(This is the final essay in a series on the Federal Vision. The first installment, a general introduction to the state of the conversation, can be found here. The second installment identifies the various personalities and their history. The next three essays explained the FV theology in more detail: essay three is here, essay four is here, and essay five is here. This final essay will give my overview of the whole FV theology and some concluding thoughts on the significance of the controversy.)
Having given an overview of the Federal Vision, including its history and theology, I would like to now give a systematic critique of the movement considered as a whole. I have argued that the FV was always a diverse group, beginning as a more eclectic group which eventually lost some members and then developed into two strands. FV and Shepherdism should really be distinguished as overlapping groups, with some Shepherdite thinkers breaking with FV and some FV men disagreeing with Shepherd. I would list key non-FV Shepherdites as Andrew Sandlin and Steve Schlissel (these men were identified with FV early on but eventually broke with it), while James Jordan would be a Shepherdite FVer, and then Douglas Wilson and even Peter Leithart would be non-Shepherdite FVers. The FV, as it eventually worked itself out, was also split between FV Dark and FV Light. Peter Leithart and James Jordan were FV Dark representatives. Douglas Wilson was an FV Light representative. The various other men fell somewhere along a spectrum, often having more in common with FV Dark but being willing to make key distinctions or allowances similar to FV Light.
I have argued that some of Shepherd’s arguments were contrary to the basic Reformation consensus on faith and works, particularly his attempts to make faith and works co-instrumental in justification. Shepherd modified this proposal and then made new attempted proposals, but his project continually tried to achieve a sort of synthesis along these lines. The FV Dark was also outside the boundaries of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the role of effectual calling and the application of redemption, while the FV Light was able to remain within the Westminster system of theology. However, having made these distinctions and having explained my rationale for understanding the various thinkers and positions, I still feel it necessary to give an overarching criticism of the FV conversation as a whole. To say that someone can be shown to fall “within” the boundaries of orthodoxy is not the same thing as agreeing with their ideas or arguments, and it is certainly not the same thing as giving an endorsement of their project. While I began my own theological journey as an FV sympathizer, I eventually moved to a position that was quite removed from the FV as a whole. I came to disagree rather profoundly with their prolegomena and “paradigm,” and I developed a strong appreciation for what I call “Reformed Irenicism,” the continuation of the theological heritage of the 16th and 17th century magisterial Reformers. In what follows, I will try to explain my logic and larger perspective.
To demonstrate my criticism of the FV as a whole, I will work through the Joint FV Statement and make observations as they seem relevant. I will also draw on key FV concepts and arguments that connect with the main points of the Joint FV Statement, even if they are deemed intramural. In conclusion, I will state my big picture appraisal of the legacy of the FV, as well as the parts of the FV conversation that I feel have been beneficial and do have lasting value. While I consider myself something of an FV critic at this point, I am not a rabid “anti-FV” partisan and feel no animosity against the men involved. I believe the controversy gave many people the opportunity to work out key theological concepts and discover a wider understanding of church history and tradition.
FV Prolegomena and Theology Proper
I believe that the most decisive element in the FV conversation is found in the prolegomena. FV was motivated by certain big ideas and key commitments having to do with their understanding of church history and theological development, their rejection of natural theology and philosophical or scholastic theology, their commitment to a radical Biblicism, and their socio-political activism. These features control the majority of their subsequent theology.
The FV men were all, to varying extents, continuing an aggressive form of the legacy of Cornelius Van Til and the heritage of Westminster Theological Seminary. They all held to a conviction that “Lutheran” and “Calvinist” theologies were essentially distinct and even at odds with one another, and they applied this to their understanding of justification and the role of the law of God in the life of the believer. They also believed that Reformed theology had fallen from its original genius due to the influence of scholasticism. They connected this scholasticism to a more fundamental negative influence, that of Greek philosophy, and they saw this influence as having a debilitative effect on nearly all of church history, starting with several of the early church fathers. The FV men saw the corrective to this arising in part at the Reformation, but much more profoundly in the 20th century with neo-Calvinism, biblical theology, and Van Tillian apologetics and “worldview” thinking.
The whole FV project was intended to be a biblical-theological use of the concept of covenant to redefine the larger Christian worldview. The FV men added a sort of activistic postmillennialism to this picture, and so they also expected “covenant theology” to be immensely practical. They believed that a proper understanding of the covenant would necessarily achieve beneficial social and political results, and thus if such results were lacking, they assumed that there must be a theoretical error somewhere in the background. The FV men also all held to various sorts of idealist history, where historical epochs were characterized by certain paradigms and “big ideas,” and history itself was thought to hinge upon new ideas breaking through. This often caused the FV men to treat historical sources and personalities in overly general ways, neglecting many of the material conditions that actually defined that history.1 This starting set of assumptions formed a common perspective or paradigm for all of the FV men. It, more than anything else, held together the individuals who would eventually disagree over ecclesiology or liturgy or some other more specific theological issue.
The Joint FV Statement does not have a singular section devoted to prolegomena, but the important role of what I have described above can be seen in the opening set of affirmations and denials. The first section of that statement is ostensibly devoted to the Trinity, but upon reflection, its chief concern can be seen to be a recasting of all theology according to “an explicit Trinitarian understanding.” The statement asserts:
We affirm that the triune God is the archetype of all covenantal relations. All faithful theology and life is conducted in union with and imitation of the way God eternally is, and so we seek to understand all that the Bible teaches—on covenant, on law, on gospel, on predestination, on sacraments, on the Church—in the light of an explicit Trinitarian understanding.
This certainly sounds good. Indeed, all theology ought to follow from theology proper, how God exists in Himself. But as it turned out, the FV men almost never had a strong grasp of actual Nicene Theology. Most of them held to a sort of social Trinitarianism, presuming that the persons of the Trinity existed in a society or family similar to three human people, and they argued that all human social relations should be modeled after this divine arrangement. Peter Leithart consistently dabbled in revisionist accounts of theology proper. In 2006, he speculated about God having spatial categories within Himself. In 2016, he expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional claim that God has only one will. This concern resurfaced again in his defense of “divine personalism” here and here. Given all of this, it was not surprising when Leithart stated his agreement with John Frame over and against the criticisms of James Dolezal.
James Jordan and Ralph Smith both wrote extensively on the Trinity and Covenant. They argued that all human covenants were really extension of the eternal divine covenant, a covenant that they argued was simply the way that God always exists within Himself. Hence, human covenants were Trinitarian. Yet, similar to social Trinitarianism, this tended to start with finite and composite notions of sociality, and then recast the Trinity along those creaturely lines. The classic creeds were always affirmed, but apparently contradictory statements would also be made, with any potential harmonization being left to future development and understanding.
Even Douglas Wilson exhibited an understanding of the Trinity that sits uncomfortably with Nicene theology at certain points. After the great debate over the eternal subordination of the Son, Wilson continued to argue for a variety of that position, stating that “there should be no more difficulty in saying that the Son is eternally obedient than there is in saying that He is eternally begotten. His existence is obedience — eternal obedience, obedience that could not be otherwise. The Father’s existence is authority.” This kind of statement reflects Wilson’s larger desire to be both intensely biblical and practical in his theology, but it also illustrates a rather loose understanding of the historic Trinitarian theology of the Church.
Thus, in a number of FV men across the spectrum of Light and Dark, “Trinitarian” as an adjective meant something other than the historic theology of the Trinity coming from Nicaea and the subsequent catholic tradition. Instead, “Trinitarian” was a sort of revisionist theology, driven by modern biblical theology, psychological definitions of the term “person,” and, occasionally, postmodern philosophical views of time and space. When James Jordan went on to reject the category of “nature” altogether, this unstable relationship with the Nicene tradition was thrown into sharp relief. After all, if there is no such thing as nature, then how can it be essential to maintain that the Son possesses the same nature as the Father? Despite their claims to being more distinctively biblical than their opponents, the FV men were often driven by particularly 20th century motivations and influences.
The FV men also wanted to correct the legacy of covenant theology by making it more “biblical” than “scholastic.” In this they were following John Murray and O Palmer Robertson and were engaged in a sort of anti-Klineanism. James Jordan often drew from the work of Meredith Kline, but over and against Kline’s desire to synthesize modern biblical theology with scholastic federal theology, Jordan argued that modern biblical theology should redefine classic federal theology. Several FV writers consistently chose radical Klinean writers as their foils when making revisionist arguments. They would hold forth a Klinean representative, but instead of identifying them as an outlier of the Reformed tradition, they would typically claim that the Klinean view was a logical extension of some root concept or motivation of earlier federal theology. Since the Klinean conclusion was thought to be obviously unacceptable, the earlier motivating theology was also said to be in need of correction. This sort of approach can be seen in the Joint FV Statement’s claims about hermeneutics and biblical language.
The Joint FV Statement says:
We affirm further that Scripture is to be our guide in learning how to interpret Scripture, and this means we must imitate the apostolic handling of the Old Testament, paying close attention to language, syntax, context, narrative flow, literary styles, and typology—all of it integrated in Jesus Christ Himself.
We deny that the Bible can be rightly understood by any hermeneutical grid not derived from the Scriptures themselves.
We affirm that God’s Spirit has chosen the best ways to express the revelation of God and reality, and that the divine rhetoric found in Holy Scripture is designed to strike the richest of all chords in the hearers of the Word of God. For this reason, we believe that it is pastorally best to use biblical language and phrasing in the preaching and teaching of the Bible in the Church.
These statements are not necessarily problematic. In some ways, they follow from a basic commitment to sola Scriptura. And yet, within the polemical context of the FV, they often meant more. They also reveal a few important assumptions. For instance, do the Scriptures actually provide a “hermeneutical grid”? Do the Scriptures presume that a “grid” is necessary and that it must be derived from the bible, or do the Scriptures allow for a basic natural knowledge and innate possession of categories of intelligibility?
The older Reformation tradition actually maintained a high view of natural revelation, reason, and natural law. A recent article by Richard Muller explains well how this differed from the later Van Tillian modification. The Reformers believed that God endued all men, by virtue of their creation in His image, with a certain knowledge of natural truth and even interpretative abilities. The Bible never takes the time to define logic and grammar but rather presumes a common knowledge of these tools. We certainly should pay “close attention to” the bible’s use of “language, syntax, context, narrative flow, literary styles, and typology,” but to do this intelligently and responsibly, we will need the tools of the humanities: philosophy, philology, history, grammar, logic, and literature. These are not tools that the Bible itself gives but are indeed brought to the bible in order to read it properly.
Further, it may be “pastorally best to use biblical language and phrasing,” but it also may not be, depending on the specific circumstances at hand. This is because pastoral judgment is always prudential. It is based on local conditions and with the knowledge of the community’s set of assumptions and expectations. And indeed, the FV are not the first Christian thinkers to claim to “call Bible things by Bible names.” That slogan was popularized by Alexander Campbell of the Churches of Christ. It was used as a way to evade systematic explanation and consistency. The Joint FV Statement goes on to deny that philosophical or systematic translations of biblical language is “unprofitable,” but it says that such translations can never be “superior” to the biblical language. This was a way to argue that the “plain” biblical theology was always superior and to be preferred, an assumption that I believe to miss the point of systematic theology and the history of theological controversy and polemic. Every heretic has his verse, as the saying goes, and often the only way to resolve a theological dispute is to press for strict consistency and clarity of definition. The FV’s Biblicism often led it into incoherence.
Also connected to prolegomena and hermeneutics, the Joint FV Statement said this about creeds and confessions:
We affirm that all who subscribe to creeds and confessions should do so with a clean conscience and honest interpretation, in accordance with the plain meaning of words and the original intent of the authors, as can best be determined.
This is a good and true statement, but it does not seem to me to reflect the practice of many FV men. James Jordan was bold enough to state his disagreements with the Canons of Dort and Westminster Confession of Faith, but many other FV men attempted to subscribe to the bare terms of the Confession while redefining its meaning. They frequently differed with the “original intent of the authors,” though it should be stated that OPC and PCA practice does not require this so much as it requires agreeing with the intent of the receiving body, which is to say the presbytery. With that rather flexible notion of animus imponentis, some FV men may have had room to make their case. If their presbyteries vindicated them, as several did, then perhaps they were “in accordance” enough. Politically speaking, this is how many of their cases were resolved. Not even Peter Leithart was found to be out of accord with the system of doctrine taught by the Westminster Standards. Still, it is hard to say that the FV were dedicated to carrying out a confessional tradition. Usually they already had their conclusions and hoped to find a way for those conclusions to “fit” within confessional boundaries.
The Joint FV Statement then moves to the eternal decrees of God. It begins with a traditional affirmation:
Before all worlds, God the Father chose a great host of those who would be saved, and the number of those so chosen cannot be increased or diminished. In due time, Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, and in that sacrifice He secured the salvation of all those chosen for salvation by the Father. And at some time in the earthly life of each person so chosen, the Holy Spirit brings that person to life, and enables him to persevere in holiness to the end.
This is standard and conventional Reformed language. But then this line is added, “Those covenant members who are not elect in the decretal sense enjoy the common operations of the Spirit in varying degrees, but not in the same way that those who are elect do.” While the history of Reformed theology exhibits some diversity in how the reprobate can be said to be in the Covenant of Grace, this statement still falls within the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy. The non-elect may receive “common operations of the Spirit,” but these are said, or at least implied, to be qualitatively distinct from the redemptive blessings secured for the elect.
The problem with this statement is that it obscures the position of James Jordan. Though he signed the Joint FV Statement, this affirmation appears to stand in contradiction to what he wrote in his essay, “Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration.” There Jordan argued:
The position of this paper is that it is God who applies the benefits of the atonement as He sees fit. God is free to apply the full and special benefit of the atonement to some people temporarily and to others permanently. The special benefits of the atonement are “limited” in this world to those elected in the Church (and to those who believe but have not yet been baptized), and they are limited in the world to come to those elected to heaven.
The special (“limited”) benefits of the atonement are for those who are “in Christ.” Those who leave the Vine, who forsake the Olive Tree, cease to be “in Christ” and cease to receive the special benefits of the atonement. In the same way, many of those who received the benefit of the first Passover and were delivered from Egypt, eventually lost that benefit and died in the wilderness.
Only such an ecclesial conception of “limited atonement” can account for passages like 2 Peter 2:1, which speaks of those who “deny the Master who bought them.” These men were “bought” the same as all other Christians, and received exactly the same thing, being put “in Christ.” The atonement was “for them” in exactly the same way it was for Peter and John. But when they denied the Lord, they lost the special benefits of the atonement. All of this, of course, was in the plan of God.
This clearly goes beyond merely stating that “common operations of the Spirit” are enjoyed by the non-elect covenant member. Jordan says that all in the Church have “the full and special benefit of the atonement” applied to them. Had Jordan not been so opposed to historic systematic theology, he may have been able to use the various concepts and distinctions of hypothetical universalism to assist him in this method of argumentation. But as it actually stood, Jordan did not have a strong interest in harmonizing this way of thinking with the confessional Reformed tradition. He was content to assert that it was a different paradigm. The ways in which it did or did not contradict the Reformed tradition were left to readers to decide.
The Joint FV Statement next moves into ecclesiology. I have already mentioned a weakness in its statement on the church, as it states:
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.
This seems to misunderstand the point of the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Not everyone who is baptized into the triune name is a member of the invisible church. Thus, “one true Christian Church” is equivocal. Reprobates may be members of “true churches” understood externally and politically and yet not members of “the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn registered in Heaven” (Heb. 11:23). The Joint FV Statement appears to only emphasize earthly ecclesiastical polity, stressing “lawful disciplinary action of the Church,” but many reprobates will manage to avoid actually being formally disciplined. Further, the business of executing church discipline in this world is actually quite complicated, depending on necessary but complicating rules of procedure. It is simply not the case that if a person manages to avoid formal church discipline that they also avoid spiritual judgment.
The Joint FV Statement goes on to say, “We further affirm that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ, and not an ‘approximate’ Church.” The intention of this claim is to preserve the integrity of the visible church. And yet this statement is inadequate. The true Church, strictly speaking, is the collection of all actual believers—heart believers. This group is visible insofar as the people are visible, but when they organize as a group, the discussion gets more complicated. If “visible church” means the organized group, along with its order and structure, then this group is indeed an approximation of the “true Church,” since it will always be mixed in this life. Some will gather alongside the true believers who are not true believers.
The “true” part of the church is found in the presence of the Word—its proclamation, signification, and reception in faith. Wherever Jesus Christ is through His Spirit, the true church is. However, many false members can and will be present in the same location. Not all Israel is Israel, and not all the Church is the Church. Therefore, the “true Church” will be a subset of the general organization of people in the name of the church.
How then should we understand the Bible’s occasional unqualified descriptions of the Church in general as the household of God or the elect people? Is it intending to reduce its intended audience only to the elect? Not necessarily. Rather, we can say that the New Testament authors spoke of the Church as it really was, its true spiritual identity, but applied that language to specific congregations by way of the communicatio idiomatum. They applied the name of the spiritual reality to the historical and temporal communities because the Holy Spirit formed the bond of unity between these objects. Insofar as the Holy Spirit was present, and insofar as the sacramental signs exhibited their spiritual realities, those realities could be said to be truly present. And yet, at the same time, those realities always had to be subjectively received by individuals through the instrument of true faith. I have explored this concept in more detail here and here.
Covenant and Justification
The Joint FV Statement then proceeds to a discussion of the covenants and justification. It does not arrange this in the most consistent order, however, and so I have rearranged a few passages to make the conversation easier to follow. Interestingly the Joint FV Statement seems to move away from a Shepherdite notion of justification and to make the “FV Light” position normative. It states:
We affirm that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law, whether those works were revealed to us by God, or manufactured by man. Because we are justified through faith in Jesus alone, we believe that we have an obligation to be in fellowship with everyone that God has received into fellowship with Himself.
This assertion retains a sort of “works principle” over and against which justification through faith in Jesus Christ is contrasted. Both works “revealed to us by God” and those “manufactured by man” are contrasted against “faith.”
Next comes a statement on the Covenant of Works:
We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.
We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements.
This section is actually logically complex and, in my opinion, partially incoherent. It affirms that Adam was in a covenant that required obedience. This obedience is said to have been a product of “faith alone,” but the object of that faith is not stated. Was Adam to have faith in a mediator who obeyed for him? This seems impossible, given the larger argument. But if not, then how is “faith alone” really an appropriate description?
Further, the attempted asymmetry of Adam’s ability “to forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience” over and against his retention being said to not depend upon his moral exertions or achievements makes no sense. It is one thing to say that Adam could not merit his glorification, but to say that his continuation in the garden was “not conditioned upon [his moral] exertions” seems to contradict the earlier affirmation that Adam was required to obey God completely. Perhaps here the Joint FV Statement is attempting to hold Shepherdite and non-Shepherdite views together by avoiding the key points of disagreement. But as it stands, this section is confused.
Moving down to what the Joint FV Statement says about union with Christ and Imputation, as well as Law and Gospel, the “FV Light” position again seems to be made normative:
We affirm Christ is all in all for us, and that His perfect sinless life, His suffering on the cross, and His glorious resurrection are all credited to us. Christ is the new Adam, obeying God where the first Adam did not obey God. And Christ as the new Israel was baptized as the old Israel was, was tempted for 40 days as Israel was for 40 years, and as the greater Joshua He conquered the land of Canaan in the course of His ministry. This means that through Jesus, on our behalf, Israel has finally obeyed God and has been accepted by Him. We affirm not only that Christ is our full obedience, but also that through our union with Him we partake of the benefits of His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father.
The next section of the Joint FV Statement goes on to deny that any one formulation of the “active obedience of Christ” is necessary, but this paragraph certainly seems to emphasize the concept of Christ’s active obedience. It even says that Jesus has obeyed God on our behalf, and it appeals to Christ’s life. “His perfect sinless life… [is] credited to us.” This ought to make certain FV critics feel assured. However, this statement does not appear to actually reflect the full range of FV views, and so many readers were left unconvinced.
Importantly, the section on Law and Gospel maintains that, “We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.”
An additional statement is then made about justification by faith alone. “Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.” It goes on to make another statement about living faith, but it does not explain the way in which this faith’s “livingness” contributes to its rule as instrument. Thus, this part of the statement is both unobjectionable and also unconvincing to critics. It could be improved by adding a statement that the works involved in the “living faith” are never co-efficient with the faith’s receptive role. The works are essential but they do not play the role of trust and belief in faith’s receiving of the gospel message. They are rather an outworking of the Spirit’s vivification of the heart and fruits and evidences of faith’s living character.
The Joint FV Statement then moves to a discussion of the sacraments. Here, again, the key issues are mostly obscured. On baptism, it says:
We affirm that God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune Name, and that this baptism obligates such a one to lifelong covenant loyalty to the triune God… Baptism formally engrafts a person into the Church, which means that baptism is into the Regeneration.
The modifier “formally” is unclear here and actually serves as an equivocal expression. Does the statement intend to say that the external sign in baptism politically and legally unites a person to Christ through the temporal aspects of the covenant, or does it mean to say more than that, that the external sign in baptism mystically unites one to the person of Christ and His redemptive benefits? Having looked more specifically at the different FV perspectives, we know that varying and semi-contradictory positions are being held in tandem here.
The accompanying denial is actually quite good, adequately relaying a historic Reformed position:
Baptism apart from a growing and living faith is not saving, but rather damning. But we deny that trusting God’s promise through baptism elevates baptism to a human work. God gives baptism as assurance of His grace to us personally, as our names are spoken when we are baptized.
This is mostly a restatement of confessional Reformed theology, reminiscent of Westminster Larger Catechism 161-162, as well as Belgic Confession #34, which says, “Baptism also witnesses to us that God, being our gracious Father, will be our God forever.” Theologically, this is explained by the sacrament of baptism being a sign and seal of God’s covenant, a picture and a promise of the gospel given to us individually.
The section on the Lord’s Supper is clearly Reformed, perhaps even clearer than many common explanations. It affirms a “real presence” in the communal action of the Supper, but it rejects a local presence in the elements.
The area where the Joint FV Statement departs from the typical Reformed tradition is in its allowance of paedocommunion, “Unless there has been lawful disciplinary action by the Church, we affirm that any baptized person, children included, should be welcome at the Table.” This statement does not, however, enter into any of the specifics of the theology behind paedocommunion, and so little can be extrapolated from this statement alone. Do the FV men consider paedocommunion strictly necessary? Are churches in sin that do not practice it? What role does faith have in the proper partaking of the Lord’s Supper? How are “entrance requirements” to be determined? These questions are all left open, and there was no common FV answer to them. Paedocommunion “fit” within the larger FV outlook, as it reinforced the objectivity of the covenant community and the role of covenant nurture in the development of piety. However, the FV never worked out the various specific doctrinal and political ramifications in any detail.
Assurance and Apostasy
The Joint FV Statement concluded with a discussion of assurance and apostasy. Interestingly, the statement about assurance reinforced a classical Reformed understanding of justification, again promoting the FV Light view to the forefront and de-emphasizing or evening some of the stricter FV Dark positions:
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. Those believers for whom this is true look to Christ for their assurance—in the Word, in the sacraments, in their fellow believers, and in their own participation in that life by faith.
Here we see a straightforward affirmation that “those who have been justified” will always remain so. This justification is received “through the instrument of faith alone,” and then good works are claimed to be a progressive affect of salvation. Assurance is properly grounded in Christ but then extended to a variety of means, consistent with WCF 18.2-3.
The statement on apostasy asserts a Calvinist view of the decrees of God, but it leaves the questions of temporary partakers of Christ largely open-ended. “The decretally elect cannot apostatize,” but “The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.” The expression “merely external” here needs to be explained. Traditional Reformed theology would talk about the temporary believers having an “external” rather than “essential” union with Christ, but they did not use this distinction to place apostates in the same category as those who never had a connection to the covenant. Rather the distinction meant that temporary believers had a legal or political connection to Christ, through the external elements of the covenant, but never inwardly received His redemptive graces through true faith. They never had the effectual calling of the Spirit transforming their inward spirit and affections. The Joint FV Statement again here fails to explain the truly controversial matter.
Some Concluding Thoughts, Bad and Good
Viewed by itself, the Joint FV Statement is an inadequate summary of the FV controversy. It is capable of multiple interpretations, and the most significant points of the controversy are glossed over. It is also interesting to note certain names that are absent from the list of signers. Neither Norman Shepherd nor Steve Schlissel are included. Thus demonstrates that the FV developed from its 2002-2003 identity, moving (at least partially) away from certain objectives and emphasizing new ones. In the end, the Joint FV Statement appears to be an attempt to make FV Light the normative version of FV, while allowing room for FV Dark men to retain some space within the broader boundaries. Even understood in this light, the Joint FV Statement is a flawed document that does not represent an improvement upon the best of the Reformed tradition, but it also avoids actually affirming any truly problematic theological position. Like so much of the FV conversation, it was malleable and defined differently by the various interpreters.
Having said this, I would like to conclude this entire study with some summary thoughts. As the FV controversy developed, certain theological topics became flashpoints, with many men on both sides believing certain key concepts to hold determinative status. Such claims were most often mistaken, though there were a few “lynchpin” issues.
The FV never did “deny imputation” as was frequently claimed. Some FV men denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, but the best historians agree that such a denial does not place one outside the broad boundaries of the Reformation confessions. It does not even place one outside the boundaries of the Westminster Confession of Faith. None other than Richard Muller has maintained that “the debate over the imputation of Christ’s active obedience for the justification of believers was not raised to confessional status by the Westminster Assembly” (Drawn into Controversie, ed. Jones and Haykin, pg. 20). Certain highly esteemed Reformed theologians explicitly rejected the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, to include Robert Rollock and David Pareus. As the tradition continued to develop, many leading 19th and early 20th cent. theologians recast the conversation in such a way as to make this distinction less significant. Robert L Dabney emphasizes that what is important is the legal verdict pronounced about Christ and its accompanying status. He says that the righteousness itself does not have to be imputed but only “the title to acquittal” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, pg. 641 Zondervan ed.). Herman Bavinck argues that the distinction between active and passive obedience has largely been misunderstood or misplaced in theology. The two names do not refer to different actions of Christ but rather the active and passive aspects of every action of Christ. Christ was active in going to the Cross, and passive in receiving the suffering and judgment. “His activity was suffering and his suffering an action. It was one single work that Christ accomplished, but one so rich, so valuable in the eyes of God, that the righteousness of God was completely satisfied by it, all the demands of the law were fully met by it, and the whole of eternal salvation was secured by it” (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, pg. 395). Thus, viewed historically, discussions about Christ’s active and passive obedience were indeed “intramural” and constantly developing. The role that this debate played in the FV controversy had more to do with Klineanism vs. Shepherdism than the Reformed tradition as such. Both Kline and Shepherd are outliers on this point, and neither should be allowed to assume the center.
Similarly questions about whether the Covenant of Works was “gracious” or not have always been points of intramural dispute. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones demonstrate this in A Puritan Theology, pg. 229-232. Indeed that chapter represents a much more sophisticated discussion of the Covenant of Works than either pro or anti-FV men made during 2002-2010. Many FV men were simply continuing a kind of 20th century revisionist program, initiated interestingly enough both by John Murray and Karl Barth. However, much of the anti-FV response wildly overstated their reaction and often insisted on positions which were historically unjustifiable.
However, there was a basic “lynchpin” issue on the covenants and justification which Shepherd did seem to be undermining. This has to do with the asymmetrical relationship of faith and works and the distinction between inherent and imputed righteousness. Prior to the Fall, Adam was inherently righteous and was called to maintain that status through his obedience. Yes, this obedience could follow from a faith in God’s existence, goodness, and reliability, and yes it could be a product of Spirit-driven grace, but it would still be inherent to Adam. After the Fall, Adam could no longer obey in this manner, nor could any other man prior to their regeneration through God’s effectual calling. And, comparing Scripture with Scripture and working out the good and necessary consequences of biblical theology, regenerated man is given new life because of Christ’s work on his behalf first. Believers are imputed as righteous first, and thus acquitted and received by God, and then they are renewed by the Spirit to become progressively righteous in an inherent way. It is permissible in Reformed history to speak of subsequent and subordinate kinds of justification, but only if the initial justification is clearly affirmed. Shepherd and some FV men did undermine this initial justification by obscuring the distinction between faith and works and allowing for it to be lost in the case of temporary believers. The FV Dark position may be able to approximate the positions of Lutheranism or broader Anglicanism, but the FV men did not arrive at their position in the same way as those traditions but rather through a revisionist Biblical theology program that left many important questions unanswered. This was a major problem for the FV conversation, but many FV men were uninterested in addressing it in sufficient detail. It was too often waved away as a pedantic precisionist concern.
A similar “lynchpin” issue was the role of the visible church as mediating institution of grace. I have discussed this in detail in a previous installment and will not repeat it here. It will be sufficient to say that the Reformed doctrine of the church followed from its doctrine of justification by faith alone, and thus the distinction between the visible and invisible church was essential. That distinction paralleled the distinction between the two kingdoms or two fora, the internal and spiritual domain of the soul and the external realm of body, politics, and sociality.
Thus, my overall verdict on the Federal Vision is a decidedly negative one. The FV emphasized important questions and challenged certain attenuated 20th century distortions, but it lacked the tools and resources to have the conversation in the best way and it often followed different 20th century distortions into unhelpful or even dangerous territory. Looking back, the FV conversation is already quite dated, as new scholarship in both the patristics and the post-Reformation scholastics has changed the landscape dramatically.
Having issued so many points of criticism, however, I would like to wrap things up on a positive note. The reason the FV resonated with so many people is that it did offer some exciting insights. Though idiosyncratic and eccentric, both James Jordan and Peter Leithart have moments of brilliance when it comes to biblical theology. Jordan, especially, managed to unlock readings of the Old Testament that explained the narrative as a whole in compelling ways. His work on the structure of the creation account, as well as the tabernacle and temple symbolism is first rate. His explanations of biblical prophecies also brought sanity to a much-confused area of exegesis and emphasized the unique and central place of the first century in redemptive history. In the early 2000s, much of the typological exegesis that Jordan engaged in struck the average lay-reader as “weird,” whereas now many such readings are increasingly commonplace. Critical but appreciative readers would do well to retain much of Jordan and Leithart’s exegetical work, while connecting it to the larger Protestant tradition. Someone like Alastair Roberts is, I believe, doing exactly that.
And while the FV did not always understand the Reformation sources, they did frequently highlight important thinkers and discussions in Reformation history that had been lost or de-emphasized. Rich Lusk pointed to many areas in Calvin’s thought where the sacraments played a pastoral role in covenant nurture and the development of piety. Other thinkers like Bucer and Pictect were also highlighted, as well as many Reformed liturgical forms. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey’s book Reformation Worship is an example of a responsible outworking of a similar historical perspective. It is my firm belief that much of what the FV men were looking for was indeed available in the best of the 16th and 17th century tradition. They simply needed more familiarity with it.2
The FV was largely “defeated” in the court of Reformed public opinion, however a strong case can be made that it did effectively move the Overton Window when it comes to discussions of the sacraments and covenant nurture. While still numerically common, the more Baptist Evangelical outlook holds much less influence over Reformed pastors and thinkers, particularly the younger ones. Dramatic conversion experiences are typically not expected of covenant children, and most influential Reformed leaders want to claim a significant place for baptism in the religious identity of covenant children. Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist also now enjoys greater prominence than perhaps any other time in North American history. These and other good and salutatory effects came out of the FV controversy.
Finally, the FV controversy can serve as a kind of cautionary tale. Despite the various noble goals and intentions, it was conducted in a mostly irresponsible manner. While some individual writers wanted to have a patient and careful discussion, the FV largely introduced itself to a broader audience through the use of provocative and even inflammatory language, as well as grand claims about the future of reformed theology. In some ways it imitated the progressive language of the “arch of history,” insisting that FV represented an eschatological step forward. Interestingly, as the FV controversy developed, some FV men actually did split off and go in an apparently liberal or progressive direction. Several individuals in the PCA who were once associated with the FV went on to form strategic alliances with the left-wing of the PCA. In an odd way, the FV split one conservative constituency. It also caused a sort of panic in other Reformed denominations, and certain positions which were once tolerated became “off limits.” Some FV critics were as much at fault for this bad behavior as FV proponents, and there was plenty of knee-jerk reaction to go around. The larger FV controversy revealed the relatively poor state of Reformed theological education and rhetorical capabilities. Hopefully in the 10 years that have passed, some of these weaknesses have been identified and improved upon. Lots of mediating personalities have made important contributions to discussions of FV-relevant issues, and new theological works have shed a broader perspective on the conversation. It is my hope that we can learn from the FV legacy and move forward with better intellectual tools and categories and with a higher quality of theological conversation.
- This historical idealism can be seen in Peter Leithart’s odd arguments about literature and aesthetics, as well as Douglas Wilson’s curious appraisal of the antebellum South. In both cases, the history was thought to signify some higher cultural meaning—an embodiment of a certain kind of “worldview.” This methodology often led to significant mistakes in both understanding the history and in using the big ideas for contemporary purposes.
- The FV men did occasionally fall for cases of “invented tradition.” One of their favorite artifacts, supposedly from the Reformed tradition, was the French baptismal rite. But as it turned out, this was not actually taken from the 16th or 17th century, but rather the 20th. I have traced this history out in more detail here: https://calvinistinternational.com/2018/05/20/the-search-for-the-french-baptismal-liturgy/