In "conservative" Reformed / Presbyterian circles, the controversy du jour goes by various names including the "Federal Vision" (FV), "Auburn Avenue Theology" (ATT), or the closely related "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP). Some of the men associated with these "teachings" who are being put under the ban include NT Wright, Norm Shepherd, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, Rich Lusk, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, Ralph Smith, James Jordan, and Mark Horne. (Soon to follow are John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Philip Schaff, John Nevin, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Vern Poythress, and Richard Gaffin - but we won't go there now...)
I have a unique interest in this flap because my path to ordination in the PCA seemed to be closed when I was discovered to be infected by the dangerous "FV" virus. Instead of writing endless position papers against the brethren to little or no avail, I resigned my post in the PCA and was almost immediately called to pastor a small church in the CREC. Someday I will tell that story in more detail, but that is not my mission here.
It is also not my intent to retell the history behind this particular set of controversies. That can be found easily enough by doing a Google search. What I do want to explore in a multi-part series is why I think this controversy has occured and why it won't fade away even when the denominational politics (Presbyterian "courts") have run their course:
- Battle for the Bible: The Reformed tradition has developed a specialized vocabulary in its discipline of systematic theology, and this is very valid and necessary. However, it can be dangerously tempting for Reformed pastors steeped in Reformed systematics to read their specialized systematic theological terminology back into the Bible (eisogesis), rather than nuancing their technical vocabulary and schemas according to the Bible (exegesis). The FV represents a fairly robust attempt to nuance and flex our systematic theological terminology in closer accordance with rigorous exegesis. Our supposed commitment to "sola scriptura" demands that our systematics arise from and be refined by the Bible, and there is simply no escaping this reality - unless we abandon "sola scriptura!" The Reformed confessional tradition will never escape this battle for the Bible as it relates to its confessional standards. Ever.
- Back to the Future: The Reformation was not a revolution or a rebellion because its intent was to get back to basics of apostolic teaching. Nevertheless, no one can deny that the understanding of the church develops over time as we stand on the shoulders who have gone before us (eg. the Christus Victor theory of the atonement vs. penal substitutionary theory). Unforunately, there is a prevailing psychology among many anti-FV folk that the high-water mark of Christendom was reached in 17th century England (Westminster Standards), and everything else is liberal degradation, unfaithfulness, or even "speculation" (boo!) Like the battle for the Bible, our movement "back to the future" will never go away. As we move back to the Bible, we cannot help but move forward to higher vistas of understanding in various areas of study. We should respect the past, but clinging to it and idolizing it is not proper for those who are committed to maturity in Christ. Change in our understanding (not the teaching of Scripture itself) is a part of the maturation / development process, and there is no avoiding it. Ever.
- Thorough-going Trinitarianism: The Western theological tradition has tended to focus on legal aspects of the Gospel - and this is very good and right according to the Bible. What the Western tradition has tended to miss is the filial / Trinitarian context that these legal aspects exist within. A perfect example is our understanding of the "work" or "obedience" of Christ on our behalf. We tend to reduce Christ's obedience to that of a moral wage-slave, and forget that His obedience was that of a Son to a Father. The FV's denial of "raw" / "strict" merit is simply an effort to thrust the filial realities of the Trinity into the foreground of our theologizing in these matters. If we are truly committed to Trinitarianism and the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, we can hardly resist the impact this will have on every detail of our theological understanding.
- The Heart of The Gospel: There are several dimensions to this aspect of the controversy, but let me take one angle. I was asked by my PCA questioners if "justification" (being forensically declared righteous) was the "essence of the Gospel." I replied that it was "of the essence" of the Gospel, but not the essence itself. The "essence" (if I am forced to even identify such a thing) is union with the crucified and resurrected Christ (who is the righteousness of God) - of which justification is a benefit / derivative, and not vice versa. I believe this is totally Scriptural and ultimately compatible with Reformed theology, but this subtle shift in articulation and perspective causes anti-FV'ers major heart-burn. According to them, by making union with Christ ultimate and justification derivative, I am in danger of embracing a Romanist doctrine of "infused" righteousness instead of an alien "imputed" righteousness. Of course, this is a non sequitur, but that doesn't stop FV critics. Future generations will see through this despite the politics of today. The heart of the Gospel will always prevail.
- Word & Sacrament: Once union with Christ is seen as "ultimate" or "primary" in soteriology, the place of the sacraments come into much sharper focus. Instead of being mere footnotes that stir up memories, they are means by which I persevere in Jesus. They actually accomplish something - mysteriously, but really. This means the church is important and not incidental. This means that my faith and the testimony of the Spirit have a context. Even the word preached does not exist in a vacuum. The FV's emphasis on the grace of the sacraments is very good and right, and will not simply go away because a church court wishes it so.
Well, there is so much more, but that is a beginning. If someone wants to label me as a "FV" ne'er-do-well, that is up to them, but from my stand-point I'm just being who I am. Reformed.