JUSTIFICATION BY BELIEF

The following is a post from Ron DiGiacomo, expressing some reflections on the recent discussion here on the nature of faith. Is it assent alone, or assent + trust?


It has recently been argued by some that we are justified by belief alone and that receiving and resting in Christ unpacks what it is to believe. In other words, receiving and resting in Christ is considered a figure of speech by which belief in Christ can be defined. Trusting in Christ does not complete justifying belief because trusting is synonymous with believing. Accordingly, to add receiving and resting in Christ to belief is either (i) redundant, (ii) strips belief of part of its meaning, needlessly placing it somewhere else, or (iii) to add something additional to the instrumental cause of justification. The first deviation would be a matter of muddled thinking, but the gospel would remain intact although jumbled. The second would be purely a matter of semantics. Whereas the third construct would undermine the grace by which we are saved, appropriated by belief alone.

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.

It is at this point someone will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context is it is opined that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to trust the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in that something. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by the reliance sort of trust. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to implicitly deny the need to willfully trust upon Christ alone for salvation!

As a last ditch effort some have argued that it is impossible to assent to the truth of the gospel without justification following. They draw a distinction between (i) assent in non-spiritual matters (allowing for assent to obtain without trust) and (ii) assent with respect to the gospel (suggesting that assent is inseparable to trust, even its equivalent). They reason that true assent to the gospel is only granted at conversion. Therefore, assent is trust because the two are inseparable where the gospel is concerned. Rather than debate the premise, it’s much easier to concede it for argument’s sake in order to save time in refuting the conclusion that assent is trust. Even if assent were a sufficient condition for pardon in Christ that would not mean that assent equates to trust any more than assent is regeneration. It would merely mean that when assent is present pardon obtains, just like when pardon obtains regeneration is present. Since when may a sufficient condition be equated with the relevant components that comprise the state of affairs within which the condition operates?!

In sum, assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or non-trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.)

If assent and trust were synonyms under the gospel, then either they both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust).  If assent and trust mean the same thing, then either we cannot rely upon our convictions or else we can only rely upon things that don’t convince us. Conviction without reliance leaves no room for trusting in Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel.

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Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

A Gentle Response to Clair Davis

Dr. Clair Davis has written a response to Gaffin’s piece (which I linked in the previous post). As always, Davis is humble and always wanting to learn more, something I have always admired about him. He does not think he has finished learning. And he is more than willing to listen to those who disagree with him. In this post, I do not presume to teach Dr. Davis. As I indicated in my last post, my own thought is also undergoing change. But I do have some thoughts about his response. Writing about them helps me to think through the issues.

The first point I wish to raise has to do with the variety of ways that Jesus can be seen in the Old Testament. As I mentioned in my review of Sidney Greidanus, there are a variety of ways to see Christ in the Old Testament. This does not mean that a given passage, however, has more than one ultimate meaning. Otherwise, we will fall foul of the first chapter of the WCF, which says that the true and full sense of Scripture is not manifold but one (I wonder if the “two readings” view can really agree with WCF 1.9). The two readings view seems to me to say that the OT text has two meanings: the original one and the Christological one, and that they don’t have to match up or even connect (usually taking the historical critical method for granted here). Both camps in this debate would agree that there is progress of understanding the OT text. Otherwise we would have no New Testament. But Jesus says that He IS the meaning of the Old Testament in John 5 and Luke 24. He is not an add-on, or an afterthought. Yes, in some ways, Jesus is a surprise. But not completely. Otherwise, Abraham could not have rejoiced to see His day. The real question is not whether there is more than one way to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but whether He is there in the Old Testament at all! The two readings view seems to suggest that Jesus is not properly there at all, but is read into the Old Testament by means of Second Temple Jewish hermeneutical means (i.e., rabbinical means).

The second issue that I wish to bring up is whether biblical theology is “greatly weakened” at WTS, as Davis says. Yes, Enns and Green are not there anymore. Neither is McCartney. Instead, they have Beale and Duguid. My question is this: how can biblical theology be “greatly weakened” at WTS when two of biblical theology’s greatest practitioners have just joined the faculty? Beale’s greatest strength is in seeing how the New Testament reads the Old Testament. And he has written a mammoth New Testament Biblical Theology that will, I am sure, prove to be a classic. Duguid’s OT commentaries are some of the very finest OT exegesis I have seen, and very much in the Vossian BT tradition.

The third issue is the perennial one of the relationship of biblical theology to systematic theology (BT to ST). Davis believes that the two are yoke-fellows. He looks at the statement of the affirmations and denials and wonders if they haven’t put systematic theology in the untenable position of being unanswerable to Scripture. Having sat under Gaffin for five classes and received about 50% exegesis and 50% systematizing, I can say that, for the Westminster ST faculty, ST is always answerable to Scripture! The WTS faculty would NEVER say that ST equals the Bible. I do not think the affirmations and denials are saying that, either. The affirmations and denials statement was aimed at the unnatural separation of BT and ST that the two readings view advocates. It does not actually address the place of ST in the theological encyclopedia. I have talked rather extensively with the current ST faculty about the questions of encyclopedia, and they are agreed that ALL the theological disciplines are inter-connected and mutually inter-dependent. My question is this: why would we want to set any of the theological disciplines in tension with any of the others? As Davis’s example of a sermon shows, all the disciplines need to come to bear on the application. The analogy I use is that of a very heavy drill. A heavy drill has a lots of different parts to it all aimed at one point: the drill bit going through whatever material is present. That point of the drill is like application: where the rubber hits the road. But the more we have in terms of the other disciplines informing that application, the heavier and deeper the drill will penetrate the human heart. I would argue that it is the two readings view which separates BT from ST. Enns and Green don’t particularly like ST. They are suspicious of something that might put a straight-jacket on exegesis. This is not how ST should be thought of in relation to exegesis or BT. ST provides the safe fence outside of which exegesis and BT will find danger, not creative freedom. The fence can be moved, but Proverbs warns us against moving the landmark. There is a faith once for all given to the saints. There is a pattern of sound teaching. BT draws a line, and ST draws a circle.

Fourthly, that Vos says what he says does not prove that the main hermeneutical method that the apostles and Jesus used was a Second Temple Jewish rabbinical method. Nor does it prove that Jesus was an imposition on the OT text. That Vos says what he says in the quotation, therefore, does not disprove WTS’s point, as it is not directly relevant to whether Jesus is natively present in the Old Testament or not, which is the issue under consideration. After all, Paul quoted from heathen poets and philosophers in the New Testament as well. Does that prove that his hermeneutic is pagan? Using the language and concepts of the day does not equal a hermeneutical method.

Fifthly, what is it about Green’s method that is contrary to the Westminster Standards? I have brought up one point (the true and full meaning of Scripture being not manifold but one). Another point that we must bear in mind here is the unity of the covenant of grace, as WCF 7 puts it so well. Were the types of the Old Testament intended to prefigure Christ? The WCF says that they DO prefigure Christ. Period. They do not prefigure Christ only in hindsight, only on a second reading. Davis actually grants this point in the movie illustration, when he agrees with Gaffin. The problem for Davis here is that Gaffin and Green cannot both be correct on this point. Davis tries valiantly to reconcile the two, but I believe he cannot do so.

The Real Issue at Westminster Theological Seminary

Dr. Richard Gaffin has written a knock-out piece describing what is at stake in the recent retirement of Professor Doug Green at WTS (hat tip Nick Batzig).

Now, I have known for a long time that there were two different appraisals of Vos’s contribution to biblical theology. One version says that the Old Testament needs to be read first as if no New Testament existed (the so-called first reading). Only then is it followed by a second reading that takes the New Testament into account. This second reading is usually compared to Second Temple Jewish readings of the Old Testament that are in most ways “surprise” endings to the story. This is called the “Christotelic” hermeneutic. I firmly believe that the Christotelic version actually distorts Vos. One way to ask the question is this: are there any dead ends in the Old Testament? Is there any passage that does not speak of Christ?

The answer is that there are no dead ends. John 5 and Luke 24 prove this. We do not mean by this that Jesus is the antitype of every single element in the Old Testament. Rather, we mean that Jesus is the culmination of the entire story, and that the entire story progresses to Jesus. This involves the correct balance between ultimate truth and progressive development. The true reading of Vos involves an organic inter-related holistic approach to biblical interpretation, where Jesus is the natural outworking of the progressive nature of the Old Testament development.

However, I realized only recently that I still had some remaining shackles of the Christotelic interpretation, as I had until recently still thought of the “2 readings” of the Old Testament as valid. “Christocentric” is ultimately a better word for the true Vossian version of biblical theology than “Christotelic.” Read the article. You will be glad you did. The reports of the death of biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary have been greatly exaggerated.