Guy Prentiss Waters – The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (P&R Publications, 2006)

For quite some time now I have been wanting to get my head around covenant theology (also ‘federal theology’ – in a word it is a theological framework that sees covenants as the central principle for understanding all of God’s relationships with people). Covenant theology is a big part of Reformed and Presbyterian theology and also of a number of theologians who have influenced me, particularly Sinclair Ferguson.

When wanting to work through an issue of theology I try to look for a book that contains multiple perspectives so that I can weigh up the biblical evidence for each case. So I really love Zondervan’s Counterpoint series and IVP’s identical Spectrum series, which both have a range of evangelical writers presenting their view and responding to the others’. Unfortunately neither has released a book on the topic of covenant theology. The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology seemed to be the next best thing – though written by a single author, it compares two competing conceptions of covenant theology.

I did not enjoy this book nearly so much as I had hoped. It was a careful, clear and comprehensive analysis of the Federal Vision (FV), but not what I was looking for.

The purpose of the book is to demonstrate that the FV  is unorthodox according to the standards of the Reformed Church. It is published by P&R [Presbyterian & Reformed] Publications, and its intended audience is limited to those with Reformed theology. So, Waters does feel it is sufficient to demonstrate that the Federal Vision is not in full accord with the Westminster Standards, rather than defending these standards against the Bible. Indeed, it almost felt like the Bible was used to help interpret the Westminster Standards rather than vice versa.

The FV (also known as Auburn Avenue Theology, Shepherdism, monocovenantalism, neonomism) is a perspective that emerged a decade ago in a range of American Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Some of the distinctive features are in its:
theology of the Godhead, where its intrapersonal relationships that seen as covenantal
soteriology*, which sees atonement as limited to all those in the covenant (the regenerate and unregenerate baptised) and works as the means of justification
sacramentology, which emphasises baptism as the means by which one enters covenant with God (not an outward sign of an inward reality)
– and ecclesiology, which equates the unity of believers with salvation

In some ways, the FV is similar to the New Perspective on Paul*, and FV writers have been sympathetic to the NPP. Don Carson has described the NPP as emphasising ecclesiology over soteriology – something that is also true for the FV. So, salvation is secured by being part of God’s people (possible because of God’s grace in the atoning work of Christ), with less of a focus on individualistic faith. Although I have not read all that widely on the topic, I have found criticism of the NPP to be a bit overblown and I think it has offered a helpful critique of highly individualistic theologies. The FV, however, does seem to go too far.

The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology was impressively thorough, but not particularly gripping. Waters divides the book into chapters addressing different issues, such as ‘Covenant and Biblical History’, ‘Covenant and Justification’, and ‘Covenant and Election’. Each of these chapters is structured around a description and critique of what each FV author has said about the issue. The benefit of this is that individuals are not misrepresented in their views on one area simply because they belong to the FV camp, but it does make the book repetitive and slower than need be.

There are a couple points I have come away thinking about. Firstly, the view the relationship between the Mosaic and new covenants. FV proponents claim that the primary distinction is not the means of justification (both require covenantal loyalty and offer the forgiveness of sins, achieved by substitutionary atonement with a sacrifice), but the objects of justification (Jews and Gentiles). I do think the FV’s perspective on justification amounts to a denial of monergism and sola fide* in its emphasis on works and sacraments as means of justification, but I do think it does a better job of showing the continuity between the covenants.

Secondly, there was a helpful description of the Lord’s Supper by Leithart (an FV proponent). He claims that the efficacy of the sacrament is not in the metaphysics of the bread and the wine, but ‘the whole action of a common meal’. It is something based in the unity of the church as a corporate body. I had never really come across that before.

But, the main outcome for me at the end of this book is that I need to go away and probably read two more books on covenant theology (one for and one against). If you know of any good ones let me know.
I am thinking Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology and, perhaps, Renald Showers’ There Really Is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology.

* Sorry for not explaining what may be unfamiliar terms – hopefully Google can help you out

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