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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.
1) Dr Waters is correct to note that the Federal Vision diverges from the Reformed tradition on many points; however, simply quoting where they disagree with the confession is not enough. This is what the critics of FV fail to note: to really destroy a position in debate, you have to stand within that position and show the internal tensions in it. Merely arguing across systems, as Wittengstein taught us, fails miserably.
2) While it might be true that Leithart dismisses Aristotelian causality in his work, Waters fails to note that Leithart is working with the most rigorous understanding (and sometimes critique of) philosophy, ancient and modern. Where he does dismiss Aristotle, it is where Aristotle himself is weak. How about we critique Leithart's use of Ziziolous, Heiddeger, Marion, etc?
3) I've never believed that Wilson truly abandoned the Reformed tradition, and given Wilson's recent attacks on NT Wright, I am correct.
4) Waters is to be commended for separating the theonomic controversy from the Federal Vision controversy. It's staggering how many critics fail at this elementary distinction.
5) Apropos of (1) Waters could have scored huge points by showing how difficult for Calvinism is Leithart's view of apostasy and Leithart's critique of the invisible/visible church distinction as Nestorian (which it looks like). He let this slide (or didn't know the seriousness of the issues). However, had he addressed this issue, he would have been forced to answer it on grounds independent of the Confession--a move no critic of FV has yet to make.
6) Be very careful of charging your opponents as closet-Catholics. For if you assign to them the nomenclature of "Roman Catholic," and note that their theology is very similar to the Patrum Consenus, then you have just vindicated both FV and Rome as being historically normative.
This book has received heavy criticism, and rightfully so. However, there are a number of issue FV guys need to address: mainly, if the invisible/visible church distinction is Nestorian, and Leithart is correct on apostasy, how can you legitimately stay Protestant? For once you admit the Nestorian charge and posit something like "historical/eschatological church," you are already on the EO and RCC terms of debate?
Waters did ask the right questions, he simply failed to give an internal critique.