IS DOUGLAS WILSON A GOOD CALVINIST?
by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chilling Parallels: Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism
Debate on Slavery The Wilson Story
Wondorous Trinities Everywhere
Update, June 14, 2007: Identifying nine specific heresies, the 35th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America voted by vote of approximately 1,350 to 50 to declare that Wilson's "Federal Vision" is contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the standard for all Calvinist and Presbyterian belief. See the committee report at
Except for the issue of the Trinity, I will defer to other conservative Presbyterians, and I will begin with the authors of Not Reformed at All, by John W. Robbins and Sean Gerety, published by the Trinity Foundation in 2004. This book is a thoroughgoing critique of Wilson’s theology and it succeeds in proving that Wilson’s views are fundamentally at odds with the Westminster Confession, the primary Calvinist statement of faith.
Robbins and Gerety (hereafter R&G) generally characterize Wilson’s writing as containing “a facial glibness and an adolescent smart-aleckness” (17), and they specifically charge him with rational incoherence, eclecticism (i.e., mixing several theologies into one), misinterpreting scripture, neglecting to define basic terms, and false accusation.
In reading Wilson's Reformed is Not Enough one is struck by how liberal he is when defining what it is to be a Christian. Here are his very words: “A Christian. . . is anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by an authorized representative of the Christian church”(19). R&G take the three New Testament passages that Wilson uses to support this doctrine and demonstrate conclusively that they do not support this incredibly broad definition that does not even require continued belief in basic Christian doctrines.
Wilson insists that “unbelieving Christians” are still “covenantal Christians” (cited in R&G, 46). To put his opposition to Luther and Calvin in the starkest opposition, Wilson states that “the Bible says that baptism saves” and sides with Roman Catholic theologians in denying that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone (R&G, 82) R&G make the further observation that when Wilson speaks of justification by faith, he does not qualify it with the essential Reformation "alone."
Another basic doctrinal problem is Wilson’s talk about corporate souls and collective salvation that is part of his “federal vision.” This is the sort of theology that would excite a Hindu Vedantist but not an orthodox Christian. As we have heard so many times from Wilson, democracy (one person/one vote) and individualism are the great errors of modernism and the Enlightenment. Theologically, this means that there are no grounds for an individual coming to God by himself or herself to be born again. Using Wilson’s own metaphor, we are no longer individual eggs but all those who have been baptized are an indistinguishable part of God’s Great Omelette. R&G (74) note that Wilson completely ignores the organic analogy that pervades the New Testament in which each individual body part maintains its identity in the Body of Christ.
In an advertisement in our local newspaper during the slavery booklet debate, Wilson's church describes itself in the following words: “Christ Church walks in the path of historic Christian Trinitarianism, drawing insights from Presbyterian (primarily), Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, all of which stand against the ingrown secularisms of our day.” I submit that this is theological eclecticism, not a denominational affirmation. Indeed, Wilson's Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals is not a recognized presbytery but a loose confederation of independent churches that will never bring Wilson to account for his actions or his mix-and-match theology.
The title of Wilson's book Reformed is Not Enough also gives away the denominational game. If you read the foreword Wilson has a rather grandiose plan to reform not only all of Christianity but the Reformed schools as well. In the early days Wilson had always described himself as a "New Testatment Christian," and knowing his personality as well as I do, I was very surprised that he decided to join a denomination. It is already clear to me that, true to form, he wants to run his own show and that he will not be bound by anyone else's theological limits.
The Christ Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City, a congregation of the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), has criticized Wilson for "false reports," "misrepresentations," and defending himself with "sophistry and word games that should be an embarrassment for elders of a Church of Christ." The issue was Wilson's intervention in the disciplining of a member of the Salt Lake Church. See the letter at http://www.tomandrodna.com/notonthepalouse/ under "Douglas Wilson and Credenda Agenda."
I was also gratified to read the report on the Federal Vision by the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (a member of the conservative Presbyterian Church of America [PCA]). Here is their conclusion: “We do believe that many of the positions being advocated by proponents of the [Federal Vision] are confused and confusing, are unbiblical, are contra-confessional, and are (as [Jonathan] Edwards put it) ‘of a pernicious and fatal tendency.' As such, we are ready to declare some of these distinctive teachings to be outside the bounds of acceptable diversity in this presbytery, and we trust also, in the PCA.” Report of the Presbytery of the Mississippi Valley at http://www.msvalleypresbytery.com, MSVP04@msn.com, p. 12 in the pdf document.
It was also significant to learn that the Mississippi Presbytery is calling for an investigation of Wilson’s colleague Steve Wilkins in the Louisiana Presbytery of the PCA. This group has cleared Wilkins of heresy charges, but the June, 2007 vote of the PCA (see above) will perhaps force the Louisiana PCA to reconsider. Wilson is not a PCA member, but his top theologian Peter Leithart at Christ Church is PCA. We keep hearing rumors that Wilkins loves Moscow and they he will eventually take his churches over to Wilson’s own denomination.
On June 22, 2002, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of the United States (RPCUS) declared that Wilson’s and Wilkins’ teaching “has the effect of destroying the Reformed Faith through the introduction of false hermeneutic principles; the infusion of sacerdotalism; and the redefinition of the doctrines of the church, the sacraments, election, effectual calling, perseverance, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, and the nature and instrumentality of faith. . . . We therefore resolve that these teachings are heretical.”
Finally, in my debate with Doug Jones on the Trinity, I have come to the conclusion that his views are not consistent with Calvin’s, who is very much part of the Western tradition that has always preferred to err on the side of modalism so as to preserve the unity of God. I’ve tried in vain to get Jones to clarify his position, but it appears that he would rather support the Eastern Orthodox view that emphasizes the three persons, but flirts with Tritheism in its inability to defend divine unity. See my essay and debate with Jones at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/trinity.htm.
In his book The Federal Vision Douglas Wilson suggests that the husband-wife relationship must be based on the correct view of the Trinity. Wilson rejects the Arian view because it subordinates the wife to the husband as the Arians subordinate the Son to the Father. Sabellianism is equally unacceptable because it allows for only nominal distinctions among the persons and the family structure would fall to the temptation of egalitarianism and feminism (p. 16). One interesting implication of Wilson's analogy is that the children are analogous to the Holy Spirit.
While rejecting the Arian view, Wilson still insists on the authority of father in the family that would suggest a similar hierarchy in the Trinity as well. In his essay Jones gives equal weight to each of the persons and there is no notion of any ranking of the Father over the Son or the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Wilson's analogy, just as Jones' own language, suggests an independent will for each of the persons of the Godhead as well as the family, undermining once again Judeo-Christian monotheism and Augustine's insistence that God has "a single action and will," and once again implying tritheism.
I was so pleased to read that the authors of the Mississsippi report with my critique of Jones’ view of the Trinity. Here is a new paragraph that I’ve added to my on-line essay at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/trinity.htm:
Jones and his colleagues are promoting a view called the "Federal Vision" among conservative Presbyterians and it is receiving much critical reaction. Indeed, some critics have declared that the Federal Vision stands outside the Calvinist tradition. With regard to the Trinity some leaders in the Presbyterian Church of America are concerned about a less than robust view of divine unity and question whether it can be preserved as simply the "covenantal relationship among the three persons." (p. 12)
In a footnote these authors suspect that there is little or no ontological grounding to their Godhead. In particular they refer to "discomfort with the phrase 'nature of God'" on the part of Jones' colleague Peter Leithart, and they note that another proponent of the Federal Vision decries that the traditional language of "essence" and "substance" is "unwholesomely indebted to Aristotle."