BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 192
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
This month we begin by considering Alan D. Strange’s article, “Understanding the ‘Federal Vision'” published in the February 2007 issue of New Horizons, the official denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mr. Strange is an OPC minister, a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and was a member of the OPC Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification, which looked into the “Federal Vision” and found twenty things wrong with it. Since I’m as much a “Federal Visionary” as anyone, I guess I need to say something about this.
Mr. Strange begins by saying that the “Federal Vision” (hereafter FV) has legitimate concerns about the low view of the church in America today, the low view of preaching and sacraments, the hyper-subjectivism in the church, easy-believism, and such like. Then he says “the solution to these problems, however, lies in the historic Reformed faith at its best.” That’s very true, and that has been the whole burden of the FV. It has been the men associated with the FV who have called the American Reformed and Presbyterian worlds to go back to their confessions and back to Calvin and Bucer. It is Mr. Strange and the OPC Committee who are out of step with the Reformers and with the Reformed Confessions.
Then Mr. Strange writes this: “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.” Mr. Strange leaves the impression that I and other FV men are just youngsters who have overreacted to things in the evangelical world. Well, at the age of 57, I am at least ten years older than Mr. Strange, and so are several other FV spokespeople. I’ve been a Vantillian Calvinist for 38 years. I’m not doing Junior High School theology. I get the impression that in some Reformed and Presbyterian circles, this is how theology is done:
– You’re too objective in your theology.
– Naw, it’s you. You’re too subjective.
– Nuh-uh. You’re too objective.
– Nuh-uh, you’re the one. You’re too subjective.
– Well, you overemphasize the forensic side of salvation.
– Gimmeabreak! You’re overemphasizing the relational aspects of salvation.
– Well, you’re not being true to the Reformed tradition.
– No. You’re the one who’s not being true to the Reformed tradition.
– Yeah, well you’re a theonomist.
– No, that’s not really fair, you pietist.
– Well, you’re just a crypto-Lutheran.
– Oh yeah? Well, you’re an Arian.
– Yeah, well, you’re a racist.
– Yeah, well you’re a holocaust denier.
– Yeah, well, you’re mama wears army boots.
– Yeah, well your secret agenda is rapprochement with Rome.
If you don’t believe me that this is how Reformed theology is done, you should go online and look at some of the infantile rubbish on the Reformation21blog (though not everything there is bad), the Warfield List (where idiocy abounds), and others of similar ilk. Or just read the OPC Report mentioned above, which is all about “overemphasizing” this or that.
Strange’s criticism is rather bizarre. The FV is routinely criticized on the one hand for saying that baptism actually and objectively does something, and on the other hand for telling people that they need to improve on their baptisms and guard their hearts lest they fall away. We are attacked both for being too objective and for being too subjective.
Strange says that the FV claims that the problems in the church require “theological reformulation,” while he advocates “faithful living within our already well-developed theological system.” Again, I wonder if this is for real. Does Strange think that there has been no theological development since the Westminster Assembly? Does he utterly reject the work of Cornelius Van Til, of Herman Bavinck? And here again, it is in fact the FV men who have been calling back to the Reformation’s confessions. It is the Westminster Confession of Faith that says that baptism is a “sign and seal of regeneration.” It says that because Titus 3:5 speaks of the “washing of regeneration” and the Nicene Creed confesses “one baptism for the remission of sins” (Acts 22:16).
Strange’s essay is just a summary report of the OPC Committee report mentioned above. That Report is one of the most amazing series of mindless misreadings and outright deceptions that I think I have ever encountered. It is not far from the kind of internet theoporn that oozes from the Warfield List and other cybergutters. There is no way I’m going to bore you with all the evil contained in this report: If you are really interested, go to www.federalvision.com, where you can read the Report itself and then numerous essays pointing out its stupidities.
I wrote a while back about “Misusing the Westminster Confession” (BH 166) and about the “Closing of the Calvinistic Mind” (BH 177). The OPC Report is about the best evidence of these two phenomena that I could ever imagine.
What is most telling about this Report, however, is not its attempt to foist upon the Reformed world a bunch of new notions (such as a meritorious covenant of works), presented (inaccurately) as if these were the historic Reformed doctrines. Rather, it is the deliberate misreading of the men they are reporting about, putting the worst possible interpretation on what they read, not bothering to read other things by the same author that he himself says clarify certain points, and at no time ever contacting any of the men being reported on to see if what the Committee thinks about him is accurate. The OPC Report treats the FV men with utter contempt. The fact is that you can make anybody look like a heretic if you only read a couple of things he’s written and then put the worst possible construction on it and then link it up with other things that you also put the worst possible construction on.
This procedure is, sad to say, not untypical. Dispensationalists who read books written by Reformed scholars about dispensationalism can seldom recognize their opinions amidst the distortions. Lutherans cannot recognize themselves in what Reformed people write about Lutheranism. What is noticeably absent from Reformed “scholarship” is just plain Christian love, which would mean taking the time to find out what others mean by the words they use. Individual FV writers have made it crystal clear what they mean by “covenant,” “election,” “regeneration” and other key terms. Ordinarily we are interested in finding out more accurately how the Bible itself uses these words, without denying the stipulated theological meanings employed in Calvinistic decretal theology.
What we have found, however, is a Biblophobic hostility toward any attempt to deal Biblically with the Bible. If the Westminster Confession defines “election,” for its purposes, as “elect to glory,” then we are not allowed to point out that in the Bible “election” is usually used in the sense of chosen to office, chosen for mission, or chosen to be baptized into the church.
Indeed, I recently listened to an extended interview with FV advocate Steve Wilkins. The questioner, himself a PCA pastor, said, “But brother Steve, don’t you think you confuse the people when you use words differently from the way the Confession uses them? Isn’t this dangerous.”
Steve replied, “If it’s a problem, then you have to charge Jesus and Paul with causing the problem, don’t you? I’m using these words the way they use them. I routinely explain that the Confession uses words differently.”
That did not get through. “But Steve, you’re going to have to stand before Jesus, and if you’ve gone off and confused the people by using words differently from the Confession, isn’t that a problem?”
As the interview proceeded it was apparent that nothing Steve Wilkins could say was ever going to get through. It surely seems that this man is an idolater whose religion is the Westminster Confession. As far as he is concerned, the Bible itself is a source of confusion. The Bible is not the word of life, the Confession is. The Confession is the lodestar, the touchstone, the foundation of truth. The Bible is confusing. And since the Westminster Confession only deals with about 0.001% of what is in the Bible, this man and the thousands like him have a very, very truncated religion.
I believe, and it is very, very clear from the whole FV discussion, that there are precious few men in the OPC, the PCA, or the URC who are capable of living out of the Bible. When the Bible is discussed, they react with horror and run to their confessions and traditions. The condemnation of the “New Perspective on Paul,” of John Murray and Norman Shepherd, of the FV, of Christian Reconstruction a few years back — every bit of it arises from a Biblophobic attitude that is ignorant of if not actually hostile to the Bible. How these three churches (and other even smaller ones) deal with these matters will demonstrate whether they are still Protestant, or have become merely outposts of Rome.
Of course, these tiny sects only represent about 0.00001% of the Christian world. Jesus is clearly not sending His children into these churches, which is why they remain tiny and invisible — true to their affection for an invisible church.