Archive for February 2009

Answer to Alan Strange

February 16, 2009

In February, 2005, New Horizons, the official magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) published a review of Gordon Clark’s, What is Saving Faith?, by Dr. Alan Strange. This was a “condensed” version of a longer review published in the “Mid-America Journal of Theology” where Strange teaches. I immediately fired off a “letter to the editor” which was never published, as did Dr. Robbins, which was also never published – until now.


Dear Editor,

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Alan Strange’s review of Gordon Clark’s book, What Is Saving Faith? even if it takes the form of merely a letter to the editor.

The faculty  of Mid-America Reformed Seminary (where Dr. Strange teaches) published a longer version of Dr. Strange’s review in their Journal and then refused to permit me to respond to it, even though it is an academic journal, and I am mentioned in the review.

Dr. Strange’s argument is that Dr. Clark’s view of faith differs from that of the Westminster Standards. This is false, and it not difficult to show why it is false. (more…)

Gordon Clark vs. the Bogeyman

February 12, 2009

bogeymanA suggestion was made recently that Gordon Clark’s definition of faith as assent to understood propositions – and saving faith as assent to understood biblical propositions — smacks of  Sandemanianism.  Yet, the real anti-Christian mischief, as we shall see,  is done by those who maintain the traditional tri-fold definition of faith as a combination of understanding, assent and trust (which sounds so much more religions  and authoritative when said in Latin; i.e., notitia, assensus and fiducia).   Well, a number of years ago Banner of Truth Trust (the same people who butchered A.W. Pink’s Sovereignty of God) published a hatchet piece by some guy named Doug Barnes who tried, unsuccessfully, to link Clark with Sandeman.  They also published a piece by Geoff Thomas making the same, albeit, less sustained charge.  To Banner’s credit, they at least had the decency to publish a letter by Dr. Robbins setting the record straight (something I can’t say about the OPC rag, New Horizons, which refused to publish letters by both Dr. Robbins and I responding to a similarly distorted review of Clark’s, What is Saving Faith? by Alan Strange) .  Here is Dr. Robbins reply to Messrs. Barnes and Thomas in full:


John Robbins, Ph. D.

Recently The Banner of Truth published two essays [this one above and the one entitled Sandemanianism at the Westminster Conference, dated 17/12/2004, ed] linking the names of Robert Sandeman, the 18th-century Scots preacher, and Gordon Clark, the 20th-century American theologian and philosopher. This is most unfortunate, for several reasons.

First, neither author of these essays, Douglas Barnes and Geoff Thomas, is qualified to make this comparison. At the time of their writing, neither had read the relevant works of Robert Sandeman, and one of them had not even read Gordon Clark’s book What Is Saving Faith? (Whether they have tried to do their homework since they wrote, I do not know.) Despite not having read Dr. Clark’s book, Thomas dismisses Clark’s view as “the erroneous teaching of the late Gordon Clark.” When I was a college professor, any student who made such claims, not having read the sources, would have flunked the course. Apparently seminary graduates and ministers are not expected observe even minimum standards of scholarship.

Second, these authors, Thomas and Barnes, have used Sandeman as a bogeyman to scare people away from reading Dr. Clark. In so doing, they have not only dragged a red herring through the discussion of Clark’s views, but they have libeled Dr. Clark.

Third, the authors of these essays, both seminary-trained men, both claiming to be Reformed, ought to know that the question is not, Does Clark agree with Sandeman, but, Does Clark agree with Scripture? For all Protestants that is the question to ask. To ask the question, Does Clark agree with Sandeman, and to answer it, Yes, he does, not having read Sandeman (or even Clark), is less than honest and worse than unscholarly. The long-term effect is even more serious: Such a question introduces into readers’ minds a standard other than Scripture for evaluating theological opinions. Tradition, regarded as either negative or positive, becomes the standard, and the Protestant rule of faith is eclipsed.

Let us turn to the body of Barnes’ essay. In his opening paragraph he describes Clark’s view: “For Clark, faith was none other than intellectual assent. Believe the proper things about God and Christ, and you were saved. Misunderstand, and all is lost. No heartfelt emotion or trust is needed…or even involved.”

In his essay, Barnes does not define the word “trust,” making it distinct from assent (which is crucial to his argument), so the reader must guess what he means. Unlike Dr. Clark’s careful definition of terms in What Is Saving Faith? Barnes makes undefined terms central to his argument. The result is that Barnes, quite literally, doesn’t know what he is talking about.

When he uses the phrase “heartfelt emotion or trust” that seems to be about as close as he comes to defining “trust.” Trust is a “heartfelt emotion.” Which emotion Barnes does not say. Perhaps it is a feeling of absolute dependence, as the German Liberal Schleiermacher said. (Barnes uses the phrase “trusting reliance,” which makes him sound like Schleiermacher.) Whatever it is, this heartfelt emotion, Barnes says, is what makes belief saving, for Barnes denies that believing the truth (see the quotation above) saves anyone. To be saved, one must also feel an emotion. But neither Christ nor the Apostles ever demanded that sinners have an emotional experience; they demanded that they believe the truth. (more…)

Greenbaggins – Stuck in the Mud

February 9, 2009

It is sad when you see someone stuck knee deep in mud. It’s ever sadder when they reject the hand they’ve been given as their boots are sucked from their feet and they’re now standing thigh high in the muck. That’s the picture I get watching PCA pastor, Lane Keister, as he continues to play pat-a-cake with Federal Vision’s apologist and salesman, Doug Wilson. For close to a year now, Lane has been going around and around with Wilson on the question of what constitutes the “aliveness” of faith in relation to justification. No matter what angle he attacks this same question he ends up sinking deeper in the mire. Consider this from Lane’s most recent blog in response to Wilson:

I will try one last time to make the point about the living nature of faith and its relation to justification. We both agree that justifying faith is alive. The WCF says this: “is no dead faith” (WCF 11.2). Contrary to the criticisms of FV proponents (especially in the horrible caricatures in the book A Faith That Is Never Alone), I know of NO Reformed scholar who says that we are justified by a dead faith. I know of no Reformed scholar who even hints at this. I know of dozens of Reformed scholars who say the aliveness of faith is not what justifies us.

Needless to say, this is confusing right from the outset. According to Lane, and the unnamed Reformed scholars he elicits for support, we are justified by an alive faith (since no Reformed scholar says we justified by a dead faith), yet it’s not the “aliveness of faith” that justifies us. It would seem we are justified and not justified by an alive faith. In an attempt to make this confused and seemingly contradictory view of faith even more unclear, Lane continues:

The best way I can put this is to say that the aliveness of faith is a sine qua non, but is not part of the inherent structure of justification. Of course the person who stretches out his arm to catch a ball has to be alive to do that. But his being alive is not an action inherent in stretching out his arm. Maybe I can put it this way: states of being are distinct from actions, just like verbs of being are distinct from verbs of action. We must distinguish then between the state of being alive and the verb of action of what faith does in laying hold of Christ’s righteousness. To put it another way, our aliveness can have no object. It is inherently reflexive. But faith’s action in justification takes a direct object: the righteousness of Christ. I really think this is as clear as I can be.

Lane attempts to explain the figurative language of the Confession concerning dead faith with an even more vague and confusing figure of a disremembered arm catching a ball and the distinction of “verbs of being”as opposed to “verbs of action.”  Maybe it’s just me, but how is any of this either helpful or clear? Lane adds; “ I don’t see any reason why Doug should disagree with this, either.” Let’s hope so, because I have no idea what Lane is talking about.  Frankly, I suspect Lane doesn’t either, which is why he has resorts to vagaries and word pictures.

Quite some time ago while discussing Gordon Clark’s definition of faith, Lane agreed that to believe someone and to trust them mean the same thing; that belief and trust are synonymous. Therefore, it follows that the third and so-called essential element that makes ordinary faith saving, sometimes called “fiducia” or simply trust (for those not particularly impressed by the Latin), adds precisely nothing to the definition of faith. It is the linguistic equivalent of saying that what makes belief saving is belief. And, let’s face it, the emptiness of defining a word with itself is something all the word pictures and vagaries can never change.

This is why every pastor who tries to explain the difference between faith and saving faith as the difference between, say, believing a chair will support your weight and actually sitting on it, or believing a bank is a safe place to keep your money and only trusting it when you actually deposit your cash, is blowing just so much pious sounding wind. That’s because there is nothing comparable to sitting on a chair or depositing one’s money in a bank with believing the Gospel. Either one believes the Gospel or he doesn’t. Faith is a purely intellectual act, which explains why sensate and natural men like Wilson cannot grasp it. One either understands and assents to the Gospel message or they do not. Those who do, and to whatever degree, are saved persons and those who don’t are not. As Gordon Clark put it: “There is nothing in the spiritual situation analogous to depositing the currency [or placing one’s bottom on a chair]. There is believing only: nothing but the internal mental act itself. To suppose that there is, is both a materialistic confusion and an inadmissible alteration of the Scriptural requirement (The Johannine Logos,117).”

Perhaps if Lane paid closer attention to Clark, not to mention the Scriptural requirement, he wouldn’t be sitting for nearly a year covered in mud as he continues to embrace Wilson as his slightly confused brother in Christ.

Interestingly, when asked about John Robbins view of faith in his combox, which was unfailingly consistent with Clark’s own view and one that would have saved Lane from falling thigh high in the muck, Lane wrote:

Hmm. Robbins and his crowd seem to me to be in danger of denying that justifying faith is alive, which is what the confession says. Now, they may say that assent is alive.

Both Robbins and I reject human works as being any part of justifying faith. I think Robbins would unnecessarily exclude many other Reformed authors from being orthodox, because I think he drew the line in the wrong place. He himself was Reformed. I don’t doubt that credential one bit. But he called a lot of people un-Reformed who were in fact Reformed, and he blamed a lot of people for problems that they didn’t cause (Van Til being the obvious one). Furthermore, Robbins didn’t seem to know how to love people very well. Even my father, who is a Gordon Clark fan (was his best friend when they both taught together at Covenant Collete), had run-ins with Robbins.

It is striking how Lane has no problem showing his own personal animus toward Dr. Robbins on his blog and elsewhere on the Internet. However, considering Robbins view of faith was consistent with Clark’s, is Lane saying that Dr. Clark was also in “danger of denying that justifying faith is alive”? At least by extension, it would seem so, but where is the argument? On a side note, I have to wonder what Dr. Robbins did to Lane to deserve such an unprovoked, personal and public attack?

Further, where is the evidence that John “called a lot of people un-Reformed who were in fact Reformed”? I’ve read virtually everything John had ever published, including his long out of print book on Pat Robertson along with a couple of articles that John cringed when I mentioned them, but I have never read anything where he called someone “un-Reformed” when they were in fact Reformed. He did call Doug Wilson positively un-Reformed, but I hardly think even Lane can take issue with that.  Then again, maybe he does? Needless to say Lane is notably more accommodating to Doug Wilson and his crowd than he’s ever been to Robbins and his.

Also, where is the evidence that “Robbins didn’t seem to know how to love people very well”? What a bizarre thing to say and how could Lane possibly know this?  Has Lane been hanging around Charismatics or is now one himself and can somehow peer into a man’s soul?  As for me, when I read John’s work I see a man who loved the Lord and who had an uncompromising love for the Gospel and who was deeply concerned with the false gospel of the Federal Vision that continues to spread throughout the Church, oddly enough with Lane’s help, and who devoted the last decade of his life trying to expose and stop it.

Lane even accuses John of bearing false witness and for blaming “a lot of people for problems they didn’t cause (Van Til being the obvious one).” Again, perhaps obvious to Lane, but where is the evidence? As for Van Til, John is not the only person to see a direct link between Van Til’s epistemic and theological distinctives with the Federal Vision. In his concluding remarks in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, E. Calvin Beisner clearly identifies the root cause of the Federal Vision:

I suspect that this objection to logical systematization-and to its use as a critical tool to test for falsehood by uncovering logical inconsistency-rests, for at least some of them, on their embrace of Cornelius Van Til’s epistemology and apologetic, an important element of which is reticence as to (or perhaps even hostility to) the use of logic in theology. But antipathy to logic is contrary both to Scripture (Isaiah 5:29: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”) and to the overwhelming practice of Reformed theologians. (320-321)

Will Lane now accuse Beisner of blaming Van Til for a problem he didn’t cause or was Beisner just unloving?

Moreover, I’ve noticed that whenever Clark is discussed, or whenever anyone remotely considered in Clark’s “crowd” is even mentioned, Lane always brings up what great pals his Dad and Clark were as if this were somehow relevant or proof of something unsaid.  In this case, Lane uses his Dad’s long ago friendship with Clark to insinuate that Robbins was somehow out of control, even having “run-ins” with Clark’s close friends.  Again, where is the evidence? Further, what constitutes a “run-in”? Is it merely disagreeing on some point or something more akin to vehicular homicide?  I’ve had my share of run-ins with Lane, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love him.  Further, why should anyone care and how is it relevant? Yet, in contrast to Lane’s vented spleen, Dr. Clark had enormous respect for John, even entrusting all of his manuscripts to his care, publication and preservation.

Finally, I would encourage my readers to keep a close watch on Lauren Kuo’s involvement on Lane’s blog. My guess is she’s about to get Lane’s famous left-foot of fellowship out the back door as she came perilously close to revealing her own experience in one of the PCA’s Federal Vision churches – a church that happens to be the sister church of Lane’s brother and PCA church elder, Arne Keister. You can read about Lauren Kuo’s experience here and Arne Keister’s sister church here.

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