Thursday, August 08, 2013

Who, if anyone, is really Reformed?

The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters

The Federal Vision is a movement/theological system/conversation that sparked a controversy in the United States a decade ago, and is still creating ripples here in Australia. This book offers a critique of the Federal Vision.

First of all, Waters – correctly, in my opinion – locates the heart of the Federal Vision in the idea that children of believers are members of the Covenant of Grace (p. 17).

Immediately, it can be seen how this is tapping into an issue on which there has always been a difference of opinion in Reformed circles, and inconsistency among the Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 74) says infants "as well as adults, are included in the covenant and church of God," while Article 34 of the Belgic Confession says "Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults." The Westminster Larger Catechism, however, takes a different view, and says (Q & A 31) that the covenant was made "with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." The Westminster Confession is not explicit on this point.

Waters takes issue with this central thesis of the Federal Vision position, but he does so mainly on the basis of its contravention of the Westminster Standards, and of "Reformed tradition". Waters objects to the Federal Vision using different language, having a different emphasis, and going beyond, not just the Westminster Standards, but Reformed theology.

The reader may well be wondering, however, where is the biblical rebuttal? Waters does refer to two passages (p. 19)  that, he says, speak of "the covenantally unfaithful as those who were never truly members of the covenant of grace in the first place": 1 John 2:19-20 ("They went out from us, but they were not of us") and Matthew 7:22-23 ("Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name... And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’...")

One example of a comparison with the Westminster Standards involves justification. Waters says, "Whereas our Standards speak of justification as an 'act', we have observed formulations that render justification a process" (p. 95). The Larger Catechism (but not the Confession) speaks in this way – "Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight..." (Q & A 70). The Canons of Dort, however, refer to justification as a state - "But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification..." (V.6). So, justification is not merely an act, and Waters appears to be unaware of the broader Reformed tradition at this point.

I was somewhat annoyed by Waters' constant appeal to (what he considers to be) Reformed tradition. Here are some representative quotes:
  • "Lusk appears to invest much more in the connection between justification and resurrection than students of the Standards have hitherto done" (p. 80)
  • "Shepherd undermines the traditional distinction between the church visible and invisible" (p. 102)
  • "Wilson's argument fails to overturn conventional Reformed readings of this passage..." (p. 154)
  • "This is a far stronger principle of covenantal continuity than has been admitted within the historical mainstream of Reformed interpreters" (p. 290)
Waters appeals to the Reformed tradition, but he has a skewed view of what it consists of – on some of these points there have been a rich variety of opinions within Reformed communities. And while interpretive tradition has an important place in the life of the church, Waters seems to believe that anything new in theology must necessarily be wrong.

However, quite apart from the Federal Vision-specific issues, one wonders about Waters' own qualifications to be a defender of Reformed Orthodoxy. He repeatedly talks about how the Federal Visionists reject the idea that grace is a substance (e.g. pp. 62, 171, 182, 214, 261, 295). So the reader is left wondering whether Waters himself believes that it is.

Perhaps, as a sort of thought experiment, we might turn the tables and ask whether in fact Waters is truly Reformed himself. After all, he says (pp 85-86), I have my doubts that "definitive sanctification" is a biblical teaching at all.

Of course, that would be going too far. Firstly, Waters doesn't deny definitive sanctification, he is merely questioning it here. Secondly, it could be that his reticence to use the phrase is merely a matter of terminology. Thirdly, it's not obvious that definitive sanctification is a necessary part of Reformed theology. Fourthly, as Waters indicates, the important thing is whether it is biblical – and to be biblical is to be truly Reformed.

Are the Federal Visionists any less Reformed than Waters? I don't think so. And yet Waters argues that the Federal Vision is not merely a subset of Reformed theology, but constitutes a different system altogether. For my own part, the central idea of the Federal Vision – that the Covenant of Grace is made with believers and their children – is something I've always believed.