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Giving Up the Ghost: What To Think of the Federal Vision After All These Years

A little over a week ago Professor Scott Clark sounded his quarterly alarm about the Federal Vision. Even though the Federal Vision was a theological discussion that began at the turn of the 21st century and reached its zenith around 2008, Dr. Clark warns his audience that the Federal Vision is back and gaining adherents. He believes that there is an “emerging… alliance between conservative Baptists and Federal Visionists.” The chief culprits of this new plot seem to be Dr. James White and Jeff Durbin, a well-known pastor and apologist associated with Apologia Studios. This group recently hosted a conference on Christian cultural engagement and apologetics, which featured certain speakers from Moscow, ID. This is what triggered Dr. Clark’s latest round of criticism.

Dr. Clark Misses the Mark

Dr. Clark’s response is misguided for several reasons. The first reason is the simple fact that guilt-by-association is a fallacy. The fact that the Apologia conference featured speakers with a connection to Douglas Wilson does not on its own demonstrate that those speakers hold to Federal Vision theology, nor does it show that Federal Vision theology was promoted at the conference. Secondly, the Federal Vision was always anti-Baptist. This polemical ethos goes all the way back to the Tyler School of Christian Reconstruction. In 1982, James B Jordan edited a journal series called Christianity and Civilization. The first edition was a collection of essays called The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. Those essays addressed both political and liturgical matters, and the overarching theme was that American religious culture was unable to stand against the destructive powers of liberalism because of its Baptistic nature. A successor volume in 1985, called The Reconstruction of the Church, laid out an ecclesiastical vision which contained several Federal Vision concepts in embryonic form. Jordan explicitly made this connection in a 2005 essay, “Those of us being called FV have been discussing these issues for 25 years, long before any of us had ever heard of Tom Wright. Almost all the issues that are being shrieked about were set out in writings published by me and my associates at Geneva Ministries during the 1980s in issues of the journal Christianity and Civilization.” Additionally, the 2007 “Joint Federal Vision Statement” included both paedobaptism and paedocommunion in its list of doctrinal affirmations. The Federal Vision was always an attempt to move paedobaptistic covenant theology forward into what was thought to be a more internally-consistent direction. FV always emphasized an explicitly familial and multi-generational doctrine of the church. A third reason that Dr. Clark’s alarm is off pitch is that Dr. James White is a well-known critic of Roman Catholicism, the New Perspective on Paul, and even the Federal Vision. He is also one of the pastors at Apologia Church, and one would think that he is capable of “holding his own” in any battle for stature and influence.

So no, ReformCon was not a Federal Vision conference, nor does the presence of Moscow men at that conference prove anything in this regard. One of those men, Toby Sumpter, has recently written three essays explaining his own history with FV and how he currently understands his relationship to it (This post includes links to the earlier ones). In the first of those he uses the verb “repent” to explain how he has changed his mind. Simply playing “Six Degrees of Douglas Wilson” is not actually responsible reporting. It is certainly not a sound argument.

But the fact that Scott Clark is still afraid of the Federal Vision and still feels the need to warn everyone about it does tell us something significant. First, despite his claims that FV was soundly defeated, he has actually been unable to adopt a true posture of confidence. The consistent impression one gets from reading Dr. Clark online is a tone of insecurity. He is always alarmed and worried. He sees FV in more and more places. Anyone who does not share this anxiety is, in his mind, suspect.

Secondly, many people are still unclear on what exactly the Federal Vision was “all about.” They know general shorthand explanations, but many don’t feel that such explanations adequately captured the mood or “moment,” what made FV interesting or significant. While agreeing with the doctrinal content of the OPC or PCA reports on FV, many don’t feel that the whole story was told. There is a sense of “unfinished business” about the whole thing. And whenever I make public comments about FV, I receive more responses than normal. People continually ask me to write about it.1 There is still a desire to better understand just what it was all about and where it currently stands.

In this and following essays, I will try to give my best understanding of the FV, as well as a summary and appraisal of it, and I will offer criticism of some of its main theological points. If this feels like an unnecessary dredging up of the past, then readers are free to pass it by. But it is my hope that some of these thoughts can improve the overall state of Reformed discourse and put to rest certain lingering bogeymen in the minds of some.

FV, RIP

The first thing that needs to be said about the Federal Vision today is that it is, in fact, over. Its most creative period began in the late 1990s and lasted until 2005. This was a time of confidence among the FV writers. They were not responding to controversy during most of this time. They saw themselves as happily Reformed but also open to progress. Some were relaxed and hoping to have a constructive conversation about current theological interests. Others had a more aggressive rhetorical posture, believing themselves to be correcting various harmful influences from the 19th century. Most thought that the larger product they were working on could prove attractive to a diverse audience. Some believed that they could even offer a source of ecumenical unity among conservative Christians from a variety of denominational backgrounds and historic traditions. Towards the end of this period, however, the various FV writers were clearly put on the defensive, and significant differences in theology and strategic goals became obvious. Men like Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin criticized other FV men or doctrines and parted ways with them. By the time of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Statement, many co-travelers on the margins had dropped away, and the theology took on the burden of explaining itself along more systematic lines. This was largely seen as a necessary response to the critics, but it shaped the character of “the conversation” in important ways. In the years following, further fracturing among FV men occurred, and many adopted new strategies. At the present time, most of the men who were directly associated with FV have stopped using the name, and many have even stepped away from public ministry altogether.

Douglas Wilson and Peter Leithart continue to have significant ministries, but both have changed in important ways. Douglas Wilson no longer accepts the Federal Vision name and has made his theological disagreement with Peter Leithart plain in several places (see here and here). Peter Leithart has continued to develop his views and seems much more at home in an academic and ecumenical milieu alongside Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox writers than he does in any distinctively Reformed denominational setting. He explains his current “Theopolitan Vision” here.

“Sounds FV”: What Dr. Clark Really Means

But what of Dr. Clark’s warnings? He warns us that just because a person doesn’t accept the name “Federal Vision,” that doesn’t mean that they aren’t Federal Vision. Of course this could hypothetically be true (as could be the case with any number of concepts), but Dr. Clark’s cast of potential secret agents is too diverse to be taken seriously. He wants to apply the same theological classification that he would give to Douglas Wilson to men like John Armstrong (a pastor operating mostly within the Protestant mainline), Don Garlington (a Canadian Baptist who writes on academic Pauline literature), and John Piper (a famous pastor and evangelist associated with Evangelical coalitions like The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition, and Together for the Gospel). This FV panic has debased the term. Indeed, the FV no longer exists for two reasons: the first has to do with the changing interests of the FV men, but the second has to do with Dr. Clark himself. When everything “sounds FV,” then nothing does.

The reality is that the FV men were always a coalition with diverse ideas and goals. By the time they wrote a “Joint Statement,” the controversy was already over five years old and many of their own people had already parted ways. If a movement had ever existed in any concrete form, it unraveled quickly and did not achieve its goals. If the FV “lives on,” it is only by way of intellectual influence or reaction (reaction against FV by critics and then reaction against the critics by FV and FV-sympathetic men). Because of the years of controversy, people have new thoughts about FV, use new categories, and have more precise terms and arguments. It is also important to note that new scholarship in Reformation history has changed how people think about the breadth and diversity of the Reformed tradition. A generally educated Reformed pastor has a much better understanding of the 16th and 17th cent. today than he did in the late 1990s.

When Dr. Clark attempts to define the Federal Vision, he gives five points. While the number five might come naturally to Calvinists, the FV never defined itself in terms of five points, and so attempting to define it this way now is misleading and ahistorical. 2

Dr. Clark’s five points are also too narrow to adequately address the Federal Vision. In them, he says nothing of the way that FV largely opposed systematic or scholastic argument against biblical theology, how they attempted to use modern Trinitarian thinking in their definition of the covenant, the status of children of believers in the covenant of Grace, nor how they attempted to construct a sort of sacramental or liturgical ontology, using both biblical-theological categories and postmodern philosophical constructs (relational ontology). He is certainly aware of these features, but he has decided that they are accidental to the main issue. He has reduced everything back to the Norman Shepherd controversy, and this shows us what he is really up to. All of Dr. Clark’s points are ways to highlight his classic theological foil, neonomianism. This is why he can extend the FV name to someone like John Piper. Dr. Clark is not really talking about the Federal Vision. He is talking about neonomianism, a contested theological construct which exists along a spectrum and almost always in opposition to antinomianism. And like antinomianism, neonomianism can appear in diverse contexts and alongside any number of otherwise orthodox theological affirmations. Additionally, it almost always exists in the form of emphasis or attitude. It is extremely rare to find a theologian willing to articulate a precise argument in favor of neonomianism. And importantly, it is entirely possible for a form of neonomianism to be present within a kind of Reformed Baptist system, while it would be impossible for FV to be present in one.

So Dr. Clark ought to cut to the chase and lead with the term neonomian. That is his real purpose. He does not do this because he knows that “neonomian” lacks the same rhetorical power as “Federal Vision.” This is doubly true when he is the one using the terms. It has become increasingly clear that Dr. Clark is an untrustworthy guide when it comes to historical theology, and his own understanding of what counts as Reformed Orthodoxy has been ably criticized by Mark Jones, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Garcia, and Alan Strange. Dr. Clark’s most recent Twitter activity has also raised eyebrows because of the dissonance between his claim to academic authority and the contents of his arguments which are usually not supported by the primary historical sources. He also frequently engages in a sloppy sort of idealist history, jumping from Pelagius to Arminius to Richard Baxter to Norman Shepherd to John Piper. After a while, this looks less like history and more like a simple guilt by association.

A Better Way To Understand Federal Vision

Instead of using Dr. Clark’s attenuated and inadequate definition, and in contrast to his fallacious and unfair methodology, I would like to begin to lay out a more comprehensive picture of FV. In future essays, I will explain the different historical stages of FV and how it changed over time. Next, I will give my own understanding of its general “big picture” set of goals, as well as the key features of its theological thinking. Following this, I will point out some of the most significant areas where I believe the FV was out of step with the general Reformed tradition. Finally, I would like to suggest ways that some of its concerns can be understood sympathetically and then improved by older Reformed scholastic distinctions. In attempting this, it is not my desire to “revamp” FV but instead to use classic Reformed categories and older theologians to provide answers to some of its more interesting questions.

To be continued in future installments…

 

 

  1. Dr. Clark also identifies me as an “FV ally” in his post. This is incorrect. I have been honest about my own history, making comments as appropriate over the years. In 2009, I told a bit of my own story and my view of FV at that time. In 2014 I added another installment, discussing my view of Van Til and my appreciation for the older understanding of natural theology (really, better termed a Christian view of natural revelation and philosophy). Beyond these personal reflections, I have also written numerous essays on the theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin, especially their understanding of the “two kingdoms,” which are not the church over and against civic life but rather the internal forum and the external forum of man, the inner spiritual realm and the outer political one. In 2010, I made this point directly to Dr. Darryl Hart. I wrote:

    The guiding theological principle in my paper is a distinction between the visible and invisible church. This is hardly a Federal Vision approach. I argue that the two kingdoms correspond with the invisible church and the rest of the world, with the visible church being one institution of the temporal kingdom.

    Not long after that exchange, Peter Escalante and I launched The Calvinist International and began to explain our view of Reformed Irenicism more fully. One of our more detailed explanations of the Reformers’s Two Kingdoms theology is available here. Essays explaining the full range of our theology can be found on this page. There is a very large amount of material there, and so I will summarize. Having grown up a Southern Baptist of the less refined or intellectual variety, I became Reformed and paedobaptist through the influence of Van Til and then the Christian Reconstruction writers. I pretty quickly moved into a Federal Vision variant of that school of thought but also attended a Seminary which was very critical of FV and lived alongside Southern Presbyterians and “big tent” PCA people. After about three years I began to move away from FV, and by about two more years, I was working on a very different project with different values and goals. Nine more years later (so a total of fourteen), I can look back with much more clarity and with a fuller self understanding. I would describe my own theological identity as unapologetically Reformed, in the tradition of the magisterial Reformers and their successors in the 16th and 17th cent. I have an especially strong appreciation for the theology of Heidelberg, to include Zanchius and Ursinus, as well as that of the English Reformed theologians working during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, especially John Davenant. Of course, one cannot hope to repristinate older theological work or ecclesiastical cultures, and so I also appreciate and draw from Charles Hodge, RL Dabney, BB Warfield, and Herman Bavinck. Along the way, I have also been influenced by the philosophical, historical, and literary work of diverse thinkers like C S Lewis, Rémi Brague, and Richard Muller. And most recently, I have come to believe that recovering an older understanding of the natural family and a productive household is of the utmost urgency for modern North Americans, and to this I am indebted to the work of Allan C. Carlson. Basically I am a PCA pastor who holds to a broad view of Reformed orthodoxy but who has his own oddities and idiosyncratic interests. I am not Federal Vision. As I will explain in a following essay, I do not hold to an FV understanding of prolegomena, I reject FV understandings of the church, and I affirm classic Reformed distinctions about justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness without any interest in distinctively FV qualifications on these topics.

  2. The FV men themselves never laid out five points. The original FV conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church featured four speakers, with seven lectures. The 2003 Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision organized the discussions into four main parts. The 2006 OPC report on The New Perspective and the Federal Vision identified seven main aspects of FV, with at least five more subtopics. The OPC concluded with twenty points of criticism. When the PCA issued its FV report in 2007, it organized the discussion along three general topics and then concluded with nine points of criticism. The 2007 Joint Federal Vision Statement, written by FV advocates, explains itself according to eighteen points. James Jordan has used five points on occasion, but these were to make rather different kinds of arguments.

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.