Was Herman Witsius A Federal Visionist?

One of the distinctive errors of the self-described Federal Vision theology is the doctrine that, in baptism, all the benefits of the covenant of grace are conferred temporarily and conditionally.1 Thus, they claim, there is such a thing as a “covenantal” (temporary, conditional) election, justification, adoption etc. This system of parallel benefits (temporary and actual) leveraged by baptism results in a de facto Arminianism or even Romanism: that which is given in baptism may be lost without sufficient cooperation with the grace given. After the category of covenant has been invoked these writers speak in the same way the Remonstrants did. In 1980, a number of Orthodox Presbyterian ministers and theologians noted the connection between Arminian theology and that of the father of the Federal Vision theology, Norman Shepherd. They wrote, “The statements cited show a tendency to use typically Calvinistic language with respect to the level of God’s secret will, but in the level of “covenant perspective” to use typically Arminian language (Christ died for you; the elect may become reprobate).” In 2010, Chris Gordon observed the connection between the Remonstrants and the FV.2

One of the distinctive rhetorical tactics of the Federal Visionists is to quote an orthodox author saying something that seems heterodox. It is a rhetorical box trap. When an earnest orthodox fellow takes the bait, by criticizing the orthodox author quoted, the Federal Visionist pulls the string and down comes the box on the prey: “Aha! You have condemned an orthodox writer!” The gentle reader will note that, in contrast to this tactic, it is the practice of the HB to quote sources carefully and in context with citations so that the reader can follow the bread crumbs back to the original source.3 Ad fontes! To be sure, not everyone who sets such a rhetorical box trap is a Federal Visionist but in this age of instant internet scholarship, it is perhaps more important than ever to be sure to read sources in their original context. In doing historical theology, the internet can be a something like Lombard’s Sentences, which was a collection of quotations from original sources, but they were not all authentic nor were they placed in context. The Renaissance humanists and the Reformers eschewed such compilations in favor of original sources (read in the original languages). Quotations are important and useful but context is essential.

Recently, I was alerted to one of such box trap. The bait is a quotation from a work by Herman Witsius (1636–1708), “On the Efficacy and Utility of Baptism in the Case of Elect Infants Whose Parents Are Under the Covenant” (1693). It first appeared in English as an appendix to William Marshall, Popery in the Full Corn, the Ear, and the Blade; or the Doctrine of Baptism in the Romish, Episcopalian, and Congregational Churches with a Defence of the Calvinistic or Presbyterian View (Edinburgh, 1852). In 2006, Mark Beach published a new and revised edition of this work in the Mid-America Journal of Theology. The quotation in question says:

There are not wanting, I admit, theologians even of the highest name who give a somewhat different account of these matters, maintaining that a certain kind of regeneration and justification is not only signified but bestowed upon all the infants of covenanted persons without exception, although it may not be infallibly connected with salvation inasmuch as they may fall from it by their own sin after they have grown up.

The passage comes at the beginning of section (hereafter §) VII (p. 132). At first glance it might seem to say the same sorts of things that the Federal Visionists have been advocating since 1974, that there is a “certain kind of regeneration and justification…bestowed upon all” baptized infants of such a kind that may be lost. Indeed, Witsius quoted David Pareus (1548–1622), the editor of Ursinus’ lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, and an ecumenical theologian who sought to unite the Lutheran and Reformed churches in the early 17th century in the Palatinate, as teaching something like this. Mark Beach, the editor of the modern edition, was unable to verify Witsius’ quotation of Pareus but let us proceed as if Witsius got the quotation correct. He also cites a certain Robert Baron, a seventeenth-century theologian in Aberdeen, John Forbes (1593–1648), also a theologian in Aberdeen, who defended the anti-Reformed “Articles of Perth,” Augustine (354–430), and Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390–c.455) as holding similar views. He quotes Forbes at length advocating this view.5 Witsius also quoted John Davenant (1572–1641), the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury and a delegate to the Synod of Dort—long a favorite of the Federal Visionists—(§ VIII; pp. 133–34), who argued that infants are granted in baptism a “peculiar justification, regeneration, and sanctification,” which, “although it suffices for the salvation of children, he does not regard it as sufficient for adults” (p. 134).

The question is whether Witsius quoted these pre-Reformation (e.g. Augustine and Prosper) theologians and these colorful and arguably idiosyncratic seventeenth-century theologians to agree with them? Let us keep reading. In § X Witsius revealed his own view. He commended the writers summarized and quoted as an acute” and “learned” but he also wrote:

To me, however, if I may be allowed to give an opinion, they seem not altogether sound; and indeed, the whole of these excellent men come to this: that while they get rid of certain difficulties, they involve themselves in others not less serious (p. 134).

The first and most important problem with the “covenantal justification” approach that he noted is that it is not taught in Scripture (p. 134–35). The second problem is that such a view necessarily puts baptism in charge of election, when, in fact, according to Scripture, baptism works for election not the other way round. Witsius knew nothing of a conditional election (such a view would have made him a Remonstrant, against which he was squarely opposed) nor did he intend to teach a baptismal (conditional) justification. We do not have to speculate here. He wrote:

Further, I should wish to have explained to me what kind of remission of original sin it is that may be separated from the remission of actual sins (§ XI, p. 135).

Just as he knew nothing in Scripture of two kinds of election (conditional and actual) nor did he accept the idea two kinds of justification, conditional and actual. He declared, “Christ made satisfaction for no sin that he did not take upon himself” (ibid). There could not be two kinds of justification because of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis): “For he did not partly bear and partly not bear the person of any, nor become sponsor or surety for some single debt and not for the rest.” His understanding of Scripture, he wrote was “diametrically opposed” to that of Davenant et al (ibid).

He explicitly addressed the question of the baptismal remission of sins. “Is it conditional, as Augustine, or absolute, as Prosper, would have it?” If conditional, he asked, then how is it that Christ has “merited no more than a conditional—that is, a very imperfect—remission?” (p. 136). For Witsius, that is impossible. Against Prosper, he argued that “[s]uch doctrine is not taught in the Bible.”

In § XII he explicitly repudiated the notion of a temporary regeneration. For Witsius, all those for whom Christ died are those whom God elected, in Christ, from all eternity. “For these reasons, we admit no regeneration through the blood of Christ that, although sufficient for everlasting life, may possibly end in eternal death” (p. 136). There are not two kinds of regeneration, conditional and actual. For Witsius, the covenant of grace is the outworking of God’s eternal, unconditional election: “The righteousness of faith, of which the sacraments are the seals, and which is promised in the covenant, belongs exclusively to the elect” (p. 136). The promises of the covenant of grace, “including everything it embraces, are not conditional but absolute” (ibid).

Witsius concluded his repudiation of Davenant et al in § XIIII thus:

From all this we infer that there is no such thing signified and sealed, much less conferred, upon all covenanted infants in baptism as a kind of common justification, regeneration, and sanctification, which shall place them in a state of salvation prior to the use of reason and become insufficient for their salvation after they have grown up, nor any remission of original sin, whether revocable or irrevocable; but that the whole efficacy of baptism, insofar as it implies a state of salvation even conformably with that period of life, belongs exclusively to infants who are elected. Hence, among orthodox theologians disputing about the efficacy of baptism, the question is chiefly, if not solely: What benefits does it confer upon elect infants, who alone in the
estimation of God have, strictly speaking, a right to it?

When Witsius wrote “common justification” etc he was referring precisely to the hypothesis that the benefits of Christ are conditionally granted to all the baptized. Baptism puts no one in a state of salvation. As I argued in 2006, Witsius was following the Synod of Dort (1.17) here, who taught that believing parents should trust and not doubt that those of their infants whom God calls “out of this life” are with the Lord. Baptism does not confer the benefits of Christ ex opere. The basis of such confidence is not baptism but God’s covenant promise and it is not made to all the baptized but to all believers, i.e., to the elect.

Of course, if we read more widely in Witsius we should not have expected to find him agreeing with Davenant et al. He articulated very clearly a doctrine of the “double mode of communion,” a distinction that I described in detail in this 2006 essay. According to Witsius there are two ways of existing in the one covenant of grace. All baptized persons have an external relation to the covenant of grace but only those elect, whom God has regenerated, brought to faith, and whom he has united to Christ by the Spirit through faith, have an internal or spiritual relation to the covenant of grace. The view of Pareus, Davenant, et al, of a conditional, baptismal justification, is irreconcilable with Witsius’ other writings.

Had we read the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, which are not mini-systematics but rather the prayerful, considered confession of the Reformed churches, we should have expected Witsius, who subscribed them before God and the church, to have repudiated the notion of a “baptismal justification.” The Westminster Standards, with which Witsius was quite familiar, also make such a view impossible. In other words, the confessions of the churches in Europe and in the British Isles are quite clear. Not one of them confessed anything like an ex opere view of baptism and none of them confessed two sets of the benefits of Christ, temporary and actual.

There are three other issues to be addressed briefly. The first is the implication that if a Reformed writer during the classical period held a view that is prima facie evidence of the diversity of Reformed thought such that we must accept it now as orthodox. Such thinking is no more tenable when applied to the 16th and 17th centuries than it is when applied to contemporary issues. Arminius and the other Remonstrants wished to be regarded as Reformed and Synod said no. Most of the Federal Visionists today wish to be regarded as Reformed but the synods, committees, and general assemblies of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have rejected that claim. Piscator, Pareus, and Davenant, to name but three, were idiosyncratic writers in some respects but whose gifts were well-regarded. Thus, they were quoted often by writers whose views were more in the mainstream but we may not confer orthodoxy on them in every respect because of that fact. E.g., Piscator’s denial of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was repudiated repeatedly by French Synods.6

Second, that Daveant was a delegate to Dort does not mean that his views were necessarily orthodox or that they must be tolerated by us today. The purpose of the externi (foreign delegates) at Dort was to reflect the international consensus against the Remonstrants, not to endorse the personal views of all those present nor may we transfer (impute) the legitimacy of Dort to everything every one of them wrote outside of the Synod. That is what biblical scholars call an “illegitimate totality transfer.” You may have heard a preacher talk about the etymology of dynamite and connect it to the Greek word dynamis (δυναμις) and then say that the Greek word is equivalent to our word dynamite. That is an illegitimate totality transfer. Just as the New Testament word δυναμις has to be interpreted in its context, according to its meaning, so the theology of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century writer must be interpreted on their own merits. We may not confer orthodoxy on everything one wrote simply because he was at Dort or Westminster. The churches confess a certain understanding of Scripture together not everything all or each of the delegates thought or wrote outside the assembly, however illuminating that work be.

Finally, an attempt has been made to equate the notion of the judgment of charity to the doctrine of “covenantal justification.” These are two distinct doctrines. Clearly, Witsius rejected the doctrine of “covenantal justification” but he, with the rest of the orthodox, held to the judgment of charity. As the Synod of Utrecht (1905), it is one thing to regard a baptized child or even one who professes faith with the “judgment of charity,” which Geerhardus Vos explained thus,

This judgment of charity concerns all the members of the visible church, and only them. To these members belong not only the adults who profess Christ, and do not contradict this profession by their conduct, but also young children born of believing parents belong by virtue of the promise made to Abraham and his descendants and by which they, like their parents, are included in the covenant of God.7

We baptize the children of believers on the basis of the promise God made to Abraham. According to the judgment of charity, we regard the profession of baptized persons as true until they contradict it by unbelief or impenitent sin. The judgment of charity has nothing to do with the Federal Vision doctrine of a conditional justification conferred in baptism. It has to do with the way the church regards the profession of faith by believers.

One of the most serious mistakes that the Hervormde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) made after Dort was to allow the re-admission of the Remonstrants within a few decades. That decision proved deadly to the HK. It sowed the seeds of rationalism in the HK that would not be addressed seriously until the 1834 Afscheiding (separating). The Remonstrants provide an excellent analogy for dealing with the Federal Visionists and their doctrine. Just as some of them were bright, articulate, and attractive (chiefly Arminius and Episcopius) so too are some of the Federal Visionists. Just as Arminius and Episcopius were well regarded outside the Reformed churches, so it is with some of the Federal Visionists. Just as we tire of the ongoing struggle with the Federal Vision, so it was with the HK and the Remonstrants.

Nevertheless, we know what happened when the HK tried to paper over the differences for the sake of external “peace.” Why would we make the same mistake when the outcome of that decision is right before our eyes? Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus a Brakel never relented in their opposition to the Remonstrants. They understood what was at stake. Witsius repudiated what we know as the Federal Vision of baptismal benefits as should we.

1. Above I provide a link to a library of articles and quotations on this topic but here is a brief introduction to the s0-called Federal Vision theology.

2. See also, “For Elders Thinking of Inviting Arminius Into Their Pulpit;” “The Arminius Paradigm;” and “On Arminius, Confessional Subscription, and the Limits of Tolerance.”

3. See e.g., the extensive library of quotations in the Heidelquotes section of the HB.

4. Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006) 121–90.

5. Here is a introduction to Forbes. Here is the 1680 edition of the work Witsius cited, Instructiones Historico-Theologicae. Thanks to Michael Lynch for correcting this citation.

6. See the chapter on the imputation of active obedience in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

7.Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 174.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Would the Federal Vision view of baptism be at all similar to the “semi-Augustinian” view taken by the Synod of Orange (529) when they say, as Hefele renders it, “All, however, are able, after they have received grace through baptism, with the co-operation of God, to accomplish what is necessary for the salvation of their soul.”?

    • Neil,

      To which canon of Orange II do you refer? E.g., Canon 5 says:

      CANON 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.

      This may teach that, at the moment of administration, baptism necessarily regenerates, but Orange II does not teach that the baptized elect may yet fall away, which is part of the FV doctrine. Still it’s more complicated because the FV speaks of election dialectically, i.e., they speak of two parallel kinds of election at the same time with the same word. Does Orange II teach a parallel election that can be lost?

      So, the answer is yes and no. Yes, insofar as they both hold that baptism works ex opere (such that more than an external relationship necessarily happens in baptism) yes, but no insofar as Orange II did not teach the semi-Pelagian doctrine that those benefits must be maintained by cooperation with grace (in by baptism, stay in by cooperation).

      The question is what the “cooperation of God” or the “cooperation of Christ” entails. Orange II does not seem to envision the later medieval or Remonstrant notion of the “elect” falling away.

      FWIW, after re-reading Gottschalk a several times, I think he may have been right that ad malum in that section may not refer to state (reprobation) but to an act, a sin. If so, Orange II is more Augustinian than I once thought.

  2. Great blog post. Addresses many issues that Federal Visionists raise in attempting to defend their “Reformed” orthodoxy. I used to use those arguments, but the truth prevailed against me, thanks be to God.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for the follow-up to my question. The section I was quoting comes from the conclusion at the end of the canons.

    • Yes:

      Gottschalk and a Medieval Predestination Controversy: Texts Translated from the Latin, Medieval Philosophical Texts in Translation, trans. Victor Genke and Francis X. Gumerlock (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2010).

      ISBN: 0-87462-253-0

  4. Thank you for this post. I admit that what I know of that era comes mostly from the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, Calvin, Zwingli, and Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity etc.

    I have also wondered if the FV people weren’t influenced by a commonplace of 20th century secular scholarship, which held that covenantalism somehow developed to “soften” the doctrine of the decrees, which for most Americans raised on either village polemics or secular [mis-]education is what “Calvinism” is about first, last, and always.

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