There are two interesting postmortems on the PCA from two different perspectives. The first is “How the FV Won the PCA” by Lane Keister. The second is a counterpoint by a a former PCA pastor, Lee Johnson, from Lincoln, NE. While both provide interesting and valuable insights into what went wrong, I tend to think Lee’s analysis, perhaps without some of the conspiratorial overtones, is probably more accurate only because his perspective is broader. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the Big Tenters in the PCA, those who make up the mushy middle and who all aspire to be Tim Keller, don’t care one whit about Leithart, Meyers, Moon, Lawrence, or the Federal Vision, or any of those things. These squabbles are an annoyance and even an embarrassment. They care about inclusion, making women officers, and being “missional.” And, that last item is key, because as Paul Elliot explains, to be “missional” means to be “focused on ‘saving’ people by bettering their moral, psychological, and material circumstances, far more than the redemption of their souls from the wrath of God.”
To the Big Tenters conservative-confessionalists, or simply “TRs,” are men who seemingly revel in doctrinal minutia and infighting; neither of which helps to attract new members and doesn’t grow the church. They are a nuisance. Plus, even if these fights were justified, it’s just dirty laundry. From their perspective the Federal Vision is a fight among conservatives and voting to let the Leithart and Meyers decisions to stand was a good way to either 1) drive the conservative-confessionalists-anti-woman-officer types from the denomination, or, 2) emasculate them to the point where they learn to behave while they’re being ignored, which is exactly what happened at the last General Assembly. My guess is the answer is both with one small twist. While the FVers have come up through the Vantillian, über-militant, post-millennial, theonomistic wing of the church, they have incorporated much of N.T. Wright’s “New Perspectives on Paul” which, if nothing else, is what it means to be “missional.” It’s the social gospel recast. As the old saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows and the FV men are, ironically, the Big Tenter’s natural allies.
And, on the topic of politics, you have to give credit where credit is due and the FV men were smart. As Lane explains:
[The FV men] actively courted the evangelical middle of the PCA. They tried very hard (and successfully) to convince the evangelical middle that the FV issues were not gospel issues, but peripheral issues. This was done by the cherry-picking out-of-context quoting of the Reformed fathers that tried to make the case that the FV was within the Reformed tradition (whatever that means!). Once that was done, the evangellyfish … middle completely flipped sides. If it is a gospel issue, the middle generally votes with the confessionalists. However, if they are not convinced that it is a gospel issue, they will vote to keep the peace (whatever that means! There is FAR less peace in the PCA now than there was, say, 8 years ago.
There is no question that the FV men are skilled at obscuring their teaching so that what is warmed over Romanism comes out sounding positively Reformed. However, the majority of the blame for not making the FV a “gospel issue” falls squarely on the TRs. After all, what is the average “evangellyfish” supposed to think when after a year of online debate Lane gave Doug Wilson, the poster-boy of the FV and their chief spokesman, a clean bill of health on justification by faith alone and imputation. At the time Lane wrote:
My problem with Wilson lies in this: although Wilson says many things that are Reformed in a positive sense, he is not willing to reject the errors of the other FV proponents. Personally, I am willing to believe that Wilson holds to justification by faith alone, although he is too ambiguous on the aliveness of faith and its place in justification. He does hold to imputation. But he will not distance himself from any error of the FV, no matter how egregious. That is why, if Wilson were to apply for admission into the Presbytery of which I am a part, I could not vote to approve his transfer of credentials. What I have sought to show is that it is not enough to affirm the truth. One must also reject the errors.
Thankfully, God has granted Lane repentance and he has since come to see that the reason Wilson doesn’t distance himself from the more egregious errors of the FV is because he shares them. However, I can’t help wonder if Lane’s about-face was a case of too little, too late. But, the problem runs deeper as the TR wing, even to this day, doesn’t really see the FV as a “gospel issue.” For example, Bob Mattes, who with Lane is genuinely one of the good guys, recently wrote:
The issue with FV isn’t that they aren’t Christians . . .The issue is that FV adherents have no business being officers in the PCA. Period. That’s the issue.
Of course, that is not the issue and has never been the issue. The FV men are not Christians. Those who deny justification by belief alone and imputation are not Christians except in the most nominal sense. These are men who have no business being officers in any Christian church regardless of the denomination. These men are Roman Catholic in everything except Rome’s most flagrant departures from historic Christianity. If the issue really is that “FV adherents have no business being officers in the PCA,” then I can hardly see how the FV could be a “gospel issue.” A sectarian issue, perhaps, but hardly a matter of life and death.
Sadly, the FV victory was sealed the day the heralded PCA FV/NPP study report was adopted. That’s because in that report, which clearly demonstrates that the FV and NPP both strike at the vitals of the faith, even justification by belief alone and imputation, begins by proclaiming:
The committee … affirms that we view NPP and FV proponents in the PCA as brothers in Christ.
Someone can hold to justification based on works done through faith, something FV proponents claim contributes to our “final justification,” and call the doctrine of imputation, the heart of the Gospel and the “great exchange,” redundant as Peter Leithart has, yet according to the official PCA study report these men are still our “brothers in Christ.” This was a fatal mistake.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Sean Lucas, who was one of the purportedly “TR” committee members responsible for drafting the PCA FV/NPP report wrote (interestingly enough on Jason Stellman’s blog prior to Stellman converting to Romanism):
I have little doubt that Dr. Leithart is a genuine believer in Jesus. I do not believe that he is a heretic (particularly because, in my understanding as a church historian, heresy would generally be associated with denying key Trinitarian or Christological truths). And I do not believe that simply because one has a high baptismal theology that one is a heretic (if so, then Calvin was wrong to say that the Roman Catholic Church still had true baptism).
The issue here (and really the only issue here) is whether someone can teach in ways that are contrary to the essentials of the Standards of the PCA and still remain a minister in good standing in that church. The case that has been made is that Dr. Leithart has significant differences with the Standards on issues such as covenant, election, justification, and perseverance‑‑all issues that are essential to the system. One could hold his views and still belong to other branches of the Christian church; the real question is whether one can hold his views and be a minister in this branch of the Christian church.
Think about this for a moment. One can have “significant differences” concerning the doctrine of justification as expressed in the Westminster Standards, a doctrine that is repeated in every other Protestant and Reformed Confession and one that faithfully echoes the clarion call of the Reformation, yet still be a “genuine believer in Jesus.” This is amazing. According to Lucas, Leithart can safely hold his views on justification and imputation and “still belong to other branches of the Christian church,” just not the PCA. Since Lucas failed to mention which branches those might be, I can only think of two; the Roman Catholic state/church and the FV “Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches” (CREC), but both of those are only pretend branches of the Christian church. I wonder if church historian Lucas can tell the difference.
Consequently, if the “good guys,” the TRs, can’t seem to identify a “gospel issue” when it’s punching them in the face, can there be any wonder why the mushy middle in the PCA failed to see the FV as a “gospel issue”? Frankly, if justification by belief alone and imputation are not “gospel issues,” there are no gospel issues.
Also, I want to stress the above use of “belief alone” rather than “faith alone” and not because there is any difference between the two, linguistically or logically, but in the minds of even many TRs like Allan Strange, the difference is huge. These men argue, even against the clear teaching of our Lord (see Mark 1:15), that believing the Gospel is not enough to save anyone. Saving faith requires more. What more exactly these men are hard pressed to say. Some say that the central fiducial element that completes faith and makes it saving is love. Of course, love is a volition and as Jesus said; “If you love me keep my commandments.” So, to view saving faith as something that is completed by love is hardly different from even the most crass Federal Visionists, even James Jordan. Others simply equivocate and say that in addition belief there must be trust without ever demonstrating how trusting someone is in any way different from believing them. As John Robbins explains:
Belief, that is to say, faith (there is only one word in the New Testament for belief, pistis) and trust are the same; they are synonyms. If you believe what a person says, you trust him. If you trust a person, you believe what he says. If you have faith in him, you believe what he says and trust his words. If you trust a bank, you believe its claims to be safe and secure. Strictly speaking, trust is belief of propositions in the future tense, such as “he will be good to me” or “this bank will keep my money safe.”
The failure to understand biblical saving faith and confusing it with the traditional three-fold definition, which is not biblical and where saving faith is defined as a combination of understanding, assent and trust (or notitia. assensus, and fiducia), played right into the hands of the FV. That’s because while most Reformed men have little grasp of the real difference between faith and saving faith, the FV men maintain that to trust is to obey and it is obedience to the unspecified “demands of the covenant” that is integral to saving faith and is the key to justification.
I hope as these much needed postmortems continue that those in the PCA, particularly those who fought the good fight, will take the time to also perhaps assess mistakes they may have made if only to ensure they don’t make them again. Let us pray.