(Reformed) Christianity and (Quasi-Reformed) Revisionism

In his brilliant work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), J. Gresham Machen called for the “liberals” (many of whom could just as aptly be called broad evangelicals) to be honest about their views and to leave the Presbyterian Church. Thirteen years later, it was Machen who was unceremoniously tossed out via a kangaroo ecclesiastical court.

Today the Reformed churches are not faced so much with “liberalism,” per se but with a revisionism fueled by a sort of creeping rationalism (chiefly by identifying the thing signified with the sign and an over-realized eschatology) that poses as if it were more post-whatever than thou. Of course the Federal Vision folks reject out of hand this characterization and failure to recognize the genuine nature of the threat also plagues some of the critics of the Federal Vision who persist in using the “liberal v conservative” paradigm.

The question with which I’m struggling now and with which I have struggled for some time is how to relate to the revisionists. Clearly they are revisionists. They have a movement that expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo. They have named themselves. They have conferences and books under the banner “Federal Vision,” and yet, when it’s to their rhetorical advantage, they flee to nominalism and deny that there is any such thing a “Federal Vision” movement really. Remarkable stuff. It’s a complex movement with radicals who chuck openly the doctrine (apparently any doctrine – i.e., Rich Lusk) of imputation and more moderate (according to the OPC report) Federal Visionists, e.g., Doug Wilson.

For example, Wilson has invited me to debate and I’ve said no. Now he’s posted on my blog asking to talk. I’m not sure how to react. On an academic level, it would be interesting. There are aspects to this whole business that are fascinating. I dashed off a quick series of some of questions that I think are central to the disagreement and Doug posts what I assume are quick answers that raise as many questions as answers. On the other hand, having spent parts of the last three years editing and contributing to a large book on this stuff, I’m tired of it. I’ve read their stuff. I’ve thought about it. I’m done. My job now is to try to help as many orthodox folk as I can not to fall into the pit of the FV.

So, this post isn’t about the substance of the debate but about how a confessionally Reformed minister should relate to ministers and others who pose a grave threat to the well being of the Reformed churches. Some have written open letters (the act of posting open letters seems a tired way to give gravity to one’s ideas) and posts to this blog telling me to talk to Doug and others have written with (Farel-esque!) strongly worded exhortations not to talk. So here are the things I’m considering:

1. Doug was among those who participated in a colloquium a few years ago (that was published as The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons. Still there is confusion about his views.

2. Doug met with Mike Horton and Kim Riddlebarger a few years ago in Escondido. Confusion and doubt remains.

3. Doug was interviewed by Mike Horton (and vice versa) and still there is confusion, doubt, and even suspicion.

4. The Mississippi Valley Presbytery published serious criticisms and Doug dismissed the entire Presbytery with a sweep of an electronic hand.

5. John Fesko has engaged Doug in a serious review of Reformed is Not Enough [See The New Southern Presbyterian Review 1/2 (2003): 131-36]. To what sort of response?

6. He has been substantively criticized in the very thorough OPC Report. Response? Change? Repentance?

7. Just for round numbers, don’t forget that the faculties of Westminster Seminary California, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and Knox Theological Seminary, just to name three, have all reached the same conclusions about the Federal Vision movement. Say what you want about Clark, but Cornel Venema? I haven’t mentioned others such as Lig Duncan , Rick Phillips, and Guy Waters.

Some of the FV fellows would have us believe that none of these critics really understands the movement. Really? Ontologically possible yes, but not a very plausible explanation. Some of my FV critics seem to think that I have nothing better to do than to interact with them. Really? I have a ton of serious work on my desk. I would much rather be translating Olevianus (whom the FV folk would find terribly Lutheran on justification if they read him) on Romans than writing yet another post on the FV.

Anyway, after a series of conversations and attempts by folk brighter than I and after criticisms by Presbyteries and confessional Reformed denominations, Doug has yet to repent or recant of anything. Some correspondents claim that it’s all just a big misunderstanding, but I don’t think they account adequately for the attempts at dialogue and/or correction.

Then there are the inconsistencies. Doug wants to be regarded as just another “presbyterian” minister, but he’s not in a Presbyterian church; just a minor thing, but worth noting. He’s in a federation which confesses infant baptism and the Baptist view and he’s in a federation which is becoming the de facto home of the Federal Vision movement.

Then there is the matter of Reformed is Not Enough. The title alone is prima facie warrant for concern, and not a helpful way to proceed by a fellow who feels misunderstood. This book was not a promising start to becoming just another Presbyterian minister. The subtitle and substance of the book was equally provocative and problematic from a confessional Reformed point of view. The whole premise of his argument of “objectivity” in the covenant is flawed. In his post to this blog he claims Calvin taught a temporary union etc, without acknowledging the crucial distinction that Wilson denies and Calvin taught: the internal/external distinction which I discussed at length in the essay in the Confessional Presbyterian.

The bottom line is that I do not believe that I misunderstand Doug. He’s on a journey. He was an Arminian. Then he moved into the Reformed orbit. I think he signed the Cambridge Declaration. Now he’s passing through the outer fringes of Reformed Christianity toward another orbit. He’s a talented and articulate fellow and I guess he’ll take some folk with him. My goal is to try to help folks see clearly what’s happening and maybe to keep a few of them from following him to whatever star he’s heading.

I think we have a profound disagreement that is irreconcilable. It seems clear to me that the FV fellows don’t really agree with our confessions. That’s okay, except that they don’t have a right to be regarded as Reformed simply because they believe in predestination and are willing to say orthodox words here and there. They clearly disagree with what the confessions mean to say and the way the orthodox, i.e., confessional churches understand them and if the Reformed confessions define what it is to be Reformed, then, whatever it is, the FV isn’t Reformed and it’s in our churches and for folk who still want to be Reformed, that should be alarming.