Answer to Alan Strange

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.

Dr. Strange writes: “The classic Reformed answer to Robbins’s and Clark’s question has been that the ‘something more’ [than belief of the truths of the Gospel] of saving faith is ‘whole-souled trust and reliance in Jesus.’ ”  Dr. Strange emphasizes “trust” as something more than belief or assent (and thus something different from belief and assent) to the Gospel truths. It is this additional factor, not belief of the Gospel truths, that makes faith saving, he thinks.

Dr. Strange quotes the WLC, Q. 72, which not only fails to support his opinion, but which does not even use the words “whole-souled” or “trust,” or the phrase “reliance in Jesus.”  In fact, neither Question 72, nor WCF chapters 11 and 14 on Justification and Saving Faith use the terms that Dr. Strange finds indispensable.  Those passages do, however, speak explicitly of assenting  and believing.

Dr. Strange quotes Q. 72 as saying,

Justifying faith is a saving grace…whereby he [a sinner] ….not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness.

Strange remarks: “Whatever ‘receiveth and resteth upon Christ’ means, it is clearly something in addition to ‘assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel,’ for that is explicitly denied to be the ‘only’ thing of which justifying faith consists.”

There is an elementary confusion in this argument.

First, Dr. Strange does not tell us what “receiving and resting upon Christ” means; that is, he does not tell us what he thinks saving faith is. Second, he does not tell us how “receiving and resting upon Christ” differs from believing the truths of the Gospel. He has substituted undefined terms for the clear language of both Scripture and the Westminster Standards. In this way, he obscures the truth of justification by faith alone.

Now I judge Dr. Strange’s misreading of Q. 72 to be a common misunderstanding, caused in part by the omission of relevant words. Here is what Q. 72 says:

Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel,  but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Question 72 does indeed have a contrast in mind, but it is not contrasting assent with “receiving and resting,” as Dr. Strange mistakenly supposes. There are two reasons Dr. Strange’s contrast cannot be correct.

First, “receiving and resting” are figures of speech, and “assenting” is literal language. “Receiving and resting” mean “assenting.” Dr. Strange has made the common theological error of taking a figure of speech as literal. Incidentally, that is why he fails to offer any definition of “receiving and resting” that differentiates them from assent. In fact, they are not different, but metaphorical expressions of the literal word, “assent.”

The second reason that Q. 72 is not contrasting “assenting” with “receiving and resting” is that the authors of the Westminster Standards have a different contrast in  mind. Reading the Standards with subjectivist presuppositions, Dr. Strange supposes they are contrasting differing psychologies of faith (assent vs. receiving and resting), when they are actually contrasting the truths believed. Psychology was not on the minds of the Westminster Assembly, but making clear what truths had to be believed in order to be saved was. Dr. Strange forgets that the word “faith” has two distinct meanings, one objective and one subjective.  The Standards are contrasting belief in the “promise of the Gospel,” that is, in the truth of eternal life, with belief in the “righteousness [of Christ] for pardon of sin, and the accepting and accounting of his person righteous.”  They are making clear that the sinner must not only believe in (assent to) salvation from sin and eternal life (which they  call the “promise of the Gospel”), but that he must also believe in (assent to) the imputed righteousness of Christ in order to be saved.  Their concern is that the proper object of faith is believed, not that some undefined and nebulous mental state must be added to belief in order to make it efficacious. Their message is that belief in eternal life and pardon from sin is not saving faith, but to that must be added belief in Christ and his righteousness as the sole means of obtaining eternal life.

The Westminster Standards clearly teach that the object of faith, Christ and his imputed righteousness, not our subjective mental state, is what saves us. Dr. Strange, like so many today, reads the Westminster Standards with his subjectivist glasses on, and thereby misses and misrepresents what they teach.

Therefore, Dr. Strange is completely wrong when he asserts that “Clark is clearly not within the Reformed tradition in defining faith itself as knowledge and assent alone.”  Not only is Clark clearly within that tradition, but he is also the most accurate reporter of what Scripture teaches about saving faith. All your readers should read his book for themselves.

Sincerely,

John W. Robbins, Ph. D.
The Trinity Foundation
February 7, 2005
http://www.trinityfoundation.org

____________________

To the Editor:

A friend at church gave me the February issue of New Horizons so that I might read Professor Strange’s review of “What Is Saving Faith?”  Given the struggles the OPC is going through over the question of justification, not to mention the entire Reformed and Presbyterian church, I was eager to read his  review.  To say that I was disappointed with the review would be an understatement, even if I wasn’t altogether surprised.  Dr. Clark has not always been given a fair hearing in the OPC and this review sadly continues that tradition.  However, in fairness, perhaps some of the points raised by Strange were simply a result of his failure to understand Dr. Clark?  Which raises the question; why did he review the book?

For example, Strange states midway through his review; “One begins to wonder at this point how Clark is restoring the original Reformation definition of faith . . . .”   I’m curious, where exactly does Clark claim to be restoring the original Reformation definition of faith?  I honestly don’t recall that being stated anywhere as the purpose of the book and, if I am mistaken, I would appreciate someone pointing out where I might have missed that?  As I understood Clark, he was intent on restoring the biblical definition of faith, and, as Strange points out in his review, Clark spends considerable time canvassing the confusion which has characterized much of the Reformed tradition on the nature of faith and saving faith.

What I find interesting is that even Strange seems unclear as to what exactly is meant by the Confessional phrase “receiveth and resteth upon Christ” since he says; “Whatever [it] means, it is clearly something in addition to ‘assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel,’ for that is explicitly denied to be the ‘only’ thing of which justifying faith consists.”   Now, if he knows what this phrase means and how it works as an addition to assent, and the crucial third element that is supposed to make faith “saving,” I would think this would have been a great point in his  review to explain this phrase to your readers.  I would think if Strange or someone could define what this third and necessary addition to assent is, then I think he would have a legitimate objection to Clark.  Yet, he doesn’t even attempt a definition much less explain what this additional element is which is supposed to make faith saving.

Further, Clark never defines faith, saving or otherwise, as assent alone, but rather as a combination of understanding and assent.  Saving faith is understanding and assenting to the propositions of Scripture, particularly the propositions of the Gospel.  Consequently, what differentiates faith from saving faith are the propositions believed and not some ill defined third element.  Which leads to another possibility not mentioned in his review; could it be that the Confession is using this phrase “receiveth and resteth” as synonyms for the understanding and assent to the propositions of Scripture?  It would seem so, for the Confession defines “resting on Christ” as  “believing to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word . . . .”

Strange ends his review by saying: “In this book, Clark puzzles over what fiducia (trust) may mean as the completing element of saving faith.  His wonderment remains a puzzle to me.”  Does this mean that Strange understands how “fiducia” completes saving faith but he just won’t tell us?  Or, is this an honest question and he just doesn’t understand Clark’s argument?  Since he couldn’t explain “receiveth and resteth” earlier, it would seem to me that he just doesn’t understand Clark now.  If that’s the case, then Clark’s point is simple; to define faith as a combination of notitia, assensus, and fiducia is to define the object with itself, which adds precisely nothing to our understanding of what faith is and merely muddies the water.  As Clark puts it:

The crux of the difficulty with the popular analysis of faith into notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust), is that fiducia comes from the same root as fides (faith). Hence this popular analysis reduces to the obviously absurd definition that faith consists of understanding, assent, and faith. Something better than this tautology must be found.

Are faith and trust synonyms and the traditional definition a tautology as Clark argues?  Again, it would seem so, because just a few pages earlier in the same issue of New Horizons Robert Drake contrasts true justification by faith with its counterfeit as follows:

In the real justification by faith, you have faith in what Christ has done for you.  In the false version, you have faith in what you do for yourself.  You can’t get away from it being an act of faith, an act of trust [emphasis mine].

Since faith and trust are synonyms, which is evident at least to Mr. Drake, then the addition of trust to faith adds nothing except a vague and undefined third element for which the enemies of the biblical doctrine of justification can exploit.  If Strange or someone else have found this “something better” I would love to learn what it is, either that or his review failed to raise legitimate objections, and, worse, continues to perpetuate a dangerous distortion of the biblical definition which Clark defends.  And, if you think I’m overstating things, please consider this from Doug Wilson:

Following Peter Lombard, the orthodox Reformed have said that the  fide  of  sola fide  has three components, which are  assensus (assent),  notitia  (knowledge), and  fiducia  (trust) . . .

The idea that a man could somehow be saved by raw faith is of course contrary to James; but, more germaine to this discussion of  historical  theology, it is contrary to the historic Reformed position. We say  sola fide. But what kind of faith is being talked about in the phrase  sola fide? It is an assenting, knowledgeable, and  trusting  faith. Another way of putting this is that we are justified by a living faith, an obedient faith . . .

Saving faith that does not trust and obey is a saving faith that does not exist. We never have raw faith without trust, and then, a moment later, trust arrives” [Credenda Agenda Volume 15, Issue 5].

Notice how Wilson employs this third element of faith making justification a matter of our obedience.  Mere belief alone will not suffice for Wilson and his distaste for the biblical doctrine of justification, which is by belief alone plus nothing, could not be more evident.  Yet, unlike  Strange, and to his credit, Wilson at least explains how this third element might work in relation to justification as he conflates justification with sanctification in the process.  It is precisely in light of this type of surreptitious abuse of faith that Clark offers a corrective.  Yet, it is this much needed corrective which your reviewer failed to uncover to the determent of your readers and the church.

Sincerely,

Sean Gerety
Virginia Beach, VA

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10 Comments on “Answer to Alan Strange”

  1. speigel Says:

    This is a related question, but a tangent as well: Do you know if Trinity Foundation has any plans to reprint any of Robbins’ unpublished sermons, book reviews, or other writings? For example, Robbins’ has named several works of his that hasn’t been printed such as The War on the Gospel as listed in the November/December 2000 edition of the Trinity Review, and a book Robbins’ meant to publish, The Pursuit of Power, as named in one his books. (I was told that Robbins never finished writing the book, let alone published.) I’ve been interested in seeing Robbin’s writing come out, I’ve been told that Robbins’ sermons may be posted on a church website.

    Also, do you have any idea of when Clark’s festschrift is to be out in print?


  2. speigel said:

    “This is a related question, but a tangent as well: Do you know if Trinity Foundation has any plans to reprint any of Robbins’ unpublished sermons, book reviews, or other writings?”

    Dr. Robbins made explicit his wishes that his unfinished works not be published. The Trinity Foundation will abide by his request.

    In terms of sermons, my goal is to put them on the the church’s website (www.reformationchurchunicoi.org) as time allows.

    Tom Juodaitis
    President
    The Trinity Foundation
    The Bible alone is the Word of God.

  3. speigel Says:

    Thanks for the official answer. In no way did I imply that we should disregard Robbins’ request.

    Thanks again.

  4. Eric Broch Says:

    Luther used to push the point with doubters, “Do you believe that Christ died for you?” Luther put emphasis on person doubting, “for you.” I believe that the WCF is pointing out the same thing. Receiving and resting mean simply this: Do you believe Christ died for you. Are His active and passive righteousness yours, and are they sufficient to save?

    When the Bible states, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,” do you believe he died for you, are you included in the collective ‘our’ that Paul speaks of.

    I would conclude that receiving and resting ARE assent. Simply put, “It is true, He died for me and His death is sufficient to save?”

  5. Paijo Says:

    I can’t wait to see Dr. Robbins sermons.

  6. lawyertheologian Says:

    Sean, good job. I know this goes back a ways, but I don’t recall discussing this with you, other than you mentioning these letters. I know I spoke to Robbins and he told me that “receiving” = “believing” in the WCF. Though at first blush, it appears in the WLC that the Divines distinguish between assent and receiving/trusting, I think Robbins rightly claims that it’s distinguishing 2 different things to be believed.

    It really mystifies me that Christians, especially trained scholars of the Scriptures, try to place added meaning in the word “believe” (the word “faith” itself is already misleading to us today).

    My pastor, who has a Th.d, argued with me on his past blog that one has to “accept/receive” Jesus just like one has to accept a $20 bill if someone were offering such to you. He claimed “receive” in John 1:12 means more than believing, that is, mentally assenting to what Jesus preached concerning Himself. I found this absolutely incredible, especially given that believing in Jesus is expressly stated as to how those received Jesus. That is, receiving Jesus is believing Jesus.

    BTW, this issue of faith came up in my examination for membership. My then pastor I felt obstinately/unreasonably stuck to his view, even though what I said, what Clark had said, clearly refuted his view.

    Dr. Strange and other OPC leaders have a real problem with guys like Clark who challenge Reformed tradition. They don’t believe it is possible for one man to stand correctly against such. In fact, it sometimes seem that they blindly accept the WCF as Scriptural without serious examination. Thus, Dr. Strange thinks it strange that one who claims to be Reformed (Clark) put forth a view inconsistent with Reformed tradition. And speaking of challenging Reformed tradition, Clark’s book “The Incarnation” which denies the two nature view of Christ as an intelligent,proper description of who Christ is, is claimed by my former pastor as a product of a man deranged in his thinking, being on the verge of death.

  7. Sean Gerety Says:

    Though at first blush, it appears in the WLC that the Divines distinguish between assent and receiving/trusting, I think Robbins rightly claims that it’s distinguishing 2 different things to be believed.

    I agree. I think the first blush is because so many have been schooled in the tri-fold definition that their tendency is to read into the Confession their own definition, even if it doesn’t really fit. When I first read John’s argument it made perfect sense and that it’s not something in addition to simple belief, but rather that more needs to be believed beyond the “promise of the Gospel,” or, as John put it, “the truth of eternal life.”

    My pastor, who has a Th.d, argued with me on his past blog that one has to “accept/receive” Jesus just like one has to accept a $20 bill if someone were offering such to you. He claimed “receive” in John 1:12 means more than believing, that is, mentally assenting to what Jesus preached concerning Himself.

    You should refer your pastor to Clark’s, The Johannine Logos, where he tells the one about the bank. Clark’s analysis of that story, similar to the one your pastor gives and many others I’ve heard, ought to dispel him of the unbiblical illusion created in all these stories intended to explain the difference between faith and saving faith.

    They don’t believe it is possible for one man to stand correctly against such. In fact, it sometimes seem that they blindly accept the WCF as Scriptural without serious examination.

    The irony, as you correctly point out, is that it’s not the acceptance of the WCF as Scriptural that’s the problem, but rather reading into the Confession their own untenable and unbiblical definition they’ve learned as a matter of tradition. The WCF does not teach a three fold view of faith.

  8. lawyertheologian Says:

    “I think the first blush is because so many have been schooled in the tri-fold definition that their tendency is to read into the Confession their own definition, even if it doesn’t really fit. ”

    I wouldn’t go that far. It seemed to me that is was indeed what the Catechism was saying.

    “The irony, as you correctly point out, is that it’s not the acceptance of the WCF as Scriptural that’s the problem, but rather reading into the Confession their own untenable and unbiblical definition they’ve learned as a matter of tradition. The WCF does not teach a three fold view of faith.”

    I don’t think that’s the problem. Reformed tradition has taught the three fold view of faith. That won’t be easily dismissed. Neither will the Chalcedonian Creed. Not that they should be easily or quickly dismissed. But that an argument can never be examined on its own merits, or that the Bible itself can be independantly considered without reference to a Creed or Confession is what I believe can be a problem to a proper pursuit of the truth and a movement toward the church being of one mind.

  9. Sean Gerety Says:

    I wouldn’t go that far. It seemed to me that is was indeed what the Catechism was saying.

    To the contrary, I think as John clearly argued it’s not what the WCF is saying. Too bad, for a second there I thought we were in agreement.

    Reformed tradition has taught the three fold view of faith. That won’t be easily dismissed.

    It’s easy to dismiss and to disprove, but it does have a long tradition so it is difficult to overcome. But, if folks took the Confession more seriously they would realize that traditions can be and often are wrong.

  10. lawyertheologian Says:

    Sean, will you please, PLEASE, read my posts more carefully and not jump to the wrong conclusions.

    I was not saying that Dr. Robbins was incorrect and that Dr. Strange correct in their interpretations of the WLC. What I was saying is that Dr.Strange’s interpretation seems plausible “at first blush.” That is, on the surface it appears that the Divines are saying that faith is more than assent (“not only …but[also]”). But again, on closer scrutiny, as Robbins indicates, the addition is a matter of their being two subjects, i.e. two propositions being mentioned. The change of verbs (from literal to metaphorical) is simply a change in writing style and not due to the object/proposition believed.

    I mean by tradition all of the Reformed creeds, confessions and teachings accepted since the Reformation. None of these should be easily, that is, quickly, dismissed/let go. Maybe the WCF is to be ranked higher, but even then, some things might need to be let go. It’s view concerning eternal justification I believe is one such thing.


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