The moderator of the PCA’s 35th General Assembly wryly brought the topic of Federal Vision to the floor in June.
“So … it looks like this is the main event,” E.J. Nusbaum joked, triggering a wave of knowing laughter from the thousands of men packed into the ballroom to hear the General Assembly (GA) Study Committee’s report on Federal Vision. Admittedly, this was the biggest topic of discussion at the Assembly, and nearly all commissioners made a priority of attending the Wednesday afternoon session in which the Study Committee offered its findings.
While the mood started out light that afternoon, it intensified during the ensuing hours in a debate reflecting the range and magnitude of emotion surrounding Federal Vision, from both opponents and proponents. Though the final vote was a nearly unanimous approval of the Study Committee’s report, and a rejection of Federal Vision, the events of the afternoon clearly showed the importance of this growing theological issue.
It’s an issue we can’t afford to ignore, say many prominent PCA leaders.
“I can’t fathom why there’s any hesitancy about [rejecting Federal Vision],” said R.C. Sproul, from the floor of General Assembly that afternoon. “There’s too much at stake—this is the gospel we’re talking about.”
Others who agreed with his assessment of the inadequacies of Federal Vision theology were nonetheless concerned that representatives of that viewpoint were not adequately involved or consulted by the Study Committee. Most of the debate revolved around a motion to postpone the report to allow further consultation. Committee chairman Paul Fowler acknowledged that Federal Vision advocates had not been directly consulted but said that their published works had been studied extensively.
As a result of that study, the PCA has now officially rejected the theological concepts behind Federal Vision through its GA vote in June. What follows is a short primer on Federal Vision, what its rejection within the PCA means, and practical suggestions for churches seeking guidance on this issue.
So Just What Is Federal Vision, Anyway? And Why Should We Care?
An almost universal reaction to the words “Federal Vision” from laypeople is a shrug of the shoulders and a flash of upturned hands. “It’s just too confusing,” says one. “It’s beyond me—I just don’t get it,” says another. “Does this really have any bearing on my day-to-day faith?”
Part of the reason Federal Vision (FV) is so complex is because the term itself can encompass a number of theological beliefs. Here is a breakdown of the concepts often included in the term “Federal Vision”:
NEW PERSPECTIVES ON PAUL (NPP) – This is an academic re-reading of the apostle Paul. Whereas the “old” perspectives read Paul through the lens of justification by faith alone, NPP urges a rethinking of first-century Judaism, and through it, a new view of justification. Under this view, in second-temple Judaism, works of the law were a sign of being in the Covenant (marking the Jews as God’s people) rather than duties done to earn salvation. And the focus of justification was on who is in, or not in, the church, rather than on sin and redemption. Theologians E.P Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James Dunn are proponents of NPP.
AUBURN AVENUE THEOLOGY – This term refers to a 2002 pastors’ conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, La., in which the essential Federal Vision philosophies were put forth. Vocal proponents of this view include Steve Wilkes, Doug Wilson, and Rich Lusk.
FEDERAL VISION (FV) – This movement sees itself as an effort to return to original commitments of the Reformation, and is a reaction against an individualistic, consumer-driven church culture that seems more concerned with personal salvation than covenant commitments. In an effort to correct this overly subjective faith and “easy believism,” FV proponents stress covenant obligations to such an extent that individual salvation through faith alone seems to come into question. Federal Vision teaching includes differing understandings of:
Covenant and election – Among several key issues for FV proponents are: discomfort with the idea that Adam could “merit” eternal life through his perfect and perpetual obedience to God’s command; that the covenant established with Adam was fundamentally gracious, not legal; and that God’s dealings with humankind must be understood by way of covenant, rather than his decrees. The upshot of this last idea for some FV proponents is that the way to know who the elect are is to look at the church, the people who are in covenant with God.
Imputation – This historically refers to believers being made just before God by having Christ’s righteousness imputed (credited) to them by a judicial declaration of a gracious God. FV appears to question the correctness of this understanding, especially in regard to the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. The consequence is that the believer’s obedience, in addition to faith, seems to become responsible for justification and not simply be the evidence that one’s faith is genuine.
Nature of union with Christ – According to FV proponents, when individuals are baptized they are united to the church, which is Christ’s body (hence, they are united to Christ). As a result of this “covenantal union,” individuals receive many of the benefits of Christ’s mediation—election, justification, adoption, and sanctification.
Perseverance – While baptized individuals receive a number of benefits through their “covenantal union,” they do not receive the gift of perseverance. This they receive as they live in “covenantal faithfulness,” obeying God’s law throughout their lives. Some have suggested that this paradigm ends up resting our justification upon our sanctification; others wonder if this is the best solution to the problem of apostasy (abandoning one’s faith).
“In essence, Federal Vision attacks the vitals of justification, and suggests that it is not permanent,” said Dr. Joseph Pipa, president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, S.C. “It cuts at the heart of the Reformed gospel.”
These issues are not abstract theology, but have great impact on Christians’ everyday lives, according to Dr. Guy Waters, associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Miss., and the author of several books critiquing Federal Vision teachings.
“This is a live issue—it isn’t just academics batting around ideas. Any time a Christian’s theology lacks biblical fidelity and clarity, that has clear implications for his or her spiritual life. With Federal Vision, works come to play a role they were never meant to play, and that has a tangible effect on a person’s Christian living.” These teachings affect the integrity of the gospel, Waters says, and ultimately impact the church’s work of evangelism and missions.
The Federal Vision controversy is unusual because it has come from the conservative side of the PCA.
“Federal Vision proponents identify themselves as Reformed, and say that the Westminster Standards are misunderstood,” said Waters. He notes that FV has taken root within the Reformed church specifically, and he’s seen advocacy for FV building in pockets of several Reformed denominations.
A Generation’s Issue
A number of PCA theologians and leaders see Federal Vision as one of the most important issues the denomination has faced in its 35-year history. “We’ve previously dealt with debate over whether Creation took place over six days, and we’ve dealt with issues related to paedo [infant] communion, but those were not as important as this debate,” said Grover Gunn, pastor of Grace Presbyterian (PCA) in Jackson, Tenn., stated clerk of Covenant Presbytery, and a member of the GA Study Committee on Federal Vision.
“To some extent, theological debates can be the issue du jour,” said Dr. Sean Lucas, vice president for academics and assistant professor of church history at Covenant Seminary, and also a Study Committee member. “Every generation has wrestled with key issues: in the 18th century it was the Old versus the New Side; in the 19th century it was the Old versus the New School, and in the 20th century, it was the fundamentalists versus the modernists.
“Federal Vision is a critical issue,” said Lucas. “It’s our generation’s moment to come back and reaffirm the old, old story of the gospel. And if we as PCA ministers can’t agree on this issue, then … wow. That’s significant.”
Gunn agrees. “There’s been debate for years about how strict we are on the Westminster Confession. This was a testing of the limits of the PCA. You can have a good confession, but if you don’t enforce it, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Interestingly, in recent years almost every major conservative Reformed denomination has examined Federal Vision and rejected it through its church courts, including many members of NAPARC (the North American and Presbyterian Reformed Council), to which the PCA belongs.
“We’re the largest conservative Presbyterian denomination in North America,” said Lucas. “That means that when we have doctrinal controversy, people take note—from the perspective of broader American evangelicalism.”
Technology and Theology
Some think that Federal Vision’s teachings would never have received so much attention in an earlier technological age.
“Federal Vision [information] has been disseminated in the PCA through the Internet, especially through blogs,” said Waters. “It explains how these issues have gained a hearing beyond expectation.”
Paul Fowler, chairman of the GA Study Committee appointed to study Federal Vision, agrees. “Other theological issues in the past haven’t been as volatile because they took place before the age of the Internet. Now, there’s lots of discussion on the Web, and blogs are giving it traction.”
Activity on the Internet may also have distorted the perception of how many Federal Vision proponents there are.
“Some of the Federal Vision proponents are so vocal [online] that you get the impression that it’s more pervasive than it is,” said Gunn, noting that the final vote at General Assembly on Federal Vision was a 90 percent majority, rather than the 60-70 percent majority some expected.
The Future of Federal Vision within the PCA
Though the Federal Vision controversy has been brewing for several years, the PCA has only recently addressed it directly. In 2006, the 34th General Assembly approved the creation of an ad interim committee, consisting of four teaching elders and three ruling elders, to study “the soteriology of the Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies, which are causing confusion among our churches. Further, to determine whether these viewpoints and formulations are in conformity with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, whether they are hostile to or strike at the vitals of religion, and to present a declaration or statement regarding the issues raised by these viewpoints in light of our Confessional Standards” (MGA 34:229-30).
At the 35th General Assembly this summer, the Federal Vision Study Committee reported its findings, offering five recommendations and nine theological declarations [see sidebar below] on the subject. Several hours of debate on the floor of GA ensued, centering on two factors: the composition of the committee as appointed by the moderator, and the report, in the opinion of some, being strong on historical theology and weak on detailed exegesis of key biblical texts. A motion to expand the committee and continue it for another year failed. The committee’s findings were approved by about a 90 percent majority, although some disagreed with the committee’s report.
“The GA report effectively substitutes the Westminster Standards for the Bible as the supreme judge of all controversies of religion,” said Jeffrey Meyers, senior pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in St. Louis, Mo. “The report’s declarations presuppose that only one set of narrow theological terms and explanations can be compatible with the Reformed theological system of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Standards.”
Others disagreed with the Study Committee’s process. “The committee’s appointment was obviously not ideal,” said Mike Khandjian, senior pastor of Chapelgate Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Marriottsville, Md. “But my real concern is that we have a crop of fine, brilliant young ministers who are deeply committed to the gospel … [who are] discouraged because the appearance—and I mean no disrespect to any of the fine men who served on the committee—was that they were not to be heard or trusted in this dialogue: They have little or no voice.”
But many were encouraged by the outcome of the GA vote. “It was wonderfully encouraging to see the General Assembly, with a clear majority, vote to affirm these gospel issues,” said Sean Lucas. “The vote means that there’s consensus on this issue at the denominational level, that these things are serious, and that if PCA ministers disagree they must go to their presbytery and submit to their brothers there.”
Exploring Alternative Views?
Sometimes, exploring alternative views can seem attractive, explains Lucas. “I think there’s something inherent in being human that makes us want to rethink and innovate, and younger ministers understandably want the intellectual freedom to explore theological concepts. So there’s a balance between doing that and not compromising doctrinal purity.”
Ultimately, it is up presbyteries and sessions to determine whether an existing or rising minister’s views are in conflict with the Westminster Standards.
“Presbyteries and sessions will be able to use the GA Study Committee’s report to vet future ministers,” says Lucas. “These issues will surface in licensure and ordination exams. These are essential doctrines to which our ordination vows commit us.”
Seminaries, who are grooming the next generation of ministers, are also responding to the Federal Vision controversy. Covenant Seminary is trying to proactively deal with such issues, says Lucas. “The great fear is that views like Federal Vision are poisoning the stream of future ministers. Covenant Seminary is trying to take the lead is discussing these issues by hosting symposiums and the like to provide guidance for churches.”
All in all, the best protection against theological error is to be well-grounded in truth, says Gunn. And the PCA needs just two things: “a well-written doctrinal statement, and men willing to stand beside it.”
To view the entire report of the Study Committee on Federal Vision, visit www.pcahistory.org/pca/07-fvreport.html.
Melissa Morgan is an editor for byFaith magazine.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church Report
Reformed Presbyterian Church North America Report
Reformed Church US report
Richard Phillips books:
The New Perspective on Justification
Guy Waters books:
Justification and the New Perspectives On Paul: A Review and Response
The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis
By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification
Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace
by R. Scott Clark
The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision
by Calvin Beisner
Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul
by Cornelis P. Venema
GENERAL ASSEMBLY REPORT’S NINE DECLARATIONS
After studying Federal Vision for one year, the seven-member Study Committee appointed by the 34th General Assembly reported its findings, which were approved by a 90 percent majority at the 35th General Assembly this summer. Following are the nine declarations included in that report:
1. The view that rejects the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture as represented in the Westminster Standards (i.e., views which do not merely take issue with the terminology, but the essence of the first/second covenant framework) is contrary to those Standards.
2. The view that an individual is “elect” by virtue of his membership in the visible church; and that this “election” includes justification, adoption and sanctification; but that this individual could lose his “election” if he forsakes the visible church, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
3. The view that Christ does not stand as a representative head whose perfect obedience and satisfaction is imputed to individuals who believe in him is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
4. The view that strikes the language of “merit” from our theological vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
5. The view that “union with Christ” renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all of Christ’s benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
6. The view that water baptism effects a “covenantal union” with Christ through which each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ’s mediation, including regeneration, justification, and sanctification, thus creating a parallel soteriological system to the decretal system of the Westminster Standards, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
7. The view that one can be “united to Christ” and not receive all the benefits of Christ’s mediation, including perseverance, in that effectual union is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
8. The view that some can receive saving benefits of Christ’s mediation, such as regeneration and justification, and yet not persevere in those benefits is contrary to the Westminster Standards.
9. The view that justification is in any way based on our works, or that the so-called “final verdict of justification” is based on anything other than the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ received through faith alone, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.