Leithart– can we change the definitions of words?

I am a member of the PCA’s Committee on Constitutional Business. I like to joke that we are like the Supreme Court of the PCA except everyone can just ignore us. We can rule on constitutionality of various actions, but all our decisions are nonbinding to anyone. Among other things we also read the minutes of the SJC (standing judicial committee) in fine detail. This year, I read through all the minutes of the SJC on the Leithart case. These are part of the public record, so nothing I am saying here is based on any inside knowledge. I have also not read in detail any of Leithart’s writings. What I am reacting to here is the way in which the Leithart case was decided.

Leithart’s presbytery, which did the original trial, and the SJC, both accepted the argument that Leithart had changed the definitions of various words such as “justification,” “adoption,” “sanctification,” etc., to suit his own purposes, and by his definitions, he is not outside of the constitution of the PCA.

I find this highly unusual, especially for the PCA. The PCA prides itself on its theological heritage of accuracy in defining theological words, especially ones relating to the order of salvation, like the ones mentioned above. Shall we now allow teachers to redefine words as they choose?

Furthermore, as many a parent has taught a child, words mean things and we are not free to just make them mean what we want. A child who wears a teeshirt that says “I like Nazis” cannot say “well, that doesn’t mean anything to me” or “I define that to mean just a general sense of thinking outside the box.” Language is fluid, and definitions do change over the years, but it is not so fluid that anyone can make anything mean what they want it to. If I say “I plan to kill you” and then say later in a trial, “By ‘plan to kill you’ I mean ‘I love you’,” that doesn’t cut it. It was Humpty Dumpty who said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” To Alice, and to most of us, this is just nonsense.

It seems to me that if the PCA accepts this type of argument, we are indeed on a slippery slope to infinite elasticity in theology, whether or not Leithart’s views are outside our constitution. A valid ruling must look into what he says, using the well-established meanings of these theological words as they are used in our constitution.

2 replies on “Leithart– can we change the definitions of words?”

  1. I found some similar thoughts from a slightly different perspective here:

    The author indirectly affirms what you are saying here about the PCA’s approach, and the shifting definitions of words. It’s a losing fight. I posted about it with some additional thoughts on my blog today. Mind you, I’m not in the PCA. There’s no PCA congregation within hours of me that I know of. :-)


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