Mercersburg and the Federal Vision

Studying for a church history class, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Mercersburg controversy in the German Reformed Church in the mid 1800’s.  It strikes me again how much this has in common with the Federal Vision controversy of our own century.

(“Mercersburg” refers to the Reformed Church’s seminary at Mercersburg, where John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff both taught and promulgated their ideas.)

Theologically, John Williamson Nevin championed a high view of church and sacrament, very high.  He claimed it as Calvin’s view over Zwingli’s, but admitted himself that he went further than Calvin.  He taught that the human life of Christ was infused into the the believer through the Sacrament, similarly to what John Calvin taught, but Calvin taught that the power by which this happened was the Holy Spirit using the ordinances of the church as an instrument, while Nevin located the power in the instruments themselves.  Nevin taught that the human and divine natures of Christ fused into a third thing, what he called the “theanthropic principle,” whereby the human nature of Christ took on divine attributes.  That deified humanity itself then becomes the power that lies within the church, the body of Christ, which he sees not just as an instrument of God’s working but as being truly in an organic union with Christ, so that the life of Christ becomes active in a metaphysical sense in the church.  Being baptized inserts a child, entirely regardless of anyone’s faith, into the life of the church, which one must remember is not just a social or communal fact, or an instrument, but is the actual metaphysical or spiritual life of Christ.  Salvation then becomes partaking in the life of Christ by being in the visible church and partaking of her sacraments.

Many in the German Reformed Church fought him tooth and nail, but he claimed they did not understand him or were insufficiently educated.  He continually accused others of misrepresenting what he was saying, even though he himself came to say it more and more clearly and directly as time went on and he became immune to criticism.  The German Reformed Church had always viewed its chief forefather as Zwingli and took a more Zwinglian view of the sacraments, that they were real means of grace but by divine influence as a visible preaching of the gospel, not by the transmission of Jesus’ human essence to us in any sense.

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Federal Vision: For Kids

Interested in what some of the FV proponents were saying as a result of the action by the PCA condemning the teachings of the FV, I found this statement on Peter Leithart’s blog:

The Federal Vision has been about a lot of things, but one of the central pastoral issues has to do with the status of our children, what we say to them, and how we say it. From one perspective, the Federal Vision is an effort to articulate a consistent paedobpatist theology. Doug Wilson said awhile ago that this is all about children; I agree.

The pastoral import of the Federal Vision is that we can say to our children, without any mental reservation, “God is your God. Trust Him, and He will remain your God.” The critical edge of this is that the Federal Vision exposes the ambivalence that weakens the testimony of many Presbyterian and paedobaptist church – the ambivalence that says both “God is your God” and also “God is maybe not your God. We can’t tell. We’ll be able to tell later.” FV: You know, for kids.

My elder Ted Schieffelin, who knows Steve Schlissel personally, was the first to turn me on to this aspect of the FV. He told me that he thinks an awful lot of what’s driving the FV is the need to be assured that our kids are saved. Now Rev. Leithart is calling this a pastoral issue, which I’ve noticed sometimes people do when they want to advocate speaking a certain way without wanting to say that they actually believe a certain way. They’ll just say that they’re speaking “pastorally”, which I hope is not just camoflage for what their actual beliefs are.

One of the hardest trials for an awful lot of people is their children. A child dying, a child getting some terrible illness, or a child leaving the faith is enough to knock back anyone on their heels. Sometimes I think it’s easier for me to trust God with myself than with my kids. If I were to contract some very painful disease or be assaulted by evil men, I would counsel myself to trust God and to know that all things work for my good, even in trial and hardship. But I must confess that my heart feels kind of tight whenever I think about those things happening to Katie or Titus.

When does God stop being God for you? When does God become unworthy of trust for you? This is where your idolatry is exposed. One of the central truths of Scripture, and key to understanding the truth of election, is that God has the right to do exactly as He pleases with us. Shall the pot say to the potter, “why have you made me thus?” I think the rubber hits the road here for an awful lot of people with your kids. Because your kids are often the people you care about the very most, those who seem the most vulnerable, and of whose election you cannot be sure. But if God has the right to do with me precisely as He pleases, then He has the right to do with my kids precisely as He pleases. My kids exist for His glory, not for my purposes. Predestination doesn’t really require us to bite the bullet and admit His right in our own case, since obviously we’re elect and it’s just a bunch of people I don’t care about who are reprobate and going to hell. But what if it’s my own child?

But if I can say by receiving the sign of baptism they’re probably elect, elect in some sense, most likely elect, ought to be elect, one day (after I’m dead maybe) will be elect, then maybe I can dodge this most uncomfortable question. But Jesus does not allow us to dodge it.

Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.
27 “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

The kingdom of heaven is a relationship that transcends every earthly relationship. And in drawing us into this kingdom, we are drawn away from the earth, and all relationships with those of the earth will be severed. We are called to trust God with everything. If God is truly our God, then He is our children’s God as well, whether they believe or not. He’s everybody’s God.

I am a committed paedobaptist. By baptizing our children, we take them out of the world and join them to the church; out of the nations and join them to Israel. All Israel was promised the land, but many did not enter, because they did not believe. Was God not their God? Was God not their God when He opened a crack in the earth and swallowed up thousands of them? When He sent snakes among them to kill them?

I say to my children- God is your God. He has promised to save you. He calls you to believe. If you do not believe, then your God will destroy you. So believe. Baptism marks them out as those who have heard this message, those who have been taught this promise by God, those who have been separated from the world and called to believe the promises.

It does not mark them as elect. We cannot know that. The only person I can know without a shadow of a doubt is elect is me. I am just going to have to trust God with the rest, including my children.

Federal Vision

I am happy to hear that the PCA General Assembly adopted their proposed paper on the Federal Vision.

At what point do well-meaning people no longer listen to the cries from this camp saying they are misunderstood and misrepresented? When the RCUS, OPC, PCA and others have all accepted reports essentially saying the same things about what the Federal Vision is teaching, and that these teachings are out of accord with Scripture and the Reformed confessions, surely at some point people will have to accept that these studies are accurate, and that the FV is teaching what the critics are saying that it’s teaching. I would think that if I were a proponent of this movement who truly did not believe that I was teaching justification by faith and works, I would accept that I must be an extremely poor communicator for all of these different bodies to misunderstand me in precisely the same way, and therefore retract all of my previous writings and get into a different line of work.