Leithart on the Presbyterian Identity Crisis

Leithart writes:

After the Reformation, Reformed churches found themselves striving not only with Catholics but with Lutherans, and as a result both Reformed and Lutheran dogmatics developed along the lines of a one-sided, though historically understandable, via negativa. Reformed theology had its own resources on which to draw, but at many points, and particularly on issues of ecclesiology and sacraments, defined itself as not-Lutheran and not-Catholic. Lutherans did the same. My church history professor at seminary said that Lutheran dogmatics texts had a threefold structure: The Catholic Error, the Reformed Error, and the Lutheran Truth. Reformed theologians followed (and some still follow) a similar method. Reformed theologians and churches, as a result, formed their identity as Reformed by distinguishing their views and practices from Lutherans and Catholics. In the wake of the fundamentalist controversy, Presbyterians added another element to this theological method – we are not-liberals. The badge of inclusion in the Reformed world was not teaching any form of baptismal regeneration.

“Federal Vision” theology messes with these boundaries. It attempts to follow the lead of Scripture, even when that seems to conflict with Confessional formulae and seems closer to Luther than Reformed orthodoxy. It develops a baptismal theology that is not starkly at odds with Luther, appreciates de Lubac on the doctrine of the church and Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharist, finds Barth and Lindbeck intriguing and helpful at a number of points, and is stimulated by Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. As a result, “Federal Vision” theology challenges conservative Reformed culture as much or more than it does Reformed theology, for it questions the performances and boundaries that once defined this culture. Though the specifics of the debate can appear to be so much gnat-straining (particularly to those few outside the Reformed world who pay attention), the debate touches a nerve and provokes profound reactions because it’s not just a theological debate but an identity crisis. The Federal Vision challenges some of the identifying symbols, the boundary-markers of Reformed communal identity, and that kind of challenge cannot help but provoke a heated response.

From this angle, the future shape of American Presbyterian will be significantly shaped by the outcome of this debate. It appears to me that one of the issues facing the OPC and the PCA is whether we will isolate ourselves in an ever-more enclosed sectarian form of Christianity or whether we will more and more see ourselves as a distinctive stream of the catholic church.

More or less on target, it seems to me.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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13 Responses to Leithart on the Presbyterian Identity Crisis

  1. WTM says:

    I must say that I appreciate these sentiments.

  2. Mark Jones says:

    It’s all very nice to say these things, but I’d like to see Leithart back some of these over-generalized statements up.

    I really don’t think the Reformed tradition has been as “sectarian” as he makes out. Moreover, he seems to be hinting that the FV guys are so learned because they find N.T. Wright fascinating and Barth intriguing. Yeah, I’ll just stick to my Banner of Truth books on my shelf … Does anyone want my N.T. Wright books now, because he’s for the TC (Truly Catholic)?

    This is ridiculous. I, too, find Wright fascinating and immensely helpful. I, too, find Barth intriguing. I love Luther. In fact, I find them a great deal more helpful than some of Doug Wilson’s theological mediocrity.

    And the FV guys are just being exegetically sensitive according to Leithart. Maybe, just maybe, some of their exegetical conclusions are wrong? Oh, wait a minute, I can’t properly exegete some texts because my mind is so clouded by a seventeenth-century document.

    I must say Alastair, I’ve found some of what Leithart writes particularly helpful, but this sort of stuff is only adding to the problem IMO.

  3. Al says:


    I agree with you that the Reformed tradition is not always sectarian and there have been times in its history when it has been more open than it is now.

    However, I still believe that Leithart’s general point stands. As you look at the Reformed tradition you will continually find itself defining itself over against other movements: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Arminianism, Liberalism, etc., in such a way as to invest its identity in the perpetuation of these contradistinctions. As I have observed in the past, our identity is so invested in the continuation of such polarizing debates that we have devoted little time to trying to explore the possibility that they could be defused.

    One will often find such oppositions absolutized. Guy Waters, for example, in the conclusion of his recent book on the NPP, informs us that: ‘All expressions of Christianity are on the path to one of two destinations, Rome or Geneva.’ This is an unbelievably silly thing to say. However, it reveals a theological arrogance and a parochial mindset that is characteristic of many people within Reformed churches. It is this nerve that FV people are touching.

    The breadth of reading of most Reformed people is also interesting. How many Reformed people have learnt about Catholicism from reading Catholics? How many people have read Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox writers? All too often what one encounters is ignorance of those outside of a narrow stream of the Reformed tradition and a lot of uninformed prejudice about the monsters that lurk beyond the boundaries of the Reformed world. I’m sorry, but that is just the way it is.

    I am pleased to hear that you enjoy Wright and Luther. I greatly enjoy both of them too. I am not such a Barth fan yet, but I have been reading a lot of him of late. However, these authors are still fairly standard Protestant writers. They are all theologically Reformed in many key respects. There are many great theologians that many Reformed people have never even heard of, simply because they happen to be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or from another Protestant tradition that doesn’t happen to be Reformed or evangelical.

    Why the mention of Wilson? I am no great fan of Wilson’s. Far from it, in fact. I am not about to take issue with your assessment of him as theologically mediocre. I agree with you. Quite apart from this fact, much of his writing rubs me up the wrong way, even when I agree with what he is trying to say (and I often don’t).

    There are certainly issues of exegetical senstivity in these debates, but that is not Leithart’s primary point here. Leithart is not claiming that FV writers are always justified in their exegetical conclusions. What is he claiming is that, by ceasing to define the Reformed faith over and against anything else that moves, we are freed to reach theological conclusions that many quarters of Reformed culture preclude. This allows us to be more sensitive to the text when it leads us in directions that have traditionally been labelled Roman Catholic, for example.

    FV theology finds its Reformed identity in a way that is quite different from many other forms of Reformed theology. The willingness on the part of FV people to learn from people with theological cooties is perceived to be a threat. Most leading FV writers have a genuine appreciation for the Westminster Standards, but they are not unwilling to question the helpfulness of the confessional language, categories and theological balance on occasions. FV theologians perceive the Reformed tradition to be far more pluriform and porous than many of their opponents.

    FV theology is not Roman Catholic or Arminian, but it happily relaxes the polarization between Roman Catholicism and Arminianism and the Reformed faith. The fact that many Reformed people derive their identity from the stressing of such polarization makes FV people a threat to Reformed identity. The suggestion that we might even learn something from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on the subjects of the Church and the sacraments, for example, just goes totally against the grain for many Reformed folk. This is Leithart’s point about an identity crisis and I think that it is a fair one.

  4. Stewart says:

    Well said, as always. Oh, and “theological cooties”….hahaha.

  5. Mark Jones says:


    There’s quite a bit there I agree with.

    You asked: How many Reformed people have learnt about Catholicism from reading Catholics? How many people have read Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox writers?

    That’s a good question. One that is admittedly hard to answer. I have a friend, Mark Herzer, who wrote one of the best articles on Arminianism I’ve ever read called “Arminianism Exposed”. Why was it so good? Because he went right to the primary sources. He joked that he owns more Arminian authors than the Westminster library (there may be some truth to that!). Incidentally, what the article does show is the stark differences between Reformed and Arminian theology, especially in key areas such as the atonement and justification! How many people are even aware that, historically, Arminians have not held to a substitutionary atonement?

    So, I agree with you, but some of the very best men I’ve interacted with are very familiar with the other traditions you mention and, at the same time, they are critical of the FV writers.

    I’ve read Ockham, Biel, etc., in an attempt to better understand Reformation theology. Isn’t Calvin the perfect example of understanding the broader interpretive tradition? And yet, as you hint at, we are sometimes not very good “Calvinists”!

    What about Reformed interpretation of Matthew 16:18? Yes, John Owen went to painful lengths to show that Christ wasn’t speaking of Peter as the rock, but recent Reformed exegesis has faced up to the fact that it is indeed Peter being spoken of (e.g. Hendriksen)!

    I suspect that both Leithart and yourself are unhappy with how recent Reformed men have polarized the Reformed faith from other traditions, but this hasn’t always been the case! Charles Hodge is actually a good example of this surprisingly, but very few would want to admit this.

    My point in all of this is to explain – at least from the perspective of someone in the PCA – that not all of us who take issue with the FV are stuck in the seventeenth century. And, what is more, there are some of us who have actually engaged the wider Christian tradition. Anyone who takes a look at John Owen’s library, for example, will see that the Reformed tradition has always been noted for this (See: Seb Rehnman’s book “Divine Discourse” which shows how truly catholic some of the Puritans were). My PhD topic is Thomas Goodwin and he, again, was widely read in all traditions!

    So, in a sense, I am calling for a return to what the Reformed theological tradition has always been about and I quite agree with you that we’ve lost something of that in recent years.

  6. Mark Jones says:

    PS I say I’m not stuck in the seventeenth century and yet my MA thesis was on Owen and my PhD is on Goodwin! Oh dear.

  7. pduggie says:

    “What about Reformed interpretation of Matthew 16:18? Yes, John Owen went to painful lengths to show that Christ wasn’t speaking of Peter as the rock, but recent Reformed exegesis has faced up to the fact that it is indeed Peter being spoken of (e.g. Hendriksen)!”

    And now the question is, will Reformed exegesis be willing to jettison any other of Owens’ pained exegesis?

  8. Mark Jones says:


    Can you give an example of “Owen’s pained exegesis”?

    Aren’t you busy on the Heidelblog? Where does everyone find the time for all these blogs and debates?

  9. pduggie says:

    I’m thinking of what Mark Horne has described as Owen’s special pleading about “sacntified”

    “One example: He uses the language in three passages in Hebrews about how Christ died to “sanctify” his people. Then, in chapter 10, when it speaks of those who regard as unclean the blood by which they were sanctified, suddenly THE EXACT SAME TERMINOLOGY IN THE SAME BOOK is no longer really Christian. Rather, it is sub-Christian “Jewish” language which is meant only to count for an “external” covenantal arrangement.”

  10. garver says:

    Scott Clark’s blog is called “Heidelblog”? A friend of mine named Blake (also in SoCal) used to have a blog by that name back in the early days of blogging, up until late 2003. He’s an Anglican now though.

  11. Mark Jones says:

    I assume you referring to Heb. 10:29b? I really think you should go to the primary source first (Scripture) and deduce whether it is Christ spoken of or not (i.e. who is the one “sanctified”). This passage is particularly hard to translate IMO.

    Owen argues that this passage is not speaking about individual apostasy but Christ’s separation and dedication to God.

    He writes: “And all the disputes concerning the total and final apostasy from the faith of them who have been really and internally sanctified, from this place, are altogether vain; though that may be said of a man, in aggravation of his sin, which he professeth concerning himself. But the difficulty of this text is, concerning whom these words are spoken: for they may be referred unto the person that is guilty of the sin insisted on; he counts the blood of the covenant, wherewith he himself was sanctified, an unholy thing. For as at the giving of the law, or the establishing of the covenant at Sinai, the people being sprinkled with the blood of the beasts that were offered in
    sacrifice, were sanctified, or dedicated unto God in a peculiar manner; so
    those who by baptism, and confession of faith in the church of Christ, were
    separated from all others, were peculiarly dedicated to God thereby”

    “But” (and this is an important “but”), Owen argues,”the design of the apostle in the context leads plainly to another application of these words. It is Christ himself that is spoken of, who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto
    God, as I have showed before.”

    I’d be interested in your take on Owen’s exegesis, not Horne’s apparent misreading or your failure to understand Horne!

  12. Mark Jones says:

    Also, compare your statement and Owen’s exegesis with Heb. 9:13-14.

  13. Seth says:

    Leithart clarifies and extends his claims in this post: http://www.leithart.com/archives/002792.php

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