Response to Mississippi Valley Report

Peter J. Leithart
Pastor, Presbyterian Church in America
Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature, New St. Andrew's College
Moscow, Idaho




My work is cited several times in the recent Mississippi Valley Presbytery Report on the New Perspective and the Federal Vision. Since that Report has been widely cited and discussed, I suppose some response is in order. I am not responding to all of the points where I am cited, but only the ones that I believe are most important. Frankly, I do not know whether my responses will confirm the committee’s assessment of my views, or reassure it of my orthodoxy. I have tried simply to be honest, and to explain how I understand the Scriptures on these various points.

1) On the Trinity, the report says this of proponents of the Federal Vision: “The divine unity is framed in terms of covenantal relationship among the three persons.” A footnote explains, “We are not claiming that FV proponents expressly deny that the divine unity is ontological. We are simply observing both a tendency to question certain traditional formulations concerning the divine unity and predilection to express this unity in non-ontological and relational terms. See for example, Peter Leithart's discomfort with the phrase ‘nature of God,’ ‘Trinitarian Anthropology,’ 65.”

Several responses are in order here.

First, the cited quotation has nothing to do with the question of the unity of the Triune persons. My point in the paragraph from which that citation is taken is to challenge the “reification and abstraction” that plagues theology. Positively, I am arguing that Christian theology is pervasively personal (a point stressed by Van Til and John Frame), not only in the sense that we should strive to employ personal categories when talking theologically but also in the sense that all theology involves the theologian in faithful witness or unfaithful compromise before a personal God. The phrase “nature of God” is problematic if it has the effect of seducing the theologian into thinking he’s talking about some thing called God’s “nature” rather than talking about God Himself.

Here’s the fuller quotation:
Does the phrase “nature of God” mean anything other than “God”? What is added by adding “nature”? If the phrase refers to God’s attributes, well and good, though I prefer the more personalist connotations of “attributes.” But the phrase can hint that there is some reality that we can call “nature of God” that is different from the Sovereign Person we call “God,” and that hint is dangerous and heretical if pressed. I suspect that “nature of God” is often used for rhetorical effect, since it sounds more weighty and philosophical than “God.” But that rhetorical reach is also dangerous. I suspect too, sinners being sinners, that some prefer “nature of God” to “God” (or, even more, “Yahweh”) precisely because of its de-personalizing implications, because they believe the phrase can be a shield against the righteous, personal Judge. A frail defense. Trinitarian theology forces us to refine our speaking about God in a way that highlights rather than suppresses His personality, His personal promises and demands.
Try this as a test: When you speak of your wife, or your children, or your best friend, do you talk about the “nature of Sam” or the “nature of Diane”? Wouldn’t that be downright weird? Why then does it sound normal when we talk about God? I submit that it shouldn’t. In any case, this statement from my essay has little to do with the question of how God is One.

Second, and more briefly: The question is not whether the unity of God is ontological. Of course it is. God’s being is One. He is One. The issue is how to construe this unity and whether we are bound to employ ontological notions drawn from Aristotle to express this. Perhaps that’s the best we have. But I think that recent efforts to formulate a “relational ontology” have something to teach us.

2) The report claims that “One proponent [of the Federal Vision] has even called into question the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity.” The footnote explains that I’m the culprit:
While Peter Leithart has made recent statements that appear favorable towards Adamic imputation (see “Imputation of Sin, Rom 5:13,” 23 May 2004), he has also recently set forth arguments that undermine the traditional Reformed view of Adamic imputation. (1) Leithart denies that Rom 5:12-14 teaches the traditional doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity (“Imputation of Sin,” 04 July 2004); (2) Leithart claims that Paul's use of “imputation” in these verses “doesn't appear to mean precisely what it means in traditional Reformed theology” (ibid.); (3) These verses teach that “Adam's sin is 'imputed' in the sense that it renders him liable to the curse of death; and because of Adam's position as the head of the human race, others suffer the consequences of his sin as well” (ibid.); Leithart asks “how is it just for people between Adam and Moses to suffer the curse of death if they are not held guilty of Adam's sin?” (ibid.); (4) Leithart claims that the traditional doctrine of imputation is a “good and necessary consequence of Paul's argument rather than explicit teaching” (ibid.).

But Leithart's preferred method of explaining not only Rom 5:12-14 but also the relationship of Adam to his posterity in general undercuts this claim: “But it may also be that this [i.e. Leithart's question (above)] can be explained simply in terms of Adam's position as the first man and as a covenant representative. For instance, Abel was not allowed to return to the garden, but this was not because he was directly held guilty of Adam's sin. Perhaps it was simply because his father had made a terrible error and God cast him out of the garden, and that God determined that no one would return until a perfect sacrifice had been offered, until 'dying you shall die' had been carried out on an innocent substitute. (Abel was still born in sin, since was born under the curse and born to parents who were alienated from God),” ibid.
The question under (3) above is the key to seeing how I see imputation as a “good and necessary deduction” from Romans 5:12-21. Even on the admittedly tentative construction in the quotation at the end of the footnote, Abel still suffered the consequences of a sin he did not commit. He was punished though he was not personally responsible for sin; this fits Muller’s definition of immediate imputation, namely, that God attributes “the fall itself to all the progeny of Adam and Eve, apart from their hereditary corruption” (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p. 149). This attribution is a liability to punishment and to guilt; as I stated in the original posts, I deny the distinction between “liability to punishment” and “liability to guilt” (this is the Protestant scholastic position; cf. Muller, p. 258). I fail to see how this undermines the traditional doctrine of imputation.

I do question how some Reformed theologians arrive at the imputation of sin from Romans 5 (John Murray was my target in my postings). After all, Paul says explicitly that there was no imputation prior to the Law, and verse 13 appears to me to state quite clearly that sin was in the world between Adam and Moses, but that imputation was not a reality prior to the law. If Paul is using the word “imputation” in precisely the same way that Reformed theology has done, it is very difficult to make sense of verses 13-14. Verse 13 would then be blatantly contradictory: “Sin was in the world prior to the law, because of the hereditary corruption from Adam and because of the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendents, but sin is not imputed where there is no law.”

So, systematically (good and necessary theological deduction), I agree that Adam’s sin was imputed to all his posterity, since all suffered the consequences of his act. I question, however, whether Paul would have described the effects of Adam’s sin as “imputation.” I question whether he used the word “imputation” that way.

3) The report states that for proponents of the Federal Vision, “The ‘righteousness’ of the believer in justification is sometimes said to be the believer's covenantal faithfulness.” The footnote cites a paragraph from my book, Blessed Are the Hungry:
“Justification,” too, is intimately connected with the covenant. In Greek, the word “justify” is related to the word normally translated into English as “righteous,” and throughout Scripture, “righteousness” and related words refer to correct behavior within some kind of covenant relationship. Righteousness is conformity to the demands of a covenant...The gospel of Christ is a revelation of God's righteousness because, in Christ, God has fulfilled all the promises made and sworn to Abraham, and thereby has shown that He does what He is obligated to do by His covenant with Israel. In this context [i.e. Galatians 2], to “justify” someone is to count him as righteous, that is, as a covenant-keeper, (Blessed Are The Hungry: Meditations On The Lord's Supper, Canon, 2003: 143-144).
The report misrepresents what is actually said in the quotation.

I do argue in the quoted paragraph that righteousness is covenant faithfulness. But justification in the quotation has to do with God’s counting someone as a covenant-keeper, not with the justified person’s own covenant-keeping. Sinners, who are covenant-breakers, are counted as covenant-keepers because we are in the covenant-keeper Jesus, and His covenant-keeping is regarded as, and is, ours through faith. The larger context of the quotation makes this clear.

Paul’s challenge to Peter in Galatians 2 has to do with Peter’s refusal to have table fellowship with believing Gentiles. What makes them covenant-keepers is not their own faithfulness to the demands of the covenant, but faith in Jesus: “Here were Gentiles who believed in Jesus. By Paul’s gospel, they were part of God’s covenant people, since all who have faith in Jesus are justified and should be treated as covenant-keepers and table fellows. For Paul, what marked the boundaries of table fellowship was the same thing that marked out the justified, and that was and could only be, faith in Jesus” (ibid., p. 144).

I am actually arguing for the opposite of what the report attributes to me. I am arguing that justification is not by any work of the person justified but through faith in Jesus, the Covenant-Keeper.

4) The report states that “Justification is defined in terms of a process not a definite act; and good works are said to be necessary to justification, particularly to the believer's ‘final justification’ at the Day of Judgment.” I am cited among others in the footnote: “Peter Leithart has argued that ‘justification and definitive sanctification are not merely simultaneous, nor merely twin effects of the single event of union with Christ (though I believe that is the case). Rather they are the same act. God's declaration that we are justified takes the form of deliverance from sin, death, and Satan. God declares us righteous by delivering us from all our enemies,’ ‘Judge Me, O God: Biblical Perspectives on Justification.’ To define justification in this way is, despite Leithart's protests to the contrary, to define justification in decidedly non-forensic, transformational categories.”

First, I don’t see how the quotation from my paper on justification supports the statement in the Report. My statement about the interchangeability of justification and definitive sanctification does not say that justification is a process, nor that good works are necessary to justification. Second, my protest is mainly to the polarization of “forensic” and “transformational.” A judgment in our favor is inherently transformational, particularly when we are talking about God’s judgments, and the biblical usage of justification terminology supports this point.

One way to argue the point is from the paradigmatic justification, the justification of Jesus. According to Romans 4 (I’m following Gaffin here), God the Father justified His Son by the resurrection, and our justification is a participation in that verdict. God’s justification of Jesus was clearly a legal declaration, a justification, but it was just as clearly a deliverance from death.

More recently, I have argued as follows: Our bondage to sin and death is nothing but God’s wrath against our sin; in wrath, God gives us over to sin. So long as He regards us as sinners, we remain in that bondage. When He declares us righteous, considers us just in His sight, then that necessarily involves a release from bondage. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that our bondage to sin and death is something other than God’s just wrath against our sin, that there is something else more determinative of our situation than God’s attitude toward us. But there is not. Our situation in life, our condition, is completely dependent upon whether God regards us favorably or unfavorably. If He judges us favorably, that cannot but be a transformation of our life situation.

I do not deny the Westminster Confession of Faith's definition of justification, but it seems clear to me that we need to say much more about justification if we are going to capture the full biblical richness of the event of justification.

5) The report states that “FV proponents understand the doctrine of the sacramental union to mean that the sign and the thing signified invariably accompany one another.” The footnote states,
While Peter Leithart has problematized the doctrine of the sacramental union (“Starting Before The Beginning” Credenda/Agenda 14/6), he nevertheless affirms “it is evident that the NT teaches that baptism is a saving ordinance, that it brings the baptized into union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Nearly every passage on baptism in the NT treats it as an ordinance that gives grace…” (“Infant Baptism’ August 2004). He is equally insistent that, in most instances, “'baptism' in the NT texts refers to the rite of water baptism,” ibid. Leithart also says “if the Spirit has promised that He will be present and active at the water of baptism, then we can be certain that He, the Spirit of truth, will be there. And there is indeed a promise of the Spirit's presence with the water: Peter promised on Pentecost that those who were baptized would receive the Spirit (Acts 2:38); Paul says that we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13); by God's grace He saved us by the 'washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit’ (Tit. 3:5). As G. R. Beasley-Murray puts it, for the New Testament 'baptism is the supreme moment of the impartation of the Spirit and of the work of the Spirit in the believer,’” “Baptism and the Spirit,” Biblical Horizons 85 (May 1996).
A few clarifications are in order.

First, “saving” here does not mean that all who receive baptism are eternally saved. No one in the history of the church, to my knowledge, has taught this, and I certainly do not. Many who are baptized receive blessings and gifts from God, but fail to respond with faith, or respond with a temporary faith, and will end up damned. Only the elect respond with genuine and lasting faith, and only they ultimately receive the blessing of eternal communion with the Triune God.

Second, I do believe that baptism, because it is the solemn admission of the baptized into the visible church, gives the baptized a share in the salvation that is realized/being realized in/as the visible church. Since the church simply is the body of the living Christ, baptism into the church is baptism into union with Him.