Here we fall. We can do no other. God help us.
Those following the doctrinal battle of the past couple of years within the PCA's Northwest Presbytery were surprised to see a pastor of that presbytery, Jason Stellman, announcing a couple days ago that he's renounced his ordination vows. He says he has embraced two of Rome's dogmas: that the Word of God is subordinate to the Church's tradition, and that infusion is right and imputation wrong. In other words he has publicly repudiated sola Scriptura and sola fide.
It's important to note that Mr. Stellman has been at the center of his presbytery's doctrinal battle as prosecutor of his fellow presbyter, Dr. Peter Leithart, for heresy. Mr. Stellman's work was completed when the court acquitted the accused. Now the accuser himself has embraced some of the very errors he was opposing in his prosecutorial work.
The two things cannot be unrelated, and while the precise nature of that relationship is known only by God, it would be foolish not to look for warnings we may take from this train wreck. Since Rome's heresies lead to apostasy, wise men will examine the paths of those who have fallen for indications of what we must avoid if we are to persevere to the end.
That said, nine days before Mr. Stellman embraced Roman Catholic doctrine, the acquitted posted a short piece saying he is too catholic to embrace Roman Catholicism. In that piece Dr. Leithart summarized his opposition to Rome... as follows:
I agree with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God. I'm encouraged by many of the developments in Catholicism before and since Vatican II, but Vatican II created issues of its own (cf. the treatment of Islam in Lumen Gentium). I agree with those objections, but those are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant.
When I read this some days ago, I wanted to point out to Dr. Leithart how flaccid his objections to Rome are compared to any prior Reformed father of the faith in the centuries since the Reformation. Rather, I would expect this sort of wording from men like Tom Howard, John Henry Newman, and Richard John Neuhaus during their "almost thou persuadest me" stage just before converting to Rome. This is the sort of language and nuance Benedict XVI employs speaking of Jews--that "certain of their teachings and practices obscure" the true path of salvation.
But can anyone imagine coming across such mealymouthed words in Luther's exchange with Erasmus or Calvin's response to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto's letter to Calvin's Genevan congregation, enticing them to return to Rome? For the purpose of comparison, here are a couple excerpts from Calvin's response:
That I might perceive these things, Thou, O Lord, didst shine upon me with the brightness of thy Spirit; that I might comprehend how impious and noxious they were, Thou didst bear before me the torch of thy Word; that I might abominate them as they deserved, Thou didst stimulate my soul.
* * *
But if I desired to be at peace with those who boasted of being the heads of the Church and pillars of faith, I believed to purchase it with the denial of Thy truth. I thought that anything was to be endured sooner than stoop to such nefarious compact. For Thy Anointed Himself hath declared, that though heaven and earth should be confounded, yet Thy Word must endure forever (Matt. 24:35). ...And the apostles declared that there would be no enemies of Thy Church more pestilential than those from within who should conceal themselves under the title of pastors (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:18).
Why should I have hesitated to separate myself from persons whom (the Apostles) forewarned me to hold as enemies?
* * *
But the most serious charge of all is, that we have attempted to dismember the Spouse of Christ. Were that true, both you and the whole world might well regard us as desperate. But I will not admit the charge, unless you can make out that the Spouse of Christ is dismembered by those who desire to present her as a a chaste virgin to Christ--who are animated by a degree of holy zeal to preserve her spotless for Christ--who, seeing her polluted by base seducers, recall her to conjugal fidelity--who unhesitatingly wage war against all the adulterers whom they detect laying snares for her chastity.
And what but this have we done? Had not your faction of a Church attempted, nay, violated her chastity, by strange doctrines? Had she not been violently prostituted by your numberless superstitions? Had she not been defiled by that vilest species of adultery, the worship of images? And because, forsooth, we did not suffer you so to insult the sacred chamber of Christ, we are said to have lacerated His Spouse. But I tell you that that laceration, of which you falsely accuse us, is witnessed not obscurely among yourselves--a laceration not only of the Church, but of Christ himself, who is there beheld miserably mangled.
Really, what kind of man can subscribe to the Westminster Standards while speaking of Rome's doctrine of salvation merely "obscuring" the imputation of our Lord's righteousness as our only hope in life and in death?
And then there's the matter of these things being only secondary or tertiary obstacles to Pastor Leithart's consideration of Rome. Notice he ends that list with the statement, "I agree with those objections, but those are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant."
So what are his "primary driving reasons?"
If I told you the Sacraments are the brick wall keeping him from Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome, you may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, assuming Dr. Leithart's greatest objection to union with Rome is the ex opere operato at the heart of Rome's sacramentalism. Sadly, this isn't so.
Instead, Dr. Leithart speaks to men like Jason Stellman as follows:
What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? ...For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated "separated brothers," rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been "inadequately" baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I'm too catholic to do that.
Dr. Leithart's brick wall isn't Rome's doctrine of infusion or her repudiation of sola Scriptura or sola fide. It isn't Benedict XVI's promotion of a parallel path of salvation for Jews that bypasses the New Covenant in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It isn't even the unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy that has resulted across the centuries with great regularity in predator shepherds who destroy the souls of Christ's little ones.
Rather it's the exclusivity of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy's sacramentology.
Think of it. Here we are in the middle of a massive rapprochement between the best and the brightest of Geneva and Rome and we find Geneva balking at Rome's refusal to admit Geneva's best and brightest (and their congregants) to the Table of our Lord! I mean, isn't this perfect postmodernism?
Does anyone remember Allen Bloom warning us that, in America today, the only law left on the books is we must all get along with each other? Applied to the interface between Rome and Geneva, the perfect expression of this cloying togetherness is Dr. Leithart's claim that he's too committed to a getting-along-with-other-Christians-ecumenical-sacramentology to embrace fellow believers who are committed to a not-getting-along-with-other-Christians-non-ecumenical-sacramentology.
Yes, yes; of course our Lord told us they would know we are Christians by our love. Yes, yes; of course our Lord prayed that we would be one as His Father and He are One. But to trot those statements of our Lord out as it they are trump cards is to beg one humungous question: precisely what doctrine constitutes true Christian faith; or, more to the point, who is a Christian and who is not a Christian? Have we really arrived at the point where to ask this question is sin? Or is it just that it's impolite?
Let me say this: when the Biblical doctrine of of justification has become a side issue and the center of the division between Rome and Geneva is said to lie in the exclusivity of Rome's Sacraments, it's time for us all to gather with our picnic lunches and entertain ourselves watching droves of men like Jason Stellman swim across the Tiber.
When I've had friends who were in the throes of converting to the Roman apostasy, I've always told them that they must study the Biblical doctrine of justification--"forget everything else and focus your study there." One fellow Gordon-Conwell grad didn't bother to study justification and simply converted. Two years later he told me he'd just converted back. I asked why and he responded, "Tim, you wouldn't believe the legalism of the Catholic church! It's mind-numbing!"
It's hard to fathom anyone warning such souls by whining about the exclusivism of Rome's sacramentology.
There can be no Christian unity or peace between those who affirm the Biblical doctrine of justification and those who deny it, so why complain that Rome sees this and serves her sacraments accordingly? If Rome or Constantinople have the integrity to confess their faith through their sacraments, why don't we?
A few years ago, a young man came to my PCA presbytery asking to be received by us. In the course of the examination, it came out that he didn't believe in fencing the Lord's Table as required by our Book of Church Order. And in the process of looking more closely at his error in this regard, I asked him if he would serve the Lord's Supper to a Roman Catholic and he responded, "Sure, why not?" The presbytery collectively sucked in its breath and we asked our Candidates and Credentials Committee to go back into committee and work on this issue with the young man. A number of us were floored by the flippancy with which he'd answered. It was as if it had never occurred to him souls hung in the balance when Luther and Calvin and Knox put their lives on the line in battling Rome. I'm certain he didn't even know that the Geneva consistory disciplined souls for imbibing Rome's sacraments.
The man assuring us the exclusivity of Rome's sacramentology is the real road block between us and Rome is Dr. Peter Leithart of Pacific Northern Presbytery. The young man seeing no obstacle to Table fellowship between Rome and the PCA was a member of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. Until repudiating sola Scriptura and sola fide, Jason Stellman was a member of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. Does Pacific Northern Presbytery have a father in the faith who can work within the presbytery toward a recovery of Reformation doctrine and practice?