Still Strange

Dr. Alan Strange has decided to respond again to the question of how saving faith should be defined over at the Lane Keister’s Greenbaggins blog.  We’ll get to his response in a moment, but first I have to admit I thought Keister’s response to “When You’re Strange” was thoughtful, helpful and actually went a long way in bridging the gap between the simplified view of faith advanced by Gordon Clark and the traditional tri-fold definition of faith as a combination of understanding, assent, and trust.  As most readers of God’s Hammer already know, especially those who have had the pleasure of reading Clark’s What is Saving Faith? (which right now at the Trinity Foundation you can buy one copy and get two free), is that Clark’s objection to the traditional definition is due to the fact that belief and trust are synonyms and that the traditional tri-fold definition is hopelessly deficient, tautological, and amounts to defining the word belief with itself.  For example, in What is Saving Faith? Clark argues:

The crux of the difficulty with the popular analysis of faith in to notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust), is that fiducia comes from the same root as fides (faith). The Latin fide is not a good synonym for the Greek pisteuoo. 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.

Clark’s solution was to simply drop the tautological and meaningless addition to the traditional definition entirely.  The reason for doing this is obvious if one speaks English where belief and trust are synonyms (which is perhaps why religious types love Latin so much as they can get away with so much more when us pew-ons don’t know what they’re saying).  As Clark states on page 76, “to trust is to believe that good will follow.”  Similarly, in his piece “R. C. Sproul on Saving Faith” John Robbins writes; “Strictly speaking, trust is belief of propositions in the future tense, such as ‘he will be good to me’ or ‘this bank will keep my money safe.’”  What makes saving belief different from ordinary belief are the propositions believed.  For belief to be saving one must understand and assent to the finished work of Christ in the Gospel.  After all, that is the only thing the Scriptures require.  In Acts we read; “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.”  And, again in Romans, “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.”  Belief alone is all that is required to be saved, despite what some misguided and confused seminary professors and the men they train may say. Even worse, some seminary men still insist that faith alone is different from belief alone.   Notice too that, and to Clark’s point above, there is no verb form of the word fides that can be used in either of the above verses.  Instead, the Latin translation of pistueo (which is translated believe in Scripture) is credo.   Clark argues:

It is clear that Greek verb pisteuo is properly translated believe; and it would have been much better if the noun pistis had been translated belief. An English novel, The Way of All Flesh, indicates that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the evangelical Anglicans recited the Belief, rather than the Creed. The author seems to assume that the congregation did not know that credo means I believe.

All things considered whether linguistically or logically, Clark’s solution seems like a very modest correction, but from the howls of those opposing Clark over at the Greenbaggins blog you’d think Clark and those who follow him have abandoned the Gospel entirely.  Frankly, some have said exactly that.  One particularly virulent and nasty Van Tillian, Vern Crisler, exclaimed: “Clarkians do not believe in Jesus, or have faith in Jesus. They only have faith in propositions about Jesus.”  I confess it is really tough to suffer this kind of inanity, but evidently such baseless and ridiculous comments are perfectly acceptable on the Greenbaggins blog. Oh, yeah, did I mention Crisler was a Van Tillian?

That’s not to say that all Van Tillians are willing to join Crisler under his rock, at least not publicly.  Lane Keister, who is also a Van Tillian, and he may be the exception, seems to understand just how modest Clark’s change is to the traditional understanding really is and writes:

To conclude, when Clark/Gerety et al say “justification by belief alone” they are not talking about just knowledge, or even just assent. They are also including in that a personal appropriation of that truth to the sinner. I do not see a whopping difference between that and what others have said concerning trust . . . Maybe the two orthodox sides are not so different after all.

While I might want to tweak some of Keister’s understanding of belief, the immediate question is whether or not “a personal appropriation of the truth of the Gospel” is just a description of assent, specifically the assent to the truth of the Gospel, or is it something more?  Keister seems to be saying that they’re both the same thing and it would seem they are.  In that case I would agree that the “two orthodox sides are not that different at all,” only the other side, the traditionalist side, likes to carry around unnecessary baggage that some not so friendly to the doctrine of justification by faith alone have been able to piggyback on virtually unnoticed.

However, something that presents a much more difficult hurdle to overcome, and I think is even more problematic, is that these traditionalists can’t even agree among themselves exactly what trust is or how it’s supposed to be defined so that it differs from belief and so that it completes belief as to make it salvific.  One person says it’s an emotion.  Another says it’s a personal appropriation.   Another says trust should be defined in terms of assurance or more specifically a  “confident reception of the promises in God’s word” and then adds, “This is what the fiducia part of notitia, assensus, fiducia is all about.”  After all, the Heidelberg Catechism includes “assured confidence” as part of its definition of true faith, whereas the Westminster Confession considers assurance as a distinct doctrine entirely (arguably another reason why the WCF is superior).  Even Dr. Strange complains that “any definition of faith that merely intellectualizes faith” is in error (even if he doesn’t say what that error is), but instead quickly adds “any position that de-intellectualizes faith” is also in error.  Huh? What exactly is the correct definition of faith that is both intellectualized and de-intellectualized?  Perhaps this is why most traditionalists resort to figurative metaphors like “resting and receiving” as if this were something in addition to understanding and assent instead of a just description of it or instead simply repeat the word “trust” in mantra like fashion.

If nothing else, the level of confusion expressed by the traditionalists over at the Greenbaggins blog proves my point and that the confusion over what faith is and how it should be defined presents an alarming weakness in the bulwark of the Reformed system right at the very heart of the Gospel.  This explains why Christ’s enemies, particularly those of the Federal Vision, have been able to exploit this weakness with extraordinary success.  That’s because the traditionalists have a hard time discerning  that the Federal Visionists have smuggled works in as the third and necessary element of saving  faith, precisely because traditionalists have no clear idea what this third element is.

Now, I take it for granted  that as Reformed believers there are always going to be things we might never agree on (at least on this earth), but one would think we could all agree on a definition of faith that is 1) univocal and unambiguous whether applied to saving faith or faith that my shoes are tied, and, 2) allows us to all know what we’re talking about when we say we’re justified by it. Can there be any doubt that Keister is exactly right when he says the difficulty lies precisely in this third and supposedly essential fiducial element of saving faith translated  “trust” and is why people have been able to “drive trucks through it”?

Which brings us again to Dr. Strange.  On the Greenbaggins blog Vern Crisler howled:

Sean has been promoting the horrible intellectualist version of justification by belief alone for some time now. It is just as extreme in its own way as that of the Federal Vision.

To which Dr. Strange replied:

With respect to Vern’s last sentence … the reason that I originally (in the earlier post that evoked Sean’s “Strange” response) argued against an intellectualized faith being promoted in that context (one in which the FV error of “faith as faithfulness” was being treated) was that the way to correct an error is not to make the opposite error . For example, the antidote to the error that Christ has only one nature (monophysitism) is not to declare that He is two persons (Nestorianism). Rather, it is the orthodox formularly hammered out at Chalcedon (451) that He is one person in two natures.

Similarly the cure for FV “faithfulness” is not Clarkian “assentism.” The report of not just the Reformers but Protestantism (Luther agreed) as a whole is what has here by some been pilloried and castigated, but we affirm as that which is taught in Scripture and affirmed in our Confessions: True, saving faith consists of something more (though never anything less than) assent to the truth. Assent to the truth is necessary but not sufficient. There must be that which is spoken of throughout God’s Word and which is captured in all the confessional statements that speak of that which is more than assent.

This is not an error that we can allow to wax because we want their support againt the errors of FV. The historic confessional churches have opposed Sandemanianism and we must continue to do so.

The first thing to notice about Dr. Strange’s response is the old telltale that when someone resorts to abusive ad hominem you know they’ve already lost the debate.  Calling Gordon Clark a “Sandemanianian” is almost as unthinking and silly as those who call him a “Nestorian” on the question of the Incarnation.  You would think if Clark was a “Sandemanianian” and “Sandemanianism” is bad this would be easy to demonstrate.  But this isn’t the first time Clark’s critics have tried to use this pathetic straw man tactic in order to discredit and libel Clark (see Gordon Clark vs The Bogeyman where John Robbins exposes a similar attack on Clark, which, as is turns out, is really a veiled attack on the Gospel itself).

Basically, Strange’s entire objection to Clark boils down to the fact that the historic confessional churches have not defined saving faith in the way Clark has therefore it is wrong to do so.  Well, that doesn’t follow.  Simply because a position has been held for a long time doesn’t make it true.  Besides, what kind of Protestant is Dr. Strange anyway?   Should we start referring to Reformed tradition as “magisterial” and bow to our tradition as woodenly and as unthinkingly as Romanists bow to theirs?  I don’t see why, but that does seem to be Strange’s chosen answer.  Of course, I can’t really blame him as that would save Strange from having to actually develop arguments in support of his tradition.

Even stranger is when Strange asserts; “we affirm as that which is taught in Scripture and affirmed in our Confessions: True, saving faith consists of something more (though never anything less than) assent to the truth.” Well, neither the Westminster Confession nor the Scripture say any such thing.   This is a fantasy Strange concocted and evidently hopes that no one will notice.  If it weren’t a fantasy you would think this would be another golden opportunity for this Associate Professor of Church History at Mid America Reformed Seminary to explain precisely what this “something more” is.  His silence at this point is deafening.   But maybe I’m being a bit hasty.  While there is certainly no support for Strange’s assertion that in Scripture faith is defined as something more than a combination of understanding and assent (why does Strange always leave out the understanding part?), perhaps what he has in mind is WLC, Q. 72?  After all in his review of What is Saving Faith? he argued:

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.

In reply to Strange Dr. Robbins observed:

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.

As we saw in my previous piece, according to Strange belief lacks trust (in spite of trust being a synonym and subset of belief), whereas to have faith includes trust.  However, and as we also saw, since belief and faith are translations of the same Greek word pistis Strange is guilty of equivocating on the word faith.  Think about it; according to Strange and in opposition to Scripture one can believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on their behalf and be lost, whereas another can have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to the saving of their souls.  What kind of sense does that make?  Strange indeed.

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9 Comments on “Still Strange”

  1. lawyertheologian Says:

    I think people get so caught up in the language that they lose sight of meaning of language. The word “faith” has become so familiar that it gets read back into the Scripture terms so that those terms (pistis and amen)are assumed to mean more than assent, even though they can’t say what the more is.

    In my strange denomination, I was accepted as a member even though I didn’t agree that faith included trust, though I did agree that I trusted in Jesus for salvation; it is just that that doesn’t amount to more than believing in Jesus for salvation. The session would agree that everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on their behalf is saved. But, again, they would define “believe” in this context as including trust, which they have no clear concept of. My current pastor (based on transferred membership) thinks acceptance is included in faith/belief of the gospel, that to receive Jesus involves more than assent to the gospel. John 1:12 seems to say that those who receive Jesus are those who believe in Jesus, which is solely a matter of an acknowledgement in the mind.

  2. David Taylor Says:

    All I can say (at least, at this point) is that if faith isn’t ‘intellectual’ then it must be ‘physical.’ Or…..is there a third element of man – of which I am not aware?

    I do love this:

    “…Sean has been promoting the horrible intellectualist version of justification by belief alone for some time now. It is just as extreme in its own way as that of the Federal Vision….”

    One wonders what the *good* intellectualist version of justification is – as opposed to that horrible one…

    Justification is not “by belief alone”, justification is by God’s declaration alone, because of Christ’s work alone – a fact that we accept because it is Gods word (i.e.: we accept the statement and believe it to be true) – we take His word for it. Our works avail us nothing. Hence, we say that Justification is available to us, because we, like Abraham “believed God”, and not because we are acting in any particular matter. Justification that God has wrought for us is ours THROUGH faith alone, and nothing else.

    Or, we understand that we are justified, because God says we are, and we believe that statement!

  3. lawyertheologian Says:

    “All I can say (at least, at this point) is that if faith isn’t ‘intellectual’ then it must be ‘physical.’ Or…..is there a third element of man – of which I am not aware?”

    Emotional. For most, man is not just mind and body, but mind, body and emotions.

    “One wonders what the *good* intellectualist version of justification is – as opposed to that horrible one…”

    For them, all (solely) intellectual versions of justifications are horrible. Down with the intellect! That prideful thing!

    “Or, we understand that we are justified, because God says we are, and we believe that statement!”

    Well, we are not justified by believing we are justified, or on God’s statement that we are justified. God declares us justified, but on a particular basis, the work of his Son, and on that basis, we are justified. Believing doesn’t make it so, nor is justification a reward for believing.

  4. Sean Gerety Says:

    I see on Greenbaggins Ron Di Giacomo has taken quite the offense at my titles and protests:

    Certainly nobody would write “When You’re Gaffin” and follow-up with “Still Gaffin”. No, the word “strange” is essential to the jab.

    Methinks he protesteth too much. Good titles though. Perhaps I should change the name of this post. Of course, I suppose then I’d have to give Ron credit. 🙂

  5. Hugh McCann Says:

    Ron Di G. @ Greebaggins also deserves credit for adding another term to the list of “What Constitutes the Third Element in the Traditional Reformed Definition of Faith”: “Reliance”!

    Thank you, Ron, for that contribution.

    And, Sean says, ‘Dr. Strange complains that “any definition of faith that merely intellectualizes faith” is in error (even if he doesn’t say what that error is), but instead quickly adds “any position that de-intellectualizes faith” is also in error. Huh? What exactly is the correct definition of faith that is both intellectualized and de-intellectualized?’

    Maybe Strange means that it includes an intellectual aspect, but is not exclusively intellectual? But again, this doesn’t get us anywhere…

  6. Hugh McCann Says:

    When Strange saith,’…saving faith consists of something more (though never anything less than) assent to the truth. Assent to the truth is necessary but not sufficient. There must be that which is spoken of throughout God’s Word and which is captured in all the confessional statements that speak of that which is more than assent.’

    I again say: It’s not the components (or elements) of faith that we first need to get right, but what are the facts to be understood in order to be saved?!

    In repetitively droning of ‘assent to the truth,’ without declaring precisely what that truth is that is to be assented to, the Strange Van Tilites appear confused yet vociferous. (Perhaps from envy and rivalry, but others from good will? God knows.)

    Vantilesque writers miss Clark’s and Robbins’ and Gerety’s point(s) not first because of different descriptions of faith’s components, but because of confusion over the propositions to be believed in order to be saved.

    We’re not speaking of Jacobean monotheism (James 2:19), nor of merely believing that Christ lived and died, or even that his rose again, but that he lived and died and rose again FOR OUR SINS (per 1 Cor. 15:3f).

    Some do it (we hope) out of well-meaning zeal for God’s glory, some no doubt out of mere confusion, and the FV-ers because their confusion has led them to a more consisent works-righteousness.

    But it is at best sloppy & unhelpful to assurance, and at worst (as in the case of the Federal Visionaries), deadly.

  7. Steve M Says:

    Strange says, “For example, the antidote to the error that Christ has only one nature (monophysitism) is not to declare that He is two persons (Nestorianism). Rather, it is the orthodox formularly hammered out at Chalcedon (451) that He is one person in two natures.”

    My question for Van Tilians has yet to be answered. If the Godhead is one person and three persons, what is wrong with asserting that Christ is one person and two persons? I am not asserting this. I am not a Van Tilian. But how does a Van Tilian rule out this possibility?

    I have not even been able to get a Van Tilian to define person. If the Godhead is one person and three persons is there a different sense to the definition of person in each case? No Van Tilian will answer the question.

    By the way Sean, better titles for the two posts might have been, “When You’re Confused” and “Still Confused”. Perhaps these would have been less offensive to what’s his name.

  8. Ethan Says:

    What is Luke 8:13 talking about?

  9. Steve M Says:

    Farming.


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