Volume 19, Issue 3: Doctrine 101
The Federal Vision (in one easy lesson)
Let's start with the name, and the fact of the name.
The Federal Vision was the title of a pastors' conference in January
of 2002 at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana. This is why the controversy is also called by the name
of Auburn Avenue. This happened because conferences need to have titles, and not because there was a desire on the part of
the participants to create yet another faction within the Church. When controversy arose the following summer over what
had been said at the conference, the name of the conference stuck as a label for the points being made.
What does the phrase Federal Vision mean, then? The word
federal comes from the Latin word
foedus, which means covenant. Vision obviously refers to seeing, and perhaps to seeing on a grand scale, and so the Federal Vision wants to
urge believers to see the world through covenantal eyes. The Federal Vision expresses a desire for a more rigorously
consistent covenantal theology. In this respect, the Federal Vision is an answer to prayer, God's gracious fulfillment of a promise He
has made to those who fear Him. "The secret of the
Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant"
(Ps. 25:14). There is one important thing we must carry away from this passage, and that is that
the covenant needs to be shown to us by God. It is not something we can attain to by our own effortit is all the sheer grace of God.
So what do we claim to see in our "vision" of the covenant? And why has it caused all this commotion? It would
perhaps be more helpful to point out what we don't see there. What we
don't see in God's covenantal dealings is the idea of merit.
One tradition in the Reformed world has seen Adam failing to merit the blessed state after his probationary testing was over.
We believe that Adam was given his blessed surroundings
gratis, and, had he continued in that blessed condition, that too
would have been the ongoing grace of God. We believe that Adam by his disobedience forfeited what God had promised him,
and his continuance in his fellowship with God was certainly conditioned upon his ongoing obedience. But we don't believe
that Adam was charged to earn anything.
Grace has a backbone, and there are conditions that are attached to the grace of God. Grace does not cease to be
grace simply because we are charged not to despise it. We see the justice and law of God as contained within His
gracious character, and as fully consistent with it. His holiness is the sum total of all His attributes, and so when Adam abused the
gifts that God had given to him, it was certainly appropriate for the wrath and displeasure of God to be made manifest in
the history of the world since that time. But justice is not the context of God's favor; God's favor and grace are the context of
If Adam had obeyed God in the Garden, that obedience would itself have been a gift from Godall things are from
His hand. Had Adam passed that probationary period of testing, the only appropriate response for him would have been to
turn to God and give thanks for his deliverance. This being the case, it cannot be that Adam would have been able to operate as
an autonomous agent, laying a claim of raw justice against God. Adam could
not have said, "God, I owe You no thanks for
this achievement at all. I did this all by myself, but I do thank You for the opportunity You provided to me to demonstrate what
I could do without Your help." In short, we reject the idea that Adam could have functioned autonomously and obediently.
All attempted autonomy on the part of creatures is always sinful. Adam could eat the fruit autonomously, but he could not
refrain from eating it obediently in an autonomous fashion.
That's it? Is that that nub of the matter between the Federal Vision and its critics? Yes, that's it. There are other
issues, certainly, but they all flow, one way or another, out of this one. If you believe that Adam was "on his own" as he tried
to navigate the difficult task of staying away from the tree in the middle of the Garden, then you are a critic of the
Federal Vision. If you believe that Adam should have obeyed God by continuing to trust and rest in Him, and that striking out
"on his own" is what got us into all this trouble, then in principle you are in sympathy with the Federal Vision.
I said that the other issues flow out of this one. Let me take a couple of samples to try to show how this is the case. If
you assume that grace and favor is the default position that God has, then we as imitators of our God will do the same.
When children are born into our covenant homes, we will tend to believe that they are accepted and beloved, without them
having to earn anything, without them having "to prove it." I was watching my nine-month-old grandson Seamus sitting quietly
on our front lawn yesterday, being covenantally faithful to the best of his ability. He did not have to earn his position there,
and he did not have to attain to it. No climbing was involved. He did not have to work for itit was just a gift. We baptized
him without his permission, and he will be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Now he will have to continue
in this grace, and he will be repeatedly charged throughout the course of his life not to rebel against it. But he is accepted
already. He was born accepted, just like Adam was created accepted. This is why there is no covenantal barrier between Seamus
and the Lord's Table. So paedocommunionists are replicating in their homes and churches the same attitude that they
believe God took with our first parents in the Garden. Sheer gift, and all glory to God. We may not throw away the gift, but
holding on to a gift by faith is not the same thing as earning it.
And those who do not believe in paedocommunion are requiring their children to replicate in their lives the pattern
that they believe was in the Garden at the first. God's grace gives the opportunity to follow Him, but you are not enrolled as
one of those followers until you pass a test.
Let's take another examplethe charge that the Federal Vision overemphasizes the sacraments, making too much
out of them. How does this root difference of views about the Fall of our first parents in the Garden affect our view of
the sacraments now? It is the same kind of thing that we saw with paedocommunion. Our assumption is that the sacraments
are signs and seals of God's grace, indications of
His standing favor. We should therefore come to them with gladness, and we
should come frequently. God is being good to us in the sacraments. We promote weekly communion, for example, for this reason.
Now we know that people can and do abuse the grace that God offers in the sacraments. We do not believe that
they automatically save anyone, apart from evangelical repentance and faith. Of course not. But this does not move us from
our default assumption of fundamental grace. Grace abused is terrible judgment indeed, but we never want to forget that the
fall was a fall from grace. The starting point is always grace.
The position that the Federal Vision is resisting is the default assumption that we are always in trouble. We should
come to the Lord's Table in faith, confident that we are accepted in the Beloved. We should not come to the Table expecting to
be yelled at. If we approach the sacraments as though they were a lit stick of dynamite, we have a faulty view of God. Indeed,
we have a faulty view of His holiness. Of course, as said earlier, grace has a backbone. A man in the midst of an adulterous
affair who is coming to the Table should be fearful. The man who abuses God's grace with a high hand should not confuse
that grace with senile indulgence. Our God is a consuming fire. But He is not a consuming fire for those who approach the
throne of grace with boldness.
Getting the merit question straight also helps understand the debates and discussions over
sola fide. If we are justified by faith alone,
and we are, then what role do our good works play? As seen elsewhere in this issue, there is some discussion
and disagreement on this point among the Federal Vision proponents themselves. But whatever that relation, it needs to
be remembered that in the Federal Vision there is a universal hostility toward
meritorious good works. If we uniformly deny
that the unfallen Adam could have merited his reward, how would it be possible for any of us to think that a forgiven sinner
could merit anything?
One last caveat. The Federal Vision does represent a different way of working through some basic theological
problems in the modern Reformed tradition. At the same time, there are no fundamental innovations herethese positions represent
a current in the Reformed river that has been present from Calvin down to the present. Some of the vocabulary is
different from what twenty-first century Calvinists are used to, and, as I have shown, one of the fundamental assumptions we have
does collide with another tradition within the Reformed ranks. But the notion that this represents a stream of thought
entirely outside the Reformed faith is risible. All the FV representatives that I know are five-point Calvinists, they all believe in
the absolute predestination of God, and they all believe that we are justified by faith from first to last.