Monday, February 21, 2005

Thinking about the 'Federal Vision'

A growing controversy in Reformed circles was set off by Douglas Wilson and associates who have been advocating a framework known as the "Federal Vision." The idea here is that young children of church members in good standing are properly regarded as Christians and accorded all the consequent rights and privileges, including the taking of the Lord's Supper.

Some of the things Wilson says resonate with me, as when he points out that the Scriptural and Confessional language concerning baptism is broader than our modern Protestant formulations ("baptism now saves us" - 1 Peter 3:21); but some things do not, for example, suggesting that denying a young child the Elements is denying their love for Christ or their salvation. Loving your 8-year-old son doesn't necessarily mean letting him drive your car--or share in the bread and wine before he has been substantially catechized.

Many Reformed people are freaking out about Wilson's perceived embrace of baptismal regeneration, which I do not believe he holds to. Some complain that, even if he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, the language he uses is so confusing as to be indistinguishable by the unschooled from Romanism. Yet, the Scriptures are not "easy," and believing them to be so provokes endless errors. Even the Apostle Peter acknowledged difficulties with some of the Apostle Paul's writings (2 Peter 3:16), which he warned "untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction." So, we cannot escape the fact that the teachings of Scripture are ultimately more complex than can be captured in simple creedal statements.

Ultimately, what I think Wilson is doing is creating a "foolish consistency." After the pattern of Reformed arguments for paedobaptism, drawing parallels between the New Testament initiatory rite and the Old Testament rite of circumcision, he tries to go further than any mainstream Christian author has in all church history. Several authors have pointed out that the Lord's Supper has no exact parallel with any Jewish feast or observance, of which there were several, all with unique practices, significations, and standards for admission. The Confessional standards of the Reformed tradition deny access to the Table to the "ignorant," meaning those who have not been instructed sufficiently in the Christian faith to diligently examine their own sincerity of heart prior to communing. Yet, Wilson claims conformity with these standards, saying that a young child can "discern the body of the Lord" just by feeling some affinity for the church. I haven't seen the word discern used in such a non-specific way since I left the charismatic movement. The Scriptures require that reflection and introspection that comes with a mature understanding of the Gospel (1 Cor. 11:28).

Wilson warns that denying children access to the Sacrament will leave them with lifelong doubts of their salvation, because the only conclusion they can draw from not getting to take bread and wine from the trays coming by is that they are not loved by God. Frankly, this warning sounds a bit manipulative to me--"agree with me, or cripple your children for life." Children are accustomed to gaining privileges in a stepwise manner as they mature, and parents are used to dealing with protests like, "if you really loved me, you would..." Wilson goes as far as to state that elders who refuse to give communion elements to young children should be suspended from the Table, which is ordinarily one of the strongest punishments in the church, second only to excommunication. Is Wilson really prepared to declare almost the entire Christian tradition heretical?

As was the case when Joseph Smith declared all the churches in error, and himself the only light, the man who tries to excommunicate the entire church only succeeds in excommunicating himself.