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. At 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. There 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. The 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.