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.)