On Ministerial Integrity and the Church of Rome

First, let me apologize for my absence, but the amount of time that this internship is taking up on my part (at least right now) is unreal. I’ll be posting as I’m able to.

Now, on to our subject for today: Jason Stellman’s abandonment of justification sola fide, and the doctrine of sola scriptura.

For those of you not of the Reformed and Presbyterian stripe, this is the latest “controversy” to rock our little corner of the broader Christian swimming pool. Pastor Stellman was the pastor of Exile Presbyterian Church, is the author of Dual Citizens, and prosecuted Dr. Peter Leithart for holding views of baptism that were beyond the pale of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Several weeks ago, he posted his “Farewell Letter” over at his blog Creed Code Cult, and the blog’s combox has exploded with comments, most of which coming from the Reformed side of things fall into the “decidedly nasty and unhelpful” category. Most of the comments from the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox side of things tend to be gloating. Neither reaction is terribly helpful.

Our response to this should be heartbreak and honesty. Heartbreak for Jason, his family, and the members of Exile Presbyterian Church. Jason has taken an absolute flogging on the blogs for his decision to leave the Presbyterian Church in America, and apparently all of Protestantism generally considered, for something else entirely. It remains to be seen whether that will be the Church of Rome, or one of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches. I can only imagine the sense of “unrealness” that Jason’s family has to be experiencing, along with their own heartbreak at the responses, many of which are just plain cruel, that Jason is getting to his decision. Then there’s his church, Exile, which is, by all accounts, weathering this storm pretty well, but still experiencing confusion at the loss of their pastor.

But in all of this we must be honest.

I cannot and do not agree with Jason’s statement that there is “a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel” than justification by faith alone. From the perspective of any honest Protestant, this is an abandonment of the gospel. I cannot, and will not, be dishonest with my readers on this point, or on the following one: I stand by the form of the Westminster Confession of Faith prior to it’s revision in 1903 that declares the pope to be Antichrist (and we don’t mean this in the nutty, Left Behind sort of way). I believe and confess that with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Roman Catholicism fell into apostasy, and cannot be considered, on the whole, a true church.

This is not to say that there are not Christians within Rome’s pale; I believe there are. It is to say that I believe these Christians have not attached themselves to a true church, in the sense that the term is used in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith. Jason’s case, however, is quite different, because he is leaving behind the true church for one that is apostate, and is consciously abandoning justification by faith alone, and in doing so, he is embracing “another gospel”. In my mind, this places the state of Jason’s soul in a precarious position, at best.

I will be honest in another regard, as well. I admire Jason as a man of integrity. Like all elders in the PCA, when Jason was ordained, he vowed before God that he

sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,

and moreover, that

if at any time I find myself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine I will, on my own initiative, make known to my Presbytery the change which has taken place in my views since the assumption of this ordination vow.

Jason saw clearly, after examining his own changing beliefs and talking with respected mentors, that his own views had passed beyond the boundaries of the Confession of Faith adopted by his church, and that his views were now out of accord with the fundamentals of that system. He notified his Presbytery and stepped down.

It was the right thing to do.

So to Jason, should he ever read this, I say this: I am praying for you and for your family, and thank you for keeping your word. I can’t imagine what your going through at the moment, but your ministerial integrity in regard to your ordination vows, are truly a beautiful thing to behold.

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6 thoughts on “On Ministerial Integrity and the Church of Rome

  1. “The blog’s combox has exploded with comments, most of which coming from the Reformed side of things fall into the ‘decidedly nasty and unhelpful’ category. Most of the comments from the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox side of things tend to be gloating. Neither reaction is terribly helpful.”

    As your token “Catholic Christian” and avid follower, I totally agree with this statement. While we could argue about interpretations of Trent, I think–in fact I know–we agree that salvation is utterly and totally through the blood sacrifice of Christ, and nothing we could ever earn. That is actually Catholic teaching in fact, as well as that of Calvin and Luther or other Reformers. We also do not believe that our own works save us as such, but where we differ primarily is in the area of free will. We believe that one can lose the “state of grace” or salvation by walking very deliberately into mortal or serious sin. But if this occurs it is never without forethought or will. In other words I live for Christ, “working out my salvation with fear and trembling,” and yet am assured that I belong to Him. A paradox of sorts but a livable one, and not comparable to the utter fear Luther sadly experienced in his earlier days as a monk. In short, the modern Catholic belief on salvation is not a lot different from Protestants of the Arminian school of belief. Or for that matter that of many Calvinists.

    We obviously differ on the place of Sacred Tradition, but not on the place of Sacred Scripture as being the Word of God in a unique way that no other book could ever claim to be, “breathed” as it were by God through His Spirit. It is central to our Faith, with the caveat that we also accept some (not all) Tradition to guide us in understanding it, and that too is not as far from your beliefs as some may think.

    ALL of that to say this–neither Catholic Christians who are gloating (and quite possibly prematurely) nor Reformed Protestants can look inside the soul of this man. None of us can fully understand the process he may have used to come to this costly point in his life. I too admire his integrity. But I also admire yours in sharing your view here.

    And, while you may consider my Church to be antithetical to authentic Christianity, I admire most of all your acceptance of me as your brother in Christ, perhaps in spite of Rome (although I do not see it as such) but nevertheless brothers indeed. Your voice is needed. Our voices are needed together. God bless.

    • You know, Richard, one of the things I’ve always tried to be very careful about when dealing with the question of the Roman communion is where I lodge my criticisms. I’ve been around the block long enough to know that what comes from the Vatican is one thing, and what is being taught in the local parish is often another thing entirely. Contrary to popular opinion (especially in Protestant circles), Roman thought is far from homogenous and monolithic; in fact, it is just as disparate as the Protestant side of the world.

      One of the things I’ve been saying for years is that the Reformed and the Roman communion are both closer to one another, and yet still much farther apart, than often either group realizes.

      In the interest of complete transparency (and perhaps a little bit of cheekiness), I should point out that I was thrilled with Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to the papacy. With Benedict XVI, the Pope is finally Catholic again! At least with him at the helm in Vatican City, I know what to expect.

      I appreciate your readership a great deal, Richard, but I appreciate your friendship even more.

    • *points and nods* Yes, what he said. All of it. Said a lot better than I could.

      I just stumbled upon your blog today, Brother Benjamin, and I stand in humble awe of your acuity in Greek and Hebrew and theology, and your passion and your faith, and all that. I respect the Reformed tradition a whole lot, and enjoy learning about it. Your words here and pretty harsh but not unexpected — most of Jason’s PCA brethren seem to take a similar line. Despite that, I would like to follow your blog and your writings. I can tell you genuinely love the Lord, and as far as I’m concerned, that transcends any theological fault lines.

      I have no doubt that can run theological circles around my feeble attempts, but if you are ever up for discussing your particular oppositions to Roman doctrine (gently, please) — especially to the point that you would say “Roman Catholicism fell into apostasy, and cannot be considered, on the whole, a true church” — I would be very interested in that.

      • Thanks for commenting (and following the blog), Joseph.

        My issue regarding the Roman communion is, as I said above, centered around the Council of Trent. I would say that prior to Trent, the Roman communion would have been considered “more or less pure”, to use the language of the Reformed confessions. It is after Trent, when the Roman communion took steps to shut down all attempts at reform when I would say that they fell into apostasy. Keep in mind, however, (as I said above) that I make a distinction between the Roman communion at the Vatican level, and at the ground level.

        My own position is that there is a high degree of “institutional schizophrenia” where the Roman communion is concerned. I find it somewhat ironically hysterical that there are now Roman cardinals and bishops who would say that Luther was just trying to be a good Catholic!

        Of course, that is to say nothing of the institutional schizophrenia in the PCA…

        Thanks again, and here’s hoping I’ll keep hearing from you!

        • Hmm, that’s an interesting thought. The Council of Trent, shutting down all attempts at reform? To my understanding, the Council of Trent was an organ of reform that directed and promoted a great deal of desperately-needed renewal. I guess it depends on what kind of reform one is thinking about or expecting. The Church was open to reform from within the Church — but not in directions that contradicted Church teaching.

          And before Trent, Roman doctrine was “more or less pure”? What was Luther reacting against, then? Why the need for the Reformation at all?

          If we’re thinking about the doctrines of grace and the Reformation’s solas (which I presume is what you’re thinking about, as a Reformed thinker), then the ante-Tridentine Church certainly wasn’t “pure” by any sense of those standards. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, they were all fairly novel.

          I do think, from what I know and have read of Luther, that at least in the very beginning of his discontent, he truly did want to be “a good Catholic.” He was faithful to the Church’s teachings and envisioned reforming the Church from within. He didn’t go from being an ardent Augustinian friar to being the champion of separatism and sola fide overnight!

          And yes, in any institution, especially a large global one, there are bound to be some differences of opinion. Especially since Vatican II — which is itself less to blame than the way some wanted to receive it — there have been a good many people wandering off and lost. Under Pope Benedict, we are seeing a much-needed reining it, reinforcement, and reassertion of orthodox doctrine and practice — and yes, reform. Like the Reformation’s cry semper reformanda, the Church must always be reforming and renewing herself. As for the Church’s voice — I find it pretty consistent and unwavering if I listen to the ex cathedra pronouncements of the popes and the the ecumenical councils — the only voices that claim to be infallible. Beyond that, the Church’s leaders are all too human.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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