Federal Vision

A Sample Chapter

Introduction

The name for the Federal Vision is derived from a Latin noun, foedus, which means “treaty, agreement, or contract.” In theological circles, foedus, or federal, is used as a synonym for covenant theology which is sometimes called federal theology or federalism. Federal or covenant theology is not the same thing as the Federal Vision, though. To prevent confusion in this book, therefore, we will distinguish them as the Federal Vision and covenant theology. The Federal Vision purports to be a vision of covenant theology which is consistent with Reformed theology. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to prove that the Federal Vision is neither Reformed nor true to federal theology. Rather, the Federal Vision is simply the old heresy of Pelagianism dressed up in new garments.

This book is the result of several providential situations in my service to the church, particularly as a member of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). It was not my plan to write a book on this subject, but the Lord guided me into this project through my involvement with the various cases that came before the SJC. First, I was a juror on the SJC in 2007 when a complaint against Louisiana Presbytery for providing safe harbor to the theological errors of Teaching Elder Steve Wilkins was upheld by the higher court. Second, I was appointed as the prosecutor for the trial of Louisiana Presbytery in March of 2008 when the SJC brought charges against the lower court for failure to comply with the decision of the higher court in the case. That trial was only the second time in American Presbyterian Church history that a General Assembly or its commission has censured a presbytery. (In the first trial, the General Assembly censured the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1837 for failure to discipline the heretical views of Albert Barnes.) Third, I was the chairman of the SJC panel in 2009 that upheld the first complaint against Pacific Northwest Presbytery for its refusal to censure Teaching Elder Peter Leithart. Fourth, I was the representative of the complainant, Ruling Elder Gerald Hedman, in the hearing before the full SJC in March of 2013 concerning the second complaint against Pacific Northwest Presbytery in the matters of Peter Leithart.

Over a period of six years, I was a juror, a prosecutor, a panel chairman, and the representative of a complainant in some of the most important cases concerning the Federal Vision that have been decided by Reformed churches in the twenty-first century. The trial documents of those cases, particularly the cases concerning Peter Leithart, taught me many things that I would not have learned by reading the various pieces of literature of the Federal Vision proponents. Thus, I began work on this book in earnest sometime in 2012 with a series of sermons I preached to my congregation clarifying the differences between the Christian faith and the Federal Vision.

In addition to the trial documents in the various cases before the SJC, I have also read the writings of people on both sides of this issue. Guy Prentiss Waters’ two books, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul and The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, and Cornelis P. Venema’s The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, are, in my opinion, the best books that expose the soteriological errors of both the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul[i]. The denominational reports of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Church in the United States all make some very valuable contributions in identifying the errors of these views. Numerous other books and articles have been read, including a large number of items that have been posted on the Internet. Despite the wealth of material on this subject, I still felt like the blind man in the Gospel of Mark healed by Christ who saw men “like trees, walking around” (Mark 8:24).  Certain errors of the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul proponents were clearly recognizable, but I could not quite get a handle on them. The modern literature did not give me the clarity of vision to fully comprehend these doctrinal errors. I was not alone. I talked with numerous people, including some authors who had written about these matters, and none of them could define the issues succinctly, despite seeing some things clearly. For me, it was like trying to view the stars through a telescope that was somewhat out of focus. Yet, nothing is really new. These errors had no doubt appeared in the past and had been answered in the past. Therefore, I became convinced that these modern errors would also have to be viewed through the lens of the greatest minds in the history of the church in order to be properly understood.

As I researched the specific doctrines of the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul in comparison to the views of the greatest Reformed theologians from the past, there was one discovery that stood out to me. Most of the modern authors who have written against the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul have failed to define their errors as Pelagianism[ii] (the heresy of the British monk, Pelagius, who was strenuously opposed by Augustine). Waters, Venema, and others define the errors of the Federal Vision and the New Persepectives on Paul as Semi-Pelagianism at worst[iii]. Semi-Pelagianism is still a heresy that was condemned by the Council of Orange in 530, so little is gained by the refusal to see these errors as Pelagianism. That the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul are heresies is indisputable. The only question is whether their heresy is that of Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. On the other hand, there is an overwhelming and unanimous consensus among the older theologians that the same theological errors as held by the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul are indeed Pelagianism. Fifty-six separate quotes in this book from thirty of the greatest theologians of the Church over a period of fifteen hundred years (from Augustine to B. B. Warfield) directly state that theological positions such as those held by the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul are Pelagianism. If it had been my aim to amass as many similar quotes as possible, that number could easily have reached 150 or more. Yet, there was not a single instance in which those great theologians from the past ever dissented from identifying doctrinal positions such as those held by the Federal Vision system as Pelagianism.

Most modern Reformed scholars define Pelagianism in terms of the doctrine of man, but historically Pelagianism has predominately been defined in terms of the doctrine of grace. Those definitions are complementary, not contradictory. Both definitions are true, but defining Pelagianism in terms of the doctrine of grace gives a fuller, more complete understanding of the heresy involved. A wrong view of the nature of man leads to a wrong view of God’s grace. Likewise, a wrong view of grace will ultimately lead back to a denial of the sinfulness of mankind.

Augustine defined Pelagianism in both ways. For instance, he combated the Pelagian view that the nature of man did not contract injury from Adam’s fall into sin except by example. Thus, Augustine wrote:

“If righteousness come by nature, then Christ died in vain.” If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God’s most righteous wrath—in a word, from punishment—except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ.[iv]

Upon this issue, Pelagius viewed human nature as untainted by Adam’s original sin and sufficient to obey all the commandments of God. Augustine, however, insisted that nature was so corrupted by original sin that it required the redemptive grace of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Pelagius, at this point, viewed God’s grace as the endowment of man by nature with sufficient strength to do whatever God commands. Thus, it is correct to contrast the views of Pelagius and Augustine as the difference between nature and grace. Semi-Pelagianism, from this perspective, would be a mediating position between those two polar opposites.

Pelagius, though, did not restrict the meaning of grace to God’s endowment of mankind with certain graces and abilities by creation. He taught that grace was more than just the absence of original sin for all mankind—a position he held in conflict with the united testimony of the church. He acknowledged that Christians continue to need God’s grace. Thus, Pelagius referred to grace often in his various writings, but he limited grace to the forgiveness of past sins, to the revelation of the law and the gospel, to the example of Christ, and to the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Despite his denial of original sin, Pelagius acknowledged that humans sin and thus need the forgiveness that can only be attained through Christ’s atonement. Theologians refer to such grace as objective grace.

Redemptive grace is both objective and subjective. It includes both the acquisition of salvation in Christ and the application of salvation through the Holy Spirit. The former is objective; the latter is subjective. Pelagius acknowledged the need of some aspects of objective grace, particularly the pardon of past sins. He denied both the imputation of original sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in his commentary on Romans 5. Thus, Augustine quotes him as follows:

If Adam’s sin injured those who have not sinned, then also Christ’s righteousness profits those who do not believe.[v]

The connection between defining Pelagianism in terms of the doctrine of man or the doctrine of grace is very simple. If people are born upright and holy, they do not need the inward work of the Spirit. They need illumination. They need forgiveness for sins committed. But they already have everything from God through the primal endowment of creation to live a righteous life. Thus, they need objective grace up to a point but they do not need subjective grace in the Pelagian scheme. For that reason, most of the great Reformed theologians have defined Pelagianism in terms of the doctrine of grace. In his introductory article to Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Writings, B. B. Warfield wrote:

It was upon this last point (i.e., that grace is an inward help to man’s weakness—DR) that the greatest stress was laid in the controversy, and Augustin was most of all disturbed that thus God’s grace was denied and opposed. No doubt the Pelagians spoke constantly of grace, but they meant by this the primal endowment of man with free will, and the subsequent aid given to him in order to its proper use by the revelation of the law and the teaching of the gospel, and, above all, by the forgiveness of past sins in Christ and by Christ’s example. Anything further than this external help they utterly denied.[vi]

It is common for Reformed theologians, therefore, to define Pelagianism as the denial of subjective grace altogether. James Buchanan described the debate between Augustine and Pelagius as follows:

The Pelagians, with whom he was called to contend, admitted the doctrine of grace in the free remission of sins, while they denied the necessity of efficacious grace for the conversion of the sinner.[vii]

A more comprehensive definition of the Pelagian view of grace is given by Herman Bavinck:

Hence, in Pelagius’s theory there could be no internal grace, no regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit which not only illumined the mind but also bent the will. He admittedly did speak of grace but meant by it only: (a) natural ability, the gift of being able to will, which God grants to every person—creating grace; (b) the objective grace of the proclamation of the law or the gospel and of the example of Christ, which was directed to the human intellect and instructed people in the way of salvation—illuminating grace; and (c) the forgiveness of sins and future salvation, which would be granted to the person who believed and did good works.[viii]

Other quotes could be given to the same effect that the essential marks of Pelagianism are the denial of subjective, internal, efficacious grace and the limiting of objective grace. Such other quotes will be woven into the fabric of this book.

It might seem unimaginable that Pelagianism could appear within a Reformed church. Yet, it should not surprise us. In words that now appear prescient, Geerhardus Vos wrote over a century ago in Reformed Dogmatics (recently translated and published for the first time in English) that the apparent failure of the covenant to live up to the breadth of God’s promises concerning baptized covenant children would be the way in which Pelagianism could enter into Reformed doctrine:

We here face the difficulty that the covenant relationship appears powerless to bring covenant fellowship in its wake. We get a covenant that remains unfruitful. A barren, juridical relationship, an “ought to be,” appears to take the place of the glorious realities that mention of the covenant brings to our minds. This is in fact the point where, by means of the covenant idea, the Pelagian error could gain access to Reformed doctrine.[ix]

In other words, Vos foresaw the day that some people, seizing on the reality that not all baptized covenant children truly live in the fellowship of the covenant, would try to make changes to the doctrine of the covenant to account for this apparent contradiction. Those changes, Vos said, would provide the opportunity for Pelagianism to be taught under the banner of Reformed doctrine. That is exactly what has happened with the Federal Vision movement. The Federal Vision proponents have tinkered with the doctrine of the covenant in order to try to reconcile God’s promises concerning their children with the reality that not all of them appear to be living in fellowship with God. In so doing, they have substituted their doctrine of baptismal efficacy for the efficacious grace of the Holy Spirit and placed the responsibility for the fulfillment of the covenant on the individual, rather than God. That is a Pelagian modification of the sacrament of baptism, the doctrine of grace, and the doctrine of the covenant.

Some modern authors wrongly assume that the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul, despite all their other errors, hold to an Augustinian view of sin and grace. The Federal Vision system starts with a wrong view of grace as a result of its doctrine of a conditional covenant. Its proponents are working their way back to a wrong view of the doctrine of man. In this book, we will show that sin is defined by Peter Leithart (a Federal Vision proponent and ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America) as an external enemy. The externalization of sin is not an Augustinian position on sin in any sense. It is a Pelagian definition of sin. Another Federal Vision proponent, Rich Lusk, has written a book on paedofaith in which he teaches that infants are baptized as a result of their own faith (not the faith of their parents). Such a doctrine of paedofaith necessarily requires a modification of original sin in the direction of Pelagianism. Neither does the Federal Vision hold to an Augustinian view of grace. Grace, as this book shows, is also externalized by proponents of the Federal Vision. Their definition of grace is limited to external grace, and only certain aspects of that external grace. For instance, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is an external grace, but that doctrine is denied by every Federal Vision and New Perspectives on Paul writer with whom I am familiar. They also deny the subjective grace of the Holy Spirit and the efficacious grace of God’s sovereignty in salvation. In seeking to restore the objectivity of the covenant, they have erred in limiting grace to the external and objective. Their errors are not new. They are of the essence of the Pelagian heresy, as quote after quote, many of them from primary source materials, will abundantly prove in this book. In the end, this book is a collection of the views of the greatest minds in the history of the church on the specific doctrines disputed by the Federal Vision heresy.

It should come as no surprise to people of Reformed convictions that the views of the Federal Vision are opposed by all the greatest theologians in the history of the church. While there are theologians from the past who have held to the same doctrines as are now taught by the Federal Vision (as Doug Wilson correctly states), those theologians are unworthy to be grouped with the greatest theologians in the history of the church. As Charles Spurgeon so eloquently put it in a sermon on election preached at the New Park Street Chapel on September 2, 1855:

It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines, which are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. By this truth I make a pilgrimage into the past, and as I go, I see father after father, confessor after confessor, martyr after martyr, standing up to shake hands with me. Were I a Pelagian, or a believer in the doctrine of free-will, I should have to walk for centuries all alone. Here and there a heretic of no very honourable character might rise up and call me brother. But taking these things to be the standard of my faith, I see the land of the ancients peopled with my brethren—I behold multitudes who confess the same as I do, and acknowledge that this is the religion of God’s own church.[x]

The support for the Federal Vision errors comes from some who were guilty of heresies, from some who rejected the Reformed doctrines, from some who denied the doctrines of grace, from some who revived the errors of Pelagius, and from various theologians of the Roman Catholic Church. I have never found a single sentence in the writings of the great Reformed theologians and ministers to support their views. Not one.

The corruption of Reformed churches by Pelagian doctrines is not without precedent. It has happened many times since the Reformation. For one example, Robert Davidson in History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky has an entire chapter on the Pelagian doctrines taught by certain Presbyterian ministers in that state, particularly by Thomas Craighead. In every instance, those who fell into Pelagianism denied the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit and limited regeneration to an effect on the mind by the Word. As this book will show, that is the primary distinctive of Pelagianism. Despite the efforts of the church courts to reclaim Craighead and others, they all, with one exception, continued unabated in their errors. That exception was Rev. John Todd, the son of the first assistant to Samuel Davies (1723-1761) in Virginia, who came to Kentucky from Hanover Presbytery in 1809. About him Davidson wrote:

He openly defended and disseminated the Pelagian tenets of Craighead, and inveighed against the censures of the Church courts. It was his habit, both in the pulpit and out of it, to affirm that the Spirit was in the word; that there was sufficient energy in the word to convert and sanctify; that man could believe the truth of himself; that the will had a self-determining power; that if God had foreordained whatsoever comes to pass there could be no sin in the world; and that the respectability of the Presbyterian Church in the Western country stood or fell with Craighead’s sermon.[xi]

Todd was tried by the presbytery, convicted for his errors, and solemnly admonished. Nonetheless, he stubbornly continued to preach his errors. Presbytery then took action to suspend him from the ministry on April 15, 1813. Four and a half years later, Todd recanted his errors and was restored by presbytery. Throughout church history, such repentance for heresy is the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, Todd’s recantation of heresy is the only one of which I am aware. Thus, it is folly to think that the first purpose of a book about the Federal Vision should be to win back those who have fallen under the spell of those doctrines. No book can accomplish that result. Only the Holy Spirit can open the eyes of those who are beguiled and enable them to embrace the grace offered them in the gospel. The primary purpose of a book against the Federal Vision, therefore, should be to warn the sheep of Christ’s pasture against the heresies of that system. At the same time, a charge of heresy cannot be meekly slipped into a single sentence at the end of a book. The case must be made point by point, quote by quote, throughout the entire book.

The reluctance by the modern Reformed churches to discipline this heresy in her midst is both cowardly and a clear disregard for Scripture. If it was a matter of protecting friends, then I, more than almost anyone, would have reason to accommodate these heresies. Many of those who are in the Federal Vision have been lifelong friends. They participated in my ordination. I worked for them. I have stayed in their homes. They have stayed in my home. We have taken trips together. Yet, I am sure my opposition to their theological errors has strained or will strain our relationships. Nonetheless, my opposition to their false doctrines is not personal on my side. The gospel is always more important than all other friendships. We must be willing to leave all other friendships in order to gain the friendship of the only One who counts. For my part, I wish that it were unnecessary to write this book, but faithfulness to Christ demands it. We must contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

This book has been written because the Federal Vision represents a full-scale frontal attack against all the essential doctrines of the gospel while its advocates disguise the errors of their system as merely an attempt to improve the way the Reformed faith is expressed. This book agrees substantially with the analysis of the Federal Vision in the books and articles written against it by Guy Prentiss Waters, Cornelis Venema, R. Scott Clark, John Fesko, John Otis, David J. Engelsma, and others. The primary difference between this book and the various other writings against the Federal Vision is in the area of the conclusions that are drawn as a result of placing the errors of the Federal Vision in historical context. Almost all the modern authors are agreed that the errors of the Federal Vision are at least Semi-Pelagianism. It should not be unimaginable, therefore, that detailed research in historical theology reveals that the errors of the Federal Vision are virtually identical to Pelagianism.


 

References

[i] There are differences between the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul, but those differences are not on the doctrines of salvation. On soteriology, they are virtually identical.

[ii] Pelagius was a British monk who denied that people are born in a sinful condition as a result of Adam’s fall. He limited Adam’s fall to merely a bad example that we should avoid. Pelagius denied efficacious grace and asserted total freedom of will. The controversy between Pelagius and Augustine was fought primarily over a correct doctrine of grace. Augustine wrote several works against Pelagius and the Pelagians that are collected in his Anti-Pelagian Writings.

[iii] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 174, 186-187. See also: Cornelis P. Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 127-128, 156-158, 161, 257.  .

[iv] Philip Schaff, ed., Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, eds., Saint Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Writings, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 5 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 122.

[v] Ibid., 245.

[vi]Ibid., xv.

[vii] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of its History in the Church and of its Exposition from Scripture (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), 102.

[viii] John Bolt, ed., John Vriend, trans., Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, Sin and Salvation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 508-9.

[ix] Richard B, Gaffin, Jr. and John R. DeWitt, trans. and eds., Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Two: Anthropolgy (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2013), 107-8.

[x] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Election,” September 2, 1855. Accessed on November 25, 2014 at:  http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0041.htm

[xi] Robert Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of Kentucky (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), 276.