Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Logic of Faith, Part I: The Problem of Protestant Theology

[If you haven't done so, please read my previous post first.]

The question that was tormenting me (at least when I did think about it seriously) was Do I really believe in Jesus? Do I believe enough? I suppose that was due in part to the traditional Protestant "logic of faith," as Phillip Cary of Eastern University calls it:*

Major premise: Whoever believes in Jesus is saved.
Minor premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

This major premise is rooted in texts such as Mark 16:16, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." Much of current Protestant evangelicalism revolves around this and its minor premise, which introspectively seeks and discovers, "I have faith." I think that John Calvin and subsequent Reformers had a lot to do with this. They teach that God has chosen from before time a fixed number of people for salvation: "God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. To this he called you through the gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; cf. Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:28-9:24; 11:5). All those whom God has sovereignly chosen to save, he does so by bringing them into fellowship or "union" with Christ through faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This faith is created by the preaching of the gospel, through which the Spirit "calls" people into new life with Christ (cf. Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:9).**

This "calling" is usually referred to in some sort of conversion experience when people become aware of their need for a Mediator and God's perfect provision of one in his Son. The situation then becomes: If only the elect have faith by means of their spiritual calling and conversion, how can I be sure I have faith? Assurance of my salvation becomes a matter of discovering whether or not I'm among the elect, which I would know by whether or not I have faith.

Now Scripture presents a lot of evidence that someone is genuine in his faith, and I hope to address some relevant passages later (most notably, perhaps, Romans 8:12-17). But the problem of this "Protesant logic" is this: To know that I am saved I must not only believe that God's covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20); I must also know and be aware that I believe. In essence, to find rest in God's redemptive mercy and know that it encompasses me, I must not only possess faith but also be aware that I possess it. Faith is therefore a subjective and self-reflective act. Protestants therefore await some sort of "inner call" or testimony of the Holy Spirit which confirms our calling and election or, "the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16). (Calvin would, of course, insist that this "inner call" is simply the act of regeneration itself, a one-time event that believers need not seek out again. It has been more the work of later revivalists who have brought one's "inner life" into greater focus.)

The first problem with this, as I see it, is that it causes us to look at ourselves entirely too much. Faith is no longer looking away from myself to Christ--away from my own resources, commitments, and decisions and toward those of the living Son of God. It is now directed toward both God and myself. I must know that I am "doing what faith would do" and living how a "true believer" would live. And if I'm not looking to my works and deeds, fruits of the Spirit through they may be, then perhaps I'll be alternately directed to find assurance of salvation/election in my feelings and emotions.

It's not that there is no place for these things. The apostle Peter stresses that by increasing godly character we may confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:3-11). Paul says much the same. We also read in the Bible that true believers have love toward God and joy in him. But are these, in fact, what the Scriptures teach as to the true source of our assurance? I'm not sure. Hang on and find out (I hope).

*Much fodder for this comes from Dr. Phillip Cary's essay "Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise" (Pro Ecclesia 14:4, Fall 2005), 447-486.

** See John Murray's excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied for a sound description and defense of election, effectual inner calling, and regeneration.


Ted M. Gossard said...

I think you are making an excellent point here, Andrew. I recall that some Calvinists a couple centuries back, maybe they were certain Puritans, but I'm going on memory here, but that they were steeped in subjectively trying to determine whether or not they were one of God's elect.

I like what you say here, even if I may not read all of Scripture the same way (and surely am wrong in some things, in the process).

Of course ultimately I don't care what John Calvin or anyone else says, though we need to listen and read such (all are our's- 1 Cor). The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit in Romans 8:16 seems to me to be referring to something ongoing in our salvation in Christ, not just a one time experience at conversion. Indeed, not all seem to have such a vivid experience of that kind, some as far as experience, nothing at all, at that time when they committed their lives to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

I do agree, though, that to have this inner witness or fellowship with God, we need to look to Christ and God's promises to us in Christ, and not at ourselves.

I remember working with a fellow once who was living "in the world" as one who is "of the world". He had been raised Southern Baptist and had accepted Christ as a teenager, but now didn't care at all, and was living with a girl, as I recall, at the time.

I told him that on the basis of 1 John and the tests to give assurance there, that he could have no assurance at all that he is a child of God (1 John written, of course, that those who read may KNOW that they have eternal life- such as being those who practice righteousness, as opposed to practicing sin, keeping God's commands, etc.) since his life was devoid of any of those things John says give us assurance of eternal life in the Son. He agreed with me.

But we all need to turn out eyes to Jesus, and from that will begin his working in our lives, and I think this is a continuing matter, as salvation in the New Testament, while in past and future tenses, is mostly in the present tense.

But just my thoughts here, subject to correction and refinement.

I'll continue to watch and read your upcoming posts, as this is interesting.

Litl-Luther said...

Hi Andrew,
I don’t know see why it needs to be as complicated as you make it out to be. I have complete confidence in my salvation because my confidence rests in who Jesus is and what He has done on my bahalf. I am not looking at my naval to see how much faith I have or don’t have. I am looking at Jesus’ sinless life, his vicarious death and His conquering of the grave. The only way I can be lost is if something is deficient in the work of Christ. Therefore, since He and His sacrifice are perfect I have absolute assurance. My assurances rests on Him—His character and His redeeming work.

The essence of true faith is taking God at his word and relying on him to do as he has promised. Faith is the one human attitude that is the opposite of depending on oneself, for it involves trust in or dependence upon another. Thus, it is devoid of self-reliance or attempts to gain righteousness by human effort. If God’s favor is to come to us apart from our own merit, then it must come when we depend not on our own merit or even on our own faith but on the merits of another, and that is precisely when we have faith.