Interaction with URCNA Report on FV (4): Failure to Respect Levels of Discourse

The FV Report, under Covenant and Election (p.12), says,

"Without emphasizing the necessary response of faith to the covenant promise, a faith that savingly unites the believer to Christ and His benefits, Barach wants to affirm that all covenant members are individually elect and true beneficiaries of the [sic] Christ's saving work with all of its benefits."

The statement fails to discern the nuances of what John Barach wrote. In his essay entitled "Covenant and Election" in The Federal Vision (eds. Wilkins and Garner), Barach writes of those who apostatize,

"Using our traditional theological and confessional language, we would say that these were non-elect members of the covenant. Using Calvin's terminology, these people were "generally elect" but not "specially elect." Using the language of Scripture, they were among God's chosen people. They were the people God addresses as elect . . . Though He predestined these people to enter His covenant, He did not predestine their perseverance" (p.37).

John here is distinguishing levels of discourse. Typically, in the Reformed confessions and in volumes of Reformed systematic theology, the elect has an eschatological referent, denoting the the specific number of individuals who will occupy the new earth. In light of this referent, those who apostatize are "non-elect members of the covenant." In the writings of John Calvin, who in places distinguishes general election from special election, those who apostatize are "generally elect" but not "specially elect."

John here is distinguishing a biblical level of discourse from theological/confessional levels of discourse. In the theological enterprise this is entirely legitimate. We often define sanctification, for example, as that lifelong process by which the Spirit of Christ gradually renews us and makes us holy. We recognize, however, that when Paul says that "the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife" he's probably using 'sanctification' is a non-theological sense. Life would be so much easier if words always meant the same thing.

John is arguing that Scripture---he's thinking especially of passage such as Ephesians 1 and 2 Peter 2---teaches us to view the covenant community as God's elect. But he has explicitly admitted he is not using the word 'elect' here in "traditional theological and confessional language."

John here is feeding off the insights of Benne Holwerda who wrote a remarkable essay entitled "De verkiezing in de Schrift" in a volume of his essays entitled, Populair-wetenschappelijke bijdragen. On exegetical grounds, Holwerda was inclined to see every instance of "election" or "choosing" in the Bible as historical (and not necessarily eternal). He was not denying the Canons of Dort; he was arguing that the Bible sometimes uses terms differently than the Confessions. Klaas Schilder disagreed with Holwerda but regarded their differences as confessionally intramural.

Interestingly, it's this usage of the word 'election' that we find in the Heidelberg Catechism which defines the church as "community chosen for eternal life" and invites the catechumen to say, "I am and always will be a living member."

Barach writes, "The Heidelberg Catechism links the doctrine of election here with the doctrine of the Church. In a warm and pastoral way, it teaches all the Church's children, those who have been grafted into the Church through baptism (Q & A 74) to confess [this] together with the whole Church" (p.41).

Lastly, apparently John did not "emphasize the necessary response of faith to the covenant promise." In this particular essay I'm citing I see John indicating the need for faith on pp.26, 28, 31, 33, 37, 38, etc.

His entire chapter concludes with (p.39), "Left to myself, I would most assuredly fall away, but in Christ I can be confident because no one who trusts in Him is ever put to shame (Isa.28:16; Rom.10:11). As we look to Christ in faith, as we trust God who speaks to us these words so rich with promise, the Spirit works in us so that we do persevere. There's no room for presumption in God's covenant. The warnings apply to every covenantal member, but there is also no room and no need for worry: "Am I really elect?" We believe God's promise and we live in terms of it."

Here I see John emphasizing the necessary response of faith to the covenant promise.

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