The Place of Faith in the Calvinistic System

H. Henry Meeter

 

A modernist, one who denies the specifically supernatural, does not have much room for faith in God. For a Calvinist, faith in God will occupy a very large, in fact, a determinative place in his life. These two systems are just about opposite poles, and in their attitude to faith this is seen very clearly.

MODERNISM AND FAITH

The following will illustrate. Modernists are generally recognized by one outstanding characteristic. They frequently differ from one another in all sorts of detail; one modernist often denies what another affirms. But they all agree in this one particular, they all deny the specifically supernatural, such as: miracles, special revelation and inspiration, the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, either of Christ or of believers, special answers to prayer, and any operation of God apart from the laws of nature and the normal operations of human life. To many of them there is not even a supernatural God, Who is a Person, Who thinks and wills apart from man, Who can hear you when you pray. God is merely an impersonal Power in the universe. If you so believe, what benefit will faith in God have for you? He cannot hear you. Certainly, nothing out of the ordinary will ever happen to you, even if you do pray. What the Pantheistic modernist means by faith in God when he so speaks amounts to this: Have faith in the divine in yourself, that is, have self-confidence, since you are a part of God.

Moreover, the modernist cannot have faith in the Bible as God’s special revelation; for to him the Bible is not God’s revelation but is the product of what religious men of former days have thought about God and about things religious. Then why, if it is not God’s revelation, make the Bible the foundation of what you believe about the basic problems of the universe? Extract from the writings of the Bible whatever sounds reasonable to you, and omit the rest. Rely upon your own reason, not upon faith in what the authors of the Bible say. In such a creed there is obviously little room for faithful trust in God, either in his revelation concerning the ultimate problems of life, or in his Providence in the hour of dire need. The best thing a modernist can do is to rely upon himself, upon his own insight and natural powers.

CALVINISM AND FAITH

Now turn to the Calvinist position. Here you have the very opposite viewpoint. The Calvinist believes in a supernatural God Who reveals Himself not only in nature, but also in specifically supernatural acts, such as biblical revelation and inspiration; Who daily provides qualifying strength to those who ask, and regenerates and sanctifies by special acts of His Holy Spirit. In such a system there is much to be gained from believing and trusting in God. If the Calvinist wishes to know about the fundamental problems of life or the world, he can trust for information and guidance to the special revelation which his God gives him. And if he needs moral power, he can call upon God Who gives him grace for help in time of need. Even in nature there is then the intelligent, purposeful leadership of a personal God, directing man’s life and all things, not as an impersonal Force but as a wise and good heavenly Father.

Moreover, the need of faith in God for the Calvinist becomes all the more necessary, because he believes man’s mind to be darkened by sin and his soul morally depraved, not partially but totally, that is, the depraved condition reaches out over his whole nature. In his depraved condition, therefore, man cannot have the proper intellectual insight or moral power, but must rely upon God’s special grace for both thought and walk. The Calvinist has caught the great meaning of such Biblical phrases as: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Hebrews 11:3). “Without Me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5); “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil. 4:13). The Calvinistic system, as you will notice, roots itself in faith throughout. “We believe in order that we may know”, and “We believe in order that we may achieve a life worthwhile for God.”

But here an important question arises! Can you build a system upon such a faith and still be considered scientific? The modernist claims that you cannot; the Calvinist maintains that you can. Some religious groups have separated religion and science altogether, and do not even try to harmonize them. The problem deserves far broader discussion than we can devote to it here. But we can perhaps gain some understanding of it by contrasting briefly a method commonly defended by modernists as the means of arriving at scientific knowledge in religion with the approach employed by Calvinists.

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD OF THE MODERNIST

Modernists did not impugn the position of orthodox Christians because they considered them insufficiently pious. The main objection was rather that they were not scientific. To be scientific one should follow an altogether different method than the one of faith in a supernatural revelation. To be scientific a person should in the study of religion advance by the same method that is followed in the natural sciences; e.g. physics or chemistry. First he must gather from experience all the data he can that have anything to do with religion. Then he must group all similar facts and classify them. Obviously one cannot examine God by this method, for He is not a fact of observation. But he can study manifestations of religion in this world, religious persons, and religious documents wherever he finds them, in Christian or in pagan lands. After the student has gathered these facts and classified them, he eliminates the essential from the non-essential; and thus, it is said, the searcher will arrive at the genuine in religion in a purely inductive, scientific fashion. The result will be a scientifically defensible religion.

The method might appeal to some at first sight as being an excellent one with which to arrive at scientific results in religion. But those who have tried to construct a scientific religion by this method, as has Ernst Troeltsch and his school of positivists in Germany, have come to most disappointing results. When they finally presented what they thought to be scientifically established truth in religion, the product was so meager that it could hardly be called a religion, surely not one that a man could live by. All that they secured was vague notions about God, about the problem of evil, about heaven and hell. That was substantially all that they thought they could prove by this method.

But there are not only objections to the results which the method yielded, but to the method itself. It does not as it claims to do, establish a religion upon a purely experiential basis of facts. Suppose one gathers all the religious data available from contemporary religious manifestation and suppose one classifies such data as well as he can; yet, sooner or later, he will have to sift the essential from the non-essential. He will have to determine what is genuine religion and what is not. To do this one will have to apply some standard. Note carefully that that standard is never going to be the result or part of the method employed, but will exist independently of it. One man will, for example, say the genuine in religion consists in one thing, another in something else, Thus, to call attention to some general standards, certain scholars will say that religion is essentially intellectual; others, that it is essentially emotional; still others, that it is essentially volitional. All these estimates of what religion really is are not the products of those investigations of the religious phenomena, but are presumptions, hypotheses, notions about the nature of religion which a person has apart from the investigation. Thus, when the scholar arrives at the end of his investigation and is to tell us what religion really is, he judges it by a standard which itself is not a result of his investigations. His view of religion is based on his assumption; and his method does not build up a religious view which is scientific in the sense that it has no assumptions.

Do not judge the modernists too harshly for this. While they cannot make good their claim to give us a religion with. out assumption, they are doing what every school of thought is doing right along. All have their basic unproven presuppositions, their working hypotheses. The only man that has no basic assumptions is the sceptic, and he gets nowhere. The Greeks already knew this. Plato built his school on his basic assumptions. When Aristotle could not agree with the basic assumptions of Plato, he originated a school with his own basic assumptions as its foundation. And the modernist, with all his high claims, is no different in this respect than the Calvinist. Both have their basic presuppositions. The Calvinist has them in the fundamental tenets of his faith based on the revelation in the Bible, and the modernist has them in his basic hypotheses.

Another objection to the modernist is that he does not even consistently apply his method of investigation. Whenever he finds in history a fact asserted to be miraculous, he brushes it aside with the claim that miracles cannot occur. But that is just the point at issue. When he meets with such a well-established historical fact as the resurrection of Christ, or the revelation to the prophets, the thing to do, to be scientific, is to accept the facts, even though they clash with some theory. When Friedrich Delitzsch was once asked why he, as a brilliant scholar, joined the orthodox ranks, he replied: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact.” If certain miracles do occur, it is the duty of a scientific man to accept them and incorporate them in his theory.

But, what is more important, it is not true that the only method by which to arrive at truth in religion is the one followed in the natural sciences. In the sciences of the spirit (so-called Geisteswissenschaften) we arrive at knowledge by reason, not by observation. There is still a third avenue by which we arrive at truth, and that is by faith. We are all using this approach in by far the greatest amount of knowledge we receive. Most of our knowledge comes to us, not through our own observation, or from reasoning it out for ourselves, but through the testimony of reliable authorities. In religion the Calvinist is doing this very thing when he accepts the divine revelation given in the Bible on the strength of the authority of God. It is often asserted that it is scientifically impossible to have a special revelation from God. That depends upon the kind of God one has. Science itself does not and cannot disprove the possibility of a special revelation from a personal God. If a human personality can impose himself upon this natural world without disturbing the normal operation of mechanical laws, why can a personal God not do the same thing, and thereby give us His revelation? It is unscientific not to accept that possibility.

If God has given us a revelation of Himself and in it has explained to man the basic problems of the universe, its origin, nature, and destiny, then we have in that divine revelation a veritable gold mine of truth which cannot be ignored except at the greatest cost.

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD OF THE CALVINIST

How can we know that God has given us a revelation of Himself and of the universe, its origin, nature, and destiny, and that this revelation is to be found in the Christian Bible?

This question is an age-old one, and men have used various methods to answer it. One method, akin to the inductive method of natural science followed by many today, is the study of comparative religions. Some think that by placing the religious books of the world side by side, one can come to a conclusion as to which of these contains the best and truest form of religion. But to arrive at such a conclusion one will have to use some standard. And the conclusion arrived at will depend upon the standard used. Not all investigators have decided in favor of the Christian religion. On the other hand, it is true that most scholars in Christian lands have adjudged the Christian religion peerless. Certainly, no one with an enlightened Christian conscience need fear that upon investigation of these religious systems he will not find that the Christian Bible stands miles high above all religious books in its views of God, the origin and nature of things, the cause of evil, redemption from evil, and life beyond the grave. While this much satisfaction may be gained from a study of comparative religions, one will have difficulty in arriving by this method at the conviction which the Christian religion requires, namely, that it alone is true.

Another method is that of Christian apologetics and Christian evidences. This method searches out the arguments which can be advanced to prove that the Christian God is the true God, that the Bible is His revelation, and that the Christian religion is the true religion. There are many diverse arguments one might advance to prove that the Bible is God’s Word. One might mention, as people commonly do, that the revelation in the Bible when given by God was time and again accompanied by supernatural signs and wonders, thus proving its supernatural source; for instance, when great disturbances in nature accompanied the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, or when men saw the signs and wonders which accompanied Christ’s message, or His birth and His resurrection. Again, one might point out that the Bible discloses facts such as God alone can know as: the creation of the world, prediction of future events which have come to pass and lofty thoughts which convince us of the divine origin of the Bible. Furthermore, the divine library of sixty-six books in the Bible was written by about forty different human authors in the space of sixteen hundred years, and yet the Bible presents to us an amazing unity, which fact indicates that there must have been a Master Mind controlling those human minds. Or one might point to the way in which archaeological research in recent years is presenting a remarkable witness to the great accuracy of the Biblical record of historic events. Attention might be directed to the transcendent concepts of the Bible and the great moral influence it has exerted upon the lives of men as no human book has been able to do, indicating that it must be more than a merely human book.

The Bible itself at times makes use of the apologetic method. When Elijah on Mount Carmel stated that the God Who would answer by fire was to be considered the true God, he was making use of the apologetic method. And when Moses in Deuteronomy 18:22 calls attention to the fulfillment of a prophecy as evidence of its genuineness, he is using an apologetic argument. And when our Lord appeals to the unbelieving Jews to believe Him “for the very works’ sake,” and when it is said that though He did many miracles among them, yet they believed not, the appeal is of the apologetic type. The fact that the Bible repeatedly uses this argument proves that the method has relative value, and may be used by us in combating opponents. The truth is that the Christian religion can by apologetics present a strong case to prove that it is more reasonable to believe what the Christian religion teaches than to believe the opposite. The apologetic arguments also give to the believer himself abundant proof of the reasonableness of his faith.

We should, however, be on our guard not to expect too much from the apologetic method, and from rational arguments for the existence of God, or from proofs that the Bible is the Word of God. In the case of all such sciences as ethics, law, esthetics, philosophy, and religion, where the final decision rests upon the individual’s own evaluation, there is always room for wide divergence of opinion. The fool can always say in his heart: “There is no God.” While a Christian can prove that his Christian position is fully as reasonable as the opponent’s view, there is no such thing as an absolutely compelling proof to which an unbeliever will yield. No one can produce completely convincing proof that God exists, or that the Bible is the Word of God, just as little as anyone can prove their opposites.

There is still a third way by which the Christian can come to know that the Bible is the Word of God. This is by the method of faith. in fact this is the basic method used by the Christian. In the last analysis the Christian does not base his belief in God and God’s Word on rational arguments. No matter how many or how excellent arguments he may be able to advance that he has the correct view, the Christian has not been led to accept the Bible as God’s Word after working his way through a maze of puzzling questions about whether God exists or whether the Bible is the Word of God. Even if the Christian should by rational argumentation come to the conclusion that the Bible is God’s Word, that would give him at best historical but not saving faith. It is one thing to say: “Taking all things into consideration, I come to the conclusion that God exists.” It is quite another to affirm with the Christian: “I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth.” Christian faith does not rest on its own reasoning but rests in God. Christian faith is in this respect simply a God-implanted conviction in the soul that the Bible is the Word of God. Like all faith it is intuitive, coming directly to the soul, so overpowering it with the conviction that the Bible is God’s Word that the person cannot refuse to believe it.

THE METHOD OF FAITH

This conviction implanted in the soul we call the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. It is of importance to have clearly before our minds just wherein this testimony of the Holy Spirit consists. It might be supposed that what the Holy Spirit does is simply to enlighten our minds, so that we come to see things in a different light, and that this new insight then leads us to accept the Bible as the Word of God. In that case you will notice that our enlightened reason — enlightened by the Holy Spirit, but still our reason — lies at the basis of our acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word. Note that we then would still basically be rationalists. We then believe what we can prove with our enlightened reason.

The following considerations, however, make such a conclusion impossible on a Calvinistic basis. First of all, faith is what we call “intuitional,” which means, it is a conviction which is not the result of a process of discursive reasoning, but something which comes directly or immediately to the soul. In-so-far, however, it might still be reasoning. Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of reason: that which is by the process of intellectual argumentation, and that which is by immediate insight.

But faith is not only something immediate and direct. It accepts as true, not on the basis of a person’s own insight, but on the basis of the testimony of another, in this case the testimony of God. No matter how much insight may or may not be accompanied with it, faith always rests upon the testimony of God, not upon the believer’s own insight.

Again, saving faith differs from faith in general or historical faith in this important aspect, that it implies, besides an intellectual agreement to a proposition, an element of personal trust. It roots itself in God.

We can perhaps best summarize what the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer amounts to in the following negative and positive propositions: The testimony of the Holy Spirit does not lie in this, that He gives the believer some new heavenly revelation, some new thought in addition to the Bible. Nor does it consist in this, that He leads the believer to conclude as a result of illuminated reason and rational argumentation that the Bible is God’s Word. Nor in this, that He leads the believer through an experience of the power of the Bible to conclude that it is God’s book. But it consists in this, that He leads the believer freely and spontaneously to acknowledge the divine authority which the Bible itself claims to have and everywhere demands, which makes the Christian submit to the Bible as God’s Word. In a word, He impresses upon the soul of the Christian the fact of the divineness of the Bible, or, to use the Latin term which has been employed, the divinitas of the Bible.1 The Christian then accepts the Bible as true on the strength of this conviction. If you should try to find the root of that conviction and ask why the Christian believes that the Bible is that divine book, and why he thus reposes his trust in God, then, to use a phrase of Dr. H. Bavinck, the Christian must acknowledge that he is unable to give the answer.2 In other words, this is an axiom, a fundamental truth with the Christian.

After the Christian has thus been convinced of the divineness of the Bible through the Holy Spirit’s testimony in the heart, he may, and no doubt will, with his enlightened mind, illumined by the Holy Spirit, also see things in a different light and will adopt many arguments advancing the reasonableness of accepting the Bible as the Word of God. But no Christian ever grounds his faith upon these arguments. The ancient Church fathers like Augustine and Anselm were right when they said: fides precedit intellectum, “Faith precedes intelligence.”

Remember, too, that the Holy Spirit by His testimony in the heart does not change the Bible into a thoroughly demonstrable book, which you can prove from the first verse to the last. For several reasons this is impossible because of the very nature of the case. In such sciences as law, psychology, esthetics, philosophy, or theology so many things depend upon personal judgments — which differ with different individuals — that you cannot prove your point in a positivistic way as in mathematics. Also much of what the Bible teaches lies beyond our observation and reason; as the accounts of creation, or the future world. Again, much of what the Bible teaches, though not anti-rational (against reason) is yet supra-rational (above reason); e.g., the doctrines of the Trinity or the virgin birth. So then there will always remain much that is fundamental in Biblical teaching that you will accept not because your enlightened reason proves to you that it is true, but simply because you accept God’s testimony that it is as He has stated in His Word. For your consolation remember that no one can properly object to your position as being unscientific because you accept some basic positions which you cannot prove. For every philosophic system does the same thing when it, too, starts out with its basic assumptions, its own working hypotheses, which it cannot prove. If you are unscientific in starting out with such assumptions, then all others are likewise.

In conclusion, let me point to the importance of this position, and its harmony with the best thought of historic Christianity, by quoting a statement of William G. T. Shedd, well-known Professor of Systematic Theology in Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Speaking of “Faith and Science,” he remarks: “As we follow the history of Apologetics down to the present day, we perceive that leading minds have been supernaturalists or rationalists in their methods of defending and philosophizing upon Christianity, according as they have adopted or rejected the dictum first announced by Origen, repeated by Augustine, and most thoroughly expanded and established by Anselm, — the dictum, fides precedit intellectum (faith precedes intelligence). In the former class, we find the names of Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Pascal. In the latter, the names of men like Scotus Erigena, Abelard, Raymond Lully, in whom the speculative energy overmastered the contemplative, and whose intuition and construction of Christian Doctrine was inadequate, and in some instances, certainly, fatally defective.”3, 4


Notes

  1. Bavinck, H., Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, I, p. 642 (Kampen, Netherlands, J. H. Bos, 1906).
  2. Ibid. I, 634.
  3. Shedd, Wm. G. T., A History of Christian Doctrine, I, p. 164, tenth edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881).
  4. Hodge, Caspar Wistar, Jr., “Finality of the Christian Religion,” article appearing in Biblical and Theological Studies, edited by Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, pp. 446-492 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912).

Author

Dr. H. Henry Meeter, TH.D served for thirty years as Chairman of the Bible Department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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