A Response to Bryan Chapell Part 2

What Are Some Good Emphases of the New Perspective?

There is no question that many of those who advocate the New Perspective are seeking to bring Biblical correction to what they believe are misunderstandings in present expressions of Evangelical and Reformed belief. Their goal is to steer the Church toward greater fidelity in Biblical doctrine and practice. Some of the concerns of the New Perspective are valid, and we are aided by considering the seriousness of these concerns:

I appreciate that Chapell sees the validity in some FV/AAT concerns. I would reiterate: the FV/AAT is driven not simply by a desire to fix what’s wrong with evangelicalism or bring reform to the PCA. Those might be admirable goals in themselves. But they’re also quite unrealistic. Most of the men involved in the FV/AAT are men of small influence. We harbor no delusions about what we can accomplish. (Frankly, I’m shocked that we’ve received as much attention as we have.) At most, we’re looking to prompt a conversation about these things, so that God might eventually raise up men with more influence, stature, and clout (not to mention more knowledge and ability) to give these points a wider hearing. We’re probably not nearly as ambitious as Chapell would lead an outsider to think.

Also, our driving motivation is not really borne out of a reaction to evangelicalism’s problems, but [1] a desire to be faithful to the Scriptures in all areas of church faith and practice; and [2] a desire to recover classic Reformed views in areas where those views have been clouded out of sight by later theological trends.

  1. We are not saved alone. The New Perspective rightly critiques much of the North American expression of Christianity that makes faith merely a personal fire insurance policy that requires no obligation to others, little concern for the world, and little obedience to God beyond what satisfies our own pleasures. The New Perspective reminds us that we are saved as part of a community with concomitant loves, obligations, and identifications.
  2. Saving faith is not alone. The New Perspective reminds us that we are part of a great story in which God is calling a covenant community to Himself in order to glorify Himself and transform this world for His glory. Our calling inherently and necessarily includes works of obedience. We have no assurance of the validity of our faith where there is no fruit to our faith.
  3. The sacraments are not signs alone. The New Perspective (especially as articulated in Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue Theology) elevates our concern for the sacraments and reminds us that they are not merely sentimental ceremonies (or simply memorials) but means by which God is communicating aspects of His grace and obligating Himself to bless His people.
  4. The Bible is not propositions alone. The New Perspective values the Bible's use of narrative as a means of unifying and teaching the covenant community. Despite the desires we sometimes have, the Bible is not simply a systematic theology textbook. Attempts to force all the Bible into easy doctrinal categories have sometimes created an unhealthy rationalism that does not adequately express the human experiences, divine interventions, and salvation story by which God communicates His covenant love throughout redemptive history. The New Perspective's emphasis on the drama of redemption in Scripture can help theologians and pastors better describe what the Bible teaches on its own terms, especially in ministry to a postmodern generation that (for philosophical reasons expressed above) is powerfully moved by narrative.

All of this looks fine. Bravo! As the news reporters like to say, “Fair and balanced.” This is the finest summary of FV concerns I have seen outside the FV materials themselves.

What Are Troubling Aspects of the New Perspective?

Concerns about the New Perspective need to be divided into at least two categories: theological and pastoral. The first category will probably require sorting out over several years. My sense is that we are on a journey similar to our experiences with the Charismatic and Theonomy movements decades ago. The Charismatic movement was concerned that the Church was not rightly applying the New Testament gifts of the Spirit; the Theonomy movement was concerned that the Church was not rightly applying the Old Testament law; the New Perspective is concerned that the Church has not rightly applied the corporate nature of the covenant. All of these movements have had some legitimate concerns, but all err in subtly moving the emphasis of the Gospel from a Christ-centered provision of grace to proper expressions of human performance.

Human performance? This is a serious charge. But nothing I have seen in FV literature makes salvation dependent on human performance. We are all 100% divine monergists. We’re Augustinian, Calvinian, Dordtian predestinarians. We seek to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, structure our liturgies so that Christ is all in all, and embody in our communities a deep and sincere Christ-centeredness. This is our goal, albeit an often unrealized one. If this doesn’t come through, we certainly need to backtrack and start over because it means we have totally failed in what we set out to do.

One reminder: we see the sacraments not as human performances, but as divine acts. Perhaps this will help soften the charge. The combination of divine monergism and efficacious sacraments has a long and venerable history in the church, tracing back before the Reformation to Aquinas, Augustine, and the Synod of Orange, to name a few very explicit examples. It is not an unreasonable synthesis. It cannot be dismissed out of hand.

[Note: My friends who are advocates of New Perspective and Federal Vision, have strongly objected to this last statement. They believe their approach strongly supports a Christ-centered perspective for God's Church family. So, I hope that I am wrong and will need to be forgiven. Still, I feel the responsibility to express my honest concern, resulting from the way these issues have been advocated in the contexts the seminary must serve. The zeal to prove others wrong, and even ridiculous, for not seeing these new perspectives has created significant pain. Almost always the pain is the result of persons being belittled for "not getting it." Thus, the fruit has not been a new focus on the beauty of God's grace, but the reoccurrence of old divisions driven by supposed superior knowledge or practice.]

I appreciate that Chapell was willing to include in his report the thoughts of those he is analyzing.

Out of more than mere curiosity: Where have FV proponents belittled and ridiculed others for not “getting it”? Since I am mentioned by name above, I suppose I must consider the possibility that Chapell has me in view. I certainly hope I have not done what he describes, and if I have then I repent. (But it would help if I knew whose forgiveness to seek.)

In general, I think I am fairly conversant with the literature of the controversy and I think it is unfair for Chapell to characterize FV proponents in this way. These are serious charges because if true, the FV is a self-contradiction – we would be claiming to be Reformed catholics, while acting like Reformed sectarians. I truly hope Chapell isn’t right about us. I’m sure there have been isolated incidents of unduly strong rhetoric, but has this really been widespread in the publicly accessible works of FV writers and speakers?

Also, from what I have seen in print and on the internet, it would seem apropos for Chapell to remind FV critics that they should beware of belittling and ridiculing FV proponents as well.

The advocates of the Charismatic and Theonomic movements were also intelligent, zealous in conviction, concerned that the rest of the Church was not Biblical enough, claimed that their positions were historic, and rarely stated a position that was clearly unorthodox. But, over the course of time (and through the sad experiences of numerous churches), those movements were shown by their fruit to be divisive. . .

Quick note before I deal with this point more fully below: We’re not seeking to be divisive in any way whatsoever. FV folks are far more ecumenical, diverse, tolerant, ecclesiocentric, and traditional than Theonomy ever dreamed of being.

and they largely faded from view. My prayer is that we will be able more quickly to reach consensus about what are legitimate concerns of, and about, this New Perspective for the peace, purity, and progress of the Church.

I can understand why Chapell would want to link the FV/AAT with these earlier movements and subcultures. I’m still not quite sure how to process the connections because I did not live through those earlier sagas in the Reformed world. The Theonomic controversy was essentially over by the time I became Reformed (early 90s) and I never encountered the Charismatic movement in Reformed circles. I cannot think of any personal acquaintance at the moment who holds to the Rushdoony/Bahnsen Theonomic position. I am neither a Theonomist nor a Pentecostal in my own views. My views of the OT law and the cessation of gifts are probably most similar to the views of Vern Poythress.

My hunch is that both the Theonomy and Charismatic movements were quite different than what’s going on in the so-called FV. For one thing, there really is no FV “movement.” There’s no revealed or hidden agenda to impose our views on the church. We wish there were a FV conversation instead of a FV controversy. Moreover, much of this is about ad fontes – back to the sources (though in this case the sources are the writings of the Reformers themselves). In that sense, the FV probably has more in common with the Reformation itself, than Theonomy or Pentecostalism. We don’t see ourselves as offering some new fangled approach, we’re not claiming we have gifts that others don’t, and we’re not seeking to enforce our positions in church courts. We simply want to bring together the best in Reformed biblical theology with a classical Calvinian view of the church and sacraments. Again, we’re just seeking to be good “Reformed catholics,” nothing more or less.

I suppose time will tell if Chapell’s links here are accurate. For now, I remain dubious. I’m sure the more rabid detractors of the FV will use these rather embarrassing associations drawn by Chapell to pile on further guilt-by-association arguments. Chapell certainly gives FV critics the rhetorical edge here.

A couple pieces of counter-evidence will suffice in reply. FV views of baptism are found in the PCA outside circles touched by Theonomy or Pentecostalism. Indeed, they are found outside those circles that have been explicitly labeled “FV.” A prime example is Craig Higgins, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian in Rye, NY. Higgins’ superb thesis paper is available here: http://www.trinitychurch.cc/. The bibliography will look very familiar to those who have immersed themselves in FV writings. Higgins’ theology of baptism is essentially identical to what FV men have been setting forth. Even more interesting is the survey Higgins took of pastors in his presbytery. 91% confirmed that the sacraments not only represent what Christ has done for us, but also convey to us what God has done in Christ so that through the sacraments we come to dwell in him and he in us more fully. A whopping 77% affirmed a strong Calvinian, instrumental view of baptismal efficacy, confessing that the sacraments are signs through which Christ gives what is signified.

Now perhaps all this means is that the FV probe/witch-hunt should expand to include NY Metro Presbytery. I’m not sure. At the very least it serves to undermine the quirky sociological connections Chapell (along with others) is seeking to draw and shows that “FV” style theologizing about the sacraments is perhaps more pervasive in the PCA than Chapell is aware. I realize that it is impossible for any one person to keep his finger on the pulse beat of a denomination, and Chapell cannot be expected to know everything going on in the PCA. But my hunch is that Chapell’s analogies and links to the FV are neither accurate nor helpful, whether considered from theological or sociological viewpoints.

What are some legitimate concerns about the New Perspective on Paul?

    1. An unnecessary and dangerous ambiguity regarding the nature of justification. "Justification is an act of God's free grace wherein He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed [i.e., attributed] to us and received by faith alone" (cf. WSC #32). The New Perspective claims that Paul's chief concern was to make sure that the Jews shifted the boundary markers of their covenant identification from the ethnic practices of Israel to the identity practices of the New Testament Church. This perspective inappropriately de-emphasizes Paul's concern that Jews (and others) were seeking to establish their righteousness before God based on their personal moral sufficiency. By moving Paul's major concern to community identification, the New Perspective de-emphasizes the role of grace for personal justification and the sufficiency of Christ's work as the sole basis (or ground) of righteous standing before God. In particular, Wright's argument that justification is not so much about how someone is personally saved, but rather who should be recognized as a member of the covenant community can move the focus of our theology from properly emphasizing the personal faith and repentance from which all true, Christian assurance and faithfulness flows. Of course, we must grant that there is every necessity of recognizing Christ as Lord, and living out the imperatives of our faith commitments in order to have the assurance of our salvation and express love for our Savior. Still, this necessity is an insufficient reason to question the historic understanding of justification.

If this description is the NPP, then I reject it absolutely and completely. I do not believe this is an accurate statement of Paul’s objective and I believe it is a superficial distortion of the gospel.

I believe Jesus’ substitutionary death propitiated God’s wrath and reconciled us to the Father. I believe that justification is soteriological and forensic, not merely ecclesiological. Indeed, I reject a split between the soteric and the ecclesial. I think these things are probably true of all FV people, no matter what Wright says about them. I know of no one in our circles who has tried to de-soteriologize justification in the way Chapell describes.

Some have criticized Peter Leithart for making justification transformatory rather than forensic in his essay “Judge Me O God.” But a careful study of Peter’s work shows that he still believes in a forensic justification. He has allowed the Bible to reshape and expand what we should mean by “forensic” but he has not done away with the forensic or turned justification into a process.

Some may think the FV emphasis on faithful and obedient perseverance undermines the gospel. But we see this perseverance as a gift included in the gospel, not as something extrinsic to the gospel that we must contribute in our own will and strength. Moreover, while we certainly want to oppose all forms of legalism, which make salvation ultimately dependent on human effort and morality in some way, we also want to guard against antinomianism.

I sometimes think that FV critics think there’s only one way to get the gospel wrong – legalism. And so they direct everything towards smashing that enemy of true religion. But antinomianism is just as insidious and must also be dealt with in terms of the grace of the gospel and the cross of Christ (Tit. 2:11ff).

Case in point: One very hostile FV critic told me that antinomianism is not a problem in the Reformed community. We only go wrong in a legalistic direction, he said. But I was tempted to reply: “No, antinomianism is a problem as well. All you have to do is look at how you treat theological opponents to see the depth of our lawlessness!” We don’t see our lawlessness because we’ve so minimized the demands of God’s word and his pattern for living, and we’ve so totalized the objective, external declaration of justification. But if our gospel does not deal with both these distortions – legalism and lawlessness -- it is truncated and inadequate. As the FV seeks to hammer antinomianism, those who are only anti-legalists and are not sensitive to the problems of lawlessness are bound to feel that we’re moving a dangerous direction. But our hope is to attain a biblical balance in which these errors are equally and decisively refuted.

To say it again: the gospel deals with the problem of sin in all its dimensions and ramifications. It deals with not only the penalty of sin, due to us because of our guilt, but also the power and presence of sin in our lives. Anything else is a half-gospel. The gospel includes not only “redemption accomplished” but also “redemption applied.” It includes what Christ did for on the cross, outside of me, as well as what Spirit does to me, inside of me.

Question for discussion: Why do some people think that talking about how God deals with the power and presence of sin in our lives automatically tends towards legalism? Have we lost the sense in which sanctification is a human work empowered and driven by grace alone?

In justification our sins are imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:20). Wright has questioned whether it is Biblical to say that Christ's righteousness is imputed to us since that is a judicial (forensic) declaration that he does not explicitly see in the Biblical text. Yet, even if Wright wants to hold the terminology of imputation in question, the reality of our union with Christ by virtue of His grace alone (which Wright does not question) should be reason enough to emphasize with the Reformers that Christ's work -- not ours -- is the ultimate basis of our present and eternal standing before God.

Right about Wright. “Even if . . .” all that Chapell says is accurate about Wright, we would still affirm and stand behind solus Christus and sola gratia 100%. Our ultimate standing in God’s law court, now and forever, is grounded solely in Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf. Whatever role works play in salvation or the final judgment (as evidence or otherwise) must be contextualized by that. Jesus settled the salvation of God’s elect at the cross. Period. We’ve never said anything different.

In an oft-quoted statement Wright says that at the final judgment we will be judged on the basis of performance not possession (of Israel's status). Were this shocking statement all that Wright said, then he would be easy to dismiss as obviously unorthodox. However, elsewhere he indicates that this performance means being "a doer of the law," and then he says that for Paul being such a "doer" means putting one's faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. In this way Wright avoids outright denials of Reformation theology, but introduces unanswered questions (particularly since he seems willing to define faith as faithfulness) that are inappropriate for one as theologically skilled and influential as he. This new confusion about the interplay of faith and works in justification may cause you to hear New Perspective advocates compared to Norman Shepherd, a professor dismissed from Westminster Seminary more than twenty years ago for teachings that caused similar confusion. Shepherd's work is now being re-quoted by some New Perspective advocates (especially some who relate to the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue groups).

The Wright/Shepherd connection is an interesting one, especially since Wright and Shepherd have done their work independently of one another. They are both grappling exegetically with texts like Romans 2:1-16 and seeking to understand justification in light of the New Testament’s already/not yet eschatological dynamic. Obviously, Paul’s claim that at the last day the doers of the law will be justified is difficult to understand. Personally, I think a non-hypothetical reading is vastly superior, on exegetical grounds. In other words, Paul really is saying that fulfillment of the Torah (including faith directed towards Jesus alone as the one to whom the Torah pointed) is the criteria of judgment at the last day. Even if Romans 2 is questionable exegetically, there are other texts that are far more difficult to evade on this point (e.g., Matthew 25:31-45).

Rather than going further into exegetical details, I will simply point the reader to Joel Garver’s helpful paper, “The Doers of the Law.”

The Reformers did not intend to do away with a future dimension of justification in which works are evaluated as signs of faith (WSC 38). Of course, they also saw that future justification as ultimately one with our initial justification by faith alone. Initial justification is the verdict of the future pulled into the present. The final judgment is simply the public announcement (according to the public evidence; cf. Mt. 25:31ff) of what God already pronounced over us at the beginning. Further, this does not turn justification into a process. Reformed theologians do not typically think of adoption as a process, but it clearly has an already/not yet structure (cf. Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:23). Why should justification be any different?

It is very important to say that I know of no PCA minister who has denied the imputation of Christ's righteousness.

Correct. I appreciate the fact that Chapell will openly state this. Perhaps it will help some people calm down.

Most of the concern that is being expressed in PCA circles is over some pastors' loyalty to Wright because he is so often accused of being fuzzy on the subject of justification.

But those same pastors are quick to point out deficiencies in Wright’s views. No one is committed to following every last word Wright says. Those same pastors are also quick to point out that Wright’s use of the term ‘justification’ covers somewhat different ground than traditional Reformed usage, but he has other ways of doing what we do with the term ‘justification.’ We shouldn’t lose the theological forest in the semantic trees. Wright has to be interpreted on his own terms.

There is also a secondary controversy as to whether both Christ's active righteousness (i.e., His obedience to the law) and passive righteousness (i.e., His suffering our punishment) are imputed to us, but this is an older issue that even divided the Westminster divines and is unlikely to be finally resolved in our generation. I believe that both Christ's active and passive righteousness are imputed to us, but even where brothers differ over this there should be no question that in our union with Christ His holiness becomes ours by grace alone and through faith alone. Whatever, or whoever, does not make clear that we are justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone ... is wrong.

I’m very thankful for Chapell’s historical honesty on this point. This reveals his deep commitment to theological integrity, ecclesial unity, and confessional candor. Yes, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was debated at the Westminster Assembly, and a draft of the standards was deliberately altered to allow the passive obedience-only view. Many FV critics have tried to engage in historical revisionism on this point.

I also appreciate Chapell’s openness (with a host of other Reformed theologians) to a union-with-Christ-by-faith-alone formulation of justification. This strikes me an area in which further discussion could be very profitable.

As far as I know, we all agree that we are “justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” This need not be debated.

    2. An unnecessary and dangerous lack of clarity regarding what the sacraments accomplish. As a consequence of concerns raised primarily by the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue groups, a controversy is boiling in the PCA around the subject of baptism (but it seems likely to move with equal emphasis to the Lord's Supper in the near future). Here's the question: To what degree do the sacraments actually convey the grace they signify?

John Calvin answers: “And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what He figures.” Or to put it in Chapell’s terms, the sacraments convey the grace they signify. (Here is the sentence in full context: “But as baptism is a solemn recognition by which God introduces his children into the possession of life, a true and effectual sealing of the promise, a pledge of sacred union with Christ, it is justly said to be the entrance and reception into the Church. And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what He figures.”)

In his sermons on Deuteronomy, Calvin preached, “And that is the reason why in Baptism we truly receive the forgiveness of sins, we are washed and cleansed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are renewed by the operation of his Holy Spirit . . . Therefore baptism has that power and whatsoever is there set forth to the eye is forthwith accomplished in very deed.” Was Calvin pastorally foolish to speak this way to his congregation?

In his catechism Calvin defines baptism this way: “What is this baptism? It is the washing of regeneration and cleansing from sin.” Is this a proper way to teach baptized children to regard their baptisms?

In replying to Trent, he wrote of the “twofold grace” of baptism, “for therein, remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun, and goes on making progress during the whole of life.” Is this a theologically responsible use of the term “regeneration”?

Calvin taught that faith should seek assurance in the sign: “While I so often inculcate that grace is offered by the sacraments, do I not invite them there to seek the seal of their salvation?” Does this feed presumption?

I do not think any FV writer has made stronger statements about baptism than Calvin himself. Indeed, my guess is that most FV pastors tone down Calvin’s language for congregational consumption. It seems the charges brought against our sacramental theology should really be aimed at our master teacher, Calvin himself.

The issue has become most apparent in discussions about infant baptism. As I indicated earlier, the claim that the New Testament sacraments function as boundary markers for the covenant community is taken by some New Perspective advocates to mean that baptism makes a covenant child a Christian. There is a sense in which this is true.

Right. This is true in some senses, but perhaps not in others.

However, there is precedent for the FV view that covenant children are Christians. In Calvin’s 1538 child’s catechism, the first two questions and answers read this way: “My child, are you a Christian in fact as well as in name? Yes, my father. How is this known to you? Because I am baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

If the FV is teaching covenant parents to receive their baptized children as Christians, and if the FV is training baptized children to regard themselves as Christians because they’ve been baptized, we are following in Calvin’s footsteps. We may be wrong, but at least we’re in good company.

Baptism does mark the child as covenantally connected to the Christian community. Our PCA standards even refer to baptized children as infant members (or non-communing members) of the church. Additionally, the Westminster Assembly's Directory for Publick [sic] Worship also lists among the grounds for infant baptism, "That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and ... they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized."

Right. Very helpful.

We have never meant by these important distinctions, however, that baptism regenerates a child.

And no theologian involved in the current discussion does either – at least not in the sense that Chapell means “regeneration.”

We have emphasized with some fervor that baptism is no automatic guarantee of salvation. Baptism must be received by faith in order to be an effectual means of salvation.

[Warning to readers: Since this is now the hottest aspect of the Federal Vision controversy in PCA circles, I am devoting several paragraphs to this subject. Please move on to the next section if this does not scratch where you are itching.]

The infant's holy status is recognized in baptism, but that status results from God graciously providing the child's relation to the covenant community through believing parents. God can certainly regenerate whomever and whenever He wishes, but in terms of what the church can assess, the parents' faith is the basis of a child being recognized as "holy before baptism" (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). The water ceremony does not cause the child to have saving faith, and the sacrament does not guarantee that he will truly believe in Christ as his Savior.

No one believes a “water ceremony” causes a child to have faith. The Spirit works faith. No one believes the sacrament guarantees true, persevering faith all by itself. We have quite often distinguished our view from the Lutheran view in which baptism really is said to “create” faith in the child.

Thus, in North American culture, we have not usually talked without qualification about baptism making the child a Christian lest we wrongly communicate to our people that the rite is accomplishing what the Spirit does by faith alone (i.e., we have been careful to distinguish our practice from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic views of baptismal regeneration).

But those associated with the FV also distinguish their view from the Roman and Lutheran churches. (Admittedly, though, I have argued that Luther and Calvin held to very similar theologies of baptismal efficacy. Calvin signed the Augsburg Confession, and does not critique Luther’s view of baptism the way he does Luther’s view of the Eucharist. This would be an area worthy of further discussion. Needless to say, Lutherans do not believe baptism automatically causes regeneration apart from faith or gives an inalienable guarantee of salvation.)

We must confess that most ministers in the PCA have framed their baptismal explanations to distinguish our practice from Catholic or Lutheran practice for listeners coming from a largely Baptistic culture. In contrast, the early Reformers framed their explanations to make sense in a largely Roman Catholic culture. For this reason, some statements of the Reformers do sound more "Catholic" than we are accustomed to hearing.

This seems to be an inadequate explanation of the strong language used by the Reformers to describe baptism’s efficacy. They were not accommodating themselves to a Roman Catholic culture. They simply believed the sacraments were efficacious. This is the only plausible explanation of their statements. If we think they were wrong, let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s just admit that they didn’t go far enough in their break with Rome or that they mis-exegeted the key texts. But let’s not pretend that they actually all held to low views of sacramental efficacy, when in fact their rhetoric indicates the opposite. It’s been all too easy for American Presbyterians to remake the early Reformers in their own image.

This is why I respect Robert L. Dabney treatment of Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, which he called “a strange opinion, not only incomprehensible, but impossible.” Contra Dabney, I think Calvin’s view was biblically correct. I find Dabney’s view of the Supper essentially Zwinglian (in the common sense of that term) and rationalistic. But I appreciate Dabney’s integrity and honesty when treating Calvin’s viw. Instead of trying to explain away Calvin’s view or accommodate it to his own, he simply admits that in his judgment, Calvin was wrong. Many Presbyterian pastors probably need to make this admission with regard to Calvin’s view of baptism and the status of covenant children.

All parties would do well to recognize the realities and reasons for these differences of expression, while recognizing that unnecessary controversy will ensue if we do not make it clear for our church and culture that neither the Scriptures nor our Standards teach that the rite of baptism actually and of itself regenerates the spirit of a believer or child.

In my opinion, this is an unhelpful statement – well intentioned, but poorly phrased.

What definition of “regenerates” is Chapell using? After all, Calvin said, baptism is the “washing or regeneration” and that in baptism “we are renewed by the operation of his Holy Spirit” and that regeneration is “begun.” Does Chapell want to accuse Calvin of misusing theological terms or using unwise pastoral formulations? Surely Chapell aware of the different ways in which “regeneration” language has functioned in the history of the Reformed church, so why is there no acknowledgement of this diversity in theological terminology, given its importance to the current controversy?

What does “actually and of itself” mean? Is Chapell leaving open the possibility that Christ and the Spirit can work to regenerate through baptism as an instrument? No FV teacher says that baptism does anything “of itself.” Water does not even exist “of itself,” much less serve as an instrument of regeneration. Whatever God does in baptism is not caused by water but by Christ and the Spirit (WSC 91).

Frankly, in my evaluation, Chapell’s language here lacks the clarity needed to seriously evaluate both the Reformers and the FV. It doesn’t really engage the FV position. Chapell needs to deal with whether or not the sacraments are Spirit-wrought instruments or means of salvation to believers in order to really deal with the FV position. Thus far, this is an area where the FV discussion has only beaten around the bush. We haven’t yet gotten to the heart of the matter. Thus, we must continue discussing.

Now, again, I know of no PCA minister who advocates an explicitly Lutheran or Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration. . .

Good. I should hope not. However, there may be some imprecision here. The Roman and Lutheran views are quite different. It would be worth exploring how the Lutheran view is similar to and dissimilar from the Calvinian view of baptismal efficacy. I have explored some of the similarities in this essay.

but some associated with the Federal Vision are so anxious to communicate that in baptism God actually transfers His covenantal grace to a child that they are pressing the terminological limits of our traditional baptismal vows.

I’m not sure I understand these comments.

First, FV proponents reject Rome’s view that grace is a substance, and so grace is not, properly speaking, something that can be “transferred.” Grace is the personal presence and favor of God.

Second, whatever we’re doing, we’re certainly not pressing the terminological limits of traditional Reformed theology with regard to baptism. We’re well within the circle of Reformed theology in terms of both language and substance. Any one who reads the writings of the Reformers on baptism (numerous key quotations are collated in many of our papers and essays) will see that our rhetoric is entirely Reformed. It seems more accurate to say that the Reformed tradition in America has heavily diluted the traditional Reformed language about baptism. Recovering that language seems radical, but that is only because we have moved so far from the faith of our Reformed fathers. I use strong baptismal language out of respect for our Reformed fathers, not because I am rejecting them.

Certainly there is much misunderstanding and mere sentiment involved in many of our churches regarding infant baptism. However, when infant children are declared "Christians" at their baptisms without explanation. . .

How does Chapell know that we make this declaration without explanation? How many paedobaptisms at pro-FV churches has he attended? From my knowledge (admittedly limited), we give plenty of explanation. Besides, I’m usually accused of writing papers that are too long (because of so much explanation and qualification) rather than too short!

. . .that their blessing is grounded on their parents' profession of faith and not based on any guarantee of what is (or will be) the eternal status of the children, then further misunderstanding is created in a culture not steeped in Presbyterian distinctives.

Again, I would humbly ask that observers of the controversy at least consider the possibility that the fault for misunderstanding (at this point) lies at least partially on the other side.

What if . . .FV men are making the necessary qualification that baptism does not guarantee eternal salvation apart from a life of faith? Furthermore, what if those qualifications simply cannot be heard by many detractors of the FV because they are so Zwinglian/baptistic/evangelical in their view of the sacraments that any ascription of efficacy to the sacraments is unsettling, disorienting, and misunderstood? Is this possible?

A follow up: How does Chapell account for the fact that many people have read FV materials and have seen that we have plenty of needed qualifications on our strong declarations of baptismal efficacy? Why do some people seem to “get” (hear) the qualifications and not others? Whatever the case, FV proponents are not in the position of Athanasius – “against the world.” Many people find what we’re saying to be pretty intelligible. Our failure to communicate has not been total.

At this point, we would inevitably have to turn to the presuppositions and attitudes of the various readers and listeners. Again, is it at least possible that many of the biggest critics of the FV have misheard/misunderstood because they have read our work with a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than hermeneutic of trust and charity? I make no judgment here. I only ask the question.

Recognition of historic differences among Presbyterians can also help us deal more charitably with one another.

Excellent point. Most of these issues, if not all, have been debated for centuries within the Reformed and Presbyterian world. This is no strange trial that has overtaken us. Let us imitate our fathers in the faith and discuss these differences in a spirit of charity and humility, without accusations of heresy and without making snap judgments. Chapell is setting a good example in this respect, even if I have to disagree with some of his interpretations and judgments.

The Northern Presbyterian tradition tends to emphasize the solidarity of the family in God's redemptive plan -- treating covenant children as members of the body of Christ (having been made disciples in their baptisms). The Southern tradition prior to the 20th century tended to emphasize the need to save our children from an unregenerate state (even referring to the children of believers as "little vipers").

Chapell’s basic characterizations are essentially correct. And herein we find a big part of the problem. The PCA’s FV proponents are advocating a Northern Presbyterian view of children (e.g., Hodge’s view) in a largely Southern Presbyterian denomination (e.g., still largely influenced by Thornwell’s highly negative view of covenant children). I realize that much of the PCA does not self-consciously identify itself with the old Southern Presbyterian tradition of Dabney and Thornwell. But it is safe to say that the majority of the most rabid critics are still working with a Southern Presbyterian view of the sacraments and covenant children.

A question for discussion: Why does Chapell say that this was the Southern Presbyterian view up until the 20 th century? Did some decisive shift take place in Southern Presbyterianism? If my impressions are right, Thornwell’s view that covenant children are enemies of Christ until they pass through a conversion experience is still alive and well in the PCA in the South. A good part of my knowledge of this is firsthand and up to date. I wonder if Chapell’s experience leads him to believe differently . . .

These are significant differences in emphasis, but we have united in the PCA with everyone refusing to presume a guarantee of the regeneration of the children of believers, or to teach that baptism causes regeneration. Recognition of this unity can help us talk respectfully to and about one another in our present discussions.

If this is the case, I would say the FV does not disrupt the PCA’s unity and should not be excluded from the denomination. No one is saying that baptism guarantees eternal salvation or that the water of baptism causes regeneration. (Following Calvin, I distinguish causality from instrumentality. The Spirit causes regeneration and sanctification through the means of grace, Word and sacrament.)

There is some ambiguity in Chapell’s statement. He says the PCA has refused to presume a guarantee that our children are regenerate. No FV proponent presumes any such guarantee. This isn’t how baptism works in our theology.

But this still leaves us with a set of questions. Do we ever really know for sure that another person is regenerate in the sense that Chapell is using that term? After all, we cannot read adult hearts infallibly any more than infant hearts. We don’t have cardio-analytic abilities. If we don’t presume the regeneration of fellow Christians, do we presume their non-regeneration? Or is there another way of dealing with this matter altogether? Can a better understanding of the nature of the covenant (e.g., Rom. 11) help us here? How does covenant membership relate to regeneration and election?

No FV proponent is claiming that all covenant children are regenerated in the special sense that Chapell has in view (a sense that guarantees their perseverance and salvation). But we cannot make this claim about any group of persons (e.g. communicant members of a visible church). We do not have a guarantee about any other person. The infallible assurance of the WCF only applies to oneself.

Another area to explore: Is it possible for Christian parents to trust in (rather than presumeupon) the covenant promises (Gen. 17:7), and in this way legitimately treat and raise their children as fellow believers? If a parent takes Matthew 18:1-14 and 19:14 to heart (not to mention all the blessings the Bible associates with the believing reception of baptism) is the parent warranted in viewing his child as a Christian? What else could it possibly mean to receive our children in Christ’s name (Mt. 18:5) and to regard them as members of Christ’s kingdom (Mt. 19:14)? Is this what it means to parent by faith, rather than fear?

This raises the issue of infant faith, which I will not delve into here. But perhaps my forthcoming work, Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents will help spur that discussion along.

So much of our confusion regarding baptism results from our inability to relate to the earliest Christians. They were the converts to a new religion in a culture of paganism or Judaism. For the first Christians, baptism (particularly an adult baptism) was a true crossing of boundaries -- an undeniable declaration of a new life and an abdication of a former one, often at the cost of one's family, status, and security. To be baptized was not participation in a sentimental ritual that everyone in the culture had undergone, but rather was identification with Christ in an entirely new community and way of life. Thus, when a person was baptized it was important to recognize that the Lord was present in the sacrament and lovingly embracing the individual through the corporate prayers of those gathered, through identification with the previous saints of the covenant community, through the convert's own expression of faith, and through God's own pledge of faithfulness to all whose faith was genuinely being expressed in the baptism. Thus, baptism not only signifies the grace of salvation; the sacrament itself blesses the believer with the grace of God's signified and actual embrace. The Westminster divines said, "... by right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time" ( WCF XXVIII.6, emphasis mine).

Interesting thoughts. I would say we have much more to learn about this patristic view of baptism. It would seem to be very helpful pastorally if we could comfort believers with their baptisms in the same way the early Christians did. The FV gives us a way of moving in that direction. This may become increasingly important as Western civilization continues to decay and we find ourselves more and more in a situation, culturally and socially, that parallels the early church in the pagan Roman Empire. The FV gives us a pastoral and theologically responsible way of confronting this new situation.

It also seems it would be good if we could recover and re-appropriate the language of the Westminster divines regarding baptism. Chapell asked earlier how many FV pastors make strong baptismal declarations without qualification . . . . But now I wonder how often non-FV pastors, when baptizing a child, say nothing that would require qualification . . . I wonder how often they use the strong language of our Standards, such as referring to baptism as an “effectual means of salvation”? How often do they speak of grace being “conferred” and “applied” in baptism? Quite often, no qualifications are needed in their baptismal ceremonies because nothing is ascribed to baptism. In effect they make qualifications of the main point substitutes for the main point in the WCF. The talk more about what baptism does not do than what it does. But this is bound to obscure the promises God makes in the administration of baptism.

In short, it seems there might be quite a bit of needed reform (in the sense of restoring what has been lost) in American Presbyterianism. If the FV men aren’t the ones to do it, someone else needs to.

Since the sacrament is both a recognition and a means of the grace being signified (as the person publicly passes from one realm to another in the embrace of God provided by the sacrament), Calvin spoke of the believer being lifted to mystical union with Christ in the sacraments. Yet, the vital distinction of Presbyterians who acknowledge that a sacrament recognizes and even ceremonially confers God's blessing is that the sacrament symbolizes and conveys the grace that already "belongeth unto" the believer by faith."

Right. As far as I know, every FV pastor and teacher would limit the salvific efficacy of baptism to believers. We agree with the qualifiers the WCF places upon its strong affirmation of baptismal efficacy.

The sacrament does not create the grace, cause salvation, or guarantee faith.

Exactly. We’ve never said sacraments do any of these things. This isn’t our language or understanding.

My fear is that Chapell feels the need to say things like this sentence because the only version of baptismal efficacy he has been deeply exposed to is the Roman version, in which these things would be claimed. But no FV theologians would say any of these things. Our view of baptismal efficacy (like that of the Reformers) is widely different from Rome’s.

The typical evangelical can usually only conceive of two sacramental positions: either baptism does nothing (it is an empty sign) or it does everything (including giving an automatic guarantee of salvation). But the FV is something different altogether from either one of these positions.

Baptism (and the Lord's Supper) reinforce, further bless, and publicly declare the covenantal relationship of the individual (or parent), but faith -- not any element of the sacrament -- is the God-given instrument of the individual's ultimate blessing and status with God. This is why before the statement about baptism conferring grace, the Westminster divines state, "... grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it [baptism], as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated" ( WCF XXVIII.5).

Right. Baptism is no automatic guarantee of salvation to the one baptized, nor is it absolutely necessary for salvation. This is what we have always maintained.

Much misunderstanding of the efficacy of baptism could be corrected with pastorally prudent explanations (i.e., baptism provides real blessing and identification with the covenant community yet does not regenerate), but because the Federal Vision advocates often see themselves as needing to correct the Church, there is frequent use of arresting and incautious phrasing that seems designed to create reaction or, at least, movement in the denomination.

Hmmmm . . . I know that in my own work, the most “arresting” statements of baptismal efficacy have been quotations of the Reformers, who (in my opinion) were not being incautious, but thoroughly biblical.

Where have we made strong statements about baptism without qualification? I know of no such place. Of course, it’s possible Chapell has something in view that I’m unaware of.

How does Chapell know we’re trying to create a reaction or a movement? I’ve never sensed this in my interaction with FV men. Instead, I think many men associated with the FV (Jeff Meyers, Peter Leithart, Joel Garver, etc.) are very cautious and erudite scholars, who would not say something just to get a reaction. Their views are settled, mature, well-grounded in research, and appropriately qualified.

An early (now retracted) Auburn Avenue statement even indicated that at his baptism a child receives all the benefits of union with Christ except for the gift of perseverance and final salvation. Such a statement could only have been made if one had redefined a traditional understanding of union with Christ, all its benefits (e.g., calling, regeneration, adoption, justification, and sanctification), and perseverance.

Yes, this was corrected for the sake of clarity (although it should be noted that even in the original version, the “all” in “all benefits” was already heavily qualified).

Of course, every one I know involved in the FV discussion is willing to retract, correct, amend, or do whatever needs to be done, to their statements to improve biblical fidelity and pastoral communication. This is supposed to be a conversation after all.

Redefinition of a number of these historic doctrines is being attempted by some New Perspective advocates (including those related to Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue). The redefinition is sometimes an attempt to conform historical doctrinal distinctions to Biblical wording that we have trouble reconciling with the traditional wording of Reformed theology. For instance, Auburn Avenue folk make the helpful (but not new) observation that the Bible does not always use the word "elect" to refer only to individuals whom God has chosen for eternal salvation. Sometimes Israel is called an "elect" nation even though not all of ethnic Israel is true spiritual Israel (Rom. 9:6). However, to move beyond this observation and say -- as some New Perspective folk have -- that not all the elect will persevere in faith (or that some of them can lose their salvation) creates a doctrinal crisis.

Chapell has admitted the twofold use of the word “election” is embedded in the Reformed tradition. So how can the use of the word in one of its twofold senses create a doctrinal crisis? I would guess this is because one of those two senses has been forgotten along the way. It seems to me FV-emphasis on corporate election causes a crisis precisely because the biblical and Reformed themes of corporate election have been obscured.

We affirm the distinction, made by Augustine and Calvin, between special/eternal/decretal election and general/historical/covenantal election (cf. John Barach’s work on covenant and election in the Federal Vision book). We deny that we can know the former apart from the context of the latter. We affirm election in both senses, distinguishing them without separating them.

For more on election language, see Appendix 1 in my “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”

Such a crisis would be easily and pastorally avoided by indicating that the word "elect" can be used in a technical way to refer to redeemed individuals (who always persevere because God will not lose one of His own) and in a general way to refer to an ethnic nation through which God is revealing His redemptive plan.

I agree with the needed explanation of terms. But I think this has already been done, ad infinitum. I know of no crisis over FV terminology in a church that is pro-FV. It seems the terminological crisis only exists in the minds of those who have already determined the FV cannot be orthodox or who refuse to listen to carefully made qualifications and distinctions.

The Bible has the right to use words in a technical (doctrinal) sense and in a general (common) sense, and we should be able to distinguish these without requiring a Confessional overhaul.

Exactly. At the same time, I would add that no one has the right to insist that we only use terms in their confessional way. We can also use them in their biblical way if we desire. Confessional subscription does not bind us to a single, univocal theological lexicon.

    3. An unnecessary and dangerous eagerness to critique historic understanding rather than enrich it.

Here is where we return to my meta-criticism offered earlier.

I do not think we are critiquing the historic understanding of these things. We are seeking to recover it. And that recovery is an enrichment of contemporary Reformed thought precisely because we have drifted from our earlier moorings.

(For an example of what our “enrichment” program looks like, see my final conclusion on pages 286-290 in the book The Federal Vision.)

So much of what the New Perspective advocates want to say would enrich our understanding if there were not such a willingness to discredit or dismiss previous teaching of Reformed doctrine.

I am grateful that Chapell believes the FV (or NPP in his terms) has something of value to offer the church. This in itself is gracious and encouraging admission. However, I’m not sure I fully understand the criticism.

I know that many academic NPP scholars discredit the Reformation, but where have FV men done this? I would not want to claim that the Reformers were above critique, but I also hold them in the highest esteem and sit at their feet on a daily basis. I know of no FV proponent seeking to dismiss historic Reformed doctrine. It seems to me, we’re the ones more likely to quote the Reformers on the sacraments and to appropriate their liturgies in our churches.

For example, there are wonderful benefits to reminding every Christian that he or she has corporate as well as individual responsibilities. But it is destructive to teach, or imply, that our salvation is more corporate than personal. Pastoral approaches that would say "not only, but also. . . "

I find this ironic. Here, Chapell is not so much critiquing the NPP, as he is stealing a page out of its book. This is precisely what Wright tends to say: “not only but also” and “if you have x, you get y thrown in too.”

To say that salvation is “more” corporate than personal (or vice versa) would be a denial of the Trinity (in which the one and the many are equally ultimate).

. . .rather than "not this (what our Confession teaches) but that (what we have now discovered). . . "

I believe firmly in the progress of doctrine, and I do think the church has discovered many new insights into Scripture since the Reformation (e.g., the biblical theology movement, literary analysis, etc.). Of course, nothing new should be adopted uncritically. But if the Reformed tradition is a living tradition (as opposed to a dead tradition), then it must be growing in some sense. It cannot simply stagnant. Surely our Bible professors are to do more than repristinate the views of the past. They are to be moving deeper down the same path towards an ever fuller understanding of God’s truth. Some “new” views turn out to be dead ends, and we have to back track, but that is not always the case.

But more to the point, I do not know of any FV proponent who would formulate their “discoveries” in the way Chapell speaks of here (in straight opposition to the confession). I will say that I sometimes think Wright overstates the freshness/newness of his exegetical and theological work. That may cause confusion and concern. But Wright also points out that the work of Reformed biblical theologians like Herman Ridderbos been more influential, his “correctives” of the Reformed understanding of Paul might not have been necessary. In other words, much of what Wright saying is very compatible with various strands of Reformed biblical theology that have already been developed.

. . .are much better suited to build up the Church. We do not have to create questions about the nature of justification to remind those who are justified that true faith has real fruit. We do not have to make our sacraments sound nearly indistinguishable from those of Roman Catholics or Lutherans to teach the church of the real benefits of church ordinances. We should not have to redefine "regeneration" in order to expand our understanding of the sacraments.

My response to these sentences has probably already been covered above. But again: How can a return to the baptismal views of Calvin and Bucer and the Westminster divines be indistinguishable from the views of Roman Catholics and Lutherans? Has knowledge of the views of the Reformers’ really slipped that far? Moreover, how can returning to Calvin’s definition of “regeneration” be considered a “redefinition” within the Calvinist tradition?

I expect that the preceding paragraph would frustrate advocates of the New Perspective who believe that the Church has not properly understood what Paul (or our Confession) really teaches. They may feel that without the stimulus of arresting language the Church will not listen.

Again, the pro-FV men I know are careful students of God’s Word who would not use supercharged language just to get a rise out of people. Hopefully, we’re more mature than that. Perhaps Chapell has a different understanding of what constitutes arresting language. Or perhaps he’s familiar with FV sources that have eluded me. Or perhaps he’s had to deal with immature and overzealous seminary students who were not ready to engage this kind of discussion in an appropriate tone and manner. In any case, while both sides may have had representatives who have spoken in a way that brings embarrassment and dishonor to their theological convictions, it seems the most arresting language has come from the anti-FV side (e.g., charges of heresy, which have not run both ways in this discussion).

Of course, I fully appreciate Chapell’s desire for a humble tone to be the keynote of all discussions about these matters.

However, such an approach mistakes the needs of the Church and the requirements of Gospel progress. Now that the New Perspective is being closely scrutinized, its advocates in the PCA are toning down statements (once made with frequent sarcasm and stridency). . .

Hmmm . . . this is very troublesome. I’m mentioned by name at the beginning of Chapell’s document, so perhaps he intends to include me in this. But I certainly never intended to make sarcastic or strident comments about anyone. And I don’t think I’ve toned anything down now that I’m being scrutinized. I think my approach has been consistent. I have not noticed others making a sudden change in rhetorical tactics either.

I don’t doubt that some pro-FV people have made incautious or overly heated statements, but I hardly think the group as a whole can be characterized that way. Such a move would be the equivalent of making John Robbins the representative spokesman for the anti-FV side. But that’s simply not fair. Also, some differences in rhetorical style can be attributed to personality and cultural differences more than sin. We cannot expect or demand everyone speak to important issues in the same way. Not everyone has identical standards for language that is too harsh. While self-control is important, we shouldn’t look for a detached, depersonalized approach either. Most importantly, concerns over rhetoric should not be allowed to trump content. Speaking in love and speaking in truth are equally ultimate responsibilities. Being right is not an excuse to bludgeon people, but being nice does not excuse factual errors and theological incompetence.

Given that I don’t know the specifics Chapell has in view here, I can only regard this as an overstated generalization. I’m certainly willing to consider evidence that backs up his claims, of course. He may very well have something in mind I haven’t considered.

As far as recently toning down statements, the session of AAPC did slightly change the wording of its position paper on covenant and baptism, but that hardly fits the bill here. The movement was from less precision to greater precision, not from stridency/sarcasm to politeness.

. . .about the supposed errors of Church Fathers, the blindness of ministry peers, and the revolutionary nature of this new theology.

Blindness? Revolutionary new theology? Now I wonder if we’re even talking about the same controversy . . . .

This language will gratify the FV’s critics, but is it true?

I share Chapell’s desire for Christians to speak to one another in respect, charity, and humility. When that has not happened, repentance is called for. But I think Chapell’s characterization of the FV group as rhetorically reckless is not accurate, at least if we make the judgments based on publicly accessible documents and lectures.

New Perspective advocates are now more likely to claim that they are saying nothing that is not already in our standards and within the pale of historic Reformed teaching.

Why the “now”? My first paper on any of these topics was written in 2001 and posted to the web in early 2002 — well before any public controversy broke out. It was “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition.” In it, I argued that a “high” view of baptismal efficacy is both Reformed and confessional (not to mention biblical). I have not changed my theological position or rhetorical style since that paper. I have not just begun to try to square my views with the standards since I came under scrutiny. My intention all along has been to better understand the standards. I think others would give the same testimony. Again, I cannot understand what Chapell is speaking about here, though it’s possible he’s been exposed to things I have missed.

This is a much more helpful approach and ought to make it possible to speak much more pastorally and gently about the perspectives that are being advanced.
Both those who appreciate and those who question the contributions of the New Perspective should recognize the legitimacy of concern that over-emphasizing the corporate aspects of salvation can make the necessity and blessings of personal salvation seem insignificant or secondary. We must all acknowledge that salvation includes corporate dimensions, and the Church may effectively present or betray the Gospel based on her attention or neglect of these corporate responsibilities. However, personal trust in God's grace must precede proper love for God, His people, and His creation.

Church history in Europe and North America should remind us that when churches change the focus of their ministry and mission from living and sharing the personal dimensions of the Gospel to reforming external society or refining our own corporate identity, then dead orthodoxy (or worse) soon follows.

Exactly right. Warnings about the dangers of personal and corporate apostasy are appropriate here – but, then, that’s another FV emphasis.

Paul reminds us to be active in the sharing of our faith so that we can understand every good thing possessed in Christ (Phil. 1:6). Without an understanding that discipleship begins and progresses with personal commitment to Jesus Christ in response to His unconditional grace for individual sin, there will be no Gospel for another generation.

Who Finds the New Perspective Appealing?

The polar ends of the PCA political spectrum have found the New Perspective appealing for differing reasons. Those who tend to desire the Church to engage more in social action for the renewal of society find the New Perspective's emphasis on the corporate nature of faith appealing because it keeps Christians from making their faith "all about me." The individualistic, North American tendency to make "a personal relationship with Jesus" the ultimate purpose of faith looks both shallow and selfish in the light of the New Perspective's insights about the corporate responsibility of each person in the covenant community, and the covenant community's responsibility for world renewal. Those who understand the New Testament to be teaching Christians to take responsibility for transforming society according to the principles of Jesus also love the New Perspective's emphasis on the "Big Story" of Christ's Lordship over all the world -- and our participation in the culmination of that story.

The emphasis on community, accompanied by additional concerns for observance of "boundary markers" and "faithfulness," is also appealing to those we stereotypically place at the other end of our political spectrum: societal separatists and/or doctrinal precisionists. These are persons in our church who tend to want the covenant community to have clearer distinctions from secular society and more accountability for right behavior. It should not be surprising that some of the same groups and personalities that once were drawn to Theonomy and Reconstruction over frustrations with the modern church's worldly compromises have now gravitated toward the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue versions of the New Perspective. Its emphasis on superior doctrine, corrected sacraments, faith-validating performance, and well-defined covenant communities provides much appeal for those seeking more refined expressions of faith. But, we should also not be surprised that those in the PCA who have historically been most concerned about deviation from our Standards (especially as defined by Southern antebellum theologians), have expressed the most strident concerns about this new perspective though they were once closely aligned with some of its advocates in attitude and doctrinal interest.

This is an interesting sociological analysis. I’m not sure I can comment on it competently one way or the other, though the part of it linking FV to Theonomy doesn’t “feel” right. Part of the problem of course if the fuzziness that attends any discussion of the NPP. The NPP is an elusive, amorphous movement, very difficult to define.

If we take Wright as the foremost evangelical NPP scholar, I do not think that Chapell is correct to limit appreciation of Wright to the far ends of the PCA political spectrum. I am certainly aware of some more “centrist” pastors in the PCA who have expressed appreciation for Wright’s work (though I won’t name names so as to not get anyone in trouble!).

How Should Covenant Seminary Respond to the New Perspective?

The responsibility of Covenant Seminary in all such controversies is not to embrace a view simply because it is historic or to reject a view simply because it is new. Our unchanging task is to ask, "What does the Bible say?" Then we must speak with clarity, charity, and courage.

Yes, this is always what we must do.

Clarity requires that we declare as best we can what God has said in His Word. We must honor our forefathers' understanding of the Word, and we must consider having our views enriched if we have not understood all that the Lord has said in His Word. Charity demands that we not judge others' arguments prematurely or seek to defeat them by unfair caricature. Courage demands that we love the Bride of Christ enough to defend her from doctrinal harm. Last year our faculty presented the distinctions and problems of the New Perspective on Paul in a seminar from which audio recordings are available on the seminary web site. Also on the web site is a statement regarding the New Perspective presented at the PCA General Assembly two years ago. Covenant Seminary professors have also spent countless hours working with a study committee of Missouri Presbytery to declare what ministers must believe regarding justification, the sacraments, and a number of other key issues. The presbytery plans for this study to be available for the Church at large next fall. Please pray that the Lord would grant clarity, charity, and courage to these men so that their work will benefit the whole Church and glorify the Gospel of our Lord.

Please pray also that this controversy does not distract us from the Gospel of grace. In my opinion, we are not likely soon to get to the bottom of the controversy with definitive statements that will easily identify all errors. PCA leaders on all sides of the issue are extremely articulate, Biblically intentioned, and highly unlikely to state anything that (without being caricatured) can readily be identified as outside Biblical orthodoxy. The consequence is that pastors, professors, and students can become preoccupied with debate -- making faith an expression of cerebral competition and intellectual arrogance rather than heart engagement and spiritual dependence.

Thank you for pointing this out, Dr. Chapell. This is always a live danger, and one Reformed Christians must especially guard against. Hopefully, FV concerns are sufficiently well grounded in pastoral theology and practice to minimize these dangers.

If our ministries only become battlegrounds for sacramental correctness rather than instruments for promoting the Gospel of grace, then we and the Church will have lost much.

I agree 100%. At the same time I would add that we need to beware of false dichotomies. If we have lost the sacraments’ role as effectual means of salvation to believers, then we have lost one of our chief instruments for promoting the Gospel of grace, and the church has lost much. I think a Calvinian and Reformed sacramental theology is of such pastoral value, that it is worth working to recover even in the face of tremendous obstacles.

Thus, the question is: Why are debates over “sacramental correctness” different than debates over aspects of the gospel? How do we know what’s important?

We all must pray earnestly for the work of the Spirit in our hearts to help us determine whether our efforts are turning the Church toward ever-greater introspection and isolation, or whether we are preparing the Church for Gospel-true priorities and progress.


I think a renaissance of Calvinian sacramental theology does much to prepare the church for Gospel-centered priorities and progress.

A proper understanding of the sacraments does much to foster an authentic Christian identity in a secularized culture, which identity in turn gives rise to our missional vocation. The sacraments are objective reminds that we do not belong to ourselves; we are called to live sacrificially for God’s glory and the good of humanity.

Further, efficacious sacraments help break us out of our ideological shells by reminding us that Christian truth must be embodied and incarnated. Just as God ministers to us in word and deed (sacrament) so we must minister in word and deed. The FV recovery of traditional Reformed sacramental theology should encourage the church to pursue mercy ministry because it opposes the reduction of the gospel to mere ideas. Proper sacramental theology nourishes incarnational ministry.

The sacraments are also important from the perspective of community. The sacraments are public and corporate, biding us together into one body. The sacraments are reminders that Christianity cannot be privatized without being distorted. We are to live together as one body because we share a common baptism and a common table. The sacraments “train” us in the life of the kingdom together.

Finally, the sacraments are crucial to a recovery of church unity. They provide a partial basis for ecumenical endeavors because they objectively mark out the church. This is critical, given the amazing proliferation of denominations and evangelical subcultures in our day. A strong sacramental theology – focused on one baptism and one table – appropriately pressures us to recover the visible unity of the church wherever possible. The restoration of the unity of the church is essential to future ministry and mission in the world. A divided church cannot stand against a secular culture.

Each must examine his own heart to ask if what he is doing and teaching is creating greater love for Jesus that liberates the soul to serve Him, or is binding God's people to standards of ecclesiastical correctness rooted in our own doctrinal insecurities and preferences.

Speaking for myself, I reject all needless squabbles over doctrinal details. I don’t want to waste time on worthless battles that distract us from the real work of the church.

This is another feature of FV that distinguishes it from the Theonomy and Charismatic movements: the FV is concerned not with peripheral matters, with the most central aspects of Christian existence, namely Word and sacraments, the church, the covenant, assurance, and so forth.

We need the Lord's wisdom to know what needs to be defended, what needs to be denounced, and what needs to be ignored because it only appeals to our appetite for argument.

Question: If FV concerns are valid, then why aren’t these discussions worth having? Why (for example) are the sacraments not worthy of being defended? More specifically, why is the sacramental teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism not worthy of being safeguarded?

It seems that the FV is controversial largely because its doctrinal emphases (the corporate nature of salvation, a high ecclesiology, the importance of the sacraments) are precisely the areas in which evangelicalism is at its worst and weakest. We admit to going against the grain in that sense.

The FV raises some uncomfortable questions: Is evangelicalism more Americanized than historically catholic? Is American Presbyterianism out of touch with Calvin’s theology at various points? Is it out of step with the sacramental theology of its own standards? Is evangelicalism unable to counter secularism because it is so privatized, individualized, and divided? Are evangelicals worldly because they have lost any deep sense of corporate Christian identity? FV critics may not think these questions are important, but we tend to think are they the need of the hour.

We must not allow a controversy largely outside our denomination to become the cause that defines us. The goal of Covenant Seminary is to prepare leaders for the local church who understand and model the Gospel of grace. Ask the Father to give us such great love of His Gospel and such clear judgment from His Spirit that He will enable us to keep the main thing the main thing. For those in whom the Spirit dwells, the message of Christ's grace for sinners such as we will provide the most powerful motivation possible for loving God, His law, His people, and His world.

This is an excellent conclusion, and I hope all involved in the current discussion will take these wise and gospel-centered words of counsel to heart. Covenant Seminary has the right goal and is blessed with wise leadership to help them accomplish that goal. Dr. Chapell’s wonderful pastoral concern oozes out in his closing statements. If this kind of tone had prevailed all along, both sides would be much further along in the discussion that we need to have.

I open the door to further communication with Dr. Chapell, or others, who desire to carry on the conversation about these things, with a view to glorifying God, edifying the church, and promoting the spread of Christ’s truth. Again, Dr. Chapell is to be thanked heartily for entering the dangerous fray of FV discussion with a paper that shows honest attempts to grapple with the issues and a desire to serve the peace and purity of the church. While I’ve had to disagree with Dr. Chapell’s assessment at various points, I have done so reluctantly. He has set a godly and exemplary tone in his work. Perhaps dialogue in the future will bring about even greater clarity and unity so that the church can embrace the gospel of Christ with ever greater faithfulness and serve the world in Christ’s name with ever greater effectiveness.

Click here for a PDF version of this interactive essay.