In the first instalment, I laid out some of the commendable things about Doug Wilson. In particular, we noted that he has a high view of Scripture, holds to a Calvinistic view of salvation, is an able practitioner of presuppositional apologetics, is socially conservative, and his writing is witty. But obviously there is more to say. He holds to several theological positions which are erroneous, some seriously so. I’m not going to interact at length with each of these positions. In most cases, I’ll just supply some resources which will do far more justice than a short blog post.
Wilson is a self-professed postmillennialist. This means he believes that the world will be successfully evangelized and there will be a Christian golden age before the return of Christ. He signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement which says, “We affirm that prior to the second coming of our Lord Jesus, the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Closely related to this, Wilson is also a partial preterist. This position holds that many prophecies of the New Testament were already fulfilled in the first century. For example, the book of Revelation (and Matthew 24) is mostly about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, rather than about the return of Christ at the end of the age. Even though I believe Wilson’s eschatology is erroneous, I state that with the caveat that it can be held by those subscribing to the Reformed confessions. For critiques of postmillennialism and preterism, see Kim Riddlebarger’s A Case For Amillennialism.
Generally speaking, theonomy refers to a set of beliefs regarding God’s law (Theos + nomos). But in Reformed circles the term has come to have a more particular meaning. It is usually understood to refer to a belief that the civil and judicial laws of the Old Testament are still binding upon governments today. Doug Wilson is a theonomist, but he claims to be a “Westminster theonomist” or “general equity theonomist.” This is referring to Westminster Confession 19.4 which says that the Old Testament civil and judicial laws are no longer binding, except “further than the general equity thereof may require.” At first glance, this sounds reassuring – Wilson just follows the Westminster Confession. Wilson presents his position as something distinct from theonomists like Greg Bahnsen. However, as an OPC minister, Greg Bahnsen affirmed the Westminster Confession too. He too affirmed what the Westminster Confession says about “general equity.” He was a “Westminster theonomist.” What we need to do is look at particular instances to understand what someone means when they say they’re a particular kind of theonomist.
For example, what about child abusers? In his 1999 book Fidelity, Wilson argued that, on the basis of Old Testament penalties, a child abuser should receive the death penalty (p.85). I don’t think Greg Bahnsen would have disagreed. If so, where’s the difference?
For critiques of theonomy, see Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. Barker & Godfrey; “Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism” by Richard Aasman in Clarion 43.5-7 (March, 11, March 25, April 8, 1994)
Paedocommunion, as held by Doug Wilson, teaches that all baptized children should automatically participate in the Lord’s Supper. There is no need for a profession of faith. There is no need for an ability to understand the meaning of the sacrament. Baptism is the only qualification for admission to the Lord’s Supper. It should be noted that this view is outside the pale of the Reformed confessions. Belgic Confession article 35 says “no one should come to the table without careful self-examination.” Inexplicably, Doug Wilson claims to subscribe to the Belgic Confession. The two are incompatible. Paedocommunion is not a confessionally Reformed position.
For critique of paedocommunion, see Children at the Lord’s Table: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion by Cornelis P. Venema.
With this one I’m stepping into the biggest minefield of all. The issue here has to do with what Wilson believes about the nature and activity of justifying faith. I’m not going to come out with guns blazing and assert he’s a heretic. The grave problem here, however, is that he lays open the possibility with his ambiguity on the matter. If he’s not a heretic, he’s sloppy, inconsistent, and unclear. When it comes to justification, that’s dangerous enough.
As mentioned earlier, Wilson signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement. While he no longer wishes to identify as FV, he hasn’t renounced anything from that Statement. The Reformed doctrine of justification states that faith’s activity as the instrument of our justification is restricted to resting, trusting, and receiving. The Joint Federal Vision Statement, though, was compelled to add that faith is never alone in the act of justification and that it must be a “living, active, and personally loyal faith.” What defines being Reformed is the confessions and there one will search in vain for any mention of our faithfulness, loyalty, or obedience in relation to what faith does as the instrument of our justification. These works have always been kept separate, lest the impression be given that God requires anything more than resting, trusting and receiving for the sinner to be justified.
Let me give some examples of Wilson writing in the same vein as the Joint FV Statement. In this 2004 blog post, he wrote that “works is the animating principle of faith.” This is true in general terms, post-justification, but if faith’s activity in justification includes works, we’re back to Rome. In this 2008 blog post, he wrote even more strongly that “life and obedience are essential characteristics of the instrumentality of faith.” That was part of an ongoing blog debate with Lane Keister. Here Wilson was arguing that “obedience” is merely responding to God’s command to believe, also known as evangelical obedience. But if, as I understand it, part of the beef of the Federal Vision folks and Norman Shepherd (etc.) with Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity was that it is antinomian, which is to say weak on legal obedience (or even opposed to it), then why was Wilson claiming that he was only arguing that faith’s obedience in justification is responding to the command to believe? And why isn’t that the line he follows in all his vast corpus? It leaves you scratching your head.
In 2008, Doug Wilson also wrote this on his blog:
By obedience in the phrase obedient faith, I am not referring to any of the doing that proceeds out of this being. I am treating obedient faith and living faith as synonymous. The subsequent actions performed by this obedient faith are genuine and sincere, but not perfectly so (because of our remaining sinfulness). Because they are not perfect, they cannot be the basis at all of our justification — our best works would condemn us in the worse way. Neither can the living faith that gives rise to all these actions be the ground of our justification. But it is obedient in its life, and in that living condition it is the instrument of our justification.
If he were only referring to the disposition (habitus) of justifying faith towards subsequent obedience, I could give him a pass. But he doesn’t say that. While he denies that obedience is part of the basis of our justification, faith as the instrument of our justification seems to include it – “in that living condition [i.e. obedient] it is the instrument of our justification.” This is at best muddled. Why not just use the classical Reformed formulations?
Sometimes he does. For example, in a video on the subject he says:
So, when a guy gets converted on Wednesday, that justification, that forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ is given to him, imputed to him completely independent of any works he has done. The only thing that he contributes is faith, and faith alone, and even that faith was a gift, lest he be tempted to brag about that. So that’s the role works has in justification in that way. Which is to say, none, zip, zilch. No, it has nothing whatever to do with justification.
If he were to sing this same song throughout, we wouldn’t be discussing this. As it is, his insistence on elsewhere speaking of the faithfulness or obedience of the faith that justifies leads me to conclude that he is, at best, confusing on this subject. As the point on which the church stands or falls (J.H. Alsted), justification isn’t a point on which we can afford to have a lack of clarity.
Flattening the Law/Gospel Distinction
The Three Forms of Unity (all three!) contain the classic Reformed distinction between law and gospel. This distinction pertains to how salvation comes to us. The law has the character of a demand and the gospel has the character of a promise. It is a distinction which functions within the economy of salvation. It is essential to get this right.
While not outright rejecting the distinction (as some FV advocates have done), Wilson flattens it out. In a sermon, Wilson said:
…the fundamental law/gospel divide is not to be found in the text of Scripture. It is found in the difference between regenerate and unregenerate man. For the regenerate, everything from God is sweeter than the honeycomb. All of it is grace. For the unregenerate, the whole thing is the stench of death, including the good news of Christ on the cross. All of it is law and condemnation.
There is truth in what he writes here, though I would prefer to simply say that everything in the Bible (without distinction) is offensive to the unbeliever. However, in Reformed theology, when we discuss the doctrine of salvation, we need to make distinctions to keep things clear. Objectively speaking, apart from how anyone feels about it, the law makes demands of sinners and the gospel offers promises to address those demands.
Again, while Wilson claims to be Reformed, while he claims to subscribe to the Reformed confessions, he’s selective in what he believes from those confessions. When it comes to the law/gospel distinction, he flattens out what is sharply distinguished in the Three Forms of Unity. For more critique of this approach, see my Federal Vision: A Canadian Reformed Pastor’s Perspective.
Because some of Wilson’s errors pertain to the doctrine of salvation, I warn Reformed believers to look elsewhere for their edification. Some of his errors are either transgressing or approaching the limits of the Reformed confessions. To be Reformed is to be confessional. What defines Reformed orthodoxy is the Reformed confessions.
I know that, in the American context (especially in Presbyterianism), it is common to find good faith subscription or system subscription. Many Presbyterian churches allow office bearers to take exception to various points in the Westminster Standards. In our Reformed churches, however, we practice full subscription. Exceptions are not permitted. From this perspective, being selective with the Reformed confessions means being something less than fully Reformed. Doug Wilson is less than fully Reformed.
In the final instalment, we’ll see even more reasons why Doug Wilson should not be regarded as a reliable teacher and preacher.