BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 177
Copyright © 2005 Biblical Horizons
Not all readers of this essay letter may be aware of it, but a tempest has been brewing in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a tempest created by the liberal party in that denomination. It came about this way.
In January 2002, a Pastor’s Conference on covenant theology was held at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (AAPC). The lectures presented at this conference were calls to return to historic Reformational teachings on the covenant. The men who presented lectures did not agree with one another onall points, including some significant ones (such as admission to the Lord’s Table by baptism alone: “paedocommunion”). The conference was entitled “The Federal Vision” (FV) to indicate that the topic was the covenant.
This Conference was a conversation.
A conversation for grown-ups.
Shortly after this Conference was held, a condemnation of it was issued by a small group of self-proclaimed “Southern Presbyterians” headed up by Joseph Morecraft of Dunwoody, Georgia. This condemnation linked the AAPC discussion of the covenant with the so-called New Perspective on Paul(NPP) and its best-known evangelical advocate, the Anglican N. Thomas Wright. I gather that this was an attempt at guilt-by-association, since a palpable hatred of “liturgical” (i.e., Reformation-style) worship seems to characterize the group that is gathered around Morecraft.
For some reason mysterious to me, the association of the FV speakers with the NPP has stuck, even though there are no grounds for it. Those of us being called FV have been discussing these issues for 25years, long before any of us had ever heard of Tom Wright. Almost all the issues that are being shrieked about were set out in writings published by me and my associates at Geneva Ministries during the 1980s in issues of the journal Christianity and Civilization.
Although Joseph Morecraft is not in the PCA, his claim to represent some kind of pure Southern Presbyterianism seems to have resonated with others who claim the same thing. At any rate, linking the FV with the NPP and attacking both together in stentorian and intemperate tones has become a hobby for other ostensible “Southern Presbyterians.” (I’mnot sure these people are really being true to the best thinkers of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. I think they are being true only to their own ignorance.)
To be sure, people interested in renewing covenant theology have read N.T. Wright, James Dunn, Jakobvan Bruggen, and others who write in the NPP vein. We have also read David Yaego and Tuomo Mannermaa and the other Finnish writers who have been reinvestigating Martin Luther. But that does not put us into the pocket of the New Finnish School, anymore than reading Alexander Schmemann makes us Russian Orthodox, or reading The Banner of Truth orModern Reformation makes us Baptists, or readingFirst Things makes us Roman Catholics.
This brings us, though, to one of the main problems in the current brouhaha, and that is childishness. The infantile behavior of a whole lot of people who have attacked the FV Conversation is rather marked. Sharp barks of “Heresy!,” crackpot attempts at guilt-by-association, and the belief in a conspiracy or”movement” are all too characteristic of the noises belching forth from certain quarters.
This is olde hatte for me. During the 1980s, when I was involved with Geneva Ministries in Tyler, Texas, we used to recommend Alexander Schmemann’s remarkable book For the Life of the World. Since, being Calvinists, we differed with a few things in the book, we included a short reader’sguide with the copies we sold. But predictably it was not long before certain churlish voices were raised around the country accusing me and others of being”on the road to Eastern Orthodoxy.” Similarly, when it became known that we were singing the ancient hymns of the Church in our worship in Tyler, the same infantile voices accused us of being “on the road to Rome.” Curiously (duh!) it’s the same people who led the attack on the AAPC Conversation.
It’s time for certain people to grow up.
Having said that, I’m going to take the gloves off and point out that those critics who accused us of being Eastern Orthodox, etc., knew full well that we were not anything of the sort. They knew that they were lying about us. They were motivated by evil desires, often envy, and for that reason sought to tear us down. It was not ignorance. It was not really juvenile thinking. It was just envy and evil. Why should I sugar-coat it and pretend that this is not so, when everyone involved knows that it is?
A second large problem connected with the current noise is deceptiveness. The Mississippi Valley presbytery of the PCA has issued a report on FV and related issues, again erroneously lumping the NPP with the FV. In addition to numerous miscastings of what particular people have written and said, the report is deceptive in that it presents itself as the product of an actual committee and in that it claims that this committee “held a face to face meeting with representatives of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church of Monroe, Louisiana.” These two claims are deceptive, because in fact the committee only met one time, many months before the report was issued. The committee did not meet and discuss these issues. The report was apparently written by one man and perhaps edited by a second. Additionally, no one on the committee made any attempt to meet with anyone from AAPC. It was only after the first version of the report was issued and published on the internet that the elders of AAPC themselves asked for and got a meeting. Over half of the study committee did not attend this meeting.
But the main problem that is generating controversy is actually fairly well put by the Mississippi Valley report: “Proponents of the FV identify themselves as Reformed. Most appeal to the writings of the sixteenth century Reformers in support of their views. Many regard the Reformed thought of the British Puritan and American Presbyterian traditions to have capitulated to the Enlightenment, what is termed revivalism, and what is termed baptistictheology.”
Well, that’s about right. The Protestant Reformation in all its branches was a sacramental, liturgical, musical, and bibliocratic movement. Prior to the Reformation, people attended the Lord’s Supper once a year, if that. For Calvin and the other reformers, Jesus had promised to meet objectively with His people at His table, and so all the reformers believed very strongly in weekly communion, and they strove to implement it.
They believed in baptismal regeneration. They understood by “regeneration” a new life in the kingdom of God, in the church, not a kind of permanent internal change in the heart (which is how”regeneration” later came to be understood). For Calvin, “regeneration” is pretty much a synonym for sanctification.
They all believed in congregational participation in worship, which meant liturgies that were the same every week, and also meant much attention to singing the worship service. Calvin’s attitude seems to have been “Why say it when you can sing it?”
Finally, the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation believed in national discipleship using the Bible as standard. They had no fear of the so-called “Mosaiclaw” as part of the Biblical revelation about Jesus’rule over all of life. Calvin, Bucer, and the other Reformers called for the reformation of the state along Biblical lines of justice.
What can be seen from this is that the Reformation had a very “objective” view of Church life and grace. They did not think of transformation as coming from inside a person, but as coming from outside: from preaching – exposure to the Word, from encountering Jesus in the sacraments, from being discipled by liturgy and singing. They did not reject all religious experience, but they knew from the Bible that the human heart is exceedingly deceptive, so that trusting in one’s own decisions and experiences was not a safe way to proceed. We should trust the objective promises of God.
About a century later, however, came what those who liked it called the “Second Reformation” in Scottish, English, and Dutch Calvinism. Supposedly this reformation completed what was lacking in the original one. In fact it was to a considerable extent a Medieval reaction against the Reformation. To be sure, the Puritans and others did not go back to the idolatries of the Middle Ages, but they did reject musical and liturgical worship, seeking to restore the almost complete passivity of the Medieval worshiper. And within a generation or so, those in these movements had settled into a kind of church-only pietism that ignored bibliocratic national reform. And later on, these same movements wound up in the kind of anti-sacramentalism that came to characterize 18th,19th, and 20th century Calvinism.
So, Wow! These FV guys are seeking to go back to the Reformation! And that is some new idea that suddenly popped up at the AAPC conference in2002? No, all of what I just wrote about, including the charge of Baptistic revivalism, is found in the journals Christianity and Civilization No. 1: The Failure of the American Baptist Culture (1982) andNo. 4: The Reconstruction of the Church (1985), as supplemented by my own collection of essays, The Sociology of the Church.
The 2002 AAPC conference was nothing new. The Reformational ideas presented had been discussed in Presbyterian circles for many years. To be sure, each of the speakers at the conference had something to contribute to the discussion, but the overall set of issues discussed was nothing new.
This is worth pointing out, because many people who are new to these ideas are thinking that they sprang up very recently. As the previous essay showed, there once was a tradition of Calvinistic thought. It was out of that tradition that the call to return to Reformation worship and ecclesiology was made in the 1980s. The FV is simply a continuation of that tradition.
Biblical Horizons (ISSN 1050-0588) is published occasionally, funds permitting, by Biblical Horizons , P.O. Box 1096,Niceville, Florida 32588-1096. Anyone sending a donation, in any amount, will be placed on the mailing list to receive issues of Biblical Horizons as they are published. The content of all essays published in Biblical Horizons is Copyrighted, but permission to reprint any essay is freely given provided that the essay is published uncut, and that the name and address of Biblical Horizons is given.