What Saint Peter Really Said
In the last decade, a tragic conversation has taken place between people in the evangelical world over the meaning of the word “justification.” Part of the reason that the conversation has been tragic is because of the quick assumption by so many that grown pastors lie through their teeth when carefully and consistently reiterating their own theology. But it has also been tragic because the accusation has never been about the meaning of the word “justification” in the BIBLE. Rather, it has basically assumed that the biblical definition is the same as the definition in the Westminster Standards, and that if you talk about distinctions in the Bible, you must be denying the content of the Standards.
Now before I say too much more, I want to state on the record that I believe we enter into salvation by faith alone (not works) in Christ alone. It is all of grace.
I also want to point out that what has happened in the great debates on justification is in large part due to confusing the definition of two real things, a trap that means an attempt at fixing either definition sounds like the denial of the other. How does this work?
Imagine that there are people living in India. They are called Indians. And imagine you are traveling westward from Europe, instead of south and around Africa to get to the land of the Indians. You believe that the earth is round and small, and that you will get there quickly. When you do get to these Indies, lands of the Indians, lo and behold: you find Indians!
But they are really nowhere near the Indus River, and read no Sanskrit. But once the mistake is made, the books can’t be changed. So for 500 years people have been calling Americans (native ones), “Indians.” Then, 500 years after the mistake was made, someone says, this mistake, though not terribly harmful, does obscure communication. Can we call the people native to India “Indians” and the people native to America, “Native Americans”?
So you set out to say something like this, and you even write a book pointing out that a little distinction could help us be clearer about what we mean. You say we need to have a fresh definition of these words. You say, “Let’s check where these here fellas actually live.”
But somebody early on says you are teaching a new way of dividing people groups. Not refreshed analysis of the same data. Not return to the old way of thinking, but a NEW teaching. And you say, no, this is always what we should have said — this is a natural rendering of the facts.
A blog gets written: Unorthodox thinker says our neighbors, the Indians, aren’t actually Indians.
A second blog says, “Unorthodox thinker says that Indians don’t exist.”
A third blog writes an extended satire about you, published in serial format for the niche of witch-hunt fan fiction readers out there: “Unorthodox” the allegorical character “is a closet MORMON” since he thinks the Indians are actually from East of Europe.
Then someone takes you to trial.
Wait! Can’t you see the madness? Can’t you even hear basic words? I’m not denying American Indians, and I’m not denying East Indians, and I’m certainly not promoting Mormonism!
But it’s too late. You already wrote what you wrote, and you may want to backtrack NOW that you’re CAUGHT! But you can’t get away! We know what you really meant. We know that you are actually a Mormon.
But you aren’t. In fact, you have always taught against Mormonism. You have no desire to be a Mormon. And very importantly, you haven’t changed your tune…not ever. You are STILL insisting that you can say Indian for the Asian Sub-Continent, and Native for the Americans. And you have never meant that Natives are actually lost Israelites. NEVER!
You aren’t abolishing people, you are asking what the people actually are.
And for that, you would be justified in saying so. And if the trial went well, you would be vindicated, and the verdict would render you justified, even if you had used the righteous and just meanings all along.
But this is not just an imagination. In major debates this decade, real things have been mixed up. What are the two real things that are confused?
1) Justification and 2) Justification.
Remember that in the analogy, the two things confused were:
1) Indians and 2) Indians.
AHH! a trap that means fixing either definition sounds like the denial of the other.
Remember that if you are of this new (fresh) perspective, you will sound to the recent-traditionalists like you are saying their content is false, when you are not getting rid of imaginary Americans. But if you concede that the Americans are actually “Indians” then you will be unfaithful to the facts.
So which Justifications are we talking about confusing?
Well, there is a definition of justification basically found in the Westminster Standards. And there is a manifold use of terms translated into English as “justification” in the Bible.
Now… RIGHT NOW…someone just left the track, and thought I meant that the Westminster Standards are not teaching from the Bible.
“NO, you said it, you said that the Bible teaches different justification than the WCF!” No. No, I didn’t. I said we need to let the Bible speak for itself, and not force it to mean what the Westminster standards have assigned narrowly to that word.
If a man says that “justification” may not be construed automatically as referring to entrance into salvation by faith, he has not denied entrance into salvation by faith. He has said there’s another word for that. N. T. Wright says that Paul’s word is “call.”
Wright who speaks emphatically against the Roman Catholic view of Canon, the RC view of purgatory, the RC view of catholicity, the RC view of merit!!! The same Wright who says that Paul’s view of the Law is expressed best by Calvin. Wright who says that anyone thinking merit plays a role in salvation needs to see a psychiatrist…this same Wright must be a closet Catholic, right?
If we say that “justification” is used in many ways in scripture, they say that we don’t think the Reformed Standards are really biblical… you… you… Roman Catholic. If we say that we believe in the Standards, they say: but you just wrote that you didn’t, and now you have changed your tune, and now you have broken the 9th commandment… Heretic. If we say we believe the Standards AND the Bible, and that they are compatible, but that they use the same words in different ways… they can’t hear us anymore.
If we point to James 2.24: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” they hear it as a Roman Catholic touchstone. And when we say it means “vindicated,” they have stopped listening.
Did I mention yet that I believe we enter into salvation by faith alone (not works), that is, by faith in Christ alone? That it is all of grace?
Now this is the battle that was foisted on NT Wright when read uncharitably 10 years ago. And the ears of many were so closed that they couldn’t hear a single monergistic thing he said. And his fancy collar was a clue too…
But while he was out trying to save Europe from the thought patterns of Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg, and while he was out writing the Windsor Commission Report to force Anglicans to use Biblical language in discipline of the church over homosexuality, we had whole denominations on this side of the pond saying, “the Pied Piper leadeth our bairns off to Rome.”
But a bad man doesn’t get off the hook for villainy just because he does a few heroic good deeds. Amen?
But St. Nicholas Thomas was never even doing what his accusers could not remove from their heads that he was doing. If they wanted to accuse him, they should have said he was a Darwinist. That charge would stick.
But Wright is a protestant, a monergist, a predestinarian, an anti-merit theologian with amillennial eschatology (with optimistic tendencies).
Sometimes, when I meet people like this, I call them Calvinists. Even if they don’t recognize it, as Wright seems to avoid saying.
Now I resent the fact that for all his Biblical insistence, his ability to read Genesis 1-11 is not mainly informed by Genesis 1-11. But there’s this other fellow: a man whose reading of the whole Old Testament is so radically biblical that his worldview is brain altering. And I mean Peter Leithart.
If you were to read Peter Leithart on Genesis, after growing up a darwinist, you would have to repent and tell God you didn’t know how beautiful God was and that you were sorry for not believing that whole creation thing. You would begin to see the world in patterns and in signatures of a Trinitarian insistence that you couldn’t have known unless someone showed you it was in the Bible, right there starting on page 1.
Now this fellow Leithart, he’s a Calvinist too. The hearty kind who actually knows he IS a Calvinist.
And Peter Leithart has endured the same type of malignancy. The tumor-rumor growth that insists that he doesn’t believe that Native Americans are Indians.
Well, they aren’t.
But that doesn’t make a man a Mormon.
And Peter Leithart has some theological overlap with Tom Wright, but the battles in the case of Leithart have been so personal and dangerous that he couldn’t just write another book to say everything he’s said before, only this time with words that get through.
So now, this week, Peter Leithart has been exonerated of heresy …finally. But he will never escape the loud whispers of people who believe that he is Charon, newly hired gondola driver on the Tiber-Styx.
But listen, please don’t listen to those whisperers.
Peter Leithart believes in covenant objectivity, but the Angel of the Lord sought to put Moses to death on the path because of covenant objectivity. But Peter Leithart doesn’t believe in magic tickets to heaven. He believes in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Yes, Peter Leithart promotes the idea of infant faith. But Samson and John the Baptist give us clear examples to know this is possible. And the whole congregation under David sang this fact about the normative nature of infant faith in Psalms 22 and 71, and even in Psalm 8. And those same Psalms now belong in the Church.
And Peter Leithart does indeed teach infant communion. But don’t you know that all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ? and are baptized into one body and made to drink of one Spirit? and that we must take our sons and daughters and our young and our old when we hold a feast to the Lord? and that the Kingdom belongs to such as these?
But Peter Leithart is not a Roman Catholic, and he’s not a magician, and he’s not a merit-theologian, and he’s not a liar. But he is a reminder to us that when a man who is just in all other areas insists that he means something complicated but drastically opposite of what you have expected or have been told, that the promotion of clear definition is not necessarily the denial of the content of the former definition.
So let Peter Leithart stand in our minds as a reminder that a few quiet minutes of listening to an explanation might save us another 500 years of misunderstanding.
Luke Welch believes in justification and in justification. He has a master’s degree from the Presbyterian Covenant Seminary and preaches regularly in a conservative Anglican church in Maryland. He blogs about Bible structure at SUBTEXT.