Question: "What is Federal Vision Theology?"
Answer: Federal Vision Theology is a controversial faction within the Reformed churches. The aim of the promoters of Federal Vision Theology is to pursue a re-interpretation of the established teachings of Reformed theology. Federal Vision Theology had its beginnings in the Monroe, Louisiana, Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in 2002 with the teachings of Norman Shepherd. Shepherd, a systematic theology professor from Westminster Theological Seminary, proposed certain revisions to classic Reformed teachings especially on covenant and justification. His teachings, also known as Auburn Avenue Theology, have been rejected by several bodies of the Presbyterian churches, including the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North American (RPCNA), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
The principles of contention underlying Federal Vision Theology involve the doctrines of election, justification, and the covenant. The theology also takes a different viewpoint regarding one’s salvation. This is especially true with respect to the relationship between one’s faith in conjunction with one’s obedience, the sacraments (baptism and communion), and the role of the church. The views of Federal Vision Theology are distinct from that of not only Reformed orthodoxy, but Protestant orthodoxy, as well.
Briefly, here are the views of those who hold to Federal Vision Theology:
• They hold to a stricter adherence to biblical law, stating that the church should be morally and ethically sound before it can have any influence in the world.
• They believe in postmillennialism, seeing Christ returning to a world that has already been fully evangelized or Christianized. However, it is also true that most Reformed and Presbyterian denominations are either amillennial or postmillennial in their outlook on the end-times events. Some also hold to the doctrine of historic premillennialism.
• Their most disputed belief relates to the objects of the covenant. They teach that those of the covenant community, regardless of whether they are of the elect, are part of the family of God. In essence, Federal Vision Theology teaches two facets of election. One is what’s called the common election to the church. This means that they will receive blessings for their obedience as well as discipline for disobedience. The other pertains to those called to a special election to salvation meaning that salvation is awarded only to those who persevere to the end. This two-tiered approach to the body of Christ is unsupportable scripturally.
• Federal Vision Theology varies somewhat from the traditional Reformed teaching especially with respect to the rites of baptism and communion. Adherents view these sacraments as an imputation of the efficacy of the thing signified in the sign itself. For example, baptism is seen as conferring the benefits of union with Christ in the act of performing the sacrament. This view is more in line with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration such as with Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, more so than with the classic Reformed doctrine of baptism.
• Rather than treating Bible interpretation as a science or a method, they consider it much more of an intuitive art. Thus, interpreting the Bible through the typological system—as opposed to a literal system—means emphasizing literary analysis and the flow of the overarching “Story” through each of the smaller, individual stories.
• Lastly, the followers of Federal Vision Theology deny the imputation of Jesus’ active obedience to His followers for their justification. Their contention is that His followers are one with Christ and, as such, share in His resurrected life, but do not obtain His righteousness. This teaching is at variance with the core doctrine of Reformed and Protestant orthodoxy, which teaches that one can indeed be declared righteous before God through the work of Christ on the cross on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The fact that most reformed denominations have rejected wholly, or at least in part, Federal Vision Theology speaks well to the fact that such teachings are not biblical. Critics of this teaching affirm that it strays well beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy.