-Posted by David Gadbois
The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) will be holding their synod meeting July 26th-30th. The synod is roughly equivalent to a general assembly in presbyterian terms, although for us it is not an annual meeting. The last synod was in 2007, when a study committee was formed to study the Federal Vision theology. The committee was comprised of 12 URC ministers, a group that included Michael Horton and Cornelis Venema. The Final Report from the committee can be found here, and is a useful resource as a critique of Federal Vision theology (focused mainly on its doctrine of justification) from the standpoint of the Three Forms of Unity and churches descended from the Continental Reformed tradition. The Report recommends that Synod 2010 “affirm the following [15 points] of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity, and encourage all office-bearers to repudiate FV teachings where they are not in harmony with them” and that Synod “distribute this report to all the consistories of the URCNA, commending the report to them for study.”
In fairness, I should mention that URC Nampa has published a critical interaction with the Report, which does not defend the orthodoxy of FV, but rather contends that “the committee’s Report has not sufficiently described and wrestled with the views of the FV. There are far too many instances of over-simplification, far too many places where the more orthodox statements of the FV men are largely ignored, far too many areas in which the imprecise language of the Report seems to be condemning pastoral emphases that have long been accepted in Reformed churches.”
I do not think that the authors of this critique have considered that Federal Visionists often engage in double-speak, redefinition of key terms, and pour unorthodox meaning into language that we would normally identify as orthodox. It should be no surprise that one can find “more orthodox statements of FV men”, and it is completely appropriate that the Report would omit them for the sake of brevity. In an important sense, such statements are not relevant because they are not distinctives of the Federal Vision theology. The error lies in the distinctives. Is this not always the case with theological error?
I notice, too, that this critique relies heavily on quotes from Douglas Wilson in order to prove its case, who is acknowledged by all sides as the more “user-friendly” Federal Visionist. This only proves that FV is not monolithic, a fact that the Report does not contradict. Again, it is entirely appropriate that the Report sift out the most problematic elements of Federal Vision theology, as espoused by its various proponents. Given that none of these men have repented or retracted the statements and quotes provided, nor have any proponents even tried to meaningfully distance themselves from them, these errors can and should be used against the Federal Vision, considered as a movement and a distinctive system of theology. The critique mentions that the Joint Federal Vision Statement is not referenced often enough. This is a minor defect, it can be admitted. But does anyone seriously doubt that Reformed Is Not Enough, The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, and The Federal Vision, the works cited most frequently by the Report, do not constitute definitive and representative works of the Federal Vision? The Report is not a survey of the teachings of individuals, but rather is intended to document and refute the various (most important and dangerous) strains of error present within the movement. A Report such as this is an ecclesiastical report on a theological movement, not an academic paper nor even an examination of an individual minister for a discipline case. It is not appropriate for it to be overly-academic in character, exhaustive, burdensome in length, nor concern itself with every nuance of the various Federal Vision proponents’ teaching.