Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision- Part Two

Bahnsen’s writings laid the foundation for the Federal Vision, particularly in the areas of the sacraments, conditional perseverance, apostasy, the mono-covenantal structure of Scripture, and the law.

Bahnsen is guilty of two errors in his work on theonomy. First, he established a new paradigm for the law by connecting the believer’s obedience to the whole Old Testament law in exhaustive detail. Second, he emphasized obedience to the law so strenuously that he often comes close to the dangerous Pelagian spectrum of errors. Theonomy in Christian Ethics often makes it seem like the believer can actually fulfill all of God’s laws.

 

In my earlier article on theonomy, I laid out the evangelical beliefs of Greg Bahnsen which are fundamentally opposed to the Federal Vision. Some people wrote that I proved in that article that theonomy as taught by Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision are opposites. I appreciate that those people see the inconsistencies between what Bahnsen taught in the places I quoted last time, but I want to assure them that the inconsistencies are endemic to the theonomic views of Bahnsen himself.

There are other views of Bahnsen that are brought out in his work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Some of Bahnsen statements in that book laid the foundation for the Federal Vision, particularly in the areas of the sacraments, conditional perseverance, apostasy, the mono-covenantal structure of Scripture, and the law. Theonomy in Christian Ethics is a really a textbook for the case of Bahnsen vs. Bahnsen.

On one side, there is Bahnsen, the evangelical scholar. On the other side, there is Bahnsen, the theonomist with all the attendant inconsistencies that are entailed in that system. Bahnsen never moved as far as the Federal Vision people of today (and I am not convinced he never would have), but some of his teaching in his book pointed in the direction of the FV. It gives me no joy to write these things because I was a friend of Greg Bahnsen and learned much from him concerning evangelical theology. Yet, when I was writing this chapter for my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, I did what every good writer does; I consulted the primary resource material. I carefully reread Bahnsen’s book and saw things that I had missed when I was a young seminarian/minister who was toying with this subject.

Bahnsen’s View of the Objectivity of the Covenant[1]

In Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Greg Bahnsen made several statements which laid the foundation for the development of the Federal Vision theology. For instance, he emphasized the objectivity of baptism and the sacraments apart from any mention of the subjective work of the Spirit:

Similar words must be spoken with reference to Christian baptism. We who were buried with Christ in baptism are spiritually circumcised, signifying the cutting off of the sinful human nature (Col. 2:11-13); being raised with Christ we must seek those things which are above, in accord with godly holiness (Col. 3:1-17). The washing of baptism should have the effect of cleansing and sanctifying us (Eph. 5:25 f.) or else the baptism is meaningless for us. Our baptism must have the effect of causing us to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3 f.), which means that sin (the transgression of the law) should no longer reign in our lives (Rom. 6:5-13).[2]

Bahnsen stressed the effect that the washing of baptism should have in our lives. He totters between saying what the washing of baptism does and what it should do. He says that baptism spiritually circumcises us, raises us with Christ, and should have the effect of cleansing, sanctifying, giving us newness of life, and breaking the reign of sin in our lives. Bahnsen does not go as far as the Federal Vision proponents concerning water baptism, but neither does he emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. Reformed theologians have always said that these graces are ours only through real baptism, the baptism of the Spirit. Bahnsen’s position on baptism laid the foundation for the Federal Vision proponents adopting objective, external, and mediate views of the sacraments.

In another passage, Bahnsen emphasized obedience to the commandments as necessary to being built up in the means of grace and rightly partaking of the Lord’s Supper:

None of the means of grace can have the result of building us up in the faith if we do not strive to be obedient to the commandments of God. Disobedience to the law makes our prayer abominable, prevents us from understanding the word, makes us unworthy partakers of the Lord’s supper, and is a forsaking of our covenant obligation in baptism.[3]

Bahnsen’s statement is altogether too legalistic and non-evangelical, putting too much emphasis on obedience to the exclusion of saving faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. In comparison, Larger Catechism #171 stresses evangelical graces as being the root of preparing us to come to the Lord’s Supper:

They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance, love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desire after Christ, and their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of those graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

There are several statements in Bahnsen’s book which lay the foundation for the erroneous position on perseverance which is prevalent in the Federal Vision. The Scripture and the Reformed confessions always speak of perseverance as a certainty for believers. Bahnsen and the Federal Vision define perseverance as a work which the members of the covenant community must perform in order to remain in good standing and to continue to be blessed. Perseverance defined in that way is not certain. It is at most a hypothetical possibility and a responsibility. Yet, certain perseverance is the teaching of Scripture and such perseverance is guaranteed by God’s preserving grace. Here is what Bahnsen said about perseverance:

Under the New Covenant, no less than the Older, continued blessing rests upon perseverance of the saints (Col. 1:22 f.; Heb. 3:14; 6:11f.; Phil. 3:13f.; etc.).[4]

The passages referenced by Bahnsen actually teach that God’s saints will persevere because of the work of grace in their lives. For instance, Philippians 3:11 says, “I press on that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”  Christ first laid hold of Paul and the Apostle’s perseverance must be seen in that context. Certain perseverance is based on God’s preserving grace which is prior to and greater than man’s perseverance. Certain perseverance is guaranteed by God’s grace.

In another passage, Bahnsen writes about the necessity of persevering obedience:

Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law.[5]

In this passage, Bahnsen makes no distinction between the persevering obedience to the law by Adam in paradise, Israel in the Promised Land, and Christians today. Yet, Adam did not have the grace of certain perseverance that is given to all believers in Christ. If he had possessed certain perseverance as believers possess it, then he could not have fallen into sin. As the Shorter Catechism #13 says:

Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from that estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God (emphasis added).

The believer is never left entirely to the freedom of his own will in the matter of his perseverance, as Adam was. The grace of perseverance is a gift of God and the additional gift of God’s preserving protection is afforded every believer. Adam in paradise did not have those graces, and was no match for the subtlety of the Devil in his day of trial. The perseverance of the believer cannot be equated with the trial of Adam in the Garden. By doing so, Bahnsen set the stage for wrong views by the Federal Vision on salvation, the law, the covenant of works, and perseverance.

The possibility of losing our covenant blessings through disobedience is enunciated by Bahnsen in another quote:

If a man disobeys God’s law, he has broken covenant with God, and his covenant sign loses its value; this is just as true under the New Covenant as under the Older.[6]

It is not difficult to see how Bahnsen’s view has morphed into the view by several Federal Vision proponents that unfaithfulness to the covenant causes covenant members to lose their elect standing in Christ, etc. Yet, God’s covenant promises are not conditioned on the obedience of the members of the covenant; otherwise they would surely fail. As Calvin comments on Jeremiah 32:40:

Thus he again shows that perseverance, no less than the commencement of acting rightly, is the gift of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. . . It hence then follows, that the whole course of our life is directed by the Spirit of God, so that the end no less than the beginning of good works ought to be ascribed to his grace.[7]

Concerning the law both before and after the fall, Bahnsen says:

The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious. Subsequent to salvation the law shows us how to respond to God’s grace and love.[8]

In the context of this quote, Bahnsen emphasizes that the law reveals the redemptive work of Christ, but his caricature of the law’s work is too optimistic. He does not distinguish between the grace of God before the fall and after the fall, particularly its effect on the unbelieving conscience. In comparison, Calvin represented the law very differently:

Because observance of the law is found in none of us, we are excluded from the promises of life, and fall back into the mere curse. For since the teaching of the law is far above human capacity, a man may indeed view from afar the proffered promises, yet he cannot derive any benefit from them. Therefore this thing alone remains: that from the goodness of the promises he should the better judge his own misery, while with the hope of salvation cut off he thinks himself threatened with certain death. On the other hand, horrible threats hang over us, constraining and entangling not a few of us only, but all of us to a man. They hang over us, I say, and pursue us with inexorable harshness, so that we discern in the law only the most immediate death.[9]

What then are Bahnsen’s fundamental flaws with respect to the law? His emphasis on being obedient to the law in exhaustive detail brings about a possible conceit that such obedience is actually possible for the believer. The whole of Scripture testifies otherwise, as Calvin so eloquently stated above. The moral law is the rule for the obedience of the believer, but no Christian can perfectly fulfill it. To the unbeliever, the law is a fearful threat of impending doom. Thus, Bahnsen is guilty of two errors in his work on theonomy. First, he established a new paradigm for the law by connecting the believer’s obedience to the whole Old Testament law in exhaustive detail. Second, he emphasized obedience to the law so strenuously that he often comes close to the dangerous Pelagian spectrum of errors. Theonomy in Christian Ethics often makes it seem like the believer can actually fulfill all of God’s laws. Thus, there is very little emphasis in theonomy on the threatening aspect of the law which Calvin described above.

Conclusion

There is certainly more that can be written to demonstrate the connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision and I hope to do that in another article. Yet, some people will never be satisfied no matter what I write on this subject, particularly those theonomists who are also vociferous opponents of the FV. God willing, next time I will show some of those connections between theonomy and the FV.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

[1] This is an excerpt from my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

[2] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1977), 181.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 188.

[5] Ibid., 203.

[6] Ibid., 188.

[7] John Calvin, A Commentary on Jeremiah, Volume IV (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 217.

[8] Bahnsen, Theonomy, 235.

[9] Ford Lewis Battles, trans., John T. McNeill, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), 352.