pp. 53-58). The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a “falling” church.
The companion volume also contains the important documents of the controversy. These are “Some Reasons for Dissenting from the Majority Report,” by Philip E. Hughes (1978); the “Letter of Concern,” by forty-five theologians (1981); “Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd” (1982); and “A Resolution to the Eleventh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America,” by O. Palmer Robertson. The last concerns a refusal by the editorial committee of the journal of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri to publish Robertson’s account of the Shepherd controversy on the ground that publishing might offend Westminster Seminary.
John Robbins has a long essay in the companion volume on “The Roots and Fruits of the Shepherd Controversy.” Robbins calls attention to several causes of Shepherd’s deviant doctrine of justification. But Robbins does not see the fundamental cause of Shepherd’s error. The fundamental cause is Shepherd’s doctrine of a conditional covenant. Shepherd’s theology is covenant theology. His doctrine of justification arises out of his doctrine of the covenant. And his doctrine of the covenant is a doctrine of universal grace in the sphere of the covenant, dependent for its efficacy upon the faith and obedience of the covenant people. This comes out in O. Palmer Robertson’s account of the controversy. Shepherd himself has put this beyond all doubt in his recent The Call of Grace (P&R, 2000).
The root of Norman Shepherd’s teaching that sinners are justified by faith and works is the heresy of universalism—covenantal universalism.
I suspect that the covenant doctrine of Norman Shepherd, out of which comes his denial of justification by faith alone, is the reason why Westminster could not, or would not, condemn Shepherd’s heresy. Westminster is committed to this doctrine of the covenant. If the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, now put to the test regarding their confession of the heart of the gospel—justification by faith alone—and with it all the doctrines of grace, are to maintain the gospel of sovereign grace, they must reexamine and repudiate the doctrine of a conditional covenant that all of them embrace. I doubt that they will. I doubt that they can. I pray I am wrong.