The Hart of the Matter

Darryl Hart has again lobbed one of his predictable grenades at the “Internationalist” R2K critics (though I am deeply hurt to find that my name has dropped off the Most Wanted list), complete with his obligatory Federal Vision allusions and gay jokes.  As the substance of his critique (what substance there is, at any rate) rests on a long quotation from Torrance Kirby that never even does him the service of mentioning the matter that he is using it to illuminate, a detailed response is hardly necessary.  

However, Hart does finally edge us closer to the heart of the matter at a couple points, one of which I want to address here briefly (the other one I’ll be tackling in a longer essay forthcoming at TCI).  Finally recognizing that the “Internationalist” critics are neither theonomist nor neo-Calvinist, he is zeroing in on the source of disagreement when he says that, on the Internationalist reading of Reformation ecclesiology, “As long as you belong to Christ, it doesn’t matter what the preaching, sacraments, ordination standards, or worship patterns are in your own church.”  In one sense, we would say, “well yes, duh”; in another sense, “well yes, but.”  

On the one hand, it is indubitably true that the Reformers believed that these things “don’t matter” in the sense that one can genuinely belong to Christ despite being in a church that lacks true preaching, pure sacraments, godly ordination standards, or edifying worship patterns.  As Bullinger so finely puts it in the Second Helvetic Confession (the most widely adopted of all the 16th-cent. Reformed confessions):

“Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found. For we know that God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel.”  

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t follow from this that none of these things matter at all.  On the first two, preaching and the sacraments, the Reformers were unanimous that in the ordinary course of God’s working, these are indispensable for the life of the Church and the faithful Christian—hence their status as notae ecclesiae (though this never meant that there was no room for variation in how preaching and sacraments were practiced).  However, the latter two were normally classed among the adiaphora, “things indifferent,” so that we could say they “don’t matter.”  Of course, even this would be a misunderstanding to some extent of the adiaphora concept, as it was never meant to convey absolute indifference—there is still a right and wrong, a better and worse, but not one right and wrong that applied to all churches irregardless of time, place, and circumstance (see my essay here for more clarification on the adiaphora concept).

This issue—a right understanding of adiaphora, and of sola fide as relativizing (not marginalizing, mind you, but putting into proper perspective) the role of the external media of the visible church, is, we might say, the theological heart of the matter.

 

The historical heart of the matter, on the other hand, concerns how we understand the emphasis on and practice of church discipline in the early Reformed tradition, particularly in Calvin and his Geneva, to which R2Ks appeal as the flagship for their ecclesiology.  In this, I would suggest, Hart and his allies are relying on an increasingly outmoded (though still cherished) scholarly narrative about the nature and significance of Genevan discipline in the formative stages of the Reformed tradition.  A fresh look at the historical realities, I will argue in my upcoming TCI post, shatters a number of sacred Presbyterian cows and compels a new understanding of what was going on in the early development of Reformed discipline.


The Dutch Disciplinarian Deja Vu

Although mainstream Reformation scholarship has long since emerged out of confessionalist provincialism, and started learning to trace developments in the continental Reformation across cultural and political boundaries, cross-pollinating between France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and even Italy and Poland, English Reformation scholarship continues to lag behind the curve.  To be sure, the frenetic commerce with continental Protestantism in the reign of Edward VI has received much attention, and the dependence of Elizabethan Puritans on ties with Geneva has been a recurrent theme.  Only recently, though, has the dependence of “Anglicans,” or apologists for the Elizabethan establishment, on Continental models received significant attention (notably, for instance, in Torrance Kirby’s The Zurich Connection).

Most remarkably, the developments in England’s closest continental neighbor, the Netherlands, have received scarcely a syllable’s mention in the voluminous scholarship on debates between the Puritans, pressing for a further reformation modeled on Genevan polity, and Anglicans, defending a magisterial reformed Church under royal administration and with less rigorous discipline.  This despite the documented close connections between both Puritans and conformist apologists with people and places on the other side of the Channel.  And the parallels, as it turns out, are uncanny—the appeals to Zurich vs. Geneva, the debates over excommunication, the emergent Calvinist concept of the church as an autonomous spiritual kingdom (along semi-Anabaptistic lines), gathered out of and separate from the broader professing Christian community, the accusations by their opponents that their discipline constituted a new popery, etc.  

I excerpt some passages from Alastair Duke’s fascinating essay, “The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in the Netherlands, 1561-1618,” that describe some of the Dutch debates in the 1560s-1580s, exactly contemporaneous with the English debates:

“To the Erastians among the civil authorities the Reformed church no longer had any need of consistories now that it lived under a Christian magistracy.  Caspar Coolhaes, a minister at Leiden between 1574 and 1582, supported this opinion.  In a treatise written in 1582 he argued ‘wherever the Christian magistracy discharges the office of guardian towards the church . . . there is no need for any consistory’ and he pointed to the example of the church at Zurich.  In the early seventeenth century Cornelis Pietersz Hooft complained that the contemporary Calvinist ministers had failed to distinguish between the circumsntaces ‘of a church which is under the protection of a  Christian magistracy and one which is under the cross.’

But when Hooft wrote of a Christian magistracy he was, at least as far as his opponents were concerned, merely begging the question.  In 1607 a minister in a synod at Delft declared that he would not acknowledge the civil powers as ‘Christian’ until they had expelled from the country everyone who refused to join the Reformed church!  An uncharacteristically extreme statement, no doubt, but it demonstrates the problem contemporaries had in reaching a consensus on the qualities expected of a Christian magistracy.  The Calvinists had their own definitions.  The authors of the Netherlands Confession of Faith laid on the magistrates the responsibility for the uprooting of all idolatry and false religion ‘so that the kingdom of Antichrist may be overthrown and the kingdom of Christ Jesus advanced.’  The problems for the Reformed were twofold.  Could magistrates, who themselves declined to submit to the Reformed discipline, fuflil such a charge?  And secondly, should the Christian discipline be maintained, even where a Christian magistracy occurred? . . . 

“Petrus Dathenus, who was noted for his Calvinist fervour, confessed in a letter too Bullinger in 1570 that it would be unrealistic to expect the same strict discipline in a territorial church, such as was then being established int he Palatinate, as could be maintained in Geneva or in the Dutch stranger-church at London.  As a minister who would be required to answer before the Lord for those committed to his care, he was satisfied if he could clearly distinguish his flock and if the sacraments could be protected against open profanation. . . .

[Many Dutch Calvinists, however,] would not surrender consistorial discipline.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was to remain carefully supervised to ensure that those who sat at the Table ate ‘worthily’.  That was only possible with consistorial discipline: in the absence of discipline the Lord’s Supper could not take place. . . . the fundamental distinction between ‘the children of God’ and ‘the children of the world’ did not change [with the emergence of a Christian magistracy], for that was quintessential to Dutch Calvinism.  Ranged on the other side in this debate about the nature of the church were those for whom the Reformation had, above all else, put an end to the tyranny of penance, which had brought despair to sinners, and restored evangelical liberty.”  
“In the Low Countries the Calvinists were accused by other evangelicals of forging a ‘new monkery’ and of setting up ‘the Genevan inquisition’, on account of the strict discipline which surrounded the Lord’s Supper.  To Duifhuis, for whom church orders belonged to the category of matters indifferent, any other sort of discipline than that exercised by the magistrates represented a ‘tyrannizing over consciences, and a remnant of the Popish yoke’ . . . These critics of the Calvinists wanted a comprehensive church.  In the church orders drafted by the States of Holland in 1576 and 1591 the Lord’s Table would have been opened to all who wished to come.”

 “With some, especially among the magistrates, there was a natural desire to retain control of the new church, but one may also detect an irritation at the refusal of the Reformed churches to fulfill the part of a comprehensive church to which all patriotic Dutchmen might belong.  From the standpoint of the civil powers the Calvinists’ separation of society into two camps was very inconvenient.  No wonder some magistrates, notably at Leiden, looked enviously on the Reformed church at Zurich, where discipline remained unambiguously in the hands of the lay powers and where consistories were unknown.  
But the Calvinists were not convinced.  They believed themselves to belong to a people whom it had pleased God to call forth from the nations.  That they found themselves, at least for a time, in a small minority caused them no surprise.  After all, as their confession of faith declared, the Church might appear to the world to be ‘very small’, as in the time of Ahab, yet even then the Lord had reservers to Himself seven thousand, who had not bowed down to Baal.”


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.


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.)