A Kind Word or Two for Disciplinarianism

In two very interesting essays on Calvinist church discipline, Robert Kingdon suggests some qualifications to traditional narratives.  First, although in England at least, presbyterian church discipline proved so threatening to the jurisdiction of the magistracy, Kingdon doesn’t think it was always seen so.  In “Social Control and Political Control in Calvin’s Geneva,” Kingdon argues that as a matter of fact, so successful was Calvin’s consistory in achieving social cohesion and control in Geneva that it may have been the source of envy by some other magistracies, which were eager above all in that period for an effective way of achieving an orderly, moral populace.  The adoption of Calvinist discipline in the Palatinate, over Erastian, he suggests, may paradoxically have been due to the magistrate’s decision that the former was actually a better political tool.  (Of course, what’s interesting in this whole argument is Kingdon’s realization that ecclesiastical discipline, even in Geneva, was more an extension of civic order than a “government of the spiritual kingdom.”)   

In his second essay, “Calvinist Discipline in the Old World and the New,” however, Kingdon asks us to learn to see this “social control” in positive terms, not merely negative.  Sure, the Genevan Consistory and its offspring were capable of authoritarian overreaches, but in fact, the vast majority of cases the consistory involved itself in were interventions on behalf of the exploited, rather than mere busybody meddling.  And even a controlling morality police, he points out, is not without real social blessings.  Calvinist discipline, he argues, actually worked:

“It did strengthen family ties.  It did reduce immorality.  For example, in every community with a substantial Calvinist presence for which we have adequate records, we can demonstrate that the rate of illegitimate births dropped sharply to very low levels, among the lowest ever recorded in history.”


When a Mark Isn’t a Mark: Discipline and Disciplinarianism

Anyone who’s had a good Reformed Theology 101 class has likely heard of the old debate in the Reformed tradition between the “two-markers” and the “three-markers,” usually with the narrative being that the three-markers rightly prevailed.  The dispute concerns the classic Protestant doctrine of the notae ecclesiae, the “marks of the Church,” by which Protestants sought to define what constituted a Church (against the Catholic doctrine that it could be straightforwardly recognized by institutional union with and obedience to Rome).  The original answer was that there were just two marks, the Word and sacraments; or, as often more fully expressed, “the Word faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered.”  In these qualifications, however, lay the germ for a third mark, “discipline”—for how, some asked, can we ensure that the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered unless such things be policed in some way?  The Church also needs discipline, it was concluded by some, and this third mark found its way into a number of Reformed confessions from the latter part of the sixteenth century on, with varying degrees of emphasis.   

To some, it may seem like an arcane semantic dispute, and yet the question has gained new prominence for recent debates about two-kingdoms theology.  For modern Reformed-two-kingdoms advocates, the inclusion of the third mark was the particular, crucial contribution of Reformed theology, since it sets apart the visible church as a distinct polity over against the state.  In recent posts, Matthew Tuininga, continuing his campaign for Calvin, (though without actually engaging with the recent essay on the Calvinist International), has drawn repeated focus to the importance of discipline as a mediation of the spiritual kingdom, as he takes it, in Calvin’s theology.  In this emphasis, he is treading (although in reverse, as it were), a path blazed by noted Reformation scholar Torrance Kirby (and before him, by Paul Avis).  Torrance Kirby, in his works on Hooker, has argued that the introduction of the third mark was a decisive move, creating a new understanding of the two kingdoms; of course Kirby argues that this engendered a “radical” ecclesiology (similar to Anabaptism), that moved away from the magisterial Reformation, undoing Protestantism’s gains vis-a-vis Rome.  For Kirby, it is absolutely wrong to identify this new view with Calvin, though he does have a culprit: Bucer.  

Having at various times and various places made use of Kirby’s narrative, I would like now to suggest an important revision (though without altering the substantive point).

 

The problem with Kirby’s narrative was suggested to me by an article by renowned Vermigli scholar Emidio Campi, which Jordan Ballor was kind enough to bring to my attention.  Campi argues that Vermigli, unlike Calvin, was staunch in his insistence that discipline was a third mark of the Church.  Of course, this is noteworthy as testimony (over against VanDrunen, Tuininga, et. al.) that Calvin was a two-marker after all, but problematic since Kirby, also a major Vermigli scholar, has placed Vermigli front and centre as a representative of the “magisterial” tradition which Hooker harks back to (though I do not recall Kirby ever making particular claims about Vermigli and the notae ecclesiae).  Let’s look at Kirby’s claims a bit before turning to Campi and then proposing a solution.

Kirby’s fullest discussion comes in his early book Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy: He begins by emphasizing that this question is a hinge on which all else depends, that the marks “are the means whereby the true visible Church is discerned.  They constitute the substance or esse of the Church, that part of the visible Church through knowledge of which membership in Christ’s mystical body is attained.  The notae ecclesiae are of crucial significance in the overall doctrine of the Church in so far as they are the meeting point of the mystical and external aspects of the Church.” 

The key issue, then, “centres upon the inclusion of Discipline as a third essential sign of the existence of the true visible Church.”  Kirby insists, following Francois Wendel, that Bucer is the source of all the mischief here, deviating the magisterial Reformation in a “radical,” Anabaptistic direction.  Calvin, says Kirby, forcefully rejected this, together with Luther, Melanchthon, and “the Zurich divines”—it is this group he labels “the magisterial reformers [who] hold in common the view that the Word and Sacraments constitute the essential marks of the Church.”

In singling out Bucer, Kirby is following not just Wendel, but Avis, who identifies “a tradition of ecclesiology, extending from Bucer both to the Puritans and to the Anabaptists and the Separatists, which attempted to avoid the anomalies manifested when the reformers tried to come to terms with the position of Rome, not by broadening but by narrowing the definition of the Church” (Avis, Church in the Theology of the Reformers, 45).  Beza, says Kirby, followed Bucer rather than Calvin in this, as did Knox and the Scottish Presbyterians, and Cartwright and the English Presbyterians; Whitgift and Hooker followed Calvin and the magisterial Reformers.  Kirby goes on to expound how Hooker shows that Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty, ultimately, is at stake in this dispute, since the elevation of discipline to a third mark makes something external binding on the conscience and part of the esse of the Church. 

A tidy narrative (although it seems to lay an awful lot of blame on the shoulders of Bucer), but problems arise.

For one, it’s notable that in his recapitulation of this argument in Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist 15 years later, Kirby concedes that “others profoundly influenced by the more radical ecclesiology [as he calls it] were the Heidelberg Calvinists (Zacharias Ursinus, Kaspar Olevianus and Girolamo Zanchi).  Now this isn’t starting to look very good.  Bucer, Beza, Knox, Cartwright, Ursinus, Olevianus, Zanchi?  That’s virtually an honor roll of fathers of the Reformed tradition.  You’re telling me that all these guys represent some “radical,” sub-Protestant innovation, and that the true Reformed tradition lies elsewhere?  This seems dubious.  Moreover, if Kirby is right that Calvin and the Zurich theologians did not take this tack, then this casts more doubt on his narrative.  For if so much (fidelity to the magisterial Reformation!) hinged upon the retention of just two marks, then how did the two-markers and the three-markers seem to get along so well?   Do we have evidence of a major rift between Calvin and Beza on the issue?  Or Bullinger and Bucer?  or between Whitgift and Ursinus?  Kirby says in RHRP: “Thus Whitgift’s exchange with Cartwright in the Admonition Controversy and Hooker’s own further contribution to the debate can quite plausibly be viewed as a continuation in England of the continental debate between the proponents of magisterial and radical reformation”—but what exactly is this continental debate he is referring to?  If “radical reformation” means what it normally does, then it’s clear enough, but Kirby has enlarged the term immensely.

 

So what about Vermigli?  Again, while I’m not sure that Kirby explicitly mentions Vermigli in relation to this issue, he has repeatedly argued for understanding Vermigli as a representative of a “Zurich theology” along with Bullinger, and in RHDRS he classes “the Zurich divines” with Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon on this issue (although in his footnote there, he only mentions Zwingli and Bullinger).

In his essay “John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Reassessment of Their Relationship” (in the book Calvin Und Calvinismus) Campi argues, however (I will quote at length):

In effect, the Anabaptists insisted on considering discipline to be an indispensable mark of the church, while Calvin judged that belief to be dangerously confused and established a much clearer differentiation between distinctive marks (notae ecclesiae) of the church, on the one hand, and discipline or church government, on the other.  The distinctive marks, which should serve to distinguish true from false church, are the pure preaching of and listening to the Word of God and the lawful administration of the sacraments, while discipline belongs within the ambit of the organization of the true church.  Discipline, Calvin averred, is nothing but ‘a kind of curb to restrain and tame those who war against the doctrine of Christ.’ (Inst. 4.12.1)  Its end is not in the exclusion of imperfect members of the communion of believers so as to be able to follow a perfect purity and holiness, but rather to incite sinners to repent and to restore communion within the body of Chirst, although everyday experience shows what and how many difficulties get in the way of realizing that end.  In summary, in the context of resurgent Catholicism, which vaunted itself as the true church on the basis of its institutional unity, and of radical sectarianism, which suggested a model of separatist churches composed only of visible saints, Calvin took a middle path between the extreme ecclesiology of Rome and that of the Anabaptists.  Calvin saw in the two notae ecclesiae the distinctive character of a church and in discipline an organizational instrument to use following a ‘judgment of charity’, according to which one presumes that members of the church are those who profess the Christian faith, behave appropriately, and take part in the sacraments (Inst. 4.1.8)

What according to Vermigli might the true church be? . . . Vermigli declares, ‘among the churches the one we should embrace is the one that most greatly flourishes for its spirit, doctrine, and holiness.’  He sets forth, moreover, that ‘we say that the Church is the assembly of believers, the reborn, whom God gathers in Christ by means of the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and who by means of the ministers directs them in the pureness of doctrine, in the lawful use of the sacraments, and in discipline.

Alongside the Gospel and the sacrament, Vermigli numbers discipline among the distinctive signs of the church. One is not dealing here with an isolated text, as with Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto. Vermigli is utterly resolute on the question of discipline. One does not see an evolution in his thought on this; his conviction when he arrived in Strasbourg remained unchanged until his death. In fact, in 1561 a year before his death, in reply to a question posed to him by Polish Reformers on ways of building the Church, Vermigli was explicit in indicating three distinct signs: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the lawful administration of the sacraments, and the immediate introduction of discipline, which he calls Evangelii regula de correctione fraterna.

….

And yet it should be made plain that it is Vermigli (together with Oecolampadius and Bucer), rather than Calvin, who offers the arguments for the inclusion of discipline among the notae ecclesiae, an ecclesiological stance which was to have considerable relevance to Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, e.g the Catechism of Emden, the Scottish Confession (1560), the Belgian Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession (1648).

Campi, then, has added Vermigli (and Oecolampadius) to the already-long list of those who espouse what Kirby calls a “radical ecclesiology” at odds with the magisterial Reformation.  This just doesn’t sound right.  And yet, on the other hand, you will see from the first paragraph that I quoted, that Campi is clearly with Kirby (and indeed, appears to be influenced by Kirby) in seeing Calvin as a forthright defender of just two marks, and indeed on the significance of this affirmation as a bulwark against Rome and Anabaptism.  Moreover, Campi goes on to make an intriguing further observation, although he doesn’t develop it much—that “there is a substantial theological commonality between what Calvin and Vermigli mean by discipline” for Vermigli too insists that the “end of excommunication is only salvation through penitence and the certain forgiveness of God.”  

 

The key to making sense of all this, I suggest, in is realizing that not all “marks” are created equal, so to speak.  Something may, after all, be said to be a “mark of the Church” in more than one sense.  For instance, in a certain context we might very well say that “love is the chief mark of the Church” (in fact, John Locke said just this now that I think about it, interestingly enough; but we can save that for another day).   By this we would not mean that love is constitutive of the Church (not our love, at any rate, thank heaven), but that love is something that Christians will display, by which the Church will be recognized.  Indeed, it can be said to be necessary for the Church in a sense, inasmuch as love is something that Christians must show if they are to live as faithful disciples.  But we would not want to say (or at any rate, we should not want to say) that without Christians showing love, the Church would not exist; love is not necessary in that sense, for the Church depends upon Christ, not us.  We could thus speak of love as a descriptive mark of the Church, not as a constitutive mark.  

And just the same could be said for discipline.  Indeed, I would suggest that just the same is being said for discipline for Vermigli, and the analogy with love is not a coincidence.  From Campi’s description, both Calvin and Vermigli understand discipline to be functioning as an exercise of love; the purpose is to win back the erring brother, even if it takes hard words to do so (the analogy with parental discipline, to this extent, is close).  This being the case, discipline is something that something that churches must do if they are to live as faithful disciples, and hence a church should be marked out by discipline.  But seen this way, discipline is a descriptive mark, not a constitutive mark.  Which explains why it is that in many contexts, theologians like Vermigli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Ursinus, etc., could list a third mark without thereby overturning the whole edifice of Protestant ecclesiology that depended on Word and sacrament as the essence of the Church, and why they could more or less get along with theologians who tended to speak in terms of two marks.  It explains moreover why Calvin could have such a high view of the importance of discipline (as folks like Tuininga are keen to emphasize) without abandoning the fundamentally Lutheran ground that Kirby insists he stands on.  Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that on this understanding of discipline, since love was the important thing, the particular form was fairly flexible.  Different structures for church discipline, some involving the magistrate more, some less, were arranged; indeed, some three-markers were Erastian, and some two-markers were anti-Erastian.  There was, in short, a spectrum of opinion on the importance of discipline, sometimes expressed in the language of two marks, sometimes of three, and on the form, all of which could function together fairly well on common ecclesiological premises.

Where was the problem, then?  Whence the “radical ecclesiology” that Kirby is concerned about, and that Whitgift and Hooker were combatting?  Does it not exist?  Well no, it does.  Disciplinarianism did arise, and it was a problem.  But the problem wasn’t that it thought discipline was important, per se.  The problem was that it understood this discipline differently.  For folks like Cartwright, the concept of discipline was not so much as a fraternal exercise of love toward erring brothers, but a judicial act of exclusion to maintain the purity of the church (which is the Anabaptist concept).  There are many churches today that still think in such terms, and many that operate with a weird hybrid.  But it’s important to understand the difference.  On the one hand, discipline is understood as an exercise in tough love, and the object is regaining of the lost brother.  On the other hand, discipline is an exercise in moral and social purification, and the object is the preservation of the integrity of the organized body.  This latter concept has a politicised flavor, and becomes a coercive ordinance transgressing on the domain of the civil magistrate, confusing the two kingdoms and setting them in rivalry.  This way of thinking, of course, makes discipline “necessary” in a different sense from the necessity of the Church love.  If the Church is a polis, it must be policed, and if it is not so policed, it will cease to be.  So the Disciplinarian thinks.  On this understanding, discipline is in fact a constitutive mark and not merely a descriptive mark.  Moreover, on this understanding, since the need to preserve the integrity of the visible body looms so large, the particular form that discipline takes will tend to be much less flexible.  Hence the emergence of the concept of “the discipline”—the right way to do things, so that not merely the exercise of discipline generically, but a particular form of discipline becomes part of the esse of the Church.  

 

At any rate, there’s my theory so far.  Further reflections on this front will no doubt emerge at intervals in the coming months.


Nothing but the Creed?

A friend’s recent musings on just how useless the Ten Commandments were as a summary of Christian ethical teaching (aside from the first commandment, it’s hard to think of a single one of which even the definition, much less the application, commands anything like universal assent) got me to wondering whether the case with dogmatic theology was in fact any better than with moral theology.  

I do think there are solutions, of course, to this chaos of disagreement, ways of sorting out the wheat of legitimate disagreement from the chaff of heterodoxy and spurious interpretation, so to speak, but it’s worth dwelling for a sobering moment or two on the full extent of doctrinal diversity that can be found within those professing faith in Christ.  This can be done by a line-by-line consideration of the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Should we really call God “the Father”?  Isn’t God also a “Mother”?  Shouldn’t (S)he be genderless?
What do we mean by saying that God is “Almighty”?  Open theists would say that it does not mean he has any power over the future, or over the wills of free creatures.
What does it mean that he made heaven and earth?  As in, created each creature in its particularity?  Or simply the raw material for the Big Bang?  Or something in between?  And that’s just about the “earth” and the “visible” side of things.  What falls under the “heaven” and “invisible” side?  For medievals, far more entities fell under this heading than do for most modern Christians.  What are we to think of angels and all that?

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Insert all the disputes that led to this credal formulation here.  Of course, perhaps we might accept that subsequently, to be “Christian” is to be bound by this decision, and all earlier opinions are excluded from Christianity.  But what does it mean for the Son to be “begotten of the Father before all worlds . . . begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”?  There’s some complicated metaphysics here, and there’s a massive difference of opinion among theologians today (and at the level of popular piety) on the metaphysical makeup of the Trinity; many of these opinions fall into what would classically have been condemned as modalism or tritheism.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man;

Insert all the disputes leading up to the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon here.  Important as those later conciliar formulations may be, they do not seem to be definitive of “Christianity” since both the Nestorian Church and the Monophysite churches continued for many centuries thereafter.  Even within Chalcedonian orthodoxy, monothelitism and monoenergism were widely asserted in the following centuries.  Even among those who formally reject these two, significant disputes about the relation between the two natures, the relation between the natures and the one person, the communication of attributes, the role of Mary in the incarnation, etc., continue to vex theologians.  And never mind at the level of popular piety, where all kinds of deviant understandings of what it means for Jesus to be God and man proliferate—I expect that the majority of evangelical Christians, if subjected to a test on their Christology, would come out as Docetists, Apollinarians, Nestorians, or some curious blend of the above.  Among modern theologians, there is considerable restlessness, if not outright rejection, of the Chalcedonian formula, and a desire to articulate Christ’s human identity in much more robust terms than those typical of earlier Christianity.

On a totally different note, what do we mean by saying he came “for us men and for our salvation”?  Was the incarnation strictly oriented toward the atonement?  Or was it oriented toward the divinization of the race?  Was it necessitated by the Fall, or intrinsic in the logic of creation?  Theological disagreements with wide-ranging implications on these questions date back to the beginning of Christian theology and still rage today.

and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried;

Who suffered?  Just the human Christ?  The divine person according to his human nature?  The divine person without qualification?  The whole Trinity?  Modern theology has been torn with such disputes for decades, and they have their analogues in earlier theological debates.  (Note that the Nicene Creed conveniently leaves out the contentious “descended into hell” clause of the Apostles’ Creed.)  The mention of “Pontius Pilate,” while perhaps not controversial in itself, raises a whole set of issues about the historical particularity and historical reliability of the Scriptural accounts.  To what extent does our faith depend upon the reliability of the specific historical claims made in the Bible.

and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father;

Let’s assume we can all agree on the first clause (though there are certainly plenty of liberal Christians who don’t, and don’t think it matters too much), but what do the latter two clauses mean?  Clearly these are somewhat metaphorical.  Heaven isn’t actually a place lying vertically above the earth; God doesn’t really have a right hand.  So concealed under these metaphorical spatial descriptions are actually descriptions of activity—we are trying to describe just what it is that Jesus Christ is now doing in the time between his resurrection and return.  Traditionally, these activities have been described primarily as intercession and reigning.  But in what exactly does his intercession consist?  Is it an ongoing intercession, a pleading to the Father on our behalf?  Or is it simply the ongoing intercessory value of his once-for-all sacrifice?  Theologians disagree.  And can it be described in terms of a “treasury of merit” that can be dispensed by the Church, as in medieval Catholic theology?  For that matter, is Christ the sole intercessor before the throne of God, or do other saints and particularly Mary play this role?
When we come to the question of reigning, the disagreements become even more wide-ranging.  The recent disputes over “Reformed two-kingdoms theology” have thrown again into sharp relief how much depends on how one understands the ongoing reign of the ascended Christ.  Is it an inward reign over hearts, or an outward reign over institutions?  Is it a reign just over his Church, and what does that mean?  Or is it a reign over all creation?  To what end?  The preservation of the created order, or its renewal?  To what extent is his reign exercised through creaturely agents, whether in the Church (pope, priest, presbyter), or in the State?

and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Insert the myriads of disputes over eschatology here.  When Christ comes again, will he destroy this present earth, or restore it?  Will he physically reign here before destroying this earth?  Will there be a Rapture?  A Great Tribulation?  Will his return and reign simply be a continuation of that renewal begun by his Church already?  When Christ “judges the quick and the dead,” what’s that look like?  Is it on the basis of faith alone, or works too?  Do the righteous get just a “well done, good and faithful servant” or do they have to go through a purgatory, whether physical or psychological?  What about the wicked?  Notice there is no doctrine of hell spelled out here.  Universalists, annihilationists, and those with a “traditional” doctrine of hell can all, in theory, unite under the banner of the Nicene Creed.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life;

Ha, what does this mean?  No branch of theology is so murky as pneumatology, which is mainly just used as a launchpad for speculation on every other branch of theology.  In particular, disagreements about the role of the Holy Ghost are implicated in many questions of ecclesiology and soteriology, as we seek to define the ongoing role of the Spirit in mediating redemption to the Church and individual believers.

who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;

Again, Trinitarian disputes here.  Of course, notoriously, this is a point of Trinitarian theology at which the two most ancient branches of the Church part ways and cannot even agree on the credal formula, and the renaissance of Trinitarian theology (or shall we say speculation?) over the past century has multiplied the various forms of disagreement on the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

who spoke by the prophets.

Aha!  Inspiration!  Insert all contemporary disputes about the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Scriptures here, disputes that increasingly lie not simply between “liberals” and “evangelicals” but within evangelicalism.  And that’s not to mention disagreements about the ongoing role of the Spirit and spiritual gifts.  Does the Spirit continue to speak in prophecy today?  Or just through the magisterium?  Or not at all?

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Thankfully, everyone agrees on this one, right?  Ha!  Orthodox Christians today do not agree on the meaning of any of the adjectives here—”one” “holy” “catholic” “apostolic”—or even of the noun, “Church”—are we talking about the invisible Church or the visible?  Or is that even a helpful dichotomy?  If we’re talking about the visible, how is it identified?  Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name?  Wherever discipline is rightly administered?  Wherever bishops preserving the apostolic succession are?  Wherever there are bishops in fellowship with the bishop of Rome?

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
What does that mean?  Are we talking about baptismal regeneration?  Or is baptism merely a sign of an inner grace that has nothing to do with it?  Or something in between?  All the questions of sacramental efficacy could be inserted here (and notice the Creed makes no mention of the Eucharist, so the whole vast range of opinions on that doctrine can all be accommodated under the banner of the Nicene Creed as well).  Plus, with baptism, you have additional disputes about age (infant or adult) and mode (immersion, sprinkling, etc.—this may seem trivial, but for some Christians, it isn’t!).

and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The disputes about eschatology mentioned above arise again here.  Plus questions like, when our bodies are resurrected, what kind of continuity will they have with our present bodies?  What will our life in “heaven” look like?  Eternal worship?  A never-ending party?  Something kinda like our present lives, only without sin and suffering?


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.)