The Federal Vision and the Reformed Hermeneutic

One of the most frequent claims made in defense of the self-described Federal Vision (hereafter FV) is the claim that they are “only following the Bible.” A corollary of that is the claim that Reformed confessionalists “have already decided in advance what the Bible can say.” This is an important discussion because it gets not only to exegetical points and doctrinal conclusions but to the way that we should read and interpret Scripture (hermeneutics).

One aspect of the FV approach to Scripture is how much their principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) seems so much like not only that made by the Anabaptists, the early Socinians, and the Remonstrants but also how much it sounds like the pietists and the liberals. They all claimed, at different times, to be more faithful to Scripture than the confessional Protestants.

Almost invariably, when I compare the biblical exegesis offered by the alternatives to Protestant orthodoxy, I find the biblical exegesis of the confessional Reformed churches more satisfying not because it agrees with conclusions I’ve already reached but because it gives the best explanation of the widest range of biblical passages. I did not become a confessional Reformed Christian because I decided things ahead of time. I followed the Bible. I left broad evangelicalism because I found its explanation of Scripture to be inadequate.

I have been somewhat critical of aspects of of contemporary Reformed theology, piety, and practice. It is not a question of whether the critics of the FV are following Scripture. Rather the question is whether the FV is following the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Virtually the entire confessional Reformed world has considered the FV doctrine and rejected it. The United Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, Westminster Seminary California, and a couple other seminaries have all rejected the FV as unbiblical.

Perhaps the chief passage to which the FV movement appels is John 15. They claim that when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” and “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes” it means means that, in baptism, every Christian is conditionally united to Christ, elect, regenerated, adopted, justified etc. We’re told that the point of the discourse is that Christians have been so graced must do their part to retain all that they have been given in baptism or else they will be pruned.

Of course, this passage and others like it (e.g., Hebrews 6 and 10) have been addressed repeatedly in this controversy. The FV interpretation consistently ignores the the distinction (which they regard as evidence of our Procrustean bed—whereby we conveniently ignore difficult passages—we use to understand such passages. The Reformed understanding of this passage and others like it is that it assumes that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. This is exactly what Paul teaches in Rom 2:28. This explains Paul’s address to visible congregations as “saints.” When he used that language, he was not implying that every one of the recipients of an epistle was necessarily elect and he was certainly not saying that they were all conditionally united to Christ etc. Paul was simply addressing the entire congregation according to their profession of faith.

In John 15 and in the other cases to which the FV advocates appeal, Scripture speaks to the church as a visible assembly. It always assumes the truth of Romans 2:28 or what Witsius called the “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace. Remember, in 14:22 Jesus rebuked Judas. He knew he was speaking to a mixed communion, as it were. The cross was before him and our Lord was preparing his disciples for what lay ahead. The FV interpretation would have us think that Judas was united to Jesus. This is just false. One of the great points of the discourses in chapters 14–15 is to show that Judas was never united to Christ. How do we know? He never loved Jesus. Remember, the same Apostle John who gave us these chapters also warned us in his Epistles (1 John 2:9) about folks claiming to be Christians but who denied the humanity of our Lord. “They went out from us because they were not of us.” They were members of the visible assembly but they ultimately showed what they really were. They never were “of” us. They never were “in Jesus” or truly “in” the vine. They were externally members of the covenant of grace, but never actually united to Christ. Scripture knows nothing of a temporary, conditional, historical, union with Christ or election or justification or adoption.

Jesus says in John 16:1 that he warned the disciples about all these things (in ch. 15) to keep them from falling away. The FV says, “Aha, there it is! He wouldn’t have said “fall away” if it wasn’t a real possibility and only those who are united can fall away.” Not so fast. Yes, falling away is a real possibility to those in the visible assembly. That’s why such warnings are issued here and in Hebrews 6 and 10. This is the distinction between the administration of the covenant of grace and its substance. We all participate in the administration but we don’t all participate in its substance. The warnings are part of the administration of the covenant of grace.

When our Lord spoke he knew who and what Judas was. He knew that they too would be sorely tempted to fall away, but the Spirit uses means, he uses the Gospel to strengthen his people in times of tempation, to enable them to resist.

The beauty of the confessional Reformed understanding of these discourses is that it reads them in the light of passages such as Romans 2:28 and Romans 9 and 1 John 2:9 We know that reprobates (e.g. Judas) may be part of the covenant of grace outwardly but never inwardly. We know that Esau was never elect, never united to Christ, and never adopted, even though he was an outward member of the covenant of grace.

Now, the FV advocates have a completely different explanation of this passage and the others like it. Whose explanation of John 15 do they follow? Is it the Reformed explanation? No.The FV understanding of these passages is much closer to that of the Jesuit counter-Reformation theologian Cornelius a Lapide (1567–1637).

That the FV movement agrees with a Romanist exegete doesn’t ipso facto make them wrong. I have agreed often with Roman exegetes (e.g., Raymond Brown and Rudolf Schnackenburg) on John. It is interesting, however, to see how, when it comes to a fundamental issue, the FV reading of Scripture is at odds with the Reformed reading of Scripture.

This is not a matter of simply tweaking the interpretation of a passage here or there. There is certainly room for disagreement over the interpretation of this passage or that. What is afoot here, however, is that the FV folks are proposing an alternate system of theology under the guise of simply “following the bible.”

A system of theology is unavoidable. No one reads the bible without attempting to relate one passage to another and one topic of biblical teaching to another. The moment one does this, one has a system be it small or large. Every new movement promises to show us all the real or even the hidden message of Scripture. That’s why the Reformed churches confess their understanding of Scripture in formal, ecclesiastical documents.

It is not we have not considered the point of view proposed by the FV. We have. We considered it in dealing with the medieval Roman church, the Counter-Reformation Roman church, and the Remonstrants, and in certain respects, confessional Lutheranism post 1570. We have considered it again in the FV controversy. We have considered the possibility that baptism places one “in” univocally until one is “out” univocally and We have rejected it. It doesn’t mean that we have not faced up to the challenge of relating passages with one another but it means that We have done and come to different conclusions.