For some time the Federal Visionists have been arguing that no one should criticize the Federal Vision until the church courts ruled on it. This is a strange argument since, on that basis Luther couldn’t have replied to Erasmus (the Augsburg wouldn’t exist for 5 years) and Augustine could not have criticized Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism until the Council of Orange (529) — oops! Augustine would have been dead for nearly a century.
We need an historical paradigm for interpreting what is happening in our midst. I’ve criticized other paradigms (Christianity v Liberalism) as failing to account for all the facts. Here’s an alternative: The Arminius Paradigm.
Today we think of the Arminians as “those guys,” over there, because we are mostly ecclesiastically separated from each other. For about 30 years, however, we weren’t separated ecclesiastically. For decades, the Remonstrants (Arminians) were in Reformed congregations and pulpits.
Today a lot of folk just want this controversy to go away. So do I, but they want it to go away without resolution. Folk write to say that we should just shake hands and agree to disagree. I wonder if these same folk would take that view if the question were “women in office” or the length of the creation days or something to do with the culture wars or perhaps the doctrine of predestination? I guess not.
A lot of folk wanted the Arminian controversy to go away too. Some folk did their level best to protect Arminius in the early years and eventually he was elevated to an influential university position where he had opportunity to spread his views to the entire Dutch Reformed Church. He was interviewed by his colleague and there were conferences, but no resolution. Arminius said the right things in conference, but later doubts re-surfaced on the basis of what he was saying to his students.
There was a lot of disagreement over Arminius’ theology. He used Reformed terms and categories. He was learned and articulate and he wasn’t wrong about everything he said. It wasn’t obvious to everyone that there was a problem. Many people thought that he was a faithful Reformed minister and they were thankful for his ministry. As with the FV fellows today, Arminius and his followers claimed to be Reformed, claimed to believe (mostly) the Reformed confessions and complained endlessly that they were being misrepresented. For example, you might think that the controversy was all about predestination. Well, it wasn’t. The Remonstrants were challenging the Reformed faith in a number of ways. You see, Arminius said he believed in justification by faith alone. The question was, what did he mean by faith? As it turns out, what he meant was that that faith has certain intrinsic qualities. So, he agreed formally with the Reformed, but in substance he held a completely different view. He believed in predestination, but he didn’t mean (as we know now) the same thing by the word “predestination” as we do. He meant a conditional election. We teach an unconditional election. He believed in perseverance, but not in the same sort of perseverance we confess. He believed in the atonement, but not in the same way we do.
Confusion reigned until Arminius’ death after which his followers (known as Remonstrants) published his views in Five Points. You didn’t know the Arminians had Five Points? Sure they did. That’s the only reason we published our Five Points. Suddenly, it was evident that the Remonstrants taught the very things of which Arminius had been accused and had repeatedly denied teaching, at least in his interviews with his colleagues. Either an entire system developed in the months after his death or there was an organic connection between the Five Points of the Remonstrants and the things Arminius had been saying. Which explanation do you find more plausible?
Fortunately, the Dutch Reformed Churches did not sit passively nor did they content themselves by saying, “After all, we’re all conservatives. We conservatives need to stick together.” No. They acted like confessional Reformed folk. They not only used the confessions they had (to that point they had the “Two Forms of Unity” the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) and they also did what confessional Reformed people do, they confessed their faith in response to the challenge presented by the Remonstrants. They also did something else very wise: they called together Reformed people from across Europe to come to resolution on this matter in the interests of all the Reformed Churches.
Finally, after about 30 years, they finally brought a conclusion to the Arminian crisis. The Reformed finally came to understand that the Remonstrants were not just nibbling at the edges of doctrinal arcana. They were proposing a subtle but radical recasting of Reformed theology along semi-Pelagian, rationalist lines.
The Remonstrants thought that they had a right to teach their views in the Reformed Churches. The Synod of Dort didn’t buy it and neither should we. Was the Synod of Dort unfair? The Remonstrants, who tried to hijack the proceedings, thought so. Did the Synod of Dort misrepresent the Remonstrants? Was the Synod of Dort mean spiritied? Anyone who thinks so hasn’t read the Canons of Dort. I don’t think that any ecclesiastical doctrinal deliverance has ever been so pastoral.
They weren’t “mean.” They were men. They were ministers fulfilling their obligations as ministers to protect Christ’s flock from ravenous wolves. However hungry they be, most of the time, the wolves don’t come growling and snarling and spitting, at least not in the church. That’s why we speak of “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Wolves tend to talk like like sheep, and act like sheep when it’s to their advantage. What’s their advantage? Proximity to the sheep! Then, when they are close enough, off comes the sheep suit and it’s lunch time. So it is with false teachers. Some are obvious buffoons, like Pat Robertson. Others, like the Federal Visionists are harder to detect and therefore more dangerous.
Could we ever have another Synod of Dort? A few years ago I might not have thought so. Since that time, however, there have been encouraging signs. The RCUS has spoken up about Norm Shepherd’s theology. They are working on the New Perspectives on Paul and the Federal Vision and should produce a report at this upcoming Synod. The OPC has produced a marvelous report. Sessions and Presbyteries in the PCA have spoken out and the PCAGeneral Assembly has appointed a study committee. My own federation, the United Reformed Churches, has taken some preliminary steps and has overtures coming to it this summer that will give it an opportunity to do more. At least three faculties in confessional Reformed Seminaries, including Westminster Seminary California, have openly criticized the NPP and FV. Shameless plug alert: We just published a book called Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry on these topics. Guy Waters (who did his PhD under one of the leading scholars of the NPP at Duke University) has published two two excellent book on these topics. Cornel Venema has published a terrific short, introductory study that can and should be read by every Presbyterian and Reformed elder in the English-speaking world and just now he’s published a longer, more academic study comparing the Reformation doctrine of justification with the NPP. For a list of these and other resources click on this link.
Could we do more? Yes we can. There is an organization that can, after study and considering the various denominational reports and actions, help bring this matter to a conclusion. That organization is the North American Council of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC). One of the stated purposes of NAPARC is to enable “the constituent churches to advise, counsel, and cooperate in various matters.” We know that it is possible forNAPARC to take such action because it did so with regard to the Christian Reformed Churches in North America. It took a number of years, but eventually NAPARC excluded the CRCNA as a member denomination because of the CRC’s 1995 action to ordain females to pastoral ministry. If it can act on that issue it can certainly act on this issue.
The question is not really can the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Churches end this matter but will they? Let us hope that they take their inspiration from the Great Synod of Dort and that they see the FV for what is just as our forefather saw the Arminian movement for what it was: a regression from the Reformation and biblical gospel to the medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation by grace.
Update on Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 12:25PM
Cal Beisner, who organized and hosted a face-to-face conference with some of the Federal Vision fellows, including Doug Wilson, has responded to this post:
The FVers in their own words: See their contributions to The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision. which I edited (Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).
Don’t criticize until church courts have ruled? Nonsense. Church courts can only rule after charges have been filed and trials taken place, and charges will be filed only after less formal (and risky) efforts to correct or clarify have failed. But this is becoming a moot point: church courts are ruling, and–with the exception of the PCA’s Louisiana Presbytery, which has twice done superficial jobs of examining Wilkins and twice given him an undeserved clean bill of health–they are ruling against the FV. One only wonders what will be the FVers’ new whine after a few more such rulings come down.
FV a move toward the English Reformation? There are some mostly superficial similarities, but to the extent that the claim holds up, it is also an admission that the FV is distinctively anti-Westminsterian, anti-Dort, anti-Belgic Confession, and anti-Heidelberg. Of course its adherents are free to embrace whatever theology they want–including the rephrased variety of Arminianism that is the FV–but they are not free to demand that their brethren in confessional denominations turn a blind eye to the inconsistency between what they teach and the vows they took at their ordinations.
Generally: Excellent post, Scott. It’s past time for the gloves to come off. The FVers can whine all they want about not being understood. At the start of the controversy, I was sure that was the case and that, once understood, they’d be generally embraced as offering helpful correctives to some problems in contemporary Reformed thought. That hope got dashed through the process of my hosting and moderating a three-day, face-to-face, written and oral discussion between seven of them and seven of their critics (issuing in THE AUBURN AVENUE THEOLOGY, PROS & CONS) and then participating in about nine months of intense e-mail correspondence involving those fourteen men plus myself, during which at every opportunity the FVers, rather than clarifying in a confessional direction, clarified away from the Confessions they’d embraced in their ordination vows (precisely as Wilkins has just done, again, in response to questions posed to him by his presbytery in response to a request from another presbytery). No, it is not failure to understand that is the problem. It is not uncharitable reading. It is not failure to listen carefully. It is the FVers’ failure to teach what they vowed to teach. It is their failure to exegete Scripture properly. It is their failure to maintain logical consistency and to follow logical implications in their systematic theology. It is their failure to persuade their critics of the truth and confessional consistency of their views.
Perhaps we do need a modern equivalent of the Synod of Dort, though I have my doubts that the FV is intellectually weighty enough to deserve such serious consideration. Having read Arminius pretty extensively, I can say that I don’t find any defenses of the FV to be of equal intellectual rigor to his writings–let alone to those of the great Reformed anti-Arminian theologians like Owen, Witsius, or Turretin, to name just three. it rather seems to me that we shall need a cross-denominational Reformed synod similar to Dort only if and when it becomes clear that the individual Reformed denominations that rule on the FV rule contrary to each other, thus raising the need for some transdenominational assembly. At this point, that seems unlikely. Thanks be to God.
[This post was originally published on the HB in 2007.]