Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Peter Escalante Philosophy Steven Wedgeworth

Clericalism or Concord? Why We Need Irenic Ecclesiology

The recent news of Jason Stellman’s defection from the Reformed faith (and his presumedly Roman destination, being now, it seems, effectually “called to confusion”) is gaining a good deal of attention.  The “headline” quality of the story comes from the fact that Mr. Stellman was an ordained minister in the PCA and something of a spokesman for a peculiarly dogmatic brand of “Reformed Confessionalism.”  Thus, in many ways, Mr. Stellman will be a trophy for Rome.  Added to this, however, is the deep irony that Mr. Stellman had gained notoriety as the lead prosecutor in the heresy trial of Dr. Peter J. Leithart, a trial based on charges that Dr. Leithart fostered latently Roman theology. Such a curious turn of affairs is worth a closer examination.

There will no doubt be those who attempt to connect Mr. Stellman’s apostasy with the Federal Vision.  More perceptive persons might guess that he was disillusioned with the PCA’s lack of disciplinary muscle, and therefore, however strangely, Mr. Stellman sought out a church that could truly deliver that, regardless of its doctrinal content.  This is certainly a plausible account.[1]  A more desperate explanation might be that Dr. Leithart actually wooed Stellman with his suspect theology, though this seems very unlikely to convince most onlookers.[2]

As a side note, the so-called Federal Vision has actually not managed to move beyond the stage of abstraction (most prominently by its critics) into any sort of concrete embodiment.  What most people mean by the name is really but the personal theologies of Dr. Leithart and the Rev. James B. Jordan.  The most famous public association of the Federal Vision, Rev. Douglas Wilson, is actually not unique or remarkable in relation to the Reformed tradition.  With the notable exception of his advocation of paedocommunion, Pastor Wilson’s theology is actually just an appropriately comprehensive Reformational Calvinism.  This is no doubt why it enjoys such wide popularity, and it is almost certainly why Joint Federal Vision Profession has been largely ignored by critics of the Federal Vision.  That statement actually represents the theology of Rev. Wilson, much more so than that of Dr. Leithart or Rev. Jordan, and thus it does not attract the same controversy.  For polemical purposes, it is entirely unhelpful, and this seems to prove the fact that the Federal Vision only exists as a unified thing in the minds of the various polemicists.

And so it is highly unlikely that Mr. Stellman was caught up in a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome, seduced by his antagonist, ultimately resulting in his own mental conversion.  It is also not disappointment in the PCA’s failure to deliver satisfaction that is primarily behind Mr. Stellman’s change of loyalty, though that was certainly an aggravating factor.  There are more basic theological principles which stand under all of this.

As we said, Mr. Stellman was not merely an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He was, in fact, a disciple of Westminster Seminary in California and a very public proponent of their brand of ecclesiastical authority.  He even has a published work defining and defending their particular understanding of the two kingdoms.  While superficially and sometimes quite vocally opposed to Roman Catholicism in all its forms, this theology actually shares many of the primary assumptions of Roman Catholicism, most specifically their identification of the spiritual kingdom of Christ with the visible church and its polity, as well as the opposition they place between nature and grace.  Thus the question that deserves our attention is that of ecclesiology, the definition of “the church” in systematic theology.

Notice the very first reason that Mr. Stellman gives for his change:

Concerning the former, I have begun to doubt whether the Bible alone can be said to be our only infallible authority for faith and practice, and despite my efforts (and those of others) to dispel these doubts, they have only become more pronounced. In my own reading of the New Testament, the believer is never instructed to consult Scripture alone in order to adjudicate disputes or determine matters of doctrine (one obvious reason for this is that the early church existed at a time when the 27-book New Testament had either not been begun, completed, or recognized as canonical). The picture the New Testament paints is one in which the ordained leadership of the visible church gathers to bind and loose in Jesus’ Name and with his authority, with the Old Testament Scriptures being called upon as witnesses to the apostles’ and elders’ message (Matt. 18:18-19; Acts 15:6-29), with no indication in Scripture that such ecclesiastical authority was to cease and eventually give way to Sola Scriptura (meaning that the doctrine fails its own test). Moreover, unless the church’s interpretation of Scripture is divinely protected from error at least under certain conditions, then what we call the “orthodox” understanding of doctrines like the Trinity or the hypostatic union is reduced to mere fallible human opinion. I have searched long and hard, but have found no solution within the Sola Scriptura paradigm to this devastating conclusion.

He goes on to question sola fide, but that question is actually predetermined by Mr. Stellman’s heteronomy.  He has admitted that he cannot find the correct answer using Scripture reasonably and must instead submit to an outside authority.  How exactly Mr. Stellman is able to infallibly find the correct answer about the Answer-Man remains the obvious question- that is, if he cannot even read the Bible reliably without a Pope, how does he arrive at the Pope without a Pope? It certainly cannot be on the basis of Matthew 16:18, since by his own admission he now claims to be incapable of making a reliable judgment on that text, or another.

Still, Mr. Stellman’s argument is clear: “the ordained leadership of the visible church gathers to bind and loose in Jesus’ Name and with his authority.”  This was something that he can and did say as a “Confessionalist” or “High Church” Protestant, but now he’s added the next logical step– this contradicts sola scriptura.  Mr. Stellman goes on to give the typical Roman Catholic arguments about the role of tradition in establishing the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union.  What he fails to talk about, of course, is the actual diversity of historical tradition, even on these basic points of orthodoxy, along with the fact that Protestants have always defined these conciliar definitions as actions of guiding discursive articulation of consensual exegesis on controverted points,[3] and not as decrees to be accepted heteronomously.

High Church confessionalism does not simply misstep on this point, it depends upon it.  Its disciplinarian center cannot accept a mere political and prudential submission to recognized authority for the sake of external order, or a voluntary submission to moral and intellectual authority in wisdom and charity.  Instead it demands that the mechanism of church polity serve as a rule of faith and the precondition for pious exegesis and faithful church membership.  In other words, it requires a mediation, even of the Scriptures, through the clergy.   This is actually an old error, which was long ago spotted and answered not just by theologians, but by men of letters like Jonathan Swift and John Milton.  Swift wrote several critical remarks about the Scottish Presbyterians, likening their civic theology to that of the papists.  Milton, more famously, wrote, “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.”  This is no longer a viable threat to the civic order, but the recrudescence of this old error can draw people out of real life, where God wants them, and into dead-end repristinarian ghettos.

The Antidote: Reformed Irenicism 

The “Confessionalists” of late have sought to set their own position as an alternative to both broad Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism.  The problem is, however, that they have actually only managed to weakly ape the Roman notion of ecclesiastical authority.  The Confessions themselves are but documents, and as such, they require interpreters and adjudicators.  In other words, they require political enforcement.  And in practical terms, this has meant that the various denominational credentialing committees and, in a hugely ironic turn, parachurch credentialing associations like NAPARC (in which R2K kingdom is that?), have taken the place of the Roman magisterium.  The obvious weakness, of course, is that none of these authorities advertise themselves as infallible, and thus they can never actually compete with the papacy in the minds of those shopping for Hobbesian ecclesiastical sovereigns.

Rather than Reformed confessionalism, we need a Reformed irenicism.  We need to repristinate not the old deformations away from the Reformation, but rather its original flexibility and daring. We must remember that the confessions themselves, reflecting the great humility and wisdom of their authors, claim to be nothing but fallible takes on the Word, not replacements for it.  We need to return to Reformed irenicism in the sense of Calvin’s evangelical ecumenism, seeing the whole Christian people as the visible church and seat of the faith, not primarily the ministerium, let alone ministerial collegia.  We must be Reformed in the sense of a Bible-driven emphasis on God’s sovereignty and grace, as well as the actual doctrine and tradition of the Protestant Reformation.  This means, not a tightly policed set of “club rules,” but rather a clear articulation of basic principles which can then be freely and faithfully applied by individuals and congregations in their various circumstances.

We must begin, as Old Princeton did, with the proper role of reason.  Far from being a latent threat to vibrant faith, reason is the common light of all mankind, given to us in our creation as imago dei.  Though not autonomous, reason is still authoritative, leading us away from confusion and incoherence.  As such, it is itself a necessary precondition to all dialectic, even the logical and consistent reading of the Holy Scriptures.  It is reason illumined by faith, ultimately, that convinces our consciences to accept a belief as certain.  No external mechanism, no Pope, no presbytery, no liturgico-narrative faith community prancing in chasubles, can ever take its God-ordained place.  Abandoning one’s personal reason in a move to allow someone else’s reason to work vicariously on your behalf is a moral failure and a grave sin.  The answer to such a vice is the virtue of courage.  Evangelical reason only speaks to brave men.

While reason is the necessary tool for reading the Holy Scriptures, it is still, nevertheless, the Scriptures which are the only infallible spiritual authority.  This is true because of their nature: they are breathed out by God.  And as God’s Word, there can be no standard above them to which they must answer.  Rather, our job is to listen to the Word.  As such, the human element is wholly responsive, seeking to clearly identify the content of that Word and then accurately apply it where appropriate.  This is why the historico-grammatical method of hermeneutics must remain as the pillar of our exegesis.  Only it can reasonably demonstrate the intended meaning of the Scriptures, and it can do so objectively and perspicuously.  It may take varying amounts of work, even technical training in places, but it does not demand that any violence to be done to the human will, nor does it require that nature be supplanted by purportedly supernatural and thus unfalsifiable ecclesio-political apparatuses.

The evangelical doctrine of the universal priesthood has become merely nominal in many Reformed churches, which is why a number of Reformed people are predisposed to admiration of Rome. We need to reaffirm this fundamental doctrine, and its corollary of the representative character of the ministry. We must become more truly Calvinian on this score, by becoming more “Lutheran” and less clericalist. We should reject false definitions of the unity of the church, and recognize its actual unity on the ground, which underlies all the legitimate congregational forms and their modes of denominational association. We must also recognize the liberty of the Christian people to freely gather around the Word as center, without artificial ecclesial borders being enforced and policed by a clergy claiming a divine right authority. If the Smith family has good reason to be at St. Adiaphoron Lutheran Church, and their neighbors the Jones family has good reason to be at Putting Green Presbyterian across the street from it, so far from being a scandal, this is actually a fine thing.

Where all of this practically takes us is what many political scientists and historians have described as the culture of persuasion.  We do not look to a political institution or other coercive power to artificially provide unity and certainty.  There is no magic “key” to unity in external diversity. Rather, we respect the rights of conscience and seek to persuade others through the right use of reason and Biblical exegesis, confident that freedom and charity lead to the only unity worth having.

But we are still Calvinists as well, and our optimistic outlook is actually based in our view of God.  He is sovereign, absolutely ordaining our ways, and He has said that He is the rock which fills the whole world, His knowledge covers the earth as the waters cover the seas.  That is the only irresistible unity we look to, believing it to exist presently through the Holy Spirit and believing it to work its way outward more and more, as that Spirit effectively works in the lives of believers, and ultimately into the ends of all the earth.

[1]  If one makes de jure divino polity-especially a triumphalist, authoritarian version- an essential feature of the Gospel, then we are already on Roman ground. One cannot know motives, but perhaps Mr. Stellman’s chief concern was never so much doctrine as it was discipline.  His criticism of Dr. Leithart was that he believed Dr. Leithart to be playing fast and loose with the content of historic Reformed confessions, namely the Westminster Standards.  But perhaps Mr. Stellman saw the case as a sort of test to see whether the PCA would actually act upon disciplinarian theory, and be impersonally strict even with “conservatives,” and not so much about the specific truthfulness of Dr. Leithart’s theology. The PCA disappointed him profoundly there, but Bryan Cross reassured him that the Pope never would, and there you have it. If this is true, it would be reminiscent of the fright Newman got when the Church of England was not strict enough with people he disliked, which led him to eventually seek the security of the biggest cop on the ecclesiastical block.

[2] Dr. Leithart has given his own perspective on Mr. Stellman here:  His explanation and perspective largely agree with our own.

[3] “Infallible decree” on the one hand, and “fallible human opinion” on the other, is a false dichotomy. Every believer has the Spirit and is a member of the mystical body, and thus possesses the fullness of saving faith. Here, there is no difference between what the person knows and what the whole church knows: the knowledge is one, and it is distributive in character, not simply collective. However, the capacity to profitably formulate that faith discursively is not equal, and even if it were, there would still be questions of agreement in expression to negotiate. Thus, for the sake of external order and accord, there is an outward distinction between authority to formulate public expressions which will be commonly subscribed, and the authority of the private believer to express his faith. But this does not mean that the believer as private person in the church has less certitude in principle than its officers do. Insofar as conciliar definitions are simply consensual exegesis, they reliably express the meaning of the Word, which is infallible, though in a form which itself has no divine guarantee, being not itself the Word. And since the faith is common to all, we “recognize” the meaning of the definitions as common truth, we do not “receive” them as sacred say-so.

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.