Federal Vision

The Federal Vision (hereafter FV) is the view that seeks a restatement of traditional Reformed theology in order to apply a more robust Covenant theology in the study of the relationship between obedience and faith, and the role of the Church and Sacrament in one's salvation. Proponents are made up of a loosely organized but vocal group of writers among the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches who appear intent on revising core confessional doctrines such as election, covenant, the sacraments, and justification.

FV proponents claim to be addressing problems in the contemporary evangelical and Reformed churches such as individualism, the neglect of the covenantal objectivity of salvation, an over-emphasized subjectivity in seeking assurance of salvation, antinomianism, and an inadequate view of the role of the sacraments as signs and seals of salvation.

Critics see the pastoral concern in these matters as commendable, but contend that the FV re-casting of the orthodox understanding of certain vital aspects of biblical and Reformed theology (cf. the Westminster Confession) raises far more serious problems than the ones which FV proponents claim to solve.



According to Dr. R. Scott Clark, the current Federal Vision theology is based on the 1974 views of Norman Shepherd, then teaching systematic theology at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), which essentially revised the doctrines of Covenant and Justification. He notes that Shepherd's teaching along with some elements from the the New Perspective on Paul "converged in a series of conferences at Auburn Avenue Church and they gave themselves the name: The Federal Vision." [1]

Early in 2002, Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) held a pastor's conference entitled "Federal Vision" that became controversial especially in the PCA and OPC denominations. The primary conference speakers were Steve Wilkins, John Barach, Steve Schlissel, and Doug Wilson whose lectures articulated what they themselves called a new paradigm in theology. The main theme of the conference centered on a new way to view the covenant which they referred to as "the objectivity of the covenant."

Some claimed that what was taught at the conference compromised the Reformed doctrine regarding justification by faith alone, the covenants, election, perseverance, and the sacraments. Later in 2002, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States issued an official condemnation of some of the themes of the conference and what it perceived to be implications of those themes, accusing the speakers of undermining the Westminster Standards and the Reformed faith. The issue of "Federal Vision" theology has since become an intense controversy among Presbyterians in particular.

Subsequently, a special colloquium was called in Southern Florida during August 2003, hosted by Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. Papers were exchanged and discussed, by seven of the Federal Vision proponents and by seven of its critics. The former were John Barach, Peter J. Leithart, Rick Lusk, Steve M. Schlissel, Tom Trouwborst, Steve Wilkins, and Douglas Wilson. The critics of the Federal Vision were Christopher A. Hutchinson, George W. Knight, III, Richard D. Phillips, Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., Carl D. Robbins, Morton H. Smith; and R. Fowler White. The collection of papers was published as Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, editor) and has provided a basis for continued debate.

"Today the FV movement has been rejected by several of the major denominations in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Among those denominations that have rejected the FV: The Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the United Reformed Churches, the Reformed Church in the U. S., and the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches. . . Since most of the NAPARC churches have rejected the FV, the principal ecclesiastical home of the FV movement has become a group called the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). . . The CREC is not recognized by NAPARC as a Reformed denomination and is not in formal ecclesiastical fellowship with the OPC, the URCs, the PCA, or the RCUS." [2]

Areas of concern

  • The Federal Vision introduces different views of covenant, faith, baptism, the Lord's Supper, election, regeneration, apostasy, and sacramental efficacy. While it is claimed that all these re-formulations are within the parameters of the orthodox Reformed Faith, critics claim that the Federal Vision is, in the end, contrary to the Westminster Standards.

  • Critics see in the FV a loss of biblical balance regarding covenant theology. Union with the (visible) church automatically implies union with Christ in the Federal Vision teaching. This over-objective view of the covenant fails to distinguish between covenantal union in the visible church from the saving union of the invisible church.

  • The FV perspective involves incipient sacramentalism. Critics see the FV imputing the efficacy of the thing signified to the sign itself, whether in regard to baptism or the Lord's Supper. The sacraments can communicate blessings apart from faith, and baptism appears to be a converting ordinance. The Federal Vision states that the unbelieving feed upon Christ when they partake of the Lord's Supper, and that a person is given new life by virtue of baptismal union with Christ.

Summarized from Banner of Truth review of Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision by E. Calvin Beisner

Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul

"While there is, to be sure, some overlap between the concerns of NPP and the concerns of FV, it is not accurate to describe them as a single movement. They properly represent different theological traditions and different constituencies, and have separate aims and objectives." (Guy P. Waters, Federal Vision, p. 3)


"After nearly three years of reading and listening widely and carefully to Federal Vision proponents, including voluminous correspondance with many of them, I am convinced that what the Federal Vision offers is not a renewal or improvement of the historic Reformed faith but a wholesale replacement of it with a curious hybrid affecting soteriology, sacramentology, and ecclesiology, closely similar to and heavily influenced by the New Perspective on Paul associated with James D. G. Dunn, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright." (E. Calvin Beisner in preface to Waters' Federal Vision).

"We do no better in closing than to recall Warfield's judgment of Lewis Sperry Chafer: that "Mr. Chafer is in the unfortunate and, one would think, very uncomfortable condition of having two inconsistent systems of religion struggling together in his mind." As with Chafer's Southern Presbyterianism and his Higher Life Christianity, the evangelical and the sacerdotal, the monergistic and synergistic, the rational and the dialectical doctrinal sympathies of FV writers are, to borrow again Warfield's words, "quite incompatible.... The two can unite as little as fire and water."" (Guy Prentiss Waters' The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis).


  • The Federal Vision, ed. Steve Wilkins. ISBN 0975391402
  • The Case for Covenant Communion, ed. Greg Strawbridge. ISBN 0975391437
  • Reformed is Not Enough, by Douglas Wilson. ISBN 1591280052
  • The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, by Norman Shepherd. ISBN 0875524591
  • The Kingdom & The Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church, by Peter J. Leithart. ISBN 0875523005
  • Blessed Are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord's Supper, by Peter J. Leithart. ISBN 1885767730
  • The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, Guy P. Waters, 2006. ISBN 1596380330
  • The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, eds. E. Calvin Beisner, Florida: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004.
  • The Current Justification Controversy, O. Palmer Robertson, 2003. ISBN 094093163X

See also