The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, a Comparison Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters
Dr. Waters, who wrote an excellent book critiquing the New Perspective on Paul entitled Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: a Review and Response, has rendered a similar service in respect to the Federal Vision. The Federal Vision overlaps in many areas with the New Perspective (pp. 2-6, 57, 63-76, 274-277), but the two systems are not synonymous. The Federal Vision is more of an intramural debate among those in the covenantal camp as is reflected not only in the title but in the many discussions throughout the book related to covenant theology and the Westminster Confession. Waters attempts to frame the Federal Vision proponents as emerging from the “theonomy” wing of Reformed theology (pp. 6, 292, 296) but does not pay adequate attention to the subject to prove his case, in my opinion.
What Waters does pay massive amounts of attention to is the convoluted sacramentalism promoted by the system. If would appear that the Federal Vision leaders are reacting to a flaw within covenantal theology in which one can never be certain of salvation until he dies. Over the years, much Reformed ink has been used (we see this especially among the Puritans) to supply numerous introspective tests for salvation. Ultimately, however, this renders the believer with lack of assurance as he can never be certain he has passed all the tests. As a remedy to introspection and uncertainty the Federal Vision offers the objective means of baptism. Waters documents from the direct writing of the Federal Vision teachers their belief in the saving powers of water baptism (pp. 15, 17, 92, 104, 133-135, 139-141, 147, 154, 157, 165171-172, 186, 193, 201-203, 212-213, 216, 257). A quote from Doug Wilson, one of the more respected leaders within the movement, is instructive, “We are warranted therefore in saying ‘that baptism is the laver of regeneration (Titus 3:5). Baptism now saves us (1 Peter 3:20-21). In baptism we call upon the Lord, washing our sins away (Acts 22:16). I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38)’” (p. 201).
Having made numerous statements of this type (and keep in mind that it is largely infant baptism that is under discussion) the Federal Vision proponents then give a disclaimer that baptism does not save followed almost immediately by saying it does. Quite confusing.
More confusing yet is their understanding of perseverance. Here they substantially agree with most in the Reformed camp—that perseverance will be evident in the life of every saint. However their view takes on at this point some strange and contradictory elements. The Federal Vision teachers have gone to great lengths to lay out baptism as the objective sign of salvation only to turn around and limit that objective sign with the necessity of perseverance (pp. 128, 131, 135, 141-144, 151, 154, 172, 187-193, 217, 238-243). So baptism is not objective after all and can not give confident assurances. Another deviation from Reformed thought is the Federal Vision’s unusual view on election in which it appears that some may be elect (and saved, in Christ) for a time, but will lose their election and place in Christ if they do not persevere (pp. 141-144). Waters is correct in terming this as basic Arminianism (pp. 193, 239).
When the dust has settled the Federal Vision teaches three instruments of justification: faith, baptism and faithfulness (p. 262). In this the system is in solid agreement with the New Perspective for as N. T. Wright (the leading evangelical proponent of that system) writes, “Justification at the last will be on the basis of performance, not possession” (p. 301). In turn both the Federal Vision and the New Perspective are far closer to Rome’s theology than Reformed.
The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology would be of value mostly for those already in the covenantal system to help them analyze and guard against the dangers within. For all others the “Foreword” gives an adequate summary that will satisfy most of their curiosity.