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Saturday, 29 August 2009 17:19

A Cautionary Note

Douglas Wilson

We have been involved in this round of the controversy over the "Federal Vision" for about five years now. During that time, many millions of words have been written, many more words spoken, friendships strained or broken, churches divided, and many sins committed—and I am not saying this because I think the sins have been on one side only.

In the course of this controversy, on the Federal Vision side of things, I have seen more than a few examples of intemperate remarks, frayed tempers, and an unhelpful imputation of evil motives to others. Fortunately, I have also seen a frequent quickness to repent and a desire to make such things right. I say this as a participant in the controversy, and, I suppose, as something of an obvious partisan. Part of the reason Christians are reluctant to acknowledge any kind of wrong-doing in the middle of a fight is because "anything you say can and will be used against you." Stonewalling is easier than giving ammo to the adversary.
I don't want to gut the force of what I want to argue in this article, so let me limit my "qualifications" about all this to this introductory section. I write this knowing fully some of the provocations my brothers have gone through. C. S. Lewis once wisely said, when comparing the heated rhetoric of Thomas More and William Tyndale, that it had to be remembered that Tyndale was the one being persecuted for his faith. It was not a level playing field. Lewis said something similar about Bunyan, and I believe there is a similar asymmetry in this situation. Exasperated rhetoric in self-defense is a very different sin than slander and accusation from one in authority or a doctrinal bounty-hunter out to make a name for himself.
That said, a common question raised by critics of the Federal Vision is this—"Why don't you guys admit any legitimate point that your critics might bring up? Why won't you disavow `something outrageous' that Schlissel or Lusk said?" The answers to this kind of question have been addressed in different settings already, but I want to mention them again here. The first is a Golden Rule issue. I have been misrepresented by FV critics time without number, and because I don't want Schlissel or Lusk disavowing me for things I don't really believe, I have no intention of doing it to them. And FV critics have not been reliable in handling what I have said, so why should I take them as reliable when they decide to give my friends the treatment? Second, in a scriptural understanding of justice, the burden of proof is on the accuser. I don't have to prove my innocence or the innocence of my friends. If any one of them were convicted by a court of the church, I would then have the burden of looking at what evidence was used, how they responded to it, and so on. But that hasn't happened yet. And third, the Scriptures teach us that in a doctrinal controversy, it is important to discern why a question is being asked. Some people asked Jesus questions because they were not far from the kingdom, and others did it because they were trying to trap Him.
So my loyalties to my friends and fellow laborers in this reformational ministry have not budged, nor will they. But I do want to urge my fellows in the FV trenches to take heed with regard to the following things. I have seen issues that concern me, and so I want to caution against them. Some of this I have already addressed in private conversations, and all of it needs to be said in public. None of it falls in the category of assuming sin in the ranks of those whom I address, and I am making no particular accusations. It is just that I know what I would do if I were the devil. How would I tempt? How would I try to exploit this most unfortunate division in the Reformed world? Scripture says that we are to exhort one another daily, so that we are not hardened by sin's deceitfulness. That is all this article is—provoking to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). Now in mentioning good works as I have just done, perhaps it would be prudent if I hastened to add that we are not justified by them.
First, it was a wise Puritan who said that the devil loves to fish in troubled waters. So the first thing that is necessary here is to guard the heart. In doctrinal controversy, it is the easiest thing in the world to believe that the "stakes" are this doctrine or that one. But a lot more than that is always going on. We can establish the right doctrine the right way, the right doctrine the wrong way, the wrong doctrine the right way, or, for the most popular option, the wrong doctrine in the wrong way. When two positions collide, we must always remember that there is a deeper right than being right.
The second problem is taking the poor caliber of much of the public criticism we have received as representative of the whole. There are critics who don't have the faintest idea of what we (or they) are talking about, and their ignorance is culpable. Men who are vocational theologians should be able to master these distinctions—that is what they are being paid to do. But this is not the case across the board. Some critics are reasonable men and women, who do not have any particular ax to grind, but are puzzled or concerned about some of the stuff they are hearing. And I am not speaking of those who hear rumors second or third hand. Rank-and-file believers who think that I have puppy sandwiches every day for lunch because they read all about it on the Internet are also culpable. Rather I am talking about folks who are hearing a different vocabulary than what they are accustomed to, and when this happens, they have a duty to Christ in this—they are supposed to be wary and suspicious. We don't want to produce the FV equivalent of the Calvinist "cage stage." When someone first learns the doctrines of grace, they need to be locked in a cage for three years, and kept out of all conversations with Arminians. This is because the Arminianism that they believed for thirty years is now irrefutable proof that the Arminian they are currently talking to is an idiot. There are all kinds of reasonable questions and concerns, and we desperately need to remember that. I cannot come to certain conclusions over the course of ten years, and then demand that others do it in ten minutes.
The third issue can be illustrated by adapting something from Hegel's playbook. His take on history was that a thesis would provoke an antithesis. The two of them would meet, make a little love, and we would soon have ourselves a little synthesis. This synthesis would become a new thesis, and the process would repeat. Now as a master explanation of history, this is lacking in all kinds of ways, and among other bad things brought us the carnage of communism. But it does explain some things, at least for purposes of illustration. One of them is this: it is perilously easy for people who are in the midst of a reaction (antithesis) to a particular status quo (the thesis) to think that the thesis has always "just been there," like the everlasting rocks. But there was a time, not that long ago, when these moribund expressions of doctrine that we find inadequate now were once new, fresh, and exciting. And they did not just seem that way, as though doctrinal shifts are nothing more than a rearrangement of the furniture. These were honest answers, and they were like a kiss on the lips. Banner-of-Truth Calvinism seems stuck in a bad rut now, but there was a time in my life when tumbling into their literature was like busting out into the Narnian snow dance. And the ossified and formulaic expressions of evangelicalism that we struggle with now were, at one time, the words that brought Europe back from the dead. Now some people are not interested in the power of religion, but rather in the form of it. They want to be curators of the museum, with an inspiring exhibit on justification by faith alone, three feet behind the velvet rope, there behind the glass. Others hold to the old doctrines in truth, don't want to give any of that up, and of course they shouldn't. We shouldn't act like we are asking them to, because we aren't doing that either.
The next four concerns are particular issues with young men who have been attracted to the FV for various reasons. There is quite a difference between them and a man who has had a pilgrimage over decades through the zaniness of contemporary faith in America. He has done his time as a charismatic, then as a Baptist, then as a theonomic Reformed Baptist, then as a Presbyterian. He has a lot of wisdom, a lot of dents in his helmet, and one of the horns is knocked off. He then comes to the FV conversation, and he sees a number of questions addressed and answered that had been bugging him for thirty years, and he accepts the FV approach to these questions with gratitude and caution. Compare this to a young man who comes to this whole thing fresh off the boat. He embraces it enthusiastically, because his soil is thin and he has no root. After six months in the FV conversation, he popes. After a few months there, he decides that all the modern popes are heretics, becomes a sedevacantist, and becomes a true "Roman Catholic" rigorist. His congregation has a membership of three, four when their wife has their second kid. It's kind of like that old Protestant sectarianism, only with Latin names for stuff. This is another way of saying that I trust experienced FV men who have paid their dues, and I am wary of young FV men who look like the dues that someone else is going to have to pay.
A fifth temptation occurs when you are falsely accused of theft; it is sometimes a temptation to go off and steal something. When slanders of "not Reformed," or "heretic" fly, it is easy for some to just embrace the accusation, and say something like, "Yeah, what about it? I never cared that much about being Reformed anyway. I just want to be biblical." This is because the time they have been Reformed can be measured in weeks—there is not all that much invested in it. When coupled with the first temptation mentioned here—that of getting your attitude cranked—it is easy to go off and embrace what the FV men are falsely accused of embracing. The FV community has had a few of these young men, who thought they were being a vanguard when all they were being was a grief and a trouble.
Temptation number six is not limited to young men, but it is more prevalent there. The clash between FV and its critics is often cast as a collision between "systematic" theology and "biblical" theology. There is a serious point here, and I do not want to dismiss it. But I also want to urge care, because it is not that simple. Systematic theology, like liturgy, is inescapable. Everyone has a systematic theology, whether they write it down in three volumes or not. The only difference is the nature of the system. And biblical theology, done right, is magnificent. But it is kind of like vers libre—in the hands of a master, it can be overwhelming and glorious. In the hands of an anxiety-ridden junior-high girl, it can be terrible.
There is a temptation in FV circles, in an understandable reaction to how some of our critics have been leaving baskets of fruit in front of the confessions, to pit knowledge of the Bible against knowledge of the Reformed confessions. It is assumed that there is an inverse relationship between them—the better you know your confession, the less likely it is that you will know your Bible. But this is exactly the opposite of what I have found in instructing young people. If someone has memorized their Shorter Catechism, or the Heidelberg, and we test them on their knowledge of the Bible—simple biblical grammar questions like "Who lived first, David or Abraham?"—the catechized kids will generally do far better. Those who say that knowledge of the Bible is "far more important" than knowledge of the confessions are less likely to know their Bible very well. It is kind of like comparing those who tithe with those who believe that they should "give out of love and as the Spirit leads," with the Spirit always leading somewhere between one and two percent. There is no necessary contradiction between knowledge of the Reformed tradition and knowledge of the Bible. Those who make an idol out of the confessions are a walking contradiction—but it is a contradiction between knowledge of the Bible and knowledge of their idolatry.
This could go on for a while, but let me conclude with one last concern. This is related to some of the previous concerns, but it also bears mentioning in its own right. One of the great fears of FV critics is the fear of nominalism. One of the great pastoral fears of the FV men is the fear of beating the saints up in the name of getting them to examine the inner recesses of their hearts. In other words, some people are so tired of being badgered every week to "search their hearts" that they are desperate for some gospel rest. The FV offers that, and it offers it as the glorious gospel of grace. And what happens when you preach grace? Those in need of it come and their thirst is quenched. But there is another kind of person who comes also—and the apostle Paul even had to deal with this kind of character. Paul preached grace, and he was falsely accused of preaching license. Some people rejected Paul for that reason, and others, sharing the same misunderstanding, thought he was hot stuff.
I believe that liturgy is God-given and inescapable. I am as enthusiastic as a man can be about the potency of covenant renewal worship. But I also know there is a certain kind of person attracted to this for all the wrong reasons, and they are attracted to it precisely because it gives them a place of religious respectability where they can hide from God. This temptation is mentioned throughout the Bible, and FV critics warn us in dire terms of the nominalism that will result if the measures we suggest are adopted by the Church. Well, sure it will happen. When you sow the seed, birds eat some of it. When you sow the seed, thorns and weeds choke out some of it. Let God be true, and every man a liar. If you enroll in a math class, the first thing you will encounter is math problems. That is not an argument against taking the class. But it is an argument for being prepared to solve the problems. It is not an answer to the FV critic to insist on enrolling in the class, and then refusing to do the problems.
So FV pastors need to be sensitive to this, and when we are warned about it (by people we believe are exaggerating the issues), we need to acknowledge that this is a temptation that the Bible hammers on over the course of millennia. Away with the noise of your songs, and get your homosexual chancel prancers the hell out of here. Who required of you this trampling of my courts? I have seen more than one moth flying toward the FV candle for all the wrong reasons. There are some folks who like the externals offered in FV worship because their internals are such a mess.
There is a pastoral awareness of this kind of temptation (I call it "sunny and affectionate cynicism") that is really most necessary. When FV pastors are ministering to those who have been genuinely beat up by "soul-searching preaching"—a thirteen part series on the sin of coveting your neighbor's new snow shovel—the temptation is to think that all refugees from that kind of thing must be genuine. But there are plenty of people in the world who could benefit from any kind of soul-searching preaching, including a Larger Catechism approach to the snow shovel problem. They will flee from any kind of preaching that gets at their innards, and they will gravitate to worship services where someone important gets to walk around dressed up like Saruman. In my mind, this is not an argument against liturgical worship at all. But it is an argument against liturgical worship presided over by pastoral naïfs.
Pastoral wisdom cannot be universally critical or universally accepting. People are different. The cure of souls cannot take a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Affectionate cynicism is in order. One time when my grandson Rory was about two years old, the adults were sitting around in the living room after Sabbath dinner. We were having a good time visiting with guests, and in that setting, Rory came barreling out into the living room and announced to his father Nate, "I love Jesus." The same suspicious thought came into my mind and into his father's mind at right about the same moment. The guests were saying awwhhh while Nate headed off to the back of the house to see what his son had broken. It turned out in that case that nothing had been broken, and that Rory really did love Jesus.
And so should we all.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 15 October 2009 21:27