Jason Stellman, a fairly prominent American Reformed Presbyterian has resigned his position and the signs are he is river crossing to the Roman Catholic Church. Why?
Well, no doubt the ‘why’ is multifaceted. There are, however, two reasons that loom large involving both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola scriptura and sola fide).
Stellman has clearly become increasingly disaffected by some Presbyterian teaching on justification that he had personally and enthusiastically defended – a definition of justification that distanced it from godly living. The flaws in his definition evidently became too big to ignore – the theological gap between justification by faith and justification by works became just too wide in the face of Scripture creating cognitive dissonance. Sola fide must have a place for works.
Furthermore, high churchman that he is, Stellman increasingly struggled with sola scriptura (the Bible as ultimate authority) perhaps fueled by the way the Bible is given a wax nose by modern evangelicals, reformed and otherwise, that seems to mean it is not an authority to which one can turn for certainty; Stellman hopes to find this authority and certainty in the church of Rome (in tradition and presumably papal infallibility). I hope, I am representing him fairly, if perhaps a little too simply.
My aim is not to critique Jason Stellman’s decision but to remark briefly on these two reasons for swimming Romewards, whether by Stellman or others.
soteriological weakness – an inadequate shaping of justification and sola fide
There is a quasi-lutheran view of justification currently popular in some Presbyterian Reformed enclaves in the States (in particular) that virtually cuts the umbilical cord between justification and sanctification. Justification implies, for some, no moral imperative. Indeed, any talk of self-effort is ridiculed as pietistic, legalistic or Romish; Jesus has done everything, including keeping the law for us and therefore talk of aspiring to holiness is simply humbug and a denial of grace. Of course, this flies in the face of Scripture. It is little wonder that some who subscribe to this deeply circumscribed view of justification eventually find the biblical evidence to hard to ignore and perhaps end up over-reacting.
Justification, properly understood, is not as in Presbyterian theology, Jesus’ imputed life and death: his death for our sins (passive righteousness) clearing our guilt augmented by his life of law-keeping (active righteousness) giving us a positive law-keeping righteousness. The whole structure here is flawed. Justification is not based on Jesus life and death but on his death and life, that is his resurrection life.
Justification involves me in his death. In his death I die. I die for the only possible end for a sinner is death. The soul that sins must die and this admits of no exceptions. Thus I and my sins were nailed to the cross. The penalty was enacted and God’s justice satisfied. The debt was paid in full. My history as a man in Adam came to an end.
But justification does not end here. Christ could not stay in death. It would be unrighteous of God to leave in death someone who had glorified him in life and death as Jesus had. God must vindicate Jesus. He must declare him righteous, hence resurrection. In resurrection, Christ is vindicated as righteous. Men said he was unrighteous and deserved to die but God said he is righteous and must live, as must all who are united to him by faith.
I (we who believe) share in this resurrection verdict and standing, the righteous verdict of the Father. I am raised with Christ and have a new life, resurrection life. Justification is ‘unto life’ (Roms 5:18). Christ was raised ‘for our justification’ (Roms 4:25). Thus justification is inextricably linked with a new life and new lifestyle. We must never separate justification from life and righteous living. Godly living, living in the resurrection life of Christ, is always the vindication of justification. Justification is to a life no longer ruled by sin, Satan, the world, law and death, a justified life.
The tendency in some modern Reformed circles to make an absolute disjunction between justification and sanctification puts an intolerable strain on reading Scripture with integrity. It is impossible to read Scripture and pooh-pooh aspirations after godliness as legalistic and an attack on justification. Any honest believer cannot help but reckon with James’s assertion that a person is in some sense ‘justified by works’. Our works affirm and approve our justification, they attest to it and to God’s righteous judgement. Justifying faith produces justifying works, works that are the proof of life and bring reward on the day of judgement.
Skewed and imbalanced theologies of justification may create reactions that lead to Rome. They seem to have done so with Stellman.
ecclesiological weakness – an inadequate shaping of authority and sola scriptura
Stellman asks the age-old question – where does authority lie, in Scripture or the church? The allied question is which comes first the Word or the church?
The answer to the second should be easy – the Word comes first. The Word always comes first for it is by his Word God creates all things. Not only does creation come by the Word but new creation comes by the Word. We are born ‘by the word of truth’ (Jn 1:18). The church is the product of the word and not vice versa.
However, the question still remains, who declares what this word is? Who has authority to declare and delineate truth? Although in one sense the Word or Truth is self-authenticating and has its own authority in another sense we can quite happily say the church declares and delineates the Word. The church is the repository of the truth. But which church? The apostolic church. The NT church. It was the apostles and prophets (instructed by the risen Christ through the Spirit) who were entrusted with declaring and defining the Word. They laid the foundations – namely Jesus Christ. Thus, when I look to the church for truth I look to them. John affirms concerning his witness and that of the other apostles,
1John 4:6 (ESV)
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The apostles taught and revealed, ‘that which was from the beginning’ and all who had the indwelling the Spirit of truth listened to them. Thus I find in Scripture, the only apostolic and so divinely authoritative word we have. I listen to John… and Peter… and Paul…. and Matthew… and James… and whatever aligns with them I accept as the spirit of truth and whatever contradicts them I reject as the spirit of error.
How am I, a mere ordinary believer competent to so discern? Don’t I need a guide, an interpreter? Indeed I do. I am instructed by the Spirit of truth who indwells and teaches.
1John 2:20-27 (ESV)
But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth… Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us-eternal life. I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie-just as it has taught you, abide in him.
Stellman longs for certainty. The only certainty lies in the apostolic word understood and interpreted by the indwelling Spirit. The only message that has weight and divine imprimatur is ‘that which is from the beginning’.
In the great house of professing Christianity there is confusion and darkness mingled with that which is holy. We should not be surprised at the chaos and that many who claim to follow Christ make a wax nose of Scripture and the apostolic teaching – such, after all, was predicted by the Lord and his apostles (Matt 24:11; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1). False prophets/teachers abound and deceive. However, the way forward is not Rome, a church whose teaching cannot stand before the test of the apostolic word. The answer is much more mundane and not terribly attractive or grandiose. It is found in the instruction of the apostle Paul as he anticipates the apostasy of the visible church
2Tim 2:20-22 (ESV)
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
The way forward is to separate oneself from all that is evidently doctrinally and morally corrupt and fellowship with small groups of like-minded believers who ‘call upon the Lord from a pure heart”. In the context of false teachers and churches which have corrupted the gospel Paul says,
2Tim 2:19 (ESV)
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
God knows who is real and who is unreal. We cannot pontificate on this. Our responsibility is to keep ourselves distant from all iniquity whether of belief or behaviour and leave the question of whether those who embrace it are truly Christian to the Lord.
Stellman hopes to find in the Roman Church what belongs only to the early church (apostolic certainty). He has not grasped that the ruin he finds in secession runs through Rome too. Stellman, high churchman that he is, is making the tragic mistake of seeking certainty in an institution and in a structure rather than in the Spirit. He is confusing a human organisation with a spiritual organism and is doomed to disappointment as he substitutes a defective view of justification for one which is more defective and seeks divine authority where it does not reside.
In the age of the Spirit, the Spirit is Christ’s vicar on earth (Jn 14:16). He led the apostles into truth (Jn 14:16). When believers hear the true Spirit-breathed apostolic word expounded the indwelling Spirit authorises it to their hearts and minds and ecclesia fellowship in the Spirit ensues (we are, after all, a spiritual temple or house offering up spiritual sacrifices). We may fully trust the Spirit. When we don’t, like Stellman we look for certainty elsewhere whether it be, like him, the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Roman Magisterium.