There is a raging controversy today in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches over the heresy of the federal vision, except in the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). According to two of their professors, in these churches “federal vision is not a raging controversy,” but they sympathize with some federal vision emphases. This came out in the recent interview of two CanRC professors by a classis of the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA), as reported in the March 10, 2010 issue ofChristian Renewal.
The magazine reported that Classis Southwest of the URCNA put sixteen questions, eight of which are recorded in the March 10 issue, to two official representatives of CanRC, Dr. Gerhard Visser and Dr. Jason VanVliet, both of whom teach at the CanRC seminary in Hamilton, Ontario.
Of late there have been on-going meetings between representatives and committees of the URCNA and the CanRC regarding a possible merger of the two denominations. Christian Renewal has tracked this possible merger by publishing reports on various committee meetings and printing articles from both sides, both for and against the proposed merger. A number of practical issues have been discussed, such as the song book that will be used, as well as the rather thorny question regarding whether the seminary will be denominational (CanRC) or independent of the denomination (URCNA).
But there is the well-known fact—the elephant in the room—that the CanRC are dependent for their covenantal theology on Dr. Klaas Schilder. This makes one of the questions of the interview almost humorous, if it were not so serious, “How do the ministers of the CanRC regard the covenant theology of K. Schilder?”
Like asking a child how he regards his mother.
The covenant theology of the CanRC should be a con cern for the URCNA because the federal vision, which the URCNA is ostensibly fighting, openly acknowledges that its covenant theology is a development of the covenant theology of Dr. K. Schilder.
It is clear from the article’s report of the interview that Classis Southwest URCNA is concerned about the covenant theology of Dr. K. Schilder, that theology as it has held sway in the CanRC, and the connection between that covenant theology and the federal vision. The questions of the classis are about the covenant, the federal vision, and K. Schilder. Among other questions, the classis asked:
1. How is the so-called “Federal Vision” theology regarded in the CanRC? Are there ministers/professors in the CanRC who support this teaching?
5. What is the dominant covenant theology of the CanRC?
8. How do ministers of the CanRC regard the covenant theology of K. Schilder?
The article just as clearly demonstrates that the two professors from the CanRC seminary showed an amazing ability to sidestep the obvious issues. In answer to Classis Southwest’s question, “What is the dominant covenant theology of the CanRC?” they answered,
The dominant covenant theology in the CanRC is expressed in the Form for Baptism…. Of course, because of our history, the teachings of Dr. K. Schilder have had, and still do have, an influence…. Having said that, concerning the covenant, there are a few points we regularly emphasize:
* covenant and election are related, but must not be equated;
* both the promises and the obligations of the covenant should be laid upon the hearts of all God’s people;
* Baptism is a sign pointing to God’s covenant promises.
No Reformed man has a problem saying that his covenant view is found in the baptism form, that there are obligations in the covenant, and that Baptism is a sign pointing to God’s covenant promises.
No Reformed theologian has ever been so dense as to “equate” covenant and election. Election is an eternal decree. Covenant is a relationship of friendship and fellowship that God establishes with His elect people in Jesus Christ the head of the covenant.
The issue—the issue they adroitly sidestep—is the question of how precisely the CanRC relate covenant and election. If they are related, which the representatives of the CanRC say that they are, then what is that relationship, and even more pointedly, does the eternal decree of election determine with whom God establishes the covenant?
Yet, reading with some discernment, it is possible to see the classic Schilderian and CanRC doctrine of a conditional covenant cut free from the eternal decree of election come through.
Classis Southwest URCNA: “How do the ministers of the CanRC regard the covenant theology of K. Schilder?” The professors answered:
Schilder taught that those who are baptized are really in the covenant. They really receive the promises of salvation, and they really receive the obligation to respond, out of thankfulness, with a new obedience.
Schilder also points out that everyone is baptized with the same Form. We do not have a Form A for elect and Form B for non-elect.
At the same time, those who are properly and legally in the covenant [all baptized children—NJL] also have to appropriate the promises by faith….
Schilder speaks of conditions within the covenant, but he also takes pains to ensure that no one misunderstands this. He says: if you mean by condition “something whereby we bind God,” or “something for which God has to wait before He can go on,” or “something which we have to fulfill in order to merit something,” then, “we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password.'” But he continues: “Do you mean by condition something which God has joined to something else, to make clear to us that the one cannot come without the other and that we cannot be sure of the one, unless we are at the same time assured of the other? Then we say unconditionally: ‘conditional is the password.'”
Bearing the above in mind, CanRC are not inclined to speak of an inward/outward covenant or an inward/outward aspect of the covenant. Using that terminology leaves us with the impression that some children of baptism are really in the covenant and really baptized, while others are not…at the same time, this does not mean that we teach that every member of the covenant is de facto elect. Not at all! Genuine profession of faith is a very real and important part of life in the covenant.
For the CanRC, all baptized children are in the covenant and really receive the promises of salvation. Not every member of the covenant is elect. They do not teach an inward/outward distinction in the covenant [read covenant and sphere of the covenant—NJL]. There are conditions in the covenant. Schilder may have cleverly defined conditions, but they were conditions for all that: “the one cannot come without the other.”
That is a particular covenant doctrine laid out in very plain language. That is a conditional covenant that is dependent on the will of the baptized child. That is the basic covenant doctrine promoted by the men of the federal vision and on the basis of which they teach a conditional election, conditional justification, and indeed, an entirely conditional salvation. Salvation—in the covenant—according to the federal vision is by faith and good works. Salvation is conditional.
It is a covenant doctrine that is not controlled by election because every baptized child is really in the covenant and really receives the promises.
It is a covenant doctrine that teaches that the baptized child who is in the covenant, who is joined to Jesus Christ, and who has received the promise of God can—in fact many do—fall away from the covenant and perish.
It is a covenant doctrine that insists on denying the one distinction that explains how it is that all children of believers must be baptized, but not all children of believers are “in the covenant.” It is this distinction between being “in the covenant” and “in the sphere of the covenant” that the apostle taught in all but name only in Romans 9:6: “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.”
It is a covenant doctrine opposed to and incompatible with the truth of an unconditional covenant determined exclusively by God’s eternal and unconditional decree of election. All of salvation, including salvation in the covenant, is determined by the decree of election. This truth every Reformed believer confesses:
That some receive the gift of faith [which is to be “in the covenant” inasmuch as faith is being engrafted into Christ—NJL] from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree (Canons 1.6).
Instead of this wholly comforting—and God-glorifying—confession that salvation in the covenant is dependent upon the will of God in election, it is a covenant doctrine—terrifying and God-dishonoring—in which every baptized child is in the covenant and receives the promises of salvation, but salvation is conditioned on that child’s work of appropriating the promises by faith.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) had a life-and-death struggle with the theology of a conditional covenant as taught by Dr. K. Schilder. That makes the present-day controversy over the federal vision, a movement that openly admits that it is developing the doctrine of the covenant as taught by Dr. K. Schilder, of lively interest to the members of the PRC as well as to other readers of the Standard Bearer. That conditional covenant doctrine, now well-developed with its many implications by the federal vision, was officially rejected by the PRC in that controversy.¹ That controversy demonstrated that there is no peace between the doctrines of grace as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and a conditional covenant, and that churches that will maintain the doctrines of grace must reject the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Yet again, by means of the heresy of the federal vision, the Lord has brought to the foreground in Reformed and Presbyterian churches the age-old question, Is salvation conditional? That question was faced by Augustine, by the Reformation, by Dordrecht, by some in the Dutch Reformed churches after Dordrecht, and by the PRC in 1953. The answer of all to that question was a resounding, No!
That question must be faced again in Reformed and Presbyterian churches specifically with regard to the precious doctrine of the covenant. Is salvation in the covenant conditional, or is that covenant graciously established, maintained, and perfected by God with His elect alone? Is the relationship between covenant and election—never equated, but never separated either—that the decree of election determines membership in the covenant?
This brings up the plain admission by the two CanRC representatives before an official gathering of Classis Southwest URCNA.
How is the so-called “Federal Vision” theology regarded in the CanRC? Are there ministers/professors in the CanRC who support this teaching?
Federal vision is not a raging controversy in CanRC like it is in some other federations; this is due in part to the fact that some FV emphases are the ones to which Canadian Reformed people are also sympathetic….
Sympathetic…with those denying sovereign grace in the covenant!
One wonders why the interview lasted for fifteen more questions, unless the men who asked the questions exposing the elephant in the room are unwilling to give up their white elephant—the conditional covenant. The federal vision has shown the cost of maintaining it: a fully conditional salvation and the loss of all the doctrines of grace.
It is a plain admission by the CanRC representatives.
The message is clear. We are not fighting the federal vision; we are sympathetic with some of their emphases. In fact, we wonder what all that hullabaloo south of the border is about.
It is about the covenant and whether God and His will determines the membership in that covenant, or whether man and his will determines the membership in that covenant.
That is serious.
The maintenance of the doctrines of grace—including gracious justification—depends on the answer.
Are we serious about answering that question…and fighting for the right answer?
¹ For the official Protestant Reformed rejection of that error, one can refer to the document known as the Declaration of Principles found in Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko, “Appendix,” in Ready to Give an Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1997), 203—233.