Federal Vision Theology, also known as the New Perspective on Paul and Auburn Avenue Theology, is a movement within some Reformed churches that stresses the objectivity of the covenant of grace where God promises eternal salvation to people based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This covenant perspective includes church membership as an outward sign of being in a covenant relationship with Jesus, though “it does not yet answer the question of eternal destiny.”1. Federal Vision also includes discussions on the sacraments, justification, and eschatology with a predisposition toward postmillennialism.
Federal Vision Controversy
The main controversy is the accusation that Federal Vision denies justification by faith alone and says that members of the covenant are part of God’s covenant family, though they are not necessarily elect. It emphasizes the idea that participation in the covenant is what warrants salvation. Therefore, it is a conditional covenant – which implies conditional salvation – dependent on a person’s covenant faithfulness. In the book The Federal Vision, by Athanasius Press, which defends the teaching, it says,
“All those branded with the label “Federal Vision” emphatically embrace sola fide (justification by faith alone). What they have stressed, which has appeared to their opponents as a novelty or error, is that saving faith is a faith that perseveres and is also a faith that works by love. Justification is not based upon the works of the individual Christian. Justification is based upon the work of Christ Himself and received through faith. Justification comes only in union with the resurrected, glorified Jesus.” (Wilkins, Steve; Barach, John; Lusk, Rich; Horne, Mark; Jordan, James B.; Leithart, Peter J.; Schlissel, Steve; Wilson, Douglas. The Federal Vision . Athanasius Press. Kindle Edition, forward)
Their affirmation of justification by faith alone stands in contrast to the criticisms of some analysts from the Reformed perspective – quotes below.
Other areas of discussion include baptism as a sign of identification with the body of Christ. Those baptized are then viewed as members of the visible church. Children of the covenant members are under the covenant faithfulness of God (but it does not mean the children are necessarily elect). The controversy deals with God’s covenant people as being the “elect.” But, this term, in the context of FV, does not state that a person in the covenant is saved, but that this election is covenantal the same way that the nation of Israel was elect, but not all within that election was saved.
When did Federal Vision Theology Begin?
“The name “Federal Vision” was originally the title of the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference”2 which included the speakers Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins, and Steve Schlissel. This conference was aimed at discussing what covenant (Latin foedus means covenant) had to do with the modern church. The topic caused controversy, and in response, a second conference was held a year later, with the same speakers, and included people who had counterarguments. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Christian Reformed Churches (CRC) saw the FV emphasis on corporate covenant theology as wrong and rejected it as unbiblical and against the Westminster Standards.
Criticism of Federal Vision
The following are quotes critical of Federal Vision
“The view of a conditional covenant included the idea that all the children who were baptized were included in the covenant and received the promise of God that they would be saved—but on condition that they would, in the future, accept the provisions of the covenant.” (http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/4115-modern-heresies-federal-vision-1)
“[Federal Vision blends the concepts of] election and covenant, which leads to the unqualified claim that all members of the covenant community enjoy the gospel blessing of justification in Christ.” (https://covenantconfessions.com/federal-vision-pt-v-practical-reasons-to-denounce-this-heresy)
“Today the FV movement has been rejected by several of the major denominations in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Among those denominations that have rejected the FV: The Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the United Reformed Churches, the Reformed Church in the U. S., and the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America has a study committee. The URCs have rejected the FV by affirming justification by faith alone, without works, and by affirming the imputation of active obedience.” (https://heidelblog.net/2013/11/for-those-just-tuning-in-what-is-the-federal-vision)
The movement is not monolithic and can be hard to nail down since it is held by different people with varying perspectives. As it is cross-examined, responses seek to clarify and defend, and a shifting explanation occurs. I quoted from the book defending Federal Vision above, where it affirms justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Nevertheless, as theologians examine the teachings of Federal Vision theology and compare it to Scripture, the controversy will continue. In my opinion, very specific questions need to be asked by competent theologians regarding this perspective on justification.
If, as the critics maintain, federal vision denies justification by faith alone, then it is heretical. If, as the adherence proclaim, it does not deny justification by faith alone, it would not be heretical.
Years ago, I met the son of Doug Wilson, a proponent of Federal Vision, at a Bible study in Santa Cruz, California. To the best of my recollection, he and I discussed justification as a relates to covenant-keeping and salvation. I distinctly remember denouncing the position as heresy because it implied that we maintain our salvation by keeping the covenant boundaries. Of course, our conversation was brief, and we had to discontinue it to attend the study. Now, this is a memory from many years ago, and memories can be faulty. But, my concern for Federal Vision deals with justification by faith alone. Personally, I’m not satisfied with its orthodoxy, given what it says about covenant requirements. But, just to be fair, it could be the case that I’m not understanding it sufficiently. I would welcome a discussion on it with one or more of its proponents.
Wilkins, Steve; Barach, John; Lusk, Rich; Horne, Mark; Jordan, James B.; Leithart, Peter J.; Schlissel, Steve; Wilson, Douglas. The Federal Vision. Athanasius Press. Kindle Edition, Monroe Lousiana, 2004
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