Douglas Wilson: Federal Vision No More?

Douglas Wilson has posted an interesting piece over on his blog (HT: Mel Duncan). I will first summarize what I believe him to be saying, and then say what I think about it (though these won’t be rigidly separated).

What I Believe Him to Be Saying:

In this piece, Wilson asks that the whole post be read carefully in order to determine what he is and what he is not saying. Furthermore, he rightly notes that it is impossible to say everything that needs to be said all in one post. Such are the limitations of the blog. In the introduction, then, he says that half of the post will be retractions, and the other half, in effect, qualifications and clarifications.

In the second section on the reasons for retractions, after a brief personal note on his conversion to Calvinism, he draws a parallel with what happened with the FV, thus leaving him with the following options:

So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around. The options are therefore limited. I could abandon my actual position and adopt what most people think of when they think federal vision, or I can continue my futile quest of explaining it just one more time, or I could abandon the phrase, and let everyone know that I have done so. So I have finally become convinced that the phrase federal vision is a hurdle that I cannot get over, under or around.The latter option is what I have decided to do.

In the next section, entitled “A Different Kind of Difference,” Wilson distances what he used to call “amber ale” FV from Federal Vision entirely. In other words, he believes now that what he is attempting to say is not what the FV is doing. Or, to put it another way, he believes that “Oatmeal stout” FV should just be the FV, and that what he is doing is something else.

The next section is “On Seeking Forgiveness,” wherein he acknowledges that some of the critics of the FV attempted to be fair-minded. He says that there were some things about the FV that worried him in the same way and to the same extent as they did the critics, and that he should have said more about that. He says that his point in this is to attempt to pinpoint where it is that he needs to ask forgiveness. He confesses that he used the alleged incompetence of some of the critics to mute the genuine points of criticism that were there. I suspect I would fall into the “incompetent critic” category, rather than the “fair-minded critic” category, especially after my retraction. However, the vast majority of our debates were at least civil, and pretty well focused on issues, rather than attacks on personalities, so who knows? It is not that I feel that Wilson has to apologize to me. I don’t think that. I would rather see him reformulate things in a confessional way.

The next section, entitled “Trajectories” says outright that he does not believe that he is going in the same direction theologically as, say, Peter Leithart.

The next section really begins the second half, or second purpose of what he wants to do, which is to clarify what he does not mean, and what he is not retracting. He is not retracting his theology. He is retracting what he would call or label his theology. He doesn’t have a new label for his theology except for his claim to be a “Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historic Reformed orthodoxy.” This is confirmed when he says that he would not retract anything he signed off on with regard to the Joint Federal Vision Statement (for critique, see here, second paragraph for an index of my critiques). He notes the consensus nature of said document, and says that he would want to go in certain directions with it while others would want to go in other directions.

In the last section, he taxonomizes the Reformed world as having three branches: pietistic, confessional, and Kuyperian, and says that although he leans Kuyperian, he would rather work for a synthesis of all three. I am guessing that the coherence of this point with the previous point has to do with the direction he wants to go.

What I Think About It

So what do we make of all this? To a certain extent, I think that the proof will be in the pudding, as it were. What are the details of this perceived different trajectory? It does not sound as if there is any huge shift in his doctrinal thinking. The biggest problem with Wilson’s theology was the faith/faithfulness combination, and (at least this is what I remember from 7 years ago) the conflation of faith’s aliveness with faithfulness as related to justification, and the rejection of the law/gospel distinction as it is normally formulated (as by Ursinus, for instance, in his commentary on the Heidelberg). It is my contention that every signer of the JFVS compromised justification by faith alone.

It is also my contention that paedocommunion is a completely different understanding of how the Lord’s Supper works than the Westminster Standards (see this post for the 17 places that PC contradicts the Westminster Standards). These things, in my opinion, are obstacles to Wilson’s claim that he is simply a “Westminster Puritan within an irenic river of historic Reformed orthodoxy.”

However, his obvious breach with Leithart is encouraging, in that Leithart advocates an end of Protestantism, which Wilson clearly does not espouse. So, there does seem to be at least some shift in doctrinal position. There does not appear to be enough, in my opinion, for me to be comfortable saying that he is confessional.

But I have this question for him: if he is admitting that he may not have seen the trajectories of some issues as clearly as some of the “fair-minded critics,” then isn’t it at least possible that some of the critics he has previously thought of as basically imbecilic may not be quite so far off the mark as he supposed?

Building on this is the question of how the FV proponents have been treated. All one has to do is read the history of how the Remonstrants behaved during the time of the Synod of Dordt to realize that almost the same doctrinal issues were in play, and almost the same tactics were used by the Remonstrants. Charges of breaking the ninth commandment were being thrown around like confetti, like the FV proponents. One thing that would be nice is if Wilson would point out how much the FV proponents have slandered critics by charging them with misrepresentation, when the critics might possibly have understood things quite a bit better than the accusations would have let on.

I believe it would be fruitful to interact more, so I hope Wilson will go into more detail and clarifications, specifically about justification, baptism, perseverance, union with Christ, and paedocommunion.

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14 Comments

  1. David Gadbois said,

    January 17, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    I doubt Wilson had you in mind as an “incompetent critic”. Indeed there were some FV critics who fit that description, mostly those of the Clarkian persuasion.

    Those such as Leithart and Lusk certainly are at the more toxic “stout” end of the movement…Schlissel was there, too, and probably did the FV a huge favor by disappearing. Send that man a thank-you check, FVers! He would have made it harder to put an orthodox face on the movement. In any case, good on Wilson for at least putting some distance between himself and them. I always thought that the “stout” characters were the ones charging the hill in the battle, and he was the one who stayed back in a pillbox providing cover fire for his friends. Not exactly an honorable calling, but not as dangerous as the others.

    I don’t get that worked up about the paedocommunion error, I think rather than being a huge problem in itself it is indicative of a more dangerous underlying problem, namely a superstitious view of the sacraments. But by itself I think we could “live” with that particular difference just as we, say, live with our Lutheran brethren.

    And on this blog we’ve certainly covered their Joint Statement – that still remains as an insuperable barrier. Everyone who signed that document, in effect, signed an admission of guilt.

    What makes me sad about this whole business, stretching back 15 years now to the 2002 Auburn Avenue Conference, is the destructive divisiveness it has caused within the reformed churches, the churches that have been broken apart, churches leaving their denominations, massive failures of church discipline to correct/expel FV adherents, the apostates to Rome it created, the MASSIVE amount of time, energy, and resources of Christ’s church that were diverted to address these errors (time we could have been reaching the lost, evangelizing, church planting, etc.).

    Finally, there is the sad business about Wilson himself, who has wasted his own remarkable and uncommon talents on the FV project. He is a Mt. Vesuvius of ideas, prolific and articulate on a level that God gifts to perhaps only a handful of men in a generation. He has, at times, been an effective spokesman for the Christian faith (notably, in various debates) and at one time a helpful spokesman for the reformed faith (remember when he used to hang out with the Ligonier crowd?). Who knows, maybe he could have been something like the next R.C. Sproul- he is certainly in that class as a communicator. But alas he has now wasted a fair chunk of his adult life on this odious and failed theological project. You could have been a contender, Doug.

  2. Ron said,

    January 17, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    Hat tip, David.

  3. January 17, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    I could be wrong, but I read his blog post and it reads, to me, as if Wilson wants to keep the parts of FV that he likes and call it something else? He hasn’t changed what he believes about the FV, but wants to stake out his own territory within it? Hard to tell with ‘ol Slippery Doug.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    January 18, 2017 at 9:21 am

    David, thanks for your perceptive and eloquent comment.

  5. Jim Cassidy said,

    January 18, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for the good blog post.

    The way I see it, DW can’t be confessional so long as he does not tear up and burn the JSFV. Not because of the content of the statement (though that certainly puts any signer out of bounds), but because of the very existence of the statement itself.

    DW cannot be a Puritan Westminsterian so long as he holds onto the JS. The JS is an extra-confessional confession. As such it is trying to say something different, or other than, what is in the confession. That means he is already seeking to be idiosyncratic. What is the difference between holding onto the JS with one hand and the WS with the other and having a “book of confessions” like in the PCUSA? Having another confession(s) mitigates the significance of the first. Why the need for a unique spin on Westminsterian theology?

    In other words, even IF the JSFV did not have any theology in it which is aberrant, its very existence calls into question one’s confessionalism. That is because if it says nothing but what the WS say, then there is no need for it. But if it does say something other than what the WS say, then it is by definition idiosyncratic (and potentially aberrant), and this is an extra-confessional confession mitigating the church’s creed’s authority

  6. January 18, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    My big concern with the FV joint statement is not so much what it said but what it allowed. That tendency in the FV movement to not be clear and defined has led to much of the divisiveness we’ve experienced. Also, the FV tolerance for false doctrines as “intramural discussion” is a blemish on the whole movement. It seems to me that this new move by Pastor Wilson is out of a progressive concern, evidenced in his writings and teaching, to distance himself from the more problematic aspects of what FV has allowed.

    Since many of his critics still treat him as the devil incarnate, and his friends in the FV treat him as a hero, I’m sure it took a lot to recognize that the FV movement has gone places he didn’t want it to. Should he have recognized that earlier? Sure. But do we confessional reformed folks make things like that easy. I don’t think so. Just visit RSC’s twitter feed or Oldlife’s comment section—or be on the receiving end of being called FV by every nimrod who has read a blog. We TRs are often a bunch of jerks.

    I say that as one who used to be a harsh critic of him, but over the years I’ve grown in distaste for the way we often deal with these sorts of matters. And, I’ve taken the time to read and listen to his defenses of justification by faith alone and other critical doctrines. Look up his podcast on NSA’s website where he goes through the WCF, I think you all will be surprised. They sound like OPC Sunday school lessons to me.

    On a different topic: Jim, I’m not questioning whether or not the FV joint statement is consistent with the WCF, but I do question your logic above. The WCF is a consensus document; our subscription to it certainly allows us to also express our thoughts on doctrinal matters in a more detailed manner or in different words and conceptual contexts elsewhere. Whether or not those views contradict or uphold the secondary standards is a matter of debates or can be settled in church courts. The OPC has spoken clearly about the reasons the FV movement is a problem, and as long as a man doesn’t hold to those things, then good on him.

  7. Jeff Cagle said,

    January 18, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    Praise God for the change of heart and softening towards his brothers.

  8. Nicholas Barnes said,

    January 19, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I think you have the same concerns as I did when I saw the article. From what I can tell he is starting to see perseverance and the ordo salutis in a more confessional way (from what he’s recently written and my conversations with him a few years ago). Hopefully Scripture interpreting Scripture and the use of good and necessary consequence (Confessional Hermeneutics) shall win out the day rather than the different hermeneutical schemes of the FV and crew.

  9. Alan D. Strange said,

    January 21, 2017 at 11:13 am

    I appreciate your post, Lane, and many of the other comments here.

    Many things could be said, but I just point this out. The NAPARC denominations (at least many of them) produced reports detailing problems with FV. I was involved with writing the OP report as well as a document adopted by our Seminary (other seminaries made statements as well). Both of these (the OPC Report and the Mid-America Reformed Seminary Testimony) received extensive, sharp criticism on Doug’s blog.

    If Doug is not including any of these sorts of statements (think of the PCA Report, e.g.) among the “fair-minded” criticisms, I think that this reflects a significant ongoing problem. I appreciate what he says about men like Phillips and Gaffin (the latter being on the OPC Committee that addressed such), but surely he cannot dismiss what NAPARC bodies brought forth. I hope that Doug would distinctly address not merely what distinguished brethren said, but what NAPARC members have said in setting forth the mind of the church about these matters.

    For a movement that started out committed to recovering a vibrant doctrine of the covenant and ecclesiology, it remains deficient in its ecclesiology.

  10. Ron said,

    January 22, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Great points, Alan. I hope I’m wrong but I suspect that independents are more likely to acknowledge criticisms of a few individuals than criticisms of any unified denomination.

  11. Bob S said,

    January 22, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    One, as mentioned Mr. Wilson cannot find it in himself to condemn at least oatmeal stout FV as did numerous reformed churches, not merely individuals.
    Two, he cannot find it in himself to repent of playing the front man for the CREC FV safe haven, including said DOS version.
    Which is to say, studied ambiguity and red herrings have been the standard MO of the FV and imo this is nothing more but the same old.

    Out with it, man.
    Is the real i.e. industrial strength FV theology outside of orthodoxy or not? That is the material question and Wilson demurs, if not denies.
    While he is not a true blue FVer, the whole uproar seems to be merely a matter of disagreement – albeit uncharitable at times in the past – among Christian brothers all.

    Yet are the sacraments effectual for all or just the elect, in God’s timing? (This, never mind the FV paradox that real i.e. baptized Christians can fall away, but the elect cannot.)
    Likewise the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Or does Mr. Wilson also have a problem with the good and necessary consequences of Rom 2:28,29 Gal. 6:16?
    As far as ahem, the “objectivity” of the covenant goes, the individual Clarkians, Robbins and Gerety, nailed Wilson’s external empirical covenant in their Reformed is Not Enough, Doug’s lipservice repudiation of Enlightenment tainted theology in his foreword to Reformed Is Not Enough notwithstanding.

    Could have been a contender?
    Yea and amen.

    Is at the very least a compromiser?
    Ditto.

    That’s not good enough and Mr. Wilson of all people ought to know it.

  12. January 25, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    […] repudiation will be required. There is also the consideration that Jim Cassidy wrote about here. I am sure that there are other things which critics will want to see, which we can clarify as […]

  13. Jack Brooks said,

    February 3, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I’m an EFCA pastor with Reformed interests, and I come out of an indy Bible church background. In DW I feel like I see independent-church sentiment wrestling with Reformed ideas. When i have read deep-dyed Presbyterians fighting, it comes off as “I take this stand, I can do no other, every truth is connected to every other truth in the RP heritage, so if we disagree about X it will surely lead to homosexual ordinations.” DW seems more like, “Of course I can explore and dissent, it’s my right, my liberty, and my job.” That’s a very Bible church-EFCA mindset.

  14. Jacques said,

    February 20, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Is it true for God that
    David was King of Israel?

    If so, then have done. If not then is it false for God? If so then have done. Tell us plainly. Thanks.


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