Straight Out Of Münster

I think I first read about “web logs” about 1995, when I was teaching at Wheaton College. Then they were the domain of people writing about what they had for breakfast. They were daily, public journals where people recorded online their most intimate thoughts. It seemed bizarre and unseemly. So, in 2001, when one of my students suggested that I start a blog, I was a little insulted. About 2006, however, my pastor and colleague in a church planting endeavor (the congregation survived my decade there and is doing fine, thank you) asked me to do a blog to help the congregation and to help get the word out about the congregation. I did and, mostly for technical reasons, in early 2007, that effort became the Heidelblog. The name was shamelessly modeled after Kim Riddlebarger’s Riddleblog. After a while the HB took on a life of its own. In September, 2009 I recorded the first episode of the Heidelcast. 10 years ago, podcasting was considered a fad. Today, radio is fighting for its life (again—it will survive) and people everywhere are not only listening to podcasts but producing them. So it is with blogging. The distinction used to be made between “online” publications and “serious” (i.e., print) publications. Have you read a print newspaper or magazine lately? My hometown newspaper lives and dies by its internet presence and they seem to employ the same number of copy editors as the Heidelblog. Today the first two questions any publisher asks an author are: 1) do you have a blog; 2) do you have a podcast?

In the early days of the HB people used to ask me why I wasted my time writing online. It was not always easy to articulate an answer. My instinct was that this (or something like it) would is the medium of the future. In 2019, it is the medium of the present. After the publication of Recovering the Reformed Confession, however, the mission of the blog was clear: to help Reformed people recover their theology, piety, and practice and to help those discovering the Reformed confession to find their way in.

The Rise Of The American Münster

As I see American evangelical Christianity, about 1800 (think Cane Ridge Revival) it was taken captive by the spirit of Münster, Pentecostalism, revivalism, Pelagianism, or, what Luther called the Schwärmerei and what Calvin called the fanatics. In 1535–36  the German city of Münster was taken over by a violent, tyrannical, mob of visionary fanatics. Imagine David Koresh not in a compound but actually running the city of Waco, TX. That is something like what happened in Münster. It came to symbolize the power of the these eschatological visions and the potential for excess they carry.

What unites each of these movements is an over-realized eschatology. That is a fancy way of saying that movements like these want more heaven now than they should. They are dissatisfied with the realistic eschatology of the Reformation: that we live in a fallen world, in the time between the ascension of Christ and his return. In this fallen world we share a common secular realm with pagans, for whom we pray, to whom we give witness, and to whom we try to show the love of Jesus. An over-realized eschatology wants a glory age on the earth. Heinrich Bullinger spoke for the Reformed, in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), when he rejected this over-realized eschatology:

We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different (ch. 11).

Americans, however, are enamored of “Jewish dreams” of a “golden age” on the earth. Crefelo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen make a good living by packaging the American dream of material prosperity as Christianity. The Christian Reconstructionist and Theonomic movements are actually pitching something very much like the notion advocated by the chiliastic Anabaptists—who were expecting the return of Christ and the establishment of an earthly millennial golden age (including the reinstitution of the Mosaic civil laws). Remember, it was Thomas Müntzer who led the Peasants War for second two years. He was driven by his eschatology, his vision of earthly millennial glory. The Reformed explicitly rejected the reinstitution of the Mosaic civil laws. When the Westminster Divines confessed,

To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require (WCF 19.4; emphasis added).

they were repeating what had been the shared understanding of redemptive history since the second century? In the face of a patent rejection of the reinstitution of the Mosaic civil laws how could theonomy, which argues for the the “abiding validity of the [civil] law in exhaustive detail” be plausible? It is so because it was born in America, after the turn of the 19th century. It is a child of American over-realized eschatology.

Theonomy and the Federal Vision: Tollbooths Outside The City

The Federal Vision theology is the ecclesiastical face of theonomy. They are twins. Consider this lengthy introduction to theonomy from 2000 by Thomas P. Roche. Virtually all of the those he names as theonomists we today know as Federal Visionists. There are some exceptions that test the rule. The RPCGA is a theonomic denomination and they were the first ecclesiastical entity to reject the FV theology but their rejection is outstanding because of its uniqueness.

What is the Federal Vision theology? In a nutshell, it holds that there are two kinds of theology, that of the decree (what we know as predestination) and covenant. When they do theology under the heading of “covenant” they talk more like Remonstrants (Arminians), Molinists (Middle Knowledge), and Social Trinitarians than they do like confessional Reformed folk. They hold that every baptized person is, by virtue of his baptism, conditionally elect, justified, united to Christ, adopted etc. One is in by grace (baptism) and stays in by cooperating sufficiently with grace. For more on this see the resources below.

Theonomy and the Federal Vision are just two of the tollbooths through which pilgrims from the American Münster to Heidelberg must pass. One of the chief purposes of the HB is to help pilgrims make it through (and out of) these tollbooths. There are others, e.g., the so-called “Lordship Salvation” theology and King James Only-ism. No one of these are confessed by the Reformed churches but they seem to thrive on the outskirts of Heidelberg. Pilgrims from the American Münster are captivated by these movements because they are so similar to the American Münster but they have added “the doctrines of grace” and looked outwardly, to the novice pilgrim, like Heidelberg . It is obviously very confusing.

Michael’s Pilgrimage From Münster To Heidelberg

Over the weekend there was a minor dustup on Twitter. (On which Monday of the year could one not write this?) It concerned two female-dominated podcasts. I observed that one of them is confessionally Reformed and the other has associated itself with and promoted the Federal Vision movement and theonomy. What seemed obvious and easily documented turned out to be controversial. This morning, when I logged on, I found this thread from Michael, who tells the story of his journey from the American Münster, through the toll booths, to Heidelberg, i.e., the confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice. With his permission I reproduce it here with minor edits for clarity:

When I was reforming from a Dispensational Baptist upbringing, I went through the stage of listening to Dr. White then to Apologia Radio and Sheologians. I had already had errant views of justification and sanctification due to the Piper/MacArthur stage. Materially I agreed with the FV on justification. I remember Dr. White speaking dismissively about those with concerns over two-stage justification. He often spoke dismissively about the critics of FV or Douglas Wilson.

Apologia Radio spoke often about Theonomy and soon I had books on Theonomy written by FV guys. It was refreshing in many ways how these guys engaged the culture. Sheologians often talked of how great Wilson and company were. There is a CREC [ed. Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches—the ecclesiastical home of the Federal Vision theology] church here in town and even as a Baptist I thought of attending. When I became convinced of paedobaptism I quickly realized that I needed to re-examine my covenant theology.

I had seen Dr. Clark engage with Baptist covenant theology online and had listened to appearances on several Baptist podcasts. That is why I first went to the Heidelblog to read about Presbyterian covenant theology. Soon I had also read about Wilson and the FV and all the problems with justification and sanctification. I am not a Federal Visionist today because I happened to read the Heidelblog. I am not angry at Dr. White, Apologia, or Sheologians. I would not recommend them because I can see how my path could be retraced by someone else. I think it is a great thing to push back on the culture. But our first loyalty is to the gospel. Understanding faith, justification, and sanctification must take precedence over culture wars.

Michael is not alone. There are others. Learn to recognize a tollbooth for what it is: an obstacle between Münster and Heidelberg. Kansas City locals know that to skip the Kansas Turnpike, one has to take K-10 highway. There is almost always a K-10 highway around the QIRCy (see below) tollbooth.  If you know someone who is stuck in a tollbooth surrounding Heidelberg, be patient. Let him know that he is in a tollbooth and not in Heidelberg.

To those living in the city, remember the tollbooths and the suburbs that spring up. Bear in mind the differences and when the pilgrims arrive, let them find what they need: the law and gospel preached purely (contra salvation through grace and cooperation with grace), the sacraments administered purely (e.g., no paedocommunion), church discipline used for correcting sins, and a warm, gracious, town full of fellow pilgrims making their way to the city whose builder and maker is God.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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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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5 comments

  1. Respectfully, the comments that were provided in this blog do not provide any evidence or in any way demonstrate that Dr. White, Apologia, and/or sheologians subscribe to, or otherwise hold to, FV. Yes they have conversations with “the one who shall not be named.” If we want to confront a brother-in-christ about an issue, then please provide primary source evidence. All that was given was anecdotal stories from a person who themselves provided no evidence that any of the accused held to FV. Moreover, Dr. White denounces FV. So I’m not quite sure why this blog post is still up.

    • Herbert,

      1. Go back and re-read Michael’s story slowly.
      2. Don’t change the terms of the debate. Speaking for myself, my claim is that the folks promote the FV and/or theonomy. That’s what Michael heard and that’s what I’ve seen. Check my Twitter TL. It’s all there in the screenshots.

  2. This is just beautiful and brought tears to my eyes as I read Michael account and could totally relate to it. Thanks to the ministry of men as Macarthur and Piper God delivered me from the prosperity gospel but thanks to the ministry of men like Horton and Clark I could see that justificaction doesn’t have two stages and that sanctification is not a covenant of works as if we were in Adam. For this I am thankful to God who has led me in my journey to his city.

  3. My wife and I have a similar story to Michael’s. We were both into James White, which led us to Apologia/Sheologians, which led me to start looking into Wilson. Thankfully I found the FV/abuse/plagiarism stuff quickly and realized it wasn’t a good trajectory. But I know many were on the same path as me and kept on going right past the red flags.

    It’s very sad to me that once-reliable teachers and platforms have let themselves be co-opted by dangerous ones because of culture war pragmatism. People who taught many of us to think theologically and critically are blind to the hazards right in front of them. And their large, very loyal online followings will defend them no matter what and go wherever they lead.

    • 1 Cor. 11:19 False teaching is God’s means of sifting the chaff from the wheat. We are responsible for being good Bereans who compare everything they hear to the infallible Word. God’s elect search the Scripture and rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate it for them. The means God uses to enable us to discern the Truth is the Word. It is the only sure source of Truth. Our confessions provide a summary of important doctrines and proof texts, but we still need to study and read the Word as a whole, living source of God’s Truth, never relying on the fallible teachings of sinful men.

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