In what follows, I want to be clear that I am only speaking for myself and not in any official capacity for either Christ Church or New St. Andrews College.
Many folks may be aware of the fact that Moscow, Idaho has seen its share of different leaders and teachers over the years who have come and gone, some of whom have moved in decidedly different directions than the core mission and vision we have at Christ Church and New St. Andrews College. One teacher was Peter Leithart who was a professor of theology at NSA for a number of years and was the founding pastor of Trinity Reformed Church. My wife and I were founding members of Trinity when it started in 2003, and later I served as a pastor alongside Peter for a number of years beginning in 2008. Through Peter, I and many others were introduced to James B. Jordan, and perhaps centrally his book Through New Eyes, an introduction to a typological reading of Scripture, and “developing a biblical view of the world,” aimed in a particularly sacramental and liturgical direction. The ministry of James Jordan is called Biblical Horizons (“BH”). There is a private BH email list serve that I was party to for around 14 years, and for many years there was an annual BH conference, which I spoke at one year. Jordan’s work and that annual conference has more recently been closely associated with the work of Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama where Peter Leithart now serves as president. In addition to the work of Jordan and Leithart, Jeff Meyers was a third teacher/pastor whose work on covenant renewal worship in the book The Lord’s Service has become very influential in these circles, including my own studies and ministry.
There are elements of all three men’s work that I remain extremely grateful for to this day and continue to believe are helpful and biblically sound. But over the last few years, I have had increasing misgivings, and I want to go on record now stating that I believe there are some serious weaknesses in what I would call the “BH paradigm.” I’m posting this publicly because of the public nature of my own involvement in some of these matters, and addressing public teaching publicly is sometimes good and necessary (Gal. 2:11).
When There’s No Nature to Regenerate
The central theological issue concerns the doctrine of regeneration. James Jordan wrote an exploratory essay a number of years ago entitled Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration: Some Tentative Explorations. As the years went by, Jordan and others closely associated with him have largely adopted those thoughts on regeneration. The main thesis is that instead of regeneration being a permanent change of an individual’s nature in time and space, regeneration is viewed in more covenantal terms, defining it as an ongoing relationship with God beginning at baptism, wherein one wrestles with God (hopefully) to the end of life, but without a permanent change of nature in this life and such that some may ultimately reject this regeneration and fall away. The “change of nature” on this view is merely the change in relationship to God via covenant membership. This is because Jordan and proponents deny that there is such a thing as a “nature” that can be changed in itself. They would argue that our “nature” only consists in our relationships, and primarily how we relate to God.
While it is true that the word “regeneration” is used in covenantal ways in Scripture, the language of “new birth” and being “born again” are also clearly used in a more instantaneous, soteriological way, and with the notion of a permanent change of nature, going from children of wrath to children of grace, from the Adamic nature to a new nature in Christ, and that change being permanent and part of God’s guarantee of our perseverance to the end. Regeneration relates to generation, which is the question, “who is your father?” But the answer to that question is not merely a matter of who you are related to, or whose name is on the birth certificate. It is also fundamentally a matter of what kind of heart you have, what kind of tree you are, what you actually are in yourself.
It should be pointed out that everyone in this conversation is a Calvinist, and so even those who hold to the Jordan thesis hold that everyone who perseveres in wrestling with the Spirit does so because of the decretive will of God and His sovereign grace. But I have come to believe that this distinction has enormous downstream effects both theologically and pastorally. There is something extremely crucial for preaching and pastoral ministry about holding to the definitive state of a man before God. Either a man is regenerate or not, and those pigs who got baptized and went back to wallowing in the mire never were anything other than pigs, even though it will be worse for them (2 Pet. 2:21-22).
But this is not merely a theological or theoretical matter because as Douglas Wilson has pointed out, without a nature, we do not have an argument against those who want to say that boys can be girls or girls can be boys. The thing to notice here initially is the emphasis on relationship over nature that muddles definitions. In what follows, I am not arguing for a direct causation from this theological problem to all the others. Rather, I’m claiming that there’s something in the air, a number of related problems and weaknesses all in a cluster, and faithful men should take notice.
Leithart on the End of Protestantism
Peter Leithart’s End of Protestantism project a few years back was another unsettling development along similar lines. While the book (barely) managed to avoid the worst errors I feared, suffering primarily from a poor title, a subsequent editorial in Fox News under the same banner made it clear where this was heading, which is not Roman Catholicism for most (as some might fear), but a squishy sacramental-liturgical Protestant ecumenism – a warmed over Anglicanism that aims at the faithfulness of the African branch but ends up with the British and American compromises (more on that momentarily). The primary problem here being an overemphasis on external, sacramental-liturgical unity over true born again, Spirit-wrought unity in Christ. Meanwhile, my pastoral experience leading worship in my (previous) congregation that pretty much followed Jeff Meyer’s suggestions for covenant renewal worship to a tee was beginning to raise pastoral questions. I was seeing troubling signs in the congregation that some were interpreting the robes and collars and other liturgical forms as a sort of Anglicanism-lite and once again indications that extra-biblical, external forms were taking on far greater significance and importance than they ought to, and which naturally opened the door to varying lapses in personal holiness.
Peter Leithart on Revoice
The next shoe to drop was when it came to my attention this last Spring that Peter Leithart had “blurbed” Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship, part history of friendship in the church, but also part “Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian” (the subtitle). Wesley Hill writes:
“I needed to explore how my being gay might involve what a thoughtful friend of mine has called a special “genius for friendship.” Genius doesn’t just mean intellectual aptitude or brilliance; it can equally refer to a talent, a knack, a particular flair for something, or a certain kind of practical wisdom, so that we say things like, “He’s a genius when it comes to baking cakes,” or “She’s a tightrope-walking genius.” Might there be, my friend asked, a way in which gay people have, whether by natural inclinations or through childhood trial and error or some combination of the two (among other factors), a sort of enviable insight into how to foster and enhance same-sex friendships? If so, part of this may be owing to the skills gay kids have to learn if they plan to survive middle school: skills of self-restraint and creative resolution when they develop a crush on their best friend, self-control in speech and action as they try to navigate such a tricky situation without cutting themselves off from relationships, and balance and delicacy in tending relationships even when they retain their potential for messiness.
Despite what you might conclude from cultural sound bites, being gay isn’t only, or even primarily, about what people choose to do in bed. Even for straight people, sexuality is broader and more mysteriously elusive than that. While it can’t be reduced simply to a generic impulse for relationships of any kind, which would render it synonymous with “relationality” or “capacity for companionship,” sexuality also shouldn’t be abbreviated as “whatever we do with our genitals.”
In my experience, at least, being gay colors everything about me, even though I’m celibate. It’s less a separable piece of my experience, like a shelf in my office, which is distinguishable from the other shelves, and more like the proverbial drop of ink in a glass of water: not identical with the water, but also not entirely distinct from it either. Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay. My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends.” (P. 80-81)
Endorsing Spiritual Friendship, Peter Leithart wrote, “Medieval monks expressed their love for one another with what to us is cringe-inducing intimacy, and not so long ago Christians still entered formal bonds of friendship by taking vows that sound like marriage vows. We don’t do that anymore, with our commitment to uncommitted freedom, our turnover habits, our sexualization of everything and everyone, and our resignation to loneliness. Wesley Hill’s very personal book is an elegant, theologically rich plea on behalf of the love of friendship that uncovers fresh ways to improvise on a lost Christian tradition of committed spiritual friendship.” Peter gives no caveats or warnings about what one may find in Hill’s book. For anyone struggling with homosexual temptation or sin, especially for anyone who has been familiar with Biblical Horizons, Peter Leithart, or Theopolis Institute, one could not be faulted for believing that Peter and Theopolis support Wesley Hill’s brand of addressing the challenge of being a “Celibate Gay Christian,” more recently popularized in the Revoice conferences.
Now I happen to know that Peter does not support or endorse the “Spiritual Friendship” project as a whole or the Revoice conference that has come to be closely aligned with it (Spiritual Friendship was published in 2015, and the first Revoice Conference was held in 2018). But the blog “Spiritual Friendship.org,” jointly founded by Hill has been open about these themes since its start in 2012. The Spiritual Friendship blog folks held a pre-conference at the first Revoice conference, and Wesley Hill has been one of the prominent speakers at Revoice. And I want to be clear that my concern is not that Peter endorsed a book by somebody associated with Revoice. My concern is that Peter endorsed a book that explicitly argues for the very same things as Revoice. I have heard reports that Peter is working on some sort of statement clarifying his views. But it has been months now since I urged Peter to do so, and therefore that sort of clarification is clearly not a matter of great urgency for him. So as it stands, Theopolis Institute and Peter Leithart are on the back of a book endorsing Hill’s suggested path to helping “a Celibate Gay Christian” find love in the Church and clearly not at all in a biblical way. Notice once again: the emphasis on relationships (“friendship”) while missing glaring moral problems.
Jeff Meyers & the Missouri Presbytery on Revoice
Finally, it came to my attention that the recent Missouri Presbytery study committee on Revoice was appointed by Jeff Meyers, the moderator of the presbytery at that time (he is no longer moderator). The make-up of the committee included a strong representation of those already committed to Revoice and similar projects. My point is not to accuse Jeff Meyers of supporting Revoice or similar movements. I very much suspect that he is not a fan.
My point is that Jeff Meyers is not seeing clearly. My point is that Peter Leithart is not seeing clearly. And the irony is deep and appalling since they would both point to the seminal book by their mentor James Jordan Through New Eyes as a cornerstone in their thinking and study and teaching on the Bible. But these “new eyes” are not working well. If your new eyes cannot see the plays being run on the church, your new eyes need newer eyes. If these new eyes have become instrumental in welcoming and normalizing homosexual identity in the church, even if completely unintentionally, those eyes need glasses. It’s no excuse to say that you didn’t see the ditch, the potholes, the bridge out over the river. The shepherds of the flock must have good eyes for guarding the flock otherwise they really are the blind leading the blind.
Checking Your New Eyes
The central thesis of Through New Eyes is that the Bible is written typologically, that God is the sovereign author of all of existence, and therefore all of existence means what He says it means. Therefore, rocks and stars and trees and bread and wine are not merely things, they are also symbols and types. They are signs that point beyond themselves to what God is doing in the world and in various ways they may carry or convey or communicate those meanings in Scripture, in history, and in our lives. When a bunch of these grammar level connections are made, reading the Bible covenantally from Genesis to Revelation demonstrates that many of these signs fill up with more and more meaning as they come to their fulfillment in Jesus and the New Covenant. And there’s a great deal of this that is just plain, vanilla Reformed theology (if somewhat neglected in recent decades).
Most Reformed theologians have made the connection between baptism and circumcision at least partially by typology. The New Testament writers say that the Flood was a type of baptism and so was the crossing of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10, 1 Pet. 3). I still find this broad typological hermeneutic compelling, but something has gone terribly wrong when you can’t see the queer guy right in front of you. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article in which I stated my concern that many who would otherwise have no problem tracing the typology of robes or the sign of the cross or incense, could suddenly become strict grammatical-historical literalists when it came to a suggested typology of pink hair and gender confusion. The whole point of reading the Bible this way is to give us the ability to read the world rightly, but when typology is primarily about deep weird connections and liturgical minutiae, one begins to suspect that it’s more about entertainment and being “in the know” than Heaven and Hell and life and death exegesis of God’s holy word. Something has gone terribly wrong when the raison d’être of your ministry is picking up on the nuances of typology, but you’re accidentally endorsing or inadvertently helping to protect men who really want to sodomize other men but can’t and so instead will cultivate life-long (celibate) intimate friendships with them, while remaining pastors and leaders in the church.
One of the ways you should test your new eyes is by checking how well they help you see. And there are some significant blind spots here. While I would be very grateful for a clarifying statement from Peter Leithart repudiating his endorsement of Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship, the fact that it has taken him this long indicates that he has a blind spot about the urgency of doing so. Even if Jeff Meyer’s appointment of the members of the Missouri Presbytery study committee was completely innocent, the fact that it has now been shown to have been a stacked committee should be cause for a public apology, especially given the report that was produced. But I doubt he sees that.
My Repentance: Federal Vision & BH
The first thing we should do when we realize that we haven’t been seeing things clearly is to own that fact. Then, after that, especially when we have been in positions of leadership, we should warn others.
So in the first instance, I want to publicly acknowledge that I have been heavily influenced by these men. I wrote a commentary on the book of Job, A Son for Glory, that is in a commentary series subtitled Through New Eyes. I don’t know of any glaring errors in that book at present, but I am issuing a surgeon general’s warning regarding its contents. Be aware that while I still hold many of the basic interpretations of that book, it may contain problems or weaknesses. Related, I have not yet had an opportunity to work my way through my blog archives, but I fully expect to find posts that were heavily influenced by my “Biblical Horizons” education and associations. This would also include taking various “Federal Vision” stances for granted.
While I still believe many of the critics of Federal Vision did not always understand what they were criticizing, I do now believe that there was a great deal of ambiguous and pastorally unhelpful and irresponsible speculative theology passed off under the heading “Federal Vision,” related to the Biblical Horizons tendency to do theology by free association rather than careful exegesis. To the extent that some of my friends were led into Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, wishy-washy Anglicanism, or worse, by my own irresponsible participation in that project or related speculations, my sincere apologies. While this hardly does justice to the problems and confusions caused, please consider this a retraction of my public and published work that has participated in the Biblical Horizons and Federal Vision muddle.
Closely related, looking back, I can see danger signs at various points that I did not heed, and some of my friends even warned me, and I dismissed those warnings. To those who saw the danger signs and tried to point them out, to those whom I dismissed, please forgive me.
To anticipate one possible objection, I would note that our church’s college ministry hosted Sam Allberry for an event entitled “Sexual Confusion: Who are you?” back in 2014. While I have expressed strong disagreement with Sam at points, Sam has remained one of the more biblically careful speakers/writers on homosexual temptation and has distanced himself from the leaders of Revoice, as evidenced by his willingness to sign the Nashville Statetement. But without speaking for anyone else, I think it is safe to say that had we known then what we know now about the entire lay of the land, there would have been more to discuss than we realized at the time. Nevertheless, I met Sam when he visited Moscow, and I have kept up an acquaintance here and there with him, and to his great credit he has remained a friend of ours, responding to questions and criticisms graciously, and occasionally sharing the material coming out of Moscow. All that to say, while we would likely do things a bit different today if we had it to do over, Sam is in a somewhat different category from most.
Some of my critics have sometimes urged me to admit when I was wrong and have expressed varying degrees of frustration with me for refusing to admit I was wrong, when I didn’t think I was. But here I am on record admitting I was wrong. And unfortunately, many will likely be upset with me for doing so, accusing me of being divisive or disrespectful or worse.
One other brief word to those who know me and Peter well and know our history together. It’s a terrible thing to need to write something like this, and it could be taken as vicious or backstabbing. But you should know that I have attempted to raise these concerns directly to him previously, and I have also sought to do so in respectful ways, always with gratitude for his kindness to me over the years. I do not bear Peter any ill will, and it is love for him and the truth the motivates this. I don’t really know the way forward from here, but I do not believe it serves anyone well to paper over these serious differences.
I have counseled others in the SBC and PCA that nothing short of a holy ruckus will save those institutions from the rot in their bones. They have stage 4 cancer, and they need the strongest chemo there is. But I would be remiss to counsel table turning, bridge burning, and rejecting all polite consensus building if I were not willing to do the same. I’m not a member of either of those denominations, but I believe my own associations have done their part in feeding the cancer in those denominations.
So I repent, and here I am calling my brothers in the BH world and those associated with BH in the CREC to recognize that something is wrong. I fully believe that there are salvageable elements of what we have been taught and studied over the last number of years. I still think that the way Jordan and Leithart analyze biblical texts is frequently very helpful and stimulating (e.g. Primeval Saints, A House for My Name, From Silence to Song). I continue worshipping weekly (and happily) in a congregation that uses a simplified covenant renewal form of worship, with no plans or inclinations to change. But despite those good things, we should not go on pretending that these are good eyes. These eyes are not as good as we thought, brothers. Let’s admit that we have been part of the problem, repent, and ask the Lord to give sight to our blind eyes. We need glasses. We need the Holy Spirit’s Lasik surgery. We need Jesus to spit on some dirt and rub it in our eyes.
I know I am not the first one or the only one to point out some of these weaknesses, but I know how hard it can be to admit it. I know the justifications, the excuses, the dismissals, the biblical-theological dodges and feints that we have practiced. I know what it can feel like to seem trapped. Maybe it finally feels like you’ve made it to a place of stability in your church, in your theological journey. Maybe you can imagine the disruption agreeing with this would cause with your friends, on your session, in your family. It can seem like I’m the troublemaker, like this sort of disruption is anything but helpful. But Jesus called us to take up our crosses and follow Him. He called us to love Him above all else, to be willing to lose friends and family for His sake. He says that if we say that we can see, we are actually blind, but if we know that we are blind, He will make us see.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” – C.S. Lewis