A Bit to Read
Not that many years ago, the phrase ‘Federal Vision’ meant nothing in North American church talk. Today it produces heated discussions, big books, name-calling, and even charges of heresy. We have ecclesiastical fellowship with four churches in North America, and from three of them statements have appeared condemning Federal Vision as heretical. Yet within Canadian Reformed circles no article has appeared (to my knowledge) arguing that Federal Vision is a heresy; on the contrary. It makes one wonder: what is this Federal Vision thing? Why is it condemned, but not by Canadian Reformed people? Are we somehow out of step with our North American sister churches? If so, why?
The word ‘federal’ comes from the Latin word for ‘covenant’ (foedus). A ‘federal’ government (as we have in Ottawa) is a government over provinces that have covenanted together to form a nation, a confederation.
In the phrase ‘federal vision’, the reference is not to provinces (or states) having a vision to federate (or covenant) together to form one nation. The subject instead concerns the covenant God has made with man, and how do you view that covenant.
Since the days the Heidelberg Catechism was written (1561), the wealth of God’s covenant with sinners has been a main staple of reformed confession. Lord’s Day 27.74 summarizes God’s revelation about the covenant with the statement that “infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation,” and then proceeds to unpack what the wealth of God’s promise in the covenant is all about: “through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who work faith, are promised to [infants] no less than to adults.” Wow!! So parents can tell their little children, long before they publicly profess the faith, that they actually and truly belong to God the Father, that Jesus Christ has shed His blood to wash away their sins, and that the Holy Spirit will dwell in them and regenerate them. A man like Isaac could set both his sons on his two knees and tell both Jacob and Esau that God laid His claim of love on them both. Parents in the New Testament dispensation can say the same to their little ones – and so follow the child’s baptism with an upbringing befitting a son (or daughter) of the King of the world. What wonderful perspective for parents, and what riches for children as they grow through teenage years to maturity! The Form for the Baptism of Infants works this wealth out in greater detail.
In the course of the years, the delightful riches of God’s covenant with sinners slowly but surely got buried under an increasingly thicker layer of scholastic dust. Parents and churches saw that not every baptized child ended up making profession of faith or living the Christian life; there were covenant children who became crass unbelievers. That observation raised the question: how could one ever have said that God had claimed that child for Himself, had washed his sins away through Jesus’ blood, and promised to renew him? The child wasn’t renewed, his sins therefore not washed away, and his eternal destiny was hell…; of what good was the covenant here?! From this human observation concerning the adult, people thought back 20 or 40 or 60 years to the time of that person’s baptism and concluded that somehow this child missed out on the real covenant God makes with elect children. So parents and churches began to speak about different kinds of covenants, or different people getting different places in the covenant. Distinctions arose, like ‘inward’ covenant and ‘outward’ covenant (or ‘internal’ and ‘external’), and with that distinction another one was made about ‘visible’ church and ‘invisible’ church, ‘true’ faith verses ‘historic’ faith. Etcetera. NOTE: these distinctions arose not from analyzing observations in light of Scripture, but from reading Scripture in light of observations; hence the use of the word ‘scholastic’. The result of this scholastic dust was that parents and churches no longer appreciated the reality of God’s promises made to the child in the covenant and signified in holy baptism. A general confusion reigned on the topic in the Netherlands in the first part of the 20th century (think of Abraham Kuyper), and that same confusion has reigned in North America in the second half of the 20th century.
By the providence of the Lord God, the dust was blown off of the covenant so that its wealth could shine again in the Netherlands in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Part of blowing the dust off and restoring the shine to the good news of the covenant included the painful Liberation of 1944, where many of our fathers freed themselves from Synodical pronouncements that sought to maintain and teach distinctions not rooted in Scripture as internal covenant and external covenant. Contrary to Synod’s insistence, our fathers did not want to see their children as maybe in the covenant, maybe claimed by God to be His, maybe heirs of the promises of forgiveness and life. That would be less than Isaac was allowed to say to his sons Jacob and Esau, and since God does not change we should not say less to our children. Those children are God’s children by covenant, and therefore exceedingly rich in divine promises. Our fathers took this perspective across the ocean with them to a new country, and in direct response to this wealth worked themselves to the bone to set up God-centered schools for the children of the covenant. That some of their children –our brothers and sisters or uncles and aunts– have not embraced God’s covenant promises in faith does not take a dot away from the reality and authenticity of God’s promises as given in baptism – for a promise does not become a possession until it is embraced in faith.
In the course of the last 3 or 4 decades, there were persons in North America outside the Canadian Reformed Churches who tapped into and appreciated the rediscovery of the wealth of the covenant in the Netherlands in the Liberation of 1944. A couple of examples:
- In 1982, Dr J. Faber wrote a series of articles in Clarion about Prof Norman Shepherd, the dogmatics professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Prof Shepherd studied and appreciated the work of Dr K Schilder, especially about the covenant. Dr Faber’s evaluation: “In the Canadian Reformed Churches there is deep sympathy with the person of Norman Shepherd and especially with his views concerning God’s covenant” (pg 267). As it turned out, Prof Shepherd was eventually released from his teaching position in Westminster on suspicion of heresy. (Faber’s articles are available also at http://pro-rege.net/rfb/theology/justification.)
- In a recent article in Christian Renewal, James Jordan writes, “I became enamored with the Biblical theology of Klaas Schilder and his associates back in 1971,” and adds that he has on his shelf “a complete file of Almond Branch magazines, which I received from 1971-79” (August 22, 2007, pg 7, 11). Almond Branch was published by Canadian Reformed writers to supply material for our Bible study societies, and was characterized by ‘typical’ Canadian Reformed emphasis on the covenant.
- From 1977 to 1981 Paideia Press in St Catherines published for the North American market the four volumes of Rev SG deGraaf’s Promise and Deliverance. DeGraaf told the Bible story from the perspective of God’s covenant of grace with sinners, in typical ‘liberated’ fashion, in direct line with Lord’s Day 27.74 and the Form for the Baptism of Infants. These volumes sold broadly throughout confessionally faithful churches in North America.
Slowly, steadily, the dust was being blown off covenantal thinking in North America. In 2002 four ministers (Revs Steve Wilkins, Steve Schlissel, John Barach and Douglas Wilson) spoke at the annual pastors’ conference organized by the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Munroe, LA. All four speakers (if I have it well, two were URC at the time) spoke about the covenant (“Federal Vision”), and did so in terms that are largely heart-warming to Canadian Reformed readers. In so doing, though, they questioned some scholastic understandings about the covenant that had become entrenched in North American thinking – things as internal and external covenant, covenant of works verses covenant of grace, Christ as Head of the covenant instead of Mediator of the covenant, etc. This in turn prompted a number of reactions from several theologians and churches, condemning Federal Vision as a heresy. To name a few critics: in 2005 John Otis published a work of more than 500 pages under the title Danger in the Camp: an Analysis and Refutation of the Heresies of the Federal Vision. In 2006 Guy Prentiss Waters (graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary) published a work of just under 400 pages entitled The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a Comparative Analysis. The Reformed Churches in the United States, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church of America, the United Reformed Churches of North America and others have all accepted reports and/or adopted statements critical of the Federal Vision and labeled its teachings (or parts of it) as heretical. Mid-America Reformed Seminary (from which the URCNA receives many of its ministers) joined the row of critics, prompting Dr vanDam from our College in Hamilton to ask some well-placed questions in Clarion some weeks ago. Meanwhile, defenders of the Federal Vision have continued to defend their insights and produce several books. Especially helpful in understanding their material is their website, http://federal-vision.com/.
For my part, I’m thankful that the subject of the covenant is under discussion among North American churches that strive to be faithful to the reformed confessions. The Scriptural heritage embraced in the Great Reformation (eg, Lord’s Day 27.74 and the Form for the Baptism of Infants), rediscovered at the time of the Liberation of 1944 and staple fare in the Canadian Reformed Churches for so many years is too rich to remain unknown to so many brothers and sisters on our continent. At the same time, it’s clear to me that many of the critics (Otis and Waters are two examples) have simply not understood what the Scriptural revelation concerning the covenant actually is. It’s clear to me too that the churches who made statements about Federal Vision have not grasped its depth and wealth either. At the same time I hasten to add that many of those who promote better covenantal thinking have not sufficiently grasped the riches of what we have received from our heritage. That some Federal Visionists would have children attend the Lord’s table is a case in point.
It seems to me that we do well to follow this discussion closely; after all, some of our sister churches have made statements in relation to Federal Vision that run contrary to what we in the Canadian Reformed Churches preach from our pulpits. For that very reason, we also need to contribute to the discussions, and interact with the statements and positions of the sister churches. In so doing, we receive opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the wealth of our heritage, and learn to treasure it the more.
January 4, 2008