“Penny, my body and I have a relationship that works best when we maintain a cool, wary distance from each other.”
-Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Th.D.
When our fathers sought to reform the Roman church, they rejected the Roman formulation of merit theology. Crudely put, the Roman idea taught that God saves people who had (in some fashion) racked up enough points to deserve saving. Since all men are sinners, they need not only their own merits, but the merits of Christ infused into them – and those of Mary, the saints, and so on, and then after they die they will go to purgatory for additional cleansing before they will be able to enter heaven. Alms, sacraments, indulgences, and various other things contributed merit, so that the sinner might appear before God in a patchwork quilt of merit accrued from all these various sources, in hopes of being thought worthy at least of purgatory.
The Reformers, being taught by Scripture that justification before God comes by faith alone in Christ alone, formulated their soteriology in a way that highlights God’s work—in fact, makes the entire affair God’s work from top to bottom. Because of their belief that even faith is a gift of a loving God, and not in any way of human origin, they could maintain that saving faith is an act of the whole person, and still keep the focus on Christ.
Their descendants, however, were not so fortunate. The way the Reformers formulated the doctrine ultimately led to the Puritan disaster, in which each person was rigorously examined for the “marks” of true conversion. The whole person was put under a microscope – but what this really meant was not the whole person, but a set of core samples suggested by their anthropology. One had to have knowledge of the gospel, of course. One had to assent to it, to agree with the facts of the gospel. One had to trust. This was attended – so taught the Puritans – by remorse for sin and various other symptoms, for which putative converts would be examined. So thoroughly did the Puritan doctrine and practice depart from the biblical teaching of assurance that it proved unbearable, and there are, today, no Puritans in New England.
Seeking to avoid that problem, old-school Free Grace types (e.g., the Florida Bible College tradition in which I was raised) cut emotion out of the picture. If God gave you lightning bolts from the sky at your conversion, or an overwhelming sense of remorse for sin, or joy, or peace, then wonderful – but you didn’t need to expect it, or question your salvation because you didn’t have a big emotional experience. It was all about making a decision to believe in Christ, not about how you felt about it. The Bible never promised such an experience; it does promise that those who believe will be saved.
Zane Hodges and GES took it a step further and cut the will out with the doctrine of passive faith (and I was in on that, and wrote a couple of articles in support of it). When accused of preaching “mere intellectual assent,” we responded that there’s nothing mere about intellectual assent – that’s what belief is, and believing is all that’s required for salvation.
Assurance is vital; compromising it as the Reformed tradition so frequently does is spiritual disaster. If one must choose between passive faith and the Reformers, or at least old-line FG theology and the Reformers, clearly one ought to take one of the former options. But who says these are the only choices? I say they are not, and to show you what I mean, I’d like to take a look at another, older stream of history, and how it converges with the one we’re already discussing.
The Greeks were acutely aware that the material world is a world of constant change. Vexed at this constant shifting, they felt that knowledge of the material world was really impossible. In search of something fixed to know for certain, Plato imagined a world of Forms, immaterial abstract invariant principles that exist independently of the material world. True knowledge, Plato said, consisted in knowledge of the Forms. The problem, of course, is that we human beings don’t live in that world; we live in the constantly shifting material world. So how do we get contact with the world of forms?
There is a part of man, Plato said, that has contact with the Forms and is able to know them: the intellect. The intellect, pure and free of bodily passions, could address itself to the Forms, and calculate propositions about them.
The medieval Christians eventually forsook this pagan fairy tale, realizing Plato’s contempt for the material world was a sin, and the certainty he was seeking through the Forms is actually found in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and who upholds the world by the word of His power. Rebelling against Christianity, the Enlightenment rationalists brought Plato back. Religion – by which they meant Christianity – stirs up men’s passions and brings violence and wickedness, but Reason delivers us from evil. The intellect once again reigned supreme.
The Romantics sought to rebel against the rationalists, but they were far more like the rationalists than they realized. They accepted the same basic anthropology, and the same opposition of reason on one hand, and emotion, spontaneity, etc. on the other. The only thing the Romantics really changed was to reverse the moral polarity on the model. Where the rationalists saw reason as the supreme good, and emotion and spontaneity as evil and dangerous, the romantics took emotion and spontaneity as good, and saw reason as cold, bloodless, and therefore ultimately wicked.
How does this story converge with Free Grace? When we talk about belief as a matter of the intellect, we are speaking the language of Enlightenment rationalism and of Plato. In doing so, we are assuming (on no biblical evidence at all) that there is such a thing as the intellect, a component part of man, separate from the passions and the body, that deals only in cool reason and propositions. It is in this part that we find saving faith, and that being the case, saving faith could be nothing other than assent to the right proposition.
Identifying the right proposition, of course, then assumes paramount importance. A disagreement there is a disagreement on the very substance of the gospel itself. That’s the sort of thing that good Christians divide over—and here we are, divided and rebelling against the clear biblical teaching that calls us to be one in Christ. Could it be we took a wrong turn somewhere?
We need to be careful at this point not to commit the error of the Romantics. Seeing the evil effects of naked rationalism, the Romantics rebelled, but they didn’t actually seek out the source of the problem. They wanted to keep the underlying anthropology, and still evade the evil effects of rationalism. To an extent they succeeded, but because they didn’t address the root of the problem, they just brought about another, equally wicked, set of problems instead.
We have the same anthropology still dogging us today. We have come hundreds of miles since we took that particular wrong turn, and going back one mile to try to find our way will not do; healing the wound lightly is not real healing. So let’s go all the way back and see if we can correct the real mistake.
There are no Forms. The world of matter is constantly changing; this is a glorious thing and the way God made the world to be. Certainty is possible, and it is grounded in knowing the One who made the world and upholds it all. If there are no Forms, there is no particular reason why we should need a proposition-calculator in the soul, neatly separated from passions and the body – no Forms, no intellect.
Anyway, “intellect” was never a biblical category to start with. There’s nothing mandatory about it. We did not derive it from diligent study of Scripture. If we are going to have the category, we will need to defend it from the Bible. I leave that job to someone who thinks it can be done; personally I don’t, and don’t intent to waste time trying.
Instead, I suggest we repair to Scripture and seek to understand the inner workings of man from the perspective of the Word of God. Step one: belief takes place in the heart (Gk. kardia, see Lu. 24:25, Ac. 8:37, Rom. 10:10). Sexual desire, and consequently adultery, can also happen there (Mat. 5:28), as can purity (Mat. 5:8), evil thoughts (Mat. 9:4, 24:48), humility (Mat. 11:29), dullness or understanding (Mat. 13:15, 19), being near or far from God (Mat. 15:8), forgiveness (Mat. 18:35) and love (Mat. 22:37). Anything that comes out the mouth has its source in the heart (Mat. 12:34, 15:18): it can be the source for evil thoughts, murder, fornication, adultery, theft, false witness, and blasphemy (Mat. 15:19). And that list is just from Matthew; wonder what we’ll find in the other 26 books of the NT, to say nothing of the OT?
If sexual desire, forgiveness, understanding (or the lack thereof), love, nearness to God (or the lack thereof) and saving faith all arise from the same place within man, what does that tell us?
That a crypto-Platonist on a seminary campus should be roped and hogtied on sight like a rodeo calf. But beyond that, what are the long-term implications? Frankly, I’m not sure, but at the very least this casts serious, biblically founded doubt on the notion that belief arises from a neoclassically sterile component of the soul separate from emotion, body, and relationship. We need a better, more biblical anthropology.