Archive Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

A Quick Observation On The Federal Vision

As the title indicates, more will need to be said, but the thoughts seem to warrant a note, even if it is something like a sticky note with a “To Do” list on it. The recent post on Ursinus is obviously relevant, but so are the older observations on Martin Luther, particularly his view of liturgical evangelism and his proto-pietist “third service.” What these show is that there is a distinction between a pastoral approach and application of sacramental and liturgical theology and the actual reception of spiritual benefits on the part of the individual subject. One can have a very high view of the sacraments and the liturgy, and one can even put those things to pastoral use in the service of soulcare, and yet still maintain that the “actual,” “real,” or “true” salvation occurs in the subjective act of faith on the part of the believer.

This connects to the Federal Vision in that it clarifies one of the major points at issue. The issue is not whether the sacraments can be effectual means of salvation but how (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 91). Within the proponents of the Federal Vision there are at least two positions on this, typified most publicly by Douglas Wilson on the one hand and Peter Leithart on the other. Pastor Wilson gives the sacraments lots of uses and ascribes to them lots of blessings, but they are, finally, pedagogical devices for faith. This is not strictly cognitive, of course, but it is, nevertheless, a sort of training unto belief, and the faith which is cultivated then receives the blessings of salvation. Dr. Leithart, on the other hand, sees the sacraments as actual creators of a spiritual polity, and that spiritual polity simply is the truest definition of “salvation.” While not working in quite the same way as Roman Catholic theology, because of underlying disagreements over metaphysics, Dr. Leithart still sees the sacraments as themselves constitutive of salvation rather than evangelistic devices offering salvation. This difference is why Pastor Wilson can defend B.B. Warfield’s conception of an “immediate” union with Christ, whereas Dr. Leithart is mostly critical of it. One would suppose that the same would be true for Ursinsus’s distinction between “true” and “apparent” Christians. While holding out the right to criticize the best adjectives, Pastor Wilson would still agree with the substance of Ursinus’s distinction, while Dr. Leithart would reject it as being a part of a flawed system.

When it comes to the critics of the Federal Vision, however, there are also at least two positions. There are those who closely approximate Pastor Wilson, sometimes to the point of total agreement, and merely criticize word choices or rhetorical strategies. Then there are those who see sacraments and liturgy as actual threats and competitors to faith. These two positions are apparently allied because of their desire to safeguard certain theological expressions and to prioritize certain topics over others, but they are in actual disagreement when it comes to the theological logic of the means of grace.

This would mean that it is true that a large part of the Federal Vision controversy was due to verbal disputes and socio-political alignments, and that it is also true that there were and are significant, even fundamental theological disagreements. The two basic matters are how the benefits of salvation should be offered and how they are actually received.

By 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.

7 replies on “A Quick Observation On The Federal Vision”

This may be helpful, but I don’t think this is the way Leithart would phrase it. I found his characterization of sacraments as “signs” in a semiotic sense to be an exceptional way to clear up the meaning of “means of grace”. It’s not so much that two different FV perspectives can talk about “sacraments” and mean either pedagogical device or ontological reality as it is that they both have a sense of the importance of signs and one side backs away from it when pressed and the other side explores a kind of semiotics that can assert the true reality, centrality, and necessity of signs.

Maybe we can separate the rhetorical concerns of FV from the “metaphysics”, but I think that would be precisely what the semiotic position on the sacraments works against.

I guess I would say that your last paragraph is really, really important, but it’s a mistake to call the one position “sacraments are creators of spiritual polity” without paying attention to their status as “real signs.”


But you haven’t told us what this special semiotic is and what distinguishes it, nor what a sign is. You simply assert that they are “real”, “central”, and “necessary”. Do you care to explain what you find exceptionally clarifying about Leithart’s understanding of sign, and first of all, what it even is?



As you are probably aware (bc I think you are alluding directly to it), Leithart has argued for a redefinition of “signs,” somewhat critical of the Augustinian tradition and towards something more like “mighty acts of God.” This now appears in The Baptized Body, but there was an earlier article in Credenda Agenda arguing for this very point. Also, you have to take into account ritual theory for Leithart’s exposition. Again, see The Baptized Body, pg. 22: “Rights accomplish what they signify.”

Leithart precisely doesn’t want the “signs” to point to an invisible and spiritual (as opposed to temporal) reality. He wants the “spiritual” reality to be understood as a recreated form of the temporal, reshaped by new rituals, which inaugurate the eschatological kingdom. You might agree with Leithart on this point, but it is, in fact, different from what Pastor Wilson is doing.

Also, notice that your use of “backs away from it,” implies that Pastor Wilson initially argues for the same thing as Dr. Leithart but then, upon seeing its conclusion, changes course. I don’t think this is a defensible reading of the two, certainly not at this stage of the conversation. My understanding is that Pastor Wilson is well-aware of what he wants to do, the implications of his arguments, and where he falls on the spectrum. I don’t think he’s stuck in any sort of dilemma.

On my reading, both Pastor Wilson and Dr. Leithart know what they are doing and are competent in their arguments. They are simply doing different things.

Hi, didn’t mean to abandon a budding conversation. I didn’t have any alerts that there were more replies.

Stephen, that’s a very good quote–“Rites accomplish what they signify.” Out of context it’s a bit jarring–so are these rites “just signs” or do they accomplish something? That’s smack in the middle of his appropriation of the Peirceian definition of a sign. Once understood, there are no “just signs”. The things signified don’t happen apart from the signs.

I’m not sure what you mean about the spiritual reality being a recreated form of the temporal. Is there a kind of Aristotelian argument that spiritual reality comes sequentially before temporal reality but is instantiated and influenced by the temporal reality? I’m not sure we aren’t both reading Leithart with very different lenses.

On review, I think I overstated things. Peter, I think it’s said best in The Baptized Body where Leithart comes close to a Peircean semiotic perspective. This perspective on signs is not easy to convey quickly, but I don’t think that’s because it is exceptionally complicated, it just is so contrary to our inherited notions of “essence” as central to being that it is like starting over in philosophy. Semiotic realism is neither realism nor nominalism as articulated by the philosophy mainstream, and, as a consequence, spiritualizers think it is materialism and materialists think it is superstitious nonsense.

Of course, I like to think everyone I like is just onto the same thing I am, and I probably let that color my reading of Wilson. I enormously respect both of them of course, but I think that Leithart’s position is the only one that will allow us long-term to retain the proper position of the sacraments. Whether Wilson’s more recent articulations are a stepping back from RINE is not something I’m prepared to hold forth on, though I’d be happy to hear a better argument one way or the other.

If I ever become gainfully unemployed again and find I have written a proper introduction to semiotics for theologians I will shoot you all a link. I have about 50 pages of such an attempt from a year and a half ago, but after all the preamble I had written I found that I needed to quit philosophy in order to feed my family. Until then, everyone should read The Baptized Body alongside philosophers CS Peirce, John Deely, and George Lakoff. As with all other cutting-edge contrarian ontologies–it will solve all of your problems.

A start, Peter, is to say that a sign is a relationship which every object presupposes; an object is anything perceived; every perceived object indicates objects not perceived and without which a sign is not a sign and therefore the object not an object but just a thing which is no thing at all. A bare thing is either undifferentiated matter or not existent since it lacks significance. Nothing about a sign necessitates that it be true or useful, but a sacrament is a sign which truly acts on presupposed objects through a process you might call semiosis.

In other words, the distinction between ens realis and ens rationis, roughly objects known independently of human imagining and utility and objects known over time (at a “rate”) or as part of human processes is not a sharp distinction and both are known through signs–indicators of things that are not immediately present. Nothing in the immediate nature of the sign indicates whether it is “real” or not since every sign is variously connected in the semiosphere to perhaps all other signs.

This does not establish whether or not a sacrament could be a memorial or an efficacious act or a legal rite or a pedagogical device or whatever description you will, but the nature of signs, rightly understood, preclude thinking that any rite could be somehow separate from its spiritual reality. The nature of that semiosis (the action of signs) is not something I claim to be an expert on. I am merely a Heraclitean surfer trying to avoid the lethal undertow of Cartesian dualism in my everyday life.

Anyway, cheers, guys. I wish I had the means to figure this out with you, but I’d best retreat to my spectator status for another couple years.

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