Sunday, June 3, 2012

What is Federal Theology? ...

... It is something that T.F. Torrance rejected, and it is something that I have written about elsewhere, here. It is also something I often critique in various ways here (in various ways, to one degree or another). So to add to my online interactions with the venerable (for some) Federal Theology of strains of classic Calvinism; let me provide another definition by Dewey D. Wallace, Jr. from his book Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714. He writes of Federal Theology:

Heinrich Bullinger
[A] second development in English Calvinist thought, also international in its scope, was the rising importance of federal theology. Federal theology built upon the covenant theology of the Reformers, especially that of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli's successor of at Zurich, and also of Calvin. For Bullinger, God had made one covenant with humanity, the covenant of grace, known by anticipation in the times of the Old Testament and by remembrance after the coming of Christ. For Calvin too there was but one covenant, that of Grace, but he stressed its testamentary character whereas Bullinger spoke of it as more conditional, although for both the covenant was the means in a history of salvation by which God unfolded his purposes. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Heidelberg Reformed theologians Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, and Franciscus Junius shaped the idea of a covenant of works distinct from and preceding the covenant of grace. Important English Calvinists, beginning with Dudley Fenner and including many later Puritans, adopted this double covenant federal theology with its covenant of works made with Adam, the federal head of humanity, to be followed, after the fall of Adam, with the covenant of grace, which was anticipated in Moses and fulfilled in Christ, the federal head of redeemed humanity. This federal theology was not only a pedagogically useful and biblically warranted scheme for organizing theology but also "a useful vehicle of the gospel message," closely related to the flowering of Calvinist piety. [Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16-7]

So more of a sketch here rather than a definition.

Myk Habets and I, as Evangelical Calvinists, affirm one covenant of grace as I have posted one of our Theses from our soon to be released book, here. In light of my belief in one covenant of grace (notice Dewey underscores Calvin's belief in 'one covenant' of grace too ;-), I obviously think expanding this covenantal framework into a so called 'bi-lateral' or 'two-winged' understanding constitutes a deleterious move; but one that is natural to how classic Calvinists conceive of their doctrine of God (e.g. 'two-wills' ... see John Piper's and Matt Chandler's rather infamous endorsement of this kind of thinking [although they are not into 'Federal Theology' proper, per se]). Without getting too deep into the weeds on this, and especially the respective doctrine of God behind Federal Theology; the biggest problem I see with this double covenant schema, propounded by Federal theology, is its placement of creation over against Creator. There is a dualist wedge placed between humanity, for example, and Creator; such that the unity of Christ's person in the incarnation becomes disjointed---I digress.

One of the bigger pastoral and soteriological problems I see with Federal Theology, and its dualistic conception of salvation; is that a bridge outside of the unitary person of Christ is needed to bridge the gap between a sinful humanity and a holy Creator. It is this bridge that then shapes how Jesus must act in his saving act (or the conditions of the Covenant of Works), and thus the person of Jesus as the God-Man is decoupled; the Man part trying to meet the conditions of uniting sinful humanity to God, thus impinging on the shape of the God part in Jesus. With the consequence being that the Divine Person, Jesus Christ becomes subservient to his creation, all in the name of bridging the gap between part of humanity (the elect) and God. Matt Frost, a Barthian-Lutheran theologian and friend, provided a critique of this kind of stuff in a recent comment that I think is apropos for my own critique; Frost writes:

[...] I find classical Calvinism lacking in its doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ because it becomes an extension of the division of God from creation, up into the godhead. If the vicarious humanity of Christ is a perpetual intercessory appeasement of the Father, we have a broken doctrine of God. There is only part of God in Christ, and part of God to be appeased by him. The vicariousness becomes Jesus doing our actions for us, and correctly, in order to please God. "Our great high priest." The whole cultic mechanism of appeasement elevated into the heavens and done for us. [see the full comment here]

Federal Theology introduces a division of God from creation, as Matt puts it, so that Jesus in seeking and saving the lost actually ends up losing his identity as the eternal Logos because he is no longer the Word over creation, but the Word subservient and under creation.

Okay, so I made it to the weeds; sorry ;-)!

Practical Takeaway

Federal Theology is a historically situated scheme of thinking, but, unfortunately, there are some today who seek to repristinate or redress this schema for contemporary Christianity (I have friends who have been taken captive, to one degree or the other). I am only left to wonder why? Why do people today seek to re-present this scheme of theology when we have moved in constructive ways (and even through constructive retrieval) into constructive Trinitarian theology. Theology that emphasizes God's unity in his diversity, and theology that emphasizes God's loving and gracious way amongst us. Why would we want to go back to a theological construct that has obvious and fundamental flaws relative to how it thinks about God, and then how God must relate to his creation? I think a lot of this simply has to do with cultural forces, and lack of exposure to sound Trinitarian theology (the kind that EC tries to imbibe); more than it does with blatant disregard for thinking according to said Trinitarian theology. Which continues to provide impetus for me to write about such things online :-). amen. 


  1. Thanks for the quote -- I'm glad it worked! This is a good clarification, I think, of the classic position in its roots. And it's hard to stay out of the weeds when you do that! :)

    The two-covenant division echoes many of the problems I have with readings of law/gospel dialectic originating in the same period. The ordo salutis inevitably winds up incorporating these sorts of works-then-grace covenant logics, which is a plain misreading of scripture in the events of God's covenanting actions. However, it aligns with the Roman environment of canon law in the Holy Roman Empire. And it makes sense of the appearance of the Reformation evangelical insight in time by ensconcing the gospel freedom as secondary to obedience to the law. So Luther's famous uses of the law are in one sense a secular necessity of imposed social order, and in another a sacred necessity of convicting sinners of sin before they can be handed over to the God who frees in the gospel. And so Calvin's pedagogical use and the common Lutheran "third use," for the elect, become a reimposition of a law covenant upon those who by grace are made capable of it.

    I prefer Barth's "gospel and law" reading, out of a straight read of how covenants actually work. It lines up well with Paul in Romans, once we stop reading him in Reformation terms as a former Jew converted to Christianity, from law to gospel. (Which makes sense if you are a former Roman Catholic converted to the evangelical movement, but doesn't actually characterize Paul's Judaism or his teaching about it.) God acts in grace toward a group of human creatures, and codifies this grace in a symbol to mark the covenant, and elaborates the implications of receiving this grace for that group in their ongoing life as God's people. In this way Barth is right: law is always a form of the gospel. But to see it, we have to totally divorce ourselves from the canon law concept. The "laws" of the Bible are not a uniform, universal code of conduct for humanity. In each instance of covenant, they form the necessary obligations of receiving a particular grace. In the Pentateuch legislation, they do attempt to form uniform corrective codes of conduct -- for Israel as a recipient of the deliverance that constitutes ground of the Mosaic covenant. Their validity remains conditioned by the gracious act of God. And so Paul is right to insist that his gentile converts, no matter how much of Judean culture they imbibe through scripture, are not subject to the deeds of Torah as a way of life. Their constituting grace is different, and their way of life must correspond to it. Respect is maintained for the Judean way of life among Judeans, as long as they actually do it; hypocrisy is never judged positively. But there is no fault in being guided by the Spirit when your constituting grace is Christ, and Paul attempts to work out a code of conduct appropriate to the new situation.

    If we follow such a scheme, there are not two wills -- there are, in fact, many different ways of life in faith in the one God, just as there are many events of grace by which a people may become God's own. But God's will is one, as God is one: to redeem, save, and reconcile the creation.

    1. @Matt,

      Thank you for the further development, and some more of the history.

      I prefer TF Torrance's (of course) understanding, which in principle is in line with Barth; they just get there differently (TFT much more 'classical' if I dare say so). TFT's 'The Mediation of Christ' spells this out for him. And TFT follows Barth's lead of inverting the order of creation with covenant preceding; which changes everything!

  2. I am only left to wonder why? Why do people today seek to re-present this scheme of theology when we have moved in constructive ways (and even through constructive retrieval) into constructive Trinitarian theology.

    Surely this is rhetorical? You know that for federalists, to deny the two-covenant schema strikes at the very heart of sola fide.

    You'd do well to look at Luther and Melanchthon (speaking of Lutherans) on this as well, or at least incorporate them into this discussion. While of course they didn't employ covenantal language, to them the relationship between God and man in the garden was predicated on strict justice.

    As always, not defending it, just very familiar with this world.

    1. @Chris,

      Of course it's rhetorical, but then also honest from my vantage point.

      I've spent quite a bit of time looking at Luther and reading Melanchthon's Loci Communes, 1521 (even did a mini-essay on Melanchthon's LC at one point. Yes, and yet Luther, actually pressed a Pauline Mystical Marriage Framework for his understanding of how the Church and Christ relate (see Luther's Three Treatises; which throws the later developed (and even in Melanchthon) forensic understanding that Lutheran's (some) of today are often characterized by.

      I've become quite familiar with this world as well, Chris. In fact it, for some odd reason, has pretty much consumed me for many years (although I'm not necessarily into all of the fine nuances of particular denomination's fine print ... like the URC, PCA, OPC, etc.---nevertheless, I well understand the forensic understanding by which their doctrine of salvation is generally framed, which this post is intended to inform folks a little more on, if they heretofore hadn't understood what Federal Theology actually is).

  3. Bobby,

    Any particular scholars you have in mind when you think of modern Federal Theology?

    When I read Covenant/Federal Theology in its modern form I see many trying to provide both exegetical as well as historical (with regards to the ancient Near Eastern world) grounding for their dual covenant schema. Horton for one sees scripture utilizing the dual covenant structure of the ancient Near Eastern world (with regards to the suzerain/vassal treaty and the covenant of grant).

    Do you think some of the issues in bringing Federal and Trinitarian Theology together have to do with "apparent" opposing methods (ones commitment to a particular theological interpretation vs. an evangelical-historical-critical method)?

    Are you familiar with Douglas Kelly and Sinclair Ferguson? Kelly teaches ST at RTS and Ferguson teaches ST at Westminster? I have studied under both and both seem to appropriate the goods that Scottish Theology has to offer while holding to the Standards. I guess in my world, I am not seeing the two worlds (that you often pit against each other) in total opposition.

    Enjoying the blog, even when I disagree.

    1. Hi Casey,

      Great to hear from you!

      Yes, I usually think of Westminster Seminary california faculty; the White Horse Inn style of Federal Theology; and/or going back to the history with such figures as William Perkins, William Ames, (and the Westminster Assembly, in the history anyway).

      Yes, in general, I think the problem stems more from a Christian Dogmatic lens; so that the metaphysics (substance) that are being employed by Federal Theologians are incompatible with a God who is relational. And once this move is made, at the prolegomena level and hermeneutical; then this implicates the way said Federal Theologians attempt to exegete the text of Scripture. I am well schooled, myself in an "evangelical-historical-critical method," and using the ANE as the lens that helps fund the way we ought to situate the informing lenses being worn by Scripture writers (esp., of course, with the OT authors).

      Yeah, I've listened to Douglas Kelly being interviewed (I think by Reformed Forum) in the past (it was a 2hr interview). I found what he was saying to be intriguing, and I was encouraged (of course) because of his oft reference to TF Torrance. And I know of Sinclair Ferguson, and even have used one of his books on the Reformed Confessions as a resource for my chapter in our forthcoming book.

      Just read Thomas Torrance's book Scottish Theology, and you'll understand much better why I might be pitting these "worlds" against each other. I think they do that themselves, and I am just taking notice and emphasizing that here in my writing. TFT's thesis, in his aforementioned book, is that the Scottish Reformation was hijacked by the in-roads that the 'Standards' made into Scottish Theology (which he contends was very Trinitarian, and was developing John Calvin's unio mystica, unio cum Christo theology in contrast to the forensic-juridical lens that the Westminster Standards offered).

      Glad you can still enjoy the blog!

  4. Good points, Casey.

    While I think Horton probably reflects confessional subscription more closely than the latter two, it is helpful to point out that all three to adhere to the traditional Westminsterian covenantal schema. Probably important and definitely related somewhere in there is the fact that the latter two emphasize union with Christ as the rubric under which the benefits of salvation are realized, while the former gives priority to sola fide.

    At any rate, totally agree about Ferguson (I'm less familiar with Kelly, though I do know he did his doctoral work under Torrance); he pulls in all the good stuff.


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