The Federal Vision
The Federal Vision is a recent theological and ecclesiastical movement within Reformed, paedobaptist covenant theology. Its goal is to work out a consistent covenantal (or “federal”) vision for the church, especially by focusing on the objectivity of the covenant and its implications for other areas of our theology and ecclesiology.
This article explains what the Federal Vision is as a subset of traditional Reformed, covenant theology. It does so by explaining some of its historical roots and its present day expression. In addition, it explains its basic commitment and development of what is central to its theology, namely the objectivity of the covenant of grace.
The Federal Vision Movement: A Brief Historical Overview
The Federal Vision is a controversial theological and ecclesiastical movement within Reformed, paedobaptist covenant theology. It’s primarily discussed within Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, yet its impact is also international. The word “federal” is from the Latin (foedus) meaning “covenant.” Although its proponents are committed to the basics of Reformed theology, and as such, it may be viewed as a subset within covenant theology, it’s not a monolithic movement and it contains within it a number of different theological emphases. Presently, as a theological movement, it has fractured and gone in different directions, although some of its key points are perennial and thus still debated within Reformed theology.
The Federal Vision, as a movement, came into its own in 2002 with the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, Louisiana. The initial conference was entitled: “The Federal Vision: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism,” with speakers Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins, and Steve Schlissel addressing the theme. The goal of the conference was to apply a covenantal (“federal”) vision for the church, especially by focusing on a consistent understanding of the objectivity of the covenant, justification, the assurance of salvation, and an emphasis on a proper practice of the sacraments. Initially, people involved in the conference and movement were diverse, reflecting a spectrum of thought within Reformed, covenant theology. For example, there was an appreciation for the work of Norman Shepherd, who had formerly taught New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and his controversial work on justification and its relationship to sanctification, the influence of theonomy and Christian Reconstruction for thinking about a strong Christian political vision and the call for Christ’s Lordship over all of life, and for many, a commitment to a postmillennial vision of the future. However, even at this time, there was not complete agreement on these issues, yet what united the people was a desire to see “covenant” (federal) theology worked out in all of its theological, ecclesiological, and social implications.
After 2003, the Federal Vision became more controversial within Reformed theology, as people began to think through what it was teaching. A number of important representatives of the movement arose, along with different emphases and directions. For example, on the one side was Peter Leithart and James Jordan (later identified as “Federal Vision Dark”), and on the other side, Doug Wilson and those identified with him (later identified as “Federal Vision Light”). This identified a spectrum of thought and emphasis within the movement with many people falling somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.
Within a short period of time, books and essays were written opposing the movement, along with a number of Reformed denominations debating its validity within the confessional orthodoxy of Reformed theology. One of the earliest critical documents was from the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 2005, which in turn was responded to by those within the Federal Vision. Other rejections of various teachings of the movement occurred in 2006 by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), in 2007 by the PCA, in 2009 by the Reformed Church in the United States, and in 2010 by the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).
In 2007 “A Joint Federal Vision Profession” was issued signed by its key representatives: John Barach, Rich Lusk, Randy Booth, Jeff Meyers, Tim Gallant, Ralph Smith, Mark Horne, Steve Wilkins, Jim Jordan, Douglas Wilson, and Peter Leithart. What united the diversity within the movement was the emphasis on the “objectivity” of the covenant with its various entailments for ecclesiology, the visible-invisible church distinction, and the sacraments. However, the statement also admitted that there were differences on how its advocates understood the covenant of creation/works, Christ’s imputation of righteousness to us in our justification, the nature of regeneration, and the meaning of our union with Christ. Also, during this time, the practice of paedocommunion started to become an essential feature of the Federal Vision, tied to their view of the objectivity of the covenant, and a strong distinction between God’s decretal vs. covenantal election. This resulted in departures from the movement from those who were initially identified or favorable with it.
After 2012, the direction of the Federal Vision movement seemed to fragment further and go in different directions. On the one hand, when Peter Leithart departed from Moscow, Idaho, to create the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama (with James Jordan), “Federal Vision Dark” became more “Reformational catholic” in emphasis. In 2016, Leithart published The End of Protestantism calling for more unity within the larger church, including Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and mainline Protestants. On the other hand, by the end of 2013, Doug Wilson wrote Against the Church, calling people back to a more traditional covenant theology, and by 2017, he stopped identifying with the label, “Federal Vision,” as he became more critical of those he had earlier identified with, within the movement. Recently, Wilson has strongly affirmed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in our justification, and the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification, while still strongly stressing what he thinks is crucial to covenant theology, namely, the objectivity of the covenant.1
Some Key Theological Points
The Federal Vision is known for a number of theological emphases, but probably what is most essential to it, is its focus on the “objectivity” of the covenant. Given the one covenant of grace across redemptive history, similar to Israel under the old covenant, a person is objectively brought into the new covenant community, i.e., the church, by receiving the sign of the covenant, i.e., baptism. Thus, all who are baptized (whether infants or believers, elect or non-elect) are objectively “in” the covenant of grace and the visible church, and united to Christ, although later these same people may show that they were never “of” the covenant. This entails that all those who have objectively entered into the church by the act of baptism—even those who later show themselves to be non-elect covenant members—are in union with Christ and thus receive specific “salvific” benefits that they presently enjoy. Yet, if these same people do not continue in faith and covenant faithfulness, they will show themselves to be the non-elect, and ultimately lose these “saving” benefits. In the end, it’s only the “decretal elect” that perseveres until the end and receives salvation, although the non-elect within the covenant community, i.e., the “covenantal elect,” do temporarily enjoy the objective blessings of the covenant, at least until they show themselves to be covenant breakers.
Some have charged this view with affirming some version of baptismal regeneration. No doubt, this charge carries some weight if “regeneration” carries the sense it normally does in theology, namely, God’s sovereign and gracious act by the Spirit to make spiritually dead people alive in Christ (see Eph. 2:1-10). Yet, for some advocates of the Federal Vision they redefine regeneration to refer to the entire work of how we are renewed and now partake of the new creation in Christ, including the placement of the elect and non-elect in the covenant community.2 In this regard, Matthew 19:28 is often referred to. Here Jesus speaks of the “regeneration/renewal” of all things, which for us has already begun in the church. So, some Federal Vision advocates argue, to be objectively in the church due to our baptism, entails that we already are participants in the “renewal/new creation” even though we may be the non-elect. What is being stressed, in contrast to a typical understanding of baptismal regeneration, is the objectivity of the covenant and the covenant community, which, important to note, is not a new debate within covenant theology.
However, with this said, those who emphasize a more “Reformational catholicity” and a high view of the sacraments (“Federal Vision Dark”), tend to stress a kind of “regeneration” that if not careful, is open to the charge of baptismal regeneration, or at least seems to wander in that direction. If the accent is placed on the objective entrance into the corporate community, over the need for individual regeneration/salvation, the similarities to Roman Catholic, and specifically Lutheran views of baptismal regeneration become easier to make. Doug Wilson, on the other hand, continues to argue for “regeneration” in the more narrow and individual sense, although he insists that all baptized people (infants and adults) by virtue of their baptism are objectively “in” the visible church, God’s new covenant community. Until Christ comes, the church is constituted as a “mixed” people comprised of baptized unbelievers and baptized believers. And in this sense, all those who have been baptized are “covenantally elect” while only those who are baptized, exercise saving faith, and continue to persevere are “decretally elect.”
With this distinction in place, the Federal Vision, along with most of covenant theology, interpret the “warning” texts of Scripture (e.g., Heb. 2:1-4; 6:4-6, etc.) in light of their understanding of the covenant community. As warnings are followed, the person heeding the warnings has the assurance that they are not only objectively “in” the covenant by baptism, but also that they are the true elect of God and secure in Christ. However, if the warnings are rejected, sadly, the person who turns from Christ only demonstrates that although they were “in” the covenant, they were not God’s elect in the full salvific sense. They were “in” the covenant, united to Christ, received “salvific” blessings, but forfeited those blessings by their failure to exercise faith, repentance, and obedience. In this way, just like Israel under the Mosaic covenant, there is a distinction between covenant members and the elect. The difference between the old and new covenants is not that God’s new covenant people are a regenerate community since that is only a future reality. Instead, the “greater” newness of the new covenant is that Christ has now come and the promises of the new are better than the old. However, the nature and structure of the covenant community remains the same: both are part of the one covenant of grace.3
However, a more controversial view that Federal Vision proponents have argued from their understanding of the objectivity of the covenant is for the practice of paedocommunion. Infants are truly “in” the covenant by receiving the objective sign-seal of the covenant community. By being “in” the covenant, infants are united to Christ, and as a result they receive all the blessings of the covenant community. For most Federal Vision proponents, this entails that infants ought also to receive the fellowship meal of the covenant, namely the Lord’s Supper. In fact, what keeps them from receiving this covenant blessing as members of the new covenant people?
Traditional covenant theology has strongly criticized the Federal Vision on this point. For example, R. Scott Clark charges the Federal Vision with the failure to distinguish between “baptism as a sign/seal of initiation into the visible covenant community and the Supper as a sign/seal of covenant renewal, i.e., taking up the promises of the covenant by grace alone, through faith alone.”4 The Supper, then, is only to be applied to those who have repented from their sins and believed in Christ, and not simply for those who are “in” the church. Yet, given that both the Federal Vision and traditional covenant theology argue for the same view of the nature of the new covenant people, many outside of covenant theology view this debate as an interesting in-house debate within covenant theology that illustrates something of the internal tensions within their theological system. Specifically, it highlights some of the problems of maintaining that there is little difference between Israel and the church under their respective covenants. For if one insists that both Israel and the church are constituted as a “mixed” people of elect and non-elect, it would seem that some of the tensions between the Federal Vision and traditional covenant theology inevitably arise.
Other than the “objectivity” of the covenant, what other theological points does the Federal Vision maintain, often contrary to traditional covenant theology? First, within covenant theology and reflected by some proponents of the Federal Vision, there is an ongoing debate regarding the nature of the “covenant of works,” or sometimes called the “covenant with creation.” In traditional Reformed theology, the covenant of works is interpreted as a “Law” covenant, while “the covenant of grace” is a “Grace” covenant. Under the covenant of works, God demanded that Adam, as the federal/covenant head of the human race, obey him perfectly. If Adam had obeyed, he would have merited eternal life and would have been confirmed in righteousness. But given his covenant violation, Adam, along with the entire human race, has disobeyed and come under the penalty of death. Our only hope is that God in sovereign grace chooses to redeem us in Christ, the last Adam, who is the only one who perfectly obeys for us and merits our justification by the imputation of his righteousness and the payment of our sins. For some within the Federal Vision, they reject the meritorious nature of the covenant of works and opt either for a mono-covenantal view across redemptive history, or define the covenant in creation as a gracious covenant. Furthermore, some within the Federal Vision also question the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to his people, although others like Doug Wilson strongly affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in our justification. Depending on the specific version of the Federal Vision, the charge has been leveled that it denies the Reformed view of Law and Gospel, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and thus the Reformed and biblical view of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. But given the variety within the Federal Vision this charge cannot be universally leveled, although it’s certainly true for some proponents of the view.
Second, many within the Federal Vision affirm a postmillennial eschatology and vision of the future tied to the success of the Gospel. Yet, although this is probably the norm, there have been those who have identified with the Federal Vision who have not embraced postmillennialism.
Third, the Federal Vision has been charged with embracing the New Perspective on Paul. The reason for this charge is due to some within the Federal Vision redefining the covenant of works, questioning the validity of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to us in our justification, and placing works in our final justification. However, once again, given the diversity within the Federal Vision, there are enough differences between it and the New Perspective on Paul that one has to be careful in equating the two. For some within the Federal Vision the charge stands, but not all proponents of the view are the same.
In conclusion, within Reformed, paedobaptist covenant theology there are perennial debates centered especially on how one understands the objectivity of the covenant of grace, the newness of the new covenant, and the place of the non-elect as covenant members within the church due to receiving the sign/seal of the covenant, namely, baptism. The Federal Vision has picked up on these debates and at the most basic level; it reflects these significant, ongoing debates within covenant theology. Yet, elements of the Federal Vision have gone in a stronger sacramental and an understanding of the church that has separated it from traditional Reformed theology, and have left it vulnerable to the charge that it has undercut the grounds for justification, and redefined certain elements of the Gospel. Although the movement as a whole now seems to be fragmented, the theological issues it has raised within the theological system of covenant theology have been with us for a long time, and they will continue to be debated in the future.
- “A Joint Federal Vision Profession” (2007).
- R. Scott Clark, “For Those Just Tuning In: What is The Federal Vision?.”
- Peter J. Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).
- See Rich Lusk, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future.”
- Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006).
- James White and Douglas Wilson, “The Federal Vision: A Conversation.”
- Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds., The Federal Vision (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004).
- Douglas Wilson, To a Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism—Covenant Mercy for the People of God (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000).
- Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002).
- Douglas Wilson, Against the Church (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2013).
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