Current Justification Controversy, The $9.95 $4.98

O. Palmer Robertson
Trade paperback, 120 pages, 2003

This is the only book-length account of the Norman Shepherd controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary ever published. That controversy lasted 7 years (1975-1982) and was never properly resolved by either the Seminary or the denomination. Written at the time of the controversy, Robertson's manuscript was suppressed by the faculty of Covenant Seminary, which refused to publish it in in its academic journal Presbuterion for fear of offending the faculty of Westminster Seminary. It appears here in print for the first time, 20 years after it was written.

Contents: Introduction; The Beginnings of the Controversy; The October 1976 Paper; Reactions to the October 1976 Paper; The Issue before the Presbytery; The Downingtown Conference (1978); The "Committee to Draw Up a Statement"; The Commission on Allegations; Implications for Church Union and Unity; The Removal of Mr. Shepherd; Challenge, Response-and Continuation; Causes of the Controversy; Index; Scripture Index

Reviewed by Louis De Boer, Editor, American Presbyterian Press:

This is a thoughtful and well written book that Presbyterians who are still committed to the historic Reformed faith would do well to read and ponder. Currently the Reformed faith is only a fraction of what it once was. At the time of the founding of the United States of America in 1789 America was 98% Protestant and 67% Calvinist. And those were real Calvinists who held not just to Calvinist soteriology (the celebrated five points), but to Calvinist church government (Presbyterianism), and to a Calvinist doctrine of worship (the regulative principle of worship). If we were even 1% of that today (i.e. .67% of the population) there would be nearly 2,000,000 Calvinists in the United States. Instead, Calvinists, as described above, probably number between five to ten thousand. Not nearly enough to leaven this society and act as the salt of the earth. The degradation of American culture demonstrates that fact most radically.

Currently, however, the problem facing Calvinism is not that we are ignored and marginalized by our culture, or that we are persecuted by infidels from without, as much as we are being subverted by infidels from within. This internal subversion has taken the form in recent decades of a persistent attack on and redefinition of the historic Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. This book traces these current woes to the Shepherd controversy of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Norman Shepherd was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who began to redefine the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone. He never explicitly denied that doctrine but so defined it that he was in actuality teaching justification by faith plus works. The controversy that his new views were generating were frequently dismissed as merely a misunderstanding of his views, which were admittedly confusing at times. They were also condoned under the excuse that he was merely reacting to the "easy believism" of twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Robertson, by careful scholarship, demonstrates that Shepherd was consistently teaching a new paradigm of salvation that was materially at issue with the Westminster Confession of Faith. He also demonstrates the appalling way this serious doctrinal subversion was handled by the ecclesiastical authorities. The faculty and the administration at Westminster consistently defended Shepherd, and the Board of the seminary was perpetually divided and ineffectual in dealing with Shepherd’s heresy. Similarly, the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was unprepared and unwilling to deal forthrightly and effectively with this doctrinal challenge to one of the very core doctrines of historic Presbyterianism. Shepherd basically got a free pass to continue to teach and preach, to promote and disseminate, his heretical views. Both groups did their best to keep a lid on what was transpiring. It was only when a group of Orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed scholars publicly posted their opposition that the embarrassed authorities finally took some belated action, allowing Shepherd to leave the Seminary and to transfer, in good standing, to the Christian Reformed Church.

To those who are concerned about the present crescendo of attacks, a la Shepherd, on justification by faith alone from within Reformed ranks, his book explains how we got there. It dispels the fog of misinformation that these doctrinal sharks like to swim in, and exposes those who prefer to provide cover for heretics to contending for the faith.

 
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