Faith and Saving Faith. By Gordon H. Clark. Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1983. 118 pp. Paper, $5.95.
Of the perennial queries that surface in the ongoing debate over the nature of the Gospel, perhaps none is as fundamental as: “What constitutes saving faith?” No recent work responds as effectively to this end as Gordon H. Clark’s Faith and Saving Faith. The thesis that Clark presents is a marked departure from the creeds of his Reformed heritage: “Faith, by definition, is assent to understood propositions. Not all cases of assent, even assent to Biblical propositions, are saving faith; but all saving faith is assent to one or more Biblical propositions” (p. 118). At given points in his book the author qualifies his thesis by suggesting that “saving faith is volitional assent to an intellectual proposition” (p. 56; see also pp. 16, 48, 58, 68). Hence, from Clark’s point of view, there is an operation of volition coupled with mental assent in the occurrence of salvific faith.
Clark, a staunch Calvinist scholar whose pen was only a short time ago laid down by death, wrote this monograph in response to a perceived decline of intellectualism in American evangelicalism (pp. 11018). In this work as in all of his other works, the author’s epistemological base is a rigorous appeal to rationalism. While rationalistic underpinnings are evidenced throughout Clark’s argument, his thesis is well-balanced and fully conversant with the data of Scripture.
The author begins his book by interacting with secular and Roman Catholic concepts of faith. According to Clark, the recurring tendency among secular philosophers is to draw a false disjunction between “belief in a proposition” and “belief in a person.” The former is said to be a factual and impersonal belief, whereas the latter is said to be an evaluative belief of the “heart.” As Clark notes, this false dichotomy also emerges in Protestant and Roman Catholic discussions of faith (p. 16). The author tackles this notion head-on and demonstrates that it is impossible to place trust in someone without prior propositional knowledge of that person’s worthiness as an object of trust (pp. 19, 50, 104). In other words, propositions serve as the qualifying factors for the trustworthiness of a given object of faith. Clark also points out that the constructions pisteuein eis (“belief in”) and pisteuein hoti(“belief that”) are used interchangeably throughout the NT (p. 101). Consequently, “belief in” and “belief that” carry equal semantic force. As the author well notes, efforts to differentiate between “proposition belief” and “person belief” result in a hopeless display of philosophical casuistry. Where the author’s argument falls short is in his failure to acknowledge that theologians often-and without warrant-delimit the sense of “believe” to “understand.”
From a collective consideration of biblical data, Clark concludes that faith refers both to “the mental activity of believing” and “the propositions believed” (p. 32). With regard to the latter, the author argues that saving faith is a subspecies of the broader genus of “generic faith,” i.e., faith that is common to all human experience (p. 32). Hence, in the matter of distinguishing saving faith from that which is “spurious,” contrasts are not to be drawn between faith and knowledge. Neither is the act of faith to be subjected to an overly scrupulous analysis. Instead, saving faith is authenticated by the object wherein one places his trust. It is somewhat astonishing that this critical observation has not merited greater consideration in recent evangelical discussions of saving faith.
The author devotes a substantial portion of his text to a critique of Reformed discussions of faith. From the crucible of incisive analysis, a fair amount of pure doctrine is drawn from the colloquium of Reformed men of old. Particularly engaging are the remarks of Calvin who defined saving faith as “nothing else than to assent to the truths which God has revealed” (pp. 50, 112). At the same time, the author draws forth a sizable portion of theological dross from his Reformed predecessors! Most notable in this regard is the longstanding tripartite definition of faith as: “notitia, assensus, and fiducia, or understanding, assent, and trust” (p. 46). According to Clark, if the Latin term fiducia means “trust,” and if fides (“faith”) and fiducia are virtual synonyms, then the tripartite definition of faith is, in effect, a tautology which makes faith a constituent part of faith (p. 52).
The author draws attention to another telling flaw in Reformed analyses of faith, namely, the vague articulation of what constitutes the “crowning component” of saving faith. Clark argues that abstruse aphorisms such as “being one with Christ” (p. 49), “consent to take Christ” (p. 50), and “a giving out of oneself to another” (p. 103) do nothing but consign saving faith to an ineffable, supra-psychological “something” (pp. 47, 53-54, 82). The author also points out that the Lutheran description of apprehensio fiducialis (i.e., the faithful apprehension that grasps the knowledge of Christ and completes faith) is likewise tautological in that faith is said to include “a faithful apprehension” (p. 90).
One of the compelling points of Clark’s argument is his enumeration of a number of biblical texts that demonstrate the interchangeable usage of the terms “heart” and “mind” (pp. 66–78). While the will and the emotions are recognized as faculties of the soul, it is the mind that serves as the controlling nucleus in the activity of faith (p. 78). This is important to recognize in discussions of saving faith, inasmuch as it demonstrates that faith is largely an act of the mind. Despite the commendable treatment that Clark devotes to this area, an expanded discussion of biblical psychology would have added significantly to his argument.
As is the case in the development of any given doctrine, there is always need for further elucidation. In the opinion of this reviewer, this is one area where Clark’s book evidences weakness. That is to say, there is an absence of qualification and subsequent rebuttal to the preliminary points raised in his argument. A few examples will suffice to illustrate.
While Clark believes that the essence of faith is volitional assent, he does not thoroughly define of the Latin term assensus (“spiritual acknowledgment” or “agreement”). Neither does the author expound upon the dynamic-if any-that exists between the will and the mind in the exercise of faith. Another crucial oversight is that the author fails to press the point that Gospel propositions carry substantial implicative freight. Gospel propositions are both historical facts and inspired logia that serve as a person-to-person communiqué to lost and guilty sinners of all generations. Further qualification is likewise due in the distinguishing between “generic faith” and saving faith. In the case of the latter, this reviewer suggests that the pre-regenerating work of the Holy Spirit affects the will and enlightens the mind to the truth of the Gospel; whereas the former does not necessarily include divine intervention. Finally, Clark concludes that it is volitional assent to any number of biblical propositions that bring men into regenerate status (p. 110). Broadly speaking, this is certainly true. However, it seems altogether clear that volitional assent to given propositions from the Gospel of John would of themselves suffice for salvation. This is substantiated by the Apostle John’s own purpose statement: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Apart from the above-mentioned shortcomings, Faith and Saving Faith is a positive contribution that serves as theological grist for the continued analysis and development of the soteric doctrine of faith. It behooves the readers of this journal to glean the profitable insights of Clark. In a word, Faith and Saving Faith succeeds in highlighting the simplicity of the act that brings eternally condemned men into a justified standing before God. But more than that, this book assigns due credit to Jesus Christ, Object of faith par excellence, the Divine Protagonist of salvation history.
Gary L. Nebeker
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society