BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 193
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
In our first installment in this series (February, 2007) we began looking at the way in which theological discourse is being carried out in Calvinistic circles in the United States and related nations today. As a specimen, we are using the way in which the so-called “Federal Vision” is being reacted to in several tiny denominations. While in some ways it is hardly important what these small groups have to say, yet it can be instructive to a consideration of present-day Christendom, and it is for that reason alone that we devote attention to it here.
Part of what we are addressing is style. In our first essay, we called attention to the amazing shallowness of some of the critiques coming from supposedly learned sources. “The ‘Federal Vision’ emphasizes this or that too much.” Wow! Now there’s a powerful criticism! And in fact that kind of criticism characterizes the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s report into the matter.
Or, “The ‘Federal Vision’ dares to use various words and phrases in their Biblical sense rather than in the way our groups and their traditions commonly use them.” Zowie, Batman! That’s really serious! I’m sure Jesus is up in heaven weeping buckets of tears over it!
Moving forward this month: Another matter than we can mention is a subtle kind of guilt by association. Some parts of the Calvinistic world are all steamed up these days about something called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), associated largely in their minds with the writings of N. T. Wright. Now, the NPP has nothing whatsoever to do with the “Federal Vision,” other than as we shall see next time, “Federal Vision” people are guilty of reading outside of the prescribed lists, and have found help in some NPP writings — but then, everyone has. We who are in the “Federal Vision” have been saying what we’re saying for many years, and long before we ever heard of the NPP. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches and sects, however, have tried to lump both together in one study committee after another, so that any criticism of the NPP also spreads over onto the “Federal Vision”.
And yet another aspect of the style of these churches is that the study committee set up by the OPC never on any occasion spoke with any of the people it criticized, nor did any member of that committee. This follows the trend set by the study committee set up by the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the PCA, which never met with any of the men it criticized, though it claimed to have done so. At least the OPC committee, however, did not follow the lead of the Mississippi Valley PCA committee in that kind of brazen lie.
The most recent remarkable example of style is the just-finished PCA report on this matter. Again, the “Federal Vision” is linked falsely with the NPP. Again, no one being attacked was contacted by any member of the committee. But what is significant is that every single member of the PCA committee was appointed precisely because he already was opposed to these things. This was openly stated by the people making the appointment. Although the “Federal Vision”-oriented men whose views were being addressed by the committee were and are pastors in good standing in the PCA, the committee was set up for the express purpose of proving them wrong.
Contrary to PCA rules, nobody representing other positions was allowed on the committee. Back when the PCA had a study committee on 6-Day Creation, people representing all the various positions were on the committee. Not in this case. All the members this time were chosen because of their commitment to a hyper-subscriptionist position regarding the Westminster Standards.
Now, the true agenda of this committee was to use the “Federal Vision” as a way of tricking the PCA General Assembly into taking a hyper-subscriptionist view of the Standards, thereby reversing the earlier “Good Faith Subscription” view wisely adopted by the PCA. To elaborate — and I write this as someone who is quite familiar with the early days of the PCA and who worked for a time in the Stated Clerk’s office — the PCA was formed in the early 1970s by conservatives who had given up trying to reform the old Presbyterian Church US (the pre-merger Southern Presbyterians). The dream of some of the leaders was to have a strictly Calvinistic and Presbyterian denomination that would be thoroughly and hardcore traditional in terms of Southern Presbyterianism, the return to a golden age as it were. In fact, however, the large majority of churches that left to form the PCA were either (a) racists who wanted to keep out blacks, or (b) broad evangelicals committed to Billy Graham, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Navigators, or (c) Scofield Bible wielding dispensationalists. Hence, the dream of a truly Reformed denomination could not be realized.
But that dream did not die.
Over the years the PCA has changed. Racism is now gone, I trust. Dispensationalism was almost gone until it received a shot in the arm by the influx of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) into the PCA in the early 1980s, but there’s not much “rapturism” left any longer. Other kinds of broader evangelicalism have emerged, including some of a more highly educated catholic sort. But the hardcore “Thoroughly Reformed” (TR) types have continued to be a minority.
But their dream has not died.
On more than one occasion they have tried to force the PCA into a very tight traditionalist mold, attempting to repristinate a cultural Calvinism that has been dead for nearly 200 years. They have failed so far. Now they try again. By filling the “Federal Vision” committee exclusively with such TR-oriented persons, and by making their report in fact a demand for strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, they hope to execute a coup. If they can frighten the PCA into thinking that some kind of “Federal Vision” monster is on the horizon, they may just succeed in pulling the wool over the General Assembly in June and get their way.
But why is “Federal Vision” such a threat? What is the “Federal Vision” anyway?
What is being called the “Federal Vision” today is nothing really new. To begin with, notice the word “vision.” The “Federal Vision” is a conversation, but it is a conversation carried on among people who hold to the theology and outlook of the Protestant Reformation. That worldview is almost totally alien to American evangelicalism and modern Calvinism. The Reformers to whom Calvinists and Presbyterians look, such as Bucer, Calvin, Knox, Beza, and the Westminster Divines, were theocratic (Christocratic; Bibliocratic), postmillennial, sacramental, and except for some of the Divines, liturgical (sung prayerbook liturgy and weekly communion). Those who think this way today are viewed as not much different from Islam by modern conservative Euro-American Christians. The history of “Christian Reconstruction” (the precursor of “Federal Vision”), in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates this, as does the reaction against “Federal Vision” today.
Because the Reformation approach to theology and the church has been pretty much completely rejected by modern Calvinists, the “Federal Vision” cannot be understood. The most immediate reason for this is amillennialism. The amillennial understanding of God’s plan is that He is cherry picking a few individuals out of history, the “elect,” and putting them in a basket that will survive the fires to come. This is completely different from the Reformation understanding of God’s plan and of the nature of the gospel. Our next essay will explore this in more depth.