One of the things that modern Reformed Christians have trouble doing is arguing and maintaining tight distinctives without breaking fellowship. This inability is projected back onto the period of the Reformation, on the assumption that from Poland to Wales all the Reformed marched under the five banners of the five solas, all five banners snapping smartly in the breeze. The problem is that it is just not true.
But as soon as this is brought out, it is assumed that the writer of such sentiments (in this case, me) must be some sort of a latitudinarian, wanting to melt down all our reformational distinctives into gray lead compromise. But this is not true either. It is possible to have decided convictions (believing them to be important) and also to have a catholic spirit.
Take one example. I am currently reading A Puritan Theology by Beeke and Jones — a wonderful book — and they make it plain that for the Puritans, the covenant of works had “very much of Grace and Favour” (p. 28). “In other words, perseverance in the garden would have been a supernatural grace given to Adam” (p. 29). I am with them in this — I am not a “monocovenantalist,” and yet believe that both covenants had this something in common. I believe in a covenant of creation and a covenant of grace — and I believe that the grace of God suffused both in different ways, like it suffuses everything. This puts me at variance with all kinds of modern folks, from the radical divide held by the men at Escondido to the monocovenantalism of some of the oatmeal stout Federal Vision men. But that should be all right, and saying we should be able to talk about it without descending into chaos is not to say that the subject is unimportant. Why do we so often measure importance with decibels?
Take another set of examples. The Westminster Assembly contained delegates who denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ — and they were accommodated. The Synod of Dort graciously received men like Davenant, who was a hypothetical universalist — a four-pointer. And Baxter was in a similar position. It wouldn’t be unheard of today for a publishing company to exist in order to publish the works of some Reformation-era theologian, and also to have that theologian be unable to sit on the board of that company.
At the second Auburn Avenue conference on the Federal Vision, Morton Smith defined heresy as anything out of accord with the Westminster Confession. But this only makes sense as a tool to deal with opponents on the other side of an intra-denominational fracas. It doesn’t help us at all with understanding doctrinal movements at large. Wherever people go, you will have significant differences of opinion, and when it is religious people, those differences will be doctrinal. Within the Federal Vision movement there are significant differences — for the sake of not being pejorative, let us call them puritan and lutheran — and there is no reason fellowship cannot function alongside those differences. If I am allowed by Escondido to be friends with a Lutheran, why can’t I be friends with a lutheran?
Of course, at a certain point, when differences get to a certain point, you must break fellowship — when the issue is Arianism, or Mormonism, or postmodern liberalism. But it is a mistake to think that ruptures with the heretics are something you can practice for by conducting ruptures with the saints.