I’ve mentioned the so-called Federal Vision a few times here. This is the position associated with James Jordan, Peter Leithart and especially Doug Wilson. I thought it was worth revisiting it as my social media timeline has been busy again recently for some reason with discussion about Wilson and Federal Vision. I think as well that whilst Federal Vision presents its own unique cocktail of problems, the individual issues and errors are on one level not unique and occur elsewhere and therefore, it offers a case study in the challenges of engaging aberrant theologies and groups.
The term Federal Vision arises because of the association of the word “federal” theologically with covenant. Christ is our federal head, meaning that we are represented by him and included in the covenant of grace through him. Federal Vision theology therefore is an attempt to recover and consistently apply covenant theology. For that reason, it was initially seem as a kind of super-charged version of Presbyterianism – Calvinistic/Reformed Theology with a more robust defence of infant baptism.
And therein lies the problem. You see, if we just hear one or two propositions and practices in isolation, then it can sound a bit quirky. There’s an emphasis on taking the signs in baptism and communion seriously -so that the objective outer reality actually does something. There’s a particular alignment with post-millennialism leading to Theonomism or Christian Reconstructionism (the belief that a Christian nation can be established under OT laws). Oh and there seems to be some sympathy for the New Perspective position of people like Tom Wright that justification by faith is to do with covenant faithfulness rather than the imputation of Christ’s obedience to us.
Now, take each of those points on their own and you might think “well I disagree with some, other bits are a bit quirky and they may actually have a point with others.” Indeed, if has been suggested, Federal Vision asks us to focus on the objective outer realities of baptism, profession of faith, and ongoing obedience then isn’t that reasonably all we can be expected to do. We treat people as part of the church based on the objective reality that there is baptism and verbal profession (through catechism) then if there’s objective evidence that they have fallen away, we remove them from the church through discipline. This stops us trying to second guess what is going on in someone’s heart and mind, thus playing God.
Except that Federal Vision Theology is actually saying something more than this. The argument is not just that we should go on external objective realities instead of inner subjective ones until we know better. It is more that those objective things actually do something.
A Presbyterian or Anglican might for example say “We cannot be certain of what is happening in a young person’s heart. However, we have the promise that the good news is for ‘you and your children’ and so if a believer has a child and baptises them, then until we know different, let’s assume they are included and that the promise is effective for them.” That’s different to a Baptist position where we are more likely t say that this is a misapplication of “to you and your children” so until the child has actively demonstrated repentance and profession we assume that they are not part of the elect and in the covenant.
Federal Vision Theology is not saying “let’s make an assumption until the facts change.” It’s saying “these are the facts.” A child of a believer isn’t just assumed to be in the covenant and presumed elect. They are elect and therefore regenerate because they are the child of believers and because the baptism itself truly works to make the promises effective to them. It’s not just that we only have the outer sign to go on, the outer sign really does have an inner effect.
This is important because it means that if the child is elect and regenerate, then faith is present even if not verbalised by them yet. The child is truly part of the church and so admitted to the Lord’s Table for communion. So, what happens when the child falls away and into sin. Well, then that must mean that they’ve lost their faith. The initial faith that produced regeneration was not lasting faith.
Hence Federal Vision thinking begins to look very similar to New Perspective thinking. The child is part of the covenant through election by being born into the people of God and they remain within the covenant through their faithfulness, through obedience. Whilst it is debatable whether or not covenant nomism really was dominant in Second Temple Judaism, it is very much present in Federal Visionism.
This is problematic to say the least because if faith is inherited at birth and through baptism and them retained by obedience, we have gone a long way from salvation by grace and opened ourselves up to the very same dual error that the Pharisees fell into of ethnic and legalistic pride.
However, there is a further problem with engaging Federal Vision and it is this. I remember a lecturer who subscribed to the theology and the movement teaching us on ethics. He was adamant that the Bible offered examples of people lying and those lies meeting God’s approval and indeed leading to blessing. His conclusion? Truth is a property to be owned and given to others. There are people who seek the truth from you who are not entitled to it because they will misuse it or cannot cope with it. You do not have a duty to give them the truth. This is similar to the Islamic doctrine of Taqiyya, that it is okay to lie to infidels.
This is a fundamentally disturbing and dangerous ethic and it is one that underpins cultish behaviour. You see, it permits those who believe themselves to be in the right to use deception against those whom they consider dangerous. This permits a culture where there is an inner circle that are truly enlightened and it creates opportunities for miscommunication as we believe that we are in agreement when we are not.
That’s why you end up with people saying “Oh I’m not sure that Federal Visionist do say x or y” and “Does anyone truly understand what it is really all about.”
It also should alert us to the Biblical principle that if we want to know if something is good, then we need to look at its fruit. The fruit of the Federal Vision can be seen in the ethic and culture of the leading churches within the movement, notably Christchurch, Moscow, Idaho. If you want to get a feel for that fruit and that culture, then have a look at the articles I’ve written concerning Wilson and controversies around him concerning questions of plagiarism, attitudes towards slavery, his degrading, pornographic depictions of women, the safe guarding failures etc.
The Federal Vision is not just about a few quirky theologians. It’s not just turbo charged Presbyterianism. It is a serious toxic and dangerous aberration.