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Friday, 22 January 2010 10:05

Some of you have been following Peter Leithart's situation in the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest, and its relationship to the SJC of the PCA. As you may know, the presbytery has examined Peter and found him to be within the bounds of the confession. That decision was appealed, and a panel of the SJC has now issued a preliminary report finding that the presbytery ought to have found reason to have Peter formally tried. That report will be acted on by the SJC later this spring. In the meantime, Robert Rayburn, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, has written a supplemental brief in response. Since that document is now public, we are publishing a few excerpts from it below, and you can read the whole thing here.


Theological Reasoning

. . . In a similar way to represent Dr. Leithart’s taking a side in the now longstanding debate about the covenant of works as striking at the vitals of our system of theology is absurd. Are we seriously of a mind to think that John Murray could not serve in the Presbyterian Church in America? First, the panel treats us to the more than faintly ridiculous conclusion that though Dr. Leithart teaches that is there is discontinuity between the Adamic covenant and the post-lapsarian covenants [C i] – a discontinuity rooted in the entrance of sin and change of federal head from Adam to the Son of God! – that there is nevertheless no significant difference between the covenants. Surely God’s covenant with sinners in Jesus Christ represents a difference of some significance! Second, there is a total failure accurately to represent the nature of this debate.

Strip away the sloganeering and what is left is, first, Dr. Leithart’s assertion that there is grace in the first covenant – as demonstrated in Presbytery’s brief, this a commonplace of Reformed teaching and of the teaching of Westminster divines and certainly is not contradicted by any statement in the Standards – and, second, there was the necessity of faith on Adam’s part.

Surely, unless Adam were omniscient in Eden and God were then a visible being, Adam must have had to have been a believer! Surely he was required to believe what God told him and to believe that his life lay in obedience to God’s commandments! To equate this position in this debate with overturning our system of doctrine is the worst sort of overreaching. Palmer Robertson wisely points out that the nomenclature of covenant of works/covenant of grace has strengths and limitations and he too asserts that there was grace in the first covenant. Those who read the Standards as emphasizing a meritocracy and those who read them as emphasizing the gracious foundation of all God's covenant dealings with humanity can both find their view in the language of the Standards and in the Westminster tradition. The Standards are simply not sufficiently precise to settle this debate.

The second question is whether it is proper for PCA ministers to draw our attention to biblical data for which our theological Standards provide no summary. Is it not a salutary work to attempt to account for biblical teaching that is not incorporated in the theological summary provided in the Standards? Is it possible, that is, to affirm from the heart, the assertions of the Standards while pointing out that there are senses in which the Bible uses the same theological terminology in other ways and to other effects? This is, in fact, what the Presbytery concluded Dr. Leithart has done. For example, the panel argues that it is obviously impossible for someone to be justified temporarily. And, no doubt, in the ordinary sense of the term in its theological usage, that is a correct  conclusion. But there is no constitutional warrant for the conclusion that the term can always and only be used in accordance with this confessional usage. Justification – whatever else it is – is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is (cf. Num. 14:20 with 1 Cor. 10:5; Ezekiel 16:1-14; Matthew 18:32-34; etc.). Whether we are entirely satisfied with Dr. Leithart’s effort to incorporate this biblical material into the larger picture of the way of divine grace, the fact is, temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum. The panel has the audacity to say that “What Scripture says about a particular topic is set forth in our Standards.” [C vi] Really? Where do the Standards deal with temporary forgiveness? If, indeed, Holy Scripture is really our only infallible rule of faith we cannot possibly object to a man working hard to understand how such teaching is to be incorporated into the system, all the more if, as in Dr. Leithart’s case, he confesses loyalty to that system and proves it in his writings. What is more, our loyalty to Holy Scripture absolutely requires us in such a case as this to acknowledge in our discussion of his views of justification and the other benefits of Christ’s redemption that there is obviously a sense in which forgiveness may be temporary, holiness temporary, a family relationship with God temporary, “life” itself temporary, even the love of God temporary (Deut. 7:7-11; Hos. 11:1). To fail to do that, to act as if such ideas were preposterous, is to betray our theology with a kiss. Where, pray tell, do the Standards “reject any form of ‘theoretical’ or temporary justification”? Do the Standards teach us to deny that the Lord pardoned Israel in the wilderness notwithstanding that she perished in her sins or to deny that he himself says that he washed Israel and made her clean (Ezek. 16:4,9)? If so, let the panel tell us where they teach us to do so?

In the same way, the GA Report notwithstanding, where do the Standards teach that our justification on the last day (our “acquittal” as the Catechisms have it) is not based in any way on our works? [C v] Presbytery’s original brief demonstrated that this is hardly the opinion of the authorities of Westminster Calvinism in general and, in fact, the Standards don’t explain one way or another how our works may be related to our final acquittal. The panel admits that “in one sense” Dr. Leithart’s statement is true that “we are justified by works in whatever sense James means it.” Well, then, in what sense is Dr. Leithart’s statement untrue? Dr. Leithart hasn’t gone nearly so far as Robert Dabney in relating our final justification to our works! What is his error?

Again, who denies that the Standards employ the phrase "union with Christ" to signify Christ’s relationship with the elect? Certainly not Dr. Leithart. When he uses the terminology this way he is in explicit agreement with the Standards. But while this understanding of union with Christ is essential to the Scripture-based theological definition of the term as it is employed in the Standards, it is hardly fair to suppose that the Standards’ definition of union with Christ be deemed present in every biblical passage that uses that same terminology or that drawing attention to the different biblical uses of the terminology somehow amounts to a betrayal of the teaching of the Standards. What grounds (constitutional or otherwise) are there for insisting that all the Hebrew and Greek terms and phrases under consideration must be used by biblical writers only as we find them used in the Standards? The biblical idea of union with Christ is multiform, not uniform and richer than the specific use of this terminology in the Standards. Why is this not cheerfully admitted when it is so obviously true? It poses no threat whatsoever to the constitutional usage to admit this. Why is the discussion of Dr. Leithart’s teaching not conducted with an eye open to these other uses of the terminology? Why is it not obvious in the panel’s reasoning that it is well aware of these facts and was concerned to remain faithful to them in its evaluation of Dr. Leithart’s writings?

Biblical Exegesis

At the beginning of Presbytery’s thirty minutes before the panel Presbytery’s respondent was told in quite a peremptory way to read Romans 6:1-7. “That is not about baptism,” he was told. I assume they meant that it was not about water baptism, the rite of baptism. This is the view now represented in the panel’s reasoning [C v]. Gentlemen, do you really want to go on record saying that the PCA does not believe that Romans 6 is about water baptism? That is a conclusion you will find in no reputable commentary on Romans: from Hodge to Murray, from Bruce to Cranfield, from Ridderbos to Moo. Let’s not make ourselves a laughingstock. Is PCA baptism really so light, so weightless, so invisible that it cannot be found even where it is the explicit subject of a text of Holy Scripture? However else one may account for the reality of baptized unbelief, Romans 6 is most assuredly about water baptism and it is an offense to the entire tradition of Christian biblical study to deny this!

The argument of the panel, according to which we are told how particular texts of Holy Scripture are to be interpreted, amounts to a very different assertion than that the Standards represent "standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture" (BCO 29-1). We are being told that the Standards demand a particular exegesis of various texts, even historically controversial texts such as 1 Pet. 3:21. The SJC has no such authority in our church to determine the exegesis of passages of Holy Scripture. We do not have in the PCA a constitutional standard of exegesis whose effect is that all of us must agree that Romans 6, for example, is not about water baptism! This is only another way in which the panel’s reasoning proves to be extra-confessional if not anti-confessional.

The panel seems to be operating with the assumption that the Standards’ view of sacramental relation (WCF XXVII, ii) amounts to permission to choose in any text whether the reference is to the sacrament or what the sacrament signifies and seals. This is hardly the meaning of the Confession’s statement however and it will be very difficult to find any Reformed authority who thinks it is. The solution to the “problem” created by the fact that the rite of baptism is performed in many cases when the subject does not belong to the elect of God does not lie in the sacramental relation between the sign and the thing signified. That relation rather means that whatever is true of Baptism with the Holy Spirit is attributed to Baptism with water. There is no principle of theology or exegesis according to which we may believe that when the Bible mentions baptism it is referring to something else than what everyone understands by the term!


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Last Updated on Friday, 22 January 2010 15:53