Federal Vision – correctness vs. acceptability

I haven't paid much attention to the whole thing and now I'm curious. One of the churches that I've visited is PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), so why don't I just find out what the controversy is all about!

Joseph Minich wrote a paper and the question that he wants to ask (and answer) is NOT whether or not Federal Vision is correct, but whether it is acceptable.

That question really caught my eye - how can something I believe is incorrect, be acceptable? Then I read on and I understand.

There are a lot of doctrines that we don't think are "correct", but that are "acceptable" - Mark Driscoll put it sort of like this. We have two hands and there are doctrines that we hold in our right hand - and we hold them tightly. We believe they are not only correct, but are essential to our faith - like belief in salvation by grace, through faith, not of works, and like belief in the Trinity, the eternal existence of God, the deity of Christ and the crucifixtion and resurrection. I believe that religions such as Latter Day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses are NOT beliefs that hold these "essentials" and I do NOT believe that they are Christians.

In the left hand we hold other beliefs that we believe are correct (and important), but not essential. For the "Reformed", that might be TULIP, for Roman Catholics it might be prayer to Mary, for Arminians it might be "free will", for Charismatics it might be tongues, for others it might be infant baptism, full immersion, complementarian vs. egalitarian, etc. Because they are not essential, we can hold that hand a little more loosely. What is important is that the person that will be sitting next to us at the table in heaven may not hold the same things in their left hand - we still consider those who hold to our "right hand" beliefs to be brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of what their "left hand" beliefs might be.

What that leaves us with is that we have our essentials in order - these are all the "right hand" things that we, all Christians, hold onto dearly. It also leaves us with differences that are "acceptable" for other Christians to believe, but that we believe are incorrect.

How does this apply to the PCA and "Federal Vision"?

PCA doctrine conforms to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and they stand on the belief that these confessions and catechisms accurately reflect Biblical doctrine. So how does "correct" vs. "acceptability" apply?

"Correct" means that "Federal Vision" then it adheres fully with the confessions and catechisms, all that is in "Federal Vision" is in those confessions and catechisms and there is nothing in "Federal Vision" that is NOT in the confessions and catechisms. If this is true, then all PCA members must accept "Federal Vision" as true doctrine.

"Acceptable" means that "Federal Vision" does NOT adhere FULLY to the confessions and catechisms, and that there are statements that do not appear in the confessions and catechisms, but there is nothing that contradicts the confessions and catechisms. If this is true, then a PCA member can belief that "Federal Vision" is correct - or incorrect - and still fully comply with the confessions and catechisms.

This is an important distinction - as it allows individuals to examine the belief against Scripture and decide for themselves (as the Bereans did) whether stacks up against God's Word.

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4 thoughts on “Federal Vision – correctness vs. acceptability

  1. Scott (PCA)

    In accordance with Scripture, Biblical office in the PCA (Deacon and Elder) is carefully scrutinized. Officers vow, in the presence of many witnesses, that they agree with the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechism). In effect, they vow that what the Westminster Standards say is a faithful exposition of what Scripture teaches.

    If an officer candidate does not agree at any point with the Standards, they must declare their “scruples” (exceptions). The Presbytery (regional groupings of churches).then decides if the exception is “acceptable,” that is whether it contradicts the fundamentals of the system of doctrine. Very few exceptions are allowed. Exceptions are put in the record. This system is designed to protect the peace, purity and polity of the church.

    The Westminster Standards do not contain every doctrine of Scripture. They are not intended to do so. They summarize major doctrines of Scripture that have been contended for historically in the Christian Church.

    Members do not take a vow regarding the doctrine of the Westminster Standards- only officers do that.

    “Federal Vision” theology contradicts the Westminster Standards in fundamental ways at several points and has been officially so determined in the PCA (and most other Reformed/Presbyterian denominations). An officer could not hold those views and remain ordained because he would be violating his vows.

    A member could believe a lot of things that were not in the Westminster Standards, or that contract the Westminster Standards, or not understand much of anything in the Westminster Standards. An individual church member is not held to the same standard as one who teaches and disciples (leads). The members responsibility, in their membership vow to Members do vow to “submit…to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace.”

    I was in two non-confessional denominations years ago. They did not have a creed or Confession (like the Westminster Standards). One never knew what the Church leaders believed since it depended much on the individual's beliefs, as they existed at that moment of time.

    Hope this helps.

  2. I'm curious - I think that my assessment agrees with your statement (the debate was not whether FV agrees with the WCF; it was about whether or not it contradicts it).

    If it had been decided that it does not contradict, it would have been acceptable to believe either way, but it was decided that it DOES contradict, therefore, there's a problem with those in your denomination that believe FV is correct?

  3. Scott (PCA)

    Federal Vision theology consists of several doctrines such as justification, union with Christ, election, etc which contradict the Westminster Standards.

    There are also Federal vision doctrines that do agree with the Standards or that are not addressed by the Standards.

    If a doctrine were not addressed in the Westminster Standards at all, it might be in the Book of Church Order, a Church Court or by some other mechanism. However, many issues in the Christian life are not.

    Presbyterian biblical scholarship historically has been very careful not to burden men's conscience's with things that are not in the Scripture. It has also been very careful not to burden with things that were not clear from Scripture.
    In that sense Augustine's phrase, "Unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials, charity in all things" is apt.

    With a long history of biblical scholarship to draw on, there is much the Standards confidently declare Scripture to teach. More than many other denominations, especially non-creedal ones declare.

    PCA officers who voluntarily seek out ordination and voluntarily make vows that they do believe these doctrines faithfully represent the teachings of Scripture, are expected to protect them, and in good conscience teach them to those under their oversight. Sound doctrine is in jeopardy in every generation.

  4. Scott (PCA)

    G.I. Williamson has been in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)for many years and wrote a much-used study guide for the Westminster Confession of Faith. The PCA is close to the OPC in many ways.

    Mr Williamson explains in an easily readible way the nature of subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith by officers versus church members. It may be helpful in answering your quesions about correct versus acceptable in regards to doctrine.

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