Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Federal Vision Fission

Big doings for the PCA. The highly controversial Auburn Avenue Church, along with its Pastor Steve Wilkins, has left the denomination to join the start-up "CREC". Wilkins has been a major player in the emerging "Federal Vision" movement, also called by his church's name, "Auburn Avenue Theology". This theology was recently found unacceptable by a PCA committee charged to investigate it. I discussed this church here and here, in the context of the use of Creeds.

The vote occurred just two days ago, and the CREC has already updated their church roster. I think they're thrilled to have them as a "mission church" under "oversight".

Here's an excellent critique of this move. I agree with the critique's spirit -- that eschewing your authorities while facing presbyterian discipline to carve out a new denomination that's a more comfortable fit is a dubious proposition. I do not agree with one conclusion, however, "I say give up on the denominational model and just be Christian for crying out loud!" It is impossible to "just be Christian". The word is not self-defining, and there is no authoritative agreement on what it means. See my critique here, noting that this view is its own creed (so arguably making a formless denomination of its adherents).

At any rate, I don't follow the Federal Vision debate too closely, but closely enough to know that this is big news to the people involved. Pray for Unity! At least they waited for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; they missed it by two days.


Principium unitatis said...


Given the "branch" theory, why would it be wrong to start another branch? If branches are fine, then it seems that there is no reason not to make more. But if branches are not fine, then the existing ones are called into question. It can't be both ways, from my point of view. Therefore, I don't see any reason why those (such as AAPC) who hold to a branch theory, should have any hesitation about making or joining another branch. Only if they thought the PCA was the Church that Christ founded, and not a mere branch, would it be wrong (from within their paradigm) to leave the PCA.

That's how I see it. :-)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Kevin said...

Thanks for the kind words about the critique I offered.

One correction--I am not anti-creedal or in the "no creed but Christ" camp and neither are the majority of the writers on our site. We adhere to the standard ancient creeds and councils of the Church in a way similar to that of many Reformed or Anglican brothers.

My comment on abandoning the denominational model that became popular in nineteenth century America was not meant to mean that Christians should abandon legitimate communions but that we should be more concerned with the very kind of unity you and others advocate that transcends each communion because in reality if we are Christ's at all we are His Body together regardless of the human institutions that call themselves "denominations". In a sense, John 17:23 is already a reality given the work of the Spirit in His Church across all the earthly communions. This posture does not nullify legitimate Christian ecclesial government. Instead, properly understood it establishes it.

The contrast is the denominational model that has sectarian adherents that think that their denomination and their churches are the closest to what the Church is supposed to be like and in certain cases actually advocate that their group *is* the Church of Christ. We oppose that vigorously even when it appears in our own Reformed or Presbyterian communities.

In any case, I hope that helps a bit in understanding what we've advocated at our site on this subject.

Kevin D. Johnson

Thos said...


Thank you for the clarification. I hope you can see how I took that line the way I did (I hope this so that you don't find that I was being *too* uncharitable). But I'm glad to learn that you and yours aren't anti-credal.

I am trying to imagine what your vision or ideal would look like in practice. I understand when you say that the contrast to your view is those groups thinking that their communion is *the* church, and that salvation is impossible elsewhere. When protestant (often individual unaffiliated churches) do this, it especially lacks credibility.

Whatever it is upon which unites us in a way that transcends communal boundaries is our real essence. I may be way off, but I see two competing unifying essences in the PCA: 1) Those who feel that their real unity with other Christians lies in being "Evangelical", that is, holding to core belief of Sola fide (plus the habitual trappings of modern Evangelicalism, e.g., music, programs, marketing, etc.), and being prepared to let other differences and disputes go as "non-essential"; 2) Those who feel that their real unity with the denomination is being true to the Reformed Faith, and not being prepared to let Reformed doctrine go as it is "essential". I saw this play out in a few churches we've been to that reacted to Auburn Ave. Some said -- good for them trying to see clearly what the Bible says and trusting that over the fallible confessions of the denomination. Others said -- they're not complying with Reformed confessions and discipline, and that's more important than this novel thought.

It's hard for me to imagine how, in practice, the kind of transcendent unity would be much different from the modern Evangelical spirit. Maybe because I think that's already in practice. I think the majority in conservative Evangelical denominations (at least, the 5 or 6 I've been a part of) are willing to let their formal, written, taught denominational distinctions go, so long as the Evangelical essence is not lost. A quick pulse of that is to imagine how important it is whom our sisters or daughters marry. What's really important? It's often just important that the candidate groom "loves Jesus" and faithfully applies that in his daily life (whatever he believes about sacraments or church polity).

But then you have new invisible denominations. On the main, you have Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants. But at least these benefit (and maybe this is the heart of your advocacy) from not constantly fracturing in their essence.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


I’ve been taking a breather, but didn’t mean to leave this comment alone. Thanks for it. [And after I wrote this, I realized that I ramble and don't really address your critique.]

I’m afraid I don’t know the “branch” theory well enough to articulate it, let alone defend it, though I imagine under your view I’m implicitly a part of it (or under it) by being Protestant. As you know, my denomination formed from the combination of an earlier split group (Southern Presbyterians) and many churches siphoned from mainline Presbyterianism. I think the CREC has a similar background, but I’m not positive (so it may have many former-PCA churches, but perhaps not a majority). It didn’t split solely from the PCA, but showed up anew with its views of theology and ecclesiology, and then accepted takers from closely-related denominations. From what I know, the URC may be a better recent example of a pure branching from the CRC (and they would say that the CRC effectively branched away from orthodox Reformed views when they started to ordain women, or some time before then).

And, I think these people have all been well intentioned, and were not content to sit by and watch others pull the church into disrepute. As a conservative-hearted person I’m torn. It would be conservative to hold to the old values that have been time honored. It would be conservative to remain under present authorities. I see these cases as truly challenging, and try not to sympathize with those involved.

I say, to the shock of many that know me, that I would have been a Loyalist in the days of the Revolution. I don’t see the sought-after end as justifying spurning the British authorities and leading to such bloodshed. “Give me liberty or give me death” needs important qualifications. So I guess I would err on the side of staying with my denomination, but remaining as faithful as possible to what I believed to be the Truth, from within. In other words, I’d prefer to get booted for the sake of Truth than to take off. So I probably don’t like the branch theory.

Isn’t the theory that all denominations (whether one calls them branches or not) contain some admixture of error (per WCOF)? And if they fail to meet some fundamental test (i.e., maintenance of Word + Sacrament), they are not even a "branch" of the "visible" church? In this way, there should be only a modest number of branches, close enough to the trunk as to make differences unimportant (Note: the Zwinglian "memorial feast" church does not textually meet the Reformed test for visible church).

I think this does allow for calling the existing visible churches into question. But I would think a particular church like AAPC had made that enquiry when they started or joined the PCA in the first place. And once the determination that Branch X is most faithful to the Truth has been made, (from my conservative perspective) great deference should be given to that branch’s teachings (not a daily de novo consideration of all its teachings).

Part of my problem, if I have one, is that somehow I let myself reconsider everything I’d been taught about church de novo. That’s where I became more individualist than I ever was before. I let canon and sola scriptura get under my skin, and all deference given to my authorities and my confessions went out the window. Calvin said that as long as the true fundamentals were done (Word + Sacrament) it would be great sin to leave a church. I should just be content. I would defend myself though by saying that I did give deference to some high standard, and that standard was overcome. Now I just wrestle with how to put the pieces back together again. I’m branching on the inside, or maybe fracturing. As always, I appreciate your prayers.

Peace in Christ,