Straining at gnats, swallowing camels...
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Is Federal Vision theology (FV) worthy of the intense opposition Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) conservatives dignify it with? I suspect not. For a number of reasons, I suspect such opposition to FV theology in the PCA is a sign of conservative weakness rather than strength; opportunism rather than courage. But first a bit of history.
Four years ago when FV was first dealt with by the PCA at her 2007 General Assembly (GA), conservatives rallied in support of a report condemning aspects of FV theology. The report was adopted and trials of Federal Vision supporters followed, the latest of which is the upcoming trial of Peter Leithart in Pacific Northwest Presbytery. It would appear, then, that the PCA is dutifully reforming herself and the cleanup is mostly finished.
But perhaps as noteworthy as what happened within the PCA at the 2007 GA and following is what did not happen. To understand this, we must consider a pair of strange couplings that took place that year.
The 2007 General Assembly was notable, not only for its debate and subsequent vote on the FV report, but also for several mésalliances forged in the lead-up to that vote. On one side, the middle-aged lions of the Keller/Redeemer/hipster/missional party provided some support for the FV camp. On the other side, the old lions of the southern/tall-steeple/rich/broadly Reformed party provided some support for the Truly Reformed (TR) conservatives of the PCA.
When the heat of battle passed, though, both the hipster middle-aged lions and the rich old lions woke up to strange bedfellows. Neither alliance could last. Redeemer hipsters...may hobnob with FVers for a day or two, but there's only a finite number of sentences that begin with the words "Wright is right, you know...." Similarly, tall-steeple broadly Reformed rich men may hobnob with TRs for a couple hours in the morning, but then the country club calls and TRs don't know the dress code, can't come up with the green fees, and never got an invitation to join anyway.
Neither alliance lasted longer than GA. But what were the rationales behind those alliances?
The tall-steeple/TR alliance can be explained by a combination of two factors.
First, TRs typically judge "the whole world crazy but me and thee, and sometimes I do wonder about thee," while tall-steeples have a non-negotiable commitment to the gentility of southern country club culture. The result was at best an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" dynamic between the two groups.
Second, TRs, who tend to do battle over any perceived defection from Reformed theology no matter how inconsequential, genuinely believe the Reformation is at stake in the controversy over FV. Possessing an opposite nature, tall steeples tend to value decorum more than theological precision, yet pushed to extremis they will do battle over their one abiding theological principle, justification by faith alone. Thus, when the 2007 debate was cast as a fight over central doctrines of the Reformation against opponents they were already sociologically uncomfortable with, the tall steeples reluctantly rose to the bait and an alliance was forged.
More interesting, perhaps, than the TR/tall steeple alliance is the FV/Missional pairing, a partnership between, on the one side, a cast of allegorizing, ecclesiastical-authority-reclaiming, covenantalist, former-theonomists and, on the other, shaved-head, authority-rejecting, artist-loving, not-unwilling-to-look-queer hipsters drawn together by two synergistic interests: commitment to post-millenarian cultural engagement (informal on the missional side, formal on the FV) and fondness for N.T. Wright.
What does this have to do with the PCA today? Only this: in four short years the landscape in the PCA has changed dramatically. Post 2007, tall steeple PCA conservativism swooned and is now nearing extinction. To the extent that it still lives, it does so subsumed within the Redeemer/Missional movement (for evidence, look at pictures from 2007 and the flops of PCA leaders since shorn). Some who were leaders in the tall steeple faction now fawn over Tim Keller while those who oppose missionalism do so tepidly and almost embarrassedly.
At the same time Federal Vision is in decline both within and outside the PCA. The number of PCA churches lost over the FV controversy can be counted on two hands today and will still be counted on two hands once the trials are over.
Remaining TR conservatives within the PCA are isolated and largely without institutional influence: they have always been a small group pastoring mostly isolated churches and so they remain.
The vast gainer among the parties to the 2007 debate is the Redeemer/Missional faction, leaving the PCA controlled by Redeemerite/Missionals with TR conservatives operating on the fringes and an even smaller group reflecting neither TR narrowness nor Redeemer cool looking on from the sidelines and considering the future.
Meanwhile, Redeemer/Missionals whose fondness for N.T. Wright is not limited to the eschatological implications of post-millenialism as it was with FVers, are advancing their agenda within the PCA. The Redeemer/Missional embrace of Wright extends beyond FV interest in Wright, including but not limited to areas such as the implications of Wright's eschatology for cultural renewal, Wright's fluid approach to Scripture which permits him to stand boldly on the physical reality of the resurrection while avoiding the literal implications of passages such as those condemning homosexuality and female officers in the Church, and his reputation for combining Reformed conservativism with political liberalism.
Ironically, though conservatives are still reluctant to admit the fact, Wright's sway over the PCA is greater today through Redeemer/Missionals than it ever was through proponents of FV. And Wright is held in even higher regard among the powers-that-be within today's PCA than in the formally FV Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) where disenchantment with Wright's political liberalism and inconsistency on Biblical authority has grown significantly since 2007. (If you doubt either side of this statement, just compare Doug Wilson's blog posts on Wright over the last few years with the required reading lists for any number of Covenant Seminary courses.)
These changes notwithstanding, FV theology remains the whipping boy of PCA conservatives. With the exception of a few conservative voices, Wright's influence among Redeemer/Missionals and at Covenant Seminary is simply ignored.
That this approach is short sighted is obvious. That it's the result of cowardice is increasingly clear as well. It's easy for conservatives to attack the FVs: they're powerless, everyone's against them, they can't hit back. But conservatives have given the Redeemer/Missionals a desperately wide berth in their march to war against the FVs for reasons that should be obvious.
Dealing with Redeemer/Missional powers such as Covenant Seminary and Tim Keller jeopardizes a continued presence at the PCA feeding trough. Those who oppose such men and institutions of power may never again get voted onto the leading comittees of the denomination, never again be able to hobnob with pastors of 5000-member churches at GA. Attack such targets and you're not nibbling at the margins, you're attacking the PCA's moneyed, prestige-seeking, cultured heart.
And just think where that could lead.... What other denomination is there where presbyteries would insist on such generous terms-of-call for pastors? Where's the Reformed denomination which can claim multiple US congressmen among its members? Then as well, think of all the artists nurtured by Missional churches.... Why, an attack on the PCA's Missionals would be a blow to the culture of our nation. And so, the PCA's last best hope labors mightily against the FV, demonstrating again and again a willingness to strain at gnats while swallowing camels. At best, conservative strategy has been to engage the weak with great blows and shouts in order to scare the strong.
But the question of whether the Federal Vision movement should be considered a foe at all within the PCA is an open one for the following reasons:
First, FV is fracturing into good and bad sides--represented by Doug Wilson and James Jordan respectively. In the midst of this division bad FVers are losing clout. This is not to say that there are no troubling elements within the movement, but they are decreasingly prominent.
Second, FV as a whole is decreasing in influence within the Reformed world. The CREC denomination consists of approximately 85 churches, more than a dozen of which are located overseas. This makes the CREC considerably smaller than the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the URCNA (founded only two years prio to the CREC in 1996), smaller even than the psalter-only RPCNA, and just double the size of the tiny, precisionist RCUS. Though the CREC may possess greater potential for growth than many of these denominations, its growth has slowed in recent years, no doubt in part because of the vehement opposition by TRs in the PCA and elsewhere.
Third, escape the rhetoric and it becomes clear that in certain areas FV is seeking to deal faithfully with disputed Scriptural passages rather than seeking to overturn Scripture. While its solutions are not always convincing, the FV has at least identified important areas of weakness within Reformed theology and practice, including Scripture's teaching on apostasy and the necessity of works among the redeemed.
Fourth, speaking tactically, PCA FVers are the least influential FVers of all. They're men without a country. No one thinks they're influencing the PCA towards FV. In reality, most of the things TRs accuse FVers of advocating are being taught and practiced far more influentially in the PCA by the Redeemer/Missionals. Why not honestly acknowledge this and oppose the real foe?
Fifth, the FV has a dispersed and variegated leadership. Many in the FV don't follow leaders at all, while among the Redeemer/Missionals Tim Keller reigns unfettered and unchallenged.
Sixth, FV post-millennial cultural engagement looks vastly different from Redeemer/Missional post-millennial cultural engagement.
Seventh, Redeemer/Missionals add further dangers to the mix of threats perceived in FV theology by PCA conservatives. To a perceived FV attack on justification by faith alone is added a clear threat to the substitutionary atonement in Redeemer/Missional teaching on Hell and the Church's role in redeeming culture. To the perceived FV weakness of spurious allegorical interpretations of Scripture must be added the Redeemer/Missional tendency to ignore clear Biblical teaching in areas including, but extending well beyond, human sexuality. To the perceived FV weakness on the covenant of works is added a view of the value of good works that at times eclipses the necessity of salvation from sin.
Does Peter Leithart belong within the PCA? Perhaps not. His book, The Baptized Body, leaves it an open question.
On the other hand, a denomination that rejects the orthodoxy of Doug Wilson out of hand while embracing Tim Keller unquestioningly is a denomination which has lost sight of what Reformed theology is all about. No one bears greater responsibility for this sad state of affairs than the conservative TRs of the PCA who have made a virtue of turning a blind eye to the wealthy and powerful even as they attack the marginal and disenfranchised with a vehemence bordering on fanaticism.