Federal Vision

If the names Doug Wilson, Federal Vision (FV), or objective covenant don't mean much to you, I'd advise skipping this one - it's pretty long! Or learning about it here or here.

Here's a letter to me from a guy not too keen on Federal Vision thought, as very briefly summarized in the above links. I responded in italics and parentheses...

Dear Steve,
I had promised you a critique of the FV, and hope to begin it now. It
is a strange thing to watch, however, how some men who had been gung ho
with the FV have begun to distance themselves from it (eg Doug Wilson
on blog
and mablog.... , etc.). The one that has begun to scare
me is .... . What I have observed among some in the FV is that
any stick will do to beat a dog. So if the dog is Westminsterian
Calvinism, the stick may well wind up being postmodernism and
linguistic deconstructionism. Note too how those guys always want to
claim their opponents are not well-educated, etc. That is, of course,
a logical fallacy.

(Yeah, ..... got pretty out there on some recent comments on his own
blog. Still, I think what was true of Jesus and the Pharisees is true
of any intramural debate. The history I’ve learned tells me that the
Pharisees were the closest Jewish group in their “theology” to Jesus in
the 1st Century AD. And Jesus was hardest on them, precisely because
they were the closest to the truth (Love God and your neighbor, eg).
Much like we spend a lot more time debating with other Reformed than
with Roman Catholics. In other words, I see this kind of debate as
quite healthy for the Reformed world, not producing confusion,
disorder, etc. We need to be questioned, to keep our positions sharp,
balanced and attuned to where the world is.)

Okay, enough screed. NOw substance. I think the most incisive
critique I have heard of the Shepherd/FV/NPP camp is simply this: they
take, and press home upon their congregations a proposition that may
not be true, and I think it is a very dangerous proposition. It is
simply this: a person who is baptized and who has not apostasized is
to be regarded as a Christian. HEnce, Doug Wilson says that "A
Christian is one who could be readily identified as such by a Muslim."
I just don't know how a man who serves in the pastorate can look out
over his congregation, and say that is true. Their view of belonging
to Christ is one of passive non-negation: if you're baptized, and don't
resist, then you are in. To my mind, it is just this objective
passivity about one's soul that is killing the CRC, just as it killed
its parent church in the Netherlands (noting, of course, the obvious
differences between Kuyper and Schilder, the presumptive
regenerationalists and the covenantal objectivists --just arguing they
end up in the same place.)

(I think you summarize Wilson well, in one part of his book, Reformed
is Not Enough. I have not read much else of FV (no Schlissel, only Face
to Face by Wilkins). Most of my FV sources are Wilson, some Leithart.
But Wilson affirms the traditional definition of “Christian” too, and
he argues vehemently against a presuming passivity. The key which you
note below is discipline. If you have effective discipline at work, it
doesn’t much matter how objectively/subjectively you view the
covenant, it will work ecclesiastically, avoiding a passive

Well, what is the problem with the above view? First, I think it turns
Biblical religion on its head. I firmly believe that belonging to
Christ is, in the first place, a matter of the heart. THus, Jesus can
say to a bunch of circumcised non-apostate covenant members in LUke 13,
"Strive to enter by the narrow door." Thus Paul can say to a bunch of
baptized non-apostate covenant members, "Examine yourselves to see if
you be in the faith. Test yourselves..." (2 Cor. 13:5) I just cannot
get around those verses in Romans where Paul explicitly says that "He
is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and whose circumcision is a
circumcision of the flesh, but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and
whose circumcision is a circumcision of the heart." I have seen some
convoluted exegesis from FV guys trying to deny that this is possible
in the church, but I think that is precisely Paul's point. Whether
external Jew or external Christian, both are deceived. This goes smack
to the heart of the issue of the visible/invisible church, and the
category of nominal Christian (both of which Doug Wilson and other FV
type folk deny). And what is Arminianizing about it is that Wilson and
Wilkins argue that a person can be truly and vitally united to Christ,
with all his saving benefits (save, somehow,
perseverance/preservation), and yet be lost.

(I would affirm with you the basic meaning of the outward/inward Jew
text, and not buy convoluted exegesis to explain it away. But FV tries
to keep the “internal faith” from deteriorating to an undue,
assurance-robbing introspection (“do I believe enough?”). It’s more
about Luther’s appeal to objective things like the cross and his
baptism when Satan assails him with doubt. That very appeal to
externals IS the internal faith. Again, both are needed. On the
in/visible church, I’ve seen Wilson write that this distinction does
exist – he doesn’t deny there is an invisible church – he denies that
we can deal ecclesiastically in that realm. And we need something
objective to go on when it comes to discipline – elders sitting around
judging on the internal faith of others is dangerous. By your fruit you
will know them. On perseverance, yes, this puts the visible objective
church in the covenant blessings category of Deut 27ff and Hebrews
6:4b-5. Wilson wants to do justice to passages like Heb 6:4-6. I think
restoring the objective covenant to its proper (higher) position (still
in balance with the internal faith) accomplishes this. This is how some
trample the blood of the New Covenant. I think baptized, unbelieving
people will have a stronger judgment against them (Woe to you Korazin…
it will be worse for you…) But those with true faith aren’t in this
category; those will not fall away. Is this schizophrenic? I think it’s
just a good balance between objective and subjective).

Now, I know and empathize with what they are reacting against. And, I
think there is a partially sociological reason for it. They are
reacting against the complete subjectivism and experience orientation
of modern evangelicalism that has granted a lot of false assurance to
folks, said obedience is not necessary,promotes its own version of
passivity with decisionistic regeneration and eternal security, and
downplays the necessity of vital connection to the church. Most of
these guys come from that background. They thought they were escaping
it by coming into Reformed churches, but, lo and behold, we have the
same problems in our midst, because we have a lot of broad
evangelicals. Yet, what they fail to see is that the problem is not
with Calvinism itself, but with the fact that we tolerate those in our
midst who are Calvinists in name only. Thus, they are charging the
Reformed faith with something of which it is not guilty. ANd, what
they do not realize is that they commit the same error as the broad
evangelicals do, only in another way. In short, they give false
assurance to people that simply having a baseline level of obedience
and covenant fealty is the same thing as true and saving faith.

(I would agree that this is part of the problem, and FV’s concern, but
I don’t think it drives their distinctive ecclesiastical and
sacramental position. Their claim is that the Reformed world has
drifted too Zwinglian, as opposed to a higher, Reformed view)

The genius of the Reformed faith, in my understanding of it, is that it
holds the objective and subjective in balance. There are things that
are objectively true: like covenant promises, election, and the like.
Then, there is the necessity of my subjective response to Christ and
his command to repent and believe: namely, that I must do it as an act
of my will. I don't have to have a crisis experience, and I don't have
to name a time and date (another false slur against the
experientialists, which is again misdirected). But, I do have to have
the reality of trusting on Christ, and the change of nature upon which
it is predicated.

(I’ve been seeing the objective and subjective as balanced within each
theological “item.” Baptism objectively does something – ingrafting us
into Christ and His body (Rom 6). But it is the faith in Jesus
cleansing us, to which baptism points, that saves us. So I think there
is more than objective truth and subjective belief. There are objective
realities at work in the church and sacraments. They don’t save us, but
they point to that salvation, and nourish faith that’s already there,
and define who is in the covenant/church and who is not.)

My experience (and probably yours, too) bears this out. Having grown
up in .... , in an RCA church, I bet I can diagnose your
situation pretty well --tell me if I'm wrong here. You look out upon
a bunch of basically decent, baptized folk. Yet, you see tons of
apathy, little hunger for or understanding of the word, backbiting and
gossip, decisions made upon a business and not ministry basis, etc.
etc. And, you wonder if many of your folk are truly regenerate. You
cannot read the heart of course, and you are not called to do that.
But, you are called to press on them always the necessity of
self-examination to see if they are in the faith, and the necessity of
vital connection to Christ in faith. YOu call upon them to repent and
believe, and to make sure they have the reality of the things they
profess. YOu warn them against going through the motions. Well, it
seems to me that, if you bought wholesale into FV, you could no longer
do that. After all, these are baptized, non-apostate covenant
members. Why this is so dangerous: many baptized, non-apostate
covenant members have no vital connection to Christ, and are therefore
lost, and all the more guilty because they are members of the covenant
community, and under vows and curses because they disobey.

(You hit my experience very accurately. I believe we are called to
press on them those things you mention here, because God uses various
means, including preaching to call covenant members to faith.
Discipline is just as required with an objective view, and not avoided
simply because people are presumed to be covenant members.

Anyhow, that's a brief and very clumsy statement of my objections!
Look forward to your response.

(There are four categories: in the covenant and saved, in the covenant
and not saved, outside the covenant and not saved, outside the covenant
and saved. Being in the covenant means being baptized and partaking of
the Supper. Being saved means having faith in Christ’s sacrifice to
justify you before God. Ordinarily, God connects these two things in a
sacramental union. We believe, and are baptized. Or, we believe and so
we eat and drink. But some unbelievers eat and drink hypocritically and
some believers never get to a church. FV guys are simply raising the
importance of the covenant side of this – not to salvation level, I
don’t think.)


At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It strikes me that the mere fact that many people do think that the FV people are rasing these things to saving positions tells us that either they are communicating unclearly what they believe (not likely considering the group in question) or they are actually doing so. Perhaps there is a third option, but I find I am very concerned about the FV as it stands at this moment.


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