By TE Reed DePace
It is not fair to say that the Federal Vision is Arminianism. That is, the FV is not simply an expression of Arminian doctrine. Nor is it fair to say that the FV is a child of Arminianism. The FV arguments do not grow out of Arminian formulations. Nor, do I think, we can say that the FV is even a sibling of Arminianism. The FV does not end up proposing simply a variation of Arminianism.
Yet many critics have noted that the Federal Vision and Arminianism share some characteristics. In the past I believe I even may have used the phrase “sibling” to try to describe how close these similarities run. After some more thinking about this, I do find myself sympathetic to FV supporters who take offense at such comparisons. And I do regret and repent of any over statements on my part. I’ve not intended to offer rhetorical offense for the sake of making a point. To whatever degree my words in the past have lent themselves to that end, I am sorry.
Still, I do see the similarities between the Federal Vision and Arminianism. I do wish FV supporters would take seriously such concerns, and not react in theological horror at being associated with a form of doctrine we all agree is defective at best. In an effort to help FV supporters at least appreciate the concern here, I want to make a few observations.
The Federal Vision in effect proposes that the Church has before it a two-dimensional scheme, one decretal and the other covenantal. Without trying to work out all the existential niceties, the FV understands the decretal dimension to be that of God’s existence. It has real substance in reality in that it is real spiritually. Yet this dimension by its nature is objectively unknowable. That is, it cannot be known through the use of ordinary natural senses.
The FV understands the covenantal dimension to be that of the Church’s existence. It too has real substance in reality in that it is real materially. This dimension is objectively knowable, in that it is the dimension of ordinary natural experience.
Both these dimensions, according to the FV, have their own expression of the ordo salutis. These are not to be understood as the same, although they are essentially analogous (perseverance not being a part of the covenantal dimension). Both of these ordo saluti are ministries of the Holy Spirit. Both are to be understood as having real substance, albeit in their own dimension.
The critical difference between these ordo saluti in their respective dimensions is one of permanence. The decretal dimension offers an ordo salutis that is eternal, never to be lost. The covenantal dimension offers an ordo salutis that is transitory, potentially losable.
It is in this that we see the key comparison to Arminianism. From the decretal dimension, FV supporters rightly maintain that the FV is not Arminian(-like). The FV is clear that only the elect partake of the reality of the decretal dimension, and that this can never be lost.
However, with regard to the covenantal dimension this is not the case. The ordo salutis in this dimension can be lost (albeit only by the reprobate). And this is effectively the same thing that is said by Arminianism.
So, from the viewpoint of the decretal dimension, the FV is not Arminian(-like) at all. Yet from the viewpoint of the covenantal dimension, the FV proposes a system of salvation that is effectively the same as Arminianism. They may not be structured exactly the same, but they share the same essential “losable” characteristic. In the FV scheme of things, the Spirit ministers an eternally secure decretal ordo salutis to the elect and He ministers a losable covenantal salutis to the reprobate.
This two-dimensional scheme might be nothing more than cumbersome if it were not for the FV’s insistence that the decretal dimension is largely irrelevant to the professing believer’s day to day life. Objectively unknowable, the decretal dimension offers some vague assurances. Yet if one wants a real grip on assurance, according to the FV, one needs to look at his experience of the covenantal ordo salutis (e.g., his participation in the baptism ritual, and/or his day to day faithfulness-obedience.) In that this covenantal dimension is not really secure, this is a weak basis for assurance at best.
So no, the Federal Vision and Arminianism are not members of the same immediately family. To maintain this is to overspeak. But these systems do share a significant similarity, one that is dominant in their ministry of the gospel. Thus, maybe it is better to call the Federal Vision and Arminianism kissing cousins.
By TE Reed DePace