The Federal Vision and Reformed Theology


It is been some time now since I’ve blogged on the so-called Federal Vision.  If you check my archives, you’ll see one post with the category tag from this year, though it is really a historical find in Luther’s writings which I came across while researching the two kingdoms post for Basilica.  Prior to that there was a similar historical finding from Calvin in December of last year, and then you’ve got to go six months back to find another post.  Given my normal frequency of postings, that makes FV a minor topic of interest over the last year.  In fact, if you inspect all of my “FV” tagged posts, you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of them are historical blurbs, as I was making my journey throughout Reformation history.

The simplest explanation for this is that I am not working on the same project as the Federal Vision theologians.  They are, as far as I can tell, expanding upon the covenant theology (perhaps neo-covenant theology) of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.  They are building upon a foundation set up by Van Til, Murray, Shepherd, Gaffin, Frame, Ferguson, and others, and even where they might push the boundaries, they are still indebted to that legacy and their fruits are flavored by their WTS origins.

I am really not doing the same thing.

I was, it is true, introduced to Reformed theology by Van Tillians, Theonomists, and Federal Visionaries.  I read Calvin and Bahnsen side by side.  But this didn’t actually last that long, and it was, believe it or not, the Federal Vision, which rocked me out of this situation and sent me back to the classical sources.  The “New Perspective on Paul” also did this, even sending back to pre-Reformation sources, but the end result of both was that I came out more Reformed than ever before.  So I guess I could title this post, “How the FV Made Me a 17th Century Reformed.”  Or maybe not.

A bit of a bibliography might help.  I went through this phase of inquiry while in seminary.  I was (and am) also single, which means that I could spend unrealistic amounts of time locked away in the library.  As issues arose, I could simply hit the books– for entire Saturday mornings at a time.

Of Reformational primary sources which I’ve read, I can list these names: Martin Luther, Philip Melanchton, Martin Chemnitz, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Wolfgang Musculus, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Jerome Zanchius, Zacharius Ursinus, David Pareus, Hugh Latimer, Nicolas Ridley, John Jewel, John Davenant, Samuel Ward, Richard Hooker, William Ames, James Ussher, William Bedell, John Preston, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, Robert Rollock, John Forbes of Corse, Johannes Piscator, Jean Daille, Peter Du Moulin, John Durel, Giovanni Diodati, Francis Turretin, Benedict Pictet, Hermann Witsius, Thomas Gataker, John Downame, Richard Baxter, and Edward Polhill.  I also read Charles Hodge, Shedd, Dabney, Nevin, Adger, Warfield, Bavinck, Schilder, Murray, Van Til, Kline, and even some Karl Barth for good measure.

Secondary sources which I’ve found very helpful would be Richard Muller, Heiko Oberman, Francois Wendel, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Ronald Wallace, B. A. Gerrish, Paul Avis, and William J Torrance Kirby. Some friends who were particularly helpful in pointing me to the right sources and painting the proper overall picture were Joel Garver, Peter Escalante, David from Calvin and Calvinism, and even Thomas from Endlessly Rocking.

I say this, not to bolster some sort of authority with my readers, but to show that I took quite seriously the need to craft a proper of view of what exactly “Reformed Theology” is, and by the end of it all, I found myself more than happy to live within its context.  I might pull a bit from a Lutheran here and a bit from an “Anglican” there (Anglicans are Reformed btw, but I use the nomenclature here for convenience), but all in all, I’m Reformed. I dropped Van Til and theonomy, pretty much tout court, though I still understand and sympathize with their motivations.  The Federal Vision is much more complicated.

So what should I say about FV at this stage in my life?  Here are the pros:

1. The Federal Vision has attempted to rediscover the original Reformed view of worship, liturgy, and sacraments.  This is what started me on the whole journey.  wcf21At the 2003 AAPC, Steve Wilkins read off a list of Reformers who taught some form of baptismal regeneration, to which Joey Pipa could only respond, “Well we don’t suscribe to them.”  The problem was that many of those names were respected authorities for the Westminster Divines (at least one of them was a Westminster Divine), and historian David F. Wright published an essay arguing that the Westminster Confession positively teaches baptismal regeneration.  This can be found in the 1st volume of The Westminster Confession Into the 21st Century.  This same book was edited by J. Ligon Duncan, who is one of the leading critics of all things FV and NPP, but David Wright’s article doesn’t seem to match up with Duncan’s positions at all.  In fact, I discovered that Wright had actually endorsed Federal Vision-proponent Rich Lusk as one of the few contemporary Reformed theologians who accurately presented the Reformed view of baptism. That told me that something obviously wasn’t right in the supposedly traditionalist camp, and that sent me back to the books.

2. The Federal Vision wanted to address the issue of catholicity.  In other words, they wanted to examine Reformed Theology’s relationship to other Christian traditions, as well as the traditions which preceded the Reformation and those which followed it.  The Federal Vision also wanted to encourage Presbyterians to begin working with other denominations and churches to further the larger work of the Church.

3. The Federal Vision wanted to take the Bible seriously.  If a passage didn’t fit a preconceived understanding of a doctrine, the problem was ours, not the Bible’s.

4. The Federal Vision wanted to do something. This might have been the most encouraging aspect of it all for me.  While the other conservatives seemed to be most interested in kicking people out of their churches, the Federal Vision folks had some sort of positive plan for applying doctrine to worship and life.  Doug Wilson’s books on the family are some of the most helpful on the subject, it has been FVers or FV-sympathetic folks or loose associates of FV sources who most strongly promote Christian education, and it has been men like Jim Jordan, Jeff Meyers, and Peter Leithart who have written the best material on worship.

Now some cons:

1. The Federal Vision guys were actually not all that familiar with the breadth of Reformed history.  Some are better than others, but the bulk of FV is still working out of a post-Reconstructionist view of things, which is at times more wrong than right.  Somewhat rigid lines between “Reformed” and “Lutheran” (sometimes even between “Anglican”) are still held, and the overall project of Van Til is still in use by the FV.  This is simply not compatible with the way things were in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it colors everyone’s views pretty drastically.

2. The Federal Vision men have actually had a hard time of catholicity.  They want to promote it, but some pretty harsh rhetoric has come out of FV writers as well as FV critics, and the FV’s large scale disdain for any dogmatic tradition makes true catholicity fairly impossible.  richardhookerThere is a strange mix on this point, however, as you will hear much from the FV writers in praise of traditional liturgies and psalmody.  There’s a special point of appreciation for the Dutch Liberated, but it does seem to me that the FV theologians could do more to work within Reformational traditions rather than independent of them or against them.

3. The Federal Vision does often fall into an anabaptistic form of biblicism.  The wheel is reinvented, and I do believe that many of the contemporary debates could be resolved by traditional systematic distinctions (supposing that FV critics were actually interested, which is not necessarily the case).  The constant desire to do battle with competing “verses” sets progress back quite a ways.  A heavy dose of Richard Hooker should fix this problem.

4. The Federal Vision has not seemed to be able to transcend the small-time conservative fisticuffs and actually engage with the larger theological community.  I know that Evangelicals are goofy, but there are a lot of them, and some are pretty good.  The mainline churches have something left to offer, as do the 2nd Temple Jewish scholars.  Particularly neglected, it also seems to me, are some of the conservative yet still somewhat “mainstream” Dutch theologians, such as the folks at Calvin College and Seminary, as well as others in Canada like David Koyzis.

So, where does that leave me?  I suppose that I really am not Federal Vision in any unique or distinctive way.  I do appreciate all of the FV men, and I really do believe that Doug Wilson is one of the most important Evangelical leaders alive and that James Jordan is one of the few authentic geniuses among all Evangelicals.

But, when the critics of FV use the nomenclature, they mean something specific about systematic theology, and I do not know if I still fit that bill.  I am more sacramental than many in the PCA, to be sure, but I affirm the necessity of faith in order to receive the grace offered by sacraments (as do all FVers, but I’m addressing the critics).  I am more flexible when it comes to questions of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but at the end of the day I affirm what the confessions all have to say on this topic.  I am definitely not interested in making a point of compromise with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and I have spent the majority of my recent time in downright apologetics for the Reformed tradition.  I like some of N T Wright, but find other parts sorely lacking, all the while maintaining the ability for the traditional “perspective on Paul” to withstand NPP scrutiny.

In other words, I think that in a fair setting I could pass the theology test of most non-FV presbyteries.

In the end, it seems to come down to sociology and outlook, and in that regard, I’m pretty happy to be Reformed, and really Reformed at that.  I don’t need any extra labels at this point, and I’ll try to field concerns on a point by point basis.

However, there’s more to the story at present.  Opposite the Federal Vision, there is another distinctive theological subset which is very troubling.   This is the supposed “traditionalist” or “confessionalist” camp of folks like R Scott Clark and other “TRs.”  You’ll find Klineans, Clarkians, and Southern Presbyterians in this group, all claiming to defend the real deal Reformed theology, even while disagreeing sharply with each other.  The biggest problem comes in their notion of authority and definition of “Reformed.”

Scott Clark is an easy whipping boy on this point, since he’s so pugnacious and downright wrong, however the phenomena isn’t limited to him.  The basic affirmation of this group is that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Three Forms of Unity provide the dogmatic and even hermeneutical restrictions for Reformed theology.  This does not merely work negatively, stating that anything which would contradict these documents is outside the bounds, but also positively, stating that extra-confessional points of doctrine are also off-limits and that alternative points of departure or different first principles would also place one outside the boundaries of “Reformed.”  The basic result is that two Reformed confessional documents become the interpretative grid by which all Reformed ministers must read the Bible and conduct theology.

There are a number of problems with this position.  It actually contradicts the confessions themselves, is authoritarian and clericalist, and the proponents eventually contradict themselves, as they also take certain exceptions and approach theology from different first principles than those of the original Reformers and the confessions which they wrote.

1. The Westminster Confession states, “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.X).

The TRs who say that we must read the Bible through the interpretation of the confessions are actually out of accord with the confessions.  The confessions never demand that they serve as the hermeneutical grid for the Scriptures, and in fact, they teach a contrary notion of authority.

2. As one can see by reading anything Clark writes on this topic, an individual reading the confession on his own is actually insufficient.  Of John Piper’s attempt to do just this Clark writes, “Well, John didn’t consult the PCA, OPC, URCs, RCUS, or RPCNA before endorsing Doug Wilson’s orthodoxy. Wouldn’t that have been appropriate?”  Thus it becomes clear that Clark is not only asking the confessions to set the bounds of “orthodoxy,” but also a collegium of ministers to interpret the confessions for everyone else.  This is indistinguishable from the Roman Catholic position, except that Rome goes all the way and claims inspiration by the Holy Spirit in its decisions.  Clark simply replaces this with some notion of NAPARCian supremacy.

In actuality, the original Reformers looked to the civil magistrate to make any authoritative decisions regarding church organization.  And if any confessional statement did hold supremacy for the different Protestant bodies, it would have to be the Augsburg Confession, which was recognized in some fashion or another by all Protestant churches.  You can find French Reformed theologian John Durel referring to the Augsburg as “our ecumenical council” as late as 1662, in his book A View of the Government and Publick Worship of God in the Reformed Churches Beyond the Seas.  One wonders where Augsburg figures in Clark’s “confessionalism.”

3. fredwiseThe most irritating part of Clark’s program is the attempt to vindicate a contemporary controversial position under the name of tradition.  We know that Clark does not actually believe that the confessions are binding by virtue of their historicity (“tradition” in the theological sense) for the very simple reason that he himself takes exception to major portions which he deems no longer important.  Clark denies literal six-day creation.  This might be a minor point, but we’d need some rule other than the confessions to tell us so!  More central, however, is the doctrine of the civil magistrate, where Clark rejects what the entire magisterial Reformed tradition has to say.  That this cannot be considered a minor point is due to the fact that all of the Reformed owed their very existence to the power of the civil magistrate and routinely argued that what ecclesial supremacy the Roman Catholics wished for the Pope or his bishops was actually the property of the king.  This was one of the most basic foundations of Reformed polity.  Without it there simply is no Reformation.

But Clark does not hold to the original doctrine of the Two Kingdoms at all, nor is he much bothered by his discontinuity on this point.  He believes that the Reformed view was misguided and outdated, and today the confessions, in his view, derive their authority from the contemporary body which receives them.  This line of reasoning is reminiscent of John Henry Newman, but even beyond that, it effectively reduces the confessions to “club rules” documents.  However, one should not be speaking of Christian orthodoxy on the basis of contemporary and somewhat arbitrary denominational moods.  We are either talking about a holy tradition or we are not, and it is clear that Clark is not. If he limited this to the prerogatives of a human-law institution to police its boundary, that would be one thing. But his claim goes further than this. He wants to use “the church” as an expression referring to the true church, an institution with a sort of binding divine judgment, and he wants to claim this for his own party.

So if the critics are right, the Federal Vision has a Romanizing tendancy when it comes to sanctification, thus jeopardizing the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone.  But the “confessionalist” critics have a Romanizing doctrine when it comes to the definition of the Church, which also jeopardizes the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Both ditches are perilous.

So where does that leave one?  Where can you go if you just want to be “Reformed,” all the while maintaining an outward looking mission and a flexible posture for the future?  In other words, what should the normal people do?

I believe the answer is to simply stay put.  You can do what you need to do without anything drastic at all.  Know ahead of time that many so-called authorities are simply posturing.  Discount the noise they make and continue with true ministry.  Serve your local church in effective ways and handle all of this other stuff on your own time, if you can do it and remain sane.  If not, then forget it and do your real job.  Catholicity is a spirit.  Promote it.

I will continue what I’ve been doing for the last year, and my project is simply to be Reformed, in the only way that term has ever had any meaning, and press ahead without worrying about clothing-less emperors.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

81 thoughts on “The Federal Vision and Reformed Theology

  1. ****This line of reasoning is reminiscent of John Henry Newman, but even beyond that, it effectively reduces the confessions to “club rules” documents. ****

    Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way, but having recently come across what Newman had to say, I do see parallels.

    Good post.

  2. I always appreciated Leithart, and others.

    I sort of feel embarrassed by a lot of what I said when I was in seminary. I am now knowledgeable of my own ignorance (thanks, Socrates).

    The “Anglican Shock Army” guys (Wright, O’Donovan et al) helped me come out of the “theonomic/CR” camp, because I could affirm a Christendom-ish (sort of) vision without the obvious baggage.

  3. “So if the critics are right, the Federal Vision has a Romanizing tendancy when it comes to sanctification, thus jeopardizing the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone.”

    Except you know that the critics are NOT right on that point.

    Frankly, I don’t see that you’ve said anything that would make you different from a lot of folks who get identified as FV… largely because FV still isn’t really a movement, I suppose.

  4. Reasons I’m probably not FV:

    1. I am very much at peace with a continuity between medieval Thomism and Luther/Calvin Reformation. A big ol’ conglomeration of Richard Muller-style Reformed “orthodoxy” is just fine by me.

    2. I’m ok with natural law and the civil magistrate’s role in ordering Christendom.

    3. I’m not interested in Van Til or covenant-speak all over the place. I don’t see “covenant” as the controlling biblical-theological theme, nor do I see it as the main construct for the best of the Reformation scholars. It is one theme, but not the theme.

    4. I like the doctrine of the “Invisible Church.”

    5. I don’t want to re-invent a tradition, but rather I want to work from within one, all the while reserving the right to be critical and progressive where need be.

    I’m not giving any sort of conclusive refutation here. I’m just stating my own point of view these days and trying to make some sense out of ecclesiastical sociology. Of course, if it comes down to who one’s friends are, then I guess I’m up a creek… 🙂

  5. Please, Steven, explain what is your position on justification by faith alone. Who would you most liken yourself to be in league with on your position of justification by faith alone? How does the FV Romanizing of the doctrine jeopardize it? I don’t mind you saying it; I just am not able to see it. But, there are many flavors of the doctrine within the FV family. Do you see a more common opinion in the FV family on the doctrine that would make you think that it’s being Romanized? I want to say more about this article, especially the Van Til parts, but this is my main question.

  6. Hmm, I am in favor justification by faith alone. Is that enough?

    I don’t have any problem with the traditional expressions in Luther and Calvin. We are declared to be righteous by being united to Jesus Christ, who is the righteous one, and we are united to him by the Holy Spirit through faith in the gospel.

    I don’t have one specific person that I’m following on this, except for perhaps Paul 🙂 , though I think it is represented pretty roundly by Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Ursinus, Davenant, and others.

    I don’t believe that the FVers are actually “Romanizing,” but that’s the charge levied by the critics. They charge that FV makes the retention of a justified status dependent upon one’s sanctification (or ecclesiastical submission). I don’t think this is accurate.

    The one place that I suppose FVers are most vulnerable is in regards to final justification. I’ve shown that the concept of a final justification according to works is present throughout Reformed orhtodoxy:

    But the key affirmation is that the justification on the last day is itself secured by the justification in the present, which is by faith. The last-day-holiness is a product of sanctification, but this sanctification is itself definitively promised and secured through initial justification.

    Some FVers, particularly Schlissel (who I guess is no longer FV, but that just illustrates the problem with our nomenclature), were really careless on this point. N T Wright could clean it up as well.

    But again, a clear affirmation of certain dogmatic statements should have been able to clear things up. I know that this is easier said than done because men like Rich Lusk did make all of the appropriate statements, and they were promptly ignored. However, there was more than a little bit of grumbling coming from the FV which created a larger zeitgeist that said, “We don’t have to bother ourselves with traditional systematic explanations.” That more than anything was the problem.

    But I’m actually not with the FV critics. I was using them as a foil to show how the very same charge can be leveled against them. Grace is needed in both directions, and the biggest problem of this whole thing has been the inability to have any sort of mature and informed conversation.

  7. Ok. I agree with you.
    N.T. Wright says this –

    “At this point I am implicitly in dialogue with a general trend, at least since the sixteenth century, to make ‘conversion’ and ‘justification’ more or less coterminous; a trend which has been sped on its way when ‘conversion’ is understood as ‘the establishment of a personal relationship with God’, and justification has been understood in a ‘relational’ sense with the meaning, not of membership in the covenant as in the Old Testament, but of this personal relationship between the believer and God. ”
    “… This is the point about justification by faith – to revert to the familiar terminology: it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future. Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian.”

    Do you agree with this statement by Wright?

  8. I actually don’t understand very much of what he’s saying there, especially about the “‘relational’ sense of the term” or about “not ‘how someone becomes a Christian.'”

    I just don’t know what he’s talking about.

    The term “justification” is different from both conversion and “how someone becomes a Christian,” but I don’t know any serious Reformed scholar who ever had a problem here, and Wright does present himself as “correcting” a long-standing error, thus making it all confusing.

    As for “the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future.” I agree with that and like it much better than Wright’s earlier language of final justification “based on” the “whole life lived.” He’s changed here, and that’s a good thing.

  9. Here is what I think he is referring to. I think that most Evangelicals (and I mean Reformed ones) use the term justification not in the declarative way. I recall sitting under a certain Reformed Baptist’s teaching for years and the way that I heard it taught back then was not in a declarative way but that the justification by faith alone was the way in which someone was saved. In other words faith became the saving tool not that someone was saved by Christ’s work and declared just on that basis but that by you exercising your faith in Christ you became saved or declared just. The terms saved and justified were used interchangeable. When you hear me talk against justification by faith alone this is what I am referring to. Before N.T. Wright came around I recall having long drawn out conversations about the way Jerry used to describe justification by faith alone at the academy. I used to get so frustrated because the way that justification by faith was used seemed to sound more like a type of works salvation similar to what Paul accused the Jewish Christians. Even Gregg argued with me on this point then but now we agree. N.T. Wright sees what I saw in Evangelicals. If you are ‘saved’ by your faith in Christ then you have reason to boast because you did something good. You could say to the unbeliever in a prideful way, “I put faith in Christ, why won’t you.” I was so pleased to read that N.T. Wright noticed this problem as well; he writes

    “…justification presupposes the work of the Spirit, promised in the Old Testament as the one who
    would write God’s law on the hearts of his new covenant people. Justification takes place on the basis of faith because true Christian faith— belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead is the evidence of the work of the Spirit, and hence the evidence that the believer is already within the covenant. If a man believes this Gospel, his religious stance is clear. He can be neither Jew nor Greek, but only Christian. This is where it is vital to distinguish justification from regeneration. Justification is not how God makes someone a Christian: it is his righteous declaration that someone is already a Christian. Faith is not an achievement which earns salvation, but the evidence of saving
    grace already at work.”

    I think we are in agreement, yes?

  10. Wow, Steve. This is a refreshing and mature statement, and one that reflects the necessary changes through which we all go at some point. I was likely your age when all of these questions began circling in my head and it took a long time to sort them out. And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that some questions are either beyond your grasp or beyond any semblance of relevance.

    Your humility and candor in this is a breath of fresh air.

  11. I wish I knew Reformed theology well enough to have written a post like this. I have told people for years who assumed I was “totally” FV just because I sat under Wilson’s ministry and went to New St. Andrews that the extent of my FV-knowledge and sympathy only went to three points: (1) the basic idea of the “objectivity of the covenant”, (2) the basic idea of “sacramental efficacy”, and (3) the basic renaming of the Visible / Invisible church schema to Historical / Eschatological.

    Other than those general points, I have not had the time to follow about 90% of the FV controversies and developments, and certainly cannot write this sort of appreciation / critique of them. I do think, however, that your criticisms are right on, specifically on the points about Van Tilianism’s negative effects and the leanings toward an extreme form of biblicism. Great post!

  12. Tim Enloe: ” . . . the extent of my FV-knowledge and sympathy only went to three points”

    Well, Tim, those points, as far as I can tell are the salient points of the FV: the “substance” of the FV, if you will. One thing that I have noticed lately is that some of the critics of the FV are looking at the accidents of certain FV ministers and saying, “Oh, see, now that is what happens when you go that route.”

    The FV has taken on the attributes of its proponents in many ways, and I think unfairly so. Those three points you listed are things that Steve would have no problem agreeing with you on. But people have pointed to one man’s penchant for dispensing with traditionally Reformed terminology, another man’s alleged “patriarchalism”, or this man’s use of clerical vestments and will say, “Look at what the FV has done to our churches, blah, blah, blather, blather.”

    But one thing that I think is important is that you have evangelicals redefining terms all the time, traditional Reformed guys who fit the mold of patriarchalists to a bloody tee, and low-church folks like the REC who wear vestments. All these extraneous things are detracting from the three points that really are at the core of what the FV is trying to regain – three things that have been lost by a huge chunk of the Protestant world.

  13. Steven

    This is very helpful, and fairly unique in the whole discussion of these issues.

    I had a few of questions if you had time to address:

    1) What is your approach to the paedo communion issue, pretty much this seems to divide the camps (I recognise there are a few who slip across both ways). Should there be breadth on this issue regarding historic reformed church? Should presbyteries allow freedom in a reformed church?
    2) Is there any writers/lecturers/professors in reformed seminaries who would generally be in agreement in public with the approach you outline to the reformed faith?
    3) How should someone act who sincerely wants to follow your appraoch but finds themselves in a church with a Scott Clark type as their minister.

  14. Oh I forgot one

    4) What good books materials interact in a helpful way with Van til – as this seems to be at the heart of it.

  15. 1) I am in favor of paedocommunion. I know that it gets tied in polemically with FV, but there are plenty of non-FVers who support it, and at the time of the first FV conference, Wilkins was the only speaker who was paedocom. Schlissel is still a visceral critic of it.

    You’ll also note PCA folks who support paedocom- Robert Rayburn Jr. being the most notable. A lot of folks don’t know, but the OPC actually wrote a majority report in favor of paedocom:

    A good number of Lutherans and Anglicans also support paedocom, and I doubt many of them have heard of FV.

    As for historical sources, Luther was fairly open to paedocom (he thought infants capable of faith and receiving grace through sacraments), and the two Reformed men, who I’ve read, that supported it were Wolfgang Musculus (1st generation Reformer) and William Bedall, an Irish Anglican and friend of James Ussher. So I would say that while a minority it view, it can be situated within a traditional Reformed position.

    2) I’ve taken a good bit of my inspiration from Richard Muller and Paul Avis. I could also think that Lyle Bierma and David Wright (recently deceased) would be in agreement. I think that the moderate Barthians would be close to me (though I don’t agree with Barth’s view of Scripture!), as would any number of moderate Reformed: Reformed Anglican/Episcopalians, Conservative EPC or PCUSA folks, some CRC, etc.

    I doubt that I’m too far from some folks at RTS-Orlando, Calvin, Erskine, Redeemer Canada, and McGill. I’m sure we have our points of difference, but I bet we agree on the general picture.

    3) Tough call. Be nice and do whatever you can to be agreeable and pleasant. If things get too out of hand, I would say you are free to go somewhere else. I don’t regard denominations as churches, and as long as you conduct your business peaceably and in good faith, you can transfer to another congregation without schism.

    Major on the majors though. Don’t cause a ruckus over something that really isn’t important.

    4) Ah, now there’s a good question. John Frame has actually done a bit in his book on Van Til. There was also a book, now out of print, called Jerusalem and Athens which had critical essays in it.

    The real resource, however, is still waiting to be written by Peter Escalante!

  16. Dave, well, I’m gratified to hear that despite my theological-dilettantishness I’ve managed to understand the “substance” of the FV even if I am not well acquainted with all it’s “accidents.” 🙂

    I suppose (just talking off the top of my head) that the three things I listed are big defining marks of what has been called “the Magisterial Reformation” as opposed to “the Radical Reformation.” To the extent that the FV movement upholds the Magisterial cause over the Radical, I am all for it. On the other hand, I have seen some FV ministers talk like Radicals on the point of “sola” Scriptura as it relates to secondary norms, and that’s not a good thing.

  17. Well, the invisible church is a big deal for the Magisterial Reformers, especially Luther.

    He applied it more to polity and authority than sacramental efficacy, of course.

  18. Steve: “Well, the invisible church is a big deal for the Magisterial Reformers, especially Luther.”

    The concept that there exists a body of people that are truly elect that is separate from the actual sum of all the parish rosters is about as innocuous a doctrine as can be had. Nobody believes that all formal members of the Church go to Heaven whether they have faith or not. When people criticise the invisible church, they are not critiquing the truth that some people are truly, inwardly, Christian and others are not. I think that mainly the invisible church doctrine has been used (or abused, really) to justify all sorts of things that really are not justifiable.

    So in that sense, I have no problem with the idea of an invisible Church as being separate from the actual entity which ordains, baptises, consecrates, weds, anoints, &c. And I don’t think anybody else does either. On the other hand, I can’t think of a sane Christian of the Reformed persuasion who wouldn’t be able to admit that the invisible church doctrine has been over-emphasised to the exclusion of a truly Reformed ecclesiology.

    So in terms of a doctrine that addresses who is Christian internally as well as externally, I don’t know that there is any real disagreement. The only person here who doesn’t like the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church – as it is typically used by Reformed Christians – is that Catholic guy. I see absolutely no reason for any disagreement between Protestants on this issue at all. I find it wholly baffling why there is any debate on this at all.

  19. Good post, Steven. It makes me glad that you are using your powers for good. Excellent critique of both sides of the FV debate.

  20. Very helpful. And I think I would be fairly near where you are.

    As a follow up and, and again using the paedo communion as a test case to compare one aspect of FV with the majority held historic view:

    1) Could you comment on what you see as the role of the confessions in the life of the church – and if you think that is consistent with your 16th/17th C pals. With regard to paedo communion the other side would argue that it was never accepted in the confessions (although you could argue it was never condemned). The anti paedo communionists acknowledge there are some who would hold to it, but I suppose see that as irrrelevant as it never made it into the confessions, and so see them more like a ‘deformed’ species which eventually wither and die out in the church.

    2) Why do you think Calvin was anti paedo communion? Was it to do with his strong emphasis on faith in the christian life? What weakness was there in his theology which meant he did not seem to contemplate it? Do the anti paedo communionists had the same concerns as Calvin or are they opposing it for other reasons?

  21. 1) I think the Confessions are general boundary markers, stating the position of the Church as a whole on certain topics of doctrine. I don’t believe they have to be our hermeneutical starting point, but I do believe that they set some rules and put a public face on any specific church. I do, however, draw a distinction between essential and non-essential doctrine, and I am happy to leave the final decision to the people of the church and presbytery.

    If Paedocom. was condemned by a confession, then I think we’d have a real issue here. As it stands, it is hardly addressed at all. As far as the Westminster Standards go, I think I only had to state one exception to a Larger Catechism question. The LC is something that few churches ever use anymore, by the way. Most are lucky to work through the Shorter Catechism. Some folks stop with the Children’s Catechism!

    So if a document really is a place-holder in our day (not that it ought to be), then I think it is a bit disingenuous to suppose a single exception to it brings down the whole establishment.

    2) Calvin seems to base his position on worthy communion entirely, or almost entirely, on 1 Cor. 11. He understands it to mean something that requires one to have reached the age of reason in order to actively believe and repent. He understands it to teach “self-examination.”

    I disagree with Calvin on this point, and I find his exegesis lacking. He says that baptism never gives conditions like the Supper does, but having once been a baptist, I find that a difficult claim. If 1 Cor. 11 is teaching a universal precondition of self-examination prior to communing, then surely the “repent and be baptized” passages do the same for baptism. Calvin says that these sorts of statements cannot be taken as universal, lest the famous “If a man does not work, let him not eat.” is also taken to be universal. Well, why can’t I carry that all the way into the communion question?

    I also happen to think that this was a very minor issue for Calvin. The only people bringing it up were the anabaptists, and then, they only brought it up as a reductio ad absurdum. I would have loved to see Calvin carefully interact with Musculus’ argument, but I haven’t seen anything like that in his works. A quick dismissal is usually all one will find.

  22. I only read the first half, because it is late (I’ll be back!) but this is a great post. The amount of thought you put into your beliefs and the humility to admit necessary changes is one of the top things I love and respect about you.

    However, I highly disagree with the “single” part. Maybe single-but-taken, but not single–Facebook says so.

  23. Re. Anna’s last couple sentences: That is a stinging critique, Steven. And a point I think you need to address in order to retain your credibility!

    More seriously: I really appreciate this post, brother. Thanks for your honesty and candor.

    My only criticism would be that I’m not so sure that Clark and the confessionalists have a Romanist view of authority, although it does come close. Clericalist and authoritarian, yes; Romanist, no–at least not in principle. *In principle*, at least, they do hold confessional doctrine to be reformable by the church. But you’re right to point out the arbitrary way in which their principles are implimented in actual practice.

    In interpreting WCF 1.10, we also need to take ch. 31 into consideration. Of course it is true that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority, but Synods and Councils nevertheless have been (at least according to Wesminster) entrusted with the duty to “ministerially determine matters of faith”, and their decrees are to be accepted no only because they are consonant with Scripture, but also because God himself has invested them with authority as “an ordinance… appointed thereunto in his word” (31.2). In this way Westminster attempts to walk the fine line of retaining the ability to say “We really have authority” while at the same time leaving the door open to declaring at a later time, “We have erred”.

    I don’t see the confessionalists as saying much different than this *in principle*. Though when considering the implementation of the principles in actual practice, it is easy to get the impression that the idea that “We have erred” is in reality an utter impossibility. It’s also easy to get the impression that NAPARC rules the universe.

  24. Friends and concerned parties,

    I only meant to use “single” in opposition to “married.”

    I am, it is true, romantically involved. In Facebook terms, I think that Anna and I have moved beyond the “It’s complicated” stage to “In a relationship.”

    Check my wall for any further updates.

  25. JB,

    A few rejoinders- I use Romanist in a loose sense, meaning the basic clericalist understanding of authority to which the Reformers objected. No one today is arguing for infallible authority, it is true. Heck, few RCs are doing that!

    But Presbyterians have been charged with a “Romanizing” tendency since the days of John Milton, so I do not think that my use of the term is novel or out of line.

    To WCF 31- I simply can’t resist asking about what has become of 31. “As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion…” That part is apparently gone now.

    But more to your point, 31.4 states, “Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”

    That’s my position. The confessions are a help. They are not a regula fidei. Only the loosest of “loose subscriptionists” will be unable to go here.

    But the “Confessionalists” of our day are quite different. They want the confessions to be the “lens” by which we read Scripture. This sets the cart before the horse, and the Romanizing really pops up in some of their defenses for this way of doing so. They will often mention the problem of everyone having their own “presuppositions” which they bring to the text, and thus in an effort to combat this, they wish to name the confessions as their presuppositions. That’s the practical equivalent to the old Jesuit epistemology.

  26. SW,


    Though I consider accusations of “Romanizing tendencies” to be unhelpful (and such accusations come from all sides, as you know), I think we agree, at least generally.

    I certainly don’t view the WCF as the lens through which Scripture should be understood, and I agree that such a practice puts the cart before the horse. I’m not defending the hard-core confessionalists per se, just saying that their understanding of authority should be distinguished, in principle at least, from the papalists.

  27. Yes, Liccione is a prime example. Newman is probably the granddaddy of the movement, but it is displayed in most Vatican II RCism.

    It still claims infallibility in name, but it is willing to severely limit what has ever met Vatican I criteria, as well as openly espouse changes in the tradition (the rejection of Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino are glaring).

    Compare my RC friend Arturo Vasquez with Liccione. One of them actually believes in historical Catholicism and the other does not.

  28. I found this post very interesting and very helpful. It’s really refreshing to see someone study hard and really dig into the past without coming out Eastern Orthodox or something. Seems like EO is all the rage these days, and many young, Reformed folks are flocking to it in droves.

  29. Hey David,

    Don’t ever forget that these people got into Reformed churches through a sort of fantasy quest. They were in some form or other of reaction against their fundamentalist upbringing, and “Reformed” was brainier and more impressive for a while.

    Then they decided they would be cosmopolitan or sophisticated in some other way, and it is funny when you see the combination of vintage clothes, veganism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Somebody needed a hug from momma back in the day.

  30. Ha! Exactly! It’s a very strange feeling to look back on our xanga days several years ago with the realization that probably most of those Reformed friends (with the exception of you, me, and a few others) have now turned Eastern Orthodox. I guess it’s the cool thing to do right now.

    I just ordered James Jordan’s newly updated “The Liturgy Trap,” and am interested to see what he says there. I was pretty impressed with his series of articles several years ago on The Second Word, and have been passing them around to everyone whose gaze seems to be lingering a little too long on EO or RC material.

    Have you read Robert Letham’s recent book on Eastern Orthodoxy? If so, what did you think? He seems a bit more sympathetic to EO than Jordan in ways (much more relaxed about the icon issue, for sure).

  31. Hey don’t forget the guys who went Traditionalist Catholic!

    Again though, you have to ask what these folks were really looking for. They need a certain culture that can encourage their particular hobby-horse. Are you a slightly cranky paleo-conservative who wishes modernity hadn’t come around (and perhaps you harbor some racist sentiments as well)? Then hard-line medieval Catholicism is for you.

    Are you kind of a Hippy who wishes we could all get back to the farm and just enjoy a mystic or “experiential” religion without all the stuffy book-learning? Do you prefer the obscure and mysterious, the aesthetic over the true? Well, then post-60s Orthodoxy in America is just for you. Just ask Franky Schaeffer and all the Campus Crusade for Christ folks.

    Now surely these generalizations don’t capture everyone’s experience. But my oh my if they don’t stick to most of the folks I’ve seen. And if we zoom out to the same sort of movements which land kids in non-Christian fellowships: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Ba’hai, etc., then you really do see the sociology at work.

    As for Letham, I was pretty disappointed with his book on the whole. He does try to give a fair description of Orthodoxy prior to a critique, which is certainly needed, but he never really seems to get around to any tough critique. I think the best he could do was call them Arminian!

    Letham is pretty into the various “Eastern narratives” of the Trinity and the early church, so he’s a little ham-strung. He still wants to be a “Five Pointer” though, and so his final analysis comes out a little confused.

  32. What are those who are heavy into van til and all its spins offs (who you describe as yourself at one time) searching for and why are they attracted to it? can you spot a common ‘searching’ sociological theme for them?

  33. A few different things come up. The continuation of the fundamentalist battle against “Liberals,” the dominance of “Reformed” even over and against “Evangelical,” an answer to pomo, “Christian Culture,” and the political vision of Rushdoony et al.

    It depends on the specific sub-school, but yes, you can find a few themes that attract people. FV, for example, is liturgical theonomy.

  34. 1) Would you see the van tillians following after Machen in some respects? And are some of those characteristics the product of Machen in particular? I think John Frame wrote about that one time. Or would you distinguish the legacy of Machen and Van til?

    2) Do you have any references to where Luther makes neutral/postive comments re paedo communion or related issues?

    3) And perhaps more difficult, where do you think the FV movement will head in the next 10/15 years?

  35. 1) Originally yes, but Van Til’s students, at least the most zealous, have always slightly resented the fact that Machen was himself not a presuppositionalist. Van Til loved Machen, and certainly retained Machen’s exclusivistic disposition towards the church. That is the point that Frame makes.

    But now there’s been a bit of a split between the Van Tillians. The Reconstructionists and now FVers are going to be less interested in Machen, though Norman Shepherd loves Machen and credits him for the source of his reading of James 2 and “obedient faith.”

    Many of Machen’s “Warrior Children” are also rejecting the concept of “Christian culture” (see Westminster Cali.) and thus they will have some problem with Van Til and the Dutch tradition.

    2) Luther writes in his Large Catechism:

    Let this, then, be said for exhortation, not only for those of us who are old and grown, but also for the young people, who ought to be brought up in the Christian doctrine and understanding. For thereby the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer might be the more easily inculcated to our youth, so that they would receive them with pleasure and earnestness, and thus would practise them from their youth and accustom themselves to them. For the old are now well-nigh done for, so that these and other things cannot be attained, unless we train the people who are to come after us and succeed us in our office and work, in order that they also may bring up their children successfully that the Word of God and the Christian Church may be preserved. Therefore let every father of a family know that it is his duty by the injunction and command of God, to teach these things to his children, or have them learn what they ought to know. For since they are baptized and received into the Christian Church, they should also enjoy this communion of the Sacrament, in order that they may serve us and be useful to us; for they must all indeed help us to believe, love, pray, and fight against the devil.


    Notice that last line: “For since they are baptized and received into the Christian Church, they should also enjoy this communion of the Sacrament.” That’s paedocom reasoning.

    3) Nowhere in particular. Obviously the CREC, of which I am a member, will start to model most of the FV-ish distinctives, but many FVers will stay in the OPC and PCA, and elsewhere. It isn’t really a “movement” in any sort of organized sense, and once the denominational report hoop-la blows over, the folks interested in FV will pan out into other areas as well.

    I’m not at all worried about their direction. I just think they need some prolegomena tools and the mature methodology of Christendom.

  36. Thanks for all that Steven. It has been very helpful.

    One last thing – do you think the purging of ‘FV’ from within the american presbyterian denominations is dying down or will the hyper confessionalists keep going at it?

  37. I think it will die down. The SJC’s role in the PCA is something of concern, and so we’ll have to see how that is used in the future, but I think everything else is over.

    Of course, I think that the future of the PCA itself will also include “dying down.” This year they reported “negative growth.” Great nomenclature that is.

    The Kellerites and Broad Evangelicals will ultimately carry the day, and I don’t say that as a consolation.

  38. A very fine post, Steven. The deconstruction of what a mutual friend of ours would call the “windmill thrusting wackos” was particularly to the point (ably stated in a not unrelated context by Milton re his “new presbyter/old priest writ large” aphorism). Great work.

  39. Steven

    I am still thinking through what you see as the legacy of Westminster (the proper one on the East!).

    It has been the normal mantra to say that Van Til did not see himself as doing anything different from the 17th Cent reformed orthodoxy/Hermna Bavinck. Is that simplistic?

    What is the legacy of Professor John Murray?

    Where does Norman Shepherd fit into all fo this? Is he the true trajectory of Van Til/Murray?

    How come Norman Shepherd now seems to have found a home amongst the old theonomists (Andrew Sandlin etc)?

    You think eventually the PCA will move more broad evangelicism. What is the direction of the OPC wrt the histroic reformed church?

  40. I always thought Van Til was the “demolition” man. Didn’t Frame present him in this way?

    Bavinck is much more at home with natural revelation and the older scholastic way. But I’m not an expert on these things.

    I personally like Murray, but he’s definitely a player here. His little pamphlet on the covenant calls for a wholesale redefinition, and I believe that this is exactly what Shepherd was trying to do. Shepherd was Murray’s hand-picked successor, and he still preaches in Murray’s robe to this day.

  41. And Shepherd was always a friend to the theonomists, who initially were just hardline Van Tillians. I think it is a social thing, though there is a line of continuity between Presbyterianism and theonomy. Joey Pipa’s defense of the Lord’s Day is pretty much Bahnsen’s hermeneutics of continuity.

    I think Shepherd was Van Tillian, postmil, and covenantal, a man interested in Christendom. That’d be the major point of contact.

    As for OPC, I don’t know. They’re already pretty small, and I can’t imagine them “broadening” their horizons.

  42. Steven,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it. I was wondering if you could elaborate the following point.

    “So if the critics are right, the Federal Vision has a Romanizing tendancy when it comes to sanctification, thus jeopardizing the Reformational doctrine of justification by faith alone. But the “confessionalist” critics have a Romanizing doctrine when it comes to the definition of the Church, which also jeopardizes the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Both ditches are perilous.”

    I am really interested in how you would flesh out the second part. It is a thought provoking point that I have not heard before, nor thought of. I would enjoy to read this point deeper. Thanks again!

  43. Josh,

    Think of it along the lines of the pre-Reformational conciliarists. They said that every Christian was capable of calling and interpreting a “council.” The king ended up being the logical man to do this, since he had the far-reaching power to do so.

    The papalists rejected this by saying that only ordained ministers had the ability to determine religious questions. Thus, only the pope could call a council, and only the bishops and cardinals could properly interpret both Scripture and tradition.

    Combine this with “no salvation outside of the church” or even the modified “no ordinary salvation outside the visible church” and you get the basic conclusion that for a layman to maintain his good standing inside the visible church, and thus ordinarily his salvation, he must follow the rules laid down by the qualified clergy. In other words, salvation is mediated through a priestly class.

    Fast-forward to the present. Certain “confessionalists” in, oh let’s say, the URC do not believe that John Piper’s church is a church. Thus he is not within the visible church. So, ordinarily, what does that say about the spiritual state of he and his congregants?

    At the end of the day, the answer will be to quietly slide that bit about “ordinarily no salvation” under the rug, but it is in the confession and the tradition.

  44. FV is liturgical theonomy? I thought the Regulative Principle was Liturgical Theonomy. If not commanded, forbidden.

    I got Schlissel to admit that his attack on the RPW worked against Bahnsenite theonomy as much as against the RPW. Same Hermeneutics.

    Both noble, both a bridge too far.

    Good thoughts,

  45. Just a brief thought. I attend Reformed Episcopal Seminary outside Philadelphia, right down the road from Westminster, and I attend a PCA church. Most people I discuss the FV issue with at church are all up and arms against, giving me “the eye” making sure I’m not one of them (though I probably am more aligned with them than the likes of the Clarkians). And when I discuss the issue at school with my professors, the one tells me he is friends with Joel Garver, and all of them look at me like, “So what is the Big Deal?” It seems to me that alot of the issues the FV has brought up is actually, about the Church, Sacraments, the role of works, and the like, are very much Anglican.

    I told that to my elder, and his response was something like, “Well, if these guys want to be Anglican, they can go else where. We are Presbyterians, and the Westminster Confession is what we subscribe to, granted with limited exceptions.”

    I don’t know… it just seems that it is all helping me understand the Spirit of Catholicity as you were saying, and to understand that “Reformed” is an Adjective, not a Noun. We are to be Reformed Catholics.

  46. Luke,

    He makes some valid points, though what has to be said is that all the anti-baptists rhetoric from FV is part and parcel of the Reformed tradition. That flaw isn’t unique to FV really.

    Also, I’m not sure why he’s scared of baptismal efficacy or an objective covenant. The Bible plainly teaches that stuff. 🙂

  47. Steven,

    Thank you for writing this.

    I disagree with you on a range of issues (e.g. I have a much higher regard for Van Til than you do); but always appreciate what you have to say.

    If the LORD grants you the time, I am hopeful that He will use you to be a great blessing to His Church.

    Your brother,


  48. The phrase “church invisible” can have more than one meaning. After all, there are “invisible” depths in all human beings. Not all that the church does is visible in human society (though given her missional calling, most of it should be). Etc.

    If, however, what is meant is “all of the elect of all time,” that is simply not a church at all. It is a list of people in the mind of God. The words qahal and ekklesia cannot be stretched to refer to a list in the mind of God. This traditional language has proven unhelpful and pernicious, which is why so many have rejected it over the past century. “The list of the elect known to God” is a perfectly adequate way to speak. To call this an “invisible church” adds nothing but confusion.

  49. Good post Steven. I’m always impressed by your reasoning and knowledge of primary sources, and I never fail to learn something from you.

    We need to talk about Romans one day. I think Wright’s reading of Romans makes the most sense out of what I read, but I’m sure there are problems.

  50. My my, you are up late (or early?) Jim. Don’t you have a conference to run? 🙂

    I agree with your point. I don’t think that’s the force of “invisible church” in the original Reformers, however, as Luther certainly didn’t use it that way. I think that some of our guys have more traditional Presbyterianism in them than Luther, though, at least when it comes to polity, and thus we are going to have to be very careful on this point.

  51. Jim,

    A few thoughts in defense of the idea of the invisible church. The idea of the invisible church is absolutely crucial to the doctrine of the Reformers; whoever denies it is not an evangelical Christian. But it never meant, neither in the Reformers nor in any of the great theologians up through the 20th c, a list in the mind of God: it means rather the set, whether taken at any given time or through all time, of persons truly incorporate in Christ by faith, as distinct from those visibly incorporate in the visible body of professors.

    The recent confusion has come not from the tradition, which was always eminently clear on this point, but rather mostly from the unclearness of certain expositions of the “Federal Vision” and from the antecedents of that among some of the marginal Reformed. The consensus of evangelical catholics is that man is justified neither by conformity to law nor union with sign, but is justified by faith alone. This justification is union with Christ, and places the believer beyond law as the measure of justification, though law remains as the norm of his charity. The visibility of the Church and its signs ( word and sacraments) are means of presenting Christ for true belief- belief which is ongoing, not punctiliar, and which must be lively trust, not mere notional assent- but they are not Christ himself. Christ presents himself through them as through a window, and belief passes through them to Christ; they are a medium but not mediators. Belief unites a man directly to Christ, and this relation of union is as such invisible, though where it exists it has outward signs and effects. One presumes in charity that faith exists where profession does; but one cannot apodictically deduce it from that. All believers are professors; not all professors are believers.

    Hence, the number of professors is not necessarily equal to the number of believers; and this is just as true on the Lutheran or even Barthian view of election as it is on the more mainline Reformed account; it has primarily to do with the nature of faith, not that of election. The mystical body of believers is as such invisible: thus we have always called it the “invisible church” or “vera ecclesia,” but it is not a mere list in the mind of God: it is the very communion of saints itself. The visible church is a sign and effect of that communion, and can even be said to stand to it in a way as body does to soul, but it is not the same thing quite; and has no independent, mediating existence between the believer and Christ, any more than the sound of the preached Gospel does. To use the language of medeival politics: the invisible church is the spirituality of the catholic church; the visible church is the temporality of it.


  52. Peter,

    I think you are giving Presbys too easy of a go here. It is routinely argued, and was even pre-FV, that the “invisible church” is the whole number of the elect, and that is the “real church,” thus rendering historic congregations only approximations of being the church.

    Sacraments were obviously out, as was the corporate language which the NT applies to congregations. Everything is subsumed under personal election.

  53. Steven,

    Fair point about the Presbyterians and their emphasis on election in the matter of the mystical church; I wasn’t disagreeing with Jim’s critique of certain hyper-Reformed mistakes, just defending the old language and the old doctrines expressed by them. The old Protestant doctors did call the invisible church “vera ecclesia”, “true church”, as distinct from the “ecclesia permixta”, which was not, however, thereby the false church. There’s nothing wrong with saying that historic congregations only approximate the mystical communion, so long as it’s understood that the two are aspects of one thing, and that the mystical communion of saints is the inward reality of the outward gathering, insofar as that gathering is the covenanted place of the Word (and rites are visible Word, of course).


  54. Steven,

    Excellent post. I thoroughly appreciate what you wrote here. Just two comments, and I fully admit I read your post pretty fast and only skimmed the comments (little short on time here) so forgive me if I have missed a point or skipped something that already addresses these comments.

    1) I think you might be understating the difference between TR and FV. The TRs tend toward a very baptistic understanding of covenant theology, and this I take to be the critical point of division between the two schools of thought. Having been a member of both OPC and CREC churches, I believe the importance of this distinction cannot be overstated.

    2) I am interested to hear you elaborate on your comment that covenant is not the primary theme in the Bible. It seems to me that it is the ground and context of all of God’s redemptive work–but then, I am still in the heady stage of discovering the insights of a Trinity-grounded theology of the covenants, so I cannot claim to have a detached perspective on the matter.

  55. Kent,

    As someone from the TR wing of the Reformed world – I think that the tendency is to overstate the differences between the TR and FV schools of thought. Therefore, the speed with which some of my fellow TR’s wanted to dismiss and condemn FV’s gives me concern for the brittleness and insecurity that has crept into parts of the Reformed world. Regretfully, my brothers who are leaning toward the FV have often returned the favor.

    One of the things to realize is that the Church is not divided between those who are reading B.B. Warfield and R.C. Sproul vs. those who are reading Doug Wilson and Jim Jordan. I remember how surprised I was two decades ago to discover how many PCA church members in MS were reading Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller. Today the names and media have changed. But it is not at all unusual to talk with people who are visiting (or are members of) NAPARC congregations who are listening to Pat Robertson or even Joyce Meyer. Those pastors who respond to that claim by saying “not in my church” should join the “head in the sand” list serve. The fact is that Americans watch a lot of Television and retired people watch a lot of religious broadcasting – and they watch what is on the air not what we wish was on the air. If you step back a bit and look at Christianity as a whole, you will see that the TR folk and the FV folk are standing shoulder-to-shoulder (even if right now that includes poking each other in the ribs).

    The conservative Reformed world will probably go through some sort of re-alignment over the next 40-50 years. While individuals will do so, we have every reason to expect that the URC and OPC are not going to join the Southern Baptists and the CREC is not going to submit to the Pope. Maybe it would be best if we gave the labels “Romanizing” and “Baptistic” a rest – and take the time to listen to each other a little more closely.

    Your brother,


  56. Thanks Steven for the intellectual honesty to investigate and humbly report your summary. I appreciate the clarity and desire for even-handed reporting.

    In addition, your summary on final justification is one that I’ve been wrestling with and came to the same conclusion as you stated here, but have not been able to so succinctly articulate it.

    “But the key affirmation is that the justification on the last day is itself secured by the justification in the present, which is by faith. The last-day-holiness is a product of sanctification, but this sanctification is itself definitively promised and secured through initial justification.”

    Thanks again.

  57. David,

    I see what you’re saying, and it’s true that the more you broaden the categories of Christians we’re talking about, the closer FV and TR are to each other. But I’m not sure how meaningful it is to broaden those categories in this particular discussion–I mean, we could go all the way and say that, if you look at the divide between Christians and Muslims, Pat Robertson and Greg Bahnsen are actually on the same side. It would be completely true, but not exactly relevant to the debate between those two theologians.

    Same with FV and TR. Taking them by themselves, the division is a pretty strong one, as far as I can see. At anyrate, my own outlook on life underwent a pretty copernican revolution once the implications of certain FV distinctives had a chance to work themselves out practically, and I’ve seen the same happen to many others.

  58. Steven,

    I live in New Hampshire where perpetual winter is not merely a metaphorical concept. But, as for me and my house, we do celebrate Christmas!

    Sadly, there is a great deal of truth to your observation. As my wife has frequently lamented: “the call to worship in a typical OPC church is totally devoid of excitement and joy.” That may seem like a small point – but I believe that it points to a much broader and quite regrettable reality.


    I disagree strongly with your argument. There is a world of difference between widening the scope of our vision to other Christians and widening it to include non-Christian religions. Christians are not part of a philosophical club but are members of the family of God. Don’t we confess our belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? Well this TR believes it.

    What does this mean in practice? On a very small scale it means that when we look at Missouri Synod Lutherans, Reformed Episcopalians, and Southern Baptists, we should first see them as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than as people who are in error because they disagree with my denomination’s confession of faith. Historically, this means recognizing a far greater degree of continuity between the Church in the middle ages and the post-Reformation churches than is commonly done.

    Returning to my point …

    If a group of Christians from the fourteenth century were to compare the theologies of Lig Duncan and Doug Wilson – they would be struck by how extraordinarily similar they are. I want to suggest that Christians looking back 600 years from now will say the same thing. This doesn’t mean that there are no differences, or that the differences are of no significance; but they are differences within one clan, of one tribe, within the one family of God.

  59. BTW – That last post was by me.

    I apologize that WordPress had automatically logged me in under another heading – I wasn’t trying to post anonymously.


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  61. Steven,

    Thank you very much for a very edifying entry. I’m a little late in reading it. I remember our conversations before you entering RTS Jackson and it was fun to trace your pilgrimage. I think your review of the FV is the most balance, most objective I’ve read to date. Thank you for your labor of love.


  62. Steven,
    Interesting stuff. Just a couple of items I’d be interested in your feedback on:

    1. D.G. Hart is the most extreme representative of confessionalism, and he’s radically inconsistent. In a discussion a couple years ago on de regno christi, he basically articulated a formally Roman view of authority: because the confessions are the collective witness of the church, no individual interpretation can actually have the standing to challenge that witness. Oddly enough, he also was one who often demanded of the FVers that they pursue the given channels of changing the confession: proposing an overture to the GA. But, by his own standard, no individual or even local presbytery should be listened to, since it could never have equal weight to the collective witness of the church. Thus, there is a catch-22: the only thing that has equal authority to the confession is another confession, so the proposal to alter the confession could only be considered if it were already confession…I couldn’t get Darryl to see that this was essentially the Roman argument, where every interpretation has to be subservient to this unalterable authority. He actually went on from there to suggest that the Confession must be treated as a sermon, and thus as have that status of authority–which sounds utterly novel to me (ironically). Having read a great deal of the tradition, how did the church view the confessions, especially WCF? From the preface to it, it did not seem that they intended it even to be a binding creed, but rather a guide to the important issues of the day for pastors, teachers, and parents…

    2. What do you think of the FV statement’s view of law and gospel–that it is a difference in the heart of the reader, rather than in the texts themselves? Is there precedent for that in the tradition? Wilson doesn’t make a historical case for it, and the only other person who really goes after it is Clark, who ignores any difference or nuance between Luther and Calvin…I do think that this view makes good sense out of Rom. 10 on the righteousness of the law vs. the righteousness of faith–both look to the Mosaic covenant, but one looks at what must be done, the other at what God has already done…



  63. 1) The role of confessions changes over time. The Scots got pretty “strict subscriptionist” after the WCF, but obviously the English didn’t. They went on to toss it out completely!

    Dabney thinks that the WCF is really broad. He even says that it makes no specific statement regarding the limited/unlimited expiation debate. I’m not sure that I agree with him, but it is interesting to see his read of it.

    Typically it depends on the mood of the immediate community. In reality, of course, the majority leadership decides and works the confessions in subordinately. It is like this today (see the anti-FVer’s refusal to allow confessional language on the sacraments), and it was like this in the past.

    2) I think that the FV is most out of the tradition when it comes to law/gospel. I’ve seen a Zwingli quote to support unifying the law and the gospel, but that’s about it. The vast majority of the Reformed, to include Calvin, have a “Lutheran” law/gospel.

    This is, of course, very different from the West-Cali neo-LutheroBaptistic law/gospel, which reduces everything to imperative vs. indicative.

  64. Joshua,

    Take a look at Robert Letham’s new book on the Westminster Assembly. Dr. Letham shows how the view of the Assembly’s work at the time of the Assembly is different than how it is treated in NAPARC today.

    In case you are not aware of this, Dr. Letham was an OPC pastor until last month when he transferred his membership into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Wales (he now teaches in Wales).


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  66. Somehow I missed the responses to my last comment. Although a year has passed and few people will see it, it may be worthwhile to clear up what I was trying to say about a big divide between TR and FV, just in case somebody who knows me comes across this.

    First, I wasn’t saying that the division between FV and TR is comparable to the one between Christians and Muslims. I was just saying that the wider you make the circle, the closer the two positions will look. Since most of us here are working in a much narrower circle (the Reformed community in America) it makes sense to draw distinctions on that level. And on that level, the divide between TR and FV is real.

    I was raised in a TR church, by TR parents and teachers, all of whom I have consistently loved and honored in the course of my migration. I have no interest in disowning them. Apparently I was understood as saying the opposite. I’m not sure how.

    Second, I wasn’t saying that the FV was Narnia and TRs were the White Witch. If my “soul’s awakening” experience was overblown, well, you gotta admit it’s a big deal to come out of a sectarian, rationalistic, and baptist-trending position and enter a sacramental, small-c catholic, postmillennial, covenant-renewal-worship position. The world does look different after that.

  67. So is Letham within the FV now? And can someone evaluate where the FV is now? I find myself close to the FV on the visible Church, sacraments, etc. And some aspects of covenant. But I also am close to Luther, on justification, law/gospel. And I don’t like the NPP! And yet, I am closer to the Orthodox on Christology and the Trinity of God. And like SW, I still like much with/in Federal Calvinism. And though I am an Anglican, I am a conservative one. But in the US right now.

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