Gordon Clark on faith

The following are my comments on some of Gordon H. Clark’s writings on the following (for something similar see Marc’s comments on Clark as well):

Chapter 6
Copyright 1990 Lois A. Zeller and Elizabeth Clark George
Copyright 2002 John W. Robbins
All rights reserved.

This Chapter is an excerpt from:
Today’s Evangelism: Counterfeit or Genuine?

a book published by The Trinity Foundation,
Post Office Box 68, Unicoi, Tennessee 37692 USA.


It is clear now that spiritual life does not depend on emotion. The Bible recognizes instances of emotion as they occasionally occur, but the connotation of the word heart in seventy-five per cent of the instances is intellect. It has also been made clear that the Gospel is a message, and as such is either true or false. The unregenerate man believes that the message, even if it contains some true statements, is basically false; the evangelist presents it as true. The latter asks the former to believe the message and pray that God will make him do so. Emotions have no essential part in any of this.

What then is faith? An old Protestant tradition analyzes faith into three parts whose Latin names are notitia, assensus, and fiducia. These words mean knowledge, assent, and trust. I would not deny that faith includes these three. Yet as an analysis the three-fold division of faith may be technically inadequate.

First, knowledge or understanding is at least ordinarily regarded as a part of faith. The Lutherans may deny that it is always so. Their argument is that God’s decision of justification is connected with an individual person by means of faith alone. Since, now, we have good reason to believe that some or even all who die in infancy are saved, and quite likely idiots, freaks, and mentally deformed persons, both of which groups are incapable of understanding any message at all, it follows, say the Lutherans, that they must have a faith devoid of knowledge. Faith is essential; knowledge is not. Therefore infants can exercise faith.

Chris: Gordon Clark speaks of the Lutherans who make exceptions to the Mark 16:16 and Romans 1:16 rule. They assume that certain persons cannot understand and believe the gospel just because they may not be able to articulate this belief. The instance of John the Baptist in the womb refutes the Satanic Lutheran lie that infants would have a “faith” that is devoid of knowledge. Did the infant John the Baptist ALSO have a faith that was devoid of knowledge? If so, then WHY did he leap in exultation (Luke 1:44)? Was John exulting for nothing?

The Reformed theologians reply that the Epistle to the Romans and the preaching of the Gospel are addressed to normal individuals. These persons who are not naturally incapacitated in their mental functions are to be justified by faith. But since the Gospel presumably cannot penetrate the mind of an infant or the no-mind of an idiot, God in mercy treats them as exceptions to the normal rule and saves them, on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice indeed, but without faith. As the Westminster Confession puts it, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (X, iii).

Chris: Gordon Clark expresses his insidious, gospel-denying agreement with the Wicked Westminster Confession of Faith. There are certain Autistic individuals who are “incapacitated in their mental functions” in the sense that they are unable to coherently articulate what they believe vocally. But these same individuals ARE ABLE to articulate what they believe through *other means* (e.g., a hand-held keypad that they type out their thoughts on). But even among those who are so severely incapacitated, and where there is no known alternate way of communicating their belief, Clark must reject the testimony of Scripture in order to make the unwarranted assumption that the Holy Spirit cannot cause an elect person who is severely mentally handicapped to believe. Once again, in the case of the infant John the Baptist, God the Holy Spirit caused John the Baptist to understand and believe. Clark and the WCF are exhibiting a type of inclusivism, and so the WCF (and by extension Clark, and all who adhere to the Confession) show themselves to be hypocrites when they reject another kind of inclusivism in the next section of the Westminster Confession (X.4)

The Reformed position therefore makes understanding an essential part of faith, even at the cost of denying that infants can believe. Aside from infants the preaching of a message would make no sense unless the auditors were supposed to know what was being said. This is why missionaries must work hard to learn a foreign language and try to speak it without an American accent. This is why the Apostles on the day of Pentecost spoke in tongues. The Elamites and the dwellers in Mesopotamia heard the message in their own language. If the message were not supposed to be understood, there would be no need to learn Arabic or Chinese. One could simply speak American slang or quote the Bible in the King James Version.

Chris: The Reformed position therefore makes faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ a non-essential when it comes to infants and those they have assumed are not capable of understanding and believing the gospel message. This Reformed position does NOT presume on the truthfulness of the testimony of Scripture and then deduce their conclusions from it. Instead, they presume the truthfulness of some of the tenets of behaviorism (or some other pseudo-scientific nonsense), and it is these antichristian presumptions that cause them to reject the Biblical testimony of passages such as Mark 16:16 and Romans 1:16.

Understanding, therefore, is a prerequisite to faith. It is impossible to believe what one does not understand. The evangelist or missionary must spare no pains to help his prospective convert to understand the message.

Just how much has to be understood is difficult to measure. Obviously a child often cannot understand as much as a highly educated adult; yet God regenerates some children. Does it follow that God will regenerate a highly educated adult if he understands no more than a child? Some individuals and some churches have tried to set down minimum requirements. They have tried to separate the few sentences in the Bible that are essential from all the rest that is unessential. One can see how these people become interested in such an attempt, but one cannot see any Biblical recommendation of such an attempt. Christ commanded us to teach all the things he taught; Paul was guiltless of his auditors’ blood because he had declared all the counsel of God; and many other passages condemn ignorance and recommend knowledge. In Scripture there is no minimum.

Chris: It is the gospel that has to be understood and believed (Mark 16:16 and Romans 1:16 for example).

Some theologians try to explain this situation by insisting that truth is organic. Minimum statements are not inert building blocks which when combined with other building blocks can be arranged into a building. Rather, a truth or proposition is like a seed, and when ingested it grows into a full plant in the mind. Hence, say these theologians, any Biblical statement, or at least some Biblical statements contain the complete Gospel as a seed contains the complete plant. Unfortunately for these theologians, their analogy, though it be a beautiful illustration, is intellectually vacuous. Illustrations are usually if not always deceptive; and to say that a proposition is like a seed that grows means nothing and throws no light on the nature of faith.

Since the position this present writer defends places such great emphasis on propositions–on an intelligible message composed of sentences–it would seem that he above all writers should indicate which propositions are essential and which are not. No one can understand all the propositions in the Bible, or at least no one actually understands all that the Bible implies. What then are the facts essential to salvation?

The thief on the cross very obviously understood only a little. Is not this little, if we can discover it, sufficient for an evangelist’s sermons? Well, the thief called Jesus Lord. And Romans 10:9 says that those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord shall be saved. Here if anywhere is the essential proposition. Nothing else–except belief in the Resurrection–is necessary. Maybe the Resurrection is not necessary, for the thief did not know that. Furthermore, as other references in this book mention, the devils believe there is one God, they even believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but by some twist of demonic mentality, they do not confess him as Lord. Have not we therefore found the irreducible minimum?

Chris: Consider the following syllogism:

All saved persons believe the gospel (Mark 16:16; Romans 1:16-17).
The thief on the cross was a saved person (Luke 23:43).
Thus, the thief on the cross believed the gospel.

And of course, the gospel includes the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Clark assumes all kinds of things with regard to what the thief believed and did not believe. The conclusion is that Clark did not believe that the resurrection was a doctrine essential to the gospel and he shows himself to be a Christ-hating gospel-denier by so doing.

The answer is, No. The reason for this negative answer lies in the necessity of understanding the proposition. It is a matter of intellectual apprehension. There are many who in that day will say to Christ, Lord, Lord. And he will profess, I never knew you. Thus, clearly, a verbal profession of Lord is not saving faith. One must understand what the term Lord means. Further, as has already been pointed out, the name Jesus must be correctly apprehended. Confess that the Jesus of Strauss, Renan, or Schweitzer is Lord, and you will go to hell. “Jesus is Lord” therefore is not a minimum that means nothing else.

Chris: And confess the “jesus” of Arminians and most who call themselves Calvinists, and you will go to hell. Moreover, confess the “jesus” of Gordon Clark who did not rise from the dead and you will go to hell. For Clark just got done saying that the thief on the cross did not believe in a risen Lord. Clark himself may say he believes in a risen Lord, but when he labels one a believer who is supposedly ignorant of the resurrection, he is proclaiming his spiritual oneness with that person (see 2 John 9-11).

The thief on the cross knew or at least said that Jesus was Lord. Did he know anything else? How did he learn anything? Of all people, meeting Jesus for the first time on the cross, he had little opportunity to learn. And a cross is neither the best pulpit for preaching nor the best pew for listening. But perhaps the thief knew more than most people give him credit for.

Chris: That’s correct, Clark. The thief knew more than YOU give him credit for, you gospel-denying blasphemer.

In the first place one must not assume that this was the first time he had seen and heard Jesus. An enterprising criminal gets around. He knows where crowds gather. This thief may have heard one of Jesus’ sermons. Of course, we cannot be sure he did. Yet we cannot be sure he did not. Since the Gospels do not say, one can neither assume his ignorance nor his knowledge; though I would think it more probable that he knew something.

Chris: Interesting, Clark. You assumed much regarding the thief. Being as well-versed in logic as you were, you should have had an idea of a syllogism that went something like this:

P1) All saved persons believe the gospel (Mark 16:16; Romans 1:16-17).
P2) The thief on the cross was a saved person (Luke 23:43).
C1)Thus, the thief on the cross believed the gospel.

But not to rely on guesses, let us consider the few painful hours on the cross. The thief knew the charge on which the Romans had crucified Jesus. He could read it above the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Couldn’t he read? Then he heard the horrible crowds screaming it. He also knew that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. The rulers were deriding him: “He saved others, let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God…. If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself.” The other thief knew this: “One of the malefactors … railed on him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us.” The thief had also heard Jesus say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”

The thief was not a systematic theologian. There were many propositions he did not know. But he knew he was being punished justly for his sins; he knew Jesus was innocent. He was impressed and convinced by Jesus’ demeanor. So he said, not merely said, but confessed Jesus as Lord. He may not have known much, but he knew more than some evangelists give him credit for.

Chris: Yes. You said something similar to this already. The thief knew more than “some evangelists give him credit for,” and he knew more than Gordon Clark gave him credit for.

For such reasons as these the idea of a minimum faith must be dropped as unbiblical. The evangelist is unbiblical who decides to preach only a little bit of God’s revelation. Granted that no preacher can cover the entire Bible in one sermon, nevertheless he should not decide on principle to omit certain themes. He should in many sermons try to explain all he can. “All he can” no doubt should be limited by what the audience or the prospect can understand. One of the worst principles imaginable was expressed by a very popular but very stupid evangelist in Canada who said, No one has the right to hear the Gospel twice until everybody has heard it once. Another man of similar sentiments boasted that he had preached on five continents. But more than likely the poor natives in the Andes or the Himalayas understood nothing at all when the preacher gave them one sermon and then ran off to another continent.

Chris: A Christian should preach the whole counsel of God to be sure (as Paul did in the book of Acts). But the idea of “minimum faith” is biblical if this “minimum faith” is faith in the gospel of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. There is a “minimum” in the Romans 1:16 and Mark 16:16 sense.

Whether I can know that another person has assented to something, or not, is a difficult problem. The safest thing is to say that one can never know about another person. This is one reason why Presbyterians and Baptists disagree. Baptists, or many of them, hold that the church should receive as members only those who have been regenerated. This presupposes that the present church members can know the applicant to have been regenerated. Presbyterians, on the contrary, hold that God alone can discern the hearts of men. Therefore the elders receive an applicant into membership on the basis of a credible profession, including a life free from gross, observable sin. The Presbyterians are often mistaken and receive people who later show no signs of being Christian. But I suppose the Baptists too make mistakes and sometimes accept a hypocrite, a modernist, or some other unbeliever.

A most interesting, informative, and unfortunate example came to my attention some years ago. There was a very lively, energetic fundamentalist minister in the neighborhood who had increased his church membership from about forty to four or five hundred within ten years. I was discussing with him the nature of faith. I spoke of assent to propositions, and quoted the well known verse, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Oh, no, he replied. You cannot be saved that way at all. At any rate, no one knows what the Bible means, but God has given us (the ministers or the people?) the ability to discern the hearts of men, and we know whether they are regenerated, and so we receive them.

A few years after this conversation, ugly rumors began to trouble his church. The officers at first discounted them, as they should. But the rumors got worse and the evidence began to grow. Half the church walked out and formed a new congregation because the officers were too slow in administering discipline. The rumors and evidence were true. The fundamentalist minister who could see the hearts of men deserted his wife and children and went to live openly with another woman in the same city.

Was he, is he regenerate? Did he ever assent to the proposition, Jesus is Lord? I do not know, but at the moment it does not seem so. It may be so. Christians “may, through the temptations of Satan and the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein; whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit . . .” but nonetheless “can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (Westminster Confession, XVII, iii and iv). But whether the particular case, the man in question, was ever a Christian or not, I do not know.

Chris: Is Clark saying that a regenerate person can continue in sin? Perhaps Clark is unsure of whether this man is a Christian or not since he is also unsure of whether or not this man continued indefinitely in this sin, or just remained in this sin for a short time.

Protestants usually assert that Romanists make faith and salvation a matter of assent; the most frequent expression is that the Romanists make faith a matter of “bare” assent. It is common to declaim against “mere” intellectual faith. Bare and mere are of course pejorative adjectives, i.e., weasel words. It is unfortunate that many or most Protestant discussions on this subject, either in textbooks or encyclopedias, do not define their terms and explain what is meant. Assent, as has been seen, can be taken in several ways. Orthodox Protestants have always said that faith must produce good works. Faith, or what passes for faith, or what some people call faith, is dead without works. If this is what is meant by speaking of “mere” or “bare” assent, of course it is quite true. But I suspect that this is not what is meant.

Chris: If anyone assents to the gospel then he is saved. If anyone “assents” to the gospel and lives a life characterized by a disregard for God’s commandments, then they did NOT give assent, mere assent, bare assent, or any assent whatsoever — they did NOT assent at all; they lied about giving their assent to the gospel.

At any rate, Protestantism has insisted that in addition to understanding the message, and in addition to believing the message, there must be fiducia, trust. Well, of course, there must be trust. I am not sure that even the Romanists deny this. But the fact that there must be trust does not guarantee the analysis of faith into understanding, assent, and trust.

Suppose I were a budding botanist and wished to classify plants. I might say that plants are divided into the rose family (including apple trees), the lily family, and asparagus. If I made this classification, the budding botanist would die in the bud. Of course, asparagus is part of the plant kingdom; but asparagus is a subdivision of the lily family. Therefore the threefold analysis is faulty. The second heading already includes asparagus.

Plausibility is gained for the division of faith into knowledge, belief, and trust by an illustration. I read the financial report of a bank. This is notitia. I believe that the information is true. This is assent. But I do not have faith in the bank, until I deposit some money in it. This is trust.

Now, illustrations are always useless and usually deceptive. In the first place, there are many banks I trust, even though I have no checking accounts in them. These other banks are just as sound as the one I use; only I do not have enough money to support two checking accounts. I would not hesitate to open a checking account in any one of them, were it convenient. It is not that I do not trust them­I just cannot conveniently use two banks.

Furthermore, the deception in the illustration lies in the fact that it tries to make faith a matter of some physical action. You read the financial report; you decide that the bank is sound; you then deposit money in it. But this latter physical action has no counterpart in a purely mental, internal, non-physical situation. We hear the Gospel message. We believe it. What else is there to do? If we confess that Jesus is Lord, we are saved. Of course, good works are to follow: but those who insist on fiducia as something in addition to assent do not locate faith in these external good works. Faith is completely mental. It is not physical. Why then is not trust one kind of assent? If it is not asparagus, maybe it is bellwort. Naturally saving faith is not assent to the proposition that two and two make four. There are many acts of assent that are not faith in Christ. But this indubitable fact does not imply that faith in Christ is not assent.

Chris: If one assents to the teachings of Christ, then he ipso facto, trusts Christ as One who is completely trustworthy and worthy of worship.To trust in Christ is to give intellectual assent to what He says.