Jason Stellman has officially announced his intention to join the Roman communion at the “Called to Communion” blog. However, in the meantime, that post has been removed. It’s unclear why it was removed, but the following are comments on the post that was put up on July 24, 2012.
Part of me has wished for a while now that I was born early enough to have been a fan of The Clash back in the Seventies. The first song I ever heard by them (several years after its release) was their cover of Sonny Curtis’s hit, the chorus of which goes, “I fought the law, and the law won.” Despite being a fairly law-abiding guy, I can relate to being on the losing side of a battle, only mine was not against the law, but against the Church.
I do agree that Jason has lost a battle. Abandoning a church of the Lord for Rome is always a loss. But the war is not over for Jason. He has the opportunity to repent of this error and return to Christ.
As many of you know, I recently resigned from my pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America (you can read my resignation letter here, as well as some clarifying posts here and here). My stated reasons for stepping down were that I could no longer in good conscience uphold my ordination vow that as a PCA minister I sincerely accept the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. More specifically, I no longer see the Reformed doctrines of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide as faithfully reflecting what the Bible teaches, which is why I will, Lord willing, be received into full communion with the Catholic Church sometime in the next several months.
a) Stellman’s ordination vows (assuming his were typical) also included a vow of subjection to his brethren in the Lord. It is unclear whether Stellman intends to fulfill this vow by submitting to the discipline of his presbytery, or not. While it is commendable that he eventually fulfilled his vow to alert presbytery to his changed views, such obedience is only partial fulfillment of his vows.
b) It is interesting that Jason seems to premise his change of position on his private judgment regarding what Scripture teaches. However, if Jason actually joins the Roman communion, he will be required to give up his private judgment of Scripture.
c) It’s an obvious non sequitur to deny Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide and consequently say, “Rome!” Even if Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide were wrong (which they certainly aren’t), it wouldn’t follow that Rome is right. Rome is defined by a lot more than just rejection of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. Moreover, there are plenty of religions beside that of Rome that reject those doctrines. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam, and many others could be listed.
The purpose of this piece is not to unpack those claims in detail (there will be plenty of time for that in the future), but rather to provide a little more insight into the process that led up to my resignation, as well as to respond briefly to those who have sought to analyze me and the supposed internal psychological factors that must have led to my making such a drastic decision.
I don’t plan to comment on Stellman’s own testimony regarding what psychological factors did or did not contribute to his current move.
Jason once more:
One of the things I found especially curious (slash bemusing, slash maddening) while reading the diagnoses of my volunteer analysts was the fact that my being drawn to, or lured by, Rome was simply assumed, and that the only real question was what, exactly, was it that ultimately did it. Was it some positive aspect of Catholicism that appealed to me, or was it a nagging drawback of Protestantism that finally proved to be the deal-breaker?
Motive, Stellman – that’s what people were curious about.
Now, I realize that I went into a period of radio silence during the weeks following my resignation (one that was not exactly self-imposed, but that has turned out to be a blessing), and that this created something of a vacuum that invited speculation on the part of some. But now that I am no longer “off the grid,” I would like to clear something up once and for all:
There’s not much to comment on here.
Jason once more:
Catholicism never held any allure for me, nor do I find it particularly alluring now.
Who knows what Stellman means by this. Perhaps he means that his conscience reminds him that it is wrong to worship God by images, that is idolatry to worship consecrated bread as though it were God incarnate, that is wrong to offer religious devotion to Mary, angels, and the saints, and that it is wrong and foolish to attempt to communicate with the dead through prayers. I hope that is it, and that he will listen to the voice of his conscience and the testimony of Scripture. But perhaps he means something else – it is certainly strange that he seems to want to join a communion that he does not like.
Jason yet again:
Now to be honest there has always been an attraction of a “Wouldn’t-it-be-nice” or “stained-glass-windows-are-rad” variety, but when it came to an actual positive drawing to Rome or a negative driving away from Geneva, there has never been any such thing. In fact, since much of my theological output has been part of the public domain for so long (especially in the form of my preaching, teaching, and writing), this claim of mine can actually be proven. If anyone cares to go back and listen to or read what I was talking about right up until the day I was confronted with the claims of the Catholic Church as they relate to those of Protestantism, the inquirer will easily discover that I was about as staunchly confessional an Old School Presbyterian as anyone would want to meet. There was not even the slightest hint of discontent with my ecclesiastical identity, not a trace of longing for greater certitude, nor a smidgen of regret that my soteriology didn’t have enough works in it.
Is Stellman saying that he wants greater certitude and a soteriology with more works in it? It seems clear enough that Stellman wants a different ecclesiastical identity.
But Scripture is quite clear that justification is not of works, lest any man should boast – moreover Scripture assures us that it can provide certainty:
Jason once more:
I will raise the pot even more: I wrote a book whose entire purpose was to demonstrate, in the highest and most attractive terms possible, how ironically boastworthy all the supposed disadvantages of amillennial Protestantism are. Messiness? Lack of infallible certitude? The need for faith over sight? Check, check, and check.
Frame has already provided a review of Stellman’s book. Suffice for our present purpose that Stellman’s book does not show depth in the Scriptures, even by Stellman’s own description.
Further still, so far from longing for a type of kinder, gentler Catholicism that I could disguise in Reformed garb, I was the prosecutor in a doctrinal trial against a fellow minister in my presbytery for espousing views that I, and many others, considered dangerously close to being Catholic. No, there was never any desire to place human works anywhere but where the Reformed confessions say they belong: in the category of sanctification and never justification.
But again – where was Stellman’s Biblical criticism of Leithart’s position? I’m not a supporter of Leithart’s views, but the answer to those views is from Scripture.
Jason once more:
In a word, I was as happy and comfortable in my confessional Presbyterian skin as anyone, and the trust I had earned from many well-known and respected Reformed theologians, as well as having graduated with honors from one of the most confessionally staunch and academically rigorous Reformed seminaries in the nation, should be sufficient to dispel any notions that I never really understood Reformed theology in the first place or that I was always a Catholic in Protestant clothing.
I suppose that this event should serve as an exhortation to the seminary to consider grounding its young men better in the study of the Word.
One of the things that made fighting against the claims of the Catholic Church so frustrating was that there was no single, knock-down-drag-out argument to refute; neither was there an isolated passage of Scripture or silver-bullet issue of theology to deal with. If it had been simply a matter of answering one specific challenge that came from a single direction, the battle would have been much easier to win. But as it happened, there were two distinct issues that were coming under attack (Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide), and the attacks were coming from multiple directions: the biblical, the historical, and, in the case of Sola Scriptura, the philosophical as well.
There may have been multiple attacks coming, directed at multiple doctrines, but Stellman ought to have been prepared to deal with them. After all, the kinds of challenges provided from folks like the “Called to Communion” crowd with whom Stellman was communicating are relatively easily answered.
In the case of Sola Scriptura, I, as a self-described Reformed non-evangelical, considered the distinction between Solo- and Sola Scriptura as absolutely essential to my own spiritual identity. It was the evangelicals who were the heirs of Anabaptism, not the Reformed; it was the evangelicals who espoused “no creed but Christ,” not the Reformed; it was the evangelicals who interpreted the Bible in isolation from history and tradition, not the Reformed. Therefore as one can imagine, when I was confronted with Catholic claims that called this crucial distinction into question, it was a sucker-punch of epic proportions. Needless to say, my confessional brethren and I did not appreciate our ancestral city of Geneva being confused with Saddleback.
Actually, the claims were handily addressed. It’s true that, in some respects, the two views are similar – and neither is Rome’s view. Nevertheless, there are important distinctions between the two views. (see the responses starting at item 4 in this index post)
Jason once more:
But the more I read and wrestled, the more I began to see that Geneva was not being “confused with” Saddleback at all; the two were just different sides of the same coin (or to be more precise with the metaphor, they were sister-cities in the same Protestant county). Readers of this site have no need for the arguments to be rehearsed here, so suffice it to say that, philosophically speaking, it became clear to me that Sola Scriptura could not provide a way to speak meaningfully about the necessary distinction between orthodoxy and heresy (or even between essentials and non-essentials); neither could it justify the 27-book New Testament canon, create the unity that that canon demands, or provide the means of avoiding the schism that that canon condemns.
It’s a little hard to tangle with philosophical arguments that remain unargued. What Stellman appears to be saying is that he adopted the radical skepticism/postmodernism that CTC crowd were offering – the idea that we can’t figure out what God is saying in the Bible so as to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, etc. But such an argument is fatally flawed, since Scripture affirms its value for such purposes.
Historically speaking, the idea that the written Word of God is formally sufficient for all things related to faith and practice, such that anyone of normal intelligence and reasonably good intentions could read it and deduce from it what is necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, is not a position that I see reflected in the writings of the early Church fathers. While there are plenty of statements in their writings that speak in glowing terms about the qualitative uniqueness of Scripture, those statements, for them, do not do away with the need for Scripture to be interpreted by the Church in a binding and authoritative way when necessary.
I have no idea how much of the fathers Jason has read.
He can find some clear statements here from:
Early Christian Writers
Third Century Fathers
Fourth Century Fathers
Fifth Century Fathers
Jason once more:
This discovery in the church fathers is unsurprising if the same position can be found in the New Testament itself, which I now believe it can. To cite but one example, the Church in her earliest days was confronted with a question that Jesus had not addressed with any specificity or directness, namely, the question of Gentile inclusion in the family of God. In order to answer this question, the apostles and elders of the Church gathered together in council to hear all sides and reach a verdict. What is especially interesting about Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council is the role that Scripture played, as well as the nature of the verdict rendered. Concerning the former, James’s citation of Amos is curious in that the passage in the prophet seems to have little to do with the matter at hand, and yet James cites Amos’s words about the tent of David being rebuilt to demonstrate that full Gentile membership in the Church fulfills that prophecy. Moreover, Scripture functioned for the Bishop of Jerusalem not as the judge that settled the dispute, but rather as a witness that testified to what settled it, namely, the judgment of the apostles and elders. Rather than saying, “We agree with Scripture,” he says in effect, “Scripture agrees with us” (v. 15, 19). And finally, when the decision is ultimately reached, it is understood by the apostles and elders not as an optional and fallible position with which the faithful may safely disagree if they remain biblically unconvinced, but rather as an authoritative and binding pronouncement that was bound in heaven even as it was on earth (v. 28). Despite some superficial similarities, no existing Protestant denomination with an operating norm of Sola Scriptura can replicate the dynamic, or claim the authority of the Jerusalem Council (or of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon for that matter). The fact that the Bible’s own example of how Church courts operate was hamstrung by Protestantism’s view of biblical authority was something I began to find disturbingly ironic.
We already rebutted Stellman’s argument as presented by another former presbyterian minister who left his charge for Rome.
Jason once more:
Moving on to Sola Fide, I found myself wrestling with this issue from both a historical and biblical perspective as well, and this is what ultimately proved to be the coup de grâce for me as a Protestant. As long as I believed that Catholicism mucked up the gospel so severely, its arguments about authority remained merely annoying, like a stone in my shoe that I would eventually get used to (after all, better to be unauthoritatively right about justification than authoritatively wrong about it). But when I began to dig into the issue more deeply and seek to understand Rome on its own terms, I began to experience what some have referred to as a “paradigm crisis.” A severe one.
Stellman, however, does not provide any historical or biblical arguments here on the issue of Sola Fide.
What is remarkable, though, is that some of the more obvious and easily seen problems of Rome – the worship of bread as though it were God, the hyper-dulia of Mary, and religious dulia of innumerable other people, as well as attempted communication with the dead, and the use of images — none of these things seem to have given Stellman a second’s pause.
As a Protestant minister, I had always operated under the assumption that the fullest treatment of the gospel, and of justification in particular, came from the apostle Paul, and that the rest of what the New Testament had to say on these issues should be filtered through him. But as I began to investigate again things that I had thought were long-settled for me, I began to discover just how problematic that hermeneutical approach really was. If justification by faith alone was indeed “the article on which the church stands or falls,” as Reformed theology claimed, then wouldn’t we expect it to have been taught by Jesus himself, somewhere? Moreover, wouldn’t John have taught it, too? And Peter, and James? Shoot, wouldn’t Paul himself have taught the imputation of alien righteousness somewhere outside of just two of his thirteen epistles?
Poor Jason – listening too much to Luther, but not hearing him correctly. The article on which the Reformation stands or falls is not quite the same thing as the article on which the church stands or falls.
Moreover, while understanding the issue of justification by faith alone is important to understanding why it is necessary to excommunicate the bishop of his Rome and his adherents, having a complete understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not what saves. What saves is repentance from sin and trust in Christ.
That said, our hermeneutic regarding how we understand justification should be that we go to the places where the apostolic teaching on the matter is most clear and explicit, and then interpret less clear passages in view of the more clear passages.
When Paul states plainly that man is not justified by works, Rome’s system of justification is necessarily excluded. That’s true whether it was something that Jesus taught Paul in the 2nd person, or whether it is merely something the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write.
The fact that a particular doctrine is useful in distinguishing Rome from true Christianity should not lead us to suppose that the doctrine is necessarily going to be found as the major, central theme of the Bible repeated often and by all authors.
To put it from another angle – why isn’t Paul stating something in two of his epistles enough for Stellman?
Jason once more:
Having realized that I was using a few select (and hermeneutically debatable) passages from Romans and Galatians as the filter through which I understood everything else the New Testament had to say about salvation, I began to conclude that such an approach was as arbitrary as it was irresponsible. I then sought to identify a paradigm, or simple statement of the gospel, that provided more explanatory value than Sola Fide did. As I hope to unpack in more detail eventually, I have come to understand the gospel in terms of the New Covenant gift of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, who causes fruit to be borne in our lives by reproducing the image of the Son in the adopted children of the Father. If love of God and neighbor fulfills the law, and if the fruit of the Spirit is love, having been shed abroad by the Spirit in our hearts, then it seems to follow that the promise of the gospel is equivalent with the promise of the New Covenant that God’s law will no longer be external to the believer, but will be written upon his mind and heart, such that its righteous demands are fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. And again unsurprisingly, when I turned to the early Church fathers, and especially Augustine, it was this very understanding of the gospel that I encountered over and over again.
There are a lot of people who read and do not understand Augustine. But I will leave that particular issue for another time. Suffice that if Stellman seeks to be justified by the law, he is fallen from grace, as Paul teaches.
While the case for the Catholic Church may not be immediately obvious or easily winnable, the fact remains that Rome’s claims are philosophically compelling, historically plausible, and biblically persuasive. Yet despite the claims of most Reformed believers who, when wrestling with the issue of people like me leaving Geneva for the supposedly-greener pastures of Rome, insist that such a move betrays a “quest for illegitimate religious certainty,” the fact is that if it is a sense of personal and psychological certitude that one is searching for, Catholicism will more than likely disappoint. Ironically enough, Protestantism provides more certitude for the seeker than Catholicism does, since the ultimate basis for the truthfulness of its claims is one’s agreement with one’s self and one’s own interpretation of Scripture. But if what you are searching for is not subjective certitude but the Church that Jesus founded, the Catholic Church’s case for being that Church, when harkened to with charity, humility, and faith seeking understanding, is as compelling as it is disruptive.
But Rome’s claims aren’t historically plausible. The historical evidence is that the apostles did not believe what Rome does today. There was not one person – even as late as the council of Nicaea – who held to all of the dogmas that Rome demands people accept today.
The historical evidence is that there was no papacy in the early church. Rome’s claims that there was are not just historically implausible, they are contrary to the best available evidence. Indeed, the historical evidence is that it wasn’t until the middle of the second century or later that there was a single monarchical bishop in Rome, which gradually gained regional power, particularly as imperial and ecclesiastical powers combined forces.
It’s not clear what “biblically persuasive” argument Jason thinks exists, but we stand ready to open the Scriptures and examine his arguments with him.
As for Rome’s claims being “philosophically compelling,” this appears to be totally empty. I’ll let Stellman try to back this up, if he can.
Jason once again:
And make no mistake, the Catholic Church is disruptive. It is audacious and confrontational, sucker-punching and line-in-the-sand drawing. Like the Lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, it is not a tame Church, and will make no promise not to devour and discomfit its subjects as they partake of its life-giving water, causing them to constantly bend the knee and cede their worldly wisdom to the foolishness of the cross. In the words of Aslan to Jill, who expressed fear about letting down her guard to drink from the water by which he stood, “There are no other streams.” Or the words of Peter to Jesus when asked if the Twelve would forsake Him because of His difficult and demanding message, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It is interesting to see how Jason has already begun to participate in the deification of “the Church” that we often see only implicitly in Roman apologetics. The words of eternal life were transmitted from Jesus to the apostles and others and by the apostles and others to us in inspired Scripture. There is no other reliable source – because there is no other inspired source. Jesus is ascended and his apostles await the resurrection of the body. The Holy Spirit is the guardian that preserves the Word – it was the Spirit, not a Roman monarchy, that was promised by Jesus.
Indeed, the entire papacy is foreign to Scripture. But let me cut this rebuttal short.
Jason yet more:
The Catholic Church, wistfully alluring? Hardly. Tidy and tame? Not by a long shot, for once discovered it demands that the seeker relinquish the one thing above all others that offers him confidence, namely, his own autonomy. In fact, submitting oneself to the authority of the Catholic Church is the most harrowing experience a person will ever endure, which is why the suggestion that converts from Geneva to Rome are simply opting for a feel-good, fairy-tale romance betraying an “over-realized eschatology” and desire to skip blissfully down the yellow-brick road to heaven, utterly trivializes the entire ordeal.
What exactly Stellman’s motives are in his quest are really primarily a matter for him to be concerned about.
Jason yet another time:
In a word, I fought the Church, and the Church won. And what it did was beat me, but it didn’t draw me, entice me, or lure me by playing upon some deep, latent psychosis or desire on my part for something Protestantism just couldn’t provide. Catholicism went from being so obviously ridiculous that it wasn’t even worth bothering to oppose, to being something whose claims were so audacious that I couldn’t help opposing them. But what it never was, was attractive, and in many ways it still isn’t.
Of course, Catholicism’s claims are roughly the same as those of Islam and Mormonism – claims that the Scripture is not enough and you need some other authority instead.
But what Catholicism is, I have come to discover, is true.
And how did Jason determine that “Catholicism” is true? Can Jason really explain how Rome’s justification by works can be reconciled with Paul’s explicit condemnation of the idea of justification by works?