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 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 form 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…