Posted by: reformedmusings | July 28, 2007

A Classic, Covenantal Systematic

The Federal Vision proponents generally support the construct of an “objective covenant” that includes the saving graces of justification, adoption, forgiveness of sins, and sanctification for everyone baptized into the visible church. They claim that the orthodox Reformed have replaced the overarching concept of covenant with an emphasis on individual salvation and baptistic tendencies. They do this by citing isolated, out-of-context quotes from early Reformers on disconnected points.

By “out of context,” I mean not just the immediate context of the quote, but also the overall context of an author’s individual and collective works. By doing this, Federal Visionists make it appear that Calvin and others would agree with them. In response to a passage that I posted from one of Calvin’s commentaries, one blog commenter favorable to FV went so far as to say that I had my Calvin quotes and he had his. That seems more deconstructionist than Reformed to me.

The underlying question goes to what a given author believed, then how the present quote fits into that belief scheme. I have extensively quoted Calvin and other early Reformers on this blog to show that they would not be supporters of Federal Vision today but in fact taught against some of those very same errors in their writings. To find support for Federal Vision, better sources would be Norman Shepherd and N.T. Wright than John Calvin.

On the subject of covenant, I found an intriguing work: The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Christian Focus Publications and Reformation Heritage Books, Ross-shire and Grand Rapids. 2002), which was originally published as A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion in 1782. Recall that John Brown also published the Self-Interpreting Bible (1778), which was a staple in Reformed homes into the 20th Century (last edition was 1914) and still used today. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson comment in their introduction to Systematic Theology that the Self-Interpreting Bible “became nearly as common in eighteenth-century Scottish households as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State…The complete work is exemplary in its directness and accuracy.” It seems a shame that John Brown of Haddington isn’t as widely known today in Reformed households.

What makes John Brown’s systematic so intriguing is that as a solid, orthodox, confessional, and influential Reformed pastor and professor, he writes from the point of view of the covenants, something upon which Federal Visionists seem to think they have a lock. I have added this work to my staple of classic Reformed works from which to study on the current controversies. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who think that Federal Vision theology somehow “improves” on the Reformed faith, in spite of the virtually unanimous stand amongst orthodox, confessional Reformed denominations (both in and out of NAPARC) to the contrary.

One closing note on the covenants: notice that I used the plural “covenants.” As T. David Gordon points out in Reflections on Auburn Theology in By Faith Alone, edited by Johnson and Waters (Crossway, Wheaton. 2006), Federal Visionists do not use the term “covenant” in a Biblical way:

Ironically here, they use language that is neither confessional/traditional nor biblical. The Bible frequently refers to covenants in the plural, or to some particular covenant, but never refers to the covenant, without an immediate context that delineates the specific covenant being referred to. (page 116, emphasis in the original)

A good study course from John Brown of Haddington, Robert Shaw, John Calvin, the Westminster Divines, the Westminster Standards, as well as a clear reading of the Scriptures themselves, will all back Gordon’s observation. Federal Visionists have not only missed the boat, they’re in the wrong river.

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