"Crawling Over Cut Glass" does not cut it with Conservative Calvinists
Nick Gier printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jan 25, 2008 at 04:57:31 PM EST
This is the fifth and final column in my series on Douglas Wilson's religious empire.  The first was "The Seeds are Sown for Moscow's Culture War"; the second was "No Burning at the Stake in Moscow's Friendship Square"; and the third was "Douglas Wilson, Southern Presbyterians, and Neo-Confederates"   and the fourth was "The Many Sins of New St. Andrews College." A full inventory of Wilson's empire is found in the first column.

I trust that I can keep my Front Page status for one more column next week entitled "The Gospel of Weak Belief," an essay countering the strong belief of fundamentalism.


By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (ngier@uidaho.edu)

Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church of Moscow, Idaho, calls himself a "crawling-over-cut-glass" Calvinist.  Wilson has authored a book entitled The Serrated Edge , but he is much more adept in using this weapon than Jesus allegedly was.

Most conservative Calvinists, however, have not been impressed with Wilson's crooked sword.  A Salt Lake City congregation of the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church has criticized Wilson for "false reports," "misrepresentations," and defending himself with "sophistry and word games that should be an embarrassment for elders of a church of Christ."

On June 22, 2002, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States declared that Wilson's teaching "has the effect of destroying the Reformed Faith through the introduction of false hermeneutic principles; the infusion of sacerdotalism; and the redefinition of the doctrines of the church. . . . We therefore resolve that these teachings are heretical."

The Mississippi Valley Presbytery, a member of the conservative Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), issued a report on Wilson's theology, sometimes called the Federal Vision.  Here is their conclusion:

"We do believe that many of the positions being advocated by proponents of the [Federal Vision] are confused and confusing, are unbiblical, are contra-confessional, and are (as [Jonathan] Edwards put it) `of a pernicious and fatal tendency.' As such, we are ready to declare some of these distinctive teachings to be outside the bounds of acceptable diversity in this presbytery, and we trust also, in the PCA."

Delegates at the June, 2007 PCA annual meeting overwhelmingly rejected Wilson's version of John Calvin's theology.  Out of 1,400 delegates in attendance, one observer counted less than fifty votes for Wilson and his associates.  Of central concern for the PCA delegates was Wilson's very liberal definition of who is saved.  For Wilson one is fully justified and sanctified simply by being baptized in any Christian denomination.  

In their book Not Reformed at All John W. Robbins and Sean Gerety offer a thoroughgoing critique of Wilson's theology.  They agree with PCA delegates that Wilson's views are fundamentally at odds with the Westminster Confession, the primary Calvinist statement of faith. Robbins and Gerety (hereafter R&G) generally characterize Wilson's writing as containing "a facial glibness and an adolescent smart-aleckness" (17), and they specifically charge him with rational incoherence, eclecticism (i.e., mixing several theologies into one), misinterpreting scripture, neglecting to define basic terms, and false accusation.

In reading Wilson's Reformed is Not Enough one is struck by how liberal he is when defining what it is to be a Christian and how little "cut glass" there is on his road to salvation.  Wilson states: "A Christian. . . is anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by an authorized representative of the Christian church"(19).  R&G take the three New Testament passages that Wilson uses to support this doctrine and demonstrate conclusively that they do not support this incredibly broad definition, one that does not even require continued belief in basic Christian doctrines.  

Wilson insists that "unbelieving Christians" are still "covenantal Christians" (cited in R&G, 46).  To put his opposition to Luther and Calvin in the starkest opposition, Wilson states that "the Bible says that baptism saves" and sides with Roman Catholic theologians in denying that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone (R&G, 82) R&G make the further observation that when Wilson speaks of justification by faith, he does not qualify it with the essential Reformation "alone."

Another basic doctrinal problem is Wilson's talk about corporate souls and collective salvation that is integral to the Federal Vision. This is the sort of theology that would excite a Hindu Vedantist, but not an orthodox Christian.  As we have heard so many times from Wilson, democracy (one person/one vote) and individualism are the great errors of modernism and the Enlightenment.  Ironically, a federal government is thoroughly evil, but a federal God that destroys personal autonomy is OK.  

The Federal Vision means that there are no grounds for an individual coming to God by himself or herself to be born again. Using Wilson's own metaphor, we are no longer individual eggs but all those who have been baptized are an indistinguishable part of God's Great Omelet.  R&G (74) note that Wilson completely ignores the organic analogy that pervades the New Testament in which each individual body part maintains its identity in the Body of Christ.            

Wilson is not a PCA member and enjoys total immunity in his own Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches. However, Peter Leithart, Wilson's right-hand theologian at Moscow's New St. Andrews College, and good friend Steve Wilkins, a founding director of the neo-Confederate League of the South, are PCA members.  

In a recent letter to the Pacific Northwest Presbytery, Leithart essentially dares them to discipline him. In 2005, Wilkins survived a heresy trial by his own Louisiana Presbytery, but even in exoneration, Wilkins was warned of his problematic views on the baptism. For a denomination that emphasizes adherence to right religious doctrine rather than good religious practice, excommunication is a real possibility for Leithart and Wilkins.  PCA national leaders are now holding the Louisiana Presbytery's feet to the fire for allowing Wilkins to go unpunished.

Wilson and Wilkins co-authored a booklet Southern Slavery As It Was, published by Wilson's own Canon Press in 1996. The authors argued that Bible supported owning slaves and that the Antebellum South was the most harmonious multiracial society in world history.

Although not on the official agenda at their June meeting, many PCA members know of the slavery booklet and have condemned it as inconsistent with the PCA's 2004 Pastoral Letter on Racism. Echoing the Southern Baptists' 1995 Racial Reconciliation Resolution, the PCA confessed that its churches participated in "the national sin" of racism and slavery.  PCA members have also condemned Wilson's book The Serrated Edge, in which he argues that Jesus himself employed racial epithets.

The title of Wilson's book Reformed is Not Enough also gives away the denominational game.  If you read the foreword, Wilson has a rather grandiose plan to reform all of Christianity, including the Reformed denominations. In his early days Wilson had always described himself as a "New Testament Christian," and knowing him as well as I do, I was very surprised that he decided to join a denomination.  

True to form, Wilson wants to run his own show and that he will not be bound by anyone else's theological limits.  This anarchic personality is what made him such an interesting philosophy student at the University of Idaho in the 1970s.

with just 2 "Presbyteries," the organization has around 70 churches (around 7 of which are outside the US).  At most, 25 of the congregations own their own facilities, as the majority appear to hold services in other organizations' buildings and many indicate that they are "plantings" (mission churches?) of other churches.  It looks as though Wilson has found a few other pastors willing to connect with him.  Among those churches that own their own facilities, do you have any statistics on whether they have split with other denominations to affiliate with Wilson (and from which denominations they came)?  Also, do you know whether many pastors of these "plantings" are graduates of Wilson's college?


by Rusty Pipes on Sat Jan 26, 2008 at 06:56:36 PM EST

For bringing your clear and thoughtful scholarship, and highly relevant personal experience, to Talk to Action.  This material can now be easily found by anyone researching Doug Wilson's little empire, and his role in the larger constellation of Christian Reconstructionism, and neoConfederacy.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 11:05:53 PM EST

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