I have now heard a large part of the audio of the General Assembly concerning the vote to adopt the report on the FV/NPP. My comments on the decision and the mp3 can be found here. After hearing the 90 minutes or so, I came away with some observations.
It appears that the majority of the discussion centered on the issue of “justification by faith.” R.C. Sproul jumped in to warn all the brothers that this is a crucial issue. He then quoted Luther and Calvin regarding the centrality of justification for the church. R.C.’s stature and eloquence drew applause from the people. Simply, he stated that justification was a central issue of the Reformation and we dare not deny it.
As far I know, no one denies justification by faith alone. By “no one” I refer even to N.T Wright (Wright is the most conservative voice spousing the so-called New Perspective; in N.T. Wright’s writings he has made it clear that the idea of justification has to do more with ecclesiology than with soteriology, nevertheless, I have not yet heard a clear denial of the doctrine that we are saved by faith in Christ) and Federal Vision proponents. There is some natural nuance in how some of these scholars understand jusstification, as there has been throughout the Reformed history. Some authors have said that the idea of justification is present in the Pauline corpus, but that it is not the center focus of all Pauline theology. But what R.C. and others implied was that there was a blatant denial of justification by faith alone. I have never heard anyone clearly deny it in the fashion R.C. proposed.
Sproul has been seen throughout the years as a Reformed icon. Truly, no one denies his influence in bringing many people into the Reformed faith. He was certainly instrumental and continues to be instrumental in my thinking (I am particularly indebted to R.C.’s vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful and restoring the arts into the church). Nevertheless, after participating in many conferences and after hearing R.C. many times, and even interacting with him personally, (R.C.’s church is only 20 minutes from my house) the obvious impression is that he has read very little written by N.T. Wright (He appears to depend exclusively on the insights of his southern presbyterian friend, Ligon Duncan. To be fair, Sproul did read and review N.T. Wright’s book: Evil and the Justice of God. In the end, he concludes with a positive review when he writes: “Despite the concerns that his doctrine of God raises in some of the passages Iâ€™ve mentioned, I find in the main that N. T. Wright has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the problem of evil.” Perhaps R.C. would find the same benefits in reading Wright’s other works as well. I think R.C. would find Wright’s preterism compelling among other things). His followers are very content in hearing the oft heard dogmatic statement that justification is the article by which the church falls or stands (This is quoted by Luther). But was the church fallen before Luther? Is the Apostolic Creed not a suitable document to declare orthodoxy? Will R.C. admit that the Reformation shared new insights never seen before since the first century? If so, then his dogmatic assertion must be challenged, for who can deny that this 21st century is a century where the Reformed church needs to be reformed?
This in my opinion is the reason there was no exegetical treatment. Some have said that the divines already provided the exegetical treatment in the Confession. Fair enough, but the Confession is not exhaustive, in fact, some in the Federal Vision claim to be faithful to the confession (Wilkins claims to take a few exceptions, but not with the clause on justification). Furthermore, the divines disagreed with each other on certain issues. Do we take apart each divine and analyze their exegesis of certain confessional clauses? Beyond that, since the divines were not all united, did they then begin to adopt reports that condemned some for denying the covenant of works or a particular view of creation?
The PCA in my estimation has lost its chance to deal with these issues in a more charitable and careful manner. In my estimation it was precipitous. Why was not any one invited to defend their position before the entire assembly? Handing a microphone from the floor does not establish a proper forum.
My final observation relates to the nature of the report. I, too, find myself in disagreement with Bishop Wright in many issues (Political, Women in ministry and so on) and I also have some disagreements with Federal Vision proponents, (There is no monolithic group, so it is hard to say there is a disagreement unless it is with a particular proponent) however, what is the purpose of putting both theologies into one report? My conclusion is that since both were put together, those who knew more about one (NPP, for example) would immediately associate it with the other and hence throw both groups into the pile of senseless rhetoric and anti-Reformed. This tactic succeeded much to my dismay. The correct way to handle this matter would be to deal with the New Perspective in one year and then deal with the Federal Vision the following year (if this had taken place, the Assembly would have adopted the report on the NPP, but I am certain that after another year of careful analysis, the report on the FV would not have been adopted). The first debate centers around the Presbyterian tradition and an Anglican minister who probably has never read the Westminster Confession. The other debate is between differing interpretations of the Confession. This is a monstrous difference! By placing both together into one report, the desired conclusion was met.
By placing both groups together, the General Assembly missed an opportunity to deal with significant issues that are stressed in the Federal Vision. Instead, we spent the entire time debating justification by faith, a doctrine the FV does not deny (I realize that the definition of justification has been expanded by some; this is perhaps where the confusion lies. It is not a denial, but an expansion on the rich nature of the term itself). But how about the baptistic nature of the PCA? Why did the assembly pass over that one? How about the memorialist nature of the sacraments practiced once a month (maybe) in a large portion of the PCA? Why not find out what Luther and Calvin thought about that? How about the diminishing of the covenantal idea in the church of Christ? How about dealing with the neglect of covenant children in PCA churches where they are treated as second-class citizens? How about the anti-expository nature of PCA preaching? How about the mega-church mentality of some in the PCA who take more heed to Rick Warren than our Reformed forefathers? How about the blatant departure of a Reformed eschatology (I know a few examples of Ruling Elders in the PCA that are strongly committed to a Dispensational Eschatology)? How about the lack of theological training of our Ruling Elders? How about the refusal of PCA churches to expose their people to the richness of the hymnody or Psalter? How about stressing a higher view of the law as opposed to the conspicuous anti-nomian tendency of many PCA ministers? These are all in some way or another Federal Vision emphases. Why were none of these issues brought forward? Why? I truly am embarrassed with this entire process and only hope to see sanity, charity, and a closer analysis of the things that will truly destroy our beloved denomination.