Is the Federal Vision Gone?

Since the internet debate has died down quite a bit from its heyday about a decade ago, many people have assumed that the Federal Vision is gone and dead. A highly erroneous conclusion. It is not dead. Every one of its proponents is still out there, spreading their false doctrine industriously, now under cover of darkness, since they no longer present themselves as targets online. The missions field is especially problematic, with the FV gaining ground in Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Even in the PCA, the issue is not dead. Jeff Meyers is still at large, as is Mark Horne. They are influencing many Covenant Seminary grads through their internship programs. Douglas Wilson is basically the only FV proponent still visible much on the internet, as we might expect, since he is the one who presents the public persona of the FV. If anything, the battle concerning the FV, while it has practically disappeared from the internet, is still very much alive and well in churches.

Enter now my friend Dewey Roberts into the field. He argued the Leithart case before the SJC. The SJC had determined that Dewey had not proven his case. A large part of that, I suspect, is that Dewey was probably using early drafts of his book to argue his case. When I talked to him about it on the phone, he was saying many of the things that came out in the book. Before the SJC, the way to win a case is to compare the teachings of Leithart (or whoever is on trial) to the Westminster Standards only. Here is what the defendant believes, in his own words, and here is what the Westminster Standards say. Dewey’s purpose in this book is much, much broader than that. He is comparing the Federal Vision to historic Christianity, and his findings are that they are two different things. The main thesis of the book is that the Federal Vision is either Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian in its system, and is therefore not Christian doctrine.

Knowing as I do the history of the Leithart case rather well, I think I made the same mistake Dewey did, actually, but from the reverse direction. Dewey argued his book in front of the SJC, while I expected his performance in front of the SJC negatively to impact the book. Neither of us was right. This book is quite well done, carefully argued, and theologically perceptive. I thought, over the course of some 350 blog posts, and countless comments, that I had considered the FV from just about every possible angle. Dewey showed me wrong. He has many angles that I had not thought of before. If the peacefully slumbering PCA (at least on FV concerns) will read this book, they will find that there is still work to be done, and that we need to do it. The gospel really is at stake, and the Federal Vision really is heresy, not just heterodoxy.

I have a couple of things I would criticize, one very small thing, and one more substantial thing. The small thing is the chapter endnotes. I hate endnotes. I have made no bones about the fact. One has to twist one’s hand in very awkward positions in order to be able to flip back and forth. If the purpose of footnotes is to avoid distracting one from the main line of argumentation, then endnotes fail miserably, because the added time of flipping back and forth makes it very difficult to keep on the thread of the main argument. But chapter endnotes are even worse than book endnotes, since you are constantly losing your place. Why couldn’t we have had footnotes on the same page as the text?

The more substantial criticism I have is the number of times Dewey quoted Guy Waters’s book on the FV as an original source. Now, Waters’s book is truly excellent, and one of the most important publications on the debate. Nevertheless, I prefer to see sources quoted first-hand, rather than second-hand. That way, if one wants to follow the paper trail backwards, one can examine the quotation in its original context much easier. The FV proponents will, of course, cry foul because they, like so many artists, are being misunderstood, boo hoo. The Ninth Commandment is often abused as the last refuge of the heretic. This criticism does not, I think, affect the validity of Dewey’s arguments.

I learned a lot from this book, and I hope that my readers will buy the book and read it, as well. Federal Vision proponents, know this: Dewey has your number, and he got it well. We know what you’re trying to do, and we are on guard.

How Does Jesus Work?

I came across this delightful quotation in J.C. Ryle’s work on John (volume 2, p. 145). Ryle is quoting Christopher Wordsworth, and Anglican bishop who wrote an entire Bible commentary:

God loves to effect His greatest works by means tending under ordinary circumstances to produce the very opposite of what is to be done. God walls the sea with sand. God clears the air with storms. God warms the earth with snow. So in the world of grace. He brings water in the desert, not from the soft earth, but the flinty rock. He heals the sting of the serpent of fire by the serpent of brass. He overthrows the wall of Jericho by ram’s horns. He slays a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. He cures salt water with salt. He fells the giant with a sling and stone. And thus does the Son of God work in the Gospel. He cures the blind man by that which seemed likely to increase his blindness, by anointing his eyes with clay. He exalts us to heaven by the stumbling block of the cross.

God always seems to use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, doesn’t He?

History, Bias, and the Historian

I was reading in Carl F.H. Henry’s massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority this morning, and came across a fascinating little quotation: “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). Henry assumes, of course, that no historian can be free of bias. Henry is instead concerned to point out a very important point of self-awareness: what historians think of as important is still distinct from the actual situation. Every historian has to be selective. If the historian attempted to be completely comprehensive, then his work would take longer to read than the actual series of events, since nothing would be left out from any perspective. The historian’s principles of selection, then, become the points at which the historian’s bias comes into view. We can readily see this bias in the news media today. The news media function as a sort of immediate historical writing of contemporary events. They will choose to recount an event at which a few LGBT folks are present to protest, but will not comment on a pro-life rally at which over 100,000 people are present. The principle of selection reveals their bias.

Now, all people have biases, assumptions, presuppositions. The question for historians is not whether they are going to be biased, but (as Ken Ham would say) which bias is the right bias to be biased with in the first place. Secondarily, it is equally important to be self-aware of those biases, and, in the interests of full disclosure, relate those biases to the reader, so that the reader can properly evaluate the historian’s account. All too often, the historian pretends to have a complete objectivity, thereby seeking to gain an indomitable and unassailable ground on which to define history. It comes to light in the sometimes not-so-subtle claims that other historians may be biased, but he is not. Flee from such historians as from a plague.

The most pernicious form of the lack of self-awareness on this point is the mentality of many (most?) news media that they actually create reality, and that nothing exists but spin, and whoever controls the spin controls the world. There are several problems. First of all, events can happen which are objectively outside our points of view (i.e., we don’t know that they happened at all). Those events can have a huge impact on the significance of other events of which we do have knowledge. Secondly, such lack of self-awareness is usually connected to a certain claim for power. Control the language, control the definitions, control the perspective, and you control the world. The news media understand this exceedingly well.

Ultimately, there is a correct bias, as well as many incorrect biases. The correct bias is God’s perspective on history. God, after all, defines reality, both in general and special revelation. Any bias that does not seek to line up with God’s perspective is doomed to fail, ultimately. The problem comes when secular or postmodern advocates come to us and tell us that any claim to line up with God’s perspective is itself a power play, a grab at arrogance and condescension. Our response is two-fold, one answer being defense, and the other offense. On the defensive side, we can say that if God really does exist, then it is actually a sign of humility not to oppose this God by setting up our own autonomous principles of knowledge. Secondly, the postmodernist does not escape the very problem he criticizes. What kind of knowledge does he possess that guarantees his own freedom from power hunger? By seeking to eliminate the possibility of lining up with God’s perspective, is he not, by virtue of that very act, making a power play at stifling the Christian worldview?

On the one hand, events happen of which we have no knowledge. Nevertheless, just because we don’t know about them, we cannot therefore infer from that fact that they are unimportant. Our understanding of history is not the same thing as history itself, the chain of events that make up our timeline. On the other hand, when it comes to events of which we do have an awareness, we must be aware that our presuppositions will always play a role in how we interpret the level of importance, as well as the significance, of those events.