Review: Dewey Roberts on the Federal Vision

A review of “Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision: A Theological Analysis and Practical Evaluation.”

Federal Vision advocates see a tension between that traditional Evangelical view of the Gospel (which Evangelicals have held since the Reformation) and the practice of infant baptism.  They feel that infant baptism must be more than just wishful thinking to be meaningful: It must be an “objective” covenant that actually confers what it symbolizes.  In other words, it must in some sense actually save those who receive it. 

 

Dewey Roberts, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision: A Theological Analysis and Practical Evaluation.  Destin, FL: Sola Fide Publications, 2016.  410 pp., $17.59, hardback.

Unless you come from rather explicitly Reformed circles you probably have not heard of the new “Federal Vision” theology, but you might have heard of some of the more well-known Christian writers who hold to it:  Douglas Wilson and Peter J, Leithart, for example.  Their influence makes it needful for Evangelicals in other circles to have an informed view of this development.  An outgrowth of the controversial teaching of Norman Shepherd at Westminster Seminary some years ago and also influenced by the “New Perspective on Paul” associated with N. T. Wright, it has roiled the Presbyterian Church in America and other Reformed groups.  Dewey Roberts, founding pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Florida and executive director of Church Planting International, has left no stone unturned in ferreting out the teachings of this new theology and subjecting them to critical and biblical analysis.  The result, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, is a devastating expose` of a theology that has brought confusion to many.

These appear to be pious and well-meaning men who are trying to take seriously certain themes in Reformed theology such as the “family covenant,” and who are reacting against strains of Evangelical piety that put an unhealthy emphasis on subjective experience.  Unfortunately, they seem to me to have overreacted in such a way as to throw out the Evangelical baby with the subjectivist bathwater.  Their central concept is what they call the “objective covenant.”  What does this mean?

Evangelical Presbyterians want very much to believe that God has promised salvation as a kind of “default setting” to the children of believing parents.  Few would say that they will all be saved, but they have a robust hope that God means to save them.  That is why they baptize them as infants and thus treat them as part of the covenant community of faith, the church, until such time as they repudiate the vows made for them in their baptism and leave it.  Evangelical Presbyterians have traditionally affirmed that they still have to come to a personal profession of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior and experience the new birth to be saved.  Their baptism hopefully sets them on a path that will normally and logically lead to that personal faith and that experience of regeneration, but Evangelical Presbyterians have always held that there is no salvation without faith and regeneration: We are saved by faith, not by baptism.

Federal Vision advocates see a tension between that traditional Evangelical view of the Gospel (which Evangelicals have held since the Reformation) and the practice of infant baptism.  They feel that infant baptism must be more than just wishful thinking to be meaningful: It must be an “objective” covenant that actually confers what it symbolizes.  In other words, it must in some sense actually save those who receive it.  They are finally saved if they persevere in faithfulness to that covenant.  Then Federal Vision advocates ride this hobby horse to the place where the traditional understanding of saving faith gets transformed into something that their critics find unrecognizable.  Salvation ends up depending on the faithfulness of the child to his baptism rather than on the work of God in his life when he comes to personal faith.  This looks to their critics like a form of salvation by works.  So Roberts defines the Federal Vision as “a scheme of salvation by works, both moral and ceremonial, set within the framework of a conditional covenant that depends on the covenant faithfulness and perseverance of the baptized for its efficacy and for their final justification” (31).

The central question then is whether this evaluation that the Federal Vision is ultimately a form of salvation by works is justified.  Many statements by adherents of the theology themselves strongly imply that it is.  In effect if not in intention, the Federal Vision radically transforms every concept in the traditional Evangelical understanding of salvation.

James Jordan, for example, claims that “there is no such thing as regeneration” as traditionally understood, nothing in the Bible “about a permanent change in the hearts of those elected to heaven.”  Really?  Being dead in transgressions and then being made alive in Christ sounds like a pretty significant change to me (Eph. 2:1-10).   Grace is another word that gets redefined.  From being God’s attitude of unmerited favor toward believers it becomes the favor(s) conferred by baptism.  Peter Leithart claims that “Baptism is and confers grace: the grace of standing in the house of God, the grace of membership in the company of the reconciled” (59).  Baptism itself no long expresses our identification with Christ and with the church; it creates it.  According to Douglas Wilson, “Baptism is covenantally efficacious.  It brings every baptized person into an objective and living relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (115).  (Note that Wilson now claims no longer to be an adherent of the Federal Vision—though what exactly he is taking back is unclear.   https://dougwils.com/s16-theology/federal-vision-no-mas.html)  One result of this emphasis is that the distinction between the invisible church, the company of the redeemed know only to God, and the visible church, always an imperfect incarnation of the invisible church, tends to dissolve, despite the fact that the parable of the tares and the wheat (along with much ecclesiastical experience!) would seem to demand some such distinction.  As Leithart sees it, “The Federal Vision’s central affirmation is this: Without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ” (168).  The cumulative effect of these and other statements seems to me to fully justify Roberts in quoting Calvin Beisner’s summation:  “I am convinced that what the Federal Vision offers is not just a renewal or improvement of the historic Reformed faith but wholesale replacement of it” (376).

Why should people who are not part of one of the Reformed churches care?  Because there is a cautionary tale here for all of us.  My Baptist brethren will no doubt simply see all of this as confirmation of their belief that infant baptism is not really compatible with the Gospel of grace.  But that is not my point.  I’m not here to argue for or against paedobaptism.  Rather, let us take the traditional Evangelical Presbyterian understanding of it as valid for the sake of argument.  Any point of biblical theology is rightly understood only when it is seen in the context of the whole teaching of Scripture. Take any Evangelical doctrine, however biblical, and make it, rather than Christ, the center of your theology, and it will get distorted and lead you into error.  There is abundant clear teaching in Scripture about regeneration, faith, grace, etc. that should have told the Federal Visionists that they were getting off course.  It failed to do so because they chose to see everything through the lens of their notion of the “objective covenant.”  That is a mistake that any of us could make.

The second lesson is the danger of doing theology by overreaction.  The Pentecostalization of mainstream Evangelicalism has brought it to the place where its focus on subjective experience is neither biblical nor healthy.  What drives a lot of the Federal Vision theology is repugnance for something that frankly deserves to be rejected.  But the biblical response to a false enslavement to experience is not to reject the subjective elements of the faith, including the experience of the new birth, but rather to pursue them rightly, in accordance with Scripture.  A far better corrective to Evangelical subjectivism than the deviations of Federal Vision teaching had already been provided by Jonathan Edwards in his classic book A Treatise on the Religious Affections.

Dewey Roberts gives us a devastating critique of the Federal Vision that is valuable not only for setting straight the doctrines it has bent, but also as an opportunity to ponder the warnings I have brought out here in this review.  There but for the grace of God any of us could go.  I recommend Roberts—and Edwards.  They both can help to set the crooked straight.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America who teaches at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  His latest book is Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis(Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016). This article is used with permission.