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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

A Federal Vision History

I recently introduced a series on the Federal Vision. In the first installment, I explained why people are still talking about it and promised follow-up articles explaining the history and development of FV. In this post I would like to give something of a survey history of the personalities and controversy and explain some of they key lines of demarcation between the sub-groups and their goals and interests.

One of the reasons that people struggle to identify the Federal Vision is that they assume that it was either a system of theology, a theological school of thought, or an ecclesiastical movement. It was never any of these things, or if it was, it wasn’t any of them for very long. There were several distinct stages of FV life and development, and certain men and topics “fit” in some stages but not others. We can understand the progression in four parts:

1) 1970s-1990: Proto-FV
2) Late 1990s-2004/2005: First Stage FV
3)2005-2012: Second Stage FV
4) 2012-2019: The End of FV

Proto-FV (1970s-1990)

The first stage worth discussing actually goes back to Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1970s. While the seminary had been founded as something of a continuing “old school” Presbyterian institution, the influence of Cornelius Van Til took it in a unique direction. John Murray and Meredith Kline also made interesting but often idiosyncratic theological contributions, and by the 1960s, Norman Shepherd, Richard Gaffin, Jay Adams, and John Frame added their own distinctives to the mix. The 1970s were a time of considerable controversy for WTS, mostly due to the Norman Shepherd controversy, but there was also a desire on the part of some of the leadership to make WTS more open to a broader and more evangelical landscape. This caused its own, rather different controversy, and certain critics claimed that the school’s legacy had been “sold out.”

Reading the literature coming out of WTS during the 1970s and 1980s, there arises the impression that various subgroups within the WTS were, at least unofficially, competing for the identity and vision of the school. Biblical Theology was certainly the dominant interest, but even here, there were opposing emphases. One writer has summarized the most prominent division between a “union with Christ” emphasis and a “Law and Gospel” emphasis.

It was during this time that many of the older FV thinkers attended seminary. Some attended WTS and were directly shaped by this era. Others attended elsewhere but paid attention to the controversies and read the literature. Most conservative Presbyterian and Reformed thinkers had looked to WTS as a guide during this time in the 20th century.

Another significant theological issue that came from this same background was the Christian Reconstruction movement, especially the Tyler branch. Christian Reconstructionism (very similar to “Theonomy”) refers to the idea that Christians ought to implement the Old Testament Scriptures and the Mosaic law code today, as much as possible. This movement began with the work of R J Rushdoony in 1960s, but the Tyler branch of Reconstructionism came to prominence in the early 1980s. They made key modifications to this project and put a new emphasis on ecclesiology, including the sacraments and the liturgy. The Tyler branch also broadened its vision from merely the Westminster Seminary legacy to include a certain sort of Continental Calvinism (pulling from the 16th cent. contributions of Martin Bucer, the 19th cent. German American Mercersburg Theology, and 20th cent. Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder) and a contemporary liturgical renewal project inspired by Dom Gregory Dix and Alexander Schmemann (Mercersburg would also apply here). The most significant FV personality associated with Tyler Reconstruction stage is James B. Jordan, but Peter Leithart also shared some of this history. A few other names appear in this stage of the FV conversation but not in later ones, notably Peter Lillback and George Grant.

It is interesting to point out that Douglas Wilson did not share this same heritage. While he was certainly aware of these men and their writings, his own history comes from a broader Evangelical world. In fact, Douglas Wilson did not consider himself to be theologically Reformed until the late 1980s. He once wrote a booklet critique of the Tyler Branch of Christian Reconstructionism.

This pre-FV period history did not emphasize justification issues (other than in summaries of the older Shepherd controversy), nor did it argue that covenant theology needed to be significantly modified or reinterpreted. Instead, the men of this period claimed that their covenant theology was that of the Calvinistic or Reformed tradition, and they opposed it to the Baptistic or Evangelical theology of 20th cent. North America. The chief interests at this time were seeing families as covenantal units, showing the significance of paedobaptism for covenant theology and ecclesiology, and asserting an aggressive Christian social and political presence. Peadocommunion was already present among some of these men, though it was seen as a point of intramural disagreement. They also did reserve the right to part ways with the Reformation tradition, but this was always framed as a matter of incidental disagreement within their larger commitment to that legacy. James Jordan was also beginning to articulate his particular typological hermeneutics, a continuation and advancement of the redemptive-historical biblical theology taught by WTS. This period of FV development can be understood as starting during the late 1970s, and it reaches a definite transition point around 1990, when the Tyler church joined the Reformed Episcopal Church, James Jordan moved from Tyler, TX to Niceville, FL, and the Reconstruction movement began to fade in prominence. He started a new ministry called “Biblical Horizsons” (“BH” for short), which would play a central role in the development of FV.

First Stage FV (late 1990s-2004/2005)

The Federal Vision came to be known as its own theological topic or school of thought in 2002, with the Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference of the same name. This had been preceded, however, by a controversial address by Steve Schlissel at Redeemer College in Hamilton, Ontario in 2001. Additionally, as one reads various FV essays from this time, they will see several citations of Joel Garver’s paper on apostasy. This paper can only be accessed through the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” but it is available there. It dates back to at least to June of 2000. At one point, Steve Wilkins mentioned that this paper was formative in his own theological development.

During this same time, Norman Shepherd published The Call of Grace with P&R books in 2000 and began speaking on his understanding of justification. This reopened all of the old controversies from the 1970s. In 2004, Andrew Sandlin published a collection of essays in defense of Shepherd called Backbone of the Bible, featuring essays both from men who would continue to be associated with FV and men who would soon distance themselves from it. John Frame wrote the foreword to this book, and it can be read on its own here. Shepherd was also invited to be a speaker at the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, but he was unable to attend because of his wife’s declining health.

Another significant source of “FV” thinking was the Theologia website, created by Jay and Mark Horne. It features essays from Mark Horne, as well as Rich Lusk, Jeffrey Meyers, Tim Gallant, Bill DeJong and others. The majority of Theologia’s essays were published between 2002 and 2005, but some date back to the late 1990s. Several of these essays display an appreciation for the work of N T Wright, but others show a desire to study the lesser-known aspects of 16th and 17th cent. Reformed theology. There was also an emphasis on practical ecclesiology, with terms like “missional ecclesiology” and “racial reconciliation” occasionally appearing. As strange it may sound, one can detect the influence of both Christian Reconstruction and Redeemer NYC at Theologia, and there was a time when certain FV men engaged in constructive dialogue with pastors from Redeemer church plants in Brooklyn.

Douglas Wilson entered this coalition in his own way. He did not share the history of the BH group (indeed, he had been a critic of Tyler theonomy), nor did he quite “fit” with the ethos of the Theologia writers. His strongest connections appear through his personal friendship with Steve Wilkins, with whom he shared an interest in Southern and Civil War-era history, and his professional collaboration with Peter Leithart, who was hired to teach at New Saint Andrews college in 1998. Interestingly, Wilson and Leithart both occasionally wrote for Ligonier ministries at this time. Wilson published “Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant in 2002, a book which set forth key FV ideas. Peter Leithart also began writing essays and short books on ecclesiology and the sacraments, most of which were published by Canon Press.

Wilson, Wilkins, and Leithart illustrate interesting cases of bridge-building within this narrative. Even if something of a fellow traveler, Wilson had been an outsider to the Reconstructionist movement until the 1990s. As he began to work with men associated with that movement, he brought a more literary interest and connected them to the Classical Education movement. Wilkins had certainly been thought of as a Reconstructionist, but he was also known as a Southern Presbyterian, with close ties to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. During the 1990s, some members of the PCA may have even been tempted to call him something of a “TR.” While having ties to the Tyler group, Peter Leithart also wrote several early books with George Grant, some of which were published by Coral Ridge Ministries. His primary interests began to change with the publication of The Kingdom and the Power in 1993, a book on the centrality of the church in the project of Christian dominion and cultural transformation. In many ways, The Kingdom and the Power can be seen as an early FV book.

Many of these men came into contact with one another through their mutual appreciation of James Jordan’s “Biblical Horizons” ministry, a ministry created after Jordan left Tyler, TX and regrouped in Niceville, FL. The Biblical Horizons (known as “BH”) group was technically only the Jordan’s ministry, but it regularly featured work from Peter Leithart and Jeffrey Meyers. There was also a private BH email list which served as a network for these men and a place for them to develop their thoughts. Thus while FV became public in 2002, a lead-up period can be seen starting sometime in the late 1990s.

During this time, FV and “Shepherdism” could legitimately be thought of as existing alongside each other in conversation, but it would be wrong to say that FV was simply a continuation or development of Shepherd’s work. There were people who admired Shepherd and claimed inspiration from him who were not FV, and there were people who were otherwise FV but did not follow Shepherd. Shepherd enjoyed at least partial support from several influential Reformed theologians—like Richard Gaffin and John Frame—and many of the FV men saw themselves as defending an old mentor and friend rather than directly carrying on his project. Additionally, some men who might be thought of as “low-church Theonomists” had serious disagreements with James Jordan and other aspects of what would come to be thought as FV. These men strongly defended Shepherd, however, and so were a part of the larger conversation. Of this group, Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin would be two important examples.

All of the above names may have been referred to as “Federal Vision” throughout the first stage of FV, even while the diversity and sometimes outright inconsistency was present and even though any given individual may have rejected the nomenclature. Some of these men would have called themselves theonomists or post-theonomists, while others would have seen themselves as strongly opposed to theonomy.1 Some advocated for a more formal liturgical style of worship, while others practiced low-church contemporary worship. It is also worth noting that paedocommunion, a matter of such practical importance to the majority of people later attracted to FV, was not commonly advocated by the speakers at the original Federal Vision conference. In 2002, only Steve Wilkins held to paedocommunion. Douglas Wilson and John Barach eventually came to embrace it, but Steve Schlissel went on to forcefully denounce it.

Second Stage FV (2005-2012)

After the 2002 and 2003 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conferences, the Federal Vision moved from a conversation to a controversy. Many critical essays and books were written against it, and a few ecclesiastical bodies began issuing criticisms and even condemnations. One of the most important critical documents came from the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the PCA in 2005. FV men, in turn, wrote responses to the criticisms, and the literature began to multiply. During this time, figures who had been somewhat peripheral in the first stage of FV emerged as obvious leaders. The two most important were Peter Leithart and James Jordan. These two men came to represent the pole known as “FV Dark,” or to use Douglas Wilson’s beer nomenclature, “FV Oatmeal Stout.” This was contrasted against the Wilson’s own version of FV. One might be tempted to call this alternative pole, “FV Light,” but since Wilson would never want to refer to his position on anything as light, he opted for “FV Amber Ale.” These two poles then identified the spectrum of FV, with many people falling somewhere in the middle. During this time many men who were pro-Shepherd (and thus a part of the first stage of FV), but not interested in higher-church ecclesiology, sacraments, or liturgy, definitively broke from FV. Shepherd himself also receded from the public eye, and thus the FV took on a new shape, influenced from the earlier stage to be sure, but with a distinct set of goals and interests. This is the FV represented in the 2007 Joint FV Statement.

Paedocommunion became an essential feature of FV identity during this second stage, thus excluding certain men who had been members of the first stage of FV. Paedocommuion was probably the single most decisive factor for FV pastors deciding where they could become ordained. Prior to the FV controversy, paedocommunion was typically thought of as a matter of adiaphora in PCA and OPC circles. It had been debated in the 1980s, and many Reformed men, to include several seminary professors, quietly advocated for it. At least one well-known PCA pastor loudly advocated for it. Thanks to the FV controversy, however, paedocommunion nearly became radioactive, and many people now associate it entirely with FV. The CREC was the only Reformed denomination of any significance that allowed congregations to practice paedocommunion, and so many people joined the CREC for this single reason. This had the effect of making FV and CREC nearly synonymous. Many of the key thinkers and influences of the first stage of FV had been members of the PCA, and some had rather different social and political interests. One of the side-effects of the constricting of FV to the CREC was that much more social homogenization occurred.

Another very significant characteristic of the second stage of FV was James Jordan’s redefinition of the theological doctrine of regeneration. He first published his essay “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration” in 2003, but because of the rather primitive nature of his publishing approach at the time, it took several years to be read and discussed in any detail. The article proved highly controversial, and even many FV men rejected it. Still, it sat clearly within the FV conversation and was often invoked to explain FV views of baptism and apostasy. Over time, this proved to be a decisive fault line in two ways. First, it showed how Jordan’s version of FV broke with the older line of Reformed orthodoxy, a significant contrast to the historical recovery project that several FV men had been attempting. Whereas some FV men had argued that they were attempting to recover earlier continental Reformed theology, Jordan’s essay listed central elements of the debate at the Synod of Dort among the “problems” in Reformed development. It also rejected traditional Reformed exegesis of key biblical texts. Most practically, Jordan’s essay argued that non-elect covenant members could temporarily enjoy the benefits of Christ’s mediation, and in a way that was not significantly different from the elect, only to lose them after time. Jordan claimed that he believed in “the perseverance of the elect” but not necessarily “the perseverance of the saints,” as many saints who could rightly be called “saved” at one point in their lives might indeed fall away. This argument moved Jordan away from the Reformed position and closer towards the Lutheran position, yet he did not use classic Lutheran arguments. Instead he relied on his own biblical theology and a version of what can be called “relational ontology,” a sort of postmodern philosophical project that had been introduced into certain academic theological circles through the work of men like Henri de Lubac and John Zizioulas. Indeed, Jordan always had an eclectic background of intellectual sources. A key feature of his thesis was the rejection of the philosophical category of “nature.” Jordan argued that soteriology should be understood in terms of a relational ontology. Union with Christ applied to the ecclesiastical body, and he did not want to use this term in an abstract way for the elect. This called into question the traditional Reformed category of effectual calling, and thus, in the opinion of many (myself included), it put Jordan’s brand of FV outside the boundaries of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Peter Leithart’s book The Baptized Body was published in 2007, having been written in previous years as serial essays in Credenda/Agenda. In The Baptized Body, Leithart also advocated a relational ontology based along sacramental and liturgical lines. In 2007, Leithart explained his thought process when he stated that the Federal Vision was an attempt to bring Reformed theology into dialogue with 20th cent. ecclesiological renewal movements. He mentioned Vatican II, along with de Lubac, Barth, Lindbeck, and N T Wright as influences. Whereas earlier versions of FV had seemed to be continuations of Van Til and John Murray, Leithart’s version came to look like something broader, more eclectic, and more experimental. One can begin to see the distinctive character of “FV Dark” when Leithart and Jordan’s writings on these topics are read in tandem.

As mentioned, the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Statement was written during this period. Coming years after controversy had reshaped the nature of the conversation and while never holding any authoritative status among FV men, this statement can nevertheless be seen as an attempt to make the key features of FV more obvious. It also signals an attempt to ease the fears of certain critics and to tidy up the earlier conversation. Its preamble claims to not be attempting to exclude members of the earlier stage who do not fit, but it does say that it believes its contents illustrate “the realm of acceptable differences” that FV might hold and still be “within the Reformed pale.” This document never claimed ecclesiastical or confessional status, and it still used the language of “conversation.” Its status was therefore always rather ambiguous, and it was never able to overcome the weight of the earlier stages of controversy.

The End of FV (2012-2019)

The fourth and final stage of FV began around 2012. Peter Leithart left Moscow, Idaho to create the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, AL along with James Jordan (It was originally named “The Trinity House” but quickly changed to Theopolis). This move, whether originally intended or not, effectively achieved a break between the FV Dark and FV Light school of thought and even, in some ways, social relations. This became even more apparent when Leithart published his essay “The End of Protestantism” in late 2013, which recentered the identity and future strategy of his program. This essay led to a conference and eventually a book. In early 2014, Douglas Wilson published Against the Church, a collection of essays that summarized his own differences with FV Dark. Two features of Against the Church are especially noteworthy for seeing its significance to the FV split. First, its title was a rather direct allusion to Peter Leithart’s 2003 book, Against Christianity. The arguments of the two books are largely contrary to one another. Secondly, Against the Church contains a defense of BB Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation and its argument for the immediacy of salvific grace. Wilson had actually criticized Warfield for this same position in his earlier book, “Reformed” Is Not Enough. This was a significant change in argument, and Wilson acknowledges this fact in a 2015 blog post.

In the early stages, FV men had hoped to inspire a broad movement among churches in different denominations. During the second stage of FV, the hope was reduced mostly to the CREC, a small denomination with a strong strain of independency in church government. Thus, while many FV pastors joined the CREC, and many churches began to experiment with FV thought and practice, there was never a central authority or unifying order. Liturgies varied. Explanations for similar practices could often be entirely different. No singular confession of faith was ever produced for these churches, and most elected to use a combination of the Westminster Confession of Faith and 3 Forms of Unity, or at least the Heidelberg Catechism. Because of this, no true movement ever materialized. As the split between FV Dark and FV Light became more obvious, there was no formal bond holding anyone to anything concrete.

The terms used by FV men to explain themselves began to change. The Theopolis Institute did not typically call itself a Federal Vision project. It claimed to be a continuation of the Biblical Horizons ministry and said that it would like to create “Reformational Catholics.” This was not entirely new language. Indeed, such terminology had been present throughout much of James Jordan’s career. But it did emphasize a different ethos and vision. Whereas earlier FV conversations had been characterized by the language of “covenant” and at attempts to emphasize various aspects of the legacy of conservative Reformed theology, the Theopolitan idiom foregrounded “catholic” and “church.” The target shifted to a creative merger of broader evangelicals and aesthetically “high-church” Christians of varying ecclesiastical histories, including Vatican II Roman Catholics, academic Eastern Orthodox thinkers, and certain members of the Protestant mainline.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this change in ethos and branding can be seen in Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, the church which sponsored the early FV conferences and often found its name being used as shorthand to summarize the theological debate. Auburn Ave. Pres. was pastored by Steve Wilkins, and it became closely allied with Leithart and The Theopolis Institute. In 2018, due to space constraints, the church had to move away from its historic building on Auburn Avenue to a more modern facility in the neighboring town of West Monroe, LA. This occasioned the very understandable need to change the church’s name (since it would no be longer located on Auburn Avenue), but the new name, Church of the Redeemer, embodied more than just a new geography. “Church of the Redeemer” lacks any particular denominational modifier and sounds more like an Anglican or Lutheran church. Their website features a shorthand description, “Church of the Redeemer is a local congregation of Christians meeting in West Monroe, Louisiana.” The main page of the church’s website only emphasizes the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, though their constitution does state that they hold to a collection of Reformation-era creeds as well (see pg. 44 here). Having once been a Southern Presbyterian church characterized by Christian Reconstructionism and even Confederate heritage, Church of the Redeemer now looks like a “Reformational Catholic” church.

Douglas Wilson took a different track. In January of 2017, he stopped identifying himself with the Federal Vision. He had become increasingly critical of some of the FV Dark men in years prior, however, and so this announcement came as a sort of culmination of that development. In 2016, Wilson had written of Leithart’s “End of Protestantism” project that “his BS detector is busted,” “on this subject… his suggestions should simply be rejected,” and “Protestants who follow Peter’s suggestions here… are in my view exhibiting, not doctrinal fidelity, but rather a listless ennui.” In his 2017 statement, Wilson maintained that he had not come to any major change in his own theology but rather that he believed there had always been a fundamental difference in his own theology and that of some of the other FV men. This had not always been apparent to Wilson, but it had become so by 2017. He dropped the FV name and has not advocated for ecumenical relations with Lutherans, Anglicans, or Catholics. Instead, he has spent much of time working alongside Baptists and other conservative Evangelicals, focusing on cultural and political issues. Whereas FV dark moved forward into a new terrain, Wilson, it might be argued, moved back into more familiar territory.

James Jordan suffered a number of debilitating strokes in 2017. He was not able to fully recover, and in January of 2019, he announced the end of Biblical Horizons. This too marks a significant transition point. While Theopolis Institute is a successor institution to BH, it has certain differences in identity and ethos, and it does not have the same link to the Reconstructionist tradition as did BH.

Conclusion

Viewed historically, we can say that the Federal Vision controversy leaves a legacy that includes both inspiration and rejection across Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. There is undoubtedly a stronger sense of traditional identity and heritage among conservative Presbyterian churches now than had been the case in the 1990s. It is now much more common for the sacraments and the liturgy to be emphasized in ordinary church piety. At the same time, certain confessional boundary lines are also more carefully guarded, and less diversity is now tolerated when it comes to discussions of justification. Paedocommuion is now generally thought to be an “FV” issues, whereas this was not the case around the turn of the century. While the legacy is plain, with Jordan’s retirement, Leithart’s rebranding, and Wilson’s disavowal, the Federal Vision can be seen to have reached its conclusion.

I will provide an overview of and interaction with the theological issues related to the Federal Vision in a future installment.

  1. Greg Bahnsen had died in 1995, well before the “Federal Vision” was its own project, but his own history shows a fairly strong pro-Shepherd but anti-Jordan disposition. Several of his friends and students went on to have some association with FV.

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.