I’ve put off doing an autobiographical post on my relationship to the Federal Vision for quite a while. Maybe for several reasons. Too much blood still on the floor. RTS never distinguished between those who were mentally Baptists (e.g., RTS) and Covenantal, thus making everyone who wasn’t a Southern Presbyterian a Federal Visionist.
I’ll go ahead and put my cards on the table. I don’t consider myself Federal Vision for reasons that will be apparent. I like what Norm Shepherd says on Covenant and Election. I consider myself a Schilderite.
But this post isn’t just bashing RTS, as fun and necessary as that is. I’ve forgiven them. They stole money from me but it was for the best. But RTS did represent a certain moment in American Presbyterianism that does need to be addressed.
There isn’t a strict logic to this post, but it will follow some general order. I didn’t write it all at once since I have a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome. A note of interpretation: when I write “FV” in negative connotations, I mean certain young bloggers. The older FV generation, the “conference speakers,” so to speak, have been the soul of kindness to me.
Federal Vision, the Good and the Bad
What is the Federal Vision? I don’t really know. Few do, actually. Proponents say there isn’t one view. Critics are impatient with that answer because it seems like FV is evading the issue. But there isn’t one view. Doug Wilson has nominally rejected the label. For years Jordan and Leithart were polar opposite from Wilson. No one has heard of Steve Schlissel in a decade. It doesn’t make sense to speak of a monolithic FV view.
Let’s take the book Federal Vision. Look at the essays. Barach’s essay is Schilder 101. I have some questions about it but there is nothing “new” to it. Simple, post-Kuyper Dutch theology. Horne and Lusk rightly (which even critics acknowledge) point to the Baptist nature of the American experience. Jordan’s essay is controversial. I grant that.
My Seminary Experience
I was a postmillennial theonomist when I went to seminary. Yeah, you can see what RTS would have thought about that. To be fair, most of the profs in person were great guys. Most people actually are decent people in real life. Really, it wasn’t the profs themselves who were the problem. It was the adjunct people they got to teach classes. They were usually local pastors.
On the kindest analysis, they were simply incompetent. Realistically, some were mentally unhinged. It’s not simply, “Oh, you’re a theonomist, then you are wrong.” Rather, it was, “Oh, so you don’t fall into my interpretation of a unique slice of Presbyterian taxonomy, then you deny justification by faith alone.”
But enough bashing RTS. I was involved with several FV guys (who no longer wear the label). They really wanted me to become Federal Vision. I didn’t. I was under the authority of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church at the time and I didn’t have any business joining unique movements. Did I like some of the FV thoughts? Sure, but I challenged the FV to show me what ecclesiastical obligation from the OPC that I had to join FV.
In any case, I was probably more influenced by Norman Shepherd. I was new to covenant theology and NS’s views really made a lot of sense. Further, the OPC dealt more with Shepherd than FV.
But as irritating as some FV were, the Southern Presbyterians weren’t making it any easier. I got points taken off in Covenant Theology because I quoted Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God. If you affirmed conditions in the Covenant of Grace, or affirmed other than a strict works principle in the Covenant of Works, watch out.
I remember that Herman Bavinck’s volume 3 of Reformed Dogmatics came out during our week long Christology class (yes, only a week long. That’s how important knowing about Jesus is. That’s why Eastern Orthodox eat our lunch on Christology discussions). I went up to the adjunct, the aforementioned mentally unhinged prof, and said, “Isn’t it great that Bavinck’s volume on Christology came out?” He gave me an “Are you kidding?” look? I wonder if he even heard of Bavinck.
It’s not hard to see that FV and American Reformed world would end up with a messy divorce. I don’t think FV always alleviated their critics’ concerns about regeneration. But even more problematic, there was a strong Baptistic mentality in the Jackson area. This was about the same time that Reformed Baptists were gaining a presence in American life. The Gospel Coalition was just hitting the stage. Mohler was the intellectual voice of conservative Christians. Therefore, it made more sense to move on that wavelength than to ask how “covenant and liturgy” were related.
I guess it’s good I left RTS when I did. I never dealt with the Gospel Coalition until I came out of the EO orbit in 2012. And further, from what I’ve gathered, there are some Critical Race adherents working for RTS now.
One thing the Federal Vision did was make clear the latent division lines in the Reformed world. From the RTS perspective, only a certain amalgam of Scottish and Southern Presbyterian thought counts as acceptable Reformed theology. Bavinck might get grandfathered in, but he is so close to Kuyper, and Kuyper is basically the evils of theonomy that you are better off not associating with Bavinck.
Van Til was another problem. RTS didn’t like him but they knew it was not wise to anger the OPC (and thus lose precious tuition money–their finances were in a bad shape for a few years). As long as you didn’t actually “do” anything with Van Til, you were okay.
In a weird way, it kind of reflects the Clarkian taxonomy of American Presbyterian life. The OPC, for them, was bad because it had “Dutch” elements.
I’m not angry with RTS anymore. They meant it for evil (that is, their stealing $30,000 from me not counting tuition) but God meant it for good. My only real beef with FV is with certain proponents who have more or less faded from view. There is a post by a former FV guy that (accurately) says where FV, at least the younger disciples, are weak at. The older guys–the original four or five–know the source material better than most. I am going to tag onto what he said and add my own thoughts.
- FV guys really don’t know the post-Calvin sources that well. Well, neither does the average Reformed guy. Really, who does? This stuff is only now being translated into English.
- FV claims catholicity but isn’t really in line with the larger Reformed world. Maybe. I am not in the CREC nor am I in NAPARC, so I can’t say.