Musings on Federal Vision
Below is a review of two articles articulating the basics of Federal Vision. The first article is a short one by Peter Leithart, which also has two other short articles that go along with it. The other two articles deal with an "identity" crisis and the question of who gets to defined what "Reformed" is, neither of which are really what I'm concerned about specifically. The other article is a lengthy one, and I've only interacted with the part that deals with articulating what is Federal Vision. The rest of the article I may get to, but for now I'm sticking with the basics of the viewpoint.
Leithart: Systems & sub-systems
1. The issue of time & eternity. Leithart recognizes that God’s eternality and determination imply that God knows the reprobate as such throughout the existence of the reprobate’s life regardless of what sort of circumstances occur within the reprobate’s life, such as a confession of faith, brief evidences of fruit, etc. Yet his qualifications of “hear and believe the gospel for a time,” “really taste the Spirit and the powers of the age to come,” and “real, if rocky, relationship with God in Christ” are left undefined. In what sense can it be said truly that God shows “grace” to the reprobate? Is it really grace, for example, when God provides the reprobate with a taste of His Word such that the reprobate attempts to abide in God’s commandments and so reaps the blessings of the positive consequences of godly behavior—is this grace when we consider that the reprobate’s ultimate rejection of these “graces” means an increase in the outpouring of God’s wrath upon him? Any attempt to put aside the eschatological implications or significance of every aspect of an individual’s existence is not only narrow-sighted, but denies the very point Leithart would grant—that God is determining the ends from the beginning. If God has chosen to categorically hate from eternity those whom He reprobates, then even the apparent blessings of the earthly life of the reprobate are expressions of God’s wrath upon the reprobate in the form of stored up wrath. To argue that this “temporal” view is reprobation “sung in a different key” is actually a “colorful” way of affirming the contradiction that God is gracious and wrathful toward the ones He hates—it is a denial (by implication) of the eternality of God’s dispositions toward men.
2. Leithart says that the “register” of the doctrine of man is different between FV and the Alternative Reformed View (henceforth ARV) while the doctrine itself is the same. The ARV’s “substance” view is opposed to the FV’s “radically relational” view. The problem with this dichotomy is that it can easily be rendered false by a simple proposition. Leithart says that “a substance view would say that human beings are what they are because of God’s purposes and acts,” which in itself does not imply what he says next: “But even there, the person’s connections with other humans does not significantly affect or determine who or what he is.” If God’s purposes and acts determine what is man, then are not God’s “purposes and acts” of placing a man in “radical relation” to other men an expression rather than a denial of the “substance” view as Leithart described it initially? Why should we set up a dichotomy between God’s purposes and actions in the abstract and God’s instantiation of those purposes and acts in history through the various relations of life? I think we can recognize in Leithart’s false dichotomy many contemporary Reformed thinkers, or even contemporary Reformed congregants, but that is not to fault the doctrines themselves, but those who have misunderstood and therefore misapplied them. What is needed is not a new understanding or significance of baptism and communion, but rather an understanding that is consistent with what is already recognized as true—as opposed to the oft-contradictory beliefs and practices of modern Presbyterians (to use an easy example) that do not operate faithfully to the more abstract doctrines, which they affirm. The problem, it seems to me, is not in the formulation of doctrine, but in the understanding of doctrine.
3. I agree with Leithart on the ultimate futility of a natural/supernatural distinction, for it seems to imply that there exists a category in which the supernatural (God) is inactive, which is impossible. However, it is important to recognize that there is a difference in how God acts within redemptive history. Distinctions between God’s special activity and His sustaining activity—distinctions within the economy of God’s activity in history—are necessary and helpful. This is especially true when we consider “grace” in its normal soteriological sense, as opposed to the broad sense in which Leithart seems to wish to use it. If we take “grace” so broadly as to include ALL of God’s activity in Creation with no distinctions, then we have divested grace of all meaning and made it synonymous with all of God’s activity toward man. But this is untenable when we recognize that God acts from a disposition of wrath toward the reprobate and a disposition of love (and therefore grace) toward the elect.
Minich: Within the Bounds of Orthodoxy
1. The Objectivity of God’s Covenant People. We run into the same problem that Leithart exhibits in Minich’s explanation of the FV view of Covenant. If God is eternal and His dispositions are unchanging, then asserts a contradiction to declare that God “loves” or “unites to Himself” to those whom He ultimately “hates” and “divides from Himself.” If we are going to affirm that God’s covenant is only for the elect, and the elect are only those chosen from before the foundation of the world, then the validity of the covenant can only be identified with the elect. Yet this does not imply that there is no sense in which the reprobate may enter into covenant with God, nor that the term “elect” may be applied in different and broader sense (Israel was an “elect” nation, without all its members being “elect” for justification from eternity). The very fact that God holds the nations accountable to the Law is evidence that all men owe God something by law, and the covenant (though not exhaustively defined by legal terms) is essentially a forensic agreement.
Admitting this lays me open to the charge of reducing “covenant” to the same category as “law”—a charge I leveled against Leithart with regard to the term “grace.” The distinction comes in recognizing that covenant also bears a special meaning—and this is where the FV debate really has merit (no pun intended) in raising the question of how Christians who are ultimately reprobate are to be understood within the blessings and cursings of the Covenant of Christ. I think it is helpful to use the analogy of the Law here. Just as all men are obligated to obey God’s Law, not all men are made capable of obedience. What makes a man capable of obedience? As Augustine affirmed, taking his cue from Paul, who took his cue from the OT, it is only by God’s providing the grace to obey that anyone is made able to obey. This grace is given in the vital union with Christ and the gift of the Spirit—a grace that is grounded in individual’s eternal union with Christ on the basis of God’s election of the individual from eternity. So the grounds are from eternity, applied in time through the new birth, and made complete in glorification at the end of the Age.
More distinctions are required, for how is it that some can “taste of the heavenly gift and share in the Holy Spirit” and yet be reprobate? I don’t think that the author of Hebrews is declaring anything other than the objective aspects of being in the community of Christ’s Body and in the presence of His Word in Scripture and the Sacraments. The participation in these tangible marks of Christianity do not necessitate that God has indeed graced the individual as one elect unto Christ from eternity. Yet they are experiences of God’s more explicit self-revelation, just as the Israelites having been given the Law was a special experience not afforded to the Gentile nations. Note well that when Jesus tells his disciples how to identify truth from error in the Church, he does not point to baptism and the covenant meal, but rather to fruit in keeping with repentance. If by apostasy Minich is including not only denials of doctrine but also rejection of the law in the believer’s practice, then perhaps we are in more agreement than disagreement on this point. Still, one must be careful not to overrealize the signs of the Covenant (baptism and communion) as though they confer God’s eternal favor to all who profess to take them by faith. The Church must treat such professions as genuine, and any ecclesiology that tries to identify subjective realities is usurping the authority of the Spirit, but to make the signs identical to what they signify is to both undermine their nature as signs and to involve God in a contradiction in his dispositions toward men. The issue in this section may be the fact that the way terms were defined in the Reformers has shifted dramatically in the present—this makes sense as the present age struggles mightily with making categorical distinctions. The objective nature of the Covenant is where I find the most helpful aspects of the FV, but it is also where one must be the most careful in explaining one’s terms, for just as when evangelicals used the term “salvation” to mean the definitive act of regeneration, whereas the Reformers included justification and sanctification under the same term, so too many Reformed folks today limit the term “election” and “union with Christ” to the indwelling of God’s Spirit unto life, rather than in the fuller sense of the observable or objective standing of those in Covenant with Christ by profession and/or household baptism.
2. The sacraments. Again, I am very sympathetic to the FV position with regard to the purpose and significance of the sacraments. Baptism is a mark of citizenship in the Kingdom of God, which means that—objectively speaking—one has been freed of one type of legal debt (slavery to sin) to be placed under a new legal debt (slavery to Christ). How am I to know that I am a Christian? Why, because I have been marked by the brand of the King in baptism! It is a call to be what you have been called out to be. That many will ultimately prove imposters is no threat to either the sign or the promise of God, for the promise of God is general not universal, or, it does not extend to every particular individual within a category. That God saves the remnant of Israel is proof that His promise is yes and amen, notwithstanding the fact that His promise is stated generally to “all Israel.” So too the promise of God “to the nations.” God saves all nations generally, not all nations universally. God’s promise is to you and your children and to all who are far off generally, but not universally. The Christian can be confident that God’s promises are for his children, while not shirking the normative means by which God has commanded in order to call our His children from death to life. But if one is to acknowledge and even emphasize the objective nature of the sacraments, then one must also doubly emphasize the evidence of fruit in the life of the believer—for this will be the confirmation that one is abiding in the reality that the signs (baptism and communion) are signifying.
3. The Unity of God’s Gracious Covenant. Minich’s opposition of legal and personal or relational has the odor of false dichotomy. Modern connotations of law are essentially negative and impersonal, but there is no cause to reject the identification of love and law. Rather, the Scripture affirms that love is revealed in law, and law is fulfilled by love. David loved God’s law because he recognized that God’s law is an expression of God’s love for His people. Calvin’s recognition and emphasis upon the primary use of the Law as a guiding light for the believer in the pursuit of godliness is sorely ignored in modern theology. Reconstructionism is, in my opinion, the best understanding of the Law as it relates to God and to man—it is God’s expression of the nature of His relationship to man, and His expectations for how man is to love God. Christ willingly, joyfully submitted to the Father’s commands because these commands were the bonds of love. We all inherently recognize the necessity of boundaries for our relationships because boundaries define what is safe or unsafe, just or unjust, loving or unloving, in how we express ourselves and interact with one another. Boundaries are laws. Thus, to say that the Covenant is legal, but also personal is really bordering on tautology.
Law is pervasive, for law is really the means for defining what relationship exists. The FV gets it right, though, in recognizing that there is no merit in human fidelity to God’s commands. We can speak of Christ meriting favor with God by His fidelity, but even this obscures the fact that Christ’s obedience was really nothing more or less Christ’s being what He was by nature: one with God. We must recognize that although Adam was created “perfect” in the sense that he was sinless and made according to God’s design, this does not mean that Adam was complete in the sense of his being the full expression of the image of God. Christ is the express image of God, and Adam was but the prototype to the real paradigm. Adam is incomplete because he is made positionally righteous, but not ontologically righteous—Adam is not created in sin, but created with the capacity for sinning. Christ is not only born sinless, but is ontologically incapable of sinning by virtue of His being God, who is sinless by nature, and not simply by status. If we take merit to mean simply that there is an entitlement to blessing by virtue of having met the law’s demands we have no problems. The problems arise when we try to identify from when the power to obey arises. Clearly the power to obey must come either by an inherent nature, or by imposition from an external nature. Human nature is not empowered to obey apart from the imposition of God’s own nature—for God alone is incapable of sinning. Thus only the God-man is a human nature inherently empowered to obey. When we have been glorified, we will be partakers of the divine nature completely (this is the best meaning for what the Church Fathers said when they said man’s purpose was “divinization”), whereas now we are partakers partly in the payout, and partly in trust—we await the redemption of our bodies.
4. Christ-centeredness of the Gospel. I don’t see anything particularly different in this section from the previous ones concerning the objectivity of the Covenant and the sacraments. One’s justification is manifest in the fruit one exhibits. If there is not fruit, then one has not been justified. This does not imply that the fruit is what confers justification, but rather that fruit is the necessary consequence of justification. Again, this is a classical Reformed distinction. Where I differ from both FV and most ARV proponents is in my view of justification as eternal. Justification is an act of God, accomplished only by God, and categorized as a disposition of God (God disposes Himself toward me in love in election, and thereby disposes Himself to me in grace and mercy in Christ, which requires God to dispose Himself to me as one who is just—for God will not unite Himself to evil). The legal fact of justification for the elect is eternal, for our inclusion as heirs with Christ is eternal. The historical fact of justification is at the cross, where Jesus pays the penalty for sins, bears the wrath of God to satisfy His righteousness or justice, and secure for the believer the application of soteriological benefits when God calls him forth from death to life in regeneration. Faith, as the instrument of justification, is entirely passive and publishes the declaration of justification to the conscience of the believer, by which he may subsequently publish to the world by confession that “I too am a partaker in the cross of Christ, which secures my righteousness before God.” The believer cannot declare “I am justified because my faith has apprehended” without the object of faith being also asserted, “that is, apprehended that my debt was paid to God by Christ’s propitiation on the cross.” God has already justified the believer in Christ, which is temporally prior to the believer’s apprehension by faith, just as God’s legal decision to punish Christ and so justify us was made in Christ’s agreement to suffer for the elect in eternity—hence the Scripture’s affirmation that Christ was crucified from before the foundation of the world. A friend of mine distinguishes the two aspects of justification as “objective” (eternal justification) and “subjective” (justification as it is apprehended by faith). This same friend says that we are justified by faith alone because we have been given faith by justification alone.
5. Speaking God’s words to God’s people. I find little value in the distinction of the “phenomenological” language of the Scripture and the “language of abstraction.” Scripture speaks in concrete and abstract terms, and the old standard recognition of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms as God’s condescension to human incapacities is much preferable. The point about theological formulations being limited by their historical context OUGHT to be obvious to anyone who has had a conversation with one person in one situation only to have a conversation on the same matter with someone else in a different situation be quite distinct, while expressing something quite identical in meaning. Unfortunately people don’t like to think contextually and they’d rather just affirm what someone else has said before doing the work of translation into a new situation. Again, the analogy of Law is helpful. Theology is a science for determining universal truths or principles concerning God, Man, and their relations, yet application of general principles is accommodated to the specifics or particulars that alternate or differ from one point in time to another. The command, “thou shalt not commit murder” implied in Ancient Israel that Israelites build fences on their roofs, for people hanging out on roofs needed to be protected from the harm of falling. Insofar as a culture no longer walks about on rooftops for social interaction, they don’t need that application of the law anymore, but will need another—another that Israelites may not have needed. So too some emphases of theology find a different or more acute application during one period and place in time than another, but the truth of the principle remains unchanged. Living “trinitarianly” in downtown metropolis will have different practices than in rural Prairieville, but they’ll both have the same principles. The point is that God’s words to God’s people are flexible and fixed: flexible in the sense that their expression may look different in one time and place than another (Israel describes God as a shepherd, which meant a whole lot more than just tending sheep in the Ancient world, though today that is about all it means), but the principles or “abstract” meanings are what must remain fixed as the expressions are adjusted to new contexts.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m continuing to familiarize myself with ideas, while seeking to avoid falling into the inconsistencies that crop up in how different people express themselves differently. I welcome any corrections, corroborations, or general comments. My biggest problem with FV, as far as I’ve been able to discern its arguments, is in its attempt to attribute grace and union with Christ to the reprobate. It is folly to argue that God can give grace (love) in time to those He hates from eternity, or unite Himself in time to what He has disunited Himself to from eternity. These sort of things pit God against Himself, and add nothing by way of clarity to the relationship between the elect and reprobate within the Church. On the human level, a union with Christ applied to both elect and reprobate alike destroys the possibility of the assurance of salvation for the elect—the doctrine of perseverance is undercut. If the elect are united to Christ and the reprobate are united to Christ, then upon what are the elect able to base their assurance that they are Christ’s truly, and not falsely? The Scriptures are clear that we may know the hope that is within us is certain—that God is our God who loves us eternally, died for us, and will bring us home to Him through all the pains and toils of this present life. Without an assurance of these truths for ourselves, then God’s promise does little to free our consciences of His wrath toward us.