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Jesu, Juva

Federal vision

with 2 comments

A friend passed along this article by Steven Wellum from last April on the federal vision.

In theology there are a great many pairs and triads of truths that we hold in harmony: for example, there is one God who exists in three persons; Jesus is fully God and fully man; we are justified by faith alone, but the faith by which we are justified is not alone; we have been saved (Romans 8:24, Ephesians 2:5-8), we are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:2), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9, 1 Corinthians 3:15). Here are two beautiful examples of this theological harmony from the Westminster confession:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1)

God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. (WCF 11.4)

I love the phrases that John Frame and Vern Poythress use to describe this multifaceted way of thinking: perspectival theology and symphonic theology. There are always many things going on at once in God’s revelation and his works.

Of course, from time to time theology goes lopsided and we must take up a defense of one or another of the voices in each harmony. Trinitarian heresies are a particular great example of this. At other times we must defend the harmonies themselves from the idea that clarity is unimportant, lest they become a muddy theological mush where nothing really matters.

Sadly, it is also a temptation to become overscrupulous and suspicious of one another. Someone who loves the beauty of salvation by faith alone and grace alone may be veering antinomian, or they may be rejoicing in real truth. Someone who considers God’s commandments to be sweeter than honey may be a budding legalist, or they may be rejoicing in real truth that lights the way of life. There are real battles to be fought against antinomianism and legalism; and it is even true that someone may be falling into error unwittingly and in spite of good intentions, and need rescue from it; but there is also real delight to be had in drinking deeply of both the freedom of grace and the perfection of God’s law. Knowing which situation we are dealing with calls for wisdom.

I think that a failure to read one another charitably—the instinct to jump to “either-or” rather than “both-and”—is involved in much of the controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd, the New Perspective, and the Federal Vision. Even if one does not fully accept any of these as a whole package, I believe they have made a valuable contribution to theology.

This is a great over-simplification, but I suggest we could touch on some of the differences Wellum mentions as follows:

  • Credobaptists especially appreciate God’s internal and extraordinary work in a believer, while paedobaptists especially appreciate God’s external and ordinary work in a believer. Credobaptists want to stress the importance of calling our children to faith, while paedobaptists—especially paedocommunionists—want our children to have confidence in Jesus’s glad and ready welcoming of their childlike faith.
  • Contemporary paedobaptists want to be able to say to a brother, “examine yourself as to whether you are in the faith.” Federal vision proponents want to be able to say to a brother, “do not fear, your sins are forgiven, and you are among the elect of God.”
  • “Amber lager” federal vision proponents treasure the initial work of the Spirit in our salvation; “dark stout” federal vision proponents treasure the ongoing work of the Spirit in our salvation especially through the church.
  • The traditional perspective on Paul wants to preserve the truth that salvation by our own obedience or merit is impossible. The new perspective on Paul wants to recognize that other forms of spiritual pride are deadly as well, and maybe we should develop a taxonomy of spiritual pride rather than forcing it all to fit in one box.
  • Those who emphasize the imputation of Jesus’s active obedience rightly want to protect against smuggling our own merit into our salvation. Those who de-emphasize imputation rightly want to remind us that salvation is not a distant impersonal transaction, and remind us that we receive so much more than merit in receiving Jesus himself; as Piper says, “Jesus is the gospel.” See also Packer and Murray effusing on our glorious union with Jesus.
  • Those who emphasize a covenant of works want to preserve the uniqueness of how Jesus redeems us from sin. Those who emphasize a continuity between the covenants want to preserve the truth that every covenant is a gracious, undeserved, unilateral gift from God, whatever its terms or administration, and whether it involves redemption or only testing and maturation. “In everything give thanks.”

Of course, if we are thinking rightly, we appreciate, agree with, and seek to harmonize both poles of each point above. We can appreciate the harmonious voices provided by one another without having to agree with the interpretation of every single scripture, or agree with every single implication and choice of terminology.

Addressing some of Wellum’s specific concerns, I would say:

  • I have read several of the rejections of the federal vision (e.g., PCA, OPC, Guy Waters) and I find they have generally failed to appreciate how federal vision proponents are attempting the kind of gospel-faithful harmonizations that I suggest above. More than that, I think the federal vision proponents have advanced a great deal of evidence that they are continuing in a line of faithful covenant theology, at times even contrary to their opponents (e.g., I think it is a mistake to associate R. Scott Clark with traditional covenant theology).
  • It is inescapable for us to have to develop a theology that harmonizes objectivity and subjectivity, assurance and apostasy, promise and warning. You may not come out of this with a systematic theology that describes two kinds of election (although Calvin does!) but you must have some kind of language for it nonetheless. I believe the federal vision proponents do justice to both sides of these coins while in some cases their opponents do not. In fact, one of the motivations of the federal vision is the desire to speak both promises and warnings with their full force as pastoral wisdom requires.
  • We must admit that modern systematic theology uses “regeneration” in a different way from the Bible and from the reformers. It is perfectly normal for systematic theology to develop precise definitions for words that the Bible uses in a different or broader way (e.g., “salvation”) or for words that do not appear in the Bible at all (e.g., “Trinity”). But in the case of “regeneration,” the waters run deep, because they cover whole the landscape of church, kingdom, covenant, and eschatology. Thus, many will have very different opinions, and this area is ripe for misunderstanding—but I personally find no one advancing the kind of baptismal regeneration that we all rightly reject. On the other hand, it is truly a great and glorious thing for our little ones to be admitted to the covenant and church, to the household of the Spirit—to what some call the regeneration.
  • I am convinced that Jesus wants his little ones to participate in the Supper (Is it not the consistent testimony of the church throughout history that they will be seated at Jesus’s table if they die? Why do we deny them this admission here and now?) but it is strange to me that as a credobaptist Wellum is especially concerned about this. Usually the lack of paedocommunion is a “gotcha” employed by credobaptists against inconsistent paedobaptists.
  • It is a common accusation that paedobaptists import Israel into the church, the old covenants into the new. Far from this, I have found that what they are doing is recognizing just how much new-covenant grace is shot through the old covenants. No one was ever saved apart from faith, grace, Jesus, and the regenerating work of his Spirit. All of these things are fruit of Jesus’s work in the new covenant but were still the only way of salvation in the old covenants. The truly spiritual nature of the old covenants and of circumcision (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:16) should rightly force us to rethink some of the ways we have claimed the new covenant is unique.

I’ve benefited greatly from the work of many of the FV men and have great affection for them. I consider myself a federal vision “dark stout,” but I love my brothers of other persuasions, because they are my brothers and because we believe and hold to a common gospel.

See also my notes on Believer’s Baptism, for which Wellum was a contributor.

Written by Scott Moonen

July 11, 2021 at 3:16 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] pair of things that we must hold together is the distinction between sin and foolishness, or between salvation and […]

  2. […] The fact that the old covenants are not only shot through with grace, but also founded on faith in the work of Jesus, and involve the life-giving work of the Spirit, is also profoundly important. This casts the old covenants in a very different light. […]


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