Friday, 29 February 2008

The Federal Vision And The Language Of Appearance (1)

I like Doug Wilson very much - he's Christ-centred, Bible-centred, up front, clear thinking, clear writing and many other things. On the other hand though, I also think that his theological baby, the "Federal Vision", is two steps forward and then either two or three steps back again.

My basic take on the "FV" is that it's a more self-consistent theological system than the more usual Presbyterian position, but a less Biblical one. Lots of young evangelicals today are looking for a coherent, confident, comprehensive way of framing the doctrines of the faith in a secular society. The FV offers them one - but not, to my mind, a Biblically satisfying one.

The FV takes really seriously the idea that the New Covenant should be assumed to work just like the Old, unless we're explicitly and unambiguously told otherwise. Presbyterian apologists  in my judgment normally only take this "rule" seriously when it comes to the question of infant baptism. Most of the time, they instead apply the correct rule of Biblical interpretation: that the New Covenant interprets the Old and not vice-versa. As a Reformed Baptist, I think that's a happy inconsistency. The FV-ers, though, are having none of that. I don't think it's a coincidence that Pastor Wilson is a former Baptist - with such a systematic mind as he evidently possesses, I don't think that having dropped Baptistic principles he could have been satisfied to stop half-way. I once asked a Pastor what his assessment of the FV was. His answer was delightful for it directness and to-the-point nature: "The Federal Vision is... an attempt to recreate ancient Israel in modern society".

What I'd like to do in this post is make one of my criticisms of the FV. One of the ways in which the FV is most consistent than its Presbyterian rivals is that it takes seriously the idea that you are either a covenant member or you aren't. Classical Presbyterianism, in an attempt to hold together both the idea of the superior efficacy of the New Covenant and that the New Covenant retains members who aren't finally saved, has to hold to the idea of two "phases" in the covenant. There are external members, who merely enjoy external privileges - and then then are the "true" members who are elect of God, and enjoy true saving union with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is an outer phase and an inner phase to the covenant - the dividing line between them being faith in Christ. To avoid the error of baptismal regeneration, Presbyterians maintain that there is no intention to imply that infants belong to the inner phase - until they profess faith for themselves, they enjoy a secondary status, of being "covenant youth" - a kind of probationary stage. They really are in covenant (otherwise it would be wrong to baptise them), but nobody's saying that that means that they will certainly arrive in heaven.

The FV, correctly in my view, observes that this doctrine of a two-phase covenant has no real support from the New Testament or from the Old. Either you were a member of the covenant, or not, and either you enjoy its privileges, or you don't. There's no hedging, where covenant members are urged to become a different kind of covenant member. To be sure, the Old Covenant often speaks with two voices - but never on the subject of Old Covenant membership itself. The problem, though, is that faced with this fork in the road, the FV turns the wrong way. The "right" fork is the Baptist one: 1) That the Old Covenant was essentially a national covenant, and not salvific; it contained earthly promises which foreshadowed and typified - promises which the elect would have received savingly, but the non-elect would have remained blind to, but without this being an essential difference in their membership of the Old Covenant qua Old Covenant 2) That the New Covenant is made with the elect only, and is perfectly salvific to all its members. 3) That there has, therefore, been a substantial development in the inauguration of the New Covenant - the Old Covenant scaffolding of all the earthly/temporal/external privileges has all been taken down, because the reality of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has arrived. The FV instead takes the other available fork (consistent with the "rule" mentioned before): That the New and Old Covenants work on the same basis: there are no essential distinctions in the privileges which its members enjoy, either amongst themselves within a single one of the two covenants, or between the two of them. When the Old Covenant gave way to the New, the names changed but the realities remained the same. We, living post-resurrection, enjoy more clarity in the truths that are proclaimed (and hence in our responsibility to believe them) - but there has been no essential change in the nature of the Covenant itself.

In the next part, I'd like to examine one of the lines of argument that FV proponents use to argue this case. I'd like to do this by using as an example part of a recent blog post by Anglican and Oak Hill graduate Matthew Mason, available here: I knew Matthew when I was a student in Oxford, where he was a faithful and godly "apprentice" in the church we both attended at the time.

To be continued...

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