Some Outdented Comments

Let me begin by saying that I respect Tim and David Bayly highly. They are on the other side of this FV thing, but I have greatly appreciated the integrity they have shown in this controversy, and nothing said here should be taken as indicating a desire to do any harm to our friendship.

Over at their blog, David Bayly has listed some sincere questions for Federal Visionaries. You can look at them here, along with the discussion thread following. I brought David’s comments in their entirety over to my place so we could have a beer and talk about it. David’s comments and questions are indented. Mine are outdented.

I have a list of questions that have been occurring to me—primarily during my morning shower—that I’d like to ask serious proponents of Federal Vision theology. I have a similar, but shorter, list of questions I’d like to ask supporters of the Ad Interim Report on Federal Vision and New Perspective theology but I’ll ignore them for now since they need time to germinate in my mind.

Okay.

Let me add that I’m asking these questions in all seriousness. They’re important questions, answers to which would help me (and perhaps others) understand the Federal Vision trajectory more clearly.

And let me say that I think they are good questions, and worthy of a serious response.

1. When I read Federal Vision (FV) writers—especially the younger sort who seem to populate the blog world—they routinely accuse their non-FV foes of being “Baptist” or “baptistic.” Now it occurs to me that since the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), the ecclesiastical center of FV thought, accepts churches and elders which subscribe to the London Baptist Confession, that instead of a pejorative, this may actually be a term of endearment. Obviously I’m being sarcastic, but I truly mean the question: is “baptistic” the powerfully pejorative term it appears to be in the FV world?

Actually, baptistic is not a taunt at all when referring to Baptists. Nor is being Lutheran a problem when your synod is Missouri. The problem in this debate is with baptists who think they are presbyterians. But even that could go without comment (and did for decades), but then one day the bapto-presbyterians up and launched an attack against the historic presbyterians for being crypto-papists. Things went downhill after that.

Now any debate that deteriorates to mere name-calling (regardless of the names and regardless of the direction) is a debate that needs to raise the tone. And I don’t want to say that no FV guys have ever vented their spleen by calling someone baptistic. But generally, there is a serious point in there. If I were to call Frank Turk a baptist, he would not take it amiss. He is. If I were to call Guy Waters baptistic, it would ruffle feathers. But the thing being addressed in this is not “the sin of being a baptist,” but the problem of “being confused.”

But in the CREC, our our formal and confessional catholicity extends to baptists. And that, I believe, is as it should be.

2. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, which would you prefer to be: an average North American Baptist or an average North American Roman Catholic? Only concise, unqualified answers to this question, please . . .

I will give the short pithy answer first, and qualify it after the fact. That should be okay. No question: I would much rather be the average Baptist.

Qualifications: And I am not about to deliver a witticism about preferring the devil I know to the devil I don’t know. I was baptized in a Southern Baptist church when I was ten years old, and I lived as an evangelical baptist for thirty years after that point. I cannot think about my upbringing in the faith without being flooded with gratitude and affection.

Before David raised this question, I raised a very similar one with our session of elders. I was talking about liturgy, high, low and middlin, and said that on a historic scale of one to ten, I thought our liturgical practices at Christ Church were about a 6. I then said that I wanted to get to 7. I hastened to add that I would rather be at 5 than at 8.

3. If you did not quickly and unqualifiedly answer “Baptist” to question number 2, do you complain bitterly when FV foes say FV advocates are on their way to Rome? Why? At the very least wouldn’t you agree that it’s hypocritical to complain about being called an incipient Roman Catholic when you accuse others of being “Baptist” and you view being Baptist as negatively as being Roman Catholic?

This is an important point. Even though I answered the second question right (as I assume David would think), I need to say something here. Theological debate is not like football, where neither team gets to grab the facemask. Before the whistle blows, neither football team is right or wrong. Unless its the Raiders, who are always wrong. But that exception should not distract us from the principle. The point of a game is to have a level playing field, and equitable application of the rules.

Now, if a TR calls an FV guy a crypto-papist and the FV guys replies with, “Yeah, well you say that because you are a not so crypto-baptist,” we can’t blow the whistle and call a penalty on both teams. This is because in theological debate, you have the possibility that one of the men might be right, and that means there is no penalty at all. Of course both might be wrong, but if one of them is right, he has not wronged his brother by telling him the truth. But which one is right? Ah, there’s the rub, and that is why we are having this debate. The point here is that a simple tu quoque doesn’t address the deeper problem.

4. As a supporter of the Ad Interim Report I’ve criticized strategy, tone and at times even the arguments of FV foes within the PCA. I can’t recall ever hearing serious self-criticism within the FV camp. Are there people within the FV movement whose tone you repudiate? Are there those who have taken their theological arguments too far? Or is the FV movement ultimately defined, as it sometimes seems to me, by the most radical of its young turks? Does anyone ride herd on the FV movement?

I have sought to do this as necessary in public, and I have been more forceful in private. I have seen others doing the same thing. The next edition of Credenda, as it turns out, will be a special edition on the Federal Vision, and one of the articles (that I am contributing) will be cautionary tales for our side. What sins and pitfalls are we vulnerable to? There is a magazine in the mail now, and this will be the one after that.

5. Please understand that this is a genuine question . . . I understand, I think, the FV desire to emphasize works. To a certain degree I even agree with it. BUT, it increasingly seems to me that the FV movement, though arguing for a final judgment on the basis of works, ultimately tends to limit those justifying works to the sacraments. Do you understand why I would say this? Is there any truth to my perception?

I would like to talk with you more about this, because this is the first time I have ever had anything like that occur to me. I think there is a real mistake or confusion here. The sense in which some FV guys talk about future justification has to do with God declaring at the last day everything that He has done, and this would involve far more that bringing the person to the Table so many times. And, it should be added, for those who say this, they are not talking about any kind of personal merit or earning, still less “earning” by going through the sacramental motions.

6. Again, please remember that I’m at least somewhat your friend when I ask this . . . I’ve noticed a tone of condescension—at times snideness—among FV advocates when the subject of piety comes up. And while pietism is, I suppose, a sufficiently defined form of legalism to warrant condemnation, piety itself is condoned and even commanded by Scripture. Why, brothers, do many FVers permit (if not condone) the mocking of piety? Can you understand my saying that at times it seems FVers delight in contradicting others’ expectations of holiness? Is this wise?

I am not quite sure of what kind of thing you have in mind, but one of my running battles as a pastor in our circles (which are FV circles) is how to prevent young people from swinging their liberty in Christ around on the end of a rope. Kill legalism and license springs up, always. Kill license and legalism does the same. This is a real problem, but I noticed it as soon as I became Reformed, long before this FV business arose. I know through long experience the stark difference between piety and pietism. But nineteen year olds don’t. So we have to be patient and teach them. But it takes a lot of patience. If I could learn to write like C.S. Lewis by smoking cigarettes, I would have taken it up long ago.

7. Finally, perhaps my most important question. But first a prelude . . . I see danger in FV statements of baptismal efficacy. I think the FV view of baptism could (at the very least) lead FV proponents and churches into the camp of presumptive regeneration, a view I’m convinced is dangerous to our children’s spiritual health. You may not agree with me about that danger. That’s fine. But here’s my question: what advantage do your children obtain from your view? What is the benefit to your children of your view of baptism? How does it spiritually bless them? If both your infants and mine are actually baptized, where does the benefit of your view reside? In baptism itself, or in your view of baptism? If the power is in baptism itself and not the view of baptism, why do you so strenuously advocate your view? And IF you agree that there are at least potential dangers in the direction you are pushing us, what benefits are my baptized children deprived of by my view that your children receive in baptism that make the risks of your view worth taking?

Two quick points here, although there is still a lot to discuss. First, while I differ with presumptive regeneration (and I really do), I believe that this is a position that has held an honored position in the Reformed tradition (think Kuyper). In other words, I think there are pastoral dangers here, but I don’t believe those who hold to this are heretics.

The efficacy for blessing does not rest in baptism by itself. The Word must accompany the rite, and the Word must be believed, first by the parents and congregation, and then by the children as they are nurtured in their faith. Now, when parents have true evangelical, God-given faith in this, they are using the tools God gave them to establish their children in that same faith, growing them up into it.

I have had the privilege of baptizing each of my grandchildren. I do not want their parents to presume that they are regenerate, hands behind the head, feet on the coffee table. I want them to believe that they are regenerate. What is the difference between presumption and faith? Often, to an outside observer, no difference at all. But in the eyes of God, true faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Will some presumptive parents come to the baptismal font, sounding just like faithful parents? Yes, they will. But that’s all right — it really is. Let God be true and every man a liar.

David, many thanks. Good questions.

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