Guy Prentiss Waters has done the Reformed world (as well as other Christian brothers and sisters) an excellent service by writing The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (P&R Publishing, 2006). This blog entry will review this excellent book. I will first summarize what the book is about, and then I will review it chapter by chapter. I will also interact here and there with the Federal Vision’s claims.
I sincerely hope that this review will help others understand the Federal Vision and respond to it biblically.
WHY THE BOOK WAS WRITTEN
Waters has written this book to respond to a disturbing theological system that has gone by many names, but the name “the Federal Vision” (FV hereafter) has been used the most. Some may or may not already know that the FV is nothing new under the sun. It is very similar to the Mercersburg Theology developed by Philip Schaff and William Nevin in Mercersburg, PA in the 19th century.
The FV claims to advance traditional Reformed doctrine, but Waters ably points out that it is in actuality a denial of it. Furthermore, Waters shows the dangers of the FV and warns others of its tenets.
Let us now summarize the book.
There is a short foreword that E. Calvin Beisner wrote. Beisner mentions how he had edited an earlier book which consisted of papers written for a Knox Seminary colloquium which took place a few years ago. This colloquium had proponents and critics of the FV present to present papers and respond. Beisner claims that he wrote with restraint in that book, but now wishes to not hold back. He commends Waters’ book and claims that the FVs (Federal Visionists) are more Roman Catholic than Reformed. This, I believe, is somewhat simplistic. I would say Peter Leithart is more Eastern Orthodox in his theology, and Ralph Smith is at least somewhat akin to that with his doctrine of the Trinity and covenant as well.
Beisner also made other claims about the FV that are difficult to substantiate.
CHAPTER 1: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE FEDERAL VISION
Waters charts his course by opening up with briefly naming off a few of the FVs’ concerns. He lets the reader know his sources used in his study as well. Most of the sources had to do with Internet sites, because much of the FV has been promoted through the use of the Internet. He then lists ten major proponents of the FV and describes them.
The FV’s major 10 proponents are: (1) Doug Wilson; (2) Peter Leithart; (3) James Jordan; (4) Steve Schlissel; (5) John Barach; (6) Ralph Smith; (7) Steve Wilkins; (8) Rich Lusk; (9) Joel Garver; and (10) Mark Horne.
Waters then defines the term “covenant” from the FV perspective. The FV sees “covenant” as a “relationship” in its essence. Waters (as do I) believes this is problematic. Although covenant has relationship as part of its temporal aspects (I would argue), it is certainly not part of its essence. The essence of the covenant of grace is Christ and His faithfulness. With regards to the administration of it temporally, however, it is indeed relational and includes both blessings and curses. (This, of course, could be another book in and of itself!)
It is therefore vital to distinguish between the essence of the covenant of grace, and the administration of it. It seems to me that the FV does not properly distinguish here.
Another problem that Waters brings out is the FV’s denial that a covenant is a legal transaction. This, as we will see, takes away from justification as a legal declaration.
Waters then discusses what the FV calls the doctrine of “covenantal objectivity.” FV proponents view someone who has been baptized (whether infant or adult) as “in the covenant,” and therefore to be regarded as a “Christian.” They do not believe it is necessary to examine oneself in a “morbid introspective” sense at the Lord’s Table, but simply say, “Look to your baptism.” In this sense, you should consider yourself a “Christian” until you are kicked out of the covenant.
Waters concludes chapter 1 discussing covenant and the Trinity, and lays out Leithart’s and Smith’s views. Both claim that we should think of covenant in relational categories because God is relational as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Smith, indeed, has written a book on the subject called The Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology (Canon Press, 2003). So we see, then, that FV proponents redefine covenant based upon their understanding of the Trinity as relational. Since the Trinity is relational in essence, we should therefore think of covenant as relational in essence, says the FV.
CHAPTER 2: COVENANT AND BIBLICAL HISTORY
Waters proceeds to discuss how the FV understands the various biblical covenants with regards to their outworking in redemptive history. As mentioned, the FV rejects the term “covenant of works,” seeing the Adamic covenant as part of the administration of the covenant of grace. Since, according to the FV proponents, the Adamic covenant is “gracious,” it must therefore exclude any concept of merit. (As we will see, this will lead to most FV proponents denying the imputation of active obedience.)
Waters then discusses briefly the law/gospel distinction. It is not the purpose of this review to delve deeply into criticism of Waters’ views per se, but suffice it to say that the law/gospel distinction is hotly debated in Reformed circles. This would require a separate paper/blog entry.
Waters deals specifically with Ralph Smith’s views on the covenant of works and critiques them. He then deals with Rich Lusk’s views, et al. He concludes at the end of the chapter by discussing the dangers of rejecting the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. He also briefly discusses whether the Mosaic covenant is a republication of the Adamic covenant or not. (This, as well, would require a separate paper/blog entry.)
Waters suggests that a works principle lies within the first covenant. FV proponents view this as “strict merit,” and substitute for it the notion of “maturity.” To do away with the notion of the covenant of works, argues Waters, is not to insert a formal difference, but it is to throw away the doctrine completely.
CHAPTER 3: COVENANT AND JUSTIFICATION
Waters begins this chapter dealing with Peter Leithart’s soteriology. Leithart argues that salvation and the Trinity must be “reified.” To reify something is to take an abstract concept and give it concrete categories. Leithart is placing more emphasis, therefore, on ecclesiology, and seems to almost conflate ecclesiology and soteriology.
This leads Waters to mention the similarities between the FV and the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP hereafter). He briefly describes the NPP as considering Judaism a religion of grace rather than works; the “works of the law” that Paul describes are those ceremonial works which distinguish Jews from Gentiles; and Paul’s main concern in the NT was not justification by faith alone, but rather “corporate justification,” an ecclesiological term which answered the question of how Gentiles could be incorporated together with Jews as the people of faith.
Waters then goes through the major proponents of the FV, expositing each one’s views. One of the main points of agreement between most of the proponents is that the phrase “the righteousness of God” does not refer to Christ’s actively keeping the Law for us in His active obedience, but rather refers to God’s “covenantal faithfulness” to His promises to Israel.
Many of the FV proponents speak of what is known as “final justification.” While most Reformed Christians would use the term only in a guarded manner, what has been affirmed historically is that God openly acquits the believer and acknowledges indeed that they belonged to Him. However, as Waters rightly notes on p. 93, “The ground of that acquittal is and can be nothing other than the perfect righteousness of Christ.”
Waters then concludes the chapter by noting that most of the FV denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The FV furthermore conflates justification and sanctification and almost ignores present justification.
CHAPTER 4: COVENANT AND ELECTION
Waters deals with Norman Shepherd’s views in the majority of this chapter. Shepherd insists that we view election in terms of covenant, rather than the other way around. I may disagree with some of what Waters says here in this chapter, but overall I believe that his critique is right on target. We must deal with the fact that the visible church will always be made up of both elect and non-elect members. However, Shepherd places too much emphasis on the church as corporate (corporate election), while not giving due credit to the biblical doctrine of individual election and individual reprobation. (Shepherd would say that corporate election is the spectacles through which we should view individual election.) This also leads Shepherd to place undue emphasis upon baptism, while taking his eyes off of regeneration and conversion. In other words, if one is a member of the church and has been baptized, why is there the need to examine oneself for fruit and evidences of a lively faith?
Waters continues the chapter by looking at other FV proponents’ views on the matter. What we have seen so far, however, is that the FV seems to be united on the point of self-examination for fruit of a lively faith receding into the background. The FV seems to have its focus on whether or not one is a member of the church, and whether or not one has been baptized.
CHAPTER 5: COVENANT AND ASSURANCE, PERSEVERANCE, AND APOSTASY
Waters opens up this chapter by examining the Westminster Standards for the true doctrine of assurance. He notes on p. 126 that assurance belongs to those who walk in good conscience before God; that the foundation of assurance is grounded upon the truth of God’s promises; by the Spirit’s testimony; and that this assurance is founded upon an infallible hope which shall enable us to know that we shall indeed persevere until the very end. Furthermore, this assurance is not of the essence of our faith, which is to say that many true believers may wait for long periods before they receive such assurance, and that it can vary in degrees depending upon the influence of the flesh in one’s life.
It is in this chapter where the FV’s views really come out with regards to self-examination. We see Schlissel, Barach, Wilkins, Wilson, and Horne criticizing the traditional Reformed view of self-examination and assurance. Again, these men tend to place more emphasis upon viewing oneself as “in the church” and “baptized” and therefore “Christian.” The common mantra from these men, if one doubts one’s own salvation, seems to be, “Look to your baptism.” However, allow me to intercede here for a moment. What would these men tell Simon the sorcerer in the book of Acts? He was baptized. But Peter told him that he had no part or share in the ministry because he could see that his heart was full of evil. Peter did not say, “Look to your baptism.” Indeed, it is the duty of the elders of the church to try and “read the hearts” of their sheep.
Waters then looks into various Scripture passages dealing with apostasy. I do not agree with most of Waters’ interpretations of these passages. I do think that Hebrews does indeed give true warnings, and not merely hypothetical. I do believe we should consider apostasy a real, clear, and present danger for ourselves. This is part of being watchful and praying. But it seems that the FV gives no credence at all to being watchful and praying.
Furthermore, the FV tends to believe that there is almost no difference between the non-elect members of the church, and the elect members. In other words, there seems to be almost no way to distinguish the elect professors from the non-elect professors. But the problem here is that the Bible calls us to assurance of salvation. Indeed, 1 John was written for that very reason! 1 John calls us to examine ourselves, and not merely to look to our baptism.
I regret to say that it seems that the only real assurance in the FV way of thinking would be only if one perseveres until the end! But the Bible calls us to true assurance even now.
CHAPTER 6: COVENANT AND THE SACRAMENTS: LEITHART’S VIEWS
I will not review this chapter very deeply, as it only focuses on one man’s views. But suffice it to say that Leithart’s views are truly more Eastern Orthodox with regards to ecclesiology and sacramentology. Once again, this conflates ecclesiology and soteriology to the point that the church is salvation. However, biblically speaking, this is not the case. The sacraments are essential for salvation in Leithart’s understanding. Leithart so connects the Holy Spirit to the sacraments as to depart from the Westminster Standards, which argue that salvation and the sacraments are not “inseparably annexed” to one another.
CHAPTER 7: COVENANT AND THE SACRAMENTS: OTHERS’ VIEWS
Waters continues by examining other FV proponents’ views on the sacraments. He rightfully notes that the WCF is clear in 28.5 and 28.6 that God does not necessarily tie His grace to the sacraments, but that He is pleased to when and where He so wills. Wilson takes the incorrect inference that grace and salvation are ordinarily annexed to baptism, but this assumes incorrectly what the divines had in mind. As Waters correctly notes, Shorter Catechism 92 mentions that sacramental efficacy is only redemptive when accompanied by a faith that embraces what the sacrament holds forth to it. Indeed, this is why the Reformers themselves (who would be more consistent here if they would have become credobaptists) said that “without faith there is no sacrament.”
The FV views the sacraments as conversional. The Westminster Standards, however, view them as sanctificational. Also, WCF 14.1 claims that grace is ordinarily applied by the preaching of the Word. Therefore, conversion begins with the Word preached. It is “increased and strengthened” through the sacraments and prayer.
The FV, Waters also points out, uses terms with equivocation, which I believe is probably the main reason why the FV is so hard to understand for many. The FV proponents themselves do not usually qualify what they mean when they say things like grace, regeneration, sign, seal, election, reprobation, etc. Many of these terms they use in an unbiblical way, and many of them they use in both a biblical way (sometimes) and then later in a dialectical, unbiblical way. I believe that this is also why Norman Shepherd, who has held similar views for more than thirty years, has still not clarified adequately.
CHAPTER 8: SOURCES OF THE FEDERAL VISION
In this last chapter, Waters notes what I just noted above, namely, the equivocation of theological language in the FV. For this reason, it is difficult to know, many times, how an FV proponent is using a term. It is almost necessary when dialoguing with an FV adherent, therefore, to ask them to qualify almost constantly.
What is the FV’s response to this? Namely, that they are merely using “biblical terminology.” Because of that, they do not seem to think it is necessary to qualify. The danger here, however, is that we must know our audience. Indeed, I have made mistakes here as well. A good speech teacher will tell you to know your audience, and to use your terms accordingly. The writers of the Bible knew their audience. One can see this in the Gospels, for instance. John’s audience was the Gentiles, which is why he mainly stayed away from Jewish terminology and customs. When he did mention the customs, he explained them.
Waters mentions Wilson and Wilkins with regards to this trend. Many in the FV tend to have a disdain for systematic theology, and perhaps this has contributed to the FV’s claim that it does not need to try and systematize these texts of Scripture which seem paradoxical up front.
This, it seems to me, is where Waters run a bit off course. Waters seems to think that Van Til’s thought has contributed much to what is now the FV, since Van Til held to an “open-ended systematics” (according to Lusk). That is to say that Van Til acknowledged that our systematic theologies are not perfect. Waters does not come out and say it, but on pp. 170-71 he seems to blame Van Til’s doctrine of God as Absolute Person (that we must think of God relationally and personally, rather than an abstraction) as the catalyst for the FV’s relational view of the Trinity and covenant.
Later, Waters also blames theonomy for the externalism prevalent in the FV (pp. 296ff.). He claims that Andrew Sandlin, for example, recognizes that conventional theonomy has failed because of its dependence upon “Protestant scholastic confessionalism.” This has given way to many who are now part of the “Reformed Catholicism” movement, and the “post-Calvinist” movement. Indeed, I have seen many of my friends over at http://www.postmillennialism.com/ fall into that movement. But a word is necessary here.
Not all of my friends who abandoned the Reformed faith and embraced “Reformed Catholicism” were theonomists. Indeed, I cannot think of even one. The only theonomist I know of who abandoned the faith has now embraced Eastern Orthodoxy. But we must be careful of trying to pinpoint a blame on why the FV exists. I have tried to do that in the past. I used to blame it on theonomy. I used to blame it on paedobaptism. But when we do this, we commit a grand post hoc fallacy, which tries to correlate two events which are not necessarily correlative. To use a friend’s example, this would be like the rooster saying that it is because he crowed that the sun comes up!
Yet, I do think there is room for much concern. These friends of mine over at http://www.postmillennialism.com/ have abandoned the faith. They no longer see justification by faith alone as a vital issue. Even the website itself is very ecumenical. I regret to recall that my friends started dabbling in the FV. I cannot prove that this is what led to their eventual apostasy, but I can say that there is much room for concern. Many who start out in the FV are becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. We should be very concerned here. Is Waters right in suggesting that the external has triumphed in the FV?
THE FV’S RESPONSES TO WATERS
Before I conclude this review, I wanted to note that Wilson, Garver, Leithart, and Horne (perhaps others as well) have responded to Waters. All of them claim that they were misrepresented, although Garver is probably the most scholarly out of all of them about it. I wanted to briefly say what I believe about this.
I do not believe that Waters misrepresented the FV. I am aware, I believe, of when misrepresentations abound. Waters’ book is replete with citations and quotes and sources. I think he did a fair job of reporting the views of the FV.
One of the difficulties, I believe, is what was mentioned above already by me and by Waters in his book. It is simply that the FV needs to learn to qualify how they are using their terminology, but they don’t feel they have to because “they are just being biblical.” Not only that, but I believe that the FV many times will claim it believes in something the way traditional Reformed theology does, but really only places minor emphasis on it. It has well been noted how Christ and His work recedes into the background in the FV, but the FV claims that this is not the case. However, after examination, we have seen that it is indeed the case. The FV needs to realize that, when they cry that they are being misrepresented, it is they themselves who are causing this. If a Mormon told me I was misrepresenting him because I claimed that he did not believe in salvation by grace, would I be misrepresenting him?
So the FV claims to believe that it is Christ who saves, but then they place major emphasis on covenantal obedience, objectivity, the sacraments, and perseverance, but minor emphasis upon Christ. For that reason, the FV can claim they are being misrepresented all they wish, but that is simply not the case.
Waters has indeed given a very fair treatment of the FV in his excellent book.
Waters rightfully concludes his book by noting that the FV is not a movement, but a system of theology (even though its adherents would perhaps say otherwise). He correctly says that it is not reconcilable with Reformed theology. The solution, then, is not to revise our confessions, but to go back and restudy our confessions (the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions of Faith).
I truly hope that this review was helpful to my blog readers, and that even this review will help my readers in assessing the dangers of the FV.
I can sum up this review by quoting from Waters himself. His concerns are my own concerns (pp. 299-300):
We have witnessed that the [FV] promotes decreased confidence in the Spirit’s working
by and with the Word to regenerate the sinner. The FV system promotes increased
confidence in the salvific value of one’s covenantal membership and of the sacrament
of baptism. It promotes an increased and unwholesome confidence in one’s covenantal
faithfulness. It undercuts and diminishes the believer’s trust in Scripture as propositional
May the Lord be pleased to save us from such error. May He place our eyes on Christ in His Word, and on Him alone. Amen.
 I have italicized this term because we usually think of the FV as a “movement.” However, Waters wisely states on p. 299: “The Federal Vision is not fundamentally a movement, although it shares the characteristics of a movement. It is first and foremost a theological system.” I believe Waters says this because, although FV proponents do disagree with each other on certain intricacies (as we shall see in this review and as Waters points out), the FV is still united in its foundational concerns.
 Other names include the “Monroe Doctrine” or “Auburn Avenue Theology” (after Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, LA, which hosted conferences dealing with this issue), “Shepherdism,” named after Norman Shepherd, whose theology has contributed to much of the FV (although he personally does not identify himself with the FV), and “monocovenantalism,” because it denies the covenant of works and would see the Adamic covenant as part of the administration of the covenant of grace.
 Among these include that the term “Federal Vision” is preferred by its proponents because of the “movement’s emphasis on . . . giving prominence to vision (story) over propositional system.” Beisner shows that he has not done his homework here. He gives us no footnote. Not only that, but his calling the FV a “movement” demonstrates that he only has a surface knowledge of it. (Waters discusses how it is not a movement.)
 The reader is here referred to another excellent book Waters wrote entitled Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004). I would consider both books together as companion volumes.
 Whether one is Baptist or paedobaptist, we both affirm that our local congregations surely have a few unbelievers present within them. Yet, we would still speak of everyone in these congregations as “in Christ” in a visible, external sense, unless they apostatize through excommunication or other ways.
 It is interesting to note that Rich Lusk recognizes the problem here, and opts for what he calls “paedofaith.” Indeed, Lusk wrote a book with the same title. This is also why some paedobaptists believe in “presumptive regeneration,” which assumes that covenant children are regenerated.