Though the public fires of the FV controversy have been seemingly doused, it clearly smolders still under the surface. Men seeking ordination in denominations that have condemned the Federal Vision have faced very pointed questions on which side they fall. Thus I put this together, considering that I have an entire category on my blog titled “Federal Visioning,” and the fact that I have written and talked about it very vocally elsewhere.
At the very start, I must say that an answer to the question “What do you think of the Federal Vision?” is a more complex animal than, say, the answer to the question, “What do you think of the Federal Reserve?” The latter is an organization, the former is not even remotely close to a unified movement. A more precise question, one which I could answer, would be something like “What do you think of Douglas Wilson?” Each of the men involved in the Federal Vision hold to differently nuanced positions, with different emphasies. Some focus on the Trinity (Smith), others the coveant (Barach, Wilkins), others on baptism (Leithart, Wilson), others the election/covenant matrix (Lusk), and the active obedience of Christ (Jordan, Lusk). All of these men address all of these issues, but they have different ways of emphasizing them, and hold to them more or less strongly. About the only thing they all agree on is Paedocommunion, and even that is rife with nuance. For the typical Calvinist, used to propositional thinking, that can be a hard pill to swallow.
I am what could be called “broadly sympathetic” to the Federal Vision. By “broadly sympathetic,” I mean the distinctives which R. C. Sproul Jr. supports, and just a hair more. Mr. Sproul Jr. wrote,
I do believe in paedocommunion, as did most of the church for the first millennium. I do believe, recognizing that we cannot read hearts, that we ought to treat our covenant children as believers unless or until they show otherwise, as has the great bulk of the Dutch Reformed tradition. I do not believe that this, nor being in the CREC (which welcomes Baptists into its midst), nor publishing men in Tabletalk who later came to be identified with federal vision, makes me federal vision.
Unlike Mr. Sproul Jr., I would say that these distinctives are certainly concerns of the federal vision, and that the FV is the contemporary movement which has brought those particular distinctions back to the foreground of the Reformed/Calvinist world. Thus, to be a contemporary dealing with these issues certainly puts myself and Mr. Sproul Jr. into the camp of “broad sympathy” of the FV, whether or not that actually makes us FVers. It does not, not necessarily. R. C. Jr would like to distance himself from the FV; I am not so concerned about that. There are plenty of precidents to their teachings in Reformed history.
There are weaknesses in both FV and anti-FV camps, and I’ll deal first with the FV side. The men involved have sometimes expressed themselves very carelessly. And though the FV movement is an attempt to return to certain doctrines they feel have been lost by the children of Calvin, many of those in the rank-and-file of the movement like it because they can use it to rebel against their elders and yet still remain in the Reformed camp. This Anabaptist application of FV doctrines is simply another proof that on the subject of modernity and its poisonous influence in the church, the FV men were exactly right.
On the other side, those men who have opposed the FV have in some cases truly slandered their brothers and falsely accused them of heresy. Whatever the FV is, what it is absolutely not is heresy. The fact that Reformed Baptist John Piper can recognize this, but R. Scott Clark (for instance) cannot, is to the former’s credit and the latter’s shame. I am certainly willing to stand up against falsehood when I see it, but the way we are supposed to do this is by speaking the truth in love. If we are to measure men by their fruits, then the fruit of charity to opponents goes to the FV men, hands down. I have never seen servants of God treated so poorly in my lifetime as the FV men in the hands of their opponents. We should all of us pray for the mercy of God for our failings and sins.
I believe that baptism is the entrance to the covenant, and that baptism is efficacious. This it is not by water alone; baptism is only efficacious when the water is combined with the Spirit. I reject all forms of automatic baptismal regeneration, in the sense that you just throw the water on and you have an eternally secured Christian. No. But, I do believe that when the water poured on at baptism is combined with the Spirit, there is regeneration (I also point out that this regeneration is not limited to the moment of baptism). I believe that, born again or not, when you are baptized you are entered into the covenant people of God and you have an obligation to obey Christ’s commands and live your life as He insists. I believe that an unregenerate baptized person is worse off than a non-baptized unregenerate person. Thus far I have described nothing more than my understanding of Scripture, and insofar as this concurs with the FV men then I agree with them. Insofar as it is different, then that much I differ with them. I do not believe I have laid out anything substantially different than the teachings of the FV men, but I also believe it is possible I’m wrong there as well.
I believe that covenant members can and should be treated as Christians until they reveal their unregenerate hearts and are disciplined by the church body appropriately. We are not permitted to look askance at the people in the pews with us and think, “Mr. Jones can’t possibly be a real, from-the-heart Christian.” We can and should think of ways to spur one another on to greater and greater good works and more and more sanctification. I believe that covenant members recieve blessings from God. Salvation has different dimensions; internal (regeneration) and corporate/social (dwelling among the people of God). Unregenerate covenant members are really a part of the Church, really a part of salvation in that corporate sense, but not of the internal sense. Regenerate covenant members possess both the internal and external blessings. Unregenerate covenant members do not possess the New Heart, and that is why they do not persevere. But they did have something. They fall away from something.
Mr. Sproul Jr. notes again:
I believe that all those who have been given new hearts by the Holy Spirit, who trust in the finished work of Christ alone, will always so trust, and enter into eternal life. I believe that all such people will bear fruit in their lives, though that fruit is in no way the ground of their justification. I believe God justifies the ungodly, though the ungodly who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and respond in living faith. I believe that those who believe that some come to real trusting faith and then fall away into apostasy, even if they affirm that God ordained all this and brought it all to pass, have denied perseverance of the saints. I believe non-elect covenant members, whatever grace they receive along the way, are not given new hearts that trust in the finished work of Christ alone, and are never actually at peace with God.
Amen and amen. Precisely so. I don’t think he is saying anyting substantially different than the FV men, but were that not the case, I would agree with Mr. Sproul Jr.
I believe good works are finally necessary for salvation, not because they in some sense justify us, but because God promises to grace the regenerate with fruit. As Turritin said, just as faith justifies the person, so too do works justify your faith. Faith is like the wind; it can only be seen by others through its effects, that is to say, its works. You see the wind moving the leaves of the tree, you do not see the wind itself.
One of the most controversial areas of the FV of late is the debate over the “active obedience of Christ.” The leaders of this particular charge (Jordan and Lusk) have said they are not questioning “double-imputation” itself, but rather a degenerated understanding of Christ’s active obedience. But regardless of what they say, I fully affirm that I need both the life and the death of Christ, and that in Christ I have received both of them. No hope without it, as Machen said. But I think Lusk and Jordan also have a point when they note that really Christ’s life and death were only the first half of the equation, and that it is the resurrection which makes His life and death “work.” Our hope should be on the resurrection, because it is in our own death and resurrection that we are graced with Christ’s life and atoning death. Had He just lived perfectly and died and remained dead, what hope is there for us? None, and we above all are most to be pitied. No, Christ died and passed through the other side of death back into life, and He brought us along through the breach. All praise to God for His mercy in doing so!
When it comes to Bible interpretation, I am a typologist of the Jordanian and Leithartian school (with Vos, Mathison, Gentry, etc. standing not very far behind). This makes me also a postmillennialist, as well as an unabashed fan of N. T. Wright. I do not reject the Old Perspective on Paul (not in the least!), but also think the New Perspective (as represted by Wright, since I haven’t read the others) has many good things to say. In no way do I believe Old and New are mutually exclusive, but rather deal with different emphasies. And though I like Wright, I disagree with him just about as often as I agree. Additionally, I do not find that Norman Shepherd teaches a false gospel, nor did John Murray, nor Van Til, as some have insinuated.
In many ways this whole controversy is unnecessary. It is an example of Calvinist infighting; the clash of different lines of Reformed thought. That in large portion is what makes the fighting so ugly. We should seek to live at peace with all our brothers, and ought to be ashamed at our ugly, ugly fruits.