Theonomy and the Federal Vision

One aspect of the self-named Federal Vision movement that is sometimes overlooked is its connection to theonomic ethics. “Federal Vision” (hereafter FV) refers to a movement with roots in the early 1970s (see below) but that developed in the 1990s. They took the name “Federal Vision” in the early 2000s. It proposes a radical revision of the Reformed doctrines of salvation, church, and sacraments that turns eternal unconditional into a temporary, conditional election and that posits baptism as the instrument through which the temporarily, conditionally elect are said to be conditionally elect, united to Christ, justified, adopted etc. The FV also teaches that faith, in justification, is more than “resting” in and “receiving” Christ and his righteousness alone for justification. It teaches that, in justification (acceptance with God) faith is trusting and obeying. They like to speak of faith as “faithfulness.” Of course, their doctrine of conditional election and justification through faithfulness contradicts the teaching of Scripture as confessed by the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648).

Theonomy refers to a movement with roots in the 1950s that, like the FV, rejects the teaching of Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 19) as it relates to what they call the “abiding validity of the [civil, Mosaic] law in exhaustive detail.” The Reformed churches confess:

1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.

4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

5. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation (WCF 19.1–5.

According to the historic Reformed understanding of Scripture, God gave a law to Adam, a covenant of works. That moral, natural law, given before the fall, continued to be in force even after the fall, not as a way of salvation but as the most basic expression of God’s moral expectations for humanity. That law was re-stated at Sinai (Ex 20; Deut 5) and by our Lord himself (Matt 22:37-40) and throughout the NT. E.g., on this, one of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the late 16th century and editors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) wrote:

“Indeed, there was one moral law from all times written on the hearts of men, and then consigned to letters.” (Olevianus, In Epistolam Ad Romanos Notae, Ex Gasparis Oleviani Concionibus Excerptae, 3). All humans have had “ab Adamo” (since Adam) a natural knowledge of the difference between “honest and dishonest dealings”

It is important to understand that, according to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, this law is not specifically Mosaic (strictly speaking the “Old Covenant” as Paul uses the term) nor does it belong only to the Old Testament (broadly, everything before Jesus’ incarnation). According to Paul (Rom 1-3) this law is built in to the creational order and it is normative for all persons, everywhere, at all times.

Following the ancient Christian practice, the Reformed distinguish between the abiding, moral law and the temporary ceremonial (e.g., sacrifices) and civil (e.g., criminal) law of the Mosaic, old covenant. Like the typological aspects of the ten commandments (decalogue) given at Sinai (e.g., “that your days may be long in the land” and the Saturday sabbath), the civil and ceremonial laws are said to have been fulfilled by the obedience and death of Jesus and thus abrogated, i.e., no longer in force for Christians. Their job, to point to Jesus, has been fulfilled.

In the history of the church, however, we have not always been clear or consistent about how the civil and ceremonial laws have been fulfilled. On the one hand we declared them fulfilled and abrogated and on the other we gradually reinstated them, albeit with some revisions, and treated them as if they were really fulfilled. Thus, gradually over a 1000 year period, the church became a temple, the Lord’s Table (a meal) became a sacrifice, ministers became priests. To the degree, after Constantine, the state and church became entangled and the state enforced religious orthodoxy and punished religious dissent, the old shadowy civil law may be said to have become reinstated.

The Reformed Reformation rejected the re-institution of Moses in worship (e.g., the ceremonies, the priesthood, the feast days) and, in principle, in the civil realm, by insisting on the spirituality of the church and its independence from the civil magistrate. To be sure, the Reformation abolished the reinstitution of Moses in worship more completely than in civil life. In the centuries after the Reformation, however, civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy was abolished.

Beginning in the 1950s, in response to growing secularism, a movement known sometimes as “Reconstructionism” and sometimes as Theonomy began to develop. It gained momentum particularly in the 1970s as Christianity began to be pushed to the margins of society, the old morality that relied on Christian assumptions began to crumble, and academic and popular writers began to assert the autonomy of man relative to God and his law more aggressively and openly.

The theonomists (e.g., Rousas J. Rushdoony, Gary North, and Greg Bahnsen) rejected the classical and confessional Reformed distinction between the moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. Though they did not tend to argue for the reinstitution of the ceremonial laws, and the validity of the moral law has never been in question in the Reformed churches, they argued that the civil laws should be reinstituted in civil life. They argued that the civil laws were not temporary, they were not intended only for national Israel, and that they have “abiding validity…in exhaustive detail.”

This was a novel argument in the history of Reformed theology. In time past, it had been common for Reformed writers and even confessions to say that the magistrate should enforce religious orthodoxy but even then no major writer or ecclesiastical confession called for the reinstitution of the Mosaic civil laws because they all understood, even if their practice was often inconsistent, that those laws were intended for national Israel and that they were abrogated by Christ. This is why the Westminster Divines used the word “expired” to describe the civil and ceremonial laws and there is a flat contradiction between the theonomic conviction of the “abiding validity” of the civil laws and the Reformed view that they are “expired.”

Thus, we come to the question of the relation between these two movements, theonomy and the federal vision. There is reason to think that there is some connection between the two movements. Several well-known theonomists are also proponents of the FV. One of the FV leaders recently described the current FV controversy as a renewal of the theonomy argument. Interpreters on both sides have seen connection between the two controversies and movements.

Both movements date to the mid-1970s. In the early phase of the argument, Norman Shepherd, who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and was dismissed from the faculty c. 1981 for teaching that we are justified through faith and works (faithfulness) found much support among theonomists. and the FV movement today finds considerable support among theonomists.

There are ambiguities, however. There is open debate among theonomists whether two now deceased theonomists (Rushdoony and Bahnsen) would support the Federal Vision theology. Some Federal Visionists claim that he did support the basic ideas. Some point to his support for Norman Shepherd during the conflict at WTS in the 1970s as evidence and others point to his writings were he appears to contradict Shepherd. One place where Shepherd’s theology, the FV theology, and theonomy overlaps is eschatology. Most of them share a version of postmillennialism that looks forward to an earthly golden age before the return of Christ.

There are other complications. Not all theonomists are Federal Visionists nor are all Federal Visionists are theonomists. At least one theonomic denomination (the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, not to be confused with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America) has been highly critical of the FV.

In 2011, Wes Bredenhof observed a direct connection between the movements:

It is not a secret that many of the leading figures in the Federal Vision movement have, in the past, been associated with theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism. Men like John Barach, Randy Booth, Tim Gallant, Peter Leithart, and James Jordan have at some point or other either been advocates of theonomy or associated with it, even if today they claim to repudiate it. Other figures who share some Federal Vision distinctives and have a theonomist background include Steve Schlissel and Andrew Sandlin. To be fair, not all theonomists past or present are advocates of FV or are associated with it in a meaningful way. Nor are all FV advocates theonomists. However, a significant number are or have been.

So, what are the intellectual relations between them the FV and theonomy movements? Theonomy and the FV movements are analogues. Both movements reflect a similar pathology in the Reformed corpus. Both reflect what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). The FV does this by making the doctrines of covenant, justification, and perseverance, a little more reasonable, by making them less mysterious, by reducing the scandal of the cross and the offense of the gospel.

According to the FV, it is not really ungodly sinners that Christ justifies but those who are sanctifed, who cooperate with grace. As we have seen, in the FV, the sentence “A justified man is sanctified” becomes, “A man is justified because he is sanctified and cooperated sufficiently with grace to retain what he was given in baptism.” The elect, as it turns out, are those who have cooperated with grace. That’s just a little more sweetly reasonable than the confessional Reformed alternative.

Theonomy represents another side of the same quest. It offers a kind of civil, ethical precision and a kind of civil ethical authority that reduces the ambiguities of late-modern civil life to utter clarity and, on its premises, makes Christian ethics a little more reasonable. In contrast, non-theonomic ethics might not be quite so attractive for those seeking certainty about exactly what God wants the civil government to do in every case.

First, non-theonomists do not have the same catchy slogans. A non-theonomic civil ethic, like an amillennial (i.e., no glory age on the earth before Christ’s return) eschatology, is paradoxical. Theonomy is attractive because it flattens out the tension between what is and what shall be. For theonomy there is a strong continuum between the now and the not yet. For non-theonomic amillennialism there is a sharp disjunction between “the now” or “this age,” and the “not yet,” or “the age to come.” They are two different types of existence. The consummate state exists in heaven and is interjected into this life in small ways (e.g., in public worship, in the preaching of the gospel, and in the administration of the sacraments) but for the most part none of us seems to have a plan to bring the eschatological kingdom of God on the earth through social action.

The theonomists, however, have a plan and American evangelicals like a plan and they like the idea of a glorious age on the earth before the return of Jesus. Do most American Dispensationalists really understand the complicated eschatological charts? Perhaps not, but they do have implicit faith in their leaders that someone has figured out what the news means and what is going to happen in future. In contrast, non-theonomic, amillennial, types confess that all 613 Mosaic laws were civil, ceremonial, and moral and at the same time, that the moral law, grounded in creation, continues to obligate all creatures before, during, and after Moses. That creational law is a set of general principles (embodied in the Decalogue and in the golden rule and taught throughout Scripture and revealed in nature is not an extensive civil code. Thus, confessional Reformed folk must seek wisdom as they attempt to apply the moral/creational law to difficult civil problems, in a time and place when relatively few others n civil life share our assumptions and convictions, without the certainty that any particular application is necessarily is the correct Christian application.

Theonomy, however, under the slogan, “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail,” seems to offer “the” Christian answer to difficult problems. Unsure about “the general equity thereof” in a given case? Theonomists have written voluminously, if not always harmoniously, about what the “abiding validity” or the “general equity” means in any particular case.

Guy Waters, in his critique of the FV movement, has noted a connection between the two movements: the way they interpret Scripture (hermeneutics):

We have seen that the hermeneutic employed by many FV proponents resonates with theonomic conceptions of covenantal continuity. For all of theonomy’s care to emphasize its espousal of the necessity of personal regeneration, of biblical preaching, and of personal piety, the published writings of theonomist writers have generally emphasized the outward, the external and the corporate. It is this emphasis that has occasioned FV proponents’ recasting of biblical religion along predominantly outward, external, and corporate lines. (Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 296)

According to Waters, the FV movement represents a “chastened theonomy, an attempt to reconstruct the project of theonomy to accommodate its greater goal of cultural transformation” (quoted in Bredenhof, op cit).

There are social-historical connections between the movements. That both movements came to prominence in conservative Reformed circles at the same time, during the years of post-Nixon, post-Haight-Ashbury period, the time of disco and cocaine propelled self-indulgence, during the moral “malaise” of the Carter administration, suggests that they may both reactions to the same stimuli. It is clear that neither movement was driven by the Reformed confession. Rather, when these movements were born attention to the Reformed confessions was at a nadir. In an autobiographical passage in his essay, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” John Frame comments that his seminary education was not marked by sustained, focused attention to the Reformed confessions. The attitude of the period seemed to be that as long as one had a high view of Scripture and divine sovereignty, everything else about Reformed theology was negotiable.

Both Theonomy and the FV are ostensibly theologically and socially conservative. Of course, movements that reject essential aspects of the Reformed confession are not actually theologically conservative but the present themselves as conservative movements. Both movements have in common a deep concern for the collapse of the culture and our place in it. Some versions of theonomy/reconstructionism envision the culture being gradually regenerated through Christian influence and some expect a cataclysm out of which arises a Reconstructionist phoenix.

Theonomy and the Federal Vision are not identical but they are twins. The FV wants to regenerate the culture through sacerdotalism, e.g., through baptismal union with Christ whereby all baptized persons are, ex opere operato (Rich Lusk, a proponent of the FV, has spoken this way—on this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry), and temporarily, historically, conditionally united to Christ. Both visions are aimed at the restoration of Christendom.* One is primarily ecclesiastical and the other primarily civil. These common attitudes, interests, and approaches, however, help explain why so many theonomists have been attracted to the FV and vice-versa.

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Since this essay was first posted on the web, one leading Federal Visionist, Peter Leithart, has published a defense of Christendom.