Previous article in this series: June 2013, p. 392.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), host of the parasitic conditional covenant heresy known as Federal Vision (FV), recently exonerated leading FV heretic Peter Leithart.1 Despite all the avowals to the contrary by the PCA’s Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), their decision sanctioned his heretical theology as inside the bounds of the Westminster Standards and allowed him to teach that heretical theology as within the bounds of the creeds, a fact that Peter Leithart cares little about since he loathes the creeds.
Previously I noted some important features of his trial and that his exoneration is both unsurprising and unremarkable. The FV captured the city of the PCA with hardly a fight. That the FV captured the PCA is also the judgment of Lane Kiester, PCA minister, commentator, and witness against Peter Leithart:
The reason I say that the FV has won the PCA is that the PCA is now a FV-friendly denomination…. Of course, there are Presbyteries [similar to a Reformed classis] that would never allow in a FV man. But the FV doesn’t need those Presbyteries. They have Pacific Northwest [Leithart’s], Missouri [home of FV teacher Jeffrey Meyers], Siouxlands [where they silenced opposition to the FV], and Metro New York Presbyteries [home of Tim Keller]. That is enough space for anyone…. Those Presbyteries are absolutely safe for FVmen.”2
Keister also gives an astute analysis of the FV’s tactics in their bloodless coup that highlights both their shrewdness and their unscrupulousness.
Another critic of the FV takeover in the PCA lays his finger on a policy to make the PCA a “big tent” denomination, one that “includes the FV,” the leading exponent of which is the powerful, but protean, Tim Keller.3
The deep support for Leithart’s exoneration in the PCA was evident in the treatment of overtures concerning his case at this year’s PCA General Assembly (GA).
There were five overtures dealing with trials of Federal Visionists [at the GA]…. The Overtures Committee recommended that the moderator rule both Overture 19 and Overture 23 out of order because Standing Judicial Commission rulings are final…. Overtures 20, 21, and 22 were referred to the Standing Judicial Commission. These all requested that the General Assembly assume original jurisdiction over TE Peter Leithart.4
An observer in the PCA suggested that any positive ruling from the SJC on these overtures would be “a miracle.”5
All of this is very interesting and instructive, but it is neither the heart of the matter in Peter Leithart’s trial nor its most remarkable feature. What is remarkable is the candor of the defendant and his defenders—courts and prominent theologians alike—in stating their conviction of what lies at the heart of this controversy and the failure of the prosecution to deal with it.
Summarizing the words of the defense: it is about the covenant.
Leithart’s covenant view comes out clearly and unmistakably for all to read in the entirety of the 722 pages of the record of the case.6 According to his own statements, his quotations of other authors for support, and the statements of the defense on his behalf, he teaches a covenant in which the “reprobate” have “union with Christ” and are “temporary members of the covenant.” In answer to the question, “do you believe that some reprobate persons can in some respects be united to Christ?” he responded, “I do.” And again, “do you believe that reprobate persons united to Christ receive and then lose saving graces?” “Yeah.” It is a covenant in which “everyone baptized is brought into the intimate circle of God’s favor.” It is a covenant in which we find the “apex of non-saving grace” (ROC 37–8, 486–87).7
One of the “key issues” in the covenant is whether faith is a “condition.” The covenant “hinges” on faith, which is the “personal laying hold of the benefits and the grace that’s an offer in the covenant.” In the covenant not election, the death of Christ, or the work of the Holy Spirit guarantee salvation, but “living out one’s baptism faithful to the Lord” guarantees salvation (ROC 206, 23, 28, 77). The apostasy of covenant members and their falling away from grace are virtually the chief points of his theology; and he says about apostates, with a sham humility cloaking his Pharisaical pride, that he is “at a loss” to describe the difference between “me and them” (ROC 659).
In short, his covenant is conditional and as such denies all the doctrines of grace.
I am not interested now in describing the particulars of Leithart’s man-glorifying and grace-denying covenant view, but to assert that this wicked covenant view is at the heart of the FV controversy out of which all the other issues arise.
At the trial Peter Leithart stated the centrality of this issue: “At its heart the FV is about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.” This seems to contradict the contention that the covenant is the heart of the issue. But it does not when one realizes that Leithart teaches that baptism joins every baptized child to the visible church and that “without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ” (ROC 280). The visible church is the body of Christ, so that baptism unites every baptized child to Christ. Leithart says, “Union with Christ is the rubric under which Reformed theology has taught the blessings of the covenant of grace come to us” (ROC 210).
The friendly courts also state that the covenant is the central issue. The court of Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNP) defended its exoneration of Leithart on the grounds that he speaks “covenantally” and not “decretally,” as the creeds do. The PNP spoke of the Westminster Standards’ “largely decretal perspective on our salvation,” while commending Leithart’s focusing on the “relational” and “covenantal” and his approaching theological questions from a “covenantal framework” (ROC 41).
Peter Leithart and his defense were also clear on the relationship of his conditional covenant view of salvation to the decretal—biblical—doctrine of salvation in the creeds. One of the witnesses for Peter Leithart, at last seemingly tiring of the steadfast refusal of his critics to get it, said it best, there is between these two systems a “clash of paradigms” (ROC 499).
This witness for Peter Leithart spoke truth. Leithart’s covenant theology is as at enmity with the creeds—and the scriptural truth they teach—as Cain is with Abel, Esau with Jacob, Egypt with Israel, Babylon with Judah, Satan with Christ. That conditional covenant theology will not be satisfied either until it has driven the truth to exile or death.
The issue in the FV controversy is about the covenant and the relationship between the doctrines of sovereign, particular grace taught in the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds and the doctrine of the covenant. The two paradigms that are clashing in the controversy are the creedal insistence that the Bible teaches salvation rooted in God’s decree, and the conditional covenant doctrine’s assertion that salvation is controlled by the faith and faithfulness of the baptized. The controversy is between the creed’s insistence upon God’s grace and blessing for the elect only, and the conditional covenant doctrine’s insistence that elect and reprobate are members of the covenant and receive grace and blessing. The battle is another in the same war that was punctuated by previous conflicts between Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Calvin and Pighius, Dordt and Arminius—a war between sovereign grace and general grace, salvation by God or man.
Recognizing this, the question is whether the doctrine of the covenant is in fact a different paradigm that clashes with the decrees, so that to teach covenantally one must contradict the decretal teaching of the creeds; to speak covenantally one must speak a different language than the creeds; to exegete the Scriptures covenantally one must have a different exegesis than the decretal; and to believe the covenant one must believe, not in sovereign, electing, irresistible, unchangeable grace, but in a non-saving, ineffectual, losable grace?
Or does the doctrine of the creeds that salvation is rooted in God’s eternal decree consistently applied demand and imply the teaching of an unconditional covenant of grace, so that, even if they never so much as mentioned the word covenant, by teaching salvation rooted in election the creeds teach an unconditional covenant?
This is the issue as stated not by those who oppose the FV, but by the heretics and their defenders. On their own testimony, if a man or a church adopts the conditional covenant view, exonerates this view, or tolerates this view, that man or church has adopted, exonerated, or tolerates a paradigm that clashes with the creeds and their teaching of sovereign grace. By implication, too, if one teaches an unconditional covenant of sovereign grace, he alone teaches in harmony with the decretal teaching of the creeds.
It is also noteworthy that Dr. Horton, minister in the URC, professor at Westminster West, and one prosecution witness that the judges and the defense did not ridicule, gave away the whole controversy by failing to distinguish between what he holds as the Reformed view of the covenant and Peter Leithart’s view. Concerning membership in the covenant, he agrees that elect and reprobate are members. On what Leithart calls the “key issue” of whether or not faith is a condition, Horton is unequivocal, “Of course we believe it is a condition” (ROC 412). On the crucial question of apostasy, Horton says, “Leithart is… right” (ROC 385). Horton concedes to the FV that inthose once enlightened, tasters of the heavenly gift, and partakers of the Holy Ghost were members of the covenant who received covenant grace and the blessings of the covenant, but finally fell away from grace, the covenant, and salvation.8 Horton also will not describe Leithart’s doctrine of general, losable grace in the covenant as “Arminian,” but tepidly speaks of it as “Lutheran.”
With such prosecution witnesses the FV is safe not only in the PCA, but also in Horton’s own URC. That denomination, too, should take notice of the evaluations emanating from the PCA about how the FV captured the PCA without a fight.9 From its beginnings, the URC has been enamored of a “big tent” and agrees with, or tolerates in the name of the big tent, the basic points of the theology of the Federal Vision: the common grace of God to all men, the promise of God to all the baptized children, the impotence of the promise to save many of those to whom God gives it in the covenant, and salvation in the covenant dependent not upon the particular grace of God, but on the condition of faith, which many vainly try to salvage with an appeal to an impotent grace. Many in the URC, too, have consoled themselves that the URC dealt with the FV by means of a study report.
The FV is the new Arminianism of the day. It is a wholesale assault on the truth of sovereign grace applied specifically to the doctrine of the covenant. It is about whether the covenant is a covenant of the sovereign, particular grace of the creeds or the general, resistible, non-saving grace of conditions.
After over thirty years of the FV controversy, beginning with the scandalous removal of Norman Shepherd from Westminster Seminary, after numerous writings and speeches in which FV men state what is at the heart of their theology, and after several trials of FV men, this can no longer be denied or ignored with any credibility.
For those Reformed believers who face this issue in their churches, they must hear the cry of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) that FV is a covenant issue. Hearing that, they must evaluate whether or not their own doctrine of the covenant is a paradigm that clashes with the creeds, or whether it is the covenant doctrine of the creeds and the covenant doctrine demanded by the “decretal” theology of the creeds.
To that end I recommend the study of the (Reformed) creedal doctrine of the covenant contained briefly in the Declaration of Principles.10 The Declaration of Principles came to the heart of the contemporary issue of the FV over sixty years ago.11 The contention of the Declaration and of the PRC officially by means of it is that the three forms of unity teach a certain covenant doctrine and exclude another. The creeds teach a covenant doctrine in which the doctrines of sovereign grace taught clearly by Dordt—taught also in the Westminster Standards—in all five points characterize and control that covenant.
There are also reasons the FV controversy ought to be of prominent interest to the membership of the PRC.
First, it is the development of the false theology that led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed churches in 1924 and their reformation in 1953. If you want to know why 1924 and 1953 were of utmost importance, then familiarity with the FV controversy is absolutely necessary. The FV is rank heresy that boldly denies all the doctrines of grace, including election, limited atonement, and preservation of the saints, in the name of another paradigm called the conditional covenant. On the basis of a covenant doctrine that the PRC rejected in 1924 and 1953, the FV denies every doctrine that a Reformed believer holds dear as the truth of his and of his children’s salvation.
Second, with the Protestant Reformed minister’s promise to refute errors, especially those rejected by the Synod of Dordt, he must refute not only the corrupt theology of Jacob Arminius, the three points, William Heyns, and Klaas Schilder, but also of Douglas Wilson, Peter Leithart, and other FV men. This applies for the confessing believer, too, who promises to reject all heresies repugnant to the truth, of which the FV is an outstanding as well as a very close and threatening example.
Third, we must be interested in and knowledgeable about the FV because there is an enormous door for mission work that God has opened for us as a denomination and through our evangelism committees. This should not surprise us. It was in response to the demand of missions among the Liberated that the PRC developed the precious little document that is of supreme importance today—the Declaration of Principles.
In keeping with the conviction of the PRC as expressed in our Domestic Mission Committee Constitution that “our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation,” there is as great an opportunity for plain testimony to the truth of sovereign grace over against the FV’s heretical covenant doctrine as ever there was with the common grace controversy; indeed, they are of a piece, both teaching a general, impotent, resistible, non-saving grace of God cut free from the decrees.12
Availing ourselves of this open door, there is a massive new opportunity to use that little document that was drawn up for use by the mission committee and which all these years has formed the basis of our covenant instruction on the mission field concerning our conviction about the creedal doctrine of the covenant.
Whatever evil the Federal Vision heresy has brought, by God’s providence it has brought to the foreground again the precious truth of the covenant. So much is this the case that one observer of current developments in Reformed and Presbyterian churches spoke of a “pervasive convenantalism.”13 The covenant is being discussed, a fact that observer bemoaned, but for which the PRC must be thankful.
It is the truth of the unconditional covenant taught by the Reformed creeds as clearly demonstrated by the Declaration of Principles that is the current need of the hour.
The FV steams forward like a juggernaut in Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
Leithart’s exoneration has set the pattern.
There will be others, and not only in the PCA.
1 This is the second article in a series reviewing the case. The first can be found in the Standard Bearer 89, no. 17 (June, 2013):392–96. The first article treats the basics of the case, the terminology of PCA church government that may be unfamiliar to some readers, and a general evaluation of the decision.
6 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.
7 The last quote is from John Murray’s, Free Offer of the Gospel, used to defend Leithart’s teaching of general, non-saving grace in the covenant. The two errors are of a piece as the PRC has always maintained.
8 A fuller explanation of Horton’s views on covenant apostasy can be found at http://www.canonwired.com/resources/horton-wilson-discuss-the-federal-vision/, which is a friendly chat between Horton and Federal Vision heretic Douglas Wilson.
9 For the benefit of any who care, they can be found at http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/how-the-fv-won-the-pca/ and at http://twoedgedsword.blogspot.in/2013/08/who-really-won-pca.html.
10 What the PRC did in the Declaration for the Reformed three forms of unity should be done with the Westminster Standards so churches that hold them as their official creeds demonstrate that the creeds teach the particularity and sovereignty of God’s grace and that this applies without doubt to the covenant, so that the only covenant doctrine allowed by the creeds is the unconditional covenant of sovereign, particular grace.
11 An important study of the Declaration of Principles has recently been published: David J. Engelsma, Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2013).
12 The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 49