Faith Is Understanding With Assent
As someone who has shed considerable spiritual blood defending and advocating for Gordon Clark’s simple and biblical definition of faith as an assent to an understood proposition (for example see here, here, here, here and here for starters), I was shocked this past week to learn that there are people coming out of Whitefield Seminary who are under the impression that John Robbins altered Clark’s understanding of faith in his monograph, Faith And Saving Faith (later reissued as part of What Is Saving Faith). For example, one Whitefield student, Jason Petersen, posted on a Whitefield Facebook page that calls itself, “Clarkian Apologetics: Institute for Philosophical Thought”:
Gordon Clark’s book, [Faith and] Saving Faith, was edited to express Robbins’ view that faith is merely intellectual assent rather than Calvin’s view (which Clark agreed with).”
Jason Petersen is one of the list moderators and as soon as I asked Petersen to support his charge, while at the same time showing him why he was wrong, I was booted from the group. While I’m no stranger to the left foot of fellowship, normally it’s from blog sites and discussion boards run by Van Tillians who are more interested in protecting Van Til’s anti-Confessional P&R hegemony. However, these were self-professed Clarkians. I guess with friends like these….
To be fair, evidently the group has a rule against disagreeing with, much less challenging, any one of the moderators. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I ever actually joined the group and I suspect my friend, Hugh McCann (who has a habit putting me on FB lists I had no intention of joining), signed me up. Regardless, I would never be a part of any discussion group that doesn’t allow discussion. Besides, I think FB is generally a horrible forum for theological discussions of any kind and is much better suited for cute puppy videos … and who doesn’t love cute puppy videos.
While I plan to get more into this odd bit of funny business coming out of this little Whitefield sponsored group, I thought I would share part of a transcript from a Clark audio lecture that can be found at John Robbin’s Trinity Foundation website: A Defense of Christian Presuppositions in the Light of Non-Christian Presuppositions. Interestingly, the transcript of that lecture can be found at The Gordon Clark Foundation website run by Ken Talbot and Whitefield Seminary. Don’t get me wrong, I was initially thrilled to learn about The Gordon Clark Foundation. I was also thrilled to learn of the Scripturalism site run by C.Jay Engel and Luke Miner out of California. The more the merrier. I was also thrilled to learn over the years that Whitefield uses some of Clark’s works as source material. Every seminary should. After all, Gary Crampton (a long time contribution to the Trinity Foundation) is on their Administrative Board and from what I can tell from their promotional materials, teaches New Testament, Theology, and Apologetics at the seminary.
Moreover, I don’t care if Crampton or Talbot disagree with Clark and hold to the irrational and nonsensical traditional threefold definition, most do, but for anyone to suggest that Clark shared their view and that Robbins somehow altered the text of F&SF as to change Clark’s simple and unambiguous definition of saving faith reflects very badly on the character of those making that charge. I can’t really blame Jason Petersen however, but I’m happy to blame his teachers at Whitfield if they are in any way responsible for this nasty bit of misinformation.
So, to correct any misunderstanding of what Clark actually taught regarding the nature of faith and saving faith, the following is the Q & A portion from the above mentioned lecture. It should be more than enough to demonstrate that the view of faith expressed in Faith And Saving Faith is very much that of Gordon Clark:
Questioner 4: Yes sir. What is the barrier between this intellectual understanding and assent. Is it a barrier to man’s mind? Is it an inherent defect in man’s mind, is it a suppression of righteousness or a combination of both?
The question is what is the difference between understanding and assent.
Questioner 4: What is the barrier that prevents a man from moving from understanding to assent?
Oh, What is the barrier that prevents a man from moving from understanding to assent? Well, of course, it is sin.
Questioner 4: But in what respect does sin affect the mind of man? Does man inherently defective or does he simply not like what he is told, or both?
Sin affects people in various ways. To different degrees. And there isn’t any general statements you can make. But I’ll give you some. For example, not everybody commits murder. Even worse criminals don’t do it except on Saturday night. There are, you know. they have different ways of doing this. But one of the effects of sin, is the inability to correctly add up your columns on your income tax blanks. You make a mistake in arithmetic. That’s due to original sin. It might not be the worst sin in the world, but it is a common one. And we have this effect of sin in our lives. And so we make mistakes in arithmetic. Now when it comes to the gospel, men have very good opinions of themselves. They don’t think they need salvation. They have, well some people think they’re all going to go to heaven anyhow. And so they’re not much interested in what you have to say. But this differs from person to person. Of course, the basic effect of sin is to make a person at enmity with the gospel, with God. But it manifests itself in various ways. It is not necessarily a defect, not a defect in human nature as such. And it certainly not a defect in arithmetic. We may make mistakes in arithmetic but that doesn’t mean arithmetic is mistaken. The effect of sin in various human lives differs from person to person. But there is a general reluctance to accept grace. And to admit that you need to be saved. Does that answer your question or doesn’t it? Not quite. Well, ask it over again.
Questioner 4: Well, I understand perfectly as far as sin does affect the mind. My question is simply is how does it affect the mind? Is unregenerate man able to reason up to brink of faith, to understand cognitively all the aspects of the gospel in its fullest sense and the problem is he doesn’t come to faith simply because he doesn’t like the implications of what he sees? Or does he not really have a full cognitive awareness of what the gospel is? Does he have a 98% understanding of it?
Did everybody hear all this long question? I don’t mind you asking a second time and making it long, I just want everybody to hear the question. I can hardly repeat it. But you’re again asking why a man doesn’t accept the gospel. Doesn’t he understand it, or so on. Again, it varies from person to person. I think the person in the first century of our era after the death and resurrection of Christ, the one person who understood the doctrines of Christianity better than anybody else was the persecutor Saul. He had a better Christian theology in his understanding than any of the Christians had. That’s why he was so mad, that is why he wanted to persecute them. There was no defect in his understanding. If you want defects in understanding why you better look to the apostles. Or some of that at any rate. Or the other Christians. But Paul understood the implications of the gospel. He hated it. Then Christ met him on the road to Damascus and changed his mind. That’s change of mind, metanoia, that’s repentance. But not everybody is as brilliant as the apostle Paul and they have various difficulties. Does someone else wish to. Yes sir.
Questioner 5: Yes sir, you ordered faith, and I think Sam’s question was in the same area, if you define faith as notitia, assentia, and fiducia. I think you’re saying the essence of faith is assentia, assent, agreement with fact.
Yes I am.
Questioner 5. Ok. How about fiducia? How does that enter into your definition of faith?
It doesn’t. And I’ll tell you why. The word fiducia is the same root as the word faith, fides. Repeat the question I thought everybody heard.
Moderator: Pronounce the Latin word correctly. It is assensus and not assentia.
Yes, its assensus. The gentleman’s question was if you define faith as notitia, assensus, fiducia quae, et fiducia or something like that, what do you do with fiducia? This student correctly saw what I was saying: that faith was a matter of assent. And not understanding by itself, but understanding plus assent. Then he wants to know about fiducia. Now fiducia is the same root as fides, and what has happened is this. A person has asked you to define faith, and you say faith is understanding, assent, and faith. Well, that doesn’t add anything at all. You’re simply repeating the word for which you previous asked for the definition. And I prefer John Calvin who talks about assent itself being pious. It is not something else added to the assent that is pious, the assent itself is pious. And so believing, and I really prefer the word believing, because the word faith is Latin, and I don’t like Latin, I like the Greek pistueo. And belief is assent. It is assent to an understood proposition. And it is a voluntary assent to something you understand and being voluntary and the nature of assent it is nothing hypocritical. It must be sincere, that is what assent is. Now, the trouble, I think in contemporary civilization is, at least for the last couple centuries, is that some people have begun to think that assent is merely something verbal that you say out loud but perhaps you don’t mean. Of course, that is not assent, that is hypocrisy. But assent in its theological meaning is simply the fact that to believe you accept this proposition. As the Scripture says, you believe that Christ is Lord, you believe that he rose from the dead, and if you believe those things you are saved. That’s it. Now, I’ll repeat it, now the reason I don’t like that threefold analysis of faith is that the third part of it is just the word that you asked the definition for. And hence the addition of the word fiducia doesn’t add anything to your understanding of it. You want to make some rejoinder to that? Oh, I don’t mind, you know, I love a brawl.
Questioner 5: I think the problem is that in the modern day people think this is a mechanical, I believe, mechanical understanding, 1 + 1 = 2 and I think you’ve answered my part of the question real assent involves a change in life.
Well, maybe, that isn’t always the case. You mentioned 1 + 1 is 2. If you believe 1 + 1 is 2, that is your assent to that proposition, but difference between believing that 1 + 1 is 2 and believing that Christ rose from the dead is the difference in the proposition believed. Its not a difference in the psychology of assent. And you ought to keep clearly distinguished the psychology of assent and the objects of various assents. Because you can assent to mathematical principles or some botanical information or something or other, these are all assent if you really believe what you say, but they are not saving faith. They are faith, but they are not saving faith. Saving faith is a species of faith. All faith is assent but not all faith is saving faith.
Questioner 6: Are you saying that the problem with the unbeliever is basically notitia and not …?
No, just the opposite.
Questioner 6: It is basically the assenus and not the notitia.
Yes, I have been saying to repeat the question in answer form. The trouble with the unbeliever is that he doesn’t believe. He doesn’t assent. Now, of course, some unbelievers don’t understand either. But there are some people who understand, as Saul the persecutor. He understood perfectly well but he did not assent.
Questioner 6: Is there any positive content to assensus?
Yes, the proposition you assent to. This is a question of the difference between understanding and assenting. And you ask if there is any difference between them. Is that what you ask?
Questioner 6: What I’m getting at is, kinda back to Sam’s questions over there, I keep thinking part of the problem with the unbeliever is not only assensus but also notitia.
Well that is often the case, but it isn’t always. To repeat the question in answer form, the trouble with the unbeliever may be a matter of understanding. It may not be. I would suppose that most of the time it is also a question of not understanding. This would be very frequently the case. Let me, I don’t want to take up too much time giving little stories. But, I was once, I once had a Roman Catholic amongst some other students who came to our home for Bible study for a period of time and we were going through Romans and justification by faith, and I thought he knew what I was saying, but after six weeks, when we were discussing in our little group, it dawned on me that he just hadn’t understood a single word I had said. His mind was full of Romanism. Everything I said was misinterpreted and he didn’t understand. Well, I guess I made a bad job of it. But there are other people, as I say with the Apostle Paul or the persecutor Saul, he understood. If Saul had not understood the claim of Christ to be God, he wouldn’t have been so angry. It was because he understood that he was a persecutor. I hope that meets your question.
Questioner 6: Carry this further would you explain your understanding on Ephesian 4:1719 where it talks about the darkened mind, the darkened understanding of the gentiles. And I understood in the universal sense all men have the darkening in their understanding so that they don’t perceive the truth. And yet you’re saying it is conceivable that they understand truth with clarity, just not believe it because the work of the Holy Spirit is not upon him. How would you understand Ephesians 4.
The question has to do with Ephesian 4 where it speaks of man’s mind being darkened. Well, I would include in the functions of mind the assent as well as the notitia, but I distinguish between the two functions. This is not faculty psychology, but it is two functions of the same spirit. of course, men’s minds are darkened by sin. The word darkened of course is a figurative expression and you have to try to figure out just what is meant. It might mean that man is proud and doesn’t want to acknowledge that God is sovereign. It may mean that man loves his sin and doesn’t want to reform. Different things to different people. But I can only repeat what I said two or three times, that it seems quite obvious that Paul understood very well. But I gave you this illustration of the Roman Catholic fellow. This would be a good illustration. His mind was preoccupied by Romanism. He had been instructed in it from his earliest days. And if I use the term grace, well if you look up in the Roman Catholic encyclopedia, you’ll find there are sixteen different kinds of grace. And if I use the word grace, I have no idea what he was thinking of. But he has this background, and of course this is what you have to meet on the foreign mission field. When you have an audience of very different civilization, a very low degree of civilization. Savage tribe or something. They just don’t understand what you say. And it takes a long time to explain and make things clear. I could give some other stories, but maybe not. Yes.
Questioner 7: Would you comment on 1 Corinthians 2:14 it says the natural man does not accept the things of God, they are hidden to him. He is not able to understand them because ??? of Christ.
The verse in 1 Corinthians, what is it, 2 something or other, that says the natural man is not able to understand. Well, I don’t exactly know what he means. Because Paul did understand. If he had not understood he wouldn’t have persecuted the church. So I would rather emphasize the word there that he is opposed to them, he is disinclined to accept them. We use understand in perhaps a looser way. In ordinary English we may use understand in a looser way than strict way. But, if a person says, if a person says that Jesus’ death on the cross was a propitiation to satisfy the justice of the Father, well some people would understand the language, but other people wouldn’t. And some people who very nonChristian, who hated Christianity, would still understand it. They wouldn’t assent to it. Yes.