The question comes concerning the relations between Theonomy and the Federal Vision. There is reason to think that there is some connection between the two movements. several well-known theonomists are also proponents of the FV. One of the FV leaders recently described the current FV controversy as a renewal of the theonomy argument. Interpreters on both sides have seen connection between the two controversies and movements.
There are good reasons for seeing connections between the two movements. Both movements date to the mid-1970s. In the early phase of the argument, Norman Shepherd found much support among theonomists and the FV movement today finds considerable support among theonomists. There are ambiguities, however. There is open debate among theonomists about WWBD? (What would Bahsen do?) Would he support the Federal Vision? Support for Norman Shepherd is a point of connection between the theonomists and the Federal Visionists. In turn Shepherd, though not overtly identified with theonomy, shares their neo-postmillennial eschatology. Further, not all theonomists are Federal Visionists nor are all Federal Visionists theonomists. At least one theonomic denomination (the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the US, not to be confused with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America) has been highly critical of the FV.
Though not identical movements, Theonomy and the Federal Vision movements are analogues. Both movements reflect a similar pathology in the Reformed corpus. Both reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). The FV does it by making the doctrines of covenant, justification, and perseverance, a little more “reasonable,” by reducing the scandal of the cross and the offense of the gospel. As it turns out, according to the FV, it’s not really filthy sinners that Christ justifies, but those who are sanctified, who cooperate with grace. As we’ve seen, in the FV, the sentence “A justified man is sanctified” becomes, “A man is justified because he is sanctified.” The elect, as it turns out, are those who have cooperated with grace. That’s just a little more “sweetly reasonable” than the confessional Protestant alternative.
Theonomy represents another side of the same quest. It offers a kind of ethical precision and a kind of ethical authority that reduces ambiguities to certainties and, on its premises, makes Christian ethics a little more “reasonable.” In contrast, non-theonomic ethics aren’t nearly as attractive. First, we non-theonomists don’t have any catchy slogans. Our ethic, like our eschatology, is paradoxical. Theonomy is attractive because it flattens out the tension between what is and what shall be. For theonomy there is a continuum between the now and the not yet. For non-theonomic amillennialism there is a sharp disjunction between “the now,” or “this age,” and the “not yet,” or “the age to come.” They are two different types of existence. The consummate state exists in heaven and is interjected into this life in small ways, but, for the most part none of us seems to have a plan to bring out the Kingdom of God on the earth. The theonomists definitely have a plan and Americans like a plan. Do most American Dispensationalists really understand the complicated eschatological charts? Probably not, but they do have implicit faith in leaders, that someone has figured out what the news means and what is going to happen.
In contrast, Non-theonomic, Amillennial, types confess that all 613 Mosaic laws were civil, ceremonial, and moral and at the same time, that the moral law, grounded in creation, continues to obligate all creatures before, during, and after Moses. That creational law is a set of general principles (embodied in the Decalogue and in the golden rule and taught throughout Scripture and revealed in nature [Rom 1-2]) not an extensive civil code. Thus, confessional Reformed folk must seek wisdom as they attempt to apply the moral/creational law to difficult civil problems, but without the certainty that any particular application is necessarily is the correct “Christian” application.
Theonomy, however, under the slogan, “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail,” seems to offer “the” Christian answer to difficult problems. Unsure about “the general equity thereof” in a given case? Put the quarter in the slot, pull the handle and out comes the correct ethical and civil answer to one’s particular question. They even have ready-made civil code in Theonomy in Christian Ethics and in the Institutes of Biblical Law.
That both movements came to prominence in conservative Reformed circles at the same time, during the years of the post-Nixon, post-Haight-Ashbury period, the time of disco and cocaine propelled self-indulgence, during the moral “malaise” of the Carter administration, suggests that they may both be reactions to the same stimuli. Neither movement was driven by the Reformed confession. Rather, when these movements were born attention to the Reformed confessions was at a nadir. In an autobiographical passage in his essay, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” John Frame comments that his seminary education wasn’t marked by sustained, focused attention to the Reformed confessions. The attitude of the period seemed to be that as long as one had a high view of Scripture and divine sovereignty, everything else was negotiable. I remember reading things from the period that said, in effect, “we all know what we believe about justification,” let’s get on with applying the Scriptures to every area of life.
Both Theonomy and the Federal Vision are theologically and socially conservative. Both movements have in common a deep concern for the collapse of the culture and our place in it. Some versions of theonomy/reconstructionism envision the culture being gradually regenerated through Christian influence and some expect a cataclysm out of which arises a Reconstructionist phoenix. The FV wants to regenerate the culture through sacerdotalism (baptismal union with Christ whereby all baptized persons are, ex opere operato (Rich Lusk has spoken this way), temporarily, historically, conditionally united to Christ). Both are visions aimed at the restoration of Christendom. One is primarily ecclesiastical and the other primarily civil. These common attitudes, interests, and approaches, however, help explain why so many theonomists have been attracted to the FV and vice-versa.
Update on Monday, January 22, 2007 at 01:12PM
I’m editing a chapter on Olevianus’ Pauline commentaries for a collection of essays on the Reception of Paul in the 16th Century. As part of that project and others, I’m working through Olevianus’ commentary on Romans. There some interesting comments about natural law and the natural knowledge the same.
“Indeed, there was one moral law from all times written on the hearts of men, and then consigned to letters.” (Olevianus, In Epistolam Ad Romanos Notae, Ex Gasparis Oleviani Concionibus Excerptae, 3).
All humans have had “ab Adamo” (since Adam) a natural knowledge of the difference between “honest and dishonest dealings” (honestarum et turpium), ibid.
UPDATE 17 June 2008 The collection of essays on the reception of Paul in the sixteenth-century is to be published around Christmas by Brill. The case for analyzing the pathologies in the Reformed body in terms of QIRC and QIRE is to be published this fall by P&R as Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice.
Since this post first appeared, the FV theology has been roundly rejected by most of the major NAPARC denominations/federations including the PCA, the OPC, the URCNA, the RCUS, and the OCRCs. For an orientation to the FV controversy start with the essay, “For Those Just Tuning In.” There are more FV related resources on my WSC site. For a brief popular explanation of the FV doctrine of baptismal union with Christ see this booklet. For a more thorough treatment of the controversy see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.