Archive for November 2008

Doug Wilson and the Problem of Propositionalism

November 18, 2008



Doug Wilson has a nasty habit of turning his nose up at propositions.  He just doesn’t like them.  You might say he even hates them, particularly if there are any one must believe in order to be saved.  This of course includes any and all of those nasty propositions that make up the gospel message.  Particularly dangerous,  not to mention controversial and divisive, are propositions like whether sinners are justified by faith alone.  Does it really matter if one believes that works are needed in order to be saved, especially if those works are done in faith?  Not according to Wilson.   Being a stickler on maintaining the truths of the gospel, even truths as elementary as justification by faith alone,  is for Wilson is a type of legalism.  Think of it as the Reformed version of Wesleyan perfectionism.  Writing on his blog recently Wilson addressed what he considers a common and dangerous problem for conservative Protestants — a problem he considers pathological and one good doctor Wilson sets out to cure:

A common error in conservative Protestant circles is the error of propositionalism. This is the error that holds that if a particular truth is essential to the gospel, and that without that truth the gospel would be no gospel at all, then it must follow that it is necessary to salvation to believe that particular truth in all its purity. In the recent doctrinal controversy, that mistake has been made over and over again with regard to justification by faith alone. This is of course essential to a right understanding of the gospel, which is why we must require all our candidates for ordination to get this one right. But getting it wrong does not imperil our salvation, and it does not precisely because the doctrine is true. We are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law, and this includes the law that “thou shalt score 100% on the justification portion of your Westminster exam.”

First, it should be noted that Wilson’s attack on so-called “propositionalism” is a straw man argument. We are, after all, saved by knowledge and Wilson’s attack on what he feigns is a demand for doctrinal purity is a ruse. No one in the entire debate over justification as it relates to the heretical system of the Federal Vision has demanded perfection even from someone as hopelessly heretical and confused as Wilson.  The only thing anyone has asked for is clarity.  By creating his straw man Wilson is trying to create space to justify his equivocal use of such basic words as “faith” among other words and phrases he routinely plays with like silly-putty. What he is saying is that grasping the truth of justification is as necessary for salvation as is grasping the meaning of the hypostatic union.  His point is that the propositions one needs to believe in order to be saved are not as important as Protestants make them out to be.  Justification by faith alone isn’t really a matter of life and death, hence he ridicules conservative Protestants for engaging in the imagined error of “propositionalism.” The problem is, and contra Wilson, there are propositions that one needs to believe in order to be saved, whereas for Wilson not so much.   This makes sense because according to Wilson we’re saved by doing and not by “raw” faith alone.   It’s the doing that makes faith “alive” and it’s the doing that determines whether or not one is in covenant with Christ or a dead branch waiting for the pruning shears. It is the doing that determines whether or not anyone will be justified on the last day. It’s the doing in combination with believing that constitutes a “living faith” and it’s this combination of works and faith that are the instrument of justification in Wilson’s Federal Vision.

What Wilson hates is the fact that only propositions are either true or false and we’re saved by coming to a knowledge of the truth. Jesus said the very words or propositions he spoke are spirit and are life. To know Christ is to know his thoughts, or at least some of them as they are set down in Scripture.   For Wilson the very propositions that make up the truth of the gospel are not so important and one can seemingly assent to a wrong understanding of the message of Christ, and even the truth that sinners are  justified by faith alone, and be saved. This is a lie.  There are particular truths that are essential to the gospel, and without these truths there would be not gospel at all.  By the same token, by carefully altering or corrupting certain propositions can similarly distort or vitiate the truths essential to the gospel. Consider this proposition from the current pope as cited by Scott Clark in his excellent piece, The Pope a Protestant?

“. . . faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.”

Now, what’s wrong with this proposition. Clark observers:

That conditional, that “if,” makes all the difference in the world. That one little conditional is the difference between Rome and Wittenberg. Why? After all, Protestants affirm that faith alone is not opposed to charity (love) or sanctification. That’s certainly true, but the question here is whether the Benedict means by “faith” what we mean by it and whether we’re talking about the same justification and the same role of faith? For us Protestants, charity is the fruit and evidence of justification. Is it so for Benedict? If so, he’s abandoned his own catechism and magisterial Roman dogma since 1547. That would be remarkable indeed! . . . The little expression “faith in charity” is a shorthand way of expressing the Roman doctrine that it is “faith formed by love” that justifies, i.e. faith justifies because and to the degree that it sanctifies.

The addition of the conditional “if” alters the meaning the proposition and, in the hands of the pope,  is a denial of the truth of the gospel.  But, for Wilson, even raising the question concerning such a doctrine altering conditionals ( it’s just an “if” after all) is an unreasonable demand for doctrinal purity and is the error of “propositionalism.”  Scott Clark should be ashamed.

What Wilson denies is the meaning of justification by faith alone and the truth this proposition conveys as something that is necessary to be believed in order to be saved. Which, again, makes sense since Wilson denies justification by faith alone even when he seemingly affirms this proposition in “all its purity” and for all the Reformed suckers who buy his equivocating Romanish prattle.  For example, Wilson states, “To set faith (a motive for action) over against obedience (the action itself) seems to me to simply be confused.” Consequently, for him justification by faith alone does not mean the same thing as it does for ordinary Christians — regardless of the propositions they might use to express this truth.  Ordinary Christians are “confused”  because they correctly separate the act of faith from the acts of obedience that result from faith.  They no more conflate and confuse believing with the works that result from belief then they would conflate and confuse justification with sanctification.  Ironically, what Wilson means by faith alone is what the pope means and both have effectively denied the gospel. By redefining faith, or more specifically saving faith, as obedience, as action, as doing, or even as charity working by love, he is a affirming a proposition that is in fact a denial of the gospel.  He denies the truth that the proposition “justified by faith alone” is intended to express. Wilson agrees with the pope.

Next, Wilson further errs when when he says that “it must follow that it is necessary to salvation to believe that particular truth in all its purity.” And what Wilson means by purity is scoring “100% on the justification portion of your Westminster exam.” This doesn’t follow at all, for many embrace the truth of justification by faith or belief alone even those who have never read the Confession or can articulate the doctrine with the propositional precision of the Confession. The problem with Wilson and his FV friends is that they deny the truth of justification by faith alone regardless of the propositions used to express this central truth.

Notice for Wilson it is an error to believe that “a particular truth is essential to the gospel, and that without that truth the gospel would be no gospel at all, then it must follow that it is necessary to salvation to believe that particular truth in all its purity.”   Too bad the Apostle Paul didn’t have Wilson’s wisdom and insight to guide him, or even Credenda Agenda, because he is clearly guilty of the very “propositionalism” Wilson derides.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul raises a sticky problem concerning those who would deny the resurrection.  By way of refuting the proposition that the dead are not raised Paul argues :

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised;  and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:16-19).

Can one deny the biblical proposition that the dead are raised and be saved?  Paul said if this particular proposition is denied and instead someone believes that the dead are not raised, then it would follow that Christ has not been raised.  And, if Christ has not been raised then all those have died in Christ (that is, died believing in him) have perished.  Of course, even beyond those sad fools who are now dead, those who currently place their faith in Christ are equally pathetic for they too are still in their sins.

In Romans Paul tells us “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.”  Could someone who denied the resurrection, i.e., got the resurrection wrong, have any reason to hope in the after life or have any confidence in their own salvation?  Notice that Paul hangs a considerable amount on the proposition that the dead are raised to the point where its denial is, well,  a denial of the gospel.  Was Paul just being a stickler in demanding the truth of the resurrection be maintained and believed in all its purity?   I guess you could say that in failing to get this particular proposition right is a serious matter for Paul.  You might even say no one is saved without it.

Yet, in spite of this,  (more…)

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