Over the past few years, pastors and members of the Reformed/Calvinist tradition have become alarmed at a new movement called the “Federal Vision.” I first became aware of what became the “Federal Vision” when I was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I watched this storm form and take shape during the years that I attended Westminster Theological Seminary in the debates that were stirring up around the writings of N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, along with the growing discontent with Meredith Kline’s “merit model.”
From Where did the Federal Vision Arise?
For those Catholic readers that are likely unaware of the Federal Vision controversy, it is fair to say that this “federal school” grew out of a number of movements.
1. There was the Norman Shepherd controversy in the 1980s at Westminster Seminary in which Shepherd highlighted the role of “works” in the Epistle of James. Shepherd soon afterward disappeared from the campus of Westminster Seminary.I was a young Calvinist who set to reading the post-Theonomy authors (James Jordan, Jeffrey Meyers, Peter Leithart, Ray Sutton, et al.) They were on the edge of things – robes, weekly communion, Old Covenant typology, realized eschatology, high ecclesiology, etc. This is the same pond that produced the covenantal Catholic theologian Scott Hahn, which nearly all American Catholics have celebrated.
2. There was the Theonomy or Reconstructionist Movement in Reformed/Presbyterian circles that sought to take the Old Testament seriously and apply its legal/covenantal framework to the New Testament economy. This project largely fell apart because it was, well, impossile. The remaining bright minds adjusted their theology from a civic model to a liturgical model and abandoned Theonomy. They became “liturgical Calvinists.”
3. These ex-Theonomists and their discioples went on to become excellent biblical theologians with a knack for seeing the role of Israel and Judaism in the New Covenant. They gravitated toward the work of Anglican theologian N.T. Wright.
I was drawn to their liturgical/covenantal worldview, because it was robustly biblical. It was able handle cultural questions in a way that was much more effective than the Evangelical “proof-texting” model. I took hold.
While at Westminster Seminary, I began to flirt with the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican tradition as an “orthodox conservative.” I saw the need for the Eucharist as the focal point of Christ's covenant. I also saw the need for a historical organic Church, bound through time in Apostolic Succession. A few years later I became an Anglican priest and spent my time reading through the volumes of N.T. Wright. Then I finally did the unspeakable - I became…Catholic.
Needless to say, I now follow the “Federal Vision” debate in the Reformed realm of theology with great interest. I suspect that it will play out like the Oxford Movement of the Church of England in the 19th century. The Federal Visionists will soon see that they are not tolerated by Presbyterians and over time they will be persecuted. Some of their great minds will become Catholic. Others will break away and start their own “Reformed Catholic” movements (similar to the Anglo-Catholic Ritualist movements). These breakaways will continue to write and develop their thought.
What is Federal Vision?
The Federal Vision movement is so termed because it stresses the foedus, Latin for “covenant.” They are covenantal theologians par excellence. Fundamentally, Federal Visionists reject the bi-covenantal structure of the Scriptures taught in the Presbyterian articles of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In other words, the universe does not rotate on covenantal axis of "Works" and "Grace." Federal Visionists would say that obedience and works are not opposed to grace. They rightly point out that before the fall, Adam worked, obeyed, and received the grace/favor of God. Grace and obedience are not opposed to one another.
It is not a surprise then that Federal Visionists believe that justification is best understood as “union with Christ” and not as the imputation of righteousness in a strict merit/demerit transaction. Very biblical and very Catholic.
Federal Visionists believe that the sacrament of Baptism actually accomplishes union with Christ – not in a nominal way, but in an ontological way. Again, very biblical and very Catholic. A person is Christian if they are baptized – they are either a “good Christian” or an “apostate Christian.” This somewhat approximates the way Catholics understand being in a state of grace or mortal sin.
Federal Visionists understand “election” primarily in terms of sacramental participation, much as the Catholic Church does.
Federal Visionists stress the need to “persevere in the covenant.” This is perceived by many of their Calvinist brethren to be a repudiation of the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, or to put it in Evangelical terms, “once saved, always saved.”
Hearkening back to Norman Shepherd, Federal Visionists believe that obedience to the Gospel is a necessarily element of salvation. This causes them to be lambasted as seeking a salvation through “works-righteousness.”
The Catholic Perspective on the Federal Vision
As a Catholic I believe the Federal Vision group is right in its theological tendencies and wrong about its denomination. Whether or not the PCA holds to the Westminster Standards, the PCA is still largely a Zwinglian/Anabaptistic denomination. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. I just mean that the inherited tradition of the PCA is not covenantal and sacramental.
The Anglican Tractarians constantly “proved” that Anglicanism was Catholic. They quoted Anglican divines and tweaked the 39 Articles or Religion in a "Catholic" direction. They pointed to the liturgy and quoted the Fathers – but at the end of the day, the people of the Church of England were Protestant and had moved away from any sense of the Catholic past. Sure, there were “Catholic” movements within the Church of England – but that was not the Church of England. These "high-church" movements were exceptions, not the norm.
The same goes for the PCA. The leadership and pew members are basically Evangelicals that read R.C. Sproul, maybe believe in infant baptism, and have worked “the five points of Calvinism” into their worldview. And when the last word is spoken, the Federal Visionists will be sidelined and ridiculed as crypto-Catholics and adherents to “salvation by works.” Fundamentally, the PCA fears that the Federal Vision movement is “just too Catholic.” All this talk about sacraments, covenants, ecclesiology, robes, candles, weekly communion, just gives your typical Southern Presbyterian the heebie-jeebies. They want that old time religion of three Wesleyan hymns, the pastoral prayer, and a 35 minute sermon proclaims the “sovereign grace of the Gospel.”
Ultimately, I think that younger Presbyterians will gravitate toward what the Federal Vision offers. Many will sink their teeth into it and many will find it wanting. Many will discover that the Catholic Church is their true home, and many will discover her in a great moment of joy. This Federal Vision is really only a peek into the keyhole of the Catholic Church. The Federal Visionist has a vision of the beautiful things inside, but they have not yet appreciated the warmth of a true home.