Archive for September 2014

Filling the Breach — Justification By Belief Alone, Pt. 2

September 1, 2014

PCAThe attack on justification by belief alone continues by Lane Keister and his associates at his Greenbaggins blog. This time Ron DiGiacomo, the so-called “Reformed Apologist,” has taken up the challenge.  In part one of this series we saw Mid-America Reformed Seminary professor, Dr. Alan Strange, a man who identifies himself as one of the “Watchmen of Israel,” failed miserably in his attempt to show that belief alone in the finished work of Christ alone doesn’t save.  For Strange, DiGiacomo, Keister and the rest at the Greenbaggins blog belief is not the alone instrument by which a sinner is justified, but rather something more is needed.  This something more, whatever it may be, is incorporated (some would say smuggled) in what they mean by “faith.”

According to these men faith is something qualitatively distinct and different from belief.

In part one Dr. Strange argued, insisted actually, that this threefold definition of faith consisting of a combination of understanding (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia), is explicitly taught in the Westminster Confession specifically in the Larger Catechism 72 where we learn that justifying faith “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.”  According to Strange to receive and rest upon Christ and his righteousness is more than belief (understanding + assent) and is an expression of the elusive fiducial or trust element that transforms ordinary belief (understanding + assent) into something more.  Yet, according to Hugh McCann WLC 72 is not a discussion of the elements of justifying faith at all, but rather its object.  I think this is exactly right, but Strange maintains that not only did “all the magisterial Reformers” hold to this threefold definition (despite the fact that Turretin had seven elements of saving faith and Witsius had nine), but that all the Divines at Westminster intended WLC 72 to be understood as an expression of this threefold definition.

Now, I admit, it was very odd when this professor of church history could not provide a single quote from even one of the theologians at Westminster demonstrating that the Confession was intended to be read in terms of the elements of justifying faith and not the object that faith apprehends and by which we are justified.  Yet, on Keister’s blog Strange bellowed:

[Sean] now demanded that I provide citations proving what everyone (including Clark and Robbins) has already conceded to be true: that the Reformed tradition teaches that justifying faith is not by assent alone but also involves trust.

We all know how the tradition defines faith; the question is how the innovators define it. My ability to contribute to this discussion, certainly for now, has come to an end, but it seems that if this is where the discussion has come, it’s really quite over. No one disputes what the historic Reformed definition of faith is; the only question is whether Clark’s novel definition corrects the tradition or errs. We maintain that it errs and now we have a bunch of Clarkians saying, “Well, what really is the tradition anyway?”

For the record, it has never been denied that tradition has defined faith exactly as Strange has done.  My objection is, and has been, WLC 72 is not a discussion of the traditional threefold definition of faith at all, but rather the object of justifying faith.  I completely grant that Strange is defending tradition, but that tradition errs by adding a superfluous, tautological, anti-intellectual, and even ambiguous element to simple faith or belief that has allowed heretics like those in the Federal Vision to drive a truck through.  By denying that trust is belief, specifically belief in propositions in the future tense like “he will be good to me” as Clark defined it, or, as Webster’s defines it as “belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.,” men like Strange have left the Reformed faith completely open and vulnerable to attacks from within and from without.  Men like Doug Wilson, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, Steve Wilkins, Greg Lawrence, Joshua Moon, Jeff Meyers and the other Federal Visionist have made all these self-styled “Watchmen of Israel” look impotent and incompetent as they continue to attack the Reformed system exactly at its weakest point; the traditional threefold definition of saving faith.  Yet, rather than acting like Protestant men by judging their tradition in light of Scripture, they act like puffed up papists complaining that their opponents “have to make their argument from the Bible.”  The gall, I know.

Which brings us to Ron DiGiacomo, who, with the blessing of Lane Keister, has continued to undermine the very foundation on which the church stands or falls.  According to DiGiacomo those who maintain, along with the Scriptures, that a man is justified by belief alone err by denying that fiducia or trust is that which transforms or completes simple faith or belief making it saving.  DiGiacomo begins his attack as follows:

Those who promote the belief alone view are sometimes met with tedious rejoinders such as the false dichotomy “we’re saved by Christ not propositional belief.” Notwithstanding, more serious objections have been raised by Teaching and Ruling Elders against the belief alone position because of the group’s insistence upon equating belief with assent. This is where things get a bit dicey. Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than a child chooses to believe he is being fed by his mother. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed. However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.

Like most bad arguments this one fails right from the start.  First, DiGiacomo begs the question by asserting that “most things we assent to . . .are not volitional,” i.e., that most of our beliefs don’t involve choice.  How does he know this?  DiGiacomo’s chief examples are belief in God’s existence and a child’s belief that he is being fed by his mother.  First, how does he know what a child chooses to believe or does not believe? While on a plane this past week I saw a stewardess pick up a woman’s baby who was on her way to her grandparents in order to celebrate her fist birthday.  After a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” the stewardess said; “Where’s your Mommy?”  The child started to reach out to her mother. Was her choice of this one woman out of a half dozen or so other women seated nearby a choice?  Was it an act of will? It would seem so. If the stewardess handed the child to a different woman and said, “Here, this is your Mommy,” would the child believe her?  Somehow I think the child would have resisted and probably would have squirmed and even cried in protest as she was handed off to an impostor. Thankfully, the stewardess wasn’t so cruel, yet this child exhibited more intelligence than some Reformed apologists.

So, what about God’s existence?  According to DiGiacomo belief in God’s existence is a belief that “is not discursive” or one not marked by “analytical reasoning.”  Now, I don’t know what sort of isolation booth DiGiacomo lives in, but I’ve met countless people over the years that either deny or affirm God’s existence for all sorts of reasons.  It seems that the choice to be an atheist, a Muslim, a Roman Catholic, a Hare Krishna, a Christian, or whatever else in relationship to the one true God are more often than not marked by some of the most intense analysis imaginable. Then again, some people are just brought up as an atheist, a Muslim, a Roman Catholic, a Hare Krishna, or even a Christian, but does this imply that that their belief or non-belief in God’s existence, or even the belief in many gods for that matter, is not a choice; “not discursive”?  I don’t see how, but then I don’t live in anything close DiGiacomo’s solitary confinement.  Besides, and as Gordon Clark explained many times throughout his career, the idea of God’s existence is really a meaningless phrase feigning profundity for the simple fact that any word that can be predicated on everything means precisely nothing. Hallucinations, dreams, and even unicorns all exist. The better question would be which God exists and to answer that, either in the positive or the negative, requires a choice, or, simply, an act of the will.  (more…)

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