I have decided, after mulling over it for some years now, to discontinue identifying myself with what has come to be called the federal vision. It used to be that when I was asked if I held to the federal vision, I would say something like “yes, if by that you mean . . .” Now my intention will be to simply say no. I don’t.
This obviously requires explanation, which I hope to provide here. This post is simply an attempt at a more careful qualification of terms, but must itself be carefully qualified. Most of all, I am trying to find a spot where all appropriate qualifications will be heard—by all parties.
In what follows, I will offer observations about what this means, and in addition to that, I will try to add some careful statements on what it does not mean.
It is never possible to say everything that needs to be said at one time, but on the essentials of this particular issue I hope to attempt it here. But every part of this needs to be balanced by the rest, and so I would ask everyone who reads part of this to make sure they read the whole thing. A part of this post taken as the whole would be grossly misleading. Follow up questions are to be expected, but I hope to make the general point clear.
First, what do I intend to attempt? The first part of this consists of a set of retractions, not to mention an important sense in which I need to seek forgiveness. The second half concerns that which does not need to be retracted at all. I am trying to disentangle some old confusions, but I do not wish to entangle some new ones.
The Reason for Retractions
When I first became a Calvinist, back in 1988, I spent a couple years after that point denying that I was in fact a Calvinist. My reasoning was simple: I hadn’t learned these things from Calvin, I did not want to participate in any Paul/Apollos competitions, I just wanted to be biblical, etc. But I gradually came to the conclusion that the only thing I was really convincing anybody of was that I was being disingenuous, if not dishonest, and too clever by half. Everybody knew what a Calvinist was, and I was what that particular noun is supposed to describe. Denying it was communicating truth to nobody, except to communicate the possible truth that I was not to be trusted with the ecclesiastical silver.
Something similar happened with the phrase federal vision, only running the other direction. Everybody knew (or thought they knew) what that phrase represented. Since I certainly owned the phrase, albeit with modifiers, and lots of energetic typing, what happened was that I was thought to be owning what people knew as this. But the more I typed that, the more it made people’s heads hurt. So one of the few things I have been successful at doing is persuading a number of people that I am a sly fellow, and one who bears close watching. Heretics are slippery with words, and since I have spent a lot of time trying to grease this particular piglet, I must be a heretic.
So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around. The options are therefore limited. I could abandon my actual position and adopt what most people think of when they think federal vision, or I can continue my futile quest of explaining it just one more time, or I could abandon the phrase, and let everyone know that I have done so. So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around.The latter option is what I have decided to do. I am doing this in an attempt to communicate charitably, and have no desire to obscure.
A Different Kind of Difference
For years I have been trying to describe some of these distinctions involved in all this as “amber ale federal vision” as over against “oatmeal stout federal vision,” and have sought to identify myself with the former. But I have come to the conclusion that the phrase federal vision is itself a stumbling block that prevents far too many people from hearing what is being said, however many metaphorical adjectives I use.
This is because—I am now convinced—it is not the case that there is this thing called federal vision, with how much of it you actually get wired up to a dimmer switch. I believe it is a false analogy to say that I am a 7 on this switch, and Jim Jordan, say, is a 9.
Coming to this recognition does not mean that I am now disclaiming all commonality with my friends in the federal vision, even over against what many other believers in other traditions believe. Lutherans and Baptists both believe in the deity of Christ and in justification by faith alone—but Lutherans are still Lutherans all the way down. The same goes for Baptists. Baptists are Baptists all the way down. A federal vision advocate is FV all the way down. I am something else all the way down, and I believe that the terminology is getting in the way of making important distinctions.
So the views I hold to are a different kind of thing from what is represented in the common understanding of the federal vision, and the differences involved are connected to everything. They are a different kind of thing, not a lesser amount of the same thing. Thus when I speak of the objectivity of the covenant—which I will still continue to do—this is not a lite version of what someone else might mean by it.
Now I do not say this because I am angry or upset with anybody. I say it because I think I have learned something.
On Seeking Forgiveness
A great deal of the federal vision controversy was tangled and confused, and this certainly included many of those who were attacking the federal vision. But in retrospect, I have come to believe that there were also a number of critics of the federal vision who were truly insightful and saw the implications and trajectories of certain ideas better than I did at the time. I was wrong to treat all critics as though they were all more or less in the same boat.
There were insightful critics and there were bigoted ones, and I should have given the insightful critics more of a fair hearing than I did, and I should have used the behavior of the ignorant critics as less representative than I frequently did. I believe I was wrong in this also.
Not only were some critics insightful in their critiques, but they tended to be the ones who also were fair-minded about other things. Indeed, I think that those two things usually go together.
Because there was a general melee, in the middle of it I did not want to say or write anything that would be twisted and used against me or my friends. But even in the midst of everything, I did find some things on the federal vision side of things worrisome, and in the same way as did some of our critics. I know that I acknowledged this at times, but I should have done a better job of acknowledging it. I should have acknowledged it with great clarity, and I should have been louder. In short, I should have done more than I did to distinguish critics who sought to be responsible from irresponsible ones.
So that I do not float away into generalities here, some of the critics I have in mind who sought to be fair-minded would include men like Rick Phillips, Cal Beisner, and Richard Gaffin. I am sure there are others. In saying this I am not saying that (even now) I would agree with any or all of their criticisms—I am saying only that I did see a serious attempt at fair-mindedness.
I am trying to pinpoint where I need to seek forgiveness, and this is a distinct operation from simply changing sides, or turning coat. That is not what I am doing. So even while doing this, I want to continue to say that the insights of some critics were almost hopelessly obscured by rash accusations, bigoted political maneuvers within the church, and theological incompetence. I continue to believe that there were many instances where advocates of the federal vision were repeatedly and egregiously wronged in how they were treated. But it is not my job here to confess other people’s sins. My problem in this was that the incompetence on display on the other side provided a distracting way of muting the legitimate criticism.
My tendency in this was simply to circle the wagons, defending myself and defending my friends. I have come to believe that my robust defense up and down the line contributed to the group-think that was going on. I believed at the time that I was fighting group-think, fighting the high sectarians, but in doing this I believe that I actually helped to polarize the situation. I also now believe that that polarization happened in such a way as to have the political borders (lines on the map) not really match the natural borders (mountain ranges, rivers, etc.). Now here we are, a number of years later, and I have become acutely aware of the fact that the political borders are not the natural ones.
This problem was one I contributed to, and I am seeking to undo what I can. But in distinguishing myself from the federal vision, I am accusing no one of heresy. I am simply saying that certain views are not the same kind of thing as what I am seeking to teach. I am not trying to start a fight, but rather to own my portion of a fight that ought not to have gone on as it did. You could say (in my defense) that it is difficult, in the middle of a saloon brawl, to distinguish the motives of loyalty, manly principle, stubbornness, and cussedness. That it correct. It is difficult, but I still should have done a better job. I am responsible for not having done so, and thought I needed to say so publicly.
If someone is encouraged by this statement, but thinks that I need to be more specific about a particular incident or exchange, please feel free to contact me about it. When we look into it, at the end of the day I still may not agree, but I am wanting to state here my willingness in principle to agree.
We are a decade and a half downstream from the first federal vision explosion. Certain things have shaken out during that time, and incipient earlier differences have become very obvious differences. To take one example, Peter Leithart’s “end of Protestantism” project is going someplace where I am simply uninterested in going. Unlike some of his critics, I do not believe he is going to Rome, but I do believe it is a project, and it does have a destination. That destination is not mine. It is hard to reconcile his “end of Protestantism” project with my “Protestantism forever” approach.
In saying this, I trust everyone will recognize that I am talking about the destination of our respective theological projects in this life. I am not talking about Peter’s personal destination, which is the resurrection of the body, and complete glory, a destination we gladly share.
And to flip it around, my glad cheer-leading for the principled retrieval of historic, classical Protestant orthodoxy is not going where Peter is headed. We don’t need to hurl anathemas at one another over any of this—but neither do we need to be calling them by the same names. The hot persecution of Baptists by Anglicans was one sort of historical evil, one that afflicted another era. But calling different theological positions by the same name is an evil that is much more conducive to the fuzzy thought of our era, and nobody gets on very well. We are not all saying the same thing really.
What I Do Not Mean
This statement represents a change in what I will call what I believe. It does not represent any substantial shift or sea change in the content of what I believe. I was, am, and will remain a Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historic Reformed orthodoxy. I am making this lexical shift for the sake of clarity and communication—defining more precisely what was already there. Good fences make good neighbors, and so do good nouns and adjectives.
This represents no change in my friendships or personal commitments, or denominational relationships. All my friends are still my friends. Although I am currently the presiding minister of the CREC, this statement is in no way a statement on behalf of that body of churches. What I am saying here represents my views only. I hope that it has a good effect elsewhere, but I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else.
I trust that a proper development of doctrinal precision can be matched by a corresponding zeal for doctrinal charity. Charity and clarity should not be at odds. They even rhyme.
I would still want affirm everything I signed off on in the Federal Vision statement, but would also want to point out two things about that statement. First, it was a consensus document. I would now want to go further in some directions with that statement while other signatories would almost certainly want to go further in other directions. And that brings us to the second point. Some of those areas of divergence would be highlighted in the postscript to the statement, and the tension that exists there in that section does require some sort of resolution. I am attempting that resolution here.
In short, I believe the statement was fine as far as it went, but does not say everything that needs to be said. My proposal for a true resolution is to sign away all rights to the label federal vision. What I used to call oatmeal stout federal vision should now just be called federal vision. What I used to call amber ale federal vision should just be called . . . something else. I don’t care what you call me, just don’t call me late for dinner.
I think it was Wolterstorff who observed that the Reformed tradition has three main branches—the pietistic, the confessional, and the Kuyperian. If forced to choose I would opt for the Kuyperian, but my real desire would be to work out a synthesis of all three. Within the Reformed stream, there are various “projects” under way, and I believe there is pretty much room for them all.
About the only one I would exclude would be all the variations on postmodern mush. In fact it is tragically ironic that Wolterstorff himself recently surrendered to the goo thought of pomosexuality. If you get the definitions of male and female wrong, there are precious few other categories that will remain intact after that.
But such relativism isn’t Reformed because relativism isn’t really anything. But among the believing options, I do not believe that we have exhausted all of them—in fact I am a firm believer in the Protestant ressourcement project under way in various places because I don’t believe we have even cataloged all the options that Reformed Christians have developed in the past.
So this does not mean piety gone to seed, as in moralistic pietism. Nor does it mean the kind of confessionalism intended by some, where they don’t believe you can possibly understand the Heidelberg unless you can read it in the original Arabic. Nor does it flinch and hold back where Kuyper himself did, advocating a secular state.
Names, Names, Names
What shall we call this endeavor? I don’t know yet, but I think continuing to use federal vision as a label for any part of what we are trying to do here is only confusing things.
So there it is, whatever you want to call it. Whatever this is, it is federal vision no mas.