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Debating the Federal Vision

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Date June 22, 2004

A review of The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision. The Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision. Edited by E. Calvin Beisner. Fort Lauderdale, Florida: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004. 331 pp. $16.00.

The talks given at the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference (AAPC) at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana, raising questions about the orthodox Reformed doctrines of justification by faith alone, the covenants, election, perseverance, and the sacraments, have become well known subsequently throughout the Reformed community. The book we are reviewing here consists of the papers given on these and other related subjects, delivered at a specially called colloquium (hosted by the editor, Dr. F. Calvin Beisner) in Southern Florida during August 2003. The papers were exchanged and discussed, by seven of the Auburn Avenue Theology/Federal Vision proponents and by seven of its critics. The former are John Barach, Peter J. Leithart, Rick Lusk, Steve M. Schlissel, Tom Trouwborst, Steve Wilkins, and Douglas Wilson. The critics of the Federal Vision are Christopher A. Hutchinson, George W. Knight, III, Richard D. Phillips, Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., Carl D. Robbins, Morton H. Smith; and R. Fowler White.

In a short review of this publication, it is impossible to go into a detailed analysis and criticism of the views expressed by the Federal Visionists on the vital doctrinal matters of the Trinity, the covenants, justification, election, the sacraments, perseverance, and the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. But the conviction of this reviewer is that the "Cons" have won the argument overwhelmingly against the Federal Visionists’ position and that the latter are in the most serious danger of departing from Reformed orthodoxy into sacramentalism and even a form of works-righteousness, if indeed this has not already happened despite all their arguments to the contrary.

The Federal Visionists are reacting to problems in the contemporary American evangelical and Reformed churches, such as the rampant individualism, the neglect of the covenantal objectivity of salvation, an over-emphasized subjectivity in seeking assurance of salvation, the tendency towards antinomianism in some circles, and an inadequate view of the role of the sacraments as signs and seals of salvation.

Their pastoral concern in these matters is doubtless commendable, but the re-casting of the normal orthodox understanding of certain vital aspects of Biblical and Reformed theology (cf. the Westminster Standards) raises far more serious problems in the end, than the ones which the Federal Visionists claim to have solved.

For instance, there is an attempt to reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity, to move away from the Reformation commitment to “forensic” justification (by assuming an over-reaction by the Reformers to Rome), to allege that Hellenism and the Enlightenment led to the "scholastic" propositional statements of Reformed doctrine in the Westminster Standards, to read Biblical history as "The Story" involving primarily personal relationships between God and His people (rather than a depository for doctrinal propositions), to deprecate the value of systematic theology, and finally to introduce different views of covenant, faith, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, election, regeneration, apostacy, and sacramental efficacy. While it is claimed that all these re-formulations are within the parameters of the orthodox Reformed Faith, this reviewer has been left in no doubt that the Federal Vision is, in the end, contrary to the Westminster Standards. One of the critics, Dr. Joseph Pipa, in his response to Steve Wilkins’ paper on "Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation," puts this point concisely in these words: “If I have understood Wilkins in this paper, the Federal Vision is a deviant, unbiblical view of salvation…. the proponents of the Federal Vision hold to a deviant view of the covenant, the active obedience of Christ, the way one receives salvation-justification, the role of baptism in conversion, the relation of the reprobate to Christ and the means of assurance" (p.281).

There are at least three major causes for concern with regard to the Federal Visionists’ presentations.

1] The first is methodological errors. As one of the critics has pointed out (p.10), there is a tendency towards faulty hermeneutics and exegesis, implying that all Scriptural terms are always used in the same way (e.g., "baptism" always meaning water baptism), thus abandoning the Reformation principle of the analogy of faith. This same tendency leads to the redefining or ambiguously stating the doctrine of election, regeneration, justification, and adoption, and to a general low regard for any attempt to "systematize" theology.

2] The second is a loss of Biblical balance in regard to covenant theology. Union with the (visible) church automatically implies union with Christ in the Federal Vision teaching, thus over-objectifying the covenant and failing to distinguish between covenantal union in the visible church from the saving union of the invisible church; and in emphasizing covenantal election, atonement, justification, and adoption at the expense of soteriological election, atonement, justification, and adoption (p. 12). There is an attempt to downplay the confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church and to propose another distinction in its place, the historical and eschatological church!

3] The third major cause for concern is the unquestionable incipient sacramentalism in the Federalist position. In reading paper after paper in this colloquium, the. reader is left with the conviction that the Federalists impute the efficacy of the thing signified to the sign itself, whether in regard to baptism or the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments can communicate blessings apart from faith, and baptism appears to be a converting ordinance. The Federal Vision states that the unbelieving feed upon Christ when they partake of the Lord’s Supper, and that a person is given new life by virtue of baptismal union with Christ.

There appears to be an erroneous view of the doctrine of justification held by the Federalists, with the claim that one cannot understand Paul’s teaching on justification apart from dealing with the Gentile problem and that in the. Old Testament the instrument of justification was covenant faithfulness and not simply trusting in the promises of God.. There also appears to be a denial of the role of merit in Christ’s work and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.

In conclusion, this reviewer is convinced that the carefully articulated presentations of the great doctrines of the Reformed and Biblical faith in the Westminster Standards (on election, faith, good works, perseverance, assurance of salvation, the sacraments, etc.) provide still today the effective and truly adequate answer to the problems of the contemporary situation in the Reformed churches. Sadly, the so-called "Federal Vision" is no vision at all in the end, but a "Federal Fog", and that of a most serious nature indeed. One can only agree with the editor of this volume which is being reviewed here, Cal Beisner, when he writes: "Extensive study of their [the Federalists’] oral and written teachings on the special concerns of the Federal Vision convinces me that they have taught, alongside some wonderful truths, some serious errors about covenant theology and its implications for salvation, personal and corporate spirituality and piety, the use and understanding of the sacraments and the conduct of theology and biblical studies in general. Sadly, their mistakes undermine their very laudable goals. Their attempt to assure tender souls who doubt their salvation while they trust in Christ collapses and the poor souls are left more confused than before, because the objectivity of the covenant is inadequate to the task-while the presumptuous, who hear that aspect of their message may be led, inadvertently, to the false assurance of formalism. At the same time, their attempt to destroy the complacency of the presumptuous is in profound danger of promoting a false legalistic notion of works righteousness" (p.306).

While we recognize that the Westminster Standards should never become an "icon" and that the ecclesia reformata is also subject to the semper reformanda principle ("always being reformed" according to Scripture), the Federal Vision teaching implies a wholesale denial of the Westminster soteriology.

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