07 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 4

I've already attempted to substantiate my first two assertions. I will now turn to the third:

[3] The report cites statements that have been either retracted or significantly qualified by their authors.

This is most clear with regard to the views of Wilkins and Lusk, though to my mind there are numerous more subtle ways in which the report evidences this. I will cite two examples and attempt to keep these observations brief.

Wilkins & AAPC

Analysis: As already noted, the report repeatedly states that FV proponents "assign saving benefits ascribed to all members of the visible church, elect and non-elect covenant members alike" or "that all the benefits of the covenant of grace accrue to all who are baptized" or the like (2213:20-21; 2208:6-7).

It seems that these statements primarily rest upon the 2002 "Summary Statement" published by Auburn Avenue PCA, which stated, "By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work" (emphasis mine). Wilkins had made a similar statement in his 2002 AAPC conference talk and in his contribution to 2003 The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons book.

And such a statement is indeed problematic, if it is taken to mean that all persons, simply in virtue of being baptized, actually receive and enter into saving union with Christ and, moreover, all do so in the same way. I did, however, suggest in my previous post that there are ways of understanding Wilkins and the 2002 AAPC "Summary Statement" that, while perhaps confusing, are not so problematic.

Even so, the important point here is that the original 2002 statement was, after further consideration and discussion, withdrawn by Wilkins and AAPC. In its place, the revised "Summary Statement" states, "By baptism, one enters into covenantal union with Christ and is offered all his benefits...Baptism in itself does not, however, guarantee final salvation. What is offered in baptism may not be received because of unbelief" (emphasis mine).

Given the retraction and revision of the original statement, it seems that the report is misleading with regard to what actual issues remain at stake in the FV discussion.

Lusk on Imputation

Analysis: The report, at several points, implies that FV proponents see imputation (or distinguishing any aspects of redemption) as "redundant."

The report states that the Standards "view union with Christ as the umbrella category under which the individual aspects of Christ’s redemption fit. And yet, union with Christ does not make justification or the other benefits redundant" (2214:33-35). Later the report states, "the truly problematic claims of the Federal Vision proponents come when some suggest...that imputation is 'redundant' because it is subsumed in 'union with Christ'" (2225:7-9).

These statements appear to derive from Rich Lusk when he states "my in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant. I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection" (2222:32-34, cited from Lusk's "The Biblical Plan of Salvation" in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons).

Before citing Lusk's retraction, it is worth noting that even in this statement, "redundant" can be understood in two ways. It can mean something like "pleonastic," that is, saying the same thing twice in different ways. Or it can mean something like "exessive" or "superfluous" that is, saying in itself more than is necessary or required.

What Lusk seems to be saying is that, through our union with the resurrected Christ by faith, God reckons to us the verdict he declared over Jesus' life of faithfulness unto death. Thus believers are, in effect, forensically reckoned as having Jesus' life in their account. Therefore, any additional imputation - in particular, some additional transfer of Jesus' moral achievements, occurring outside of or in abstraction from union with Christ - would be giving us the same thing in another way.

I suspect, therefore, that Lusk meant "redundant" in the former sense, but the report seems to interpret him in the latter sense. I whole-heartedly agree we cannot jettison imputation as an unnecessary or superfluous concept in our doctrine of justification without running afoul of the Standards.

Whatever the case, the point is moot since Lusk has withdrawn this statement (which was peculiar to him at any rate).

In his first "Reply" (pdf) to the OPC report, Lusk writes:
I freely admit that the sentence from my colloquium essay, "My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant," is open to misunderstanding. Indeed, I gladly withdraw that statement, and let the rest of the argument stand on its own... Again, in retrospect, I am happy to withdraw the offending sentence about the "redundancy" of imputation. My argument does not depend on that particular way of stating the matter, and perhaps overstates it. I wish now I had been even more explicit that it was specifically imputation-as-extrinsic-transfer...that I was critiquing. (22-21)
Earlier in the same reply, Lusk clarifies his position:
I have nowhere suggested that union with Christ solves every problem or swallows up every other doctrine. Indeed, when I concluded the section of the essay of mine that the [OPC] Report is quoting from, I cheerfully admitted that we may continue using imputation language if we desire, provided we understand imputation as a feature of union with Christ, rather than a piece of our salvation having a discrete structure of its own. So I am not opposed to imputation as a theological category as such. (2)
Given Lusk's retraction and revision of his original statement and his futher clarification, it seems that the PCA report is misleading with regard to what the actual issues are in this discussion.

Effects: The report seems to place both of these retracted statements in the background of its "Declarations."

Declaration 6 states, "The view that water baptism effects a 'covenantal union' with Christ through which each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ’s mediation...is contrary to the Westminster Standards" (2235:27-31). And Declaration 5 states, "The view that 'union with Christ' renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all of Christ’s benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to the Westminster Standards" (2235:23-25).

The "Declarations" appear to imply, therefore, that there are individuals within the Reformed tradition who are actively promoting the idea that baptism brings each and every baptized person into a saving relationship with Christ, even apart from faith, and that imputation is a superfluous concept in light of union with Christ, thereby draining justification of its forensic content.

But, as we have noted, on the most charitable reading, even the statements that serve as background to these "Declarations" are not making such claims. Furthermore, these statements have been explicitly retracted, given the misunderstanding they have fostered.

For the PCA to receive this report would perpetuate the attribution of (arguably misconstrued) statements to authors who have retracted them. While the report's "Declarations" are theologically acceptable to my understanding, their adoption would compound this kind of misinformation.

Moreover, the report and its "Declarations," if accepted, would give the impression that we, as a denomination, do not believe and trust the testimony of these authors when they withdraw their previous statements. This is not how we embody a love that "believes all things" and "rejoices in the truth." Thus, it would seem to run counter to our Standards' teaching on the ninth commandment.

I am concerned, then, that this report could contribute to the further decline of the PCA's theological and spiritual ethos.