Gordon Clark’s View of Faith

Gordon Clark’s well-known twofold definition of faith as (1) intellectual understanding and (2) assent challenges the traditional tripartite reformed view of faith (fides) as (1) understanding (notitia), (2) assent (assensus) and 3 trust (fiducia).

It has been alleged by some, however, that Clark held not to the former view, but to the latter. See: https://godshammer.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/whitefield-follies/ How this mistake could be made is difficult to determine, for Clark’s view is clear and frequent in his writings. It is the purpose of this article, therefore, to document the sources for Clark’s view of faith to show that he did hold to the twofold not the threefold view.

A series of letters between Clark and J. Oliver Buswell concern Clark’s view of faith in 1939:

First, Clark writes to Buswell on January 6th, 1939:

Your article on pisteuo is an excellent summary of the usage of the word and I am glad to have read it. But it really attacks a different problem than the one now under discussion. On p.29 you reject faith as intellectual assent, but do not give an explicit reason. The implicit reason seems to me to be that intellectual assent is unethical, non-moral. With this I should disagree. Our thinking is our chief moral problem. Every thought is either moral or immoral. And I heartily agree that faith is ethical. But I cannot draw the conclusion that therefore it is not intellectual.

Buswell responds on January 26th, 1939:

Faith is assent, intellectual assent, but faith is more than that, otherwise the devil has faith, and those described in the first chapter of Romans as knowing God must also be regarded as having had faith.

And Clark responds on February 9th, 1939:

Of course faith in Christ produces volitional action; the belief which the devils entertain also produces volitional action; but in neither case is it necessary to deny that faith is an act of the mind or intellect. … All I can say is that of course the devil has faith; he does not have saving faith, or faith in Christ; but it is true that he believes some things. The distinction between the faith the devil has and the kind the regenerate man has, is not in the mental function involved, but it is a difference of object. We put our faith or belief in Christ’s finished work for us; the devil does not. But in both cases, belief is intellectual; at any rate I do not see how we can believe anything with the emotions or with the will. And my argument has centered on the mental or conscious function, assuming, or regardless of the object. My impression is that our difficulties have arisen by not keeping the clear distinction between two beliefs or faiths (both intellectual) and between faith and its products – for even the devil’s faith produces works: good faith, good works; bad faith, bad works: but faith is always intellectual, works may not be.

These letters show that Clark’s view of faith was not some view he came to later in life, nor something modified in his writings by his publisher John Robbins who he didn’t meet until the early 1970s.

Clark’s view is seen in a number of other places as well:

Writing about “The Element of Trust” in an article on “Faith and Reason” for Christianity Today in 1957 (http://gordonhclark.reformed.info/faith-and-reason-by-gordon-h-clark/), Clark writes,

In describing the nature of faith, fundamentalists, evangelicals and even modernists in a certain way stress the element of trust. A preacher may draw a parallel between trusting in Christ and trusting in a chair. Belief that the chair is solid and comfortable, mere intellectual assent to such a proposition, will not rest your weary bones. You must, the preacher insists, actually sit in the chair. Similarly, so goes the argument, you can believe all that the Bible says about Christ and it will do you no good. Such illustrations as these are constantly used, in spite of the fact that the Bible says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

In an article on Faith for Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics in 1973 (http://gordonhclark.reformed.info/faith-by-gordon-h-clark/)
Clark writes,

The early Reformers were inclined to include assurance of salvation in their definition of faith. But there were many variations. Cunningham (cf. bibliography) reports seven different views. Later Reformed theologians definitely excluded assurance (cf. the Westminster Confession), but came to add fiducia, as a third element in addition to knowledge and assent. They failed, however, to give an intelligible account of fiducia, restricting themselves to synonyms or illustrations (cf. Thomas Manton, Exposition of the Epistle of James, pp.216ff., Marshallton, Del., Sovereign Grace Book Club, 196-). This defective view is so common today that many ministers have never heard of the earlier Reformed views

In his unpublished Introduction to Theology, chapter 7 on “Salvation,” circa 1977, I have in his own handwriting:

The crux of the difficulty with the popular analysis of faith into notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust), is that fiducia comes from the same root as fides (faith). [Clark footnotes: The Latin fides is not a good synonym for the Greek pisteuo.] Hence this popular analysis reduces to the obviously absurd definition that faith consists of understanding, assent, and faith. Something better than this tautology must be found.

(The exact same quote is found in “Saving Faith” in The Trinity Review, December 1979.)

In “What is Saving Faith” in The Trinity Review Clark is quoted from his 1983 book Faith and Saving Faith:

The most common Protestant analysis is that fides is a combination of notitia, assensus, and fiducia. If these last three Latin words can be explained, then one may compare fides and pistis or pisteuoo to see if they are synonymous. If these Latin terms cannot be clearly defined, then they do not constitute an analysis of faith… What better conclusion can there be other than the express statements of the Bible? Permit just one outside of John. Romans 10:9-10 say, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your mind that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” There is no mystical getting behind, under, or above the text; the only consent there is, is belief in the propositions. Believe these, with understanding, and you shall be saved. Anyone who says otherwise contradicts the repeated rheemata of Scripture.”

The truth or falsity of Clark’s view has been argued for in many other places and so will not be discussed here. But these references should dispense with any thoughts he had sympathy for the traditional view of faith or that his view was modified by later supporters.

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About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
This entry was posted in Notes on the thought of Gordon H. Clark. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Gordon Clark’s View of Faith

  1. Pingback: Faith is Intellectual Assent … Faith is Belief | God's Hammer

  2. E. Nieves says:

    Thank you for this concise summary and research. It’ll very useful when discussing this with others. I’ll be sure to pass it on.

  3. Has anyone passed this information on to Ken Talbot?

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