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The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis Paperback – June 14, 2006
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"Preferring light to heat, Waters has done an admirable job of allowing his interlocutors to speak for themselves. He offers clear-headed, exegetically grounded responses." --Michael Horton
"Reformed pastors and interested lay people need the sober biblical analysis provided by this book, and Guy Waters is uniquely qualified to write it." --Richard D. Phillips
"Thoroughly researched and clearly written. Waters deals fairly and charitably with the chief advocates and ideas of the 'Federal Vision.' He shows from their own writings how they have departed from the teaching of Scripture summarized in the Reformed confessions." --Joel Beeke
About the Author
Guy Prentiss Waters (BA, University of Pennsylvania; MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary; PhD, Duke University) is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. At Duke, he studied under Richard B. Hays and E. P. Sanders, two leading expositors of the New Perspectives on Paul. Dr. Waters is the author of Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute of Biblical Research.
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He wrote in the Foreword to this 2006 book, "The goal of this project is to show that the FV [Federal Vision], when measured against the Scripture and against the Westminster Standards, not only falls short of the 'whole counsel of God,' but, at any number of points, counters biblical teaching... It is my hope... that readers will take two things from the work. First, they will see that the FV fails not only to rise to the measure of its own professed aims and intentions but also to withstand the light of biblical and confessional scrutiny. Second, they will have awakened in them an interest in studying more deeply our confessional standards as theologically and practically relevant statements for the twenty-first century church." (Pg. xiv-xv)
After the first portion of the book, he summarizes, "We inaugurated our study of the Federal Vision by examining what, according to FV proponents, a covenant is and how this understanding informs or transforms our understanding of the Trinity. We moved in the first of two trajectories in the previous two chapters: the nature and order of the covenants in biblical history, and the doctrine of justification. We are now prepared to launch a second and no less important trajectory. We begin with a study of the way in which covenant and election are related. This study will stem from two conclusions drawn in the opening chapter: the FV doctrine of covenantal objectivity and the FV doctrine of the undifferentiated nature of covenantal membership.” (Pg. 96)
He argues that “[John] Barach embraces two distinct but overlapping doctrines of election. He affirms both decretal election and what he calls covenantal election. Decretal election for Barach has little practical value. He prefers to speak of covenantal election. Covenantal election, as Barach expresses it, bears remarkable similarities to the Arminian doctrine of conditional election. It is in this sense, notwithstanding his profession of the Reformed doctrine of (decretal) election, that we may say that Barach’s overall doctrine of election is Arminian or at least semi-Arminian.” (Pg. 120)
He says that “[Rich] Lusk not only uses the term ‘regeneration’ in at least two (and perhaps three) senses but defends his preferred uses as in keeping with biblical terminology and the purported usage of the early Reformers. Such usage, however, is irresponsible. It unnecessarily invites confusion by rejecting long-standing and conventional uses of a theological term (regeneration). It redefines and uses terms and phrases in ways that are bound to generate confusion within the contemporary church (baptismal regeneration).” (Pg. 227-228) He adds, “Lusk himself concedes that water baptism is not SO necessary that an elect infant, for instance, will perish in the absence of its administration… there is an inherent tension in his view. Lusk’s REAL doctrine must insist on an absolute necessity of baptism. Practically, however, he recognizes that such a necessity is impossible. The problem is unbaptized or pre-baptized covenant children in utero… To affirm that absolute necessity of baptism for receiving the benefits of salvation is necessarily to exclude nonbaptized or prebaptized infants who may be regenerate. On the other hand, to allow some nonbaptized or prebaptized infants to possess the benefits of salvation means… that their baptism is a sign…of what they already possess. Their baptism, then, puts them in possession of nothing salvific.” (Pg. 229-230)
He points out, “the Westminster Standards understand the application of redemption in terms of the ‘means of grace.’ As we have argued in our discussions of baptism, however, one need not affirm FV views concerning sacramental and baptismal efficacy in order to give the Standards’ doctrine of the means of grace its due. FV doctrines may be seen as not only as other than what the Standards teach, but also as overreactions to the minimalistic doctrine that can circulate within Reformed churches.” (Pg. 281)
He summarizes, “In each of these four case studies we have observed examples of what we have termed a flat hermeneutic---an approach to biblical interpretation that so stresses continuity between the Testaments that the teaching of Scripture becomes distorted. We are offered what amounts to a doctrine of conditional election; an unbiblical doctrine of sacramental efficacy; an approach to worship … that is much closer to Rome than it is to Geneva; and the admission of infants to the Lord’s Supper. When we inquire what was the breeding ground of this hermeneutic, we need look no further than theonomy, to which Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, and Steve Wilkins have subscribed. The theonomic hermeneutic, with its strong emphasis on the continuity of the Testaments, makes possible the phenomena observed in these case studies.” (Pg. 291-292)
He concludes, “The Federal Vision … is first and foremost a theological system…we have raised a number of concerns about explicitly articulated FV statements (the covenant of works, imputation, justification, assurance, sacramental efficacy) as well as concerns about certain implications of FV statements for other doctrines (election, regeneration). On this analysis, it is impossible to reconcile a number of FV statements with Reformed theology as summarized in the Westminster Standards… FV views are out of accord with those Standards… the [FV] system promotes decreased confidence in the Spirit’s working by and with the Word to regenerate the sinner. The FV system promotes increased confidence in the salvific value of one’s covenantal membership and of the sacrament of baptism. It promotes an increased and unwholesome confidence in one’s covenantal faithfulness. It undercuts and diminishes the believer’s trust in Scripture as propositional revelation.” (PG. 299-300)
This detailed critique will be of great value to anyone studying this controversy---whether or not one agrees with all of Waters’ positions.
First of all, Waters - correctly, in my opinion - locates the heart of the Federal Vision in the idea that children of believers are members of the Covenant of Grace (p. 17).
Immediately, it can be seen how this is tapping into an issue on which there has always been a difference of opinion in Reformed circles, and inconsistency among the Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 74) says infants "as well as adults, are included in the covenant and church of God," while Article 34 of the Belgic Confession says "Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults." The Westminster Larger Catechism, however, takes a different view, and says (Q & A 31) that the covenant was made "with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." The Westminster Confession is not explicit on this point.
Waters takes issue with this central thesis of the Federal Vision position, but he does so mainly on the basis of its contravention of the Westminster Standards, and of "Reformed tradition". Waters objects to the Federal Vision using different language, having a different emphasis, and going beyond, not just the Westminster Standards, but Reformed theology.
The reader may well be wondering, however, where is the biblical rebuttal? Waters does refer to two passages (p. 19) that, he says, speak of "the covenantally unfaithful as those who were never truly members of the covenant of grace in the first place": 1 John 2:19-20 ("They went out from us, but they were not of us") and Matthew 7:22-23 ("Many will say to Me in that day, `Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name'... And I will declare to them, `I never knew you'...")
One example of a comparison with the Westminster Standards involves justification. Waters says, "Whereas our Standards speak of justification as an 'act', we have observed formulations that render justification a process" (p. 95). The Larger Catechism (but not the Confession) speaks in this way - "Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight..." (Q & A 70). The Canons of Dort, however, refer to justification as a state - "But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification..." (V.6). So, justification is not merely an act, and Waters appears to be unaware of the broader Reformed tradition at this point.
I was somewhat annoyed by Waters' constant appeal to (what he considers to be) Reformed tradition. Here are some representative quotes:
- "Lusk appears to invest much more in the connection between justification and resurrection than students of the Standards have hitherto done" (p. 80)
- "Shepherd undermines the traditional distinction between the church visible and invisible" (p. 102)
- "Wilson's argument fails to overturn conventional Reformed readings of this passage..." (p. 154)
- "This is a far stronger principle of covenantal continuity than has been admitted within the historical mainstream of Reformed interpreters" (p. 290)
Waters appeals to the Reformed tradition, but he has a skewed view of what it consists of - on some of these points there have been a rich variety of opinions within Reformed communities. And while interpretive tradition has an important place in the life of the church, Waters seems to believe that anything new in theology must necessarily be wrong.
However, quite apart from the Federal Vision-specific issues, one wonders about Waters' own qualifications to be a defender of Reformed Orthodoxy. He repeatedly talks about how the Federal Visionists reject the idea that grace is a substance (e.g. pp. 62, 171, 182, 214, 261, 295). So the reader is left wondering whether Waters himself believes that it is.
Perhaps, as a sort of thought experiment, we might turn the tables and ask whether in fact Waters is truly Reformed himself. After all, he says (pp 85-86), "I have my doubts that 'definitive sanctification' is a biblical teaching at all."
Of course, that would be going too far. Firstly, Waters doesn't deny definitive sanctification, he is merely questioning it here. Secondly, it could be that his reticence to use the phrase is merely a matter of terminology. Thirdly, it's not obvious that definitive sanctification is a necessary part of Reformed theology. Fourthly, as Waters indicates, the important thing is whether it is biblical - and to be biblical is to be truly Reformed.
Are the Federal Visionists any less Reformed than Waters? I don't think so. And yet Waters argues that the Federal Vision is not merely a subset of Reformed theology, but constitutes a different system altogether. For my own part, the central idea of the Federal Vision - that the Covenant of Grace is made with believers and their children - is something I've always believed.