Doug Wilson and the Problem of Propositionalism

wilson-mug

REVISED AND UPDATED

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,  Wilson suggests that getting the truth of any particular doctrine wrong, which would obviously included the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, even the resurrection of Christ, “does not imperil our salvation . . . .”  Now try and follow this.  The reason Wilson says that denying, say, the resurrection of Christ does not imperil our salvation “is precisely because the doctrine [of the resurrection] is true.” Such obtuse and stultifying reasoning should make even the most mind-numbed antinomy ridden Vantilian’s head spin.

Now, let’s bring this question of “propositionalism” to the question of justification, specifically justification by faith alone, or, more properly, belief alone.  Wilson tells us that “In the recent doctrinal controversy” the insistence that we get this doctrine right is a “mistake” and one that  “has been made over and over again with regard to justification by faith alone.”  Admittedly,  Wilson has yet to get this doctrine right even though he claims, or better feigns, we are justified by faith alone, but faith in what?  Clearly not faith in the propositions that make up the simple message of the gospel.  That would be “propositionalism” in its crudest and most deadly form.  If getting faith alone right was essential to salvation then what becomes of all those poor Roman Catholics who have been taught to deny this very doctrine in both word and deed?   After all, those wed to Rome have been baptized and according to Wilson are Christians united to Christ just as much as the conservative Protestants he attacks.  Protestants like Martin Luther who claimed that the church even stands or falls on the propositional purity of justification by faith alone.   The nerve.   Romanists aside,  what about all those poor pathetic followers of Wilson and other like minded Federal Visionists who crawl over blogs and Internet forums routinely getting justification by faith alone wrong and in the most embarrassing ways?  Surely, we have reason to fear for their souls, don’t we?  Not if we’re to believe Wilson.

Of course, even asking the question “faith in what” reveals the sin of “propositionalism,” because implied in the question is that faith is an assent to an understood proposition.  But for men like Wilson, and the rest of those mired in the Federal Vision, faith is not what Calvin called a “pious assent.”  Faith is doing.  Faith is faithfulness.  Faith is obedience.  Faith is works.   For without doing these faithful, obedient works no man will be justified on the last day.

In spite of Wilson’s attack on “propositionalism,” the gospel is a message and like any  message the gospel consists of a series of logically connected propositions.  Get one wrong, say the proposition that the dead are raised and that Christ too has been raised, and we ought to fear for our souls.  Again, not according to Wilson.  It is an error to believe that any “particular truth is essential to the gospel” including justification by faith alone and that any doctrine must be purely held and maintained.  Evidently the Galatian Christians could believe the propositional novelties of the Judaizers with impunity who taught that one needed to be circumcised in addition to just believing the truth of the gospel in order to be saved.  The Judaizers got justification by faith alone wrong, were they saved?  Were their followers saved? I guess even raising these question doesn’t help those spreading the novelties of the Federal Vision and the so-called “New Perspectives.”  Concerning those who would add their own propositions to the simple gospel message Paul condemned to hell and feared for the eternal souls of those who would dare believe these false teachers even for a moment.   Same goes for those who would buy into the heretical novelties of Wilson & Company’s Federal Vision.  If you think that your faithful obedience to the unspecified demands of the covenant (the covenant of grace grace mind you) are necessary for salvation, and that your works, non-meritorious and done by faith of course, are needed in order to be saved on the last day, I fear for your soul.  Which reminds me, has Wilson ever specified exactly what these covenantal demands are and where in Scripture they might be found so that we might do them in order to be saved?  Regardless,  if Paul were here he would ask who has bewitched you, but of course we already have the names and faces of some of those guilty as charged.

You’ll notice too that for Wilson getting the message of the gospel right, in particular the central doctrine of justification by faith alone,  is a form of law keeping.  In Wilson’s darkened mind conservative Protestants are really legalists.   Therefore it would follow that for Wilson men are saved apart from believing the propositions of the gospel message.  After all, if maintaining the purity of the gospel message isn’t necessary for salvation and is a form of “propositionalism,”  then corrupting this message can’t be so bad, right?  Again, this  all makes sense, for in Wilson’s religion men are saved by doing and by having things done to them.  They’re saved by having water sprinkled on their heads.  They’re saved by eating bread and drinking wine during communion even if they don’t understand what they’re doing or why or even if they’re too young to swallow solid food.  They’re saved by obeying Wilson and by doing what he and the other lords of the Federal Vision tell them to do in order to be justified on the last day.  No wonder Wilson views propositions and the belief in them as dangerous.  Besides, who needs doctrinal purity when we have men like Wilson routinely undermining and attacking the truth. Which would explain why he could care less if any of his followers scored 100% on the justification portion of their Westminster exam (an exam Wilson should take).  Of course,  if they did they would clearly see that the propositions Wilson has been selling are false.  Ignorance has its benefits, especially for charlatans and frauds.

Wilson hates that only propositions are either truth or false and that it does matter which ones you believe.  Similarly, corrupting the truths conveyed by the propositions that make up the simple gospel message is a dangerous and even fatal business.  Paul said we are to test ourselves to see if we’re in the faith.  To be “in the faith” means to believe, assent to, the propositions of the Christian faith with the gospel of Christ being central.  Paul said “examine yourselves!”  The biblical imperative is to carefully test and examine the propositions we believe against those that make up the faith once delivered to the saints to see if they match up.  We’re to see whether or not we are in fact “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” or are just making up our own along the way.  Paul says this is how we can tell whether or not Jesus is in us otherwise we fail the test and are in fact reprobates (2 Cor. 13:5b).  Frankly, Paul advocates the very kind of prayerful, careful and even fearful introspection the dogs of the Federal Vision ridicule and despise.  Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to get every point of theology right in order to be saved.  That’s another straw man Wilson can play with all by himself.  After all those with the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains.  But, like Gordon Clark, the question should never be how little can we believe in order to be saved, but rather how much can we understand and believe — at the very least so we won’t be taken in by frauds like Wilson.  Besides, the gospel isn’t rocket science.  One doesn’t need a theological degree from Westminster Seminary in order to be saved.  Wilson has evidently forgotten about the great Westminster doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, which includes the wonderful proposition: “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”  Notice, there are things, propositions, which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation.  Further, these propositions are clearly propounded in Scripture so that even ignoramuses can understand and believe them in order to be saved.  Needless to say, the Confession writers were guilty of “propositionalism.”  Evidently Jesus was too when he said, “If you abide in My word, my propositons, my doctrines, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  By contrast, and not surprisingly, Wilson’s attack on so-called “propositionalism” is a sled ride into bondage.  That’s because despite Wilson’s irrational rant against the dangers of “propositionalism,” Christianity is a logical, propositional system and not an aggregate of disjointed thoughts, metaphors and stories that hardly matter.  Getting justification right is no crime, it is a great blessing that Wilson maligns.  It is a major source of Christian assurance.  And, while no one has to major in the minors in order to be saved, don’t be fooled, the gospel propositions are a matter of life and death.

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12 Comments on “Doug Wilson and the Problem of Propositionalism”

  1. qeqesha Says:

    Sean,
    The more Douglas Wilson writes, the more his errors become apparent. One can excuse the likes of Lane Keister for being given the run around by Wilson’s speaking from the several corners of his mouth on justification. But this one is impossible to misunderstand!!! None need to be indoubt any more about Douglas’ heteredoxy!

    Proverbs 18:21 “Death and life are in the power of the toungue”, — the propositions we speak and believe are death and life!

    John 6:63 “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

    John 8:
    “31 ¶ Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; 32 and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is keeping Jesus’ words, propositions, doctrines, that mark us as His disciples and it is these true propositions that set us free form the bondage of ignorance!

    You wrote — “One doesn’t need a theological degree from Westminister Seminary in order to be saved.”—Indeed, given WTS’ history, a degree from that institution might just prevent one from obtaining salvation!

    Denson!

  2. timharris Says:

    Sean, I think you mistake Wilson’s syntax when you say, “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 . . . .'”

    Instead, he is saying that it is a mistake to think that, IN CONSEQUENCE of some proposition P being essential to the gospel, it is necessary to believe P.

    An analogy might illustrate what Wilson is saying. It might be necessary, in order to be saved from cancer, for a doctor to perform some operation. But it is not necessary for the patient to believe that, provided the doctor DOES PERFORM THE OPERATION.

    It gets more dicey in the case of the gospel, since all grant that when salvation is applied, belief in certain propositions is a necessary concomitant of that. I think what Wilson is suggesting is something like this:

    1. Faith in the Jesus Christ, his person and work, is necessary to be saved.
    2. That faith will involve belief in certain propositions.
    3. That faith will be such that it could be described as not resting in any of one’s own works for salvation.
    4. Yet, the set of propositions believed (in 2) might NOT include the second-order description, “justification is by faith alone,” even though the nub and pith of what is referenced by that proposition is in fact embraced.

    The question should be whether (4) is coherent. Arguably, it is not coherent. So I think your point may stand even though you have misread what Wilson is actually asserting in the quote under discussion.

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    [edit] see below. I didn’t really see what you were objecting to at first, but I can now see that I wasn’t clear as I should have been in my criticism of Wilson. Originally I only addressed the straw man of “propositionalism” in passing and now I see it should have been front and center. Thanks.

  4. timharris Says:

    Sean — Wilson’s quote, paraphrased is, “it is wrong to believe ‘if p then q’, where p is ‘a truth about the gospel’, and q is ‘being able to assert that truth in its purity.'” But your treatment of his quote makes it that he is saying “it is wrong to believe ‘p’.” You have left off the “if…then” structure of his quote. That is not what he is SAYING, even if what he is saying can be reduced to absurdity.

    Even though I can’t follow you all the way in your radical propositionalism, I do think your analysis of the situation in this case if valid, since in this case the sense of the proposition is the sense of the “thing,” so to have the thing is to have the proposition. However, (a) your analysis can be accepted even by a non-Propositionalist (with a capital ‘P’), and moreover, (b) once it is clarified in that way, I’m not totally sure Wilson would disagree with you either.

  5. Sean Gerety Says:

    Wilson’s quote, paraphrased is, “it is wrong to believe ‘if p then q’, where p is ‘a truth about the gospel’, and q is ‘being able to assert that truth in its purity.’” But your treatment of his quote makes it that he is saying “it is wrong to believe ‘p’.”

    [edit] Tim, I appreciate your objection. I see what you’re saying and I’ve revised my post in light of it. Thanks.

  6. qeqesha Says:

    timharris wrote,
    ¨Even though I can’t follow you all the way in your radical propositionalism …¨
    Since you do not explain what you mean by radical propositionalism, do you care to elaborate even if briefly?

    Denson

  7. brandon Says:

    Thank you for this post. I happened to be having the same conversation with someone else completely unrelated to Wilson or his doctrine and all of your points were very helpful to our discussion.

  8. Tim Says:

    It seems to me that since God is both author and perfecter of our faith, that it is not necessary to posess “correct” belief of certain propositions in order to be saved. Propositionalism verges on a form of Gnosticism, and often replaces a vital relationship with God. Faith has to be more (and something other) than a simple intellectual assent to a group of “orthodox” doctrines.

  9. gaetano Says:

    @ Tim
    How do you *know* that God is the “author and perfecter”? What *is* the “more” and the “something other” in your *knowing* of the g/God to whom you say you believe? How do *you* know that the God that I accent to via the (propositionally speaking) Word, is/is NOT the God who is authoring or perfecting *me*?

  10. Denson Dube Says:

    Tim, Tim, Tim, what’s up?
    Does the Bible not say, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”? Therefore God authors and perfects our faith through his word. A contentless “faith” is no faith at all. One believes something, and that something is the word of God, the propositions in the bible, if one is a Christian. That is the biblical meaning of faith in God.
    The devil, gobblins, ghouls and ghosts have a “vital” relationship with God too, in that they are God’s enemies. Enmity is a relationship. Sinners have a relationship with God. It is one of enmity.
    I hope it is obvious to you that a “vital” relationship needs definition. That definition would normally be called doctrine, if it is derived from the bible. You cannot escape believing some doctrine. Desparaging doctrine as a “form of Gnosticism” and believing undefined terms(a “vital” relationship), is doctrine too.

  11. gaetano Says:

    @Denson
    And ALL of this is by His pure mercy, having *adopted* me into His kingdom with an uttermost Savior, Christ the KING! Praise be to God who saved *me* a wicked (propositional) soul through and by His Spirit; born not from flesh and blood, or propositions alone!, but by His predestining this soul to be saved from before the creation of this world. To the Most Holy of Men(God himself), I say thank you, with my prostrate soul ever crying out with thanksgiving and praise before the Great King.

  12. LJ Says:

    Found this analysis of FV recently. Our TE, or Pastor, is teaching/preaching through Romans and we are just now in Romans 2. Anyhow, I thought some might like this essay:

    http://members.toast.net/puritan/Articles/FederalVision_DangerousError.htm

    LJ


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