BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 194
Copyright © 2007 Biblical Horizons
Why is the “Federal Vision” so controversial? Looking at the theological issues involved and how they are being responded to, it is clear that the response is out of proportion to the stimulus. Something more is involved than just particular doctrines or vocabulary.
What is different is that the “Federal Vision” holds to the historic Christian religion and its critics do not. Here is what the historic Christian religion teaches:
1. The Bible is given to help us mature and grow up as images of God so that we take dominion wisely over all of life.
2. The Bible is also given, because of Satan’s rebellion, to teach us holy war against principalities and powers.
3. The Bible is also given, because of Adam’s rebellion, to show us the history of redemption.
4. Because God is Three and One, so is human society, and so the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of societies.
5. Jesus Christ has been given all power and authority, and has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this has been accomplished. There can be no question that Jesus will successfully accomplish this programme, and at the end deliver all to the Father.
Now, these five aspects are rejected by many if not most modern Calvinists. Consider the following statement, which appeared on the “BBWarfield List” on the internet. One PCA pastor is here commenting on the remarks of his friend N–.
5. Disciple the nations? — Finally, N– writes, “If anything, what we need now is a recommitment to the proclamation of a simple, biblical gospel, and perhaps to finally acknowledge that the Gospel was not given for the redeeming of nations, it was given for the calling and perfecting of a godly remnant out of all nations.” I couldn’t agree more, N–, but as you know, one of the claims [of “Federal Vision” people] is that in the Great Commission, Jesus said to “disciple the nations,” not just the people of those nations, i.e. every institution of those nations. This exegesis is about as good as that which claims “until” in Psalm 110:1 means “after.” My answer is that Medieval Europe shows us what happens when we bring Christ into the institutions — men who love power more than Christ also find their way in, and what you get is Christendom, not Christ.
Let us consider this statement.
First, its appearance on a list named for Benjamin B. Warfield is fabulously absurd. Warfield is famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for insisting not only that all nations will be discipled before Jesus returns, but also for rejecting the notion of a final apostasy, taking Revelation 20:7-10 to be referring to something else. Warfield was the most radical postmillennialist in the history of the Church. And here we have Mr. N–, the director the “Warfield List” and his PCA pastor buddy completely rejecting what Warfield stood for.
Second, there can be no doubt about what Jesus meant in the Great Commission. The disciples were Jews who were fully acquainted with what we call the Old Testament. They knew that when Messiah came all the nations would stream to Jerusalem to receive the Law. This was prophesied over and over in the Scriptures. They also knew that God had divided the world into nations, seventy of them in Genesis 10, and had discipled one nation (Israel) as a light to the rest. When Jesus said, “disciple the nations,” they knew exactly what He meant.
Third, similarly the idea of baptizing the nations was something that they understood quite easily. Israel had been baptized as a nation at the Red Sea. The Messiah would baptize many nations (Isaiah 52:15). To be sure, the method of doing this today is by baptizing individuals and households, but the goal is baptized nations.
Fourth, the position of these men is Judaizing. The notion of a remnant is taken from the period before Jesus, when in-deed there was but a remnant. To persist in thinking in remnant terms in the New Creation times is to cling to the Old, and is a Judaizing evil. Since these men are Judaizers, it is no surprise that they spend their time seeking out reasons to divide from other Christians and to set up separate tables (Gal. 2:11-12).
Fifth, the position of these men gives Satan the last laugh, or at least the penultimate one. No wonder they reject N. T. Wright, author of Jesus and the Victory of God. God has no victory. Satan wins. At the end, Satan gets to stand up and sneer: “Well, Jesus! All power? All authority? And yet you still couldn’t pull it off, could you? Some Messiah! Ha! Hahaha!” That’s what these two chaps on the “Warfield list” believe is going to happen at the end of history. I don’t think so.
Sixth, the charge that “men who love power” might find their way into the Kingdom if we try to disciple the nations is so astonishing that one’s jaw drops to the floor. Do these men actually think that “men who love power” do not seek power in the PCA today? Do they think that their pietistic, remnant-amil, Judaizer-infested churches have no “men who love power”?
Finally, since Jesus has been installed as King of the world, Christendom is precisely what the kingdom consists of. This rejection of Christendom is a rejection of the entire history of the Christian religion from its beginning up until about 100 years ago. The victory of the anabaptist pietist dropout mentality is very recent.
Now, with this introduction, I think we can begin to understand the reaction against the “Federal Vision”.
Amillennialism is the default position in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches today. As we have seen above, it was not always so. When Calvin did theology, his fundamental concern was with social order and the restoration of social order: the order between the triune God and human society, between people and people, etc. (See Benjamin Charles Milner, Jr., Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church. Studies in the History of Christian Thought 5 [Leiden: Brill, 1970].) Nor is this concern with order unique to Calvin’s overall theological approach. It was a characteristic of all Renaissance-period thinkers, and indeed had been how theology was done from the time of Irenaeus forward, including Eusebius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and all the Reformers. All were concerned with Jesus Christ’s restoration of order to all of life. The notion that Jesus came only to cherry-pick a few individuals out of the world and put them in a basket, leaving the rest of the world to flames, would have appalled them.
Doing theology in a context of social thought and with a concern for social order did not stop with the Reformation. The men at the Westminster Assembly were concerned with the same matters. After all, they met during the English Civil War, a time when they were trying to reorder all of society. Samuel Rutherford’s political treatise Lex, Rex; or The Law and the Ruler begins in its opening paragraph by referring to a whole list of Roman Catholic writers who were also wrestling with the same issues. I mention this because one objection to “Federal Vision” writers is that they dare to read Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox theologians and thinkers! Anyway, one need only read the literature of the Presbyterians and Puritans in England and New England to realize that they did theology in a context of postmillennial expectations and of concern with society.
This is not how amillennialists do theology today.
If you believe that the work of Jesus Christ is designed only to save some individuals out of the world, then what happens to the five characteristics of historic Christianity with which we began this essay?
1. The Bible is given to help us mature and grow up as images of God so that we take dominion wisely over all of life. No. We are not supposed to take dominion. That’s the wicked “Dominion Theology” and “Christian Reconstruction.” (It’s also the historic Christian faith.) Now, what this means for these amillennialists is that about 75% of the Bible disappears from relevance. All that is left may be, for some, a mystical thing called “common grace” or “natural law.”
2. The Bible is also given, because of Satan’s rebellion, to teach us holy war against principalities and powers. No. There’s no holy war. There’s no “covenant history.” There’s only “redemptive history.” Another big slice of the Bible disappears from relevance.
3. The Bible is also given, because of Adam’s rebellion, to show us the history of redemption. Okay, we can keep this part, but only some of it because we reject the next point:
4. Because God is Three and One, so is human society, and so the history of redemption is not just about the salvation of individuals but also about the salvation of societies. No. Salvation is only for individuals. All that matters is the ordo salutis, the so-called “golden chain” of how God elects individuals and then does certain things for individuals. Another hunk of the Bible just disappeared. We have reduced the whole of the Bible to nothing but how certain elect people get cherry-picked for salvation.
5. Jesus Christ has been given all power and authority, and has commanded His people to disciple all nations, promising to be with them and strengthen them by His Spirit until this has been accomplished. No. That’s not going to happen. Satan will get the last laugh in history..
Now, having reduced everything in the Christian faith to matters of individual salvation (for a few), the remnant-amils are compelled to force the entire Bible through this small hole. This is very important for considering the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” as well as “Christian Reconstruction” of old and “Federal Vision” of today. If someone says, “It looks to me as if in this or that passage Paul is really talking about the change in history and in civilization, and not about how individuals get saved for heaven,” this cannot be allowed. No. Paul must be speaking only about personal salvation, because that is all there is.
Now, this is relevant to the “Federal Vision” because the “Federal Vision” is a conversation carried out among people who hold to the five aspects of the Christian tradition that I’ve laid out in this essay. That’s why the “Federal Vision” smells wrong to today’s Calvinists, because today’s Calvinists by and large reject these five aspects and hold to another religious paradigm, a religious model consisting exclusively of ordo salutis (order of salvation) questions concerning individuals. “Federal Vision” people read a number of passages differently, and are open to other views of certain passages, because they have a large and wide paradigm and are not forced to take everything in an individualistic sense.
This amil paradigm is an aspect of Western liberalism. Individualism as a perspective has been developing in Western thought for a number of centuries. When Descartes says, “I can doubt that I exist, therefore I exist,” he reduces everything to the individual. When Rosenstock-Huessy counters, “Others speak to me, and that’s how I know I exist,” he is rejecting that individualism in favor of a Christian view of reality. But Descartes is still more with us than is Rosenstock-Huessy, and so is individualism. The gut-level individualism of Western thought is much involved in how remnant-amils do theology, and indeed, involved in why they are instinctively amils in the first place.
Now, I have to say that obviously there are people who take an amillennial view of Biblical prophecy who don’t really want to be hyperindividualists. They want to see God dealing with churches, at least, as well as with individuals. They may think that national discipleship is partly possible here and there, even if Jesus will fail in His attempt to disciple all nations. They may be optimistic-amils instead of remnant-amils. I’m happy for such inconsistencies, though I should like for all such people to return to the historic Christian faith.
Nonetheless, individualistic amillennialism is the order of the day in how Reformed theology is done and how the Bible is read and studied. This is “how Reformed theology is done nowadays,” and is a huge part of the reason why the “Federal Vision” is so controversial.