Mistrial in the Leithart Case?

Posted by on May 11, 2013 in Featured, Federal Vision, The PCA | 29 comments

It looks like three PCA presbyteries have agreed to petition the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over Rev. Peter Leithart and declare a mistrial because the prosecutor of the case (me) has joined the dark side of the Force.

And apparently this has been known for a few days and has been discussed in the blogosphere, yet I just found out about it a few minutes ago because someone tagged me in a Facebook discussion about it.

I do find this a bit surprising. And from what I have been reading there is a lot of misinformation out there about this whole debacle (someone even claimed to have read a comment by me on Green Baggins to the effect that I refused to argue the case using the Westminster Standards, despite the fact that I actually insisted upon doing so).

So anyway, if any of you have questions about this, or about my state of mind leading up to and during the trial, I will be happy to answer them.

29 Comments

  1. Jason,

    What do you find surprising about this?

  2. One thing I find surprising is that during all the pretrial reports, briefs, and general theologizing done by me, I got nothing but positive feedback and slaps on the back from the confessionally Reformed. And after the trial when the transcripts became public, no one on my side could believe we lost, given the airtight case we made. But then all of a sudden when I became Catholic, I had a “conflict of interest” and therefore deliberately lost.

    Sheesh, for someone who never understood Reformed theology in the first place and was secretly on Leithart’s side the whole time, I sure did a good job fooling everyone! In fact, maybe the people who couldn’t tell I was a “Catholic in Protestant clothing” are the ones who don’t really know their own theology?

  3. OK I have a question. I’ve noticed that both you and the original prosecutor tended to use a strategy of

    Leithart has written X. X implies Y. Y violates Z. therefore…
    even when Leithart was willing to argue he didn’t believe Y.

    Why choose this strategy. For example according to the reports you argued that Leithart believed that “Baptism makes a person a Christian in the fullest sense of the term”. I think Leithart never directly said that but rather said that baptism further indicted the unelect and made them covenant breakers. While most Reformed persons believe that baptism of the unelect gets them wet and does nothing to alter their spiritual condition. Why not just charge him with the lesser belief why go for something where there is a going to be a complex argument about the underlying facts of the case?

  4. Jason,

    What I don’t find surprising is that there are folks who are hoping to find some angle to open up the case again. As you have pointed out, whether Leithart’s beliefs are true in any sense, you certainly cannot call them Reformed. And you know that in Reformedville we don’t have the kind of tolerance for dissenters that the RCC does.

    I obviously don’t know all the details of the case like you do, but I hope you would admit that it’s a very unusual situation for the complainant in a case to be secretly thinking about espousing elements of the theological system he is trying to prosecute. For whatever you did or did not do, I hope you an at least appreciate the fact that it sounds like there could have been a conflict of interest.

  5. +JMJ+

    Andrew McCallum wrote:

    I obviously don’t know all the details of the case like you do, but I hope you would admit that it’s a very unusual situation for the complainant in a case to be secretly thinking about espousing elements of the theological system he is trying to prosecute. For whatever you did or did not do, I hope you an at least appreciate the fact that it sounds like there could have been a conflict of interest.

    A motive is useful only if there is a positive case to be made. In a negative case, a motive is just innuendo.

    My Spidey-Sense is telling me that this is an attempt to get Leithart and discredit Jason at the same time. It’s a twofer.

  6. Wosbald,

    Honestly what I hope for is for the PCA to stand for something and for that something to be connected to the historic Protestant creeds. If within the PCA it’s safe to affirm what are essentially Roman Catholic creeds on baptism as Leithart does (and I’ll let Jason comment if he thinks I’m going to far in this statement) the the PCA does not stand for much. As Jason said, he might as well have stayed in the PCA.

    I don’t know enough about the details of the Leithart trial to say whether Jason did a good job or not. And I see no point in discrediting Jason even if I was convinced that he had not prosecuted the case efficiently. But I do think it is fair to suggest that the trial be prosecuted by those who are fully convinced of the errors of those they are bringing charges against. Is that not reasonable?

  7. CDH,

    OK I have a question. I’ve noticed that both you and the original prosecutor tended to use a strategy of: Leithart has written X. X implies Y. Y violates Z. therefore… even when Leithart was willing to argue he didn’t believe Y.

    Why choose this strategy. For example according to the reports you argued that Leithart believed that “Baptism makes a person a Christian in the fullest sense of the term”. I think Leithart never directly said that but rather said that baptism further indicted the unelect and made them covenant breakers. While most Reformed persons believe that baptism of the unelect gets them wet and does nothing to alter their spiritual condition. Why not just charge him with the lesser belief why go for something where there is a going to be a complex argument about the underlying facts of the case?

    There is no question that Leithart says in his writings that baptism makes a person a Christian in the fullest sense. For example:

    “Understanding sacraments as rites also helps us to understand the efficacy of sacraments…. Rites accomplish what they signify.”

    “Our typology, as I have extrapolated it, challenges the basic conception that a sacrament is an ‘outward sign of inward grace’ by insisting that the outward signs reach to the innermost parts and that God extends His grace to us in the outward form of concrete favors.” He says further that the “sonship conferred by baptism is not ‘external’ to our basic identity but constitutive of it.”

    “Far from being reductionist, this typology and the framework extrapolated from it permits a richer and stronger affirmation of the objectivity of baptismal grace than found in traditional sacramental theology, which has hesitated to affirm that baptism confers grace ex opere operato.”

    “Baptism is the washing that opens the eyes and, by doing so, lets the light of Jesus flood in, so that the baptized can shine with light. Baptism puts us face-to-face with Jesus, the glory of God, so that we are transformed from glory to glory.… every baptism unites the baptized with the One Sent. Baptism sets us aflame and sends us out as lights into the deep darkness. It opens our eyes and sends us into the world of the blind. It calls us to bold faithfulness in the midst of intense pressure. Baptism grants us a share in the suffering of Jesus, making his enemies our enemies even as it makes him our friend.”

    “As the baptized person passes through the waters, he or she is joined into the fellowship of Christ, shares in his body, shares in the Spirit that inhabits and animates the body, and participates in the resurrection power of Jesus.”

    “Through baptism, we enter into the new life of the Spirit, receive a grant of divine power, are incorporated into Christ’s body, and die and rise again with Christ. In the purification of baptism, we are cleansed of our ‘former sins’ and begin to participate in the divine nature and the power of Jesus’ resurrection.”

    “Baptism effects a transition, as Rowan Williams (archbishop of Canterbury) puts it, not only in the regard of men but in the ‘gaze of God,’ and this makes us ‘new creations’ in the deepest possible sense.”

    “The baptized is no longer regarded as ‘stranger’ but born again as a ‘son of the house.’”

    “Baptism into membership in the community of Christ therefore also confers the arrabon of the Spirit, and in this sense too is a ‘regenerating’ ordinance. There can be no ‘merely social’ membership in this family.”

    “That’s not all that the baptized receives. In receiving baptism, the baptized receive a great deal more. The baptized person is brought into the community of the church, which is the body of Christ. That’s a gift. The baptized is made a member of the family of the Father. That’s a gift. The baptized is separated from the world and identified before the world as a member of Christ’s people. That’s a gift. The baptized is enlisted in Christ’s army, invested to be Christ’s servant, made a member of the royal priesthood, given a station in the royal court, branded as a sheep of Christ’s flock. All that is gift. All this the baptized is not only offered, but receives. All this he receives simply by virtue of being baptized.”

    These citations are sufficient to prove that his view of water baptism is not Reformed, and is in direct violation of the standards of the PCA.

  8. Andrew,

    What I don’t find surprising is that there are folks who are hoping to find some angle to open up the case again. As you have pointed out, whether Leithart’s beliefs are true in any sense, you certainly cannot call them Reformed. And you know that in Reformedville we don’t have the kind of tolerance for dissenters that the RCC does.

    Well, apparently the PCA’s PO Box is no longer located in Reformedville. . . . .

    I obviously don’t know all the details of the case like you do, but I hope you would admit that it’s a very unusual situation for the complainant in a case to be secretly thinking about espousing elements of the theological system he is trying to prosecute. For whatever you did or did not do, I hope you an at least appreciate the fact that it sounds like there could have been a conflict of interest.

    I do understand the initial suspicions. But I would say two things to alleviate them: (1) The trial transcripts are public record, and no one reading them could possibly come away thinking I was lobbing softballs (and in fact, no one made that charge until a year after the transcripts were released and I became Catholic, which is telling). (2) It should be enough to dispel the charge for me to say that I still think he should be deposed, and I think the PCA greatly erred in failing to do so. In a word, I wanted him out, and I still do. No conflict of interest here.

    As a side note: If you read my closing argument and the quote from James Jordan, you’ll see that even the Godfather of the FV thinks, rather passionately, that FV-ers in the PCA have no business being there, and that the only reason they are is that they are either hiding their true colors, or the powers that be haven’t discovered them yet. So regardless of what a person may think of the FV or of the CC, he can still correctly diagnose doctrinal divergence when he smells it.

  9. I don’t know enough about the details of the Leithart trial to say whether Jason did a good job or not. And I see no point in discrediting Jason even if I was convinced that he had not prosecuted the case efficiently.

    If you read the transcripts, especially my open and close and Lane’s testimony, and then note which presbytery was hearing the case (remembering that one juror moved to dismiss the case entirely despite admitting when I pressed him that he had not even read Lane’s 40-page brief), I think what you’ll find is a perfect recipe for an unwinnable trial.

  10. @jason –

    Those are strong quotes on your point. How does he reconcile those quotes with Reformed notions of election? Is the “for the elect” implied in those quotes?

  11. He seems to create two parallel soteriologies, with one aspect focusing on election and the decree, and the other on the visible and sacramental. So he claims to affirm everything the WCF says, but when he writes and teaches, he says the kinds of things I cited above without any qualification.

  12. Jason,

    I appreciate your comments. I will go back and read some of the closing arguments as you suggest.

    My perspective is that organizations are known to a large degree by the beliefs and conduct of their members and any ecclesiastical organization that does not make a reasonable effort to discipline its membership is in danger of dissolving into irrelevance.

    I wish Leithart would take Jim Jordan’s advice….

  13. He seems to create two parallel soteriologies, with one aspect focusing on election and the decree, and the other on the visible and sacramental. So he claims to affirm everything the WCF says, but when he writes and teaches, he says the kinds of things I cited above without any qualification.

    The criticisms I have seen were essentially that you didn’t attack this inconsistency on the stand enough, so that you must have been “going easy” or softballing the cross-examination. My estimation of that criticism was that these people had been watching too many Perry Mason movies, where the bad guy is always a liar who caves under the relentless assault of cross-examination. I’m assuming that happens about as often in the PCA world as it does in civil litigation.

    At least in civil litigation, that sort of thing tends to annoy the triers of fact. To use that strategy, you’d have to be assuming either that they’re honest, so that it’s the equivalent of calling them stupid or oblivious, or that they’re dishonest, in which case you’re just trying to shame them publicly for bias. In either case, you’re basically conceding at that point that you’re going to lose. This sounds like a routine case of the trier of fact hearing what he wants to hear, even in the face of contrary evidence, meaning that nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome.

  14. Interesting. It appears he Leithart has clarified his view: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2013/05/08/primer-on-baptism/

    So it appears he believes that baptism is effective on everyone and that we are elected (pre-ordained) into perseverance, Which seems to totally contradict Perseverance of the Saints, and Limited Atonement. His other statements sound a lot like baptismal regeneration for everyone though.

  15. Baptism is effective…through faith.

    The promises made in Baptism are good…and valid. Always. But those promises can be walked away from. We all do it.

    The gift of faith has us trust in what God has done in our Baptisms. Killed us off (with Christ)…and raised us to new life (with Christ) – Romans 6

    When faith comes…Baptism is complete.

  16. Except Laithart rarely, if ever, chooses to speak about faith when discussing baptism. He just says baptism, simply as baptism, works ex opere operato to confer saving blessings to its subjects.

  17. To that end, he is in error.

    That would reduce Baptism to magic.

    Can God save apart from Baptism? Sure.

    Can He save in Baptism alone? Sure.

    But the Scriptures show us that faith is the conduit through which God send His grace.

    After all, Adolph Hitler was baptized.

  18. Of course, you’re evaluating the Catholic view of baptism through Reformed lenses, TOA, which doesn’t get us anywhere. If Catholics believed in the final perseverance of all the baptized-regenerate, then you’d have a point. But we don’t.

  19. I actually go to Ascension Pres now and I asked elders about the trial. They said it was overhyped and not much too it. I was like ok? Another TE in the NWPresbytery I talked to said the differences between Rome and Prots was overplayed. Scratch head ..please tell that to Latimer, Hooper and Ridley… Ironically have many sympathies with Catholic claims and yet as I find little respect for the confessional apathy in the crosspoint churches of Greenlake and Ascension. Even though I may one day find myself back in Rome, having views more sympathetic to Leithart, I assume that those who are convinced of their path would have bloody convictions about the gospel or at least what their ordination vow and confessional views declare. Apathy of this sort values absolutely nothing other moralistic bs.

  20. Jason,

    From my understanding (what I was taught as a Catholic) Catholics believe that Baptism takes away original sin…but then we start to sin again…so we (Catholics) must do the prescribed penance and receive grace from the priests who dole out the grace (as is earned or needed) that is given through the Catholic Church.

    Jump through all the right hoops, as it were.

    By the way, I’m not Reformed…but a Lutheran. I’m not sure the Reformed take Baptism and what God promises in it quite as seriously as do (some of us) Lutherans.

  21. As conflicts of interest are typically understood, I can see no reasonable sense in which Jason had one. His job, qua prosecutor, was to argue that Leithart’s views are contra confessional. His ability to argue that Leithart’s views contradict the WCF is unaffected by his theological inclinations (whatever they may be, or lack thereof). That is to say, a Lutheran [/Mormon/EO/Jewish rabbi/atheist] could all equally argue that Leithart’s views contradict the WCF. Thus, I deny that, in this case, “[T]he chief prosecutor’s shift toward the very doctrines that he attempts to prosecute TE Leithart for holding creates an astounding conflict of interest”.

    If Jason were on the payroll of Leithart’s church, that would be a conflict of interest. If Jason were married to Leithart’s daughter, say, that would be a conflict of interest. But shifting your views towards (or away from) Leithart’s position has no entailments for whether or not Leithart’s position is contrary to the WCF. On the contrary, the fact that Jason felt it necessary to resign his PCA pastorate suggests that, while he accepts Catholic views on baptism, even if (in some broad sense) Leithart’s baptismal views were equivalent to Roman Catholic baptismal views, Jason acknowledges that the views he now holds (and by implication Leithart’s too) are contrary to the Reformed standards. Further, as anybody who’s taken the time to read the transcript knows, there was no point at which Jason (or Lane Keister) gave a wink or fed a “softie” question to Leithart in order that he be found innocent. Quite the opposite, in fact – Stellman and Keister both did a stellar job of demonstrating the contra-confessional status of Leithart’s views.

    But, for whatever reason, the jury found Leithart innocent. I know many persons don’t want to conclude the obvious, but it’s time to face the facts: At least one Presbytery of the PCA has abandoned the confessional Presbyterian view. While that’s sad and disappointing, that doesn’t justify charging the Prosecutor with a nonexistent conflict of interest when, as the record clearly demonstrates, a vigorous and wholly reasonable case was made by the Prosecution.

    ~Benjamin

  22. +JMJ+

    Benjamin nails it!

  23. Stellman writes

    These citations are sufficient to prove that his view of water baptism is not Reformed, and is in direct violation of the standards of the PCA.

    Yet Stellman does not do the actual work of providing a contradiction in the form A and not A; B and not B

    Nor does Stellman provide a definition of Reformed. If the definition of Reformed is believing all and only those propositions that are explicit in the WCF or may be derived from it, then the definition is fatally silly.

    CD-HOST seems to be leveling a helpful criticism. Pre-Romish Stellman seems to say: “I can associate propositions with your propositions that would contradict propositions that I can associate with the Westminster Standards, therefore you are not “R”eformed [enough]. If you doubt me, I can cite his propositions and if you agree with me, then you are sufficiently “R”eformed, and if not, you are Not. QED”

  24. Hog Wild,

    Stellman writes…

    Please feel free to address me directly. This is my blog, after all.

    Stellman writes, “These citations are sufficient to prove that his view of water baptism is not Reformed, and is in direct violation of the standards of the PCA.” Yet Stellman does not do the actual work of providing a contradiction in the form A and not A; B and not B.

    Have you read the trial transcript? If not, then you are basing your charge on a blog comment, which is hard to take seriously.

    Nor does Stellman provide a definition of Reformed. If the definition of Reformed is believing all and only those propositions that are explicit in the WCF or may be derived from it, then the definition is fatally silly.

    Have you read the trial transcript?

    Ministers in the PCA have vowed that they sincerely receive and adopt the teachings of the Westminster Standards as containing the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. That was the issue at trial, and my argument (especially Lane Keister’s testimony) demonstrates that Leithart’s views of baptism are at odds with the WS and strike at the vitals of its system of doctrine.

  25. I read the transcript. Stellman and crew fought it as good as any could. The problem here isn’t with the prosecution but the PNWPresbytery and the GA of the PCA. They must be in this thing for something other than doctrinal fidelity. Perhaps they don’t care who shepherds the flocks in the PCA. We should be giving kudos not crap to Jason. Now for a drink and Radiohead’s Separator cranked all the way up…

  26. This is an interesting conversation. I think this thread is getting into a broader issue of what is role that Reformed Christianity plays in American and what is the PCA.

    Federal Vision clearly has appeal to some conservative Reformed people. I think the PCA views itself primarily as the conservative counterpart of the PCUSA. It is currently not geographically diverse enough to play that role effectively, it is too southern. Clearly there are majorities within the PCA which consider Federal Vision to be unacceptable. Clearly there are presbyteries that don’t agree and simply will not enforce that rule unless strong armed and that’s dangerous. When the question becomes a presbytery and not an individual the issue becomes more political. Is this worth it? Throwing out the NW presbytery is not a small thing.

    I also think might be worth considering the possibility that PCAers are refusing to convict because they want the WCF standards upheld more loosely. They want the PCA to be the PCUSA for Republicans and not go too much beyond that. Peter Enns, the issue with Denver and other churches that want a women to be able to do anything a non ordained man can, people who support missional forms of worship, family integrated worship pro/con… Maybe a majority or at least a substantial minority have reached the point where they don’t want the guidelines enforced strictly.

    I think Peter Leithart was overcharged. That being said I think Jason is right that his views are outside the WCF. But the more interesting issue being raised is what if lots of other people agree but think it no longer makes sense to strictly uphold the WCF? Obviously not that bluntly, but deep down.

    One of the things that Catholics have convinced me of that I didn’t appreciate as an evangelical is the importance of avoiding schism. Schisms once they occur create institutional biases towards remaining divided. Presbyterians to have effective size to even be able to discuss things like discipline in a meaningful have to avoid breaking into denominations of 300 people that don’t work together. For Presbyterianism to exist apart from congregationalism they have to give a little.

    Federal vision has:
    – some biblical verses in support of its views
    – a reasonable historical pedigree
    – a good quality spokesperson
    – a sub-denomination which is already supportive and growing
    – the ability to act as a Protestant / Catholic bridge in the way high church anglicanism did a century ago.

    Federal vision lacks:
    – a way to get around Dort on issues like perseverance

    I think the positive list is likely to overwhelm the negatives. I can why people might decide tolerance is the best policy. It would be nice to hear from some of the other people in the NorthWest in a less judgmental way what swayed them against the prosecution.

  27. Coming from a family history that is both racially and denominationally diverse, I appreciate the meaning that the mystery of Jesus Christ is relational. I feel that within the reformed community today the EPC is the most balanced. I cannot blame many of my evangelical brethern in the PCA opting to be labeled orthodox and looking for alternatives in polity for their local congregations. But historically the church has cried out “peace, peace ” where there is no peace.

  28. Jason,

    The question is, were you saved in the first place? That’s the real problem here that they cannot answer without opening up a can of worms. If you were never saved in the first place, then how were you a pastor holding office in your former denomination? And if it’s impossible to tell who is really saved, then it’s impossible to have a real ecclesiology, since an unsaved person cannot truly hold ecclesial office.

    I wonder if those elders calling for a re-trial were really saved in the first place…

  29. Having been only a RE (akin to being lead to water but not invited to drink) , I am always amazed when the holders of the “keys to the kingdom” discuss the condition of the hearts of men and render an opinion yet reserved to the Just Judge.

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