Monday, May 28, 2012

Understanding the “Federal Vision”

In light of the recent articles I’ve posted, commenting on a couple of Peter Leithart’s articles, I found this article by Dr Alan Strange, a professor at Mid-America Theological Seminary, which provides a brief overview of the history and theologies of the “Federal Vision” advocates. I know that reams and reams have been written about this topic, but it’s still rumbling around “out there” (and maybe even a little closer to home), and it never hurts to have a bit of background on these things.

The movement that has come to be known as the “Federal Vision” came to the attention of many in Presbyterian and Reformed circles following a pastor’s conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, in January 2002. The word federal means “covenantal.” Federal Vision proponents seek to revitalize and develop the doctrines of the covenant and the church.

There are some legitimate concerns that the Federal Vision has raised, especially in our current ecclesiastical context. Being afflicted as we are, in this land, with a low view of the church, the Federal Vision proponents strike significant chords in support of a high view of the means of grace and of the visible church. They eschew a view of the church that would stress the invisible at the expense of the visible and that would exalt the individual and the subjective above the corporate and the objective. They rightly observe that much of the church is afflicted with a low view of the means of grace (especially preaching and the sacraments), the obligation to live holy lives, and the inseparability of justification and sanctification. The solution to these problems, however, lies in the historic Reformed faith at its best. While even Reformed and Presbyterian churches may suffer from what ails the broader body of evangelical churches, they do so not because of their theology but in spite of it.

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. The proponents of the whole Federal Vision program routinely seek a theological fix for problems that ought to be addressed pastorally. It seems to be thought that the problems must reflect shortcomings in Reformed theology, when in fact they reflect shortcomings in Reformed practice. There’s nothing wrong with our theology, except that we fail to live up to it. Our standards are not deficient; rather, our deportment is. Too often we fail to be in practice who we truly are in Christ. The solution to lives that are not what they should be is not theological reformulation, as Federal Vision proponents would claim, but faithful living within our already well-developed theological system. It is the best expression of Scripture that the church has, by God’s guidance and grace, developed thus far.

Twenty errors that are held by one or more advocates of the Federal Vision are listed in the conclusion of the report of the OPC’s Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification:

1.       Pitting Scripture and Confession against each other.
2.       Regarding the enterprise of systematic theology as inherently rationalistic.
3.       A mono-covenantalism that sees one covenant, originating in the intra-Trinitarian fellowship, into which man is invited, thus flattening the concept of covenant and denying the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
4.       Election as primarily corporate and eclipsed by covenant.
5.       Seeing covenant as only conditional.
6.       A denial of the covenant of works and of the fact that Adam was in a relationship with God that was legal as well as filial.
7.       A denial of a covenant of grace distinct from the covenant of works.
8.       A denial that the law given in Eden is the same as that more fully published at Mt. Sinai and that it requires perfect obedience.
9.       Viewing righteousness as relational, not moral.
10.   A failure to make clear the difference between our faith and Christ’s.
11.   A denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in our justification.
12.   Defining justification exclusively as the forgiveness of sins.
13.   The reduction of justification to Gentile inclusion.
14.   Including works (by use of “faithfulness,” “obedience,” etc.) in the very definition of faith.
15.   Failing to affirm an infallible perseverance and the indefectibility of grace.
16.   Teaching baptismal regeneration.
17.   Denying the validity of the concept of the invisible church.
18.   An overly objectified sacramental efficacy that downplays the need for faith and that tends toward an ex opere operato [automatically effective] view of the sacraments.
19.   Teaching paedocommunion.
20.   Ecclesiology that eclipses and swallows up soteriology.

Some of these points, to be sure, warrant elaboration more than others….


  1. Hey John,

    This is a great article. It really helps to explain what all this FV stuff is about.

    BTW, what is this stuff:


  2. BTW, what is this stuff:



  3. I think he's referring to some of the code that appears at the bottom of the post.