Federal Visionism is Still Heresy

faithflessFaith is not Faithfulness: A Very Brief Refutation of the Federal Vision Heresy

Confused and stubborn heretics have often claimed that there is no distinction to be drawn between faith and faithfulness, given that the words faith and faithfulness reflect a distinction in the English language that is not present in either the Hebrew or Greek portions of the Word of God. What they have failed to recognize, however, is that there is a logical distinction between the two concepts that cannot be ignored by an appeal to the biblical authors’ lack of a larger faith lexicon. Other confused heretics claim to recognize that there is a distinction to be drawn between faith and faithfulness, but conflate faith and faithfulness by defining faith as a kind of faithfulness, or by including faithfulness in their definition of faith.

This latter variety of heresy has been propagated by advocates of the Federal Vision heresy. With the “buzz” concerning Federal Visionism having died down, however, men like Doug Wilson are, through the ignorance or deceit of others, treated as brothers in Christ who differ only in regard to specifically Presbyterian ecclesiastical and, therefore, practical doctrines. Sadly, there are sound teachers who, for one reason or another, do not understand, and do not actively seek to understand, why Federal Visionism has been identified as heresy. What follows, therefore, is a simple demonstration of the heretical nature of Federal Visionism.[1] So as to avoid becoming enmired in nuanced but ultimately beside the point discussions, the following demonstration will deal with one doctrinal brick in the edifice of Federal Visionism, viz. Faith.

Faith Apart from Works of the Law

Christianity teaches that justification is by faith alone, apart from any works of the law whatsoever. This entails a wholesale rejection of any concept of faith that, like the Romanist conception of faith, includes works of any kind. Christ has fulfilled the positive demands of the Law,[2] as well as the punitive demands of the Law;[3] man needs only to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ in order to be declared righteous. God “justifies the ungodly.”[4] Therefore, whoever is declared righteous by God is declared so apart from any form of faithfulness, for the ungodly are not faithful but faithless.[5] There is no act of obedience to the Law of God that can be implicitly or explicitly included in one’s conception of faith. If one’s conception of faith includes any act of obedience, any form of faithfulness, any behavior which would nullify one’s unconverted status as ungodly by implying that one is, in any sense, godly, his doctrine is not what Christianity teaches but a perverted, demonic “gospel” which is no gospel at all.

The framers of “A Joint Federal Vision Profession,” sadly, have a conception of faith which contradicts the Scripture’s teaching on justification. In the section titled “Justification by Faith Alone,” they write:

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.[6]

The affirmative statement on justification by faith alone is orthodox; the negative statement, however, contradicts the Scriptures and, therefore, is not.

Faith = Knowledge + Assent + Personal Loyalty?

It must be noted that the negative assertion is incoherent on its face. Persons are loyal or disloyal, not abstract nouns. Faith cannot be personally loyal, but persons of faith can be loyal. Given that the assertion cannot be taken to mean that faith is itself (i.e. ontologically) personally loyal, it can only mean that faith is not merely assent, knowledge, and trust, but also loyalty.  Yet if justification is by faith alone, which it is, then this excludes “personal loyalty” of any kind. God does not justify the personally loyal; he justifies the ungodly, i.e. the personally disloyal. To assert that God justifies those who believe the Gospel is to assert a formally sound belief; to change the meaning of faith (i.e. belief) to include personal loyalty, however, is to cut oneself off from the Christian religion entirely. This is what the Federal Visionists have done. Through an incoherent use of pious sounding language, Federal Visionists have attempted to, on the one hand, identify their doctrine of justification by faith alone as orthodox while, on the other hand, simultaneously implying that faith includes personal loyalty.

It must be further added that the words living and active, given the above mentioned inclusion of personal loyalty into the Federal Visionists’ concept of faith, do not refer to continued trusting (i.e. understanding and assenting) in the Word of God, but instead refer to acts of obedience or faithfulness. The resulting doctrine of justification, more honestly articulated, expresses the belief that saving faith is knowledge, assent, and personal loyalty/living trust. Faith that includes personal loyalty as part of its definition is not faith at all but blatant unbelief in the promises of God regarding the justification of the ungodly.

Concluding Remarks

The book of Galatians very clearly teaches that anyone who teaches another Gospel, a false Gospel which states that justification is by faith and some act of obedience, is under the wrath of God.[7] The Federal Visionists, by teaching that faith is comprised of knowledge, assent, and personal loyalty/obedience to God’s Law are teaching another Gospel, a false Gospel which states that justification is by belief and obedience/faith and works. Therefore, they are under the wrath of God.

This is not to say that there may be many self-identifying Federal Visionists who are ignorant of what their leading teachers believe about faith. These persons may be inclined to the Federal Visionist’s distinct covenantalism, ecclesiology, and praxis. Needless to say, it is not those who are ignorant who are being condemned in this short article. Rather, it is the men who teach this heresy and advocate it, and who lie to gullible orthodox teachers by co-opting orthodox terminology, all the while redefining key terms in an underhanded attempt to nullify the pure Gospel of God (viz. faith). 

What, then, must men do to be saved?
Believe, and only believe that Christ alone has paid the penalty for their sins by dying on the cross. Believe, and only believe that Christ alone was raised from the dead three days later, having defeated death. Hear the Word preached, trust it, and you shall be saved.

Soli Deo Gloria

-h.


[1] If a more thoroughly argued position is desired, several academic works are available on the subject. Here there is only space to mention the following texts:

Engelsma, David J. Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root (Michigan: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2012), 251pp.

Waters, Guy Prentiss. The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (New Jersey: P&R, 2006), 416pp.

Robbins, John W. Not Reformed At All (Tennessee: Trinity Foundation, 2004), 180pp.

Robertson, O. Palmer. The Current Justification Controversy (Tennessee: Trinity Foundation, 2003), 120pp.

[2] i.e. Christ’s active obedience to the Law of God.

[3] i.e. Christ’s passive obedience to the Law of God.

[4] Rom 4:5a.

[5] Rom 1:28-31 (specifically, v.31).

[7] Gal 1:8-9.

Some Notes on Scriptural Epistemology Pt. 7

Semiosis

[This is part seven of an  ongoing series approaching the topic of Epistemology from the Scriptures alone. For the faint of heart, you can find a summary of parts 1-5 here, and part 6 here. For the not-so-faint-of-heart, links to parts 1-6 are provided below the main text of this article.]

§ 1. Semiotics & Semiosis

While linguistics is the study of language – its parts and how they work together in the formation and dissemination of meaning – semiotics is the broader study of how signs in general, and not just verbal or written alphabetic and numerical signs – form and communicate meaning. Umberto Eco, a leading semiotician, states that “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.”[1] Semiotics, though dealing with a very diverse set of communication codes, is nevertheless limited in what it treats as communication codes. What is a communication code? A way of communicating meaning (i.e. propositional content) via some set of material things functioning emblematically. If there is no code, there is no semiosis occurring, for semiosis implies at the least two parties, viz. the transmitter and the receiver. It also implies that the parties involved understand what the material things emblematize.

The importance of recognizing that propositional content can be communicated by calling a person’s attention to an emblem (read: a material object standing for some propositional content) becomes evident in various social contexts. For instance, in baseball catchers and pitchers communicate via a set of finger manipulations functioning emblematically. One extended pointer finger signifies that the pitcher will be throwing a fastball, whereas the extended pointer and middle finger signify that the pitcher will be throwing a curveball, and the extension of the pointer, middle, and ring finger signify that the pitcher will be throwing a slider. This particular example involves a set of material objects (hands and fingers) which have been manipulated (the number and identity of extended fingers) and codified (each manipulation of the specific fingers signifies one pitch and not another) for the purposes of communicating already known propositional content/meaning between the pitcher and the catcher.

Numerous examples can be given, but the above example will suffice, I believe, to explain the basics of what semiotics is and where semiosis can be observed. The point of this introduction to help the reader understand what will follow. Scripture has numerous references to what can be called semiosis (the formation and communication of propositional content via material objects codified for that purpose), and this fits into the larger concerns of epistemology. If knowledge is not acquired by experience proper, does this rule out semiosis? The answer is, obviously, no, for written words are themselves material emblems communicating propositional content. Our sensory apprehension of material objects is not necessary for the acquisition of knowledge. However, our understanding of how material objects are being used emblematically is necessary. We don’t learn from experience, in other words, but we may receive propositional content via our interaction with another who is using material objects as signs constituting a communication code the meaning of which is shared by both parties.

§ 2. The Semiotic Hierarchy

Secular academics fail to properly deal with semiotics because they reject the Word of God. Doing so leaves them without a clear way of approaching any topic, let alone the very broad and involved topic of semiotics. Among the questions that they cannot seem to answer is whether or not some sign systems – say verbal and written – are more effective communicative codes than others – say hand signs, colors, non-musical sounds, etc. Postmodernism is, in some ways, the result of this inability to clearly grasp whether or not written and spoken language is a higher and more efficient means of communication than non-written and non-verbal semiotic codes. Many claim that “body language,” for instance, is more effective than language proper, typically under the influence of postmodernism and evolutionary assumptions about language that view it as a latecomer in the history of semiosis. Needless to say, this kind of thinking about semiotics is not at all in harmony with the Scriptures. As we would expect, language is the clearest means of communication given to man by God, seeing as Christ is the Logos/Word/Discourse/Logic of God. This means that there is a semiotic hierarchy, one which places verbal/written communication at the pinnacle of semiosis, and places all other non-lingual codes beneath it.

In Numbers 12:6-8, the Lord tells Miriam and Aaron that Moses is set apart from all other prophets (at that time) because God speaks with him face to face, clearly, and not in dark/enigmatic speeches. The hierarchical arrangement here is simple:

Clear verbal communication
Enigmatic verbal communication
Non-verbal communication

This is not to undermine God’s non-verbal communication. Rather, it is to identify it properly as subordinate to verbal communication. It should be noted that this is a logical consequence of the fact that God’s own means of communication, between the Divine Persons of the Godhead, is independent of anything other than the three Persons of the Trinity. Material objects do not function as emblems/signs until God creates all things and implements them as an emblem of the basic knowledge of his greatness, creatorship, and eternality. But this general revelation of God is not sufficient for the greater purposes of covenantal fellowship with God, and so special revelation – verbal and written – occurs shortly after God creates all things as emblems of his identity as Almighty, Everlasting, Creator. As Geerhardus Vos notes, “supernaturalism in revelation, though its need was greatly accentuated by sin, did not first originate from that.”[2] The first instance of special revelation is given in Gen 2:16-17, where God establishes the terms of the covenant of works. This verbal revelation supersedes natural revelation (i.e. creation as emblem), binding man to God more intimately than he had been. Non-verbal semiosis is a legitimate means of communicating propositional content. Nevertheless, it is verbal/written semiosis that is at the pinnacle of the semiotic hierarchy.

Other instances which suggest a semiotic hierarchy can be found in Scripture. For instance, when the Lord Jesus did not want his hearers to understand what he was communicating he spoke in parables. This is not the case with every parable text, of course, but one in particular, viz. the parable of the Sower. The pericope is found in the synoptic Gospels,[3] where Christ informs his disciples that “[to them] it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”[4] Without a proper understanding of the symbols used in the parable, in other words, those who heard it would not understand it. This is what marks a distinction between this particular parable and the parable which raised the anger of the Pharisees,[5] or between the parable of the sower and the parable which convicted the enemies of Christ of their hypocrisy.[6] The parable is a verbal form of semiosis, we note, but one in which the objects of the story function as a sign communicating some propositional content.

§ 3. The Necessity of Clarity

It is for this reason that the parable genre is not as clear in communicating propositional content without there being a shared understanding of the elements of the story and how they are to work together to communicate meaning.“Clearer” parables are often introduced by a context shared by the Lord, his disciples, and the reader, which aids the process of interpretation.[7] In other instances, Christ explains the parable’s meaning to his listeners[8] and readers. In each instance, there is understood verbal/written propositional content associated with the symbols used in the parable, as well as the ways in which the symbols are arranged in order to convey particular meanings. What is central to understanding the parables, then, is verbal/written propositional content explaining them. What we see, once again, is that verbal/written semiosis is at the top of the semiotic hierarchy. Beneath it, we find unclear verbal/written semiosis, beneath which, of course, is the sufficient yet rudimentary semiosis of the material universe itself functioning emblematically.

Without the shared propositional content communicated via writing/speech, there is more room for error in interpretation. Moreover, while our Lord used the parable of the sower to distance his readers from his true meaning, as a form of judgment, fallen men often use undefined semiotic codes for nefarious purposes. For instance, the book of Proverbs explains that the wicked man “winks with his eyes, signals with his feet [and] points with his finger,”[9] meaning that he does these things in order to avoid having his wicked intentions and plans understood by his victims.[10] Additionally, without a clear understanding of the semiotic code in question confusion can occur and lead to disastrous consequences.

Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the proper use of spiritual gifts, emphasizes the necessity of clarity for precisely these reasons.

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.[11]

The semiotic hierarchy is mentioned in this text, where musical semiosis (i.e. the distinct notes of the flute and the harp differentiating them from mere noise), aural semiosis more generally (i.e. the notes of the bugle signifying that it is time to prepare for war), and unclear verbal/written semiosis (i.e. speaking in uninterpreted tongues & speaking unintelligibly) are all placed under understood verbal/written semiosis. Without verbal/written semiosis communicating propositional content clearly, these subordinate forms of semiosis are harmful to our physical well-being (e.g. we may fail to prepare for physical warfare) and spiritual well-being.[12]

-h.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


[1] Quoted in Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler (New York: Routledge, 2002),  2.

[2] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 29.

[3] Matt 13:1-17; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15.

[4] Luke 8:10.

[5] Matt 21:33-46.

[6] viz. the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

[7] E.g. Matt 18:10-14 & 21-35.

[8] E.g. Matt 20:1-16; 21:33-22:13; 25:1-30.

[9] Prov 6:13.

[10] cf. Prov 6:12 & 14.

[11] 1st Cor 14:6-12.

[12] For a more detailed exposition of 1st Cor 14:6-12 and its relation to semiotics see Makujina, John. “Forging Musical Boundaries: The Contribution of 1 Corinthians 14:6–11 and Exodus 32:17–18 to a Christian Philosophy of Music” in Artistic Theologian 2 (2013), 51-63.

Basic Ontological Objections to Conditionalism

anat1. Life and Death are not Essential Properties of Being Human

The predication of attributes to a logical subject implies a distinction between the subject itself and that which is predicated of it. This is evident when we are comparing two otherwise identical subjects, as in the case of identical twins. How a is differentiated from b, therefore, underscores the underlying essential identity[1] of a and b. This is true whether we are comparing two radically different genera or two species of the same genus.[2] In the case of humans, the predication of attributes to a and not to b indicates their genetic identity. Thus, the propositions “John is dead” and “James is alive” imply that death and life are not essential properties of being human. What it means to be human, in other words, is not changed by whether life is predicated of James or death is predicated of John. The living human and the dead human are, irrespective of their non-essential differences, one in their humanity. We should not pass over this point lightly as if it were some obscure point of metaphysics. This is a basic logical point to be insisted upon: If we can simultaneously predicate x and ~x of two genetically identical logical subjects, then neither x nor ~x are essential to the ontology of the logical subjects in question. John and James remain human, but the state in which they remain differs.

2. Man’s Essential Attribute is His Intellectual-Moral/Covenantal Relationship to God

If life and death are not essential properties of man, and they are not, then what property or properties are essential to man? Man’s creatureliness is essential to man, for all things other than God have been created by God. Man is other than God. Therefore, we must predicate creatureliness of man necessarily. Yet all living things other than God are creatures of God, thus man must be differentiated from every other non-God thing. And the unique relationship that man has to God among all of God’s creatures is this: Man is the image of God. For man to be, therefore, is for man to be the image of God. Living men and dead men stand in relation to God as living or dead, elect or reprobate, more faithful or less faithful to their vocation as believers or unbelievers invested with creaturely responsibilities and corresponding talents.

As the image of God, man is a thinking, willing, moral agent. Here we must note that man’s responsibilities can be either essential or accidental. Essentially, man must think, will, and act according to moral standards. Accidentally, man must do these things within given boundaries predetermined by God in his Sovereignty. By virtue of his being – as being-in-relation-to-God – man is responsible for his thoughts, choices, and actions. By virtue of his individual existence, man is responsible for his thoughts, choices, and actions under existential conditions unique to him (e.g. the constitution of his body, his intelligence, the time period into which he has been born).

To be a human is to stand in relation to God as his creaturely image bearer; to be the image of God is to be a thinking, willing, moral agent. Man is, essentially, one who stands in relation to God as a thinking, willing, moral agent. Consequently, while man may be either dead or alive, these states have no bearing on whether or not he exists, for they are accidental properties, whereas he is essentially a creature who stands in relation to God as a thinking, willing, moral agent. Now, in killing the wicked God is rendering them dead. Scripture is clear on this point: The wages of sin is death. Since death is merely an accidental property of human beings, and thinking, willing, and engaging in moral behavior is essential to being human, it follows that those whom God renders dead remain thinking, willing, moral agents, for they remain human.

3. God Alone is One in His Being and Attributes        

Theological orthodoxy affirms that God and his attributes are One. That is to say, God is essentially simple, independent in the fullest expression of the term. God is not composed of parts, and therefore he cannot cease to have life, for in not having life he would no longer possess an essential property of his being. Consequently, God would not be God but something else. This is, of course, impossible. Therefore, we rightly recognize that life is not a state of being which God participates in; rather, God is life itself. If God did not have life, he would cease to exist/be God.

However, this is not the case with humans or any other creature capable of living and/or dying. A non-existent thing has no states of being which may be predicated of it; however, if life or death are predicated of a creature, then that creature exists necessarily. What, then, is existence? Existence is the copula between a given logical subject and its attendant predicates. John and James do not correspond to actual humans, but it would self-contradictory to assert that they do not, therefore, exist. For if existence is the copula between a logical subject and its attendant predicates, and John and James are logical subjects, then they are the logical subjects of predication. The proposition “John does not exist” is self-contradictory, for John cannot be and not-be a logical subject of predication at the same time and in the same sense. Conversely, the proposition “John exists” is a tautology that merely states that John is a logical subject of predication.

Every logical subject, then, exists, for every thing exists.[3] The question facing us, however, is how these subjects exist. What properties are essential to their ontology? What properties are accidental to their ontology? John and James are not essentially spiritual creatures made in God’s image, but are essentially conceptual entities which serve as representatives of spiritual creatures made in God’s image. Likewise, John and James are not body-soul composites, but are immaterial-conceptual entities. John and James are real insofar as they are immaterial-conceptual entities; they are the logical subjects of which we are predicating, respectively, life and death. They exist.

3a. Kinds of Existence

The proposition “The wicked will cease to exist” is, on this account, true if and only if the wicked will no longer even be the merely logical (i.e. purely conceptual) subjects of predication. This, however, isn’t possible, for God is omniscient. The wicked, therefore, necessarily will continue to exist as purely logical subjects of predication in the mind of God, at the very least. This “weak” kind of existence (i.e pure conceptuality) demonstrates that the wicked cannot cease to exist, for if they did this would imply that God is not omniscient. Additionally, if God at one point has knowledge of the wicked and later does not have that knowledge of the wicked, then he is not immutable.

-h.


[1] Metaphysically, the essential identity between two subjects is what makes them members of the same ontological set/class.

[2] Metaphor, simile, and analogy are literary devices that seek to reveal otherwise hidden points of univocality, the difference between these devices being their expressive power. “Man is a beast” and “Man is like a beast” express, at root, the same propositional content “Man and beast have x in common.” The metaphor “Man is a beast,” however, seeks to directly identify man as a beast and, therefore, has a richer expressive content suggesting that the difference between man and beast, although real, is overshadowed by man’s beastly behaviors.

[3] For a more detailed philosophical analysis of “existence” as a non-predicate, see “The Relevance of Kant’s Objection to Anselm’s Ontological Argument,” in Religious Studies 47 (2011), 345-357.

A Brief Refutation of “Christian” Physicalism

The physicalist conception of the soul as being supervenient upon neurochemical processes in the brain entails certain logical consequences that place it in direct opposition to the Scriptural teaching regarding man’s salvation. What follows will be a brief enumeration of the logical consequences of a physicalist conception of the soul of man, and a demonstration of how they are in direct opposition to the Scriptural teaching regarding man’s salvation.

If the soul is a byproduct of the body, then changes to the body necessarily entail changes to the soul. Thus, for every positive or negative bodily change there is a corresponding positive or negative soul change. Bodily health, for instance, would correspond to soul health, whereas bodily illness would correspond to soul illness. Similarly, bodily simplicity or complexity would be correlative to the soul states produced by the body. The soul of an infant would correspond to the level of simplicity of the body which has produced it. Inversely, the soul of an elderly man would correspond to the level of complexity of the body which has produced it. For every bodily change, therefore, there is a necessary soul change corresponding to the body which has produced it.

Since the fall of man, humanity has been cursed with bodily weakness, illness, decay, and death. Man also, of course, is born spiritually corrupt, ill, decaying, dead. Thus far, the correlative states of body and soul seem to find corroboration in Scripture. This is not the case, however, for God regenerates sinners. Scripture teaches that man is given a new heart, i.e. a renewed soul that struggles against sin, moral corruption, and spiritual illness. That is not all that occurs in the heart of man, either; man’s mind is renewed by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. This all occurs in man’s heart/soul, moreover, in spite of the fact that man’s body is gradually failing. Bodily decay and death, according to the Scriptures, will not be eradicated until Christ returns.

Yet if the body and soul are necessarily qualitatively correlative to one another, Christian sanctification must correspond to changes in the body of the believer. Wouldn’t this imply that the believer would not die but perpetually exist in tension between life and death? If physicalism is true, to ask the question more forcefully, then why do any Christians even get sick? Wouldn’t Job’s friends be vindicated by such a doctrine, seeing as they attribute Job’s bodily suffering to his sin? The answer seems to be “Yes.”

Thus, if the soul is supervenient upon the body, and bodily states are qualitatively correlative to soul states, and soul states include (a.)being unregenerate, (b.)being regenerate, and (c.)being regenerate and undergoing the processes of sanctification, then (a.), (b.), and (c.) must each have qualitatively correlative bodily states. However, the unregenerate are  sometimes physically superior to the regenerate. Likewise, the regenerate are, many times, weaker than the unregenerate. Thus, physicalism cannot be true, for (a.), (b.), and (c.) do not have qualitatively correlative bodily states.

-h.