The topic of the “immutability” of God has gone through various adjustments and disputations in these last 20 years in the church. In the past, older commentators seemed to close their theological eyes to such difficult passages (God “repented,” “relented,” “changed His mind”) by relegating it to the category of “anthropomorphism.” When something is anthropomorphic, it means that the Bible stoops down to convey a clear message to humanity using human terms. By adopting this response, what interpreters are saying is: this can’t be God, because my decretal God could never think twice about changing His mind–He only has a plan A. However, what would you say if I told you God has a plan A,B,C, and sometimes even D? If you do not believe that is the case, think of how many times He could have destroyed us because of our miserable sins. I am here referring to the covenantal sense. It would be theologically dangerous to assert that God’s eternal plans can be changed or altered on the basis of human actions. But through the lenses of covenant, we see that God is willing to change His judgment (Nineveh , as an example) on the basis of covenant fidelity from His people. In His kindness, benevolence, He relented from doing so. In fact, relenting is part of His gracious character. If He were not a relenting God we would be doomed.
In Exodus 32:12, 14 and 1 Samuel 15:29 and Jonah 3:10, we find multiple examples of this reality. On the condition (see also Exodus 19) that God’s people maintained and kept themselves loyal to their covenant promises, God would give them a great Land–flowing with milk and honey. If they break the covenant promise, God would then punish them accordingly.
Exodus 32 is a marvelous example of this human imploring by Moses. God threatens, but then relents. In fact, this is a clear pattern throughout Scriptures. God threatens, so that,–as Greg Bahnsen would say–there would be ethical readjustments in people’s behavior. If God never threatened, there would be no change. It is through His threatening, that people renew their covenants with God and nations repent of their sins. This is why in times of great natural disasters in early American history, the presidents called for a day of repentance and humiliation.
This is where Federal Vision theology makes Reformed Theology plausible and Biblical. Our beloved Confession (and I mean it when I say this) focuses largely on God’s decretal plans; that is, from before the foundations of the world. The decretal plans of God are unalterable, unchangeable, and immutable. Am I clear? However, what the Confession does NOT place much emphases is on the Covenantal plans of God. By this I mean, the earthly, tangible, physical manifestation of God’s plans. When we speak of God as a personal God, we are referring to this covenantal relationship between God and His people. To make this even clearer: God’s decretal plans work harmoniously with His Covenantal plans. However, His covenantal plans are different than His decretal plan. For instance, through my repentance I can personally communicate my sins to God, without expecting that God is wholly other, but rather expecting that He is wholly near; knowing that He hears my repentance and acts based on my repentance (If you love me keep my commandments).
The secret things (decretal plans) belong to Him alone. It is not for us to speculate or assume; but everything else is revealed to us and our children. This is where we should concern ourselves: with our response to God and to others.
Federal Vision theology has restored this Biblical imperative. Let us petition to our God for He listens to us and acts accordingly to our responses and His holy character.
Continuing my with my brief comments on the Federal Vision Debate– at De Regno Christi,– we come to Leithart’s response to Darryl Hart’s claim that FV proponents have gone too far in starting their own denomination.
…whatever we end up saying about the calling and responsibilities of the PCA, OPC, CREC, or ministers in those denominations, it needs to be set in the context of the fundamental biblical claim that there is only one church because there is only one Christ. We Reformed ministers and theologians have to conduct ourselves in a way that manifests that we are not of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, but members of one universal body.
This is a hard thing to do in an age of so much division and little unity. Leithart’s point is worth considering. Despite our tendencies to claim superiority over other denominations on the basis that we are purer or more committed to a particular tradition; the reality, is that we are members of one universal church. When the universal church becomes synonymous with individual denominations, we have lost the unifying message of Christ’s High Priestly prayer. We are not of Leithart nor of Hart, but of the one holy apostolic church.
After a long time, I have finally received my first copy of Credenda Agenda. To my great surprise, the entire issue is dedicated to an unknown topic called: The Federal Vision.
Starting with this post, I will be focusing on the discussion that occurred on September 18th.
His central concern is that perhaps FV ” is an outgrowth of mere Christian monologism” He adds:
One of the principle differences eclipsed by mere Christian monologism is the Catholic critique which agrees with Weber’s claim that Protestantism “disenchanted” the world and enabled the outbreak of a dominant secular materialist culture because Protestantism did not sustain a sacramental theology and an attendant “enchanted” mentality. This is the alternative, Christian and catholic story of capitalist modernity as, according to one Catholic scholar, “the repression, displacement, and perversion of sacramentality—that is, of the capacity inherent in material things to be portals into divinity.
Though much of the Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the sacramental abuse of Rome, it must be reminded that the Reformation’s central argument at the time was against the removal of the cup from the people. It was not primarily an assault on the Roman doctrine of the Eucharist. As the quote mentions, we have long lost the capacity of seeing a mere material piece of bread and a cup of wine be what Jesus said it would be– real nourishment for the soul.
- I am not sure who he is [↩ back]
D.G. Hart begins to add some fuel to the discussion. Here is where I think my previous post begins to shed some of the main differences in FV attempts for catholicity and anti-FV attempts to remain in their miniscule, ever-so small bubbles.
Hart’s reply to Leithart is as follows:
So I would have thought that the proponents of FV in their effort to correct certain features of Reformed Christianity would not end up being as comparably broad as the National Association of Evangelicals.
Hart misunderstands Leithart. It is not that we want to embrace the shallowness of the NAE, but that we want to embrace the vastness of the catholic/orthodox world. We do not adopt evangelical methods, but we accept them as evangelicals. For Hart and others, they have spent so much effort in re-enforcing their distinctions, that they have lost the centrality of the Messianic message of unity.1
Leithart seems to draw the discussion a bit more into the concept of catholicity, which is a central concern of the Federal Vision. It is true as I have mentioned in the first post that the Federal Vision may have particular theological commitments that may alienate other Presbyterian communities. However, their ultimate goal is to bring together diverse communities into a gloriously united community. Here it is important to note that unity does not require agreement in all matters. If this were the case, no families would ever stay together. To borrow the analogy, a family stays together, despite their differences, because they have come to the conclusion that if they are not united on what is central, they will self-destruct. They do not compromise their familial identity; they are still a Smith or a Brown. In like manner, the Reformed faith does not need to compromise their identity to live in unity with one another or even other families. Imagine that!
In light of my analogy, which may be more or less correct, Leithart says the following:
That means, for instance, that we’re willing to draw insights from Catholics like de Lubac, Bouyer, or Congar, or Orthodox theologians like Schmemann. More globally (and more controversially), it means that we’re not trying to formulate theological positions over-against – fill in the blank – Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, Methodist, what have you. The resulting theology is Reformed, but it’s Reformed and catholic – or maybe catholic and Reformed.
This, in my perception, is a healthy form of catholicity embraced by Federal Vision proponents.
Peter Leithart enters the dialogue with a helpful piece entitled: Ecclesial Calvinism.
Leithart offers a few more valuable insights from a Federal Vision perspective. Leithart writes about his introduction to Calvin’s Institutes:
I remember the first time I read through the Institutes and discovered to my astonishment that Calvin, like Cyprian, thought we needed an earthly mother as well as a heavenly Father. That was not the ecclesiology that I encountered in the Reformed churches I first knew. Nor was Calvin’s sacramental theology popular among self-professed Calvinists. In this sense, FV is a kind of Reformed ressourcement, an effort to reconstruct a Reformed ecclesiology from the rubble left by Pietism and Revivalism.
Interestingly, the Federal Vision does not claim to have stumbled across a new expression of Reformed Theology, but it is rather a more robust expression of Calvin’s Reformation. Can any reader deny the impressive and most-dangerous influence left by Pietism and Revivalism?1 The enormous corruption of our Reformed tradition comes when we subtly allow the infiltration of these un-Reformed thoughts in our churches. We lose our distinctiveness and our ecclesial heritage.
Hart does not seem to tackle the essence of Leithart’s arguments, though he mentions in passing:
But my sense, which is limited, is that FV has been a tad cliquish and disrespectful of Calvinists who are trying to embody the faith in discipline churches.
That FV’ers are somewhat cliquish is up for debate, but that FV’ers are disrespectful is somewhat dishonest. As Hart himself claims, the Auburn Avenue Conference treated him kindly when he spoke at their conference some years ago. Perhaps if more dialogues like these had taken place, many of these comments could have been avoided. Concerning the cliquish nature of FV’ers, indeed that may well be the case in some instances. However, it is to be remembered that when so many are phobic about a high sacramentology and a high view of the mission of the church, it is easy to see why there is a natural separation.
- See Rich Lusk’s article on The Federal Vision for a more expanded treatment of this subject; also search on my site for Federal Vision where I deal briefly with Lusk’s points [↩ back]
My friend John Muether joins the conversation. He writes:
I am with Doug and Peter on their anti-Gnostic and high church sentiments. I would shamelessly add that the Nicotine Theological Journal (founded 1997) was lobbying for those causes long before the infamous Auburn Ave conference of 2002.
Apart from some humorous comments/attacks concerning one of my favorite economists Gary North, which the NTJ refers to “Scary Gary,” it is a pretty good journal. However, I think John is “purposefully” missing the point in the discussion.1 Of course, Wilson and Leithart are not using the idea of anti-Gnosticism to combat fundamentalists in their “don’t drink, don’t smoke” campaigns. Rather, they are asserting that a two-kingdom view, explicit in Lutheran theology is wrong-headed.2 What Wilson and others argue is for a victorious eschatology; one that is firmed and grounded on the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord, not merely in His death.
Muether also mentions that he agrees with FV’ers High-Church sentiments and as a defense of this he cites Hart’s book on Presbyterian Liturgy.3 Anyone familiar with the book, (which was used at RTS/Orlando when John Fesko taught for a week) knows that the book is a defense of the Regulative Principle of worship as defined and defended by the Puritans. Professor John Frame also from RTS/Orlando responds to this approach to worship in his two books.4
What Leithart and Wilson argue is for a faithful model of worship that brings together the distinct elements of Old Testament worship into the New Covenant (something that many Presbyterians fear). How this takes place may vary substantially in each FV church. for instance, Leithart, following Jim Jordan, argues for a joyous communion service. They argue that when the sacraments are served it should be a moment of celebration as in a feast and not a funeral. Hence, much of the common hymnody of the Eucharist would have to be changed to accommodate to the Scriptural emphasis on the joy of feasting with Christ. These concerns are not just merely preferential, but essential in defining FV’ers interest and concern.
- I say purposefully because he does not want to embrace gnosticism. Who in their right mind would? [↩ back]
- See my discussion with Professor Muether in my post entitled: In defense of Reggie Kidd [↩ back]
- The book is entitled: Recovering Mother Kirk [↩ back]
- I agree with some of Frame’s critiques, though I do not agree with how he would implement worship in the church [↩ back]