Doug Wilson and Covenant Objectivity

The Federal Vision speaks a lot about the objectivity of the covenant.  What does that mean? Doug Wilson puts it somewhat crassly when he says, “It can be photographed and fingerprinted.”[1] For Wilson, the fingerprint is baptism.[2] Baptism, though an external sign, is like that of circumcision.  It demonstrates membership. Now, the question everyone ought to be asking is the obvious.  Is baptism the access point?  Is it what is required for membership? To put a point on it, does Wilson hold to baptismal regeneration?  The answer is yes and no. We should not be surprised. What is more, this won’t be the last time we see this kind of language game being played by Wilson. 

So, what does Wilson mean? Well, he does not mean that the baptismal font is like a big syringe filled with water that has been zapped from on high.  Wilson is clear on this. He says, “We deny any ex opere operato efficacy to the waters of baptism.”[3]  And yet, one wonders how he can say, “Contrary to Warfield, baptism is efficacious.”[4] He even points out that the Westminster Confession teaches baptismal regeneration![5]  He even quotes Randy Booth saying, “Every baptized person objectively enters into covenant with Christ, just as every man and woman who weds, objectively enters into the marriage covenant.”[6] When examined by his denomination, Wilson said in answer to the question, “Does “baptism” save?”, “Yes, baptism saves in the sense described in Scripture.”[7]

So, in what sense does baptism save if not in a Roman Catholic sense? To understand Wilson, we need to understand his view of covenant objectivity.  For Wilson and all FV proponents, the covenant is viewed as a relationship that can be objectively observed, like your marriage. The chief significance of covenantal objectivity is that a premium is placed on the visible, external and tangible, which is why Wilson is uncomfortable with the Confession’s distinction between the visible and invisible church.[8] Thus, the phrase the objectivity of the covenant means “that membership in the covenant with Christ is objective and visible.”[9] That objective and visible is relational. 

Now, with this relational aspect in mind, Wilson says we need to see the question of the sacraments (i.e. in what sense baptism saves) not “as a kind of ontological and metaphysical question, we have to see it as a covenantal and relational question.[10] What is more, “Grace is a covenantal relationship between persons.”[11] So, how does baptism fit? According to wilson, the sacraments are “performative acts” in this relationship between the Triune God and those in the covenant.[12] Thus, says Wilson, “The word trinitarian…refers to the ultimate covenantal and personal context of all sacramental acts.”[13] Therefore, agreeing with Peter Leithart, Wilson affirms, “a Trinitarian framework leads to a strong affirmation of baptismal efficacy that is as far as possible from anything ‘magical’ or ‘sacredotal.’”[14] To put it another way, the water is not an agent as in Roman Catholicism.  Okay, well and good.  But what is?  Is it the Trinitarian "performative act" of which the minister is ancillary?  Does that act bring the child into union with Christ? If so, how?  Wilson is far from clear. 

What is more, the question arises, and shows Wilson’s confusion in all of this, does the covenant unite the infant to Christ or does baptism? In question 74 of his examination, Wilson says, children “are federally holy, and therefore Christian, to use the language of the Westminster Directory.  That is why we baptize them.” Thus, it seems that Wilson has substituted the covenant for water. Covenant is the agent of change. However, just a few questions later, in question 79, Wilson says, “Water baptism joins every infant to Christ by covenant…” Here it seems that added to covenant is what Wilson calls covenantal actions, which unite the child to the Christ.[15]

The implications of this view are obvious. It is clearly not Confessional. It is steeped in the Federal Vision’s view of covenant objectivity with all the other accompanying problems.  However, there is an interesting implication I want to mention. Wilson, when examined by his church was asked, “If the daughter of one of your parishioners desired to marry a committed Roman Catholic, would she be marrying “in the Lord?” (Q 57) Wilson said, “She would be marrying inside the covenant.” And in his answer to question 58 he said, “Rome is still covenantally bound to Jesus Christ…” This comes directly out of Wilson’s view of covenantal objectivity. There are no nominal Christians – not even Roman Catholic ones! There are faithless Christians just like there are faithless husbands, but they are still Christian like the husband is still a husband. Thus, the Roman Catholic may be unfaithful but he is still a Christian.

Mr. Wilson, I have not read or listened to you much at all. However, I have heard that your specialty is marriage and family. I can’t comment on whether that is true or not.  However, you are not a theologian.  In fact, your theology is dangerous. Your rhetoric is divisive, which is ironic considering your view of covenantal objectivity.  Therefore, it would be my hope that, for the welfare of the reformed churches, you would return to the drawing board, and come again, so that we may hear you further on these matters. Your current formulations are unacceptable.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

Update 8/20/2022: Wilson's book, To a Thousand Generations (1996), has the same emphasis on covenantal objectivity (cf. 34ff).


[1] Doug Wilson, Reformed is Not Enough (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2002), 21.

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] Ibid., 99.

[4] Ibid., 105.

[5] Ibid., 103.

[6] Ibid., 106.

[7] Douglas-Wilson-Federal-Vision-Controversy-ExamAnswers. Question 84.

[8] Cf Wilson’s article in The Federal Vision (Wilkins and Garner, ed, 2004) on pp. 263-269.

[9] Examination, question 50.

[10] Wilson, Reformed is Not Enough, 91.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 91.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 97.

 

Jeffrey Stivason

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