(This essay continues a series on the Federal Vision that I have been writing since November, 2019. The first installment can be found here. The second is here. The third is here, and the fourth is here. Though I earlier stated that this essay would be my final one, I see the need for one more to come. I apologize for the length of this project, but I hope that it proves helpful.)
Having said so much about justification, it needs to be said that for many of the Federal Vision writers, justification was not the main point. It was, rather, a conversation that many of them backed their way into while talking about other topics, namely the visible church and a person’s ability to persevere in the faith. This qualification is hardly a compliment, of course. Often FV writers would toss out an unclear statement about justification as if it were no big deal.1 Additionally, to misunderstand or understate the foundational significance of the doctrine of justification in the rest of salvation reveals a serious weakness in one’s systematic theology. The grace present in the sacraments must derive from the work of Christ, and it must do so in such a way that follows from the truth of God’s act of justification. To have a sacramental theology in tension with one’s doctrine of justification simply shows that the categories are not working well together.
Still, the main idea for the FV men was the visible church. They argued that the visible church was the “real church” and that it was the location of God’s saving grace. Peter Leithart explained it this way, “At its heart, the Federal Vision is about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church… As I see it, the Federal Vision’s central affirmation is this: Without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ” (The Baptized Body, ix). This statement revealed something that had been in Leithart’s thinking for some time. Back in 1993, he wrote “in the Bible, the ‘visible’ church is addressed as if it were identical to the ‘invisible church” (The Kingdom and the Power, 144), and also, “the pathway into the heavenly sanctuary and kingdom of God lies through the church” (TKP, 106). By 2007, he was ready to drop the qualifications. “The ‘body of Christ’ is the body of Christ. When the New Testament writers call the church the ‘body of Christ,’ they mean the visible or historical church is the body of Christ” (TBB, 32). The rest of Leithart’s system of thinking follows from this. When it comes to questions of salvation, the visible church is to be thought of as an extension of Jesus Himself.
James B. Jordan explained this position in a similar way, positing the church as a mediating location where God applied His saving graces. Jordan writes, “God sovereignly before the foundation of the world has unconditionally elected some people to be baptized into His Church. Jesus’ atoning work is truly given to such people in a special way, a way that goes beyond the general benefits of the atonement that are given to all men while they live in this present world” (“Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration,” pg. 3-4). For Jordan there are two relevant categories: those within the church who have Jesus’ atoning work in a special way and those without the church who only enjoy certain general benefits.2
Steve Wilkins and Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church explained their position in this way:
The Church is not merely a means to salvation, a stepping-stone to a more ultimate goal. Rather, the Church herself is the historic manifestation of God’s salvation (WCF 25.1,2), the partially-realized goal in history that will be brought to final fulfillment at the last day. When someone is united to the Church by baptism, he is incorporated into Christ and into His body; he becomes bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of His flesh (Eph. 5:30). He becomes a member of “the house, family, and kingdom of God” (WCF 25.2). Until and unless that person breaks covenant, he is to be reckoned among God’s elect and regenerate saints. (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on the Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation ((Revised)) )
In his essay “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” which appears in both The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Con and The Federal Vision, Wilkins connected this view of the covenant and the visible church to the doctrine of God. He argued that the covenant is an outworking of the life of the Trinity itself, “The covenant into which we are brought is this very same covenant that has always existed within the Godhead from eternity” (Auburn Ave. Theology, Pros and Cons, 257). To this Wilkins also added, “This is what it means to be in covenant. Covenant is a gracious relationship with the Triune God, in which we are made partakers of His love and participants in the communion and fellowship that has existed from all eternity in the Godhead” (ibid). And by covenant, Wilkins meant membership in the visible church.
Wilkins cites Ralph Smith’s work for this line of argument, but Smith was himself following James Jordan. This observation is important when making claims about history of FV’s view of the covenant. Whatever the influence of Norman Shepherd, Jordan’s influence was unique and much more significant, at least when it comes to those men who would be identified with the fuller development of FV Dark.3
Thus one FV consensus position can be identified under Leithart, Jordan, and Wilkins’s doctrine of the church. They argue that the church is an outworking of the eternal life of the Trinity through the work of Christ and, as such, is the earthly location of salvation. These men always meant a particular or individual church, and so they were not arguing for an institutionalism as such, but they also meant the particular community of the church, defined chiefly by the sacraments, and so they were most certainly talking about the visible church. For them, to be a member of a specific local church is to be united with Christ and thus to possess His saving benefits. This works its way out in the lives of individuals over time, with some persevering in the church and others falling away.
FV Dark vs. FV Light on the Church: A Very Messy Composition
Douglas Wilson certainly identified with this perspective in a general way by virtue of his participation in the original Auburn Avenue Pastors Conferences and by the common use of the expression “objectivity of the covenant.” Yet Wilson was always more willing to emphasize the difference between members of the church who were “born again” and those who were not. For Wilson, non-elect members of the church experienced “common operations of the Spirit” (“Reformed” Is Not Enough, 38) but were not “’quickened and renewed’ in such a way as to [be able] to respond to the call of God” (39). Wilson was even willing to say that “many have been baptized and have not known the reality offered in that baptism” (40). Thus, in an important sense, he always advocated for a distinct position from Leithart, Jordan, and Wilkins.
However, Wilson did tend to suggest that the church was primarily visible, and he often appeared to argue that this was a sort of mediating institution by which God’s grace was received. Upon closer inspection, Wilson can be seen to be inconsistent on this point. In his book Mother Kirk, he wrote straightforwardly, “salvation is not mediated to man through the manipulation of a religious machinery operated by various priests or religious experts” (MK, 40). In “Reformed” Is Not Enough, Wilson upheld this understanding when he emphasized the role of individual regeneration in the application of salvation, “A man is either regenerate or he is not… the Spirit of God… does what He does when and how it pleases Him” (RINE, 39). Wilson even added, “we have to repudiate every form of baptismal or decisional regeneration” (39). And yet, things were not so simple. In the same book, Wilson would go on to rhetorically suggest that “the Westminster Confession taught baptismal regeneration” (103). And so the reader must ask if Wilson really does want to repudiate every form of baptismal regeneration. This is a rhetorical sloppiness that will appear in Wilson’s FV writing from time to time. The true meaning is ascertainable, but it requires giving Wilson a bit of wiggle room. Given the high stakes of the controversy and the overall tone of much of the polemics, this is not an easy request.
Wilson would also complicate things by criticizing B.B. Warfield’s insistence that God works “immediately on the souls of men” (86). Importantly, Wilson would later acknowledge that he had misread or misunderstood Warfield. By 2013, Wilson came to agree with Warfield (see Against the Church, pg. 191-195), which, incidentally, meant that he had come back to his 2001 position as argued in Mother Kirk. Putting all of this together, Wilson does not seem to have actually made a drastic change of theology between these various expressions but rather to have made a clumsy and internally inconsistent argument in parts of “Reformed” Is Not Enough. Two different trains of thought appear to be present in that book, with the dominant train being the one that was present earlier in Wilson’s writing and which eventually worked itself out clearly afterwards. Wilson’s most consistent position is the one that agrees with Warfield and rejects the idea that the visible church is a true mediating institution of grace. But this working out does take some work, and Wilson’s close alliance with the other FV men made it more difficult than it had to be. Wilson must bear responsibility for this confusion.
The Visible and Invisible Church
An additional confusion in Wilson’s 2002-2003 era writing can be seen in his explanation of the visible and invisible church. He appears to agree with the other FV men that the visible church is the primary way of understanding the church. The parts of the church that are invisible are only so because of the limited vantage point of our perception. Wilson explains himself this way:
And so here is one of the rare places in which we would suggest an improvement on the language of the Confession. A problem is created when we affirm a belief in two Churches at the same moment in time, one visible and the other invisible… Because time and history are not taken into account, we wind up with two Churches on different ontological levels.
It would be better to consider the one Church under a different set of terms, discussed earlier, and which preserves the necessary distinction made by visible and invisible—historical and eschatological Because time is taken into account, we preserve the understanding of just one Church, and at the same time preserve the necessary distinction between those Church members who are ultimately saved and those who are ultimately lost. The historical Church is the counterpart to the visible Church, and consists of those who throughout history who profess the true faith, together with their children. The eschatological Church is the elect, but it is not invisible. At the last day, every true child of God will be there, not one missing, and every false professor will have been removed. At the resurrection of the dead, this Church will be most visible. (‘Reformed’ Is Not Enough, 74)
This is no small point. Wilson recognizes the need for certain distinctions, but he seems to confuse the point of the categories. Yes, the invisible church will be visible at the resurrection of the dead, but that is true because, at that point, faith will have become sight. This kind of visibility is “not yet,” for it represents the fullness of the church’s eschatological character. Prior to that moment, faith sees what is unseen. Using the traditional Reformed categories, we would say that the eschatological church is present in history, but only invisibly, and it is perceived by the eyes of faith. When a believer participates in the visible church, they are always to be aware that the “reality” exists in an invisible manner, standing distinct from the externalities around them. This visible/invisible distinction will continue to be important when it comes to discussions of the sacraments. The signs point to distinct invisible realities, and those realities are more real than the visible signs.
We can see how Wilson works out his distinction when we turn to the Joint FV Statement:
We affirm that membership in the one true Christian Church is visible and objective, and is the possession of everyone who has been baptized in the triune name and who has not been excommunicated by a lawful disciplinary action of the Church… We further affirm that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ, and not an “approximate” Church.
This shows a basic agreement with the other FV quotes above, that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ. However, this emphasis breaks down when one considers what it takes to be a “true Church” rather than a “false Church” and how one might appropriate the spiritual blessings of the church. Ultimately, the difference is the actual presence of the Word of God, the true preaching of the gospel and the actual apprehension of it by living faith. The Church is, first and foremost, those people who actually do believe. The FV attempt to reverse this emphasis sets them on course for many contorted explanations. They would have to talk about church members being “given” saving benefits but in different ways—some that would last and others that would fall away over time. Explaining this difference was always exceedingly difficult for FV men, and some actually did argue for positions which seemed to simply contradict the point of the qualifications, to hollow them out to empty words.
The Westminster Confession of Faith actually goes about this conversation from the opposite direction. It begins its definition of the Church by stating that it is invisible: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” (WCF 25.1) The Church is, essentially, all true believers. The Heidelberg Catechism shares this point of view, as it defines the Church as all those whom Christ was sent to redeem (HC question 54). Commenting on that question, Ursinus explains:
For the church is an assemblage of persons brought together, not by chance, nor in a disorderly manner, but called out of the kingdom of Satan by the voice of the Lord, and by the preaching of the gospel for the purpose of hearing, and embracing the word of God.
…The Catechism in answer to the Question under consideration, defines the church to be that assembly, or congregation of men, chosen of God from everlasting to eternal life, which the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends and preserves to himself, by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, agreeing in true faith, and which he will at length glorify with eternal life and glory. Such is the definition of the true church of God of which the Creed properly speaks. (Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pg. 286)
Thus we can see the proper definition of the Church begins with the whole—the actual body of people whom Christ has come to redeem and who will respond to the Word in true faith.
The visible church describes the aspect of this group that can be seen—their life on this world, their profession of faith, and their community together. But the visible church is, in this life, always mixed, being made up of some professors who do not have true faith. Thus there is indeed a sense in which the visible church is “approximate” to the invisible one. There are members of the visible church who are not members of the invisible church. And, in rare conditions, there are members of the invisible church who are not able to join a visible community of believers in this life. This distinction is not a matter of highlighting exceptions to the rule. Rather, it highlights exceptions which prove the true rule. Luther’s notion of the “two kingdoms,” a framework retained by John Calvin, also makes this clear. The spiritual kingdom of Christ is invisible and immediate, whereas the externals of ecclesiology mostly belong to the temporal kingdom. 4
Their re-ordering of ecclesiology, starting with the visible rather than invisible, is also what set the FV up for its sacramental theology. Leithart could argue, quite simply, “‘baptism’ is baptism” (The Baptized Body, 29). For him, the external sign is again the main thing. He even argues, provocatively, that “sacraments are not signs” (11), are not “means of grace” (14), and are not “symbols” (19). To the contrary, what matters for Leithart is the fact that sacraments are rituals (21). Leithart’s overarching ecclesiology, as he worked it out, stressed that what mattered most was community membership and ritual activity. A person received saving grace by virtue of their participating in the covenant community, the visible Church. He did not argue for a transmission or infusion of grace, at least not with the conceptual framework of changing substances, but he did argue for a dynamic relational ontology, whereby identities, even redemptive ones, were truly formed by their community membership and relations. Thus, for Leithart, salvation was something like a sacramental sociology.
Wilson never argued in quite this way. He tried to retain traditional categories of “sign and thing signified” as well as the need for true faith in receiving sacramental grace. “The analogy of faith requires us to say that water baptism without saving faith is worse than useless” (RINE, 102). However, Wilson did not always see how his own position was indeed different from Leithart’s, and he quoted Leithart on the role of the sacraments in several places (RINE, 95, 96, 107, 110). It’s also worth noting that the material in Leithart’s The Baptized Body was originally published in a series of articles in Credenda/Agenda, a magazine under Wilson’s supervision. And of course, The Baptized Body was finally published by Canon Press. If Wilson thought Leithart’s view was truly in error, then one would reasonably have expected him to have intervened, to have argued against the position rather than appear to lend it support. Wilson always made arguments that appeared to at least, in part, disagree with Leithart and Jordan, but it was not until 2013’s Against the Church that such disagreements were pushed to the forefront.
Thus for most of the FV controversy, a singular FV position on the church was communicated. This position stated that the visible church is the true church and that God’s saving grace is normally found in particular manifestations of that church, in local congregations. Christians become Christians by joining the visible church, and they receive saving grace through the rites and rituals of the church. When stated this simply, this position represents a reversal of traditional Reformed categories.
Salvation and the Church in Classic Reformed Theology
In Reformed theology, believers normally come to saving faith through the hearing of the word, where they then receive saving grace immediately and by the work of the Holy Spirit. Upon coming to this saving faith, they then join the visible church and receive the sacraments. These sacraments sign and seal the salvation the believer already has, and they can then further strengthen the believers’ faith and assist their walk in holiness throughout their life. The sacraments can confirm and strengthen what is already there, but they do not create something that was previously not there.
With children of believers, the situation is somewhat more complicated. While still having a sinful nature, children of believers enjoy a particular blessing. They have a seed faith, or an inclination to faith, because of their covenant status, and they have God’s promise to them. These children may even be already personally regenerated by the Holy Spirit, though this can never be claimed as universal, nor can any specific case be assured. In classic Reformed categories, the children of believers are said to possess the reality of the sacraments already, by virtue of God’s promise, and so then they are given the outward sign. Because they already have the “thing signified,” they are given the sign.
This basic argument can be found in Calvin’s Institutes 4.16.19, but he also articulates it in his Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines. There he writes:
For when it is a question of baptizing a man of age, who has not been a Christian, then before such can be done, he must be taught what baptism means. But with respect to his children, they are baptized under the doctrine which he has received, which holds that God is not only his personal Savior but also the Savior of his children.
…But since this promise is made to every faithful believer; ‘I am the God of your descendants.’ (Gen. 17:7), his children have another privilege: that God recognizes them as His own, because of their fathers. And lest one think I am making this up in my mind, our Lord demonstrated it for us in the example of Isaac (Gen. 21:12).
…to deny to the children of Christians this confirmation would be to defraud their parents of a unique consolation. For believers have always had this confirmation: a visible sign by which our Lord shows that He accepts their children into the fellowship of the church. (Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, 47, 49, 51)
A similar argument is made by Zacharius Ursinus. Ursinus argues that infants of believers are given an inclination to faith by the Holy Spirit. This will then grow into an actual faith, upon their reaching the age of reason. In the event an infant does not possess actual faith, it will be made known that they had not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and thus were not elect. Calvin even goes so far as to say that such covenant children fall away from a state of federal or covenant election.5 The way this position worked its way out was that the covenant had an external and political manifestation but was ultimately always received by true faith. Thus individuals could be external and political members of the covenant but not “true” members of the covenant. This logic followed the logic used by Paul when speaking of the Old Covenant, “They are not all Israel who are Israel” (Rom. 9:6). The Douglas Wilson wing of the Federal Vision granted this logic, and eventually came to emphasize it more and more, but the FV Dark advocates wanted to argue that the “true” Israel or “true” church was simply the visible church and that individuals were “true” or “false” insofar as they continued to be members of the church.6
It is true that over the centuries, this Reformed teaching was indeed lost, or at least partially corrupted. By the 20th century, many North American Reformed Paedobaptists were unsure as to how they should consider their children. A large percentage tended to adopt a sort of Baptist point of view, seeing their children as perhaps dedicated to the Lord but still in a spiritual position functionally equivalent to a non-believer. The expectation tended to be that even the children of believers would have a notable conversion experience later in life. At that point, then, they could be said to be Christians. This represented a departure from the Reformed tradition. It was gradual and perhaps consistent in development, but it eventually did undermine traditional Reformed sacramental theology. And this departure was most definitely what the FV sought to correct. However, their diagnosis of the problem, and its cause, was often oversimplified (see this helpful historical essay by Ken Stewart for more explanation) and their offered correction was itself muddled. In the end, the FV did not correct the confusion but added different confusions to the larger discussion.
In summary, the FV men largely claimed that the individual’s introduction into the visible church is what affected their transition from outside the covenant to inside the covenant, and thus from spiritual darkness or death to spiritual light and life. They occasionally offered differing explanations as to how this worked. Some FV men attempted to use slightly Lutheran or Anglican modifications to the more traditional Reformed sacramental theology, while others, namely Leithart and Jordan, preferred to simply appeal to the notion of the visible church as true locus of salvation. For this latter group, salvation was more of a matter of community membership—sacramental sociology, if you will– rather than the subjective state of one’s heart.
The Sacraments and Apostasy
This ecclesiocentric point of view was thought by the FV men to best explain how the sacraments can always be named by their spiritual reality—how they can “do” what we say they do—and how apostasy can truly occur rather than simply be rhetorically said to happen in some way. For the FV, salvation itself was located in the sacramental church assembly, and one entered into it through baptism. As long as one remained within this community, they retained the blessings of salvation. But if they departed from it—if they fell away or rebelled against the church—then they could be said to lose these blessings.
Peter Leithart explains this process in terms of the duration of faith. If faith lasts, then the individual will persevere in the church. If the faith does not last, then the person will not:
There are unfathomable mysteries here, but in one sense the explanation is very simple. Someone who is grafted into the body of the Son of God and believes for a time, and then falls away, has simply failed to keep faith. He believed and then he stopped believing. For some it is slow. Some stop believing in a moment. For some, such as Herman Melville, the wrenching departure lasts a lifetime. Yet, fundamentally, the story is the same: Apostasy happens when a friend betrays his utterly faithful companion; when a woman leaves an utterly devoted husband; when a member of the body of the Son of god amputates himself; when a rebel grieves the Spirit and the Spirit departs; when a slob escapes the miasma but then decides he prefers the mud pit. Apostates may hear the promise, receive the kind gifts of God, and never believe. They may receive all these things and keep faith for a time. Ultimately, they fall away because they do not keep on believing. They do not keep faith. (TBB, 104-105)
Here we see a simple explanation: apostasy is when faith ceases. But what causes faith to cease? What accounts for the reason why one faith perseveres until the end and the other doesn’t? Leithart leaves it at a mystery. He says, “Ultimately, we cannot explain this.” (104).
James Jordan gives a similar explanation in his “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace.” There he writes:
The ecclesial view, however, can say to all baptized persons: “I don’t know if you will persevere or not, but I know this: God has chosen you before the foundation of the world. God has given you every benefit in Christ. God has promised that His Spirit will wrestle with you and preserve you – if you want Him to do so. You are on the road to heaven. But know this also: God will honor you as a human being made in His very image, and if you insist on departing, God’s Spirit will not always strive with you. You can grieve Him. You can get off the way to heaven. You can lose all these benefits, if you really want to forsake them. Yet be assured, that’s not what God wants for you. He baptized you and has made Himself your God and Father. So make your calling and election sure by continuing to be faithful to Him.”
Now, we know that behind all this is the predestinating plan of God. Those who leave the Way and are damned were predestinated to this end. But at the same time our fathers warn us in the Westminster Confession that this truth must be handled with care, and Paul in Romans 9 rebukes those who try to play God and think from His eternal perspective about things. If people get to worrying and ask how they can know they will persevere, they have to be rebuked for the sin of trying to play God, as Paul does in Romans 9. They are sinning by trying to live by insight into the future, by insight into the decree, rather than living by faith in God and His promises alone. God has given them grace, the same grace (favor) as He has given to every baptized person, and He has given them His promise and His Spirit. There is no more He can give them than Himself, and He has done so. (5)
Jordan repeats this, reinforcing the point:
Hence my thesis, as qualified, is that God gives exactly the same thing, Himself, to all baptized persons, but that the Spirit orders the lives of various such persons differently. What God objectively bestows is one thing; how God’s Spirit causes each person to respond is another.
To amplify: The gift to the Church is God Himself, the Triune God. In the Godhead, the Father is giving the gift of a Bride to His Son, and the Son is giving the gift of a people to His Father. It is the Spirit who is proceeding from the Father and from the Son to bring these gifts. To be baptized is to be woven into this process, to be incorporated into the Bride/people. But not everyone woven into this process, not everyone placed “in Christ,” is destined to persevere to the end. The Spirit’s work is mysterious. The Spirit wrestles to bring the Bride to the Son and the people to the Father. He wrestles in history and over the course of time, throughout the biographies of individuals and the histories of cultures. The Spirit will not always strive with sinners (Genesis 6:3). He can be grieved and quenched. He can forsake Saul. Not until the gifts are finally given to the Son and Father, at the end, will the gifts be fully prepared. Not all those who start out as part of these gifts will be part of them at the end.
This position locates perseverance in the ongoing interaction of the person with the Spirit, not in some special benefit given in connection with baptism to some baptizands and not to others (or to “true converts” and not to “temporary converts”). Classical Calvinism, however, has argued that a “new birth,” a “new heart,” a “regeneration” is an aspect of the objective gift itself, and that anyone who receives this “new heart” will persevere. Hence, only those who are “regenerated” were really given the gift of being in union with Christ… (7-8)
Here we see the full extent of the “ecclesial vision.” Salvation is itself located in the Church, and individuals participate in that salvation insofar as they participate in the Church. Some individuals have been predestined to remain in the Church, while others have been predestined to fall away from the Church after a season. While in the Church, both individuals possess the same salvation. The difference becomes clear when one person perseveres and the other does not. Jordan devotes the rest of his essay to redefining the notion of what “regeneration” means along ecclesial lines. The Church simply is the regeneration, considered objectively.
This understanding of ecclesial regeneration appeared, at least in part, in the Joint FV Statement, which said, “Baptism formally engrafts a person into the Church, which means that baptism is into the Regeneration, that time when the Son of Man sits upon His glorious throne (Matt. 19:28).” The adverb “formally” allowed for a potential equivocation in meaning, however, and in the background the disagreement between Wilson and Jordan was more obvious. Did this statement mean to say that baptism actually applies the fruits of effectual calling to all recipients, or did the modifier “formally” intend to state that baptism externally signified regeneration, though it still had to be personally received by an individual faith that was contingent upon effectual calling? The Joint FV Statement did not answer this key question, allowing instead two different perspectives to coexist under a common grouping.
Making the Two FV Positions Clearer
We can simplify the difference between the two positions in the following way. The FV Dark position locates salvation “proper” in the visible church. They would still explain that this is due to the work of Christ. The church, being in mystical union with Christ, shares His saving work. However, for practical purposes, individuals should look to the visible church to find Christ. Upon joining the church, they are united to Christ and are, in that way, “saved.” The FV Light position, by contrast, still maintained that saving grace must be subjectively and individually received in order for it to be truly applied to the believer. This reception depends upon faith which depends upon the Spirit’s regenerating work on the elect and the elect only. The regenerate are able to truly believe and thus actually receive what is offered by the church. The non-regenerate possesses certain common operations, but they never, in fact, receive Christ’s redemption. They are externally and objectively identified with the church, but they never possess the true substance of the church. Certain middle positions within the FV spectrum were also attempted, but they would, eventually, find it necessary to resolve into one of two directions. Not all men pressed their logic to its conclusion, and many made it a point of principle to avoid reaching total consistency. Nevertheless, the questions naturally invite the conclusions, and only two are possible.
The FV Light position, after being sufficiently clarified, emerges as a variant of the older magisterial Reformed position. It affirms a traditional doctrine of justification by faith alone and effectual calling, and it explains the church as being a mixed body where the means of grace are truly present and offered, but which must be received by individual faith. The members of the church can all be named the same, based upon their external standing, but the actual reception of salvation is acknowledged to only occur in a subset of that external group: only true believers, subjectively enlivened by the Spirit, possess Christ’s redemptive benefits.
On the other hand, the FV Dark position argued that the undivided work of Christ was made present in the church and received by virtue of ritual participation in the church. For them, baptism strictly means the ritual of water baptism. The church is the body of Christ. Thus, to be ritually baptized is to be united to the saving body of Christ. One is saved insofar as they are united to Christ in this way, and they can lose this salvation if they leave the church. The FV Dark men explained this according to God’s sovereign predestination, and they even said that it was a matter of the person ceasing to have faith. Thus they could still say that it was a matter of faith, but with the caveat that faith either continued or it did not. Peter Leithart even wrote that “examining the quality of faith” “lead into an abyss (The Baptized Body, 103). For him, the issue was trust, but a trust that continues (105). He concludes the issue in this way, “Perseverance is always perseverance, and maturation, in faith and trust” (106). Ironically, this is a non-Shepherdite definition of faith. For Leithart, the issue is not what faith is but whether it lasts or not. While it lasts, faith believes God and receives all of the grace given through the sacraments. If faith comes to an end, then the person will cease believing and then separate themselves from the church. Thus Shepherdism and FV should be understood as distinct but overlapping spheres, and not simply along FV Dark and FV Light lines. Shepherdism was, rather, a subset of FV Dark that was also shared by men who had a lower ecclesiology and thus rejected the FV name altogether. And, on the other hand, Shepherdism was rejected by some FV Dark advocates and by the Douglas Wilson variety of FV Light.
The FV Dark position was also not advocating Roman Catholicism. It rejected definitions of sacramental grace as changes of substance. Instead, the FV Dark position was about participating in a community. It was a more dynamic construal. FV Dark did not have a category of ongoing penance, nor did they often discuss the mechanics of church discipline. For FV Dark, it was about community participation, presumed to be guided by a person’s faith, and everything hinged upon duration, whether a person continued in that sacramental community throughout their life or whether they fell away.
Was FV Dark Lutheran then? Not really. It did not use classic Lutheran categories to explain the sacraments. FV Dark did not say that baptism created faith in infants, choosing instead to say that the infants possessed a sort of infant faith and that baptism was a means of communicating grace to that faith. And FV Dark certainly rejected Lutheran notions of the Lord’s Supper.
FV Dark is best understood as a generic Augustinianism progressing from a certain sort of neo-Calvinist tradition into the 20th century liturgical renewal movement. It incorporated various arguments from an ecumenical “high church” community—taking elements of various traditions but redefining their philosophical underpinnings and combining them in new ways. At most key points, FV Dark declined to work out its theology, preferring to make aesthetic or psychological arguments rather than strictly logical ones.
Whatever the best explanation, the logic of the FV Dark, once worked out, is indeed contrary to, not only a selection from the Canons of Dort, but the main thrust of the Westminster Confession of Faith. After all, WCF 10.1 states that all of the saving benefits of Christ’s work are dependent upon God’s effectual call: “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ.” For those not called, even if they are physically present in the visible church, are in a different category, “Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved” (WCF 10.4). The subsequent chapters of the Westminster all point back to the concept of effectual calling (see WCF 11.1, 13.1, 14.1). Effectual calling, which is practically equivalent to “personal regeneration” is the controlling category for chapters 11-18 of the Westminster Confession.7
This evaluation leaves the FV, considered, as a whole, with a significant dilemma. They can either agree to accept various theological distinctions and bring themselves more obviously in line with the Reformed tradition, but in so doing raise the question of why there was a need for their unique identity and branding in the first place, or they can follow the force of the polemical rhetoric and move to the FV Dark position and thus outside of the Reformed tradition. Over time, the FV light position accepted its fate as a variant of the older Reformed understanding, and thus Douglas Wilson agreed to drop the “Federal Vision” name. The FV Dark position never made an obvious declaration in this way, but it seems clear that they have accepted that their identity is somewhere in the larger spectrum of Augustinianism but with a late-modern or postmodern inflection. Indeed, most FV Dark proponents have also moved on to new terminologies and new strategic goals. Almost no one calls themselves “Federal Vision” any more, nor wants to use the older platform and strategy.
An Almost Final Conclusion
This essay can serve as a sort of concluding word on the FV, but there is more to be said. Though this series is longer than I originally intended, I feel the need to write one last installment to truly summarize the whole movement along systematic lines. I will thus, devote one more essay to the FV, giving a sort of comprehensive overview, using the Joint FV Statement as a guide, but also adding some of my own observations. This will give me the opportunity to show where FV was most flawed and to show specifically wherein it got off track. After doing this, I can then conclude with some “pros” and “cons” of the FV controversy and what readers can learn from it today.
- See this example from James Jordan:
“So, was it possible to be saved by keeping the Law? Certainly, in the full sense of keeping the Law. Those who kept the Law (a) put their trust in God, who had redeemed them, (b) strove to obey Him, and (c) when they sinned, returned to Him through the substitutionary sacrifices.
Thus, what the Law said is simply the preliminary form of what the Gospel says. This is why Paul so often praises the Law.” (http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/biblical-horizons/no-53-thoughts-on-the-covenant-of-works-part-2/)
- By this expression Jordan meant aspects of Christ’s work which sustained the cosmos, a concept similar to common grace but understood along the lines of a sort of recapitulation atonement theory.
- Ralph Smith states this directly in the opening pages of Trinity and Reality, “I have read and profited from many in the Van Tillian School of thinkers but none more than James Jordan” (x). Smith also relies heavily on Jordan’s arguments about the Covenant of Works here: https://www.berith.org/pdf/Interpreting_the_Covenant_of_Works.pdf. Jordan’s Trinitarian thought is not currently available in a singular location. Important selections can be found in his From Bread to Wine, pg. 23-30 and in its Appendix B “Twelve Fundamental Avenues of Revelation” and Biblical Horizons No. 61: Broadening Our View of the Trinity.
- See Calvin’s comments on 1 Cor. 11:3 for one particularly direct example: “When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity. Hence, as regards spiritual connection in the sight of God, and inwardly in the conscience, Christ is the head of the man and of the woman without any distinction, because, as to that, there is no regard paid to male or female; but as regards external arrangement and political decorum, the man follows Christ and the woman the man, so that they are not upon the same footing, but, on the contrary, this inequality exists.”
- Calvin’s exact wording is this: “It is certainly true that when children of believers reach the age of discernment [and have never repented or believed] they will have alienated themselves from God and destroyed utterly the truth of baptism. But this is not to say that our Lord has not elected them and separated them from others in order to grant them His salvation. Otherwise, it would be in vain for Saint Paul to say that a child of a believing father or mother is sanctified, who would be impure if he were born of and descended from unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:14). Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, 52. Calvin also speaks this way in his Institutes, 3.21.5-7, “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. This God has testified, not only in the case of single individuals; he has also given a specimen of it in the whole posterity of Abraham, to make it plain that the future condition of each nation lives entirely at his disposal… Often, also, do the prophets remind the Jews of this election by way of disparagement and opprobrium, because they had shamefully revolted from it…We must add a second step of a more limited nature, or one in which the grace of God was displayed in a more special form, when of the same family of Abraham God rejected some, and by keeping others within his Church showed that he retained them among his sons. At first Ishmael had obtained the same rank with his brother Isaac, because the spiritual covenant was equally sealed in him by the symbol of circumcision. He is first cut off, then Esau, at last an innumerable multitude, almost the whole of Israel. In Isaac was the seed called. The same calling held good in the case of Jacob. God gave a similar example in the rejection of Saul. This is also celebrated in the psalm, ‘Moreover he refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: but chose the tribe of Judah,’ (Ps. 78:67, 68). This the sacred history sometimes repeats that the secret grace of God may be more admirably displayed in that change. I admit that it was by their own fault Ishmael, Esau, and others, fell from their adoption; for the condition annexed was, that they should faithfully keep the covenant of God, whereas they perfidiously violated it. The singular kindness of God consisted in this, that he had been pleased to prefer them to other nations; as it is said in the psalm, ‘He has not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them,’ (Ps. 147:20)… when God, after making a covenant of eternal life, invites any people to himself, a special mode of election is in part understood, so that he does not with promiscuous grace effectually elect all of them.” and his commentary on Ezekiel 16:21, “We may remark that there was a twofold election of God: since speaking generally, he chose the whole family of Abraham. For circumcision was common to all, being the symbol and seal of adoption: since when God wished all the sons of Abraham to be circumcised from the least to the greatest, he at the same time chose them as his sons: this was one kind of adoption or election. But the other was secret, because God took to himself out of that multitude those whom he wished: and these are sons of promise, these are remnants of gratuitous favor, as Paul says. (Romans 11:8.) This distinction, therefore, now takes away all doubt, since the Prophet speaks of the unbelievers and the profane who had departed from the worship of God. For this their unbelief was a complete abdication. It is true, then, that as far as themselves were concerned, they were strangers, and so God’s secret election did not flourish in them, but yet they were God’s people, as far as relates to external profession. If any one objects that this circumcision was useless, and hence their election without the slightest effect, the answer is at hand: God by his singular kindness honored those miserable ones by opening a way of approach for them to the hope of life and salvation by the outward testimonies of adoption. Then as to their being at the same time strangers, that happened through their own fault. Hence we may shortly hold, that the Jews were naturally accursed through being Adam’s seed: but by supernatural and singular privilege, they were exempt and free from the curse: since circumcision was a testimony of the adoption by which God had consecrated them to himself: hence they were holy; and as to their being impure, it could not, as we have said, abolish God’s covenant. The same thing ought at this time to prevail in the Papacy. For we are all born under the curse: and yet God acknowledges supernaturally as his sons all who spring from the faithful, not only in the first or second degree, but even to a thousand generations. And so Paul says that the children of the faithful are holy, since baptism does not lose its efficacy, and the adoption of God remains fixed, (1 Corinthians 7:14,) yet the greater part is without the covenant through their own unbelief. God meanwhile has preserved to himself a remnant in all ages, and at this day he chooses whom he will out of the promiscuous multitude.” Yet, even having said all of this, Calvin also said that only the individually elect are “members of the Church properly speaking” (commentary on Ezekiel 16:21).
- Peter Leithart granted that an individual’s “false” status preceded their actual departure from the church, and he even allowed that this sort of orientation was always present within the individual in some mysterious way. Yet at the same time, Leithart still wanted to argue that the decisive transition was found in the actual leaving of the church.
- One important FV argument, made by both FV Dark and Light, was attempted, and it was that the sacraments are covenant rituals. The argument stated that rituals are political actions and so participating in the ritual affects a political outcome. The comparison was usually made to marriage. When the marriage vows were made, the rings were exchanged, and the pastoral pronouncement was declared, the marriage was enacted. So too, the sacraments of the church were covenant rituals, politically enacting the reality of that covenant.
This argument, however, relied on a simplified understanding of rituals and political action. After all, there are legal provisions for recognizing marriages apart from the ritual ceremony, and there are also ways to annul the effects of the ceremony if certain preconditions could be shown to be lacking, especially knowledge and intent. Thus, strictly speaking, the ritual did not make the reality but instead recognized the reality and gave it a publicly accountable status. The wedding ratified the marriage, and the accompanying political ramifications enforce this truth.
When it comes to salvation, things are even less directly connected, because all Christians acknowledge that salvation is not only a matter of temporal-political order but also of eschatological standing. Baptism can “cause” one to enter the visible church in a political way, but it can do this without causing anything to happen eschatologically. (The FV Dark tended to reject this assertion, of course, but it is inescapable.) To again use the older language of “the two kingdoms,” the church, and the sacraments, exists along two realms. The temporal kingdom or external forum has to do with all bodily aspects, as well as social relations. Thus, the external sign of the sacraments belongs to the temporal kingdom or external forum. The spiritual kingdom or internal forum refers to the soul’s immediate relationship to God, and so it is the spiritual reality of the sacraments that belongs to spiritual kingdom or internal forum. Putting this all together, we can say that the external ritual action has a political significance, but it may or may not have a spiritual significance. The ritual action can figure the spiritual truth, and it can even offer and exhibit it. But the actual possession of the spiritual reality must come down to an individual reception by the soul. This line of thinking was typically rejected by the FV as unnecessarily rationalistic, but the implications are inescapable and the questions will have to be asked and answered eventually. If consistent in their thought, the FV Dark would need to reject the entire two-kingdoms distinction on this point, and thus equate the sign and thing signified, the visible with the invisible. The FV Light could allow for the distinction, even if it did not use the same terms. In employing this thinking, however, the FV Light would need to allow for some sort of duality, and thus they would lose much of their rhetorical punch.
At the end of the day, the state of the individual soul still must take priority over the mere fact of the ritual action. Answering this question will require some use of older categories and subjective evaluations, and the FV appeal to ritual cannot adequately replace these categories.