One Small Step to Rome

Jason Stellman’s announcement on Sunday that he was resigning from the Presbyterian Church in America and headed toward Rome has struck the narrow Reformed world like a bombshell, setting heads and tongues wagging over the past couple days.  As a noted representative of the most arch-conservative Confessionalist wing of the PCA, priding itself on its staunch adherence to Reformed standards, and as lead prosecutor for several years against Peter J. Leithart (largely on the basis that Leithart’s theology tended toward Rome), Stellman’s volte-face is so layered with irony that it would be richly amusing if not so sad.  

In his resignation letter, Stellman cites (not untypically for converts) his loss of confidence in sola Scriptura and sola fide.  A number of excellent responses have already gone up—from Doug Wilson, from Peter Leithart, and from Steven and Peter at TCI.  I have little to add to these excellent thoughts, so I’d like to just highlight a couple of the key points and add perhaps one significant point omitted.  

Wilson argues that Stellman has, as is usual, caricatured both sola Scriptura and sola fide in his rejection of them, and goes on to suggest that it may have been the PCA’s disciplinary failure (in his eyes) to condemn Leithart that led to his disillusionment with Protestant disciplinarianism and turn toward someone wielding a bigger ecclesiastical stick.  Leithart, in his post, hones in on the sola Scriptura issue, suggesting that here, at any rate, the transition of hyper-Reformed confessionalism to Rome has perhaps been a comparatively smooth one for Stellman.  Stellman’s brand of confessionalism, shared by many within conservative Reformed denominations, and most notably by “Escondido theologians” Scott Clark, Darryl Hart, David VanDrunen and (more temperately) Michael Horton, attributes a level of regulative authority to the Westminster Confession and other Reformed standards that functionally denies sola Scriptura, although continuing to do lip service to it.  Among many Reformed confessionalists, the confessional standards, and the ongoing teaching authority of the ministerium that follows these standards, wield an authority that is almost beyond appeal and is not dissimilar to that claimed by Catholics for the magisterium.  This suggests Stellman was not so much reacting away from a hyper-Protestant individualism, as Wilson suggests, but rather that he never had a real Protestant sense of the authority of the individual believer’s conscience before Scripture to begin with.  


This is a point that Escalante and Wedgeworth develop at considerable length in their response, arguing that Stellman’s recent move confirms what they (and I) have been arguing for some time about the inner unity between de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory and Catholicism.  Stellman, unsurprisingly, has been one of the most vocal exponents of VanDrunen-style two-kingdoms theology, writing a book on the subject, Dual Citizens, in 2009.  By equating the spiritual kingdom of Christ with a juridical model of the visible church, its boundaries rigorously policed by ordained authorities, these men undermine the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, substituting a heteronomous visible authority to mediate between the believer and God.  As they put it in their post, “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.”  Their post goes on to sketch the outlines of what the alternative—Reformed irenicism—looks like, with a properly-defined role for Scripture, authority, and individual reason.    


To all this, I want to merely briefly add a thought on the second concern Stellman voices, that of the incoherence of sola fide.  Wedgeworth and Escalante say that the answer to that “question is actually predetermined by Mr. Stellman’s heteronomy,” and I suppose I just want to make more explicit here what is implicit in their post.  Here again, Wilson has suggested that Stellman is perhaps simply reacting against an aberrant nuda fide version of the doctrine, and that perhaps he just needs to be acquainted with a more robust, meaty concept of faith.  Perhaps there is something to this; I have frequently heard the accusation that the Escondido theology is antinomian.  But my own impression of the disciplinarian confessionalist wing of Reformed theology (within which I grew up) is quite the contrary—namely, that it has little real grasp of the spirit of sola fide to begin with.  Here again, then, I would suggest (without knowing Stellman, his work, or his background in any detail) that perhaps the transition to Catholicism is a surprisingly smooth one, a change more in letter than in spirit.  If discipline is of the esse of the Church, then participation in the life of the grace is dependent upon adherence to moral rules tightly policed by “spiritual rulers,” and the freedom of a conscience justified by faith alone is replaced by either a nervous or an arrogant legalism.  Of course, there are plenty of Protestant legalisms besides presbyterian ones, no doubt about that.  But it would be foolish to deny that institutionalizing the moralistic impulse, in the form of the consistory, tends to intensify it.  In any case, the solas hang together.  The disciplinarian abandonment of the priesthood of all believers entails an abandonment also of the freedom of all believers.  And those moves having been made, the most consistent ideological resting place is Rome.  (Richard Hooker understood this all four hundred years ago, of course.)

8 thoughts on “One Small Step to Rome

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides

    Mr. LittleJohn,Your post is instructive. What do you think of Jason Stellman's response here:Jason J. Stellman said,June 5, 2012 at 3:53 pmHi everyone, I obviously can’t interact here at length, but I did want to point out that the many attempts people have made to trace the trajectory from where I was to where I am now have been mostly amusing and somewhat silly (especially Trueman’s, since he doesn’t even know me). Apparently it was either my inculcation with Thomism at WSCA, or the Leithart trial, or my high churchmanship, or my earlier low churchmanship at Calvary Chapel, that are to be blamed for this whole thing. I am quite sure that any member of Exile would be surprised to hear that 2K theology was the end-all be-all of my preaching ministry (in fact, the “sermons” that Trueman linked to weren’t even sermons, they were lectures given several years ago). Unless they’ve been removed, all the sermons I preached at Exile are all available for public consumption, and anyone who cares to listen will find almost nothing about the two kingdoms anywhere. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to figure out how to change that WordPress avatar…."From: HERE


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    TU&D,Thanks for the call for further clarification. Certainly a case like this perhaps calls for more hesitation and qualification, which is often lost in the pressure to hastily weigh in on a piece of news like this when it's still hot off the press.My first instinct, in response to Stellman's comment, is to say, "Well of course *he would* say that." Not that I want to be too dismissive; certainly, I can claim no insight into his psychological state, and indeed, no particular expertise in his personal theology. He is a more reliable witness than I (or most other commentators) am, but it should nonetheless be emphasized that he is not a particularly reliable witness. The natural human tendency, of course, is to want to see oneself as unique and self-directed, not as part of some overarching trend or pattern or movement, which is perhaps dictating ones actions in accord with predictable causal trajectories. We all see things from the standpoint of our own wranglings or conscience, our own unique subjectivity, and bitterly protest when outside observers, privileged with a more objective viewpoint, say "Ah, you're just saying/doing that because of X." I speak from my own experience. For instance, when I went through my Anglo-Catholic lurch a few years ago, I wanted to think that it was for theological and personal reasons too unique to be captured by any demeaning generalizations about "evangelicals being seduced by Rome and Canterbury." But gradually, I've come to see that many of those generalizations were much truer than I'd care to admit. Sometimes those on the sidelines are a lot better at putting the pieces together and saying "This is what made him go from believing X to believing Y" than the person undergoing the shift.Second, and continuing in the same vein, it seems disingenuous for Stellman to protest that he wasn't really that into 2K theology, because whatever the content of his sermons (and R2K theology does seem to be more a the stuff of the classroom than of the pulpit), he wrote a book propounding it! And it's not like he's written a dozen books and this was just one of them, many years ago; according to Amazon at any rate, *Dual Citizens* is the only book he's written.All that said, though, there is plenty to be said by way of qualification to my original post. In particular, I should have made more clear that my point was not really to offer a causal explanation of this particular event—Stellman's Romeward move—as to hold it up as an illustration of a larger correspondence of ideas. Although I do think, as I have said above, that it is often possible to offer objective generalized explanations of what causes people with certain ideas or in certain circumstances to come to hold different ideas or espouse different allegiances, there is a large degree of irreducible particularity in such narratives, and one must be quite provisional in offering causal explanations for another individual's actions, particularly when it comes to the life of the mind. Regardless, however, of the shape of Stellman's own personal journey, this does not necessarily affect the validity of judgments about the general compatibility between the doctrinal commitments he previously espoused and those he now espouses. I think it is incontrovertible, and can be argued on theological rather than empirical grounds, that his species of de jure divino Presbyterianism has many theological errors in common with Rome, despite professing the starkest opposition. It represents a sort of equal and opposite reaction to Rome, but not a genuine alternative to its over-realized eschatology and legalistic model of the life of grace. It is certainly tempting, given this inner coherence of ideas, to see moves like Stellman's as a logical consequence of his original errors. However, human minds and human lives never function simply at the level of logical consequences. Nor can the theologies in question be boiled down to these particular points of similarity without remainder. Even if Belief X has a great deal in common with Belief Y, that does not necessarily mean (indeed, it probably does *not* mean) that Belief X entails Belief Y; much less that particularly individuals holding Belief X will come to hold Belief Y. Whether they do or not, and if they do, the particular reasons moving them thereto, are dependent upon a host of particular proclivities and circumstances, which make even hindsight explanations (and even more so prognostications) quite difficult in any particular case.


  3. Christian

    Hey Brad, This whole ordeal is quite fascinating. Especially because I've become friends with KC Rumrey, thorugh a mutual friend who made his way to Rome. So in our conversations this has come up, as we have circulated the recent blog pieces by Leithart. Anyhow, I do want to take exception to something you wrote here: "If discipline is of the esse of the Church, then participation in the life of the grace is dependent upon adherence to moral rules tightly policed by "spiritual rulers," and the freedom of a conscience justified by faith alone is replaced by either a nervous or an arrogant legalism." I have to disagree with you, even though I think this is true in most circumstances. I do believe that you can have a much more radical ecclesiology premised upon the priesthood of all believers that understands disciple to be of the esse of the Church. This would be an anabaptist position, and one that I believe my church embodies well. In our context, one's submission is to the body as a whole, not to "spiritual rulers," though we do have leaders who often speak or act on behalf of the body as a whole. And, of course, our theology would staunchly reject any notion of two kingdoms. I'm not sure if your comments were meant to cover all variants of Christianity, but I wanted to make a counter point that disciple can be central without it being done within a monolithic authoritarian system that eviscerates the distinctions of Protestantism. Though, in our context, an appeal to individual reason would likely take a very different shape than it does or has in much of Protestantism.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Christian. I'm very glad to hear that you've gotten to know KC Rumrey, one of the finest pastors I know. Yours is certainly a fair objection. To be sure, in this particular post, and in most posts on related subjects, I have a particular kind of Reformed disciplinarianism in my sights, not Anabaptism per se; however, I do think that Anabaptism is subject to some of the same larger theological concerns (Hooker and Co., of course, critiqued the Disciplinarians of their day as a form of Anabaptism). Granted, the problem in the Anabaptist setting you describe is not one of dictatorial spiritual rulers, and a more fraternal and horizontal exercise of discipline tends to change the nature of the discipline to something less objectionable. But I still wonder to what extent the fundamental concerns about sola fide and the danger of a "nervous or arrogant legalism" would apply. Regardless of who's policing the boundaries, the insistence that there are visible boundaries to be policed (for the sake of spiritual purity, not simply prudential protection of the body, that is) would seem to require the substitution of additional rules governing the continued participation in the life and fellowship of grace for the single rule (inscrutable to human eyes) of faith in Christ. And once that's done, it seems difficult for it not to degenerate into a kind of nervous legalism (in which people are afraid of violating the rules and regularly burdened by a guilty conscience and fear of disapproval) or an arrogant legalism (in which people are confident that since they follow the rules, they are the real disciples, and everyone else isn't). But of course, you can speak from personal experience, and perhaps you would say that such legalism is not at all a necessary consequence. I would be interested in hearing that.


  5. I am not FV nor am I a Theonomist. I am a Covenanter and the above is slander. 'Jason Stellman's announcement on Sunday that he was resigning from the Presbyterian Church in America and headed toward Rome''


  6. Bradley

    R. Martin Snyder, what do you mean it's "slander"? Are you referring to the report that Jason Stellman did indeed head to Rome (which is definitely true), or are you referring to the interpretation above regarding Jason's explanation for that move?Bradford, something I wanted to add in response to "Truth Divides…and Unites": Leithart's interpretation is not empty speculation regarding why Jason Stellman might've gone to Rome. It's not as if Dr Leithart was brainstorming and coming up with random reasons like, "Oh! Maybe it was Thomism!" (as per Jason's comment which you quoted). Rather, Leithart was interacting with the reasons Jason Stellman himself provided, at least as far as I can tell. Jason said it was because of sola fide and sola scriptura. Leithart said, okay, let's think of why that might be. The way I see it, Leithart is simply analyzing more deeply Jason Stellman's own explanation.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Well Martin, if you're a Covenanter, I can't imagine you'd be very happy with many of the things I put on this blog, but I'm not sure what part of the above could be described as "slander," given that nothing in the post was presented as a fact about Rev. Stellman, but merely as observations about the relationship between his past and his present belief systems. Bradley, yes, I think you're basically right. Leithart, in any case, is in a much better position to make judgments about Stellman's trajectory than I, so I wanted to make sure to qualify my words. But neither mine nor Leithart's could be accused of being empty speculation, inasmuch as, as you say, they are focusing on the causes Stellman himself alleges.


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