It should not surprise us to find that the same distinction that made by Calvin and the Reformed theologians appears in our confessional documents. In Q. 20 the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in Adam?” The answer is, “No, only those who by true faith are ingrafted into Him and receive all His benefits.” Does baptism “ingraft” the baptized into Christ? Not according to the next question which defines true faith as
…a certain knowledge and hearty trust… which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
We confess that the Holy Spirit works faith in the elect through the preached gospel. We do not confess that the Spirit creates faith through baptism, nor do we confess that baptism makes one elect, united to Christ, justified, or adopted. Question 65 tells us how we are united to Christ:
Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.
The divinely ordained means of bringing the elect to faith is not baptism but the preaching of the Holy Gospel. Baptism is a sign and seal of the preached gospel, but does not replace it in the administration of the covenant of grace.
The teaching of the Federal Visionists, that baptism makes us elect, united to Christ, and justified cannot be reconciled with the teaching of our catechism. According to Question 66, the function of the sacraments is not to create union with Christ, but to confirm union received through faith.
The sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals appointed by God for this end, that by their use He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel, namely, that of free grace He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.
According to the catechism, the sacraments serve as a visible gospel word to encourage believers that what they hear each Lord’s Day from the pulpit really is true for them.
Our confessional doctrine of baptism must be read in the light of the confessional internal/external distinction and in the context of the confessional distinction between the visible and invisible church. These distinctions are affirmed either explicitly or implicitly in all our confessional documents. For example, in Belgic Confession, Art. 29 we confess that there is a “company of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it….” Heidelberg Catechism questions 54 and 55 make a distinction between the Holy Catholic church, which it treats as the church invisibly considered and the “communion of saints” which it treats as the church visible. It also speaks explicitly (Q. 81) about the presence of baptized members whom it calls hypocrites.
This distinction also illumines Canons of Dort 1.17 which says:
Since the will of God is to be judged from His Word to us, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but by the benefit of the covenant of grace, in which they with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt concerning the election and salvation of their children (de electione et salute suorum liberorum) whom God is pleased to call out of this life in infancy.
One proponent of the Federal Vision has argued that, unless we are willing to say that covenant children who die in infancy become elect by virtue of their death, we must say that all baptized infants are elect by virtue of their baptism. If all infants are elect by virtue of their baptism, then all baptized persons are elect.
I respond, however, that neither this nor any other article in the Canons teaches that all baptized infants are elect or that all baptized persons are elect. In effect, this article is used as a lever against the internal/external distinction and as a way to create a confessional basis for the Federal Vision doctrine of temporary, conditional baptismal benefits.
Ordinarily, churches make a judgment about whether a person is a believer on the basis of their profession of faith. In the death of a covenant infant we face an extraordinary case in that we must make a judgment about the state of a covenant child dying without a profession of faith.
The Synod of Dort does not ask us to reason, in this case that “if baptized, then elect.” The article confesses that “the children of believers are holy…by benefit of the covenant of grace.” The background for this doctrine, of course, lies in 1 Corinthians 7:14. The children of Christian parents are holy because at least one of their parents believes. The basis for the judgment that some covenant children dying in infancy are elect is the parents’ profession of faith, not the baptism of the child. That is why the article speaks of the “benefit of the covenant of grace.”
The term “benefit” was well established in Protestant theology before 1618. It denotes the benefits already discussed in this essay as “Christ’s benefits.” These benefits, however, are said to belong to believing parents. The adjective “believing” is essential to a right understanding of the article. The Federal Vision writers misunderstand this distinction because they confuse the class of those who have made a profession of faith with the class of those who actually believe. They are correct to insist that we deal with members on the basis of their credible profession of faith, but they are wrong to identify profession with true faith. This article does not say, “those who make a credible profession ought not doubt,” but rather it says that “pious parents ought not to doubt.” Indeed, believers ought to trust the promise of God, “I will be your God and your children’s God.” There is no promise here, however, that the baptized children of all professing members are elect. Neither is there an unequivocal promise that children who participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace, who die in infancy, are elect.
Article 17 must be read in the light of Article 16, which teaches that this promise does not apply to reprobates within the covenant of grace. Article 16 defines the adjectives “believing” and “pious” used in Art. 17. Believing parents are those who have a “living faith in Christ and “a certain confidence of the heart” (language deliberately reminiscent of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21). This class of members is plainly distinguished from “reprobates” and it is to this class of members that the promise applies.
One proponent of Federal Vision has assumed his denial of the internal/ external distinction, and thereby confuses profession of faith for true faith, ignored the crucial role of true faith as the sole instrument of justification and that which distinguishes those who have Christ’s benefits from those who have only administration of the covenant, and he has read that denial into this article of the Canons. By doing so, he has constructed a universal benefit to all children of all baptized members without reference to their faith. Nothing in the Canons of Dort, read in context, supports such a construction.
IV. Pastoral Theology and Conclusions
There is a clear difference between the views being published and preached by the proponents of the Federal Vision and the doctrine taught by and confessed in the Reformed churches, it is not always clear what the Federal Visionists are saying. Sometimes they contradict themselves and they do not all say the same thing, at least not in the same way at the same time. Sometimes, despite the books they have published and conferences they have held with this title, they have even denied that there really is a Federal Vision movement. Upon review of the literature produced by the movement it is apparent that there is real diversity in the movement, and yet there seems to be a genuine agreement among them that we are brought into the covenant by grace, with all its benefits, through baptism, and we remain in the covenant and in possession of those benefits by faith and obedience.
It is also evident that the movement is quite confused and confusing. For example, it is true that Israel was the national people of God temporarily and even conditionally — Paul speaks of the Old Covenant (2 Cor 3; Heb 8:13). It is distinctly unhelpful and even false, however, to speak of a historical, conditional election or to confuse an allegedly historical-conditional election with eternal election in the doctrine of salvation.
What are congregations to make of this controversy? Imagine a congregation wherein a minister preached and taught (e.g., in catechism classes) for a decade that the idea of a distinction between law and gospel is “Lutheran,” that there is no distinction between the covenants of works and grace, and that our covenant children became conditionally and temporarily elect, united to Christ, justified, and adopted by God in baptism, that infants are therefore eligible for communion, and that baptized persons shall retain Christ’s benefits if they cooperate sufficiently with grace. Imagine that he taught them and the entire congregation that they had better keep their part of the covenant or risk losing all these baptismal benefits by falling away.
Now imagine that this congregation’s next minister taught just the opposite, that relative to justification, the law says one thing and the gospel another, that the covenants of works (or nature) and grace are quite distinct, that baptism is sign and seal of the promises of the covenant of grace but does not itself confer all of Christ’s benefits even temporarily, that therefore one must make a credible profession of faith before communion and that election is only unconditional and eternal. Imagine that this minister preached and taught justification by grace alone through faith (defined as a certain knowledge and a hearty trust) alone, that the Christian life is lived in grace and out of gratitude for grace, and that according to Scripture none of Christ’s elect shall fall away. It is evident that our imaginary congregation shall have been taught two quite different and incompatible accounts of the Reformed faith and life.
Such scenarios are not entirely imaginary. Two ministers have already left the URCNA largely because of their sympathy with the Federal Vision doctrines. In one case a congregation was split over these doctrines. Other congregations, consistories, and classes have been troubled by these very issues.
It seems clear that the categories (ways of thinking and speaking) and approaches to Reformed theology, piety, and practice of the classical Reformed tradition do not interest the Federal Visionists. They seem largely ignorant of anything in Reformed theology before the 19th century. They seem to be bent on re-creating Reformed theology in their own images, albeit using our vocabulary. It seems beyond doubt that the language and categories of the Reformed confessions, which, in the last analysis, must define what it is to be Reformed, do not control the Federal Vision theology.
This essay has demonstrated that the Reformed confessions know nothing of the Federal Vision definition of baptismal benefits of Christ and their denial of the two modes of communion in the covenant of grace. The refusal of the Federal Vision writers to distinguish between the two modes of communion in the covenant of grace, and their doctrine that baptism necessarily makes the baptized elect, united to Christ, and justified, had created not only theological but pastoral problems.
In the first instance the Federal Vision has fueled the growth in popularity of the doctrine of paedocommunion or infant communion, the practice and theology of which is being ably refuted by Cornelis Venema in the pages of this magazine.
Reformed churches ought to reject not just the theology and practice of paedocommunion, but we ought to reject the root error of the Federal Visionists, e.g., their doctrines of baptism, covenant, and election, and in so doing we shall cut off the blood supply to their doctrine of paedocommunion. If there are two ways of being in the covenant of grace, and if baptism is the sacrament of initiation and the supper is the sign of profession, then we cannot simply assume that infants or even very young children are necessarily eligible for the supper simply because they are baptized. For these reasons and others given in this essay, the confessional Reformed doctrine of baptism, covenant, and election, requires our consistories to hear credible professions of faith before admitting young people to the table.
Were the Federal Vision doctrines of baptism, covenant, and election correct, then Esau must have been at least historically and conditionally elect, united to Christ, justified, and adopted. Indeed, in defending their view, some proponents of the Federal Visionists have argued to me that Esau was historically elect, united to Christ, adopted, and justified and that he would have retained these benefits but that he lost these benefits by unbelief and disobedience. It is beyond me to see how such a claim differs materially from the views we condemned at the Synod of Dort. Therefore it seems to me that the Reformed churches have a solemn duty to protect our churches from the errors of the Federal Vision. How should we proceed? We should follow the model of the great Synod of Dort (1618–19) for addressing this crisis.
Though the differences between the Remonstrants (Arminians) and the Reformed are clear today, they certainly did not seem so in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Remember that Jacob Arminius (1560–1609) was involved in controversy for at least seventeen years before his death and there was no definitive action by the Reformed Churches against his doctrine for another nine years after that. Thus, it took almost thirty years for the Reformed Churches to resolve this crisis.
Like the Remonstrants at the time of the Synod of Dort, the Federal Visionists claim to believe the Reformed confessions and like Arminius and the Remonstrants, not everything they say is false. Like Arminius and the Remonstrants, they insist continually that they are maltreated and misrepresented by their critics.
It is true that, as with Arminius and the Remonstrants, these are difficult questions, but it is also true that, as in the earlier case, these are questions of the greatest importance to our faith, to the gospel, to the churches and their ministries, and like our forefathers at the Synod of Dort, it is time for the Reformed Churches to take decisive action against the Federal Visionists for the peace and purity of the churches.
It is not as if nothing is being done. Several confessional Reformed seminaries have taken public stands against the Federal Vision theology. Some of the denominations within North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) have also begun taking disciplinary action against the Federal Vision doctrines. At their 2005 General Assembly, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church restated their conviction that the historic Reformed doctrine of justification summarized in the Westminster Standards remains their confession. In 2006 the same assembly received a detailed report criticizing the Federal Vision and adopted recommendations to disseminate the report and its conclusions in the denomination and to take steps to prevent the ordination of Federal Vision supporters to the ministry.
The 258th Synod (2004) of the Reformed Church in the United States adopted a report highly critical of the Rev. Norman Shepherd’s doctrines of baptism, covenant, election, and justification and presently has a committee studying the Federal Vision movement. Several sessions and at least one Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America have adopted statements condemning the doctrines of the Federal Vision and the 2006 General Assembly established a committee to report on the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul. In October, the PCA Standing Judicial Committee concluded that aspects of the Federal Vision “strike at the vitals of religion” and are “hostile to the system of doctrine” and criticized the Louisiana Presbytery for failing to protect the peace and purity of the church when it approved the theology of a vocal proponent of the Federal Vision within the presbytery.
At Synod Calgary (2004) the United Reformed Churches in North America rejected the doctrine and practice of paedocom-munion declaring:
The confessions to which the URCNA subscribe (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort) accurately summarize the teaching of scripture in, for example, 1 Cor 11:24–25; 28. Thus our confessions, in harmony with the scripture, require that the Lord’s Supper be administered only to those who have publicly professed their faith, in the presence of God and His holy church.
Synod gave two grounds for this statement; first that, in our standards, “we confess the purpose, participants, and manner of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in such a way as to make clear that a personal and understanding faith is a prerequisite for coming to the Table of the Lord” and second, that “the church order applies our confessions by stipulating that those who partake must first express their faith via a public profession ….”
On a related question also touching the Federal Vision, in response to an appeal from two lay congregants, Synod:
…affirms that the Scriptures and confessions (Heidelberg Q/A 59-62; Belgic Confession articles 20-23) teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.
Synod also declared that a sermon preached by a URCNA minister propounding doctrines related to the Federal Vision was “unclear and confusing on the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone” and advised the minister’s consistory to work pastorally with him to bring his views into conformity with Synod’s declaration regarding justification.
This is a start, but much more needs to be done. The influence of years of the Federal Vision teaching remains. Let us hope that God will give us the courage to address these matters with integrity and compassion.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Associate Professor of Historic and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.