Roman Catholicism & Federal Vision

Posted: December 24, 2008 in Theology

This exchange occurred in the paper “Fr. James V. Schall on The Openness of the Christian Mind” at the Claremont Institute.

Ken Masugi:  How might Evangelicals appreciate your book and the arguments you have made over the years? You emphasize that ‘Revelation is addressed to the intellect, and on its own terms.’ Evangelicals may not see their faith in this same way. This was one of the problems Sarah Palin ran into during her campaign.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.:  Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Evangelicals seek reason in the public order, whatever they call it. The astonishing number of Evangelicals who have become Catholic is almost always the result of the sudden realization that a) the Logos has a meaning and b) that faith seeks understanding, even while remaining faith. Faith is not an abandonment of reason. Faith always presupposes someone who sees, not someone who believes.

It would be interesting to see the proof for Schall’s claim that evangelicals who convert to Romanism do so because they’ve discovered reason.  I find this hard to believe.  In fact, if you were to look closely, you’d find that “reason” had little, if anything, to do with it.  Most conversions I’ve known or read about are based on emotion rather than reason, e.g., nostalgia, tradition, authority, liturgical and aesthetic romanticism, admiration for the Pope, the perceived prestige of Roman Catholicism in modern culture, dissatisfaction with “Protestant” culture, or with some of its representatives, and so on.

In most cases, for a Protestant to convert to Roman Catholicism is a surrender of reason, not a return to reason.  Of course, I have nothing against anyone who chooses Catholicism.  This is a free country (in America), but please, leave off the patronizing explanations for such conversions.  People “convert” for a variety of reasons (or emotions), and discovering that “the Logos has a meaning” is probably the last one on the list, if it even shows up.  The fact is, reason only comes after conversion to Roman Catholicism, and usually in response to Protestant criticism.  Thus to the extent that an “Evangelical” discovers that the “Logos has a meaning,” it usually stems from post-facto apologetic requirements.

Another source for conversions to Roman Catholicism is the “Federal Vision.”  This movement began in the 1970s with Protestant Norman Shepherd, who denied justification by faith alone.  It was further developed by Protestant James B. Jordan in the early 1980s, then picked up afterward by Douglas Wilson and many others.  Much of this involves nostalgia for medievalism, for Englishness, for stained-glass windows, for smells and bells, and all that sort of high churchy thing.  In short, it tends to appeal to one’s inner snob.  On the other hand, anything smacking of American culture is looked down upon as “baptistic” although strangely enough, anything favorable to neo-confederacy is welcomed.

The Federal Vision (or FV) is sold by its proponents as a solution to the problem of assurance, as well as a way of avoiding “baptistic” errors.  With respect to assurance, the FV starts from a quasi-Kantian premiss that we can’t know the noumenal (God’s decree) but only the phenomenal (being within the covenant).  Hence, FV says not to worry about whether you’re elect, just worry whether you’re in the covenant.

While this sort of “objectivism” might have an appeal to those who are fearful and in need of some empirical data to shore up their assurance, it eventually leads to Pharisaism.  In the FV view, assurance ultimately boils down to a mechanical, empirical, or external test.  Merely reflect upon your membership in the covenant and this will show you that you are elect, not like all those sinners outside the covenant.

Obviously, if you are basing your assurance on the mechanical and empirical, then it becomes very important that you don’t do anything to jeopardize your place in the covenant.  That means you can never criticize the gatekeepers of the covenant (elders or ministers), and you must submit to them abjectly, even if they’re wrong, trusting that God will ultimately set things to right.  As an early spokesman for this view once said, thinking for oneself is “rot.”  If a minister tells you to buy blackwall tires for your car rather than whitewall tires, you have to do it.  Submission to this authority is not optional, at least according to FV.

The result of this type of thinking is timidity in the laity, and pride and arrogance among the clergy.

It does no good to point out that FV advocates do not follow their own advice.  They never listen.  Rarely, if ever, do they submit to anyone who might threaten to undermine their own power.  And when an FV advocate finally realizes he’s being inconsistent, he’ll either rejoin the Reformed faith, or swim the English Channel to Anglicanism, or swim the Tiber to Rome.  Sadly, all too many have chosen the latter route.   For critiques of the Federal Vision, see:

I would argue that it was not just the Protestant rediscovery of the authority of Scripture that led to the break with Rome at the Reformation.  It was also the Protestant rediscovery of reason that contributed to the break with Rome, which was at the time, and still is, mired in superstition and corruption.



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