In a landmark decision on March 7, 2013, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) exonerated federal vision (FV) heretic Peter Leithart. The decision has been a long time coming. In 2007 the PCA adopted a report on the FV. Since then the Peter Leithart case has been going on at various levels in the PCA, notably his lengthy trial last year in his own Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNWP), in which he was acquitted. One member of the presbytery, a ruling elder, appealed the case to the PCA’s Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), the highest judicial body in the PCA outside of the General Assembly. After examining the 722-page record of the case (ROC), the SJC acquitted Peter Leithart and approved his heretical FV theology as within the bounds of the Westminster Standards.1
In its decision the SJC concluded that “Leithart’s differences with the [Westminster] Standards amount to semantic differences” and are a matter of “provocative statements,” “infelicitous” and “injudicious” use of language, and a lack of “sufficient explanation.” They cautioned him to “define his terms more clearly,” but did not condemn his doctrine.
The SJC reiterated that “nothing in this Decision should be construed as addressing (or thereby endorsing) in general TE Leithart’s views, writings, teachings or pronouncements…. Our conclusion is simply that neither the prosecution nor the Complainant proved that TE Leithart’s views, as articulated at the trial or otherwise contained in the Record of the Case, violate the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.”2
By this decision the PCA approved the theology of one of the most vigorous and persistent teachers of FV heresy, whom his outstanding FV advocate, friend, and employer, Douglas Wilson, refers to not as FV “pale ale,” but as FV “dark,” even “oatmeal stout.”3 By this decision the PCA allowed FV teachers to promote their heresy as sound doctrine within the bounds of the Westminster Standards.
The FV has captured the city of the PCA almost without a fight. They have the bricks, and they will now use them for aggressive promotion of false doctrine. They also have the ecclesiastical courts, and anyone who disagrees will be marginalized or put out. Proof of this came out during Leithart’s trial, when it was revealed that two previous critics of the FV in the PCA had been threatened with being investigated or are now in the process of being investigated for what amounts to violating the ninth commandment, a common charge of heretics against those who defend the truth.4
As the defense for Leithart in his trial before his presbytery not so subtly noted, and as Douglas Wilson suggested, it is time for those who disagree to recognize that “you now belong to a communion which has formally decided FV…to be within the reformational pale.” Wilson also pointed out to them that if they keep opposing the FV, “people will wonder why you remain within a church that has now decided, at the highest level, the ‘wrong way’ on the article of the standing or falling church.”5 Wilson is flippant, but he makes a valid point. The critics of the FV in the PCA have made the issue in this controversy the federal vision’s heretical doctrine of justification. The PCA has now decided the wrong way on the mark of a standing or falling church, and the critics must leave.
The ROC in the Leithart trial is also instructive on a number of points.
First, the ROC makes clear that the church polity of the trial was wrong. The PCA has courts with a panel of judges, defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys, and briefs and counter briefs. Modeled on the worldly courts they also tolerate the wicked behavior and tactics of worldly lawyers. Leithart’s defense counsel, while crying about a lack of love and castigating the opposition of the FV for disturbing the peace, savagely attacked the character and reliability of a witness against Peter Leithart, PCA minister Rev. Lane Keister. The moderator and all the judges of the court not only looked on but also joined in with that ecclesiastical lawyer. In the judges’ written opinion of the case they wrote “much if not all of the controversy concerning Dr. Leithart’s views can be traced to the witness himself.”6 A troubler of Israel he is, and the courts that accused him of it are as dangerous as those of Ahab, too.
Second, the trial made plain that in that court there was a great deal of love for learning, scholarship, academic letters, and titles, but very little love for the truth. The defense that mercilessly savaged the credibility of a witness also showed open contempt toward him because he possessed no doctorate. Listening to the defense, the judges said in their opinion, “The Court saw no reason to consider this witness as an expert on theological matters. An expert is one who by training or experience has qualifications and attainments rising above the ordinary in his field. Mr. Keister has no advanced degree in theology (Th.M. or Ph.D.), and has published no scholarly books or journal articles.”7
At the same time the defense obsequiously deferred to every doctor in the room and gave a tiresome 23-page list of all the scholarly accomplishments of the three star witnesses for Peter Leithart, who despite all their books, papers, lectures, dissertations, theses, conferences, wide learning, eminent teaching positions, and widely regarded reputations at international congresses do not understand the gospel or the creeds’ teaching of the gospel.8 It is a kind of boasting that no doubt is a fruit of their proud doctrine that teaches men to trust in their works for salvation and to boast before Jesus Christ of the many mighty works they have done in His name.
Bowing before every doctor, the judges and defense neglected to call Lane Keister either Reverend or Pastor, but referred to him as “Mr.,” as though to put a verbal exclamation point on his lack of a doctorate and their contemptuous view of his credibility. They recognized every title at the trial except minister of the gospel. That court would have attacked Amos because he was a gatherer of sycamore fruit. It would have joined in the mockery of David because he was a mere lad going out without armor against Goliath. It would have rejected all of the apostles because they were unlearned.
Third, the prosecution in the trial of Peter Leithart was ineptly carried out by PCA minister Jason Stellman, who turned out to be a quisling who showed that he did not believe a word of what he had said or had defended when shortly after the trial he left for the Roman Catholic Church. He was the defender of the truth in the PCA, a kind of Balaam, who in spite of himself said some commendable things at the trial, but believed nothing of it.
Belonging to the ineptness of the prosecution was its inability or unwillingness to grapple with the heart of the FV controversy, a covenant cut free from election, by allowing all kinds of admittedly important but secondary issues to crowd out this main issue. Five charges were brought against Leithart, but his erroneous view of a conditional covenant was not even so much as mentioned. The prosecution, failing to deal with that root, throughout the trial often appeared as a heroic, but badly myopic, Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
Fourth, by exonerating Leithart they exonerated rank rebellion against the creeds. Throughout the trial Leithart made no secret that he loathes the creeds and that his doctrine is formulated with the creeds as the foil. There was even a row that had to be settled before the trial began about the place of the creeds in the trial, and in response to which the prosecuting Balaam spoke truth when he informed the court, “It is TE Leithart and his views and teachings that are on trial, not the Confession and Catechisms.”9 After the Leithart exoneration Douglas Wilson, speaking for the FV men in the PCA, showed that they take their opponents for fools when he wrote that FV teachers are “happy to labor in the system of doctrine taught by the Westminster Confession.”10 This is a blatant falsehood in the case of Peter Leithart and other FV men in light of everything they have written. Or this means that Peter Leithart and other FV teachers will be happy to labor within the system of doctrine of the Westminster Standards like a fox will be happy to labor in the henhouse. They are not happy to labor within the Westminster Standards, and not a one of them has had the integrity to write a gravamen to change them, but these men continue to promote false doctrine contrary to the Westminster Standards while simultaneously perpetuating the charade that they do not disagree with them.
Fifth, of note in the trial was the conspicuous absence of the PCA’s study committee report on the FV. The PCA, like many Reformed and Presbyterian churches, adopted a report on the FV, which, like the rest, failed to lay its finger on the root of the controversy in a covenant doctrine cut free from election. Lane Keister wrote of FV teachers going “underground” in the PCA. What allowed them to do this there as elsewhere was the study committee reports. So effective were these reports at sheltering the FV that it is conceivable that they were the brainchild of FV men or their sympathizers, or if not, the FV teachers would have been foolish to oppose such an effective cover. Besides not dealing with the root of the issue, these reports provide a false sense of security by implying that the FV has been dealt with, obstructing the discipline of false teachers by time, energy, and resource-consuming decisions instead of discipline, and thereby allowing the false teachers to go underground and to continue to flourish like a cancer.
This ought to teach any denomination that thinks it has dealt with the FV by a study committee report, that it is a false hope. These reports all and sundry are toothless, worthless, and dangerous as a lion who has no teeth to defend himself or his pride, because for all his bluster and posturing he is incapable of doing anything against his opponents, and in fact enrages them. Or they are dangerous as a doctor who treats cancer only by cutting off the lump but fails to analyze the lump and get at its source. So these reports are dangerous for allowing the federal vision to continue to exist in the churches.
The exoneration of Peter Leithart is both unremarkable and unsurprising.
It is unremarkable because of a patent unwillingness to condemn the heresy, which comes out in the trial documents. The PNWP was unwilling. The defense decried that this trial had to happen at all and pinned the blame for lack of peace on the opponents of the FV. The prosecutor was unwilling. There was also a familiar, though uneasy, banter in the trial that was unbecoming a heresy trial. The witnesses against Leithart told the court how they would rather speak of how many things they learned from Peter Leithart, and there was much laughter between all. The star witness of the prosecution, Lane Keister, for all his knowledge of the FV heresy refused to call it a heresy because “the word heresy is like ‘h’-bomb,” which is the theological equivalent of a vulgar f-bomb and about as acceptable in the Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiastical world of the day as the vulgar word is in polite society.11 About the only person who wanted the trial was Peter Leithart, who had insisted on a trial.
The unwillingness to prosecute the heresy as heresy, even if the prosecutors would only have recognized it as a heresy regarding justification, is inexcusable and contrary to the Scriptures that bind the believer to contend earnestly for the faith regardless of what his natural predispositions are. It is contrary to the Scriptures’ demand that the believer love the truth, which love is jealous for the truth and its purity, as a husband is jealous for his wife and her purity. It is contrary to the subscription of all that binds them not only to confess and uphold the truth but also to guard the purity of doctrine, which demands condemnation of heresy.
In a similar vein is the advice of the SJC prior to the trial of Leithart, advice that revealed its unwillingness, and its allowance for the PNWP’s unwillingness, to prosecute Peter Leithart by allowing him to seek timely affiliation with another communion, worthless advice in any situation, but evil in this case. Even if the central error of the FV is justification, this is the article of a standing or falling church. If Leithart is teaching such a soul-destroying, church-destroying heresy, then for his good, and the good of all the people to whom he has taught that lie, they show him his error, condemn that error, and call him to repent.
To his bold demand that, if he indeed taught heresy, the wickedness that followed from it be shown to him, the prosecutor should have pointed out to Leithart that the wickedness is his doctrine itself. The wickedness of his doctrine is that it denies the one sacrifice of Christ and His perfect righteousness as the only ground of salvation, and teaches men and women that they may show up in the judgment trusting in their works of salvation.12 He should have been told that the blood of all those people who will be damned by Christ because they believed his doctrine and trusted in their works is on his head except he repent. But there is very little love today in these churches—very little love for the churches, or for the erring teachers, or for the truth, or for God and Christ for whose truth they are called to contend, but persistently refuse.
Leithart’s exoneration is unremarkable as well because this decision follows a string of decisions in Reformed and Presbyterian church bodies for over thirty years that have refused to deal with the FV heresy or have exonerated those who teach it. The board of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia refused to level charges against the heretical teachings of FV leader Prof. Norman Shepherd. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which refused to deal with Norman Shepherd—one of the reasons the PCA originally rejected a proposed merger with the OPC—afterwards exonerated FV teacher John Kinnaird, and continues to shelter the vigorous supporter of both, Richard Gaffin. The United Reformed Churches refused to discipline heretical teacher John Barach and others and instead adopted a study committee report that pinned the blame on the FV’s heretical doctrine of justification, but ignored its heretical covenant doctrine, a report that pleased no one, drew fire from both sides, and allowed the false teachers to escape unscathed.
To that group the PCA must be added. The PCA has refused to condemn FV teachers before. This is not the first case involving charges of teaching the FV that has surfaced in the PCA. The defense counsel cited both cases. FV proponent Steve Wilkins turned tail and ran before charges could be brought against him. FV teacher Jeff Meyers was exonerated at the level of the presbytery. Now at highest level the PCA has approved the heresy.
There is, however, one remarkable feature of the trial. It is the remarkable candor with which the witnesses for Peter Leithart, the judges who tried and exonerated him in their written opinions, and Peter Leithart himself state what is indisputably at the heart of this controversy. Equally remarkable is the unwillingness of the prosecution and the appellants to lay hold on this central issue.
At the heart of the controversy, at its very core, is not the issue of baptism, justification, apostasy, the preservation of the saints, or the covenant with Adam. The prosecution charged Peter Leithart with all these things and more. Rather, at the heart of the controversy is the violent warfare between the conditional covenant doctrine and the truth of sovereign grace in the covenant as embodied in the Westminster Standards, what at his trial Peter Leithart candidly called a “clash of paradigms.”13
To this we turn next time.
1 The record of the case is the collection of all the documents related to his trial including a full transcript of the trial itself. All quotes cited as ROC are from this document. The document is available at http://pnwp.org/index.php/notices/leithart-trial.
2 PCA SJC Case 2012-05 Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery.
4 ROC, 445.
6 ROC, 24.
7 ROC, 23.
8 ROC, 252–275.
9 ROC, 8.
11 ROC, 445.
12 ROC, 353-354.
13 ROC, 499.