This article was originally prepared as a paper for my previous congregation in Langley, British Columbia. Members there had been struggling with questions about the subject of Federal Vision. They were hearing, for instance, that Federal Vision theology is basically repeating what we have been taught by theologians from our own tradition. They were hearing that Canadian Reformed church members should feel comfortable with the Federal Vision. They were wondering whether this was all true and asked me to address it. As one of their pastors, I felt compelled to provide whatever leadership I could on the issue. The issue has not disappeared and so again I feel compelled to write on the matter, this time in a more public fashion.
The issue has had my attention for a while. In 2002, I had coffee with a United Reformed pastor in southern Alberta. He and I had been acquaintances from before our seminary training and so this was a time for catching up. He told me he’d been invited to speak at the Pastors’ Conference at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana. The conference organizers had originally asked Norman Shepherd, but when he was unavailable, John Barach was asked to take his place. John told me what he’d be speaking about and I had a suspicion it would create waves. So it did—and not only what he said, but also the others: Douglas Wilson, Steve Schlissel, and Steve Wilkins. This created a controversy in Reformed circles originally known as the “Auburn Avenue Theology,” but in more recent times “The Federal Vision.” “Federal” refers to the covenant; therefore, this is a movement that has it eyes on formulating its theology with a view to the covenant.
What precipitated this movement? According to Steve Wilkins, the original conference speakers were united by a concern that many Christians have neglected the covenant. Consequently, rather than trusting Christ, they trust their own experiences for the assurance of salvation. Moreover, “the gospel has been abstracted and reduced to a collection of propositional statements about Christ which require intellectual assent.” The church becomes merely a place of potential blessing. Many take a purely symbolic view of the sacraments. Finally, the confessions of the church have calcified into theological systems standing above the Word of God rather than in submission to it.1
Undoubtedly some of these concerns are valid, particularly in the broader Presbyterian context. Even in confessionally Reformed churches like the Canadian Reformed, one can find those who take a purely symbolic view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While the covenant has seldom been ignored in our circles, it could be argued that the gospel has been stripped down in our churches too. However, the question must be asked: how should these concerns be addressed?
The manner in which those associated with the Federal Vision have addressed these issues has come under intense scrutiny since 2002. Several confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches, including the Reformed Church in the United States and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, have spoken definitively against various Federal Vision formulations.2 The United Reformed Churches have also come to share the consensus of their sisters, as have any number of Reformed seminaries.3 It is fair to say that the consensus is in and the Federal Vision has been judged aberrant. If we in the Canadian Reformed Churches are going to break ranks with the consensus of other North America Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) churches, we should not only be carefully doing our homework, but also realizing the implications for our ecumenical efforts and relations.
In this article, I will briefly examine some of what those associated with the Federal Vision have been saying. I will demonstrate why, in the big picture, we should regard it as a deviation from confessional Reformed orthodoxy. In my estimation, it is naïve to suggest that the Federal Vision is simply repeating what we were taught by Schilder, Holwerda, and others. If Canadian Reformed believers truly value the faithful summary of Scripture in our confessions, they will not feel at home with the Federal Vision. Moreover, we ought to applaud the diligent efforts of the URCNA and other faithful Reformed and Presbyterian churches to address these teachings.
Before we proceed, a word about sources. In 2007, eleven figures associated with Federal Vision theology issued a confession of sorts, “A Joint Federal Vision Profession,” or the “Joint FV Statement” as it is often called. Any responsible treatment of the FV needs to take this statement into account. However, I do not believe it is necessary to restrict ourselves to this statement. For various reasons, Steve Schlissel was not able to sign the statement, yet he is universally regarded as an FV figure. Similarly, Norman Shepherd was originally invited to speak at the Auburn Avenue Conference and is also often identified as belonging to the FV movement, even if his name is not affixed to the statement. Therefore, I have interacted not only with the Joint FV Statement, but also other materials issued by those who either identify themselves as FV or are obviously to be identified with it. It is also important to note that FV adherents often speak of the diversity within their movement. I have tried to focus on points of commonality, but where there are distinct positions held by individuals I have endeavored to identify these as such.
Continuities and Discontinuities with Klaas Schilder & Co.
Some figures associated with the FV allege that they are simply restating what was taught by Klaas Schilder and others in the “Liberated” Reformed Churches. For instance, James Jordan claimed that he and others in the FV have benefited greatly from “the Liberated movement.”4 There may appear to be some validity to this claim. After all, it is true that Schilder and other Liberated figures sometimes questioned the legitimacy of terms such as “covenant of works.” Dr. Jelle Faber even publicly defended Norman Shepherd’s views in the early 1980s. It is equally true that they stressed the unity of the covenant from Genesis to Revelation and the importance of the covenant for all of life. But there is more to be said.
Let us begin with the definition and nature of the covenant of grace. According to Steve Wilkins, “The covenant is not some thing that exists apart from Christ or in addition to him (another means of grace)—rather, the covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ.”5 This hyper-objective manner of thinking about the covenant of grace inevitably leads to the conclusion that there is only one way in the covenant of grace: union with Christ (which implies reception of all his benefits). Consequently, all covenant members, all those who are baptized, are united to Christ. Jeffrey Meyers goes so far as to say that all covenant children are “forgiven, justified, adopted, etc. by means of their baptism into the church.”6
In ages past, some Reformed theologians spoke about an internal/external distinction with respect to the covenant of grace. Some (the elect) were internally in the covenant, while others (the reprobate) were only externally in the covenant. Schilder and others exposed what they believed to be the exegetical and doctrinal problems with this formulation. However, Schilder did propose another distinction in its place, one that maintains that there are in fact two ways of relating to the covenant of grace. He wrote of a vital aspect and a legal aspect to the covenant. Nelson Kloosterman elaborates on that, using this distinction,
He taught that all baptized children are legally in the covenant of grace, and therefore all children are genuinely addressed by its promises, demands, and threats. By the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, some of these baptized children come to faith, whereby they appropriate the promised blessings of the covenant of grace in vital union with Jesus Christ.7
In other words, some relate both legally and vitally to the covenant of grace, while others relate only legally.
This manner of stating things is found more often in the writings of Schilder. As an example, in an article in De Reformatie in 1947, Schilder criticized those in the Synodical church who confused these matters. Schilder insisted on a difference between sharing in a promise and sharing in what is promised. Sharing in a promise (through God’s address at baptism) is a legal reality. Sharing in what is promised takes place through the Spirit—it involves a vital union with Christ through faith. Schilder alleged that those who confuse these two end up fantasizing about people possessing things that they do not, in fact, possess.8
This legal/vital distinction is undoubtedly in the background of several “Liberated” treatments of the position and responsibilities of children in the covenant of grace, as well as the nature of the promises signed and sealed in baptism. Take the example of J. Van Bruggen. In his commentary on the Belgic Confession, he was critical of the internal/external distinction. He maintained that God’s covenant applies to all baptized children. All baptized children receive the promises of the covenant.9 However, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Van Bruggen clarified that this does not mean all baptized children receive what is promised:
Some will say that baptism does not assure us that I am entitled to forgiveness of sins, but that I have forgiveness. They point to the fact that the Catechism says in Answer 69 that water washes the dirt away, and in Answer 73 that we are cleansed from our sins spiritually. But we must not forget that those are the answers of a believing confessor, that is, someone who has accepted his baptism. Our entitlement to the forgiveness of sins is like a cheque. When you have a cheque for $1000, you do not have $1000, but you are entitled to it. The cheque is evidence of your entitlement. The payee, who believes the cheque to be reliable, is apt to say, “I have $1000.” But the cheque is not the same as $1000. Rather, it is the evidence and assurance of his right to the money.10
Similarly, Gootjes deals with the promises of baptism and examines the promises of the triune God that are outlined in the first part of our Form for Infant Baptism. He especially focuses on the promise that the Spirit will dwell in us. He asks, “Can these words be applied to all children that are baptized? Does the Spirit dwell in all of them?”11 Carefully he works through the historical, confessional, and biblical data, coming to the conclusion that the Form does not assert an existing situation, but summarizes what is promised to the covenant people of God.
There was a controversy in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) about this very point in the 1960s. Rev. L. E. Oosterhoff of Beverwijk argued that all who are baptized receive not only the promise, but also what has been promised. So, for instance, he maintained that the forgiveness of sins is a reality for each and every baptized child. It was then possible for the baptized child, through unbelief, to lose this and the other benefits of Christ. Synod Rotterdam-Delfshaven 1964–1965 judged this to be in conflict with the teaching of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.12 Synod Amersfoort-West 1966 confirmed this judgment.
Liberated theologian C. G. Bos even went so far as to call this a heresy. As he explained it, “All the benefits God has promised are ours only if we accept them with a believing heart. We have these benefits in the promise. However, those who do not accept and use this promise in faith do not receive these benefits.”13
So, according to what has just been outlined, all baptized children of believers receive the promises of the covenant of grace. The Father promises to take them for his children and heirs, the Savior promises to save, and the Spirit promises to dwell in them all—head for head. We can recognize this as what Schilder called the legal aspect.14 However, each child is obligated to receive those promises in faith—in the words of Van Bruggen, to take the cheque to the bank. What is promised can only normally be received in the way of faith—of course, we recognize exceptional circumstances such as children who die in infancy (cf. Canons of Dort 1.17). But normally, children must grow up and embrace the promises in faith and thereby receive all the benefits of Christ: justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification, and so on. We can recognize that as relating to the covenant of grace in a vital manner. Only those who relate to the covenant of grace in that way are truly and savingly united to Christ.
Moreover, so far as I have been able to determine, Schilder never described the covenant as being “union with Christ” in the manner of Wilkins and other FV advocates. If anywhere, you might expect to read this in Schilder’s booklet, The Main Points of the Doctrine of the Covenant.15 But it is not there. Schilder just does not go in that direction.16 In fact, in his book Untempered Mortar (Looze Kalk), Schilder defines the covenant as follows: “The covenant is a mutual agreement between God and His people, established by Himself, but maintained (by virtue of His gracious work) by Himself and His people as the two ‘parties.’”17 There is no mention of union with Christ.
Kloosterman writes about the mistaken impression sometimes given that “the name and thought of K. Schilder should and can easily be associated with the errors of Rev. N. Shepherd and those connected with ‘the Federal Vision.’”18 As mentioned earlier, there are some similarities in regard to covenant theology. However, it is not quite as cut and dried as some have made it out to be. Moreover, as we proceed, we will see how advocates of the FV have departed from confessionally Reformed orthodoxy in a way that Schilder never did.
1. Steve Wilkins, “Introduction,” in The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner (Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2004), 11–12.
2. For the RCUS report of the “Study Committee on the Federal Vision’s Doctrine of Justification,” see http://tinyurl.com/RCUSONFV; for the OPC “Report on Justification,” see http://tinyurl.com/OPCFV
3. For a representative example, see Mid-America Seminary Faculty, Doctrinal Testimony Regarding Recent Errors (Dyer: Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 2007). [For the official URCNA response to FV, see http://bit.ly/iswgRq]
4. Christian Renewal, August 22, 2007, letter to the editor.
5. The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons, ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Fort Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 262.
6. Quoted here: http://bit.ly/iLeKzG
7. Nelson D. Kloosterman, “For the Sake of Accuracy: Berkhof, Schilder and the Legal/Vital Distinction,” in Christian Renewal, May 2, 2007. In personal correspondence, Kloosterman noted that it is important to emphasize a distinction between: 1) an external covenant and an internal covenant; 2) external members and internal members of the covenant; and 3) an external aspect and an internal aspect of the covenant. Though like Vos and Berkhof he did not like the terms “external” and “internal,” Schilder essentially affirmed the third distinction (and rejected the first two), replacing “external” and “internal” with the better terms “legal” and “vital.”
8. K. Schilder in De Reformatie 18 (22 March 1947), 185.
9. J. Van Bruggen, The Church Says Amen: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 2003), 200–202.
10. J. Van Bruggen, Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1991), 180. Clarence Bouwman asks whether “every child also automatically receive the contents of the promises?” He then uses the same illustration as Van Bruggen and concludes, “I need to respond to my baptism! This response is faith. In faith I need to embrace what God promises me. If I fail to believe those promises, I will not receive the contents of those promises.” Clarence Bouwman, The Overflowing Riches of My God (Winnipeg: Premier, 2008), 368.
11. Nicolaas H. Gootjes, Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010), 184.
12. Acta van de Generale Synod van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland Gehouden te Rotterdam-Delfshaven van 7 April 1964 tot 28 Januari 1965 (Rotterdam: N.V. Firma Groenendijk, 1965), 199–202 (Artikel 449b).
13. C. G. Bos, Believe and Confess (Vol. 2) (London, ON: Inter-League Publication Board, 2004), 125.
14. See also Klaas Schilder, Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger (Neerlandia: Inheritance, 1996). Schilder is here discussing the words, “the promise is for all” in the Form for Baptism: “If the words ‘are for’ mean that the promise creates a legal connection and acknowledges the already existing connection and also puts the baptized person individually under legal claims, then we say the promise is for all. If, however, someone wants the expression ‘are for’ to be understood in the sense that one will receive for all eternity the promised contents, down to the last cent, then we assure you that the promise is only for the elect” (90–91). Later, Schilder also writes about the promises signed and sealed in baptism: “To this child it is said, ‘You, child, under the condition (that is to say under emphasized assurance and stipulation) that your faith will be and must be the only way in which all this will happen (therefore you are called and obliged to this), the Father will provide you with all good and He will avert all evil or turn it to your benefit, the Spirit will impart to you what we have in Christ’” (145—italics original, bold emphasis added).
15. K. Schilder, “The Main Points of the Doctrine of the Covenant,” translated by T. VanLaar, available online at www.spindleworks.com
16. Cf. S. A. Strauss, “Schilder on the Covenant,” in Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder, ed. by J. Geertsema (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1995), 19–33.
17. K. Schilder, Looze Kalk (Groningen, 1946), 66. Quoted in translation in J. VanGenderen, Covenant and Election (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995), 97.
18. Kloosterman, op.cit.
Dr. Wes Bredenhof serves as the pastor of the Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.