26 May 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: a summary

Recently, the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies issued its report (pdf).

The committee had been authorized by the PCA 2006 General Assembly (GA) and appointed by Dominic Aquila, who served as GA's Moderator. The committee consisted of four teaching elders and three ruling elders.

The "Federal Vision" (FV) and "Auburn Avenue Theology" (AAT) refer to the views of a group within the PCA and more widely among Reformed denominations who have taken up a distinctive set of emphases within covenant theology, sacramental theology, and biblical theology.

The "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) refers to a constellation of approaches to interpreting the New Testament Pauline corpus in light of what we have come to learn about 2nd Temple Judaism. The NPP is often associated with figures such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Don Garlington, Ben Witherington, and so on.

At 36 pages, the NPP/FV report is lengthy and not everyone may care to read it. Therefore, in the following, I summarize the content of the report, attempting to present its contents as fairly and accurately as I can.


The report falls into four main sections: [1] a preface, [2] the body of the report itself, [3] a list a nine declarations, and [4] five recommendations for the PCA GA to consider.

I will spend the bulk of this summary looking at the main body of the report since the other sections are short and more readily digested. But a few words about them first.

The "Preface" gives some history and context, outlines the charge of the committee, and explains the method by which it proceeded in its work. It's most significant contention, perhaps, is that since the Westminster Standards are "our 'standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture'" the report does not so much engage directly with Scripture as it attempts "to determine whether the views of the NPP and AAT/FV are in conformity with our Westminster Standards" (2202:40-43).

The nine "Declarations" seek to mark out practical boundaries with regard to what constitute the "fundamentals of the system of doctrine" within our Standards on the relevant matters (2235:1-44).

The five "Recommendations" concern ways the PCA GA might receive and use the report. In addition to commending the report to the PCA for study, it recommends that the "Declarations" be seen "as a faithful exposition of the Westminster Standards" and suggests that presbyters who find themselves at variance with the report's understanding of the Standards are obligated to make known their exceptions (2236:1-23).

Main Body

The body of the report is divided into three main sections: "Election and Covenant," "Justification and Union with Christ," and "Perseverance, Apostasy, and Assurance."

Each section attempts to accomplish three things: [1] to outline the teaching of our Standards on these topics, [2] to exposit the FV and NPP as they teach on these topics, and [3] to draw a comparative analysis to discern where the NPP or FV might come into conflict with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine within our Standards.

Election and Covenant

The Standards: With regard to the teaching of the Standards, the report emphasizes the basic Calvinistic distinction between the elect and the non-elect, proceeding from God's eternal decree, based up his sovereign, free, and gracious choice.

For the elect, the Standards teach that God's purposes in their eternal salvation are certain and sure, so that all and only the elect truly experience God's saving gifts and none of the elect shall be lost. The church visible includes both elect and non-elect. Those who are not elect never are redeemed, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved (2204:15 - 2206:7).

The Standards teach a bi-covenantal federal theology of a covenant of works before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. The covenant of works held forth a promise conditioned upon Adam's personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience. The covenant of grace requires only faith (2206:11 - 2207:18).

The report implies that, had Adam received the promise under the covenant of works, it would have involved his meriting that reward and, further, this is the basis for speaking of Christ's "merits" as the one who obeyed where Adam had failed (2207:20-32).

The covenant of grace has broader and narrower aspects, extending broadly to all the baptized and applying narrowly only to the elect, so that not all who are baptized truly receive saving benefits, but only the elect (2207:34 - 2208:8).

The NPP: The report outlines five areas in which it supposes all versions of the NPP to agree: [1] Reformation understandings of Paul need revision, [2] 2nd Temple Judaism (2TJ) did not teach obedience to the law as a way of salvation, [3] in 2TJ the law's function was ecclesiological, not soteriological, [4] Paul's polemic against varieties of Jewish thought opposed exclusivism, not synergistic soteriology, and [5] Reformation-era misreadings of Paul anachronistically read their own situation into Paul's context (2208:19-41).

From there, the report turns to N.T. Wright, drawing attention to his emphasis on the covenantal and corporate, and his reading of justification as involving the question of what marks out true covenant membership (2209:1-24).

The FV: The report sees proponents of the FV teaching that election as having more broad and more narrow senses in Scripture and theology, while they nonetheless attempt to affirm the view of election that is present within our Standards (2210:28-35).

On the covenant, FV thinkers do not distinguish between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in typical ways (2210:37 - 2211:2).

First, according to the report, they broadly construe "covenant" as a vital relationship with the Triune God and, in this sense, having a strongly objective dimension marked out now by baptism. This objective, visible people is included within God's electing work in Christ (2211:4-16).

Second, they emphasize the gracious character of the covenant of works with Adam, apart from merit, and subsume conditionality within both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace under the category of "covenant faithfulness" (2212:8-15).

Comparative Analysis: In the view of the report, the question is not whether the NPP and FV views in question simply go beyond confessional teaching, but whether they conflict with confessional teaching (2212:19-25).

In the view of the report, FV exponents run afoul of the Standards by their redefining the relevant terminology and proposing a biblical hermeneutic that departs from that of the Standards, in part through its expansive definition of "covenant." As such, what the FV proposes are not complementary perspectives, but contradictory ones (2212:21 - 2213:21).

Moreover, some FV understandings of the covenant of works wrongly parallel Adam's obedience under the covenant of works with our faith under the covenant of grace (2213:23-30).

Finally, the report says that, contrary to the Standards, the FV attributes saving benefits of Christ's work to the non-elect within the church visible (2214:1-3).

Justification and Union with Christ

The Standards: Regarding "union with Christ," according to the report, in the language of the Standards all and only the elect ever enter into a true union with Christ. All the benefits of the covenant of grace enjoyed by members of the church invisible flow from this union, of which baptism is the sign and seal (2214:11-43).

On justification, the report holds that the Standards teach that in justification sinners are pardoned of their sins and counted as righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ's perfect active and passive obedience. Moreover, nothing that sinners do can serve as a ground of justification, even if the works of those who are justified are accepted and pleasing in Christ (2215:3-41).

According to the report, the Standards teach that those once justified cannot fall from that state of justification and in the final judgment will be openly acknowledged and acquitted because, in their prior justification, they have already been freed from God's wrath (2216:1-12).

The NPP: In the view of the report, E.P. Sanders argues that 2TJ was not a religion of legalism, but of grace, which comes to expression in God's election of Israel. Thus early Christians and 2TJ held to the same basic outlook on grace and works: one "gets in" by grace and "stays in" by obedience (2216:18 - 2217:2).

With regard to N.T. Wright, the report presents Wright as teaching that "justification" has primary reference to eschatological redemption by which God would vindicate his true covenant people before his law-court, defeating their enemies and raising them from death. This picture is reworked around the person of Jesus who received this vindication in the middle of history as Messiah and Lord, demonstrating God's righteousness or faithfulness to his covenant promises (2217:24 - 2218:17).

The report sees justification as primarily ecclesiological for Wright, with faith in Jesus as Lord as the boundary marker of God's true covenant people. Moreover, Wright does not see "justification" as involving "imputation," since "righteousness of God" doesn't refer to an imputed righteousness and biblical language of "reckoning" refers to God accounting sinners righteous on account of faith (2218:18 - 2220:9).

The FV: The report notes Peter Leithart's observation that within biblical categories, the declaration of righteousness that occurs in justification takes the form of liberation from sin and deliverance from enemies (2220:6 - 2221:33).

The report goes on to suggest that Rich Lusk's rejection of the category of positive merit is what leads to his downplaying of imputation of Christ's merit, viewing such imputation as redundant in the context of union with Christ. Moreover, Lusk holds that baptism holds out and communicates union with Christ and all that entails, so that while faith is an instrument on our part, baptism is an instrument on God's part (2222:1 - 2223:9).

With regard to Steve Wilkins, the report briefly notes that Wilkins speaks in a similar way to Lusk, seeing baptism as holding out to us everything that is true of Christ and true in Christ for us (2223:13 - 2224:12).

Comparative Analysis: The report finds Wright's understanding of justification to be incompatible with that of the Standards, particularly in Wright's emphasis on the covenant membership dimension of justification and seeming rejecting of imputation (2224:16-38).

With the FV, the report sees FV proponents as collapsing everything into "union with Christ" and thereby collapsing distinct benefits of that union into one another. The report is especially troubled by the suggestions that justification need not involve imputation of Christ's active obedience and that all the baptized are savingly united to Christ (2224:40 - 2225:26).

Perseverance, Apostasy, and Assurance

The Standards: According to the report, the Standards teach the perseverance of all and only the elect as an outworking of that election and by the efficacy of the work of Christ and the Spirit. Moreover, all and only the elect enjoy the benefits that flow from effectual calling (2225:34 - 2226:26).

The Standards also distinguish between the church visible and invisible. While there are benefits that all within the church visible enjoy in common, only the elect are members of the church invisible and enjoy efficacious, irresistible grace and benefits (2226:30 - 2227:11).

With regard to assurance, the report sees the Standards as teaching the possibility of infallible assurance of perseverance, an outgrowth of faith, inward evidence of grace (including trembling at biblical warnings), and the witness of the Spirit (2227:31 - 2228:17).

The NPP: The report notes that perseverance and assurance are not central concerns to the NPP, but wonders if Wright's distinction between present justification by faith and eschatological justification according to works might raise some difficulties (2228:21 - 2229:17).

The FV: According the report, FV proponents emphasizes assurance in the context of how the Scriptures speak to the entire church visible, the necessity of "covenant-keeping," and the initial inability to distinguish between those who will persevere and those who will not (2229:23 - 2230:15).

On the church visible and invisible, the report sees the FV as substituting the language of "historical" and "eschatological" or, in some cases, as collapsing the distinction altogether (2230:18 - 2231:2).

The report also notes that the FV emphasizes the lost of real grace on the part of apostates so that those who were once elect to the grace enjoyed by the church visible can become non-elect. In light of this, the report sees FV advocates as both overplaying assurance by offering it to all the baptized and undermining assurance by stressing the possibility of apostasy (2231:6 - 2232:10).

Comparative Analysis: The report states that the Standards do not teach that there is a non-differentiated, homogeneous grace enjoyed by both the elect and non-elect in the church visible. Rather, there is a qualitative difference between the efficacious work of the Spirit in the elect and whatever common operations the non-elect may enjoy (2232:16-28).

The report also perceives a difficulty with the FV claim that the Scriptures address their hearers as "elect" in an unqualified way, noting various qualifications introduced in the Pauline writings. The effect here is to negotiate (or deny) the distinction between the church visible and invisible in a way that conflicts with the Standards (2232:30 - 2233:42).

With regard to assurance, the report sees the FV as undermining assurance by claiming that all the baptized are united to Christ and enjoy his benefits, short of perseverance. The report sees such a view as contrary to the Standards and leading easily to either presumption or despair (2234:40-47).

This concludes my summary of the PCA report on NPP/FV.

I hope that this summary will be useful to those who may not have the time to read the report in its entirety. I also hope that I have portrayed the contents of the report fairly and accurately. Any summary involves selection and judgment about what to highlight. If you think I've missed something crucial or struck an inaccurate balance, let persuade me in the comments and I'll correct matters.

In future posts I may try to offer some reflections and analysis.