I must apologize for the month-long delay in completing this series on the Federal Vision. Seasonal travels and other obligations interfered. Nevertheless, I will begin to lay out a summary description of the theological issues involved in the Federal Vision and offer some critical observations.
Before attempting this, a few caveats have to be given. With this project, one could easily find themselves entrenched in a book-length treatment. The collection of original conference presentations, articles, and essays which created the Federal Vision Controversy would be long enough, but then the various responses, whether critical or sympathetic, make the complete anthology truly immense. I will not be attempting such a project here. Additionally, it is important to note that several conceptual twists and turns took place over the years, and what a person considered to be FV in 2003 may not necessarily be what others considered FV in 2015. The development was also not a simple outgrowing of basic ideas into their full extension and application. There were additions and subtractions, and it is possible that there were also various modifications, retractions, and reinventions along the way. As such, I will be summarizing my understanding of the general “big picture” of the theological discussion associated with the Federal Vision controversy. For such a treatment to be worthwhile, I will certainly note and interact with the major items of criticism against FV, but I will also try to distinguish the academic theological controversy from the more practical appeal of the FV which was embraced by “rank and file” pastors and church members. These two “levels” of FV life were not always aligned.
For readers interested in surveys of FV theology, the Knox Colloquium, Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, is probably still the best single source. Those essays, even more than the original conference audio, set the terms of the FV debate during what I have called the First Stage of FV.1 Those essays are also interesting to read now because they show that FV men could be just as intemperate and aggressive as FV critics. Steve Schlissel’s response to Rick Phillips can hardly be described as constructive. On the other hand, FV critic Chris Hutchison goes to great lengths to be fair and understanding in his criticism. Following the Knox Colloquium, Joseph Minich’s 2006 essay “Within the Bounds of Orthodoxy” is a good summary of FV theology, considered as a whole, and Cornelis Venema’s book Christ and Covenant Theology stands above other book-length treatments in both scope and quality.2
The Federal Vision and Reformed Theology
Identifying FV theology is difficult because of the variety within its advocates. Along with the diversity of personalities associated with FV, the theological goals of FV differed according to these personalities. The 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors conference argued for a sort of retrieval. The doctrine of the covenant had been lost or obscured over the years, and so it needed to be recovered. Reformed theologians were in the best position to do this, as their tradition had developed covenant theology more than any other, and one might have assumed that the argument being made was for Presbyterian and Reformed pastors to use their own historical theology to counter the errors of Dispensationalism or modern Baptist and Evangelical theology. This was certainly a major talking point for the conference.
But there was always more to the story. Even in 2002, FV men were making criticisms of certain varieties of Reformed theology. Steve Schlissel criticized both Martin Luther and Dutch pietism. John Barach largely sought to correct the theology of Abraham Kuyper with that of Klaas Schilder. Steve Wilkins criticized aspects of Puritanism, especially its development in New England. And an argument was being made, not simply that Reformed theology could correct modern errors but that Reformed theology itself had certain internal inconsistencies and weaknesses which needed to be corrected.
And within this framework, there was still more diversity. Some FV men argued for a sort of “early” vs. “late” development within Reformed theology, favoring the earlier forms of Continental Protestant thought over later British or “Puritan” developments and certainly over 19th cent. American developments. Some FV men argued that they were faithfully upholding the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith, whereas other FV men were more radical, arguing that the Reformers themselves had always been fundamentally “rationalistic.” James Jordan provides an example of this more radical outlook. Originally written in private, one of his emails was leaked to the broader public in 2010. In it Jordan states:
I can’t really put feet on this, but I “feel” sure that the Reformation tradition is rationalistic precisely because it is anti-pc. Or maybe better, these are part of one complex. Being anti-pc was the greatest mistake of all the Reformers (except Musculus, and who cares about him?). This mistake is part of the heart of the Reformation; they knew about pc and rejected it. This has affected, or else helps be a part of, all kinds of things, like piety, liturgy, and hermeneutics.
I’ve said for years that paedocommunion and non-pc cannot live together any more than infant and adult baptism. And by returning to pc, we drive back 1000 years, and definitely back before the Reformation. We also don’t like the rationalism of the “grammatical historical method” (a good way of weeding out about 95% of what the text means). I — and since BH is me, we — don’t think metrical psalms are real psalms and think Calvin and the Reformed tradition made a huge mistake by substituting metrical psalms for real ones — a gnostic move, since the assumption is that the IDEAS of the text are all that matter, and not the shape thereof. I could go on. …
Oh, it’s true enough: We depart from the whole Reformation tradition at certain pretty basic points.3
Those statements were originally written in 2005, at a time when the FV controversy was still very much ongoing. Some FV men were, at that very time, arguing that they were more consistent with the Reformation tradition than their critics. Some ministers were claiming to be continuing the confessional tradition of Westminster. Yet here we see Jordan claiming to radically depart from, not just later Presbyterian developments, but “the whole Reformation tradition.” Linking things, as he does, to the doctrine of paedocommunion would also suggest that Jordan opposes the Lutheran and Anglican traditions at the same point, and thus he is stating that his own theological system is a different thing entirely.
Perhaps the best way to understand Jim Jordan’s place in a “theological tradition” is noticing how he often linked his project to Martin Bucer (a sort of bridge between Calvinism and Lutheranism), Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970s and early 1980s (particularly Norman Shepherd and John Frame, but also the post-Rushdoony development of Van Tillian Reconstructionism), and then the 20th century liturgical renewal movement (to include Gregory Dix, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Alexander Schmemann). All of this Jordan then combined with his own unique and often genius approach to biblical theology to create a theological outlook of his own. It was certainly approximate to many aspects of the Reformed tradition but it was not a simple outworking of any prior tradition or school of thought. Peter Leithart continued this same approach, bringing it into contact with more recent academic theology, as he explains in this 2007 post. One will notice that Leithart does not criticize the Reformation tradition as much there, though he would in his later “End of Protestantism” essay. Leithart also lists figures whom Jordan would likely not have named as positive influences, particularly Karl Barth and George Weigel. Still, Jordan and Leithart’s views shared the vision that a new era was dawning on the entire church catholic. For them, all of the old boundaries would soon be torn down and a fundamentally new ecclesiastical union could be expected.
This was not the only FV view on the matter, however. Indeed, if one pays attention to the initial framing of Jordan’s email, it is plain that he is arguing against the majority of other FV men. They were attempting to argue that their views were in harmony with the Reformed tradition, and Jordan is arguing against them. He is trying to explain the significance of his own position to people who are sympathetic to him but do not quite see the full implications.
Douglas Wilson represented something rather different. Though a longtime associate and colleague of Leithart’s, Wilson always exhibited a certain measure of skepticism towards James Jordan. Wilson also retained a more favorable view of Evangelicalism and has appeared to bring his own theology more rather than less in line with the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith in recent years. Wilson has moved from a low-church credo-baptistic evangelical to something very close to an American Presbyterian. He has not gone on to argue for an experimental hybrid of Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox pastors and churchmen, and has criticized such a project. For many people, Wilson is simply a Reformed Christian with ultra-conservative social and political views.
Though now mostly gone from the public conversation, Steve Schlissel (a prominent FV name between 2002 and 2004) represented a still different place in the denominational landscape. Reacting against his experience with certain Dutch Reformed traditions, Schlissel argued for a sort of Christian appropriation of later Jewish philosophies and social practices, creating a sort of pragmatic quasi-anabaptist urbanism. Still praising certain neo-Calvinist names and influences, Schlissel frequently showed antipathy towards what he thought of as Lutheran and pietistic elements in Reformed and Evangelical theology. He often seemed to have an overall disinterest in specific theological argumentation and instead wanted to focus on “the important stuff” of counter-cultural living.
Aside from these varying outlooks, there was also always a spectrum of men who saw themselves as basically Reformed, and in line with the confessional tradition, but wanting to modify it slightly, typically towards an Anglican direction. Rich Lusk consistently claimed to be following Calvin, but he also wanted to incorporate certain aspects of the Anglican tradition (to include a post-Restoration Anglican figure like Sadler), as well as parallel liturgical and sacramental schools of thought like that of the Nevin and Schaff’s Mercersburg Theology. Lusk also always retained a sort of “real world” social and pastoral outlook. Thus, while he had a close affiliation with the Jordan and Leithart wing of the FV, he never quite followed them in their more idealistic projects and hypotheses.
Thus, when we ask whether FV was a recovery or critique of classic Reformed theology, the answer can only be: yes, no, and maybe.
A Summary of FV Theology
The problem with summarizing the theology of the Federal Vision is that it was always a matrix of concepts and ideas. There simply is no “FV theology” as such. To many people, FV was all about justification. But the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference was not about the doctrine of justification but rather applying the doctrine of the covenant to pastoral theology. The doctrine of justification certainly intersected with this, but the framing is nevertheless important. It is furthermore not clear that all FV men held to the same views regarding justification, not in 2002 and certainly not in 2015.
The more prominent topics of discussion, viewed from the FV perspective, were the role of the visible church and the ordinary means of grace in a Christian’s spiritual nurture and identity, the place of children in the covenant, and the way to understand cases of apostasy as they invariably occur. The relationship between God’s eternal decree—a matter on which all FV men agreed, and they agreed with the traditional “Dort” understanding of it—and the covenant, by which they meant the visible expression of the life of the Church, was really the primary topic of conversation. The central thesis of the initial FV message was that Christians ought to form their spiritual understanding through the ordinary means of grace and life together in the visible church, rather than waiting for a pronounced and often unusual subjective internal transformation of affections. Thus, they were arguing against what they saw as a “Baptistic” or “pietistic” life of faith and for a more churchly variety.
However, their rhetoric was often imprecise and imbalanced, and they often identified various theological “culprits” which raised major concern. There is a difference between piety and pietism, and FV men sometimes seemed to be opposed to internal and subjective affections playing any role at all. At times, they seemed to deny that believers should look for “inward evidence of those graces unto which [God’s] promises are made” or “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessesing with our spirits” as a part of the grounds for our “infallible assurance of faith” (language taken from WCF 18.2). They often appeared to be saying that the objectivity of visible church membership and the sacraments took the place of internal confirmation, rather than only being an instrument of aid and assistance. When asked directly about this, FV men almost always affirmed the traditional statements as well, but this appeared to be a sort of back-tracking when contrasted against their earlier and more confident polemical language.
Additionally, the emphasis on the sacraments in the life of the believer did, at times, seem to suggest that the ritual aspect of baptism did indeed confer the grace signified by it and that it ordinarily did so at the time of administration. This articulation was open to multiple understandings, and those who objected to it did so for multiple reasons. The debate could be framed as a debate between more evangelical or baptistic modern Presbyterians over and against the older confessional position, or it could be framed as a debate between high-predestinarian Calvinists over and against “ordinary means of grace” Calvinists, or it could be framed as a debate between more Lutheran-leaning or Anglican-leaning Calvinists and more strictly Reformed Calvinists. The intricacies of the debate were frequently lost, with the most popular rhetoric from FV critics simply stating that FV men taught the Roman Catholic position. This was always false, and yet the falsity of this charge could then be used to dismiss all concerns about FV views of baptism–even though there was an actual debate to be had. FV disagreed on the specifics of this debate, and their differing views would become clearer over time, but in the earlier stages of the controversy, the question often seemed to reduce down to whether the sacraments were effectual means of salvation or not. The particulars would have to be worked out at another time.
I believe that all of the above concerns were the “main things,” what FV was “really about,” in the eyes of FV proponents, but they all quickly became subsumed under the larger concern: the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Justification and Norman Shepherd
A major complicating factor in discussing the doctrine of justification in FV theology is the place and significance of Norman Shepherd. On the one hand, it is fair to note that Shepherd was invited to speak at the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference. Had he actually done so, he would indisputably be a part of the “FV” conversation in a direct way. As it turns out, he was unable to attend. Additionally, Shepherd did speak at Auburn Avenue on a later occasion (for a meeting of one of their weekend study centers), and he did speak at a 2002 conference for Steve Schlissel’s church in New York.4 Shepherd’s general concepts were frequently discussed within FV debates, and many FV men defended his orthodoxy. Thus, many would argue that Shepherd should be considered FV.
At the same time, Norman Shepherd was always working on his own project, one that overlapped with the FV conversation but never quite paired with it entirely. Shepherd had been controversial for at least twenty years before the FV, as such, would come about. Shepherd was also working within a much narrower theological landscape than the FV, being more confined to the world of mid-century Westminster Theological Seminary. It is also important to note that some FV men, like Douglas Wilson, actively disagreed with several of Shepherd’s theological distinctives, and many more FV pastors and advocates had relatively little familiarity with Shepherd. It is not clear that any of the other FV men followed Shepherd in every detail, and some of the men whose theology was closest to Shepherd’s (particularly Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin) ended up distancing themselves from later FV. Thus it is best to distinguish between FV and “Shepherdism.” Certain of Shepherd’s arguments and concerns were shared by some FV men but not by others, and thus if one were to make a Venn diagram, Shepherdism and FV should be represented as distinct circles which overlap, and the overlap is not simply in where the two agree on a doctrine but also which FV men agree on that doctrine and which do not. Perhaps then a third circle would be called for.
Still, one cannot understand why the FV was so explosive without understanding the history associated with Norman Shepherd. Shepherd’s theology had caused controversy since as early as 1975, and it was arguably the main reason why the OPC and PCA were unable to formally unite as one denomination, a proposal initially made in 1981 (A later proposal was made in 1986, at which time the OPC acted as the declining party.). Shepherd’s legacy left a mark on the later division of emphases and ethos between the followers of John Murray and Meredith Kline and between Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Westminster Seminary California. Simply put, Shepherdism was a theological powder keg, and the Federal Vision controversy served as the match that finally brought about a major explosion.
Understanding Norman Shepherd’s precise theological outlook is challenging for a few reasons. He put relatively little of his thinking into print until after his controversy erupted, and much of his writing is in response to that controversy. In other words, much of his writing is a response to a response, and some of his most widely-distributed essays do not contain direct articulations of the positions which created his controversy. Additionally, Shepherd’s theological emphases changed somewhat over time. Most readers now encounter Shepherd’s thought by way of writings on the covenant of works, imputation, and the relationship between covenant and election, but his controversy was originally sparked by his teaching that good works served as an instrument of justification, alongside faith. O Palmer Robertson explains that this was discovered in 1980, after some years of controversy, when a committee of Westminster Seminary Board members and Faculty listened to tapes from one of Shepherd’s 1975 classes. “In these lectures,” Robertson writes, “Mr. Shepherd developed extensively the idea that works functioned in a parallel role to faith in justification… he declared that justification presupposes good works; good works are not the ground of justification, but good works are the instrument of justification” (The Current Justification Controversy, 15). Robertson adds, “While faith and works were maintained as distinctive in themselves, each was presented not as the ground but as the instrument of justification” (15).
This teaching is rather directly contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s assertion that “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…” (WCF 11.2). Upon receiving significant criticism of his articulation, Shepherd attempted a number of modifications. Robertson explains the situation this way:
Originally he affirmed that good works were the instrument of justification as well as faith. Then for a period of time he proposed that neither faith nor works should be regarded as the ‘instrument’ of justification, since the term ‘instrument’ had the danger of being understood as ‘instrumental cause.’ Since only the righteousness of Christ could be understood as the cause of justification, it would be dangerous to speak of either faith or works as the ‘instrument’ of justification. Finally, he spoke of faith as ‘unique’ in its role as instrument of justification, while works were the ‘way’ of justification. (16-17)
In addition to the question of the receiving instrument of justification, Shepherd also apparently stated that “he believed it was possible for a person to lose his justification” (39). Robertson attributes this to a private conference at the Downington Inn in 1978. However, this accusation eventually made it into print in 1982, albeit in a report made to the Executive Committee of the seminary’s board and therefore not available to the general public. Robertson explains the document’s relevance to this matter by stating, “From this same covenantal perspective, according to Mr. Shepherd, justification can be lost” (79). The qualifying description “covenantal perspective” adds difficulty to this conclusion, however, and Robertson goes on to note that Shepherd also maintained that there is another sense in which God’s elect “cannot lose their election or fall from a state of justification” (80). Robertson explains this as a sort of inexplicable dialectic, however, it may be the case that neither Shepherd nor Robertson quite had the scholastic tools to sort this discussion out.
Still, this was the state of the Shepherd controversy in the early 1980s. All of his later modifications and developments were attempts to solve the problems associated with the earlier controversy, even as he chose different language and addressed different aspects of systematic theology. Shepherd eventually came to argue that the entire works/grace opposition was an error, and that only some kinds of works were excluded from justification. This then led him to reject the theological concept of the Covenant of Works, as well as the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. He developed other theological concepts and frameworks, some of which would resurface in more pronounced ways in the FV controversy.
Where “Shepherdism” and FV Intersect
To what extent were Shepherd’s views adopted by FV men? The 2007 Joint FV Statement would seem to exclude many of them. That document states, “Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God,” and also “We affirm that those who have been justified by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are saved to the uttermost and will spend eternity with Christ and his saints in glory forever. We affirm also that though salvation is granted through the instrument of faith alone, those who have been justified will live progressively more and more sanctified lives until they go to be with God.” These affirmations would seem to contradict Shepherd’s statements on faith and works.
At the same time, other statements in the Joint FV Statement would appear to echo or approximate some of Shepherd’s statements. For instance, “the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements” does seem to be a denial of the basic “works element” in the Adamic covenant, thus raising questions about the difference between “moral exertions” in the garden and “faith apart from works” on the part of the sinner after the Fall.
And this part of the Statement seems to simply elide the key point at issue in the Shepherd controversy:
We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.
This statement, as written, is orthodox and consistent with the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but, when read as a part of the Shepherd controversy, it does not actually answer the main issues in question. Therefore, the Joint FV Statement does not successfully resolve this tension within FV. It is capable of being read in at least two different ways.
In addition to all of this, some of the statements made by Steve Schlissel certainly seemed to echo Norman Shepherd’s. In his 2001 lecture to Redeemer College, a message which he also largely presented again at the 2002 Auburn Ave. Pastors conference, Schlissel says the following:
You might be interested to know that Judaism per se is a non-systematic religion. It is a religion that depends on doing, living, being, and not abstract systematization. Now it has plenty of sin, more than it needs, and it is guilty of an awful lot, but that’s one thing it is not guilty of, and we could learn from them about that, is that it is not abstract. The rubber has to meet the road.
This is not to be understood as a problem that Christianity corrects. No, for Schlissel, the problem is precisely that some Christians have thought of this as a problem in need of correcting. Schlissel continues:
What does God require? What does God want from us? We see that God has given us His Son; He wants us to love Him, to draw near to Him, to honor Him. We also see that He wants us to obey Him, and so on and so forth throughout all the wonderful Scriptures that we have to live by. This is how we read the Bible.
…But it is about time we undo our Greek way of thinking and become more biblical in our orientation – to go through the Book of Acts and see what the issues were. To go to Acts chapter 11 and understand what the fundamental problem was in the New Testament. It was not salvation by faith as opposed to works, but salvation that included Gentiles as Gentiles…
As we learn to ask the right questions, What does God require? Nothing different than He’s always required: believe in Him, and to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. I can hear somebody say, “That’s works!” People actually say that. Well here’s a Brooklyn smack for those people. That’s what God requires: to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. That is the gospel that Gentiles have been incorporated into through Jesus Christ.
Schlissel appears to be saying that all of the classic questions about the relationship between faith and works in justification are distraction, a product of Greek thinking that has nothing to do with the Bible. In a follow-up letter, Schlissel again dismissed the problem and appeared to combine the categories of “law” and “gospel.” In what would become a theme for him, Schlissel stated, “The requirement to respond in faith is a demand. It is law.” Again and again, Schlissel would make statements like, “The law is the gospel” and “Faith is obedience.” Though coming from his own unique framework, such statements certainly seemed to support and complement Shepherd’s arguments.
The above statements from Shepherd and Schlissel, though not articulated according to precise systematic argumentation, do indicate a view that justification is intertwined with sanctification and, in some basic way, dependent upon it. This is not simply a matter of stating that justification and sanctification are twin graces, both given by God’s gracious and effectual calling. Instead, these statements seem to suggest that a believer’s effectual calling will itself be determined by their faithful continuation in the covenant of grace, which is to say by their life of obedience. Subsequent affirmations of salvation by grace or even “faith alone” by these men would naturally be interpreted as having a different meaning: grace would be a potentially ineffectual grace, and “faith” would not be a trusting in the work of another, done for you and in your place, but rather a faithful acceptance of the instruction and commands of God, enabled and inspired by the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Rich Lusk and Imputation
An important bridge figure in this discussion would be Rich Lusk. Lusk never directly followed Shepherd, but Lusk did continue the larger discussion of justification and covenant theology and brought it into conversation with other FV talking points. His essay, “A response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation’” in the Knox Colloquium (it was a response to Morton Smith’s earlier essay) would become a major lightning rod for the FV controversy, causing many critics to accuse him, and by extension the FV, of denying the doctrine of imputation altogether. This was due to a line in Lusk’s essay that said:
This justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything… because I am in the Righteous One and the Vindicated One, I am righteous and vindicated. My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant. I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection. Union with Christ is therefore the key. (The Auburn Ave. Theology Pros & Cons, 142)
When read in conjunction with the earlier statements of Shepherd and Schlissel, and when considered alongside other controversial issues regarding sacramental efficacy and final justification, these lines led many to conclude that Lusk was rejecting the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness altogether and instead affirming a sort of participatory model of justification, one more compatible with Roman Catholic notions of infused righteousness. While understanding why readers could make this interpretation, and while also believing that Lusk’s argument as stated is poorly expressed, I nevertheless believe this to be a misreading of Lusk’s argument.
In Lusk’s paper, he is criticizing theological models. The conversation quickly becomes cumbersome because Lusk is talking about the way that people talk about certain theological concepts or arguments. He is addressing conceptual frameworks, hermeneutical approaches, and even the propriety of various metaphors and analogies. He is not saying that the goal of the “imputation model” is wrong, nor that its conclusions are substantially wrong. He is arguing that they are not as consistent and coherent as they could be. Indeed, the term “redundant” does not mean “wrong” or “incorrect.” It means something that is expressed more than once or that is unnecessarily repeated. Thus, to say that the concept of imputation is redundant means that it has already been expressed or accomplished in another way. And indeed, as one reads Lusk’s entire essay, he is not criticizing the concept of logically imputing or reckoning Christ’s righteousness but instead a particular misunderstanding (albeit a popular one) of imputation that would suggest a transfer of a quasi-substantial righteousness (often explained in pecuniary or financial terms). Lusk argues that instead of a notion of imputation that involves transferring a spiritual substance or moving numbers around on a spreadsheet of sorts, the more biblical explanation is that of a shared forensic or legal verdict, a sharing made possible because of a believer’s union with Christ. Put in this way, Lusk’s position is not actually at odds with “imputation” at all but is rather one particular explanation of it. Lusk’s mistake here is in allowing more recent theological controversy to dictate the terms and definitions of “imputation” rather than insisting that his own articulation simply is the correct meaning of “imputation.”
Indeed, this is what Lusk went on to do in his 2006 response to the OPC Report on Justification. In that essay, Lusk twice retracts his claim of “redundancy,” writing:
I freely admit that the sentence from my colloquium essay, “My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant,” is open to misunderstanding. Indeed, I gladly withdraw that statement, and let the rest of the argument stand on its own. (pg. 20 of Lusk’s Response)
Again, in retrospect, I am happy to withdraw the offending sentence about the “redundancy” of imputation. My argument does not depend on that particular way of stating the matter, and perhaps overstates it. I wish now I had been even more explicit that it was specifically imputation-as-extrinsic-transfer (a.k.a. “alien righteousness”) that I was critiquing. As with most of the debate surrounding the so-called “Federal Vision,” subsequent clarifications in things I have written on this point do not seem to have gotten through to the critics. The really chief thing, as I see it, is that we conceive of imputation as the way God reckons, or regards, us, in Christ. That is to say, imputation is an aspect of, or angle on, union with Christ. It is the declarative, or forensic, dimension of union with Christ. God imputes faith as righteousness, meaning that he regards believers as judicially one with Christ. If we must speak of a transfer, let us talk of God’s transferal of our persons from Adam’s covenant headship to Christ’s (Rom. 5:12ff; cf. Col. 1:12-14). (pg. 21 of Response)
For many, these retractions and qualifications were too late, if they were noticed at all, and Lusk’s “redundancy” line has continued to loom large over FV discussions of justification. Yet it is only fair to note that he did make these modifications and consistently showed himself interested in a constructive conversation.
Lusk was not simply following or defending Norman Shepherd either. Instead, he believed himself to be participating in a larger academic debate drawn largely from the writings of Richard Gaffin and William B. Evans. Lusk’s arguments also largely approximate those made by Mark Garcia and Mark Jones, though Lusk’s writing reflects a less technical tone and linguistic dexterity, as he is not a specialized academic theologian and does not always employ the classical language of scholastic orthodoxy. Still, his fundamental affirmation of the substance of justification by faith alone is plain enough:
All this is to say: our justification inheres in the person of Christ. It is not found in a transfer of righteousness, abstracted from Christ himself, nor in an act of transfer from Christ to us. Rather, it is found in the person of Christ himself, crucified and raised for us. Justification, therefore, is an act of God’s free grace in which he accepts us as his own people and forgives our sins, declaring (or considering, or regarding, or reckoning, or imputing) us to be righteous only because of and on account of the righteousness of Christ, received by us by means of faith alone. Through the sole instrumentality of faith, we are conjoined to Christ, in whom we have righteousness, and all other blessings pertaining to life and salvation. God considers, or imputes, us as righteous because we share in the status of the Risen Christ. (pg. 9 of Response)
Lusk’s concern was that certain construals of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness seemed to eclipse the ordinary application of redemption through the means of grace and life of sanctification. Essentially, he was arguing that certain expressions of justification ran the risk of making everything else redundant or unnecessary. This does not solve all of the problems, but it at least frames the concern more accurately.
On the more precise question of faith and works, the overwhelming majority of Lusk’s argument had to do with the question of merit. He believed that a certain sort of Klinean reading of the Covenant of Works distorted its meaning. Lusk affirms the substance of the Westminster doctrine of the Covenant of Works when he states, “[A]ny sin, even the smallest, made Adam worthy of eternal death (WSC 84). God certainly did require perfect and perpetual obedience of Adam” (TAATP&C, 121). And Lusk also distinguished the role of faith and works prior to the Fall and afterwards:
But while the stance of faith as the basic requirement of the covenant remains unchanged from one phase of history to the next, the content of faith certainly does change. Prior to the fall, Adam was not to trust in himself or his own resources (as the meritorious covenant of works construction seems to imply)… Rather, Adam was to trust in his heavenly Father to provide for him in every way. He was to trust that God would bring him into eschatological, mature life at the right time.
After the fall, of course, the same posture of faith is required. Only now, trusting the heavenly Father includes his promise of a Mediator, a New Adam, to rescue us from sin and death. (TAATP&C, 125)
One could construct the Westminster doctrine of the covenant of works from these paragraphs.
And yet, Lusk’s argument here was not without its own weaknesses. In his essay he moves back and forth between defending a form of the covenant of works from the “meritorious” model proposed by some, a model Lusk believes to be a mistaken understanding of Westminster, and appearing to reject “the covenant of works model” itself (see TAATP&C, 123). In other places Lusk talked about how “Federal Theology” appeared to be itself a mistaken approach to things, and he tended to reject the language of a “law/gospel dichotomy” as Lutheran (TAATP&C, 127). Read as a whole, Lusk’s goal was to criticize later developments of covenant theology which he viewed to have to have distorted the biblical picture, but his use of language could easily suggest that he thought “federal theology” as a whole was the distortion.
Perhaps most of all, Lusk suffered from his other FV associations. He did seem to deny that Norman Shepherd’s theology was problematic, arguing “Shepherd has totally purged his theological program of merit—and therefore of even the possibility of legalism…” (TAATP&C, pg. 145), thus suggesting that a formal denial of merit was sufficient to overcome a potential mixing of faith and works. But even apart from the issue of merit, the question of the ground of Adam’s justification, or vindication, and how that relates to the sinner’s ground of justification today is essential. Lusk often seemed to pass over this question with only minimal thoughts.
We can highlight the significance with the following hypothetical: Had Adam obeyed God in the garden—perfectly and perpetually—Satan could have still brought a charge against him. As accuser, this is precisely what Satan does. And yet, because Adam was inherently just (created that way by a gracious act of God, to be sure), those charges would be false. God could look upon Adam and justify him, and this justification would be based upon Adam’s own personal righteousness. God would not need to impute the righteousness of another to Adam in any way. After the fall the situation is entirely different. When Satan brings accusations against the people of God, many of the charges are true. The people have sinned against God and do deserve to die. And so God must manifest His righteousness and carry out the just sentence against sinners. But “the gospel,” to use one common and traditional sense of that term, is that God manifests His righteousness in an astounding way— He sends His son to bear the punishment of God’s judgment and to be righteous so that He can receive a true verdict of righteous. God then imputes that status to His people, and they receive that declaration by faith. Thus the issue isn’t only the “content” of the faith but the way that the faith “works” in each situation.
I believe that Lusk affirms everything written above, and I believe that the reason that he did not emphasize it as much as other points of argument is that he simply took it for a given. His concern was to correct other errors, as he saw them. However, given the scope of the FV conversation, the often confused framing of terminology and history (a confused framing made even at times by Lusk), and the inflammatory language of someone like Schlissel, such an imbalanced presentation was doomed. Had Lusk been engaged in a series of academic articles with Reformed theologians who were not of the Klinean disposition, he could have very well had a nuanced conversation without the explosive controversy. He may have found ways to articulate everything I have written above. However, in the actual historical and literary context in which he found himself, his arguments were weighted down with the other FV freight and overshadowed by the more basic points of controversy. It was very easy to interpret him as saying something very problematic, whereas it was quite difficult to interpret him as I have done.
To Be Continued…
It may seem to be a bit deflating to have written so much only to tell the reader that we’ve only just addressed the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, for many people sympathetic to the initial FV conversation, the justification debate was something of a side trail. That sounds incredible to FV critics, but it was the typical reaction of many FV defenders. They wanted to talk about covenantal nurture and the role of the sacraments, but the debate over justification continued to dominate the larger controversy. Additionally, much, perhaps most, of the discussion on the doctrine of justification has addressed topics and concerns that largely do not apply to Douglas Wilson, the most popular FV representative. This might perhaps explain why it was that Wilson eventually came to reject the label.
I will take up Wilson’s views on justification in a following post, and then, after that, I will attempt to wrap everything up with a discussion of FV views of sacramental efficacy and then a general “survey” of the FV project, as I understand it to have worked itself out into two basic camps.
- See this previous essay for the historical explanation and timeline: https://calvinistinternational.com/2019/11/18/a-federal-vision-history/
- Readers can also revisit the 2006 OPC Report on Justification and the 2007 PCA Report on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology. While of obvious ecclesiastical significance, neither the OPC nor PCA reports, in my opinion, give a sufficient treatment of FV theology as a whole, and it is arguable whether their conclusions apply to any individual thinker. Rather, these reports created a sort of composite picture focused on particular theological topics in an effort to create lines of acceptability for the respective denomination’s interpretations of the Westminster Standards. This is a legitimate task but a rather specific one that is necessarily limiting. Douglas Wilson’s 2004 CREC examination can be read online here, and it contains important qualifications for understanding his theology. The Athanasius Press book, The Federal Vision, is also has primary sources, though its essays never quite held top billing compared to the other early sources.
- Some readers will object to the moral propriety of a private communication having been made public. I would agree that the original leaker violated the terms of email confidentiality and so sinned against many people. However, this email has been in the public record for nearly a decade and has been the source of much subsequent communication. It can no longer be considered secret, and thus it is fair to cite it directly when discussing it.
- See the links at the center column here: https://www.trinity-pres.net/study/normanshepherd.php