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A Cautionary Note

In this post, I will start going through the issue of Credenda Agenda devoted to the Federal Vision, which is volume 19, number 3. The first article is entitled “A Cautionary Note.” As with much of Wilson, I found some good things, and some not so good things.

Let’s start with the good things. I appreciated his acknowledgment of systematic theology:

Systematic theology, like liturgy, is inescapable. Everyone has a systematic theology, whether they write it down in three volumes or not (pg 5, 2nd column).

I agree with that, especially in an age disposed to set systematic theology against biblical theology, or, worse yet, to say that they don’t have a systematic theology, or that they spit on systematic theology. Of such people as these, one wonders how systematically they hold to that assertion. What I cannot respect, in this day of post-Muller Scholasticism scholarship, is any statement knocking on the Protestant scholastics. Some Federal Vision advocates have done this from time to time. As Muller represents, scholasticism refers to a method of teaching, not the content of said teaching. One could perhaps state that the form contributes to the meaning. Fair enough. But do fine distinctions undermine clarity or produce it? Every time I have cracked open one of the scholastic theologians’ hefty tomes, I have been enlightened, not endarkened. Time after time, they help make it click, even if I disagree with them on some point. Furthermore, the scholastics were burdened to lay out their systems in a way that is not only positive (kataphatic), but also polemically, in contradistinction to the various wrong and unbiblical opinions floating around in those days. As a result, gobs of clarity resulted. One really wonders sometimes whether those who critique the scholastics have actually read them.

Okay, that’s for the good stuff. Now for the critical stuff. First up is his defense of why the FV’ers have not admitted to believing the slightest wrong doctrine. He says, “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” (pg. 4, 1st column). Now, there is certainly an element of truth to this, since people under attack go into defense-on-steroids mode. Of course, the problem with this way of thinking for anyone is that they fail to realize how disarming humility can be. I remember a prime instance of my brother-in-law arguing with the rest of my family about baseball. His position was that if the pitcher of one team beaned a batter on the other team, then it was the responsibility of the beaned team to strike back at a batter of the offending team. My father and others were doubting the ethical nature of said conduct. In the middle of the discussion, Tom said, “Of course, the problem with my position is x” (don’t exactly remember what x was). You never heard a room so quiet after that remark! This was so foreign to the Keister way of arguing (which bears a much closer resemblance, not to say precise identification-mechanical exactitude with the already critiqued defense-on-steroids method of argumentation), that the Keister side had no argument remaining. In other words, stonewalling gives ammo to the enemy. Humility and a willingness to admit theological wrongs disarms the critic. Of course, Wilson was referring to the mentality of one under siege. I am merely pointing out that the mentality of one under siege (which certainly does work in the way Wilson suggests) does not correspond to reality.

Secondly, a bit about the Golden Rule. Wilson states this: 

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? (emphasis original) 

I would like to ask all FV advocates this question: do you think that FV critics have been lying about what the FV teaches? If so, then why have you never instigated Matthew 18 procedures against said people? Lying about someone’s views is not any lesser of a sin than the actual heresy involved. Someone might say that the critics have sinned in ignorance. That loophole is not open to FV advocates. They themselves have imputed false motives to many FV critics. “Star Judicial Chamber” comes to mind as one imputation of false motives. Someone might also say that they “know it wouldn’t work, so they won’t try it.” By that argument William Wilburforce should never have tried to abolish slave trade in Great Britain, since there were way too many people opposed to it. But here is one thing that is not confessional, and I would argue is flagrantly against the law of God: accusing someone of lying about one’s position, but never doing anything judicially to follow that up. This is one thing that makes me absolutely furious with the Federal Vision. Knock off the charges of lying, or stick it to the critics by bringing charges!

Thirdly, Wilson notes that the burden of proof lies with the accuser. I wholeheartedly agree with this. However, I don’t exactly see FV critics failing to acknowledge this burden of proof. Isn’t this why we have brought charges against the Louisiana Presbytery? Isn’t this why charges would have been brought against Wilkins if he had stayed? Isn’t this why thousands of man hours of labor have gone into all the various study committee reports, which, if you believe the FV advocates, contain not one ounce of truth when it comes to stating the FV positions fairly and accurately? Oh, if you believe the FV advocates, the only time when FV critics “understand” the FV’ers is when the point is not important, or critical for the system of doctrine stated in the confessions. Well, that’s marvelously convenient, isn’t it? I, for one, feel this burden of proof rather strongly, that it lies on me/other critics to prove the guilt of the FV. However, what doesn’t lie on me, or any other FV critic, is to prove to the FV advocate’s satisfaction the guilt of the view in question. The FV is not the court that decides whether their views have been adequately and fairly represented. The denominations’ courts are those courts that decide. Because of the first point regarding stonewalling, can’t the FV admit that there might be just one point in all of this (hypothetically speaking, possibly, in the dim, murky lighting of self-burying defensiveness) where the FV have claimed to be confessional, when they are in fact, not? That when Norman Shepherd claims that the OPC and PCA should chuck the Westminster Standards, that therefore he is making an ipso facto claim that he is not confessional when it comes to Westminsterian orthodoxy, to give one example?

Fourthly, regarding Wilson’s loyalties. He states, “So my loyalties to my friends and felloow laborers in this reformational ministry have not budged, nor will they” (pg. 4, 2nd column). This is really too bad. This means that Wilson will continue to stonewall for his friends. Of course, by “stonewalling,” I am meaning a corporate, covenantal meaning, not the individualistic post-Enlightenment meaning that Wilson gives to it. What’s true of the egg is also true of the omelette.

Fifthly, regarding Wilson’s ideas about doctrinal advancement. Although he offers some qualifications, essentially, Wilson agrees with Hegel’s philosophy of history when it comes to doctrine. A theology that does not keep up with the times is stuck in a rut, like Banner of Truth Calvinism (Wilson does use the word “seems.” I wonder what he means by that). By “ossified and formulaic expressions of evangelicalism” I trust he means the confessions. I have this question to ask of Wilson, then: are the Westminster standards true or not? Are they ossified, and therefore of no value to us except in the archaeology of dessicated theologians (I leave the objective versus subjective genitive deliberately ambiguous)? How does this Hegelian doctrine of theological advancement square with saying that they are not asking us to give up those precious old doctrines? Does justification by faith alone mean what the Reformers exegeted the doctrine out of the Bible to mean, or does it need constant fixing? The worry here is not over whether something needs to be constantly clarified. Everyone agrees that all doctrine is in constant need of clarification. But this doctrine is NOT in need of change in terms of substance. If it is, then we need to get rid of the Westminster standards entirely, because there is no way we can have that weighty weight weighing awound ouw wasted waist (I did spell all those words right, I think).

Sixthly, regarding gospel rest, Wilson claims that the FV is the answer to the subjectivizing tendency to drill into our hearts with morbid curiosity. I have two questions for Wilson here. Firstly, were the Puritans better off or worse off for their obsession with self-examination (which, by the way, is grossly exaggerated, in my opinion)? Were they more holy in life or less holy in life for examining themselves? Secondly, how many people are actually out there who morbidly self-examine themselves? My question would be rather along these lines: who examines their inner spiritual life at all these days? I, for one, am not exactly pressed for time to minister to people who cannot seem to get past their own sinfulness. I am far more occupied with trying to get people to realize that they are sinners at all. By Wilson’s words, is he implying that the critics do not preach grace? When I preach justification by faith alone, and by that I mean that faith distinct from faithfulness is the instrument that lays hold of Christ’s righteousness, am I preaching something that will lead people to gospel rest, or will it lead to morbid self-examination? How can it, when the object is Christ? At the same time, when the Bible says to examine ourselves, we are to do that. And what we usually find is sin. That should drive us back to looking towards our Savior. There is not a single FV critic who would disagree with what was just written about introspection. Therefore, in the regard, the FV was created to fix a problem that doesn’t exist at all in modern confessional Reformedom.

One last word. I have been a bit sharp in this post, rhetorically speaking. Most of it is sparring, and definitely some of it light-hearted. I trust that Wilson will not consider this sparring as being below the belt.

Footnotes Versus Endnotes

It has been a growing trend recently to publish books with endnotes instead of footnotes. There are two sensible ideas behind this way of proceeding. Firstly, it is less expensive. Secondly, it makes the page cleaner.

However, there is only one problem with endnotes: they defeat the purpose. The purpose of footnotes (which, of course, are considerably older than endnotes in the history of scholarship) was to ensure that the reader would not be distracted by tangential information, such as the exact source from which a quotation came, or a related argument supporting a point. Endnotes defeat the purpose of such notes because it is an amazingly huge distraction to have to turn to the back of the book so constantly. In a book such as Guy Waters’s otherwise great book on the Federal Vision, which has a mountain of endnotes, it made it difficult to follow the train of thought often. No doubt this is one reason why the Federal Vision advocates have lambasted the book so heavily. The extra time it takes to flip to the back versus looking at the bottom of the page makes all the difference between having to re-learn where you are on the page (when dealing with endnotes) versus being able to construct a mental parenthesis around the footnote (thus allowing a much quicker re-entry into the flow of thought). Publishers! Take note (and make that a footnote, please!)!