The Federal Vision: Not Catholic At All

It seems clear that one of the motivations for the Federal Vision (FV) movement was the desire to be “more catholic.” They want to be thought of as Reformational Catholic (see recent post  by “Joint FV statement” signatory Peter Leithart). “Reformed Catholic” is also one of the rubrics of the FV Statement. Which word they wish the accent to be placed on — Reformational Catholic or Reformational Catholic — is unclear. However, a little analysis of the position they have staked out reveals that in fact they are neither reformational nor catholic.

The Preamble

Before getting to the heart of the matter, a few comments on the flagship statement itself may be made. There is first a claim that is a bit sneaky:

Many of us who have signed this statement are also confessionally bound to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

However, of the eleven signatories, none, apparently, are in churches that are bound to the Three Forms of Unity. Moreover, six of them sign as “ministers” of the CREC: but the CREC does not, qua presbytery, ordain ministers, nor are these men “bound” to any confession except at the local level, in whatever squishy way that might be enforced. So the statement is rather misleading. Then, they say,

In any place where statements here would constitute an exception to whatever confessional standards we are under, they are exceptions that have been noted and approved by our respective presbyteries or classes.

Again, why the gratuitous reference to “classes,” since none of them belong to a body using that term? More importantly, however,

1. They do not know that whatever constitutes exceptions to those standards “have been noted and approved.” It is only known that whatever they themselves have marked as exceptions have been. This is quite different from “in any place where,” or “whatever.”

2. It is not helpful to us readers, in any case, unless those alleged exceptions are disclosed publicly. If it is important for us to know they are confessionally bound “except as noted,” then it is important for us to know how it has been noted.

The CREC is … a confederation which welcomes convictions like these as being “within the Reformed pale.”

But the CREC is not established in succession with any Reformed church, which is a concrete and historical designation. It makes no more sense for them to rule on what is “within the Reformed pale” than it would for them to rule on what is “within the Roman Catholic” pale — say, if they had claimed to be “Roman Catholic,” but without joining communally with the Roman Catholic communion. Here, they can only speak as amateur church historians, as to what in their opinion is within the Reformed, or RC, or EO, or Methodist pale.

It should also be noted in passing: what gives these signatories the right to declare authoritatively what “convictions” the CREC “welcomes”? Only the CREC itself can do that.

But now to the matter which is the actual point of this post. I want to highlight a small number of topics which, however, are sufficient to show that the FV is not consistent with any known branch of the holy catholic church.

Grace and faith

Consider their statement,

Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.

Here they are discussing the hypothetical situation that Adam had not fallen. Grace alone by faith alone is affirmed for this hypothetical case. But this indicates that the words grace and faith are being used differently than the Reformation fathers used them. For them, the gift of grace has to do with unearned favor that is positively demerited, not just a general quality of God’s attribute of goodness. Likewise, the content of the faith for the Reformers was the substitutionary finished work of Christ, not just some general attitude of complaisance that every creature owes his Creator.

This crucial qualification must be kept in mind in all the labyrinthine discussions that take place. If everything is grace, then nothing is grace. Said differently, by decoupling grace from demeriting sin, they eviscerate the notion as it has been held, not just by the Reformation, but by the entire Western church. By claiming to extol grace, they actually annihilate it.

The Church

This section is the crucial one to grasping what is wrong with the FV, especially if I am right in thinking that the desire for protestant catholicity is the major motive of the FV.

We affirm that membership in the one true Christian Church is visible and objective, and is the possession of everyone who has been baptized in the triune name and who has not been excommunicated by a lawful disciplinary action of the Church.

The statement is incomplete since it does not say “those and only those.” Is the conjunction “baptized and not excommunicated” both necessary and sufficient, or merely sufficient as the statement itself reads?

What about “churches” that virtually do not practice excommunication? It seems like it is far better in respect to being part of the “visible church” to be part of such a church, than to be part of one that does practice excommunication. The statement entails that tens of millions of men in England, Italy, Spain, and Mexico are “members of the visible church” even though invisible with regard to any tangible manifestation of it.

These invisible men constitute a plurality of the “visible church” as defined by FV. Moreover, these invisible men constitute “the true Church of Christ, and not an ‘approximate’ Church.”

In an amazing slight-of-hand, Federal Vision makes the Invisible Church visible, and the Visible Church invisible.

But why is the visible church such a pivotal point in the FV? One of the disadvantages of a manifesto like this, rather than being a theologically-argued or proof-texted treatise, is that the arguments and inter-relatedness of the doctrines are not displayed. For that, we have to go to the informal published assertions of the proponents. It becomes clear that the nub of the FV distinctives are based, not on a sacramental theory per se, but hinge on deductions made pertaining to the visible church. For it is in this nexus that the vine-metaphor and other premises of “union with Christ” gain traction.

In a recent posting, Douglas Wilson goes to the heart of the matter:

The question is this — does the visible church have union with Christ?

If it does, then we have to give an account of the non-elect members of the visible church. But if the visible church doesn’t have union with Christ, what is it? And what are we all doing on Sundays?

This quote reveals that the visible church is the pivot by which hypocrites are to be granted “union with Christ.” The argument is basically:

The [visible] church has union with Christ

There are non-believers in the [visible] church

Therefore, there are non-believers that have union with Christ

On the face of it, this argument commits the informal fallacy of division. If the visible church has union with Christ, then every member must have. If the ocean is blue, then each drop of ocean water is blue.

He quotes John 15:12, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” To be purgeable, a branch must be a true part of the vine. And one cannot be part of the vine in any sense if inert, lifeless.

The argument is clear: certain properties (e.g. being in the vine) are affirmed of the church; the church must be the visible church; there are hypocrites in the visible church; therefore, those properties pertain to hypocrites.

My purpose at this point is not to show the exegetical mistake made at John 15 or other passages, but simply to drive home the architectonic place that the church has in the FV distinctive. It is not their theory of baptism which is the key move; instead, baptism is subordinate logically to their view of the church.


The key point of the FV view of baptism is that

God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune Name, and that this baptism obligates such a one to lifelong covenant loyalty to the triune God, each baptized person repenting of his sins and trusting in Christ alone for his salvation. Baptism formally engrafts a person into the Church…

It must be emphasized that this assertion does not presuppose, nor entail, a view of baptism as regenerating, nor is it a concept of infusing grace. (This despite the rather confusing statement that follows:  “which means that baptism is into the Regeneration.” Who knows what they mean by “the Regeneration”? But baptismal regeneration is later explicitly denied.) Baptism is a “formal,” performative-word-based notion. Indeed, Wilson even identifies Leithart  as “high Zwinglian.”

Here we see exactly why church, not baptism is the key pivot of FV theology. Baptism is given renewed attention and focus just because it is the entryway to the church, and the analysis of the church is what leads them to attribute certain properties to all that are members of the church: at this locus, namely, the property of being united to Christ and to His convent people.

Immediately we can see how a fundamentally speculative method can lead one quickly into error. Notice that Scripture nowhere identifies baptism as the gateway to the church, or something that unites one to Christ. All of these are inferences. And they are fallacious inferences. We have from Scripture

if (x repents and is baptized) then (x is saved) (Acts 2:18)

It is also a reasonable inference from many passages that anyone that is saved ought to attach to the church. I am willing to go so far as to admit that any properly-constituted baptism entails entry into the church by the same act. However, this can only be the case if “properly-constituted” includes the notion of being administered under auspices that can claim to be the church.

Here we can see the first glaring mistake of the FV: baptism is everything as a gateway, yet all that is required for it is “into the Name.” Now if some guys get together in a friend’s kitchen and baptize his infant, there are only four possible ways to combine the concept of baptism and church in describing what happened:

1. The guys standing around in the kitchen constitute the visible church

2. The visible church is a purely formal concept, without any actuality let alone visibility

3. The ritual they perform is not in fact a baptism

4. Baptism is not sufficient to gain entry into the visible church

(1) is not tenable, because it would create unacceptable confusion. Then, “visible church” is just a way to label “any set of professing Christians.” The town’s Rotary Club might, for example, need to be regarded as the visible church in that case. Not even to mention that the succession of ordination would be lacking from the concept. (It is not coincidental that that aspect of the doctrine of the church is not touched at all by the statement — for the CREC very clearly lacks this succession. )

If (2), then all the plausibility whatsoever is taken out of the doctrinal modifications of the FV, for in bringing back the visible church, they make it invisible once again.

Thus, either (3) or (4) (or both) must be the case. If (3) is the case, the the FV’s definition of baptism is inadequate. If (4), then the FV’s assertion is false.


Though I have touched on some specific criticisms of the FV statement, my main burden has been merely to outline the architectonic as it pertains to grace, faith, church, and baptism. My conclusion is simply to show how the FV has painted itself into a corner that could not be accepted by any institutional claimant to being a branch (or trunk) of the holy catholic church — including (for this analysis) branches that do not even recognize each other as legitimate branches.

I won’t belabor that the Reformed church cannot accept this — this has been done amply at Green Baggins, Aquila Report, as well as explicit pronouncement of the PCA, OPC, RCUS, and URCNA. Wilson comes back (in the post linked above) to admit that the non-elect’s union is “different” from that of the elect’s “because he can lose it, and the elect cannot.” But this seems to trade on an external rather than internal property, akin to saying that a rock is changing because it stands in relation to a river that is changing. Are not John and Tom’s footballs identical, even though John will certainly not misplace his, and Tom certainly will?

Moreover, the two categories elect and non-elect, each in the church, do not exhaust the logical possibilities. What about the elect in the church whose regeneration is still future? The FV party would certainly have to say this category of person is united to Christ. While still a hypocrite, he is “united to Christ” by baptism. Then, after his conversion, he is also united to Christ. Has the “union” changed? It won’t do to say that it changed by going from “lose-able” to “unlose-able,” both because of the identity problem highlighted in previous paragraph, and also, because then you would be forced to say that some elect are united to Christ with the quality of “lose-able.”

For this reason, however, it also does no good to refute FV by appeal to the WCF’s definition of invisible church, for that definition is timeless, and includes elect that right now are unconverted and enemies of the church. An unthinking faction would be forced to suggest that Paul, while he was persecuting the church, was united to Christ because elect.

It is unfortunate that those discussions so often hinge everything on the doctrine of election. This is a mistake, I think. The FV thesis can be stated orthogonal to that topic: it asserts that faithless hypocrites can be united to Christ by joining a visible church. Why not simply ask whether hypocrites in the church are united to Christ, or only those with true faith? The advantage of putting it that way is that it shows that the question is broader than Reformed in-fighting: even Methodists could take an interest in the question put that way.

This embarrassment is not unrelated to the reworking of the notions of both grace and faith, summarized above. Once this is realized, it can be seen that FV should be rejected by all evangelicals — Methodist, Lutheran, low Anglicans, and every other kind.

Again, what needs to be hammered home more clearly is that FV is at odds with all evangelical Protestantism; highlighting the Reformed distinctives often blurs this point.

From time to time one sees ill-informed posters on those sites broach the idea that FV is not heretical, but simply a new branch of Lutheran thought. But faith is so central to Lutheranism that I think it is a serious mistake to count FV — which insists that faithless persons can be united to Christ — as a move toward Lutheranism. Nor have I ever seen a Lutheran make this claim. I have a quote ready to go from Quenstedt if anyone wants to pursue this further. It is generally Reformed holding a rather imperfect concept of Lutheranism that make this claim.

Lutherans sometimes come close to, or even land on baptismal regeneration. It is difficult for those of us outside that camp to understand how this is reconciled with sola fide. But for Lutherans, it is reconciled. They would not be able to affirm that faithless persons are united to Christ; instead, they say that the infant actually does have faith.

Plus, the FV does not affirm baptismal regeneration. So it is just a mistake all around to identify FV as “Lutheran.”

Nor can the sacramental bodies find common cause with the FV. As “high Zwinglians,” the FV does not teach an infusion of grace obtaining from baptism. It is a word/covenant thing. The key thing for FV is not something about the baptism as such, but rather that this is their gateway into the visible church. The formal thing is: do whatever is necessary to get into the visible church, where the passages treating the church as “elect,” “in the vine,” etc. become operative; they happen to think that that one thing is to be baptized. The sacramental aspect is an accidental connection so far as the nub of their thesis.

Thus, even sacramental bodies should reject FV — RC, EO, and high-Anglicans.

The irony is that these guys invented the FV in order to be “more catholic” as “Reformed thinkers,” but they actually painted themselves into a corner that could not be accepted by any branch of the church once the thesis is understood. They are neither Reformed nor catholic.

One thought on “The Federal Vision: Not Catholic At All

  1. To reiterate a point that might fly by too quickly: It seems like a confusion made by both sides of the debate is in using “elect” as a proxy for “regenerate.” But these are not identical. There can be elect in the church that are not yet regenerate. (Indeed, by FV’s definition, they are in the church if baptized, even if they have not been present in a church since being baptized.) So really the nub of the issue as to who is feeding on the sap of the vine comes down to whether the unregenerate (whether elect or not) are already feasting, just because baptized, or whether only the regenerate (perhaps: even if not yet baptized) feed on the sap. Note that posing the question this way removes the “election” category from the table, which is a great benefit, especially since it is misapplied by both proponents and opponents in the debate. Moreover, it shows that the crucial issue is not one that should only interest calvinists.

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