Wasn't it just yesterday that we were discussing theological semantics?
I was saying that prolific Christian blogger Tim Challies spends a lot of his time delving into the finer points of reformed evangelicalism, and that such semantics can make my eyes glaze over.
Well, my eyes aren't glazed over today, after reading that my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has declined to censure one of its more well-known preachers for teaching that infant baptism is salvific. In other words, it appears that the PCA is saying that it's OK for one of its pastors to preach that infants become born-again when they're baptized.
Are your eyes wide open at that, too?
The preacher who's been exonerated is Dr. Peter Leithart of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho.
The controversy that remains far from resolved involves something called Federal Vision. And we're not talking about a new way to look at Washington, DC. Federal Vision refers to some sophisticated doctrinal acrobatics that a few reformed theologians have attempted to extrapolate from what they view as inferior, populist terminology.
Have your eyes glazed over yet? I hope not, because this is kind of important.
Federal Vision claims to offer novelties like "a different definition of 'Christian,'" "another aspect to the church," and "another aspect to election," along with tweaks to what we ordinary evangelicals consider to be, well, ordinary evangelicalism. If you read their own defenses of their theology, Federal Vision advocates come across as a mix between high-brow elitists who think the church has been interpreting the Gospel erroneously for centuries, and Roman Catholics whose pastors don't have to be celibate.
Federal Visionists would bristle at the comparison to Roman Catholicism, since they view themselves as advocating a purer brand of Calvinism than what exists in most theologically conservative Presbyterian churches today. But trying to parse out how their brand of Calvinism is purer is the point at which not only my eyes glaze over, but my head begins to hurt. Among other things, Federal Visionists have come up with a new definition for Christian, which seems to lump into one basket everybody who doesn't claim to be something else. Some of their stuff makes salvation sound suspiciously works-based, but they appear to deny salvation was by works in the Old Testament. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of double-talk and circular logic in their thinking. If their theology wasn't so complicated, it could almost be considered sloppy, since even on their own website, where they try to explain their view "for the average Joe," it seems like Federal Visionists are more interested in finding new ways to interpret old Scriptures than honoring God and ministering His Gospel of grace to their spheres of influence.
Taken at face value, which apparently is something Federal Visionists never do, it appears that this relatively new - about 11 years old - way of looking at God's Word relies mostly on intellectualizing, rather than a more pedestrian faith that can exist without preachers explaining it all to us. Maybe my take on it comes from the fact that I don't understand half of what they're talking about, but then again, is the Gospel supposed to be this complex and nuanced? If Federal Visionists are correct, and the way their detractors say they view basic things like baptism, salvation, and eternal security are overblown and inaccurate, wouldn't the Holy Spirit be able to reveal the brilliance of their new insight into the Gospel to more than an elite group of scholars?
As it stands, the PCA says it can't fault the way procedures were handled when some in the denomination challenged Dr. Leithart's defense of Federal Visionism, even though many other PCA'ers believe it contradicts orthodox Christianity and the Westminster Confession of Faith, the document upon which the PCA interprets the Bible. This means that although denominational leaders may personally feel as though Dr. Leithart may be overstepping his contractual obligations as a teaching elder, they themselves are dancing amongst semantics as they allow him to continue preaching without censure.
Which all makes for a very messy scenario in our ordinarily conservative denomination at a time in which the voice of evangelicals needs to be heard with even more integrity, compassion, and conviction than ever.
To the extent that Dr. Leithart and his fellow Federal Visionists appear to be insisting on disseminating their doctrinal stance despite the risk of defragmenting their denominations, one wonders who is really behind this destabilizing trend? Is it the work of Christ to sow such disunity, or somebody else, whose name begins with "S?"
After all, it doesn't appear that anything Federal Visionists are advocating is really helping the communion of saints understand the Gospel any better, since, depending on how you look at it, either too few believers can understand it, or so many believers can't.
Is Federal Visionism worth what it could do to our corporate testimony?
If it is, its supporters need to do a far better job of explaining how.