Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The church of the new dispensation, in its struggles to defend the truth of God’s Word, has had to defend one doctrine above all others, for it is the one doctrine that, more than any other, is subject to the unrelenting attacks of wicked men under the direction of Satan. This one truth is the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God, particularly in the work of salvation.
The truth of sovereign and particular grace was attacked by Pelagius and defended by Augustine. Rome sank into doctrinal and moral anarchy because it chose to follow Pelagius rather than Augustine. Although the Reformers of the sixteenth century were unanimous in their defense of this truth, they were constantly being attacked by those who denied it: the Anabaptists against Luther and Bolsec and Pighius against Calvin. Dordt met and drew up the Canons against the Arminians, who wanted nothing of God’s sovereign and particular grace. Westminster had its own struggles against Amyraldianism. The Marrow men intended to introduce a subtle form of Amyraldianism into Scottish Presbyterianism, and the battle of the leaders of the Afscheiding against the apostasy of the State Church was a battle in defense of sovereign grace. 1924 and the beginnings of our own Protestant Reformed Churches are rooted in a denial of sovereign and particular grace by the well-known doctrines of common grace. And history demonstrates that not only is the truth of God’s sovereignty maintained throughout the ages only by way of struggle and spiritual warfare, but also that those who consistently maintained the truth of sovereign grace have been relatively few in number. Even churches that maintained this great truth of God’s Word have done so only for short periods of time.
Although the threats against the doctrinal purity of the confessions of Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the twenty-first century are many, one of the most dangerous threats is the heresy of what is called the Federal Vision. Much has been written on this subject. In searching the web for material on it, I discovered thousands of places that treated it. Many articles have been written in the Standard Beareron this subject as well. It seems, therefore, to be a bit superfluous to write about it again. Nevertheless, a brief summary of the heresy will serve its own purpose.
Its Name and Origin
Various names are given to this heresy. The most common name is the Federal Vision. This name indicates especially that it is closely connected with federal theology, that is, the doctrine of the covenant. Another name is the Auburn Ave. Theology, a name given to the heresy because a Presbyterian church in Louisiana on Auburn Ave. is the capitol of this heretical thought.
The origin of it seems to be the confluence of two lines of thinking that came together to form its chief features. The one line of thinking is the doctrine of justification by faith and works. Within conservative circles, this doctrine was first proposed by Norman Shepherd when he was professor in Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The struggle between Shepherd’s supporters and critics over this doctrine went on for many years. The battle took place in the late Seventies and early Eighties. It finally ended in the resignation of Norman Shepherd from Westminster. The irony was that his views were never officially condemned, and Westminster remains today a center for the propagation of the heresy.
The other line of thinking is, surprisingly enough, the theology of Dr. Klaas Schilder and his view of a conditional covenant. Schilder taught these views throughout his ministry, although the idea of a conditional covenant was held more widely in the British Isles and on Europe’s continent for many years.
The idea of a conditional covenant is an inevitable consequence of an erroneous view of the covenant that many held from the time of the Reformation. The covenant of grace, in keeping with the notion of a covenant of works, was a pact or agreement between God and man that depended for its adoption and maintenance on a number of promises, conditions, and threats. Schilder taught this view in his ministry in the Netherlands. Prof. William Heyns taught it earlier than Schilder in Calvin College and Seminary.
The view of a conditional covenant included the idea that all the children who were baptized were included in the covenant and received the promise of God that they would be saved—but on condition that they would, in the future, accept the provisions of the covenant.
I noted above that the heresy of the Federal Vision was the “confluence” of these two lines of thought. That is not quite true. The idea of a conditional covenant is older; the “federal vision” of more recent origin. The intrinsic relation between the two is definite and emphatic. To hold consistently to a conditional covenant must inevitably result in a doctrine of a conditional salvation. The Federal Vision theology carries out that conditional salvation idea to its extreme.
Some of the chief defenders of this view, besides Norman Shepherd, were Steve Wilkins, a Presbyterian minister, and Steve Schlissel and Doug Wilson, two ministers in basically independent churches. Other historically Reformed and conservative churches have struggled with men who have embraced the Federal Vision teachings.
Almost every major Reformed and Presbyterian denomination has either approved of the heresy or refused to condemn it (an indirect form of approval). More than one denomination struggled long with the doctrine. Although some pastors openly taught it, they were not disciplined. So far as I know, only one conservative denomination emphatically and unambiguously condemned it.
Federal Vision is beyond any doubt the gravest threat to confessional truth in general and to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation in particular that the churches have seen in many years. Innumerable modifications of the truth of sovereign grace have been introduced into the church since Dordt and Westminster, but there has always been something subtle and surreptitious about these heresies. Here, in the Federal Vision, we and the church world are confronted with an open, blatant, and unambiguous attack against that one truth of sovereign grace, in the defense of which so many in the past have suffered and died.
The attack is not camouflaged. It is, without apology, a rejection of what Luther called the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church. It is a reiteration of what the Roman Catholic Church taught for centuries and from which heresy the Reformation delivered us. It is a repudiation of the confessional heritage of the church. It is a bold and frontal attack on the salvation of the people of God.
. . . to be concluded.