Notes from a Heresy Trial

So Peter Leithart, teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, biblical exegete, blogger, member of the First Things Advisory Council (and based on my interactions with him during my tenure there, a most congenial chap), has been found not guilty in a heresy trial held by the Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

The basis for this trial? Dr. Leithart’s “federal vision” views (for a primer, go here or here).

The Rev. Lane Keister, who writes the Green Baggins blog, testified in that trial. He provides a breakdown of the key aspects of the trial here and his own testimony here. The presbytery provides the minutes of the trial here. (It should be noted that Dr. Leithart himself has remained remarkably subdued about the trial. I say “remarkably” because most men in the same position would have been blogging wildly — lashing out hither and thither at their enemies, real and perceived, only finally to leave their denomination in a huff and write a book about how Jesus condemns the modern church and that the end of the world is October 21.)

Reformed theology has never been a monolith, and the federal vision is but one construal of covenantal theology, that interpretative schema through which the Reformed have tried to come to terms with the deep uncertainty ironically engendered by the assurance that comes with Calvinism soteriology. Among the issues the FV attempts to grapple with, and that have caused some to cry heresy, are the objectivity of not only God’s covenant with his people but also the signs and seals of that covenant: the sacraments. What does baptism do, if anything? If it is a mere symbol, what are we to make of all those Bible verses that seem to speak of the “waters of regeneration” and how “baptism now saves you”? Also, what role do good works play in our perseverance and ultimate acquittal at the Judgment?  And how do our works relate to the distinctions between Jesus’ active and passive obedience — what exactly is imputed to us when we are justified? (For an assessment of the traditional Reformed view, try here.)

One the one hand, it’s encouraging to know that doctrine still matters to some, enough that people are willing to testify for and against certain ideas as being necessary to the faith as construed by a particular denomination. On the other hand, if Peter Leithart has written what he has written and yet is not guilty of heresy, then what can possibly be the objections about the Lutheran doctrines of baptism and the possibility of genuine apostasy? (It should be noted that Lutherans do not hold views identical to those attributed to Dr. Leithart. In fact, if he is being fairly represented in the testimonies linked to above, his opinions seem much closer to the Catholic Church’s!)

I admit to finding this stuff quite fascinating, because I marvel at the power of ideas. I have a feeling most people are either bored stiff by such arcana or absolutely horrified that such things are still considered worth trying a man over.

But there are trials and there are trials…




One thought on “Notes from a Heresy Trial

  1. I read with interest the link to Reformed theology “Puritan’s Mind”.

    1) REFORMED VIEW: This obedentia Christi fulfills the covenant breaking of the Law … This does not liberate Christians from keeping the law – in terms of sanctification and holiness – but does release them from having to keep the law perfectly to satisfy divine justice and procure their own salvation (the first use of the law).

    Lutheran view: The FULL force of the Law with it’s deadly threat and effect STILL applies to Believers according to ALL the Believer can see and do in his will, mind, and soul, which is ALL Old Adam.

    This is why flesh will and must die spiritually and physically. This is why Lutherans say that the only part of Sanctification we can see and do is about Mortification (latinate for “deathing”). It is about seeking our death. The only part of Sanctification that is about Life is the part that is pure unseen faith that ALL our sanctified works are still the moral equivalent of a used tampon that need to be hidden in the Works of Another. The Law ALWAYS accuses. The Law always kills.

    Lutherans say there is NO difference between fruits of the spirit and works of the Law. Both are Fatherly Goodness and Mercy. The difference alone is invisible faith alone in the Works of Another.

    2)REFORMED VIEW: Justification is a summation of the legal declaration of God toward the sinner – the actus forensis – counting the believer righteous (through imputation) rather than making him righteous (misconstruing justification and sanctification).3

    LUTHERAN VIEW: Justification means in the Bible both a declared or imputed righteousness and it also means infused righeousness.

    The New Man is not only declared righeous, he truly IS righeous and completely so . The creative Word that declares also makes it so.

    Reformed distinguish between justification and sanctification where Lutherans would not .
    Lutherans say that sanctification, baptism, regeneration, and repentance are synonymous and interchangeable words. And for each of these words there is a “narrow” or “proper” meaning that is pure Gospel and is alone of a faith that cannot be done by man. Then there is a “broad” meaning of each of these words that is Law+Gospel. The Reformed, along with Rome fail to distinguish between the broad meaning and the proper or narrow meaning of these words. So then they need to contrast justification with sanctification.

    Further Lutherans say that the Gospel ALWAYS comes to us and is done “in, with and under’ Good works. How could it be otherwise? Observe: In our earthly existence ALL we can see and do as Old Adam is well,, ALL we can see and do. So , by sinectoche, Lutherans have no problem whatsoever saying that we are saved by works any more than we have a problem saying we are saved by faith.

    Here is further reading on that sinectoche thangy….
    Book of Concord, Apology/Defense of the Augsburg Confessions, Article III “On Love and the Fulfillment of the Law”.

    This is a rich section illustrating the Lutheran perspective on the relationship between Good Works (aka love) and Faith alone in Christ Alone. Lutherans can and do say that we are saved by works because the Bible says it! Read how we mean that here:


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