Update: Federal Vision on Trial in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)


In a previous article we gave attention to two current cases in the PCA in which two men are charged with confessing and teaching some of the errors of the movement known as the Federal Vision. There have been important developments in these cases that warrant an update on their status.

It should be kept in mind that the Federal Vision movement is a heretical movement. In our judgment the basic error of the Federal Vision movement is its teaching that the covenant of grace is a conditional covenant. From this basic error flows a multitude of other false doctrines that are in conflict with the basic doctrines of the Reformed faith as those doctrines are set forth in our Reformed creeds. The Federal Vision’s adherents do not all agree on every point of doctrine, but some of the well-known errors of the Federal Vision include a denial that Jesus merited salvation for the elect, a denial of eternal election, the teaching that justification is by faith and works, the teaching that baptism creates a living union between Jesus and all the children of believers, the teaching that it is possible to fall away from saving union with Jesus Christ (which is a denial of the preservation of the saints), etc.

Thus, it is abundantly clear that members of Reformed and Presbyterian churches who hold to the Federal Vision ought to be put under discipline, which discipline ought to be carried out until that person either repents or is excommunicated. All eyes are on the two cases in the PCA to see whether or not such discipline will be carried out.

Peter Leithart and the Pacific Northwest Presbytery

This is the case that first made headlines in the church world. Dr. Leithart is a fairly well-known scholar who has openly admitted his affinity for the heretical teachings of the Federal Vision. These teachings were condemned by the 2007 General Assembly of the PCA. Nevertheless, as we noted in the previous article, the Pacific Northwest Presbytery exonerated Dr. Leithart, proclaiming that his teachings agree with the Westminster Standards, although they admitted that some of his expressions lacked clarity. We also noted that a minority of the Presbytery disagreed with this judgment and resolved to appeal to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) of the PCA’s General Assembly.

We can now report that the SJC has heard the case and issued a proposed ruling. Rev. Jason Stellman, part of the minority that objected to the presbytery’s ruling, explains:

In a word, our complaint was upheld, and SJC agreed that the presbytery erred in its failure to find a strong presumption of guilt on the part of TE [Teaching Elder] Peter Leithart due to his doctrinal views being out of accord with the Westminster Standards concerning various fundamental issues.¹

Because the SJC has found “a strong presumption of guilt” in Dr. Leithart’s views, when the ruling is finalized, it will instruct the Presbytery “to appoint a prosecutor to prepare an Indictment of Leithart and to conduct the case.”² Basically this means that Dr. Leithart is no longer considered a minister in good standing in the PCA because there is a strong presumption of guilt against him, but he has not yet been officially convicted of heresy since his case still needs to be adjudicated.

This appears to be a victory, even if it is a minor one, in the PCA in the fight against the Federal Vision heresy. We could wish that the wheels of justice in the PCA would grind faster, but we will be happy with the wheels grinding slowly, as long as they grind exceeding fine.

Though this case seems to be moving in the right direction, it has become clear that a certain Dr. Robert Rayburn is a determined defender of Dr. Leithart’s teachings. Dr. Rayburn does not necessarily agree with all of Dr. Leithart’s views, but he believes they are all “within the bounds” of the Reformed confessions and therefore ought not be condemned. Dr. Rayburn has begun attacking the SJC and its decision on the Internet, making it clear that the Leithart case will not be resolved without a drawn-out fight. May God give Rev. Stellman and the others on the side of the angels strength to endure.

Greg Lawrence and the Siouxlands Presbytery

It was previously reported concerning this case that the Siouxlands Presbytery, in October of 2009, rescinded its decision (of its September 2009 meeting) not to find a strong presumption of guilt against Pastor Greg Lawrence and to appoint a committee to study his views and bring a recommendation to the Presbytery meeting in January. It was also reported that Lawrence was defended by Dr. Joshua Moon, pastor of a PCA congregation in Minnesota, who implicated himself along with Lawrence as an advocate of the Federal Vision heresy. The Siouxlands Presbytery held its January meeting. I wish I could report that, like the Leithart case, this case is moving in a positive direction. Unfortunately, things have turned in a decidedly negative direction.

The committee appointed in October unanimously recommended in January that the Presbytery find a strong presumption of guilt against Pastor Lawrence for teaching errors that are associated with the Federal Vision. The Presbytery basically took no action at this time on that recommendation. It “deferred consideration” of this matter to its September meeting.

Such a decision to defer consideration may not seem to warrant the conclusion that things are moving in a negative direction in this case. However, the travesty of this decision is clearly seen in light of two important factors. First, there is no question that Pastor Lawrence’s teachings are heretical, so there is no reason to defer consideration of this matter. Secondly, instead of moving forward in the case against the heretical teachings of Pastor Lawrence, the Presbytery has actually decided to investigate one of its orthodox members, Pastor Brian Carpenter, “as to whether or not he has broken the 9th commandment in misrepresenting another member of the Presbytery.” Pastor Carpenter is coming under fire for reporting on the actions of the September and October meetings of the Presbytery. It seems that some members of the Presbytery do not like having their impotence in dealing with heresy pointed out to the public, even though it is common practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches to deal with doctrinal matters as public matters.³

Ironically, while Pastor Carpenter is being investigated for misrepresenting a member of the Presbytery, the speech Dr. Moon gave to defend Pastor Lawrence in September has been made public, which speech clearly shows that it is the intent of Dr. Moon to represent Pastor Lawrence’s heretical views as biblical and Reformed.

Dr. Moon in particular defended Lawrence’s teaching “indiscriminately ascribing to those who are baptized ‘some sense’ of (a) union with Christ, (b) new life, (c) adoption, and (d) the cleansing of our sins (emphasis his).” Dr. Moon, who happens to be the son-in-law of Dr. Rayburn, claims that Lawrence’s view on baptism is “within the bounds” of the Reformed confessions. Dr. Moon argued that if the Presbytery were to condemn Lawrence’s views it would also condemn John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, and other Reformed worthies, as well as some statements made in Reformed creeds such as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession of Faith. Even worse, Dr. Moon contends that, in condemning Lawrence’s statement, the Presbytery would be rejecting the clear teaching of Scripture. Such passages as Romans 6 and Romans 11, John 15, some parables, and several of the prophets are referred to by Dr. Moon as teaching that God does in some sense give new life, the forgiveness of sins, and other benefits of salvation to the reprobate and the elect alike in the sphere of the covenant. Not only does Dr. Moon defend Pastor Lawrence’s view that salvation is universal “in some sense” in the sphere of the covenant, but he also defends the notion that the reprobate lose that salvation. Such teachings are Reformed, according to Dr. Moon, not heresy. In light of such a hollow defense given in September of 2009, it is exceedingly difficult to understand how the Siouxlands Presbytery could wait until January, much less until September, of this year to find a strong presumption of guilt against Lawrence and Moon. There is not enough space to demonstrate thoroughly how hollow and misguided Moon’s defense of Lawrence is, but a couple of examples provide sufficient illustration.

Dr. Moon reads into statements of Reformed theologians things that they never wrote. He contends that they taught that God gives saving benefits indiscriminately to all of the baptized children of believers. In order to support this contention, he quotes Zacharias Ursinus as writing,

Those are not to be excluded from baptism, to whom the benefit of the remission of sins, and of regeneration belongs. But this benefit belongs to the infants of the church; for redemption from sin, by the blood of Christ and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than the adult.

Dr. Moon is right: no Reformed man ought to reject this statement of Ursinus. Ursinus teaches that the children of believers ought to be baptized and that the children of believers are saved. However, Dr. Moon is wrong in attributing to Ursinus, on the basis of this statement, the idea that God gives some saving benefits indiscriminately to all baptized children. Search high and low in Ursinus and all of the other Reformed worthies that Moon quotes and you will find no such statement that God gives saving benefits to elect and reprobate alike in the sphere of the covenant. Nor will you find in these Reformed theologians any notion that the reprobate receive saving benefits for a time and then lose them. Indeed Ursinus quite clearly states the opposite when he says in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: “All those who are baptized with water, whether adults or infants, are not made partakers of the grace of Christ, for the eternal election of God and his calling to the kingdom of Christ is free (373).” Reformed theologians teach that, when reprobate people fall away from the church into sin, those reprobate people never actually were saved in any way, even though they may have appeared to have been saved while they were in the church.

In his speech Dr. Moon also betrays a shocking carelessness in interpreting the parables of Jesus. An elementary rule for interpreting parables is that the parables are not to be pressed too far so as to find meaning in every element of a parable. Dr. Moon violates this elementary rule. For example, he argues that the parable of the sower can be used to support the teaching that God in some way gives new life even to the reprobate. In this parable Jesus is explaining different reactions to the preaching of the gospel. He compares the hearers of the gospel to four different types of soil. Some are compared to good soil. They are said to receive the sown seed and to produce fruit, meaning that they obviously receive new life. Dr. Moon and Pastor Lawrence contend that also the “stony ground” hearers and “thorny ground” hearers, who sprout but eventually die and bear no fruit, receive new life but eventually lose it. It is simply stretching the parable too far to teach that Jesus intends to show that the reprobate receive new life when He states that the seeds on the stony and the thorny ground sprout. Besides, the rest of Scripture so clearly teaches that God saves and preserves the elect alone and gives no salvation to the reprobate that it is amazing that any man claiming to be Reformed would interpret the parable of the sower the way Moon and Lawrence do.

The views of Lawrence and Moon find no support from Reformed theologians, from the Reformed creeds, or from Scripture. Their views are, however, quite obviously consistent with the views of Arminianism and the Federal Vision heresy, views that are condemned by Scripture and the Reformed confessions. It is very disturbing that a Presbytery of Reformed elders and ministers is apparently unable to see through Moon’s thin defense of Lawrence and then take the prompt action that is necessary to show that such views simply will not be tolerated in a Reformed denomination.

The fact that the Presbytery is so slow in acting makes one wonder if Moon is right in what is perhaps the most important statement of his speech:

The fact is, what TE Lawrence says on baptism is held in various ways and with various nuances by a lot of people in our PCA: from ministers and elders here in the presbytery, myself included, to professors at our theological seminary, and even almost entire presbyteries. Some are wanting to drive them all out and are asking you to begin that exile.

Has the poison of the Federal Vision spread in the PCA as far as Moon contends? If so, this is all the more reason for Siouxlands Presbytery to implement discipline in the case of Pastor Lawrence. Instead of leading to many being put out or forced to leave the PCA in an “exile,” as Moon cynically suggests, hopefully such discipline will lead to repentance and a Reformation.

¹ Rev. Stellman’s report can be found at: http://deregnisduobus.blogspot.com/search/label/Federal%20Vision.

² This quote comes from the Standing Judicial Commission’s report, which can be found at http://www.exile-pc.org/docs/SJC%20Decision.pdf.

³ The quotations are taken from Pastor Wes White’s report on the January Presbytery meeting, “Presbytery of the Siouxlands January 2010 Meeting, Just Ahead of Big Winter Storm,” found at http://www.theaquilareport.com.