Understanding the "Federal Vision"
Alan D. Strange
The movement that has come to be known as the "Federal Vision" came to the attention of many in Presbyterian and Reformed circles following a pastor's conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, in January 2002. The word federal means "covenantal." Federal Vision proponents seek to revitalize and develop the doctrines of the covenant and the church.
There are some legitimate concerns that the Federal Vision has raised, especially in our current ecclesiastical context. Being afflicted as we are, in this land, with a low view of the church, the Federal Vision proponents strike significant chords in support of a high view of the means of grace and of the visible church. They eschew a view of the church that would stress the invisible at the expense of the visible and that would exalt the individual and the subjective above the corporate and the objective. They rightly observe that much of the church is afflicted with a low view of the means of grace (especially preaching and the sacraments), the obligation to live holy lives, and the inseparability of justification and sanctification. The solution to these problems, however, lies in the historic Reformed faith at its best. While even Reformed and Presbyterian churches may suffer from what ails the broader body of evangelical churches, they do so not because of their theology but in spite of it.
The problem with the Federal Vision is its tendency to overreact to problems in broader evangelicalism and in certain Reformed circles. For example, subjectivism is rejected by embracing an exaggerated objectivism. The proponents of the whole Federal Vision program routinely seek a theological fix for problems that ought to be addressed pastorally. It seems to be thought that the problems must reflect shortcomings in Reformed theology, when in fact they reflect shortcomings in Reformed practice. There's nothing wrong with our theology, except that we fail to live up to it. Our standards are not deficient; rather, our deportment is. Too often we fail to be in practice who we truly are in Christ. The solution to lives that are not what they should be is not theological reformulation, as Federal Vision proponents would claim, but faithful living within our already well-developed theological system. It is the best expression of Scripture that the church has, by God's guidance and grace, developed thus far.
Twenty errors that are held by one or more advocates of the Federal Vision are listed in the conclusion of the report of the OPC's Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification:
- Pitting Scripture and Confession against each other.
- Regarding the enterprise of systematic theology as inherently rationalistic.
- A mono-covenantalism that sees one covenant, originating in the intra-Trinitarian fellowship, into which man is invited, thus flattening the concept of covenant and denying the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
- Election as primarily corporate and eclipsed by covenant.
- Seeing covenant as only conditional.
- A denial of the covenant of works and of the fact that Adam was in a relationship with God that was legal as well as filial.
- A denial of a covenant of grace distinct from the covenant of works.
- A denial that the law given in Eden is the same as that more fully published at Mt. Sinai and that it requires perfect obedience.
- Viewing righteousness as relational, not moral.
- A failure to make clear the difference between our faith and Christ's.
- A denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in our justification.
- Defining justification exclusively as the forgiveness of sins.
- The reduction of justification to Gentile inclusion.
- Including works (by use of "faithfulness," "obedience," etc.) in the very definition of faith.
- Failing to affirm an infallible perseverance and the indefectibility of grace.
- Teaching baptismal regeneration.
- Denying the validity of the concept of the invisible church.
- An overly objectified sacramental efficacy that downplays the need for faith and that tends toward an ex opere operato [automatically effective] view of the sacraments.
- Teaching paedocommunion.
- Ecclesiology that eclipses and swallows up soteriology.
Some of these points, to be sure, warrant elaboration more than others. The doctrine of justification is indeed, as John Calvin wrote, "the hinge on which religion turns." As such, it is of the utmost importance that we get this doctrine right. This was the burden of the Reformers above all: if they did not get this doctrine right, then they did not get anything right, and the Reformation was an error or worse. The OPC's commitment to getting the gospel right, which in this case means faithfully proclaiming the biblical doctrine of justification, is what lead to the study committee being set up.
Thus, what the Federal Vision teaches about justification is of the greatest concern. Many of the points enumerated above touch rather directly on what the Federal Vision teaches about justification over against the Scriptures and the Westminster standards. Specifically, the Westminster Confession teaches that God is righteous, requires us to be righteous, condemns fallen Adam and his offspring for unrighteousness, establishes righteousness by Christ's work, and regards us as righteous because of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Doubtless, there are those identified with the Federal Vision who would not disagree with this. Yet, it is undeniable that there are Federal Vision proponents whose teachings do undermine the historic Reformed doctrine of justification as set forth in our secondary standards.
Historic Reformed theology has also understood its doctrine of justification to entail a blessed sense of assurance on the part of believers and to guarantee their perseverance to the end. If faith is reconceived as faithfulness, or is thought to include such in its basic definition, as it is for many who promote the Federal Vision, then assurance, as conceived in the Scriptures and Westminster standards, must also be recast.
It is interesting that so many of the men who promote the Federal Vision do so with the express intent of addressing the problem of assurance. The contention of these Federal Vision writers is that many Reformed and Presbyterian church members suffer from a lack of assurance that stems from morbidly introspective self-examination. The reason, say the Federal Vision men, that some Christians engage routinely in such unproductive self-examination is that their view of the faith is overly subjective.
The cure for such spiritual navel-gazing, according to Federal Vision advocates, is a healthy dose of covenantal objectivism, in which baptism is said to regenerate, the Lord's Supper is given to all the baptized (apart from a profession of faith), and election is to be read through the covenant, so as to avoid pesky dithering about whether one is or is not elect. If such covenantal objectivism could be properly understood and embraced, so goes the Federal Vision thinking, one would be pointed away from oneself to all the glorious, objective truths and would be encouraged and assured by them. To be sure, excessive introspection is unhealthy, and one ought, as Horatius Bonar is said to have urged, to take ten looks at Christ for every look at oneself.
But Federal Vision objectivism notwithstanding, unless one believes that the sacraments are saving apart from faith (and not a single Federal Vision proponent believes that), assurance will always be a problem when faith is redefined as faithfulness or obedience, because every honest, sensitive soul will have questions about whether he has been obedient enough. Looking at one's own faithfulness (and wondering about one's future faithfulness) is not calculated to increase assurance. The Federal Vision in this respect is not able to solve the problems that it addresses, but instead, arguably, compounds the problems.
The Federal Vision proponents think that too much fuss is being made over the Federal Vision. Given the poor state of the church (and society as a whole), they say, it behooves us who otherwise have so much in common not to attack each other over minor differences. Rather, we should seek to work together more and work harder to overcome these differences. There is much wisdom in this, if indeed we are talking about minor matters. But the study committee did not consider the matters treated in its report to be minor. The Federal Vision movement needs to understand the Reformed faith better in all its textures and dynamics before urging changes that do not aid, but actually undermine, the faith that we confess, cherish, and seek to propagate.
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2007.