The Federal Vision Controversy
As we wait for adjudication from the PCA judges, FV apologists and moderates (and those young theology wonks without a better topic to pontificate over) are doing overtime trying to get their say into the world wide web. Given my understanding of this issue and my close experience with some of its origin, this would be one issue I would have analyzed to death if I thought it was at all worth my time. Unfortunately, I do not believe it is worth my time. There are many reasons I think this, and I’ll name a few of these reasons here.
First, the judges of the PCA understand their task far better than the external critics on both sides; and I think the real questions before the court are clear. All the huff on the internet does not even make mention of these questions. Rather, you find political talk about Wilkins being “heretical,” and then the backlash of FV supports declaring the importance of ecumenicity and the non-heretical nature of Wilkins’ teaching. But this misses the point almost entirely. The judges are not adjudicating whether or not Wilkins is to be considered a “heretic.” They are rather adjudicating whether or not Wilkins’ teaching and intentions are consistent with the WCF as employed as a standard within the PCA’s tradition as governed by the BCO constitution. Ironically, Wilkins has aligned himself with one of the most schismatic groups on the planet as related to main reformed denominations (i.e. the CREC), and the role of the judges is to seek to suppress any further schismatic behavior from Wilkins if it be consistent with their constitutional documents and judicial tradition.
Second, the controversy centers around the system of theology as allegedly found within the WCF, a confession now used as a constitutional document within the PCA; one of the center-pieces of this theology is the WCF’s unique presentation of a post-reformation scholastic covenant theology. I have already spent a good deal of time laboring over the issue of this scholastic covenant theology, and I believe I have successfully rejected this scholastic covenant theology in its entirety while offering a more exegetically cogent, poetically sensitive, and philosophically sound alternative. I have arrived at this position through private work that scans the “covenant language” from Genesis to Revelation, through debate with Leithart, Wilson, and Ralph Smith, and through publishing a series of articles on the matter in Credenda Agenda. I have also sought challenge from numerous other reformed theologians. Since starting up my formal graduate studies, I have only found further confirmation of my position and I have not yet discovered an argument that mitigates my position or the arguments for this position. Since the entire FV debate assumes precisely what my thesis rejects, until theologians addressing the FV issues begin backing up and addressing their covenant theology in a more self-conscious manner (or are willing to address my challenges) I no longer have any use for their disputes over FV where they touch issues surrounding ‘covenant’—which is a good deal of the issues.
Third, and related to the first point, there is a great lack of coherence and respectability in the FV theology in so far as their concerns over the discrepancy between biblical language and theological language are never followed through honestly and cogently. Concerns of biblical language are stated in controversial ways, and yet there is very little follow through and helpful unpacking of these concerns once they have pricked schism and controversy. From the beginning I have understood my position as really nothing more than a carrying through of some of the more basic concerns of the FV position, as has been expressed well by Richard Lusk. The opponents of the other side, however, fail to understand or sympathize with any of the concerns expressed by FV thinkers, resulting in once again a theological production that is anemic.
Fourth, FV was started and gained momentum by a group of men who had subversive intentions. The rhetoric of Schlissel, the militant response from Wilson to initial concern, the disparaging of the PCA in general, and the almost complete disregard of the contemporary expression of the “reformed tradition” in favor of first generation reformed writings makes this clear enough. I was meeting with Doug Wilson once a week during the time that Wilson had made his subversive intentions clear. Wilson spoke about the “dirty diapers” of reformed theology from the pulpit and gave me a year’s writing for Credenda Agenda after I had explained that “I was not reformed.” One of the many dishonest dimensions I saw from Wilson that carved the path to the Wood was the clear waffling and change of tune on the FV issue once the heat became far greater than he anticipated. This change of tune was not that much different than what was seen in the slavery controversy, as illustrated here and as detailed by local historian William Ramsey here (these two resources are by no means exhaustive).
Fifth, and tightly related to the last point, I am at this point firmly convinced that 90% of the FV controversy is politics. Reformation, pure religion, piety, and truth have almost nothing to do with what is going on – a fact perhaps running with the norm of church history. The reformation of the 16 th century was no doubt political too, but it was to a good degree a moral reformation. This purely doctrinal “reformation” of the FV is really just an exhibition of the moral corruption on both sides. Wilson and Jones have rightly noted that it was the lax morality and anemic cultural fruit from reformed churches that gave their practical books an inside hook into the reformed tradition. Unfortunately, however, Wilson would use such hooks for just more of the dishonest maneuvering we saw as early as 1993. and as late as the fresh COTK scandal. There has been plenty written elsewhere about the corruption and political mindedness of Wilson, so I’ll cut this point short.
Sixth, look at the nature of the debates between FV supporters and opponents. As C.S. Lewis once said, there “is some death” in theology; if this is true, then what we have been seeing as the output from the FV controversy is the blackest darkness of religious thinking. The only interesting parts are where each side attempts to lynch the other side (e.g. Wilson’s dishonest attack on Professor Clarke). The doctrinal discussions proper are enough to make one go lock himself down in the basement of literature department and throw away the key—another monastic tradition is no doubt brewing. The results of FV have suffocated the original concerns that could have born much fruit. But since the point is the politics, neither side in the controversy could really care.
I hope this is sufficient for explaining why I have had little concern over the content of these skirmishes over the last year—outside of the work already done with respect to the politically subversive actions of Wilson. Life is too short; the life of Doug Wilson is more interesting than this issue currently absorbing Wilson defenders and critics, and so I hope to stick to that topic when not engaged in my broader studies. I will just sit back and wait to see if the reformed tradition self-destructs; at the very least Brian McLaren’s predication has turned out true: the reformed tradition will be the first modernist splinter group to under go an identity crisis. I think this is in part precisely what we see.