The MVP Précis on the "Federal Vision":
A Response to Its Referencing My Writings

S. Joel Garver
Assistant Professor, La Salle University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania




The Ad Hoc Committee of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (MVP) of the Presbyterian Church in America was convened to study issues of current dispute and discussion within the Reformed tradition. The committee issued its final report on 1 February 2005, a report that was received and approved by the MVP Presbytery. That report is available in PDF form on the website of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi.

It is fitting for there to be such committees inasmuch as church courts exist, in part, to "resolve questions of doctrine" (BCO 11-4) as part of the church's ministry to "all baptized persons" who by their baptisms "are entitled to the watchful care, instruction and government of the church" (BCO 6-3).

The MVP Report consists of [1] a four-page cover letter that includes a list of 17 views they have declared out of confessional bounds, [2] revised and corrected versions of the various précises included in their earlier preliminary report, and [3] a list of questions that could be used by a Presbytery for the theological examination of candidates for the ministry.

There is much worthwhile reading in the Report and its conclusions deserve careful attention. I would even venture that, in general, the 17 views it declares out of confessional bounds, if interpreted charitably and in the correct sense, do point towards the kinds of confessional boundaries that we rightly want to maintain.

Nevertheless, the precise wording of those 17 views, it seems to me, needs further reflection and clarification. In light of that, I've provided elsewhere some initial thoughts of my own that may, perhaps, help move the conversation forward.

My present focus, however, lies elsewhere. An examination the MVP Report, particularly its "Précis on the 'Federal Vision'" will reveal that materials that I have written--somewhat to my surprise--are referenced several times in its footnotes. A few comments, therefore, may be in order, despite my general distaste for controversy.

[1] I would like to begin by noting that I have never identified myself as a proponent of a theological movement called the "Federal Vision." I did not attend any of the conferences associated with that name, did not participate in the Knox Seminary colloquium devoted to issues raised by those conferences, and did not contribute to the book that was entitled The Federal Vision. That is not to say that I necessarily reject any or all of what that supposed movement maintains, but it is not my movement to defend.

I am, instead, a proponent of classically Reformed theology as an accurate, rich, and pastorally useful interpretation of holy Scripture. Since sacramental views seem to be a particular point of disagreement in the midst of all the recent unpleasantness, I would suggest that my own views regarding the sacraments of the Gospel are not, as far as I can see, materially divergent from the views of many other recent and contemporary Reformed figures such as Michael S. Horton, Richard Muller, Pierre-Charles Marcel, W. Robert Godfrey, and Leonard J. Vander Zee, among others.

I have never had any intention other than to make clear the abundant grace of Christ as he comes to us, clothed in the promises of the Gospel and in the power of his Spirit. It is this Christ who remains present and offers himself to us in his sacraments of baptism and the holy Supper, just as much as he does in his Word as it is read and preached, as well as within the communion of saints. In all these places, then, we receive and rest upon Christ alone, only by faith, in order that we might all the more enjoy his salvation--the forgiveness of sins and the renewing power of his Spirit.

This is simply the Gospel in all its precious promises and resplendent fullness as that has been understood historically within the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.

[2] To support the statement that some persons "appeal to the writings of the sixteenth century Reformers in support of their views" (lines 7-8), the document cites my "Early Scots Reformed on Baptism" (note 3). I assume the implication here in the Report is that an exclusive appeal to 16th century Reformed figures would be one-sided and fail to account for later doctrinal developments. Fair enough.

Nevertheless, the referenced essay on the Scots Reformed cites not only several 16th century Reformed figures, but also includes discussion of Robert Boyd of Trochrig and John Forbes of Corse, both of whom would qualify as 17th century figures. In addition, this is a single essay and should be read in the wider context of my other writings and presentations. That larger context will reveal that my interests and study have focused on 17th century figures (such as Nathaniel Stephens, Daniel Rogers, Thomas Taylor, John Davenant, Cornelius Burgess, Samuel Ward, Francis Turretin, among others) as much as 16th century ones.

Moreover, by drawing attention to how some authors appeal to "the writings of the sixteenth century Reformers" in distinction from later developments, the MVP Report implies a too facile dichotomy between the 16th century Reformers and 17th century theologians, a kind of discontinuity that is usually more typical of neo-Barthian historiography. The important work of more recent historians such as Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, Lyle Bierma, and others suggests that 17th century Reformed theology largely represents an organic development of trajectories already set in the 16th century.

[3] The "Précis" also states that "Many regard the Reformed thought of the British Puritan and American Presbyterian traditions to have capitulated to the Enlightenment, what is termed Revivalism, and what is termed baptistic theology" (lines 8-10). I am not mentioned in this connection, but would want to distance myself from the kind of overly simplistic characterization of Puritan and American Presbyterian traditions that the Report cites, as if one could describe either tradition in such monolithic terms. I am, in fact, deeply appreciative of many Puritan divines and very much indebted to my own American Presbyterian heritage as formative of my own fundamental outlook.

[4] To support the claim that "proponents deny the traditional doctrine of the covenant of works" (line 21) the Report cites my essay "The Covenant of Works in the Reformed Tradition" (note 11; one should observe that my cited essay remains an incomplete draft, particularly with regard to the notes). This citation, however, is perplexing.

The essay in question is one in which I attempt to explain and, in fact, defend the historic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works over against figures such as Torrance, Kendall, Shepherd, Kline, and others who, to my mind, perpetuate misrepresentations and distortions regarding the contours of that doctrine. Thus I find the Report's citation of my essay in this connection to be at the very least confusing, if not outright misleading.

[5] The report also states, in connection with the same essay of mine, that I "have expressed patent discomfort with the terminology of 'works' in connection with the first covenant" (note 11). The Report makes no further quotation from the essay in question, so it is difficult to know precisely what the Report has in mind. The citation, therefore, is unhelpful.

Moreover, the citation misrepresents the contents of my essay. Throughout the essay, I do in fact consistently use the terminology of "covenant of works" some sixty times and I must say that I do so without the least qualm. In addition, I go on to defend the use of such terminology against detractors, drawing attention to how the terminology actually functioned in the 17th century in order to clear it from the kinds of misunderstandings to which it has been subjected in recent years.

In yet another respect, therefore, it appears that the MVP Report has portrayed my writings inaccurately.

[6] The report cites my "Brief Catechesis on Covenant and Baptism" as an illustration, it seems, of the views of those who "understand the doctrine of the sacramental union to mean that the sign and the thing signified invariably accompany one another" in such a way that "baptismal efficacy is affirmed...of every recipient of the sacrament" (lines 42-44).

If the report means to say that I believe that all the baptized truly receive Christ and all his benefits as those are offered in the sacrament of baptism, then this is most certainly not the case. I do not believe that every baptized person receives Christ and all his benefits as those are offered by the sacrament of baptism. Receiving the sacrament, for instance, in hypocrisy and unbelief will not benefit the recipient unless he later comes to faith.

If the report, however, means to say that I believe that what is signified and sealed by the sacrament of baptism is truly offered to all in its administration, then I do, in fact, believe that. But, as far as I can see, this is simply classical Reformed doctrine, consistent with the Westminster Standards.

[7] Finally, when the report quotes me saying, "we baptize in order that the one who is baptized be made regenerate" (see note 25 for the full citation), this statement needs to be taken in context.

Given the manner in which I go on to explicate "regeneration," I thought it was clear enough that I was not using the term "regeneration" in the narrow and technical sense that has come to be linked with effectual calling and initial conversion (and thus would logically precede faith). It is, nevertheless, the case that Reformed theology has quite often held that covenant infants are baptized with a view to their future effectual calling through the Word, expecting in faith that God would already begin to work in the life of our children in keeping with God's baptismal promise and seal. Such a view, contrary to what the MVP Report implies, has never been regarded as assigning baptism a place "in the doctrine of the Christian life that denigrates the place of preaching as the instrument of conversion" (lines 46-47).

Nonetheless, in the immediate context of the essay cited, I intended to use the term "regeneration" with regard to [1] the ongoing ends to which baptism is directed ("regeneration" as mortification of sin and newness of life), [2] what is given sacramentally and conditionally in baptism (rather than what is received absolutely by those who have faith), and [3] the ecclesiastical dimensions of baptism (as a sign of admission among God's visible new-creation people). All of these are, it seems to me, standard Reformed ways of speaking of the sacrament, at least with regard to the Reformed theology of the 16th and 17th centuries with which I am most familiar.

I should also perhaps note that when I wrote in that way, I was speaking in terms of what is ordinarily the case and normatively expected, as one would speak in Christian catechesis to those who profess faith. As such, I do not see how my manner of speaking is different from that of the Apostle Paul when he said to his professing Christian readers, "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death" (Rom 6:3) or "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal 3:27).

In conclusion, then, it seems to me that, with regard to every reference to my writings, the MVP Report has misconstrued and misrepresented what I intended to say and communicate. Whether that miscontstrual is a result of carelessness, zeal, miscommunication, or what-have-you, I cannot say. Nevertheless, the Report presents itself as attempting to provide "full public documentation of its descriptions in order to vindicate the accuracy of the report" (cover letter, line 98).

Despite this attempt, however, with regard to my writings at least, the Report's documentation only serves all the more to underscore what appear to remain significant shortcomings with regard to basic accuracy. Moreover, in light of these shortcomings, nothing in the Report can be seen accurately to suggest that my theological views are out of accord either with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards or with the wider Reformed tradition.