Internet chat about the Federal Vision frequently goes off the rails because someone asks the loaded question, “Is it heresy?” Someone else invariably chomps on the bait and that someone’s alleged ignorance, lack of charity, lack of discretion, etc. takes the spotlight rather than the propriety of the FV. I do think the question, “Is it heresy?” isn’t as far fetched as many assume. Most confessional Reformed bodies have either handed down opinions against it or commended committee reports to the churches filled with trenchant critique of FV theology. The best of these reports is probably the one produced by the OPC in 2006. Denominational tolerance of the FV is limited to possibly the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (a young body formed to accommodate a novel take on Reformed theology). The PCA is boiling over the FV, but that’s only one of many internal controversies.

Here is how I once offered a corrective to the false dilemma that often derails debate over the FV:

My own view, avoiding the pitfall of “is it, is it not heresy,” is that it is a movement that has unnecessarily divided the Reformed churches through provocation, obfuscation and novel and bizarre formulations. Of course FV proponents say some good things. That’s not the issue at all. It’s the attacks upon the Cov. of Works, the Invisible/Visible church, the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and the positing of a bifurcated concept of Election (decretally elect/ covenantally elect subject to apostasy and hell fire). That’s just a partial list. I tend to think the FV has at best offered us a wobbly ride in a zealous effort to remake the wheel.

The Christian Curmudgeon takes a stab at tracing the origin of the original “Truly Reformed.” The post makes for some light, diverting reading. What I find more interesting is how the current use of the term TR reflects the sad divisions within our Reformed churches. The reason there are those “bad guys” called TR’s is that we have all these different kinds of progressives who are going to push their agendas no matter what. Too often conflicts in the Reformed communion are reduced to a backward reaction of hateful throwbacks and hardliners, or dare I say, fundamentalists. But what if we question the assumption that it’s inherently righteous to move the ancient boundary markers? Is it possible that the Reformed churches are divided because we have men who passionately seek acceptance or at least a beachhead for various novel practices and doctrines? Of course!

So, taking a cue from the The Christian Curmudgeon, I’d like to define a TR via negativa. You’ve probably been called a “TR” if you stand athwart the road of history (à la Bill Buckley) and yell “STOP!” at the following agenda items:

1. The Federal Vision: The most recent revisionist program to take the Reformed churches by storm. The movement burst on the scene with the 2002 Auburn Ave. Pastor’s Conference with calls for a retooling and recasting of Reformed Theology. Yes, you heard that right, even though proponents often claim a strong historical pedigree for FV positions. Proponents are likely to call anyone a grumpy TR who isn’t comfortable with FV attacks on the Covenant of Works and their revisions of Justification, Election and Baptism. I’m still scratching my head about the popularity of the FV; why should Calvinists be excited about a movement that redefines the perseverance of the saints out of existence?

2. Paedocommunion: This movement is closely related in my mind to the FV even though they only partially overlap. Paedocommunion has been around longer than the FV, yet it is a relative novelty in Reformed history. In fact, John Calvin rejected it (Institutes, 4.16.30. So much for being more Calvin than the TR’s). Our Reformed fathers were surely aware of the notion but the historic confessions do not support it, especially the Westminster Standards. I’m still convinced that waiting until children can “examine themselves” is solid Biblically so it bothers me that some passionate paedocommunionists like to stir up discontent. I have observed that the zeal for paedocommunion in some circles leads not only to charges about grumpy TR’s (again) but a whole other level of attack. If you reject paedocommunion you starve God’s babies, excommunicate your children, teach your children to doubt and (worst of all?) sound like a Baptist (gasp!). In many ways the paedocommunion debate saddens me because it won’t end well. Certain paedocommunion proponents have already made it clear that they are very disappointed that the Reformed churches haven’t already joyfully adopted the practice. The goal of getting very young children to the table and bypassing that whole “let a man examine himself” thing will inevitably end in power plays. Either paedocommunionists create their own denominations (like the CREC) or they will push through revisions to church orders that aren’t really helpful (if they have the patience for that sort of churchmanship). Meanwhile, impatient paedocommunionists undermine the confessional nature of the church as they openly and loudly chafe under Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 171, 174 and 177.

3. New School/ New Life: I welcome the historians to correct me but I think the New School and New Life trajectories in American Presbyterianism are a good catchall for movements within Reformed bodies to quietly set aside doctrinal rigor and embrace experimental worship, revivalism, social activism, church growth techniques and broad evangelicalism. Here, you’re basically a grumpy TR if you’re uncomfortable with the definition of “Reformed” becoming so broad and diffuse that it doesn’t really mean anything.

Speaking of terms that don’t mean anything, I’d differ slightly with the Christian Curmudgeon.* The problem with the term TR is not that it lacks defining significance. The problem is that term is really a bogeyman; everybody who’s “hip and cool” in the Reformed tradition is defining themselves in opposition to TR’s. But, if TR’s are the ones holding firm on the historic Reformed distinctives found in our confessions of faith, who is really being divisive?


* Though I think he’s right in saying if it means anything, it means a hardline conservative.