Guy Waters's The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology:
Continuing the Conversation

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

Over the past several years – since a 2002 conference entitled “The Federal Vision” hosted by Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana – there has been a growing discussion in conservative Reformed circles concerning a constellation of issues raised by that conference.

These issues are not in themselves new, involving instead topics of perennial Reformed discussion such as the nature and practice of the Christian sacraments, the relationship between biblical and systematic theologies, the precise contours of a scripturally rooted covenant theology, how best to explain the free offer of the Gospel, how we pastorally apply a Calvinistic understanding of election, how we interconnect various aspects of soteriology, and so on. Any student of the history of reformational dogmatics will quickly recognize these as the dog-eared pages of past conversation and contention.

For that reason, as far as I can discern, there is nothing absolutely “new” in any of this discussion, although (to shift metaphors) various well-worn threads of Reformed thought have come together in new combinations and inter-weavings. And this has been much to the interest and distress of various observers and participants who had perhaps assumed some of these threads and patterns were over and done with.

More often than not, I suspect (and shifting metaphors again), the discussion has had the effect of unearthing and shaking up the tradition’s existing fault lines that had lain dormant in the wake of liberalism’s assault upon orthodoxy, the hegemony of modernity and its assumptions, and the dominance of one particular variety of evangelical piety.

But now liberalism has itself worn thin and, in many cases, crept back toward orthodoxy in a post-liberal turn, thereby no longer appearing as the threat it once was. An ever more self-conscious modernity has arrayed its weapons against its own pretensions in a post-modern critique, sending theologians back to their pre-modern roots and pushing them together ecumenically with those brothers and sisters who share those roots. And the dominant evangelical piety has come to recognize its complicity with various culturally contingent and situated norms, pressing that piety thereby towards the resources of a wider catholicity that embraces the church visible and sacraments as integral to spiritual formation.

If the present context is anything like how I have described it, then it should be no surprise that we are now encountering various attempts to speak the Gospel afresh from within the resources our Reformed tradition – whether the so-called “Federal Vision” or other missionally-minded approaches. And any attempt to translate a rich, complex, and varied tradition into a new context, or to communicate it in a way that can be heard and received in that context, will naturally be fraught with dangers and liabilities.

Thus, there is a need for ongoing critique and constructive dialogue in order to discern boundaries and to assure that we hold onto what is important and non-negotiable, while nonetheless evincing a broad flexibility and willingness to take risks for the sake of mission. With regard to what has been called the “Federal Vision” that critique has come on quickly and strongly, sometimes profitably and in dialogue, sometimes negatively and with accusation, and sometimes a mixture of both. If we are to continue to mature and grow up into Christ, then we must continue to be willing to engage in discussion, and even vigorous debate, in order to learn from, sharpen, and correct one another.

One recent contribution to the discussion is The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology (Presbyterian and Reformed 2005) by Guy Prentiss Waters, which is largely critical in nature. I would not label myself a proponent of the so-called “Federal Vision,” since it is difficult to define exactly what that even is. And Waters himself doesn't really attempt to define it, except to identify several figures, some broad topics, and a bit of genealogy. Since, however, some of my own interests and concerns intersect importantly with that conversation, Waters has included several of my writings in his critique. While Waters's comments are more accurate and careful than many, nevertheless, in the following I briefly respond to those criticisms and hope thereby to nudge the course of conversation onward and toward greater clarity, at least inasmuch as it concerns what I’ve expressed.

As Guy Waters discusses my own views, he focuses on three areas:
[1] covenant theology
[2] sacramental efficacy
[3] baptismal regeneration
In the case of [1], the focus is an article of mine (based upon a series of blog entries) on the topic of the covenant of works in the Reformed tradition. Waters doesn't find much to criticize and the endnotes he appends balance out any real criticism he hints at. He suggests, for instance, that I use the term "grace" equivocally, whereas his own endnote quotes how I actually distinguish different senses of the term "grace" (though I argue that such distinctions are analogical rather than purely equivocal). Waters ends up complaining that "there is a decided emphasis in [my] discussion upon the similarities and continuity between the two covenants" (i.e., the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, 53).

Well, such criticism is hardly damning. One might equally complain, for instance, that a speaker who himself believes in a social safety-net nonetheless talked too much about the benefits of free markets when he spoke to an audience of socialists. Likewise, when speaking about covenant theology to an audience in which Klineans have a major voice, one will tend to emphasize continuity, without at all denying discontinuity. Perhaps Waters and I have differing judgments regarding the overall drift of conversation concerning the covenant within conservative Reformed circles and how best to enter that conversation against the backdrop of historic doctrine. But such differing judgments hardly seem grounds for inclusion among viewpoints that he concludes are "poisonous" (300).

In the case of [2], Waters begins with my very brief summary on the sacraments and the "solas," where I suggest that an emphasis on the real and true offer of Christ in the sacraments takes a central role in a Reformational understanding of salvation (241-2).

Waters suggests that baptism "offers no truly objective assurance of salvation" over against my point that faith receives and rests upon Christ in the sacraments (as much as in the Word), which I urged as part of the context for a Reformational doctrine of assurance, with it's emphasis upon what Christ has done for us, outside of us. In context, however, I am speaking of the ultimate ground of our assurance, which is, I should think, Christ himself as he is offered to us in the promises of the Gospel, received by faith. And note the context here is faith, not merely the bare fact of baptism taken in the abstract, apart from trusting Christ as he is present and offered to us in the sacrament. This last point, it seems, is often missed and bears underscoring.

I go on to note, "I am not in any way denigrating the fruit of a lively faith, as that issues in a sense of God's presence, works of love, and so on." Rather, I was attempting to contextualize more subjective assurances flowing from faith's fruit within the antecedent context of faith alone in Christ and his completed work. Otherwise, it seems to me, we end up leading people to trust in their own self-regarding works, feelings, and spirituality in a way that is detached from what Christ has done apart from us on our behalf.

Waters also criticizes what I say about sacraments and the "solas" by noting that the Westminster Confession of Faith (14.1) sees faith as ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word (242). This is an odd response given that he had just quoted me speaking of "Word and Sacraments" together (which I do repeatedly throughout the text in question) and that the context is one of the objective offer of Christ that is received by faith and not how faith is wrought. After all, assurance has to do with the increase and strengthening of faith.

Waters likewise states, "To say, with Garver and without qualification, that 'baptism saves' is not at all required by the Reformational 'solas' and is likely counter to them" (242). The odd thing here is that he had just quoted my own statement in which I do qualify the biblical teaching that "baptism saves" with the affirmation that "the Christ who is offered to us in the Gospel has graciously promised to be found and received in baptism only by faith" (emphasis added). That is to say, baptism doesn't save irrespective of faith any more than a lifeboat saves the shipwrecked apart from their climbing in. Nonetheless, I should think that any ordinary person would affirm without misunderstanding that "lifeboats save lives."

In the case of [3], Waters treats two writings of mine, my "Brief Catechesis on Covenant and Baptism" and "Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession 28.6" (242-246). In both cases Waters refers to earlier, un-revised versions of these writings, even though I informed him over a year ago that these essays had been extensively revised in order to account for the helpful comments and criticisms I’ve received from others. His knowledge of the revisions is apparent from the endnotes which quote extensively from the revised texts and do so, oddly enough, even where the revision undermines the point Waters is making in his main text.

It seems to me that if the intent of a work of critical theology is one of studying the peace and purity of the church, edifying the faithful, and brotherly correction, then one would do well to quote and interact with one's brother at his best and most clear, noting any sign of openness to clarification and ongoing discussion and change. To relegate a revised text to the endnotes (particularly when the earlier text is no longer readily available) suggests an intention not so much of correction and edification as proving a foregone conclusion or portraying another in an uncharitable light.

At any rate, a few comments.

Waters quotes my "Brief Catechesis" as saying that "by baptism, everything that belongs to Christ and to his Church in him, is ours" (242). By "ours" here I intended, as the revised version makes clear, "held out and offered to us," present and given over to us in a way that is not the case with the unbaptized. I also immediately go on, even in the unrevised version, to say that the "only possible proper response" to this offer "is to turn in faith to God" to receive and live out what has been offered to us. As Waters himself quotes, I maintain that publicly and solemnly entering God's covenant in this way through baptism only accomplishes salvation for us "if by faith we live in God's promise already applied to us" (emphasis added). Apart from faith, the promises of the Gospel, whether offered through the Word or through the sacraments, cannot ultimately save us and, indeed, will prove an occasion for greater judgment should the offered grace be spurned.

The next several paragraphs of Waters's discussion are unhelpful inasmuch as they quote rather selectively and again retain the wording of the unrevised edition of the text, which I subsequently sought to clarify. If a reader of Waters's book were to examine the endnotes where Waters quotes my revised text, she would find that a number of points are significantly cleared up and elucidated.

Waters makes a couple specific criticisms.

First, in response to my puzzlement at the notion of baptism "creating faith," Waters suggests the conclusion that I am "skeptical that grace should be described in ontological categories," instead preferring "relational categories" (243-4). I'm not sure what to make of this. I would not, in fact, want to oppose "ontological" to "relational" as Waters implicitly does, and instead I see relations and ends as partly constitutive of ontology. Moreover, I want to share the Reformational emphasis on grace as primarily "divine favor," though I would certainly extend the term "grace" also to what the Spirit personally effects, various gifts, and incorporation into the life of God, all of which one might also categorize as "ontological." Besides, it's not as if Waters himself wants to say that baptism "creates faith."

Second, in light of my unrevised statement, Waters finds it "difficult to escape a doctrine of baptismal regeneration in its traditional sense" (244). I'm not entirely sure what Waters understands to be the "traditional sense" of "baptismal regeneration." Later, Waters seems to take that traditional sense to exclude the possibility that regeneration might not be "tied to that moment of time wherein it [i.e., baptism] is administered" (246) and to entail that "grace is spiritually all those who receive the sacrament of baptism" (245). But, even on a Roman Catholic understanding of "baptismal regeneration," the regenerative effect of baptism may be delayed until a later point or indeed indefinitely if an "obstacle to grace" (e.g., positive unbelief) is present, seemingly negating thereby Waters's "traditional sense" of the notion. Moreover, patristic, Lutheran, Anglican, and other views introduce various further qualifications. Thus, it is not at all clear to me what Waters even means by "baptismal regeneration" in its "traditional sense."

Third, Waters goes on to suggest that my "doctrine of perseverance and apostasy Arminian" inasmuch as I suggest that one can possess "the reality of redemptive grace" and then lose it (244). This, however, is mistaken since, with Calvin and the wider tradition, I maintain that unbelief does nothing to alter or impair the nature of the sacrament as such and, moreover, I distinguish between the offer or giving over of redemptive grace, on one hand, and its reception by faith, on the other – a distinction I make all the more clear in the revised version of the essay in question. The difference here is the difference between giving a gift, packaged in paper and ribbon with the recipient's name on it, and the recipient unwrapping the gift in gratitude, putting it to use. Or, to use Calvin's image, it's the difference between water poured out upon a rock that has no opening by which to receive it and water poured out so that is absorbed and taken in.

Waters also ties his criticism here to my discussion of God's faithfulness and the faithfulness of Christ as something signified and sealed in baptism. But my point was no different from that of Westminster divine Stephen Marshall when he preached on baptism before the Assembly and Parliament:
I say therefore, that in every Sacrament, the truth of the Covenant in itself, and all the promises of it are sealed to be Yea, and Amen; Jesus Christ became a Minister of the circumcision to confirm the promises made unto the Father, and so to every one who is admitted to partake of Baptism, according to the rule which God hath given to his Church, to administer that Sacrament, there is sealed the truth of all the promises of the Gospel, that they are all true in Christ, and that whoever partakes of Christ, shall partake of all these saving promises; this is sealed absolutely in Baptism. (A Defence of Infant Baptism)
The sacrament, therefore, in what it truly offers, is an expression of divine faithfulness and the faithfulness of Christ in whom all God's promises are "Yes and Amen."

Waters concludes his discussion of my writings by a brief interaction with my essay "Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession 28.6." While Waters's comments intersect with my argument at several points, they never substantively take up my argument in its full scope, much less in its revised form. As a thorough response to Waters, I can only commend reading the actual essay in question and judging my argument on its own terms.

Nevertheless, I can give a few remarks to help contextualize what I argued.

First, in the original, unrevised version of the essay, I had largely assumed an understanding of how the term "baptismal regeneration" could be deployed and taken up in a positive way among Reformation traditions, building on the church Fathers and over against Roman Catholic apologists. As I received feedback from various people who had read the essay, I realized that such an understanding could not be simply assumed, particularly in the wake of 19th century developments, even though the original essay did already clarify matters through several historically Reformed examples of theologians who spoke in such terms. Thus my revised version begins with an extensive explanation of how I am and how I am not using the terminology against the backdrop of Reformed dogmatics. This revision ought to have helped Waters avoid some of his misconstruals, but evidently did not do so.

Second, Waters construes the basic gist of my argument as the following. According to Waters, I argue that the phrases "those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ" and "also the infants of one, or both, believing parents" (28.4) determines the scope of "the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto" (28.6), so that baptismal grace (including regeneration) "belongeth" to professing Christians and their children.

My central argument all along, however, had been that, according to the Confession, when the sacrament is rightly received, the grace of baptism is not only offered, but also actually "conferred, by the Holy Ghost" through the instrumentality of baptism and that this grace includes regeneration, whether of infants or adults. It's really that simple and ought to have been evident to Waters from my opening paragraphs. Of course, there are various qualifications and caveats to be added, but the core affirmation is straightforward enough.

Third, in response to my suggesting that the Confession allows some latitude as to the precise meaning of "regeneration," Waters contends that it is " imagine the Westminster Divines confessionally defining regeneration in any other terms than the spiritual renewal that accompanies effectual calling" (245). The revised version of the essay clarifies this further, but it is not at all difficult to imagine that the divines might have allowed some latitude of definition. Against the backdrop of 17th century English and Continential Reformed dogmatics, "regeneration" could be used in a number of different senses, for instance, with reference to both the "seed and root of regeneration" in infants (prior to effectual calling through the word) as well as "the increase and reappropriation of regenerating grace" in adult converts (who are already regenerate believers). While these various senses all involve "spiritual renewal," their relationship to effectual calling through the word and the administration of baptism is complex and disputed within 17th century divinity.

These several points will suffice, I think, as a response here to Waters's criticisms of my essay on the Westminster Confession. For more detail, the revised essay itself can be consulted.

I will conclude by saying again that Waters's description and critique is more accurate and more careful than many I've seen. Nonetheless, his treatment of my writings bears witness to a general methodology and form of argumentation. In light of that, while criticism and interaction are always welcome, I am doubtful that Waters's critical treatment will make much positive contribution to current discussions, though I hope it will occasion better communication on the part of those criticized, including myself, as well as help Reformed believers work through genuine disagreements.

The first step in any constructive engagement, however, is to read carefully and charitably, to present the views of others in their best possible light, and to imaginatively place oneself into the thought-world of others. Failing in those tasks, a critique is unlikely to gain much traction, except perhaps with those already inclined to accept its conclusion.