Monday, May 19, 2008

The Church in Frame's Frame, Part IV

Previous Parts: Part I Part II Part III

What follows is the Tri-Perspectival Model employed in critique of two other models, the Dispensational and Federal Vision models. The purpose of this critique is not so much to bash adherents of either, as if "my model works better than yours." Rather, the purpose is two-fold: to provide illustrations of the utility of multiple perspectives, and to provide a possible rapprochement between Federal Vision adherents and opponents.

A Critique of the Dispensationalist Model

A tri-perspectival view of the Church allows for easy analysis of the dispensational model of the church. On the dispensational account, the true Church is the invisible church, and the visible church is a mere human institution that lacks genuine sanction by God. In fact, for John Darby, the visible church as it is now is a corruption and an exaltation of a human institution to replace God's pure bride1. He laid the apostasy of the Church of England at the feet of the visible church and the practice of infant baptism in particular -- that the Church of England mistakenly believed that God actually did something through the sacraments2. Only at the beginning of the "gospel age" was the visible church the actual Church of God3, but it quickly apostasized because it was built by men rather than God.

Progressive dispensationalism has softened Darby's view considerably. No longer is the visible church a corrupt structure that pretends to be God's true church. Rather, the visible church is seen as "a present reality of the coming eschatological kingdom." 4. This is clearly a positive development!

Nevertheless, the various dispensational models so emphasize the existential perspective that the normative perspective completely recedes into the background. As a result, the visible church is despised instead of honored. The "family", covenantal nature of the church is denied entirely, and church membership is downplayed or omitted entirely.

As a result, the dispensational church is unable to practice robust church discipline. What does it mean to excommunicate someone from a dispensational church? Nothing at all; he has the perfect freedom to go down the road to the next church.

Further, the dispensational church is unable to make anything of the federal holiness of children of believers. It's not that 1 Cor 7 is explicitly denied; rather, it has no force in the practical theology of dispensational churches.

All of these unfortunate features come about by a distortion of perspectives: an overemphasis on the existential; an underemphasis of the normative.

A Critique of the Federal Vision

In many ways, the Federal Vision's5 view of the church represents a polar opposite from the dispensational view. In the Federal Vision, the Church on this side of eternity is visible only:

The Church

We affirm that membership in the one true Christian Church is visible and objective, and is the possession of everyone who has been baptized in the triune name and who has not been excommunicated by a lawful disciplinary action of the Church. We affirm one holy, catholic and apostolic church, the house and family of God, outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. In establishing the Church, God has fulfilled His promise to Abraham and established the Regeneration of all things. God has established this Regeneration through Christ—in Him we have the renewal of life in the fulness of life in the new age of the kingdom of God. We deny that membership in the Christian Church in history is an infallible indicator or
guarantee of final salvation. Those who are faithless to their baptismal obligations incur a stricter judgment because of it.

The Visible and Invisible Church

We affirm that there is only one true Church, and that this Church can legitimately be considered under various descriptions, including the aspects of visible and invisible. We further affirm that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ, and not an “approximate” Church. We deny that such a distinction excludes other helpful distinctions, such as the historical church and eschatological church. The historical Church generally corresponds to the visible Church—all those who profess the true religion, together with their children and the eschatological Church should be understood as the full number of God’s chosen as they will be seen on the day of resurrection.

For the FV, the "invisible church" is an eschatological category (it is commonplace to push the language of WCoF 25.1 to mean that "invisible church" at any moment in time consists of all people who ever will be saved, even if they are currently not saved or even not yet born), while the church in this age is the visible church. Importantly, the visible church on the FV account is not "approximate" but rather the genuine family of God.

If we see the FV account of the Church in contrast to the dispensational, a salutary feature appears: the Federal Vision wishes to restore to the Visible Church a sense of proper belonging. Where dispensationalism (which has always exerted a pull in Presbyterian circles, even after official denunciation) despised the normative perspective, the Federal Vision restored the normative perspective to a place of honor. So much the good.

However, the emphasis on the normative becomes (in my opinion) so great that it distorts the other perspectives. In particular, the existential perspective is positively disparaged. The FV discourages introspection, emphasizing the unknowability of God's decrees and the fallibility of our own assessments about our own salvation7.

The cost of doing so is that the approximate nature of the normative perspective becomes denied entirely: "We further affirm that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ and not an approximate Church."

One particular problem is what to make of the Reformation. In 1517, the Visible Church in the west was the Roman church. If we must affirm that the Roman church was "the Church, and not an approximate Church", then it becomes difficult to see how Luther's excommunication bull was anything other than a direct expression of God's rejection of his teachings.

Likewise, as we stand 500 years beyond the Reformation, with Protestantism splintered into hundreds of discernible fragments, identifying the visible church is an approximate business in itself. Do Pentacostal churches count? How about Oneness churches?

In short, the Federal Vision's identification of the Visible Church with the Church of God amounts to an overly optimistic estimate of our knowledge. It conflates without sufficient warrant the Church that we see (and who is indeed authorized to act as God's Church!) with the Church that we cannot see.

Now, the conflation is not total. There is a clear acknowledgment that not all who belong to the church now will be welcomed as members of God's church in the eschaton. But entirely identifying the Visible Church with the present Church and the Invisible, with the eschatological Church has the undesirable side effect of creating confusion about the salvation of the current members of the Church. Are they, or are they not, children of God as mentioned in John 1.12?

It is my opinion that the "covenantally elect" language that caused so much trouble for Steve Wilkins was logically necessitated by the desire to entirely identify the present Visible Church as the present Church of God. One reads in his treatment of Ephesians 1, for example ("The Federal Vision", ch. 2) an insistence that because Paul addresses the Church in Ephesus without distinction, that therefore, Paul is attributing the language of Ephesians 1 to each Church member without distinction, "head for head."

Out of his treatment of such passages then flows the covenantal election schema, since Wilkins (very reasonably!) does not believe that the entirety of the Ephesian church, "head for head" is actually eternally elect. There must be some other kind of election -- and the rest follows.

Well ... the mistake lies at the beginning. Paul's knowledge of the Church is just as approximate as ours. The special apostolic gifts notwithstanding, Paul was not possessed (as far as we know) with any salvation-o-meter that allowed him to single out the elect within the Ephesian church. Nor were they all possessed, "head for head", of such infallible assurance as to be certain of whom he meant.

But rather, Paul speaks to the visible church in Ephesus as an approximate church on two grounds:

First, that the church has a right to be called the body of God (this half corresponds to the "judgment of charity" notion).

Second, that the members themselves are federally holy: they *ought* to be possessors of salvation, even if they are not. (In this limited sense, one could admit the language "covenantally elect", though it seems too confusing for proper use as a term).

In short then, the Federal Vision overcorrects for nascent dispensational tendencies by reading questions about the identity of the Church primarily through the normative lens. The result is a theology that has trouble interfacing with standard readings of the Confession. As recent events have witnessed, and regardless of "who is right" with respect to the Federal Vision controversy, the adherents to the Federal Vision have trouble making the basic case that their theology is "genuinely Reformed."

In my opinion, the central trouble is the predominance of the normative perspective in their teachings (though not expressed in that language!)

These critiques do not imply that other combinations of perspectives represent the "perfect" way of viewing the Church. In general, the normative perspective will have a tendency to over-estimate the Church, including those who do not belong simply because we ought to give supposed brothers the benefit of the doubt.

By contrast, the situational perspective will tend to cut out genuine believers who struggle with besetting sins, while wrongly including hypocrites who know how to act Christianly.

And the existential perspective likewise tends to underestimate those whose consciences trouble them while overestimating the complacent.

Clearly, no combination of the perspectives will allow us perfect ability to peek into the decrees of God and see the Church as He does. But together, these perspectives, each mandated by Scripture, provide us with the best estimate possible of the Church of God.

As a personal appeal, I would ask my Federal Vision brothers to consider whether tri-perspectivalism might satisfy their concerns more fully.


1. It is on this confusion and error that popery, Puseyism, and the whole high-church system is built. They have not distinguished between the building which Christ builds, where living stones come to a living stone, where all grows to a holy temple in the Lord (that is, where the result is perfect), and that which man avowedly builds, though as God's building, and where man may fail and has failed. I am entirely justified in looking at the outward thing in this world as a building, which in pretension, character, and responsibility is God's building; yet it has been built by man, and built of wood and stubble, so that the work is to be burned up in the day of judgment which is revealed in fire. Yea, more, I may see that corrupters have corrupted it; and that, if any have dealt with it in this character, they will be destroyed. In a word I have a building which Christ builds, a building in which living stones come and are built up as living stones, a building which grows to a holy temple in the Lord. I have also what is called God's building, as that which is for Him and set up by Him on the earth, but which is built instrumentally and responsibly by man, where I may find very bad building and even persons corrupting it. -- JN Darby, The Church -- The House and the Body. This site has the works of Darby, which contain many such quotes.

2. The sacraments or ordinances, for there is a sacramental system, are the earthly administrations of revealed privileges, an outward system of professed faith, and a visible body on earth. Life and membership of Christ are by the Holy Ghost. We are born of the Spirit, and by one Spirit baptized into one body. To say we are members of Christ by baptism is a falsification of the truth of God, by confounding (directly contrary to scripture) the external admission to the earthly profession with life from God; and it is the falsification of the meaning even of the sign. It is the other sacrament, not baptism, which (even externally) exhibits the unity of the body. The Lord's supper is in its nature received in common. The assembly or Church participate. Hence we have (Eph. 4), "one Spirit, one body, one hope of your calling." This belongs to the Spirit and spiritual persons. "One Lord, one faith, one baptism"; such is the outward profession and faith of Christ. The confounding the outward administration by ordinances with the power of the Spirit of God is the source of popery and apostasy. It is pitiable to see how Augustine (a truly godly man personally, who felt what life and the true Church were, when the outward thing had become grossly corrupt) writhes under the effort to conciliate the two -- ibid.

3. J.N. Darby, What is the Church as it was at the Beginning? And What is its Present State?

4. Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 258.

5. A standard disclaimer must be noted here: the Federal Vision is not a monolithic movement. The critique in this article is leveled at the Joint Federal Vision statement; quotations of views of individuals such as Steve Wilkins should not necessarily be imputed to others. That said, certain themes emerge in the writings of self-identified Federal Vision adherents.

6. The Joint Federal Vision Statement.

7. The Federal Vision, pp. 29-32, 56-57. Doug Wilson takes a more nuanced (though still on balance negative) approach to introspection, while Mark Horne wants for children in particular to think of themselves as Christians without having to worry about their unknown state of election.