Clark on Saving Faith in 1961

One of the greatest contributions of Gordon Clark to the clarification of the gospel is his explanation of the nature of saving faith.  In 1961, Religion, Reason, and Revelation (RRR) by Gordon H. Clark was published. This book contains one of Clark’s earliest treatments of the nature of faith.  Of course, many years later, Clark published an entire book expanding on his work in RRR which we know as What is Saving Faith? (WSF)

Some people have suggested that Clark changed his views on faith between his early publications (such as RRR) and his later (WSF).  Kenneth Talbot and Jason Petersen have even accused John Robbins of changing Clark’s work in (WSF) to support a radical intellectualistic agenda.[1]  However, it is hard for me to see how anyone familiar with the works of Gordon Clark would think that Clark was presenting any significant new ideas at all in WSF.  It rather seems that WSF clarifies, expands upon, and supports the views he presents throughout his writings.[2]

In one of my favorite chapters in RRR, and indeed in all of Clark’s work, Faith and Reason, Clark systematically refutes the natural theology of Aquinas, the empiricism and rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the irrationalism of Soren Kierkegaard and the neo-orthodox theologians.  Then, he presents the foundations of the Christian theory of knowledge.  Here, he seeks to defend his emphasis on the primacy of the intellect in the Christian life.  After opposing the Thomistic complementary view between faith and reason, Clark erects a more biblical view of the relation of faith to reason; faith is simply mental assent to propositions.  To the modern Christian, this sounds alarming.  With so many books flying off the press about the existential and phenomenological aspects of faith, there seems to be no hope for Clark to overturn common opinion and erect a Christian Rationalism.  However, he does – and it is heroic.

Toward the end of the chapter, Clark refutes the common distinction between head and heart (which he copies and expands upon in WSF later); showing that, biblically, the heart is the intellect, so saving faith must be a matter of believing with the mind.  After this, to complete the Christian construction, Clark need only show how saving faith is not merely partially intellectual, but entirely intellectual in nature.  Then, with this mass of biblical support behind him, he concludes with:  ”Sufficient Biblical grounds have now been given to justify the intellectual character of faith.[3]

Here is the argumentation leading up to, this section:

Trust and Assent.

Two examples of this faulty psychology, especially this unscriptural belittling of intellectual activity, will be described. Neither one is exactly trivial; the second indeed affects one’s total response to Christianity. The first, a common confusion of thought frequently heard from evangelical pulpits, may do less damage because its implications are not so obvious. Yet it too can be symptomatic of wider aberrations.

In describing the nature of faith, fundamentalists, evangelicals (and even modernists in a certain way) stress the element of trust. This is of course what the Catholic Encyclopedia, as quoted above, referred to. 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. Or, as another minister recently said, mere belief that a bank is safe and sound will not protect your cash or give you any interest. You must actually put your money in the bank. 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 itself says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

RRRMany people strongly feel that simply believing true facts cannot be enough to save.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Some people will quote from James 2 in support.  Clark addresses this later in the text below.  Other provide analogies such as the chair analogy above to try to supply the missing effectual element between belief and application of the grace of Christ.  Clark explains the error:

There is here at least a lack of analysis, a confounding of something Scriptural and something that is not, a failure to equate two sides of an analogy. The weak point of such illustrations is that they compare faith with the physical act of sitting in a chair and distinguish it from belief. Belief in Christ does not rest your weary bones, for belief is mere assent. In addition you must actually sit down or deposit your money in the bank. But this analogy does not hold. The distinction between believing that a chair is comfortable and the act of sitting in it is perfectly obvious. But in the spiritual realm there is no physical action; there is mental action only: Hence the act of sitting down, if it means anything at all, must refer to something completely internal and yet different from belief. Belief in the chair has been made to stand for belief in Christ, and according to the illustration belief in Christ does not save. Something else is needed. But what is this something else that corresponds to the physical act of sitting down? This is the question that is seldom if ever answered. The evangelists put all their stress on sitting down, but never identify its analogue.

The analogy meant to add another element to saving faith is, therefore, confused.  Another analogy comes in the following form.  A tightrope walker impresses a crowd on by walking a tightrope 100 feet high.  He grabs a wheelbarrow and says:  “who thinks I can wheel this across?”  The believing crowd cheers and the man takes the wheelbarrow over the dangerous gap.  This celebrity tightrope walker then shouts:  “who thinks I can wheel a person across?”  The crowd, even more believing than before, cheers him on.  Minutes later, the cheering stopped and the crowd dispersed after the tightrope walker asked for volunteers and nobody was willing to get in the wheelbarrow.  Many people, including Pastors, have used this analogy, and I think they would be stumbled by the closer look Clark took in the reasoning above.

But what about James 2?  Doesn’t this condemn faith that is purely intellectual?  Surely the demons have a mere intellectual assent, right?  Clark answers this far-too-common retreat.

When such one-sided illustrations are not used, the abstract phrases disparaging intellectual assent are equally perplexing. Consider the words of Dr. Thomas Manton in his Commentary on the Epistle of James. Dr. Manton was a devout and pious Anglican, who – although he favored the restoration of Charles II – was one of those ministers who was ejected from his pulpit by the Act of Uniformity of 1662. His Commentary on James is a most admirable and extremely profitable work. Yet when discussing the present subject, he uses phrases that are hard to understand. For example, on James 2:19 he writes, “This instance showeth what faith he disputeth against; namely such as consisteth in bare speculation and knowledge…. Such assent, though it be not saving, yet so far as it is historical it is good, as a common work and preparation…. Bare assent to the articles of religion doth not infer true faith…. It is not only assensus axiomati…. There is not only assent in faith, but consent…. True believing is not an act of the understanding only, but a work of all the heart….”

Insofar as these phrases and the section from which they are quoted indicate the necessity of a faith that produces works, no good Christian could in the least demur. It is Dr. Manton’s particular excellence to have emphasized this theme of the Epistle. If by “bare speculation” and “naked illumination” one means a profession discovered to be hypocritical because devoid of virtuous conduct, let us all insist that this is far removed from saving faith. On this point Dr. Manton notices the phrase of James 2:14, “If someone says he has faith,” and remarks that the man may be supposed to have no faith at all. His profession is hypocritical. He does not necessarily believe any Christian doctrine. This situation is simply the Scriptural contrast between the heart and the lips. Hypocrisy too is an intellectual act. It is an intent to deceive. But surely the fact that hypocrisy is intellectual does not imply that faith as an intellectual act is hypocrisy. If one intellectual act is reprehensible, it does not follow that a different intellectual act is. Now, if Dr. Manton were merely rebuking hypocrisy and insisting that true faith is followed by overt acts of charity, there would be no argument. Nevertheless, although such is Dr. Manton’s chief emphasis, there are slight intimations of something further. Aside from the emphasis on good works, bare assent is contrasted with consent. He had said, “There is not only assent in faith, but consent.” Consent no doubt refers to some internal rather than overt action. What is this consent? Is it intellectual? If not, is it emotional? Or does Dr. Manton think that it is an act of will? These questions Dr. Manton does not answer. He does not define or explain the term consent. He leaves it as a mere word. Hence it is of no help to us.

Manton does not find, in James 2, that faith is something more than intellectual assent.  However, more must be said about James 2 and it will be said a few paragraphs down.

Again the previous question comes to the fore: If belief is represented by believing that the chair is solid, and this is taken as mere intellectual assent, what is represented by the different and separate act of actually sitting down? Now, in a sense there is another factor; but when it is identified, it will not turn out to be a different and separate act analogous to sitting down. It will still be the same internal, mental act of assent, though viewed in a different light. The difficulty in all this discussion derives from the assumption that an act of “mere” intellectual assent is possible. To this act the zealous evangelist wants to add emotions. Could it not be that what needs to be added is not emotion, but an act of will? Only, this “addition” is not really an addition at all, and a “mere” act of will must be recognized to be just as impossible as “mere” assent. Undoubtedly faith in Christ involves what is ordinarily and confusedly called an act of will. Whether faith requires emotions or not – and if so, which emotions it requires – are unimportant questions. Emotions by definition are fluctuating; an emotional man is unstable and few people have a high opinion of him; whereas, throughout our constantly changing emotional states, our beliefs and the volitions founded on them remain comparatively fixed. And, to return, faith surely involves the will.

However, when an attempt is made to use the illustration of the chair, the difficulties of faculty psychology return in full force and the whole collapses. Does not the language that includes such phrases as “mere intellectual assent” betray its unscriptural foundation in schizophrenic faculty psychology? Certainly intellection and volition do not occur in isolation. There can be no volition without intellection. Even the illustration of sitting in a chair shows this much. A person cannot will to sit in a chair unless he believes that there is a chair to be sat upon. And conversely there can be no intellection without volition, for intellectual assent is itself an act of will.

If the Scholastics demur at this last proposition and try to exempt the conclusions of demonstrative syllogisms from volitional acceptance, they do so only by ignoring the voluntary assent required by the premises. The Scholastics – and possibly more so the seventeenth-century Rationalists – may insist that logic itself is not a voluntary choice, for no one can choose to think otherwise. If someone thinks otherwise, it is an involuntary error. Now, in the following chapter on language it will be strenuously maintained that logic is not stipulative but necessary and irreplaceable. But to argue that the necessary cannot be an act of will presupposes the theory of free will, and free will will be disposed of in the final chapter. At any rate, the use of logic requires a voluntary act of attention, as does every other belief. One may choose simply not to think; or, rather, if he thinks, he must choose to pay attention.

To interrupt the flow for a minute, this seems relevant to common idea that belief is not volitional at all.  This view is affirmed by many philosophers and epistemologists today such as Alvin Plantinga who think that most, if not all of human beliefs are formed by our involuntary mental and physical equipment.

Furthermore, the forms of logic, devoid of other content, do not settle questions of faith. The immediate subject has to do, as will shortly be made still clearer, with theological and creedal propositions. These cannot be deduced involuntarily from the forms of logic. Therefore, within the range pertinent to questions of faith and reason, it may be asserted that there can be no volition without intellection and no intellection without volition. They should not be regarded as two separate faculties, nor even as two separate acts. The common opinion that an act of volition is different from an act of intellection is an illusion which results from the restriction of attention to physical acts such as sitting down. But when the act is not physical, when it is the act of believing a proposition to be true, the supposed two acts so interpenetrate in a single mental state that they become indistinguishable. One can distinguish belief in a chair or in mathematics from belief in Christ, of course; that is, the particular objects thought or willed can be distinguished; but the mental act is equally volitional and intellectual. This is what is implied by saying that the person is a unit. For some superficial purposes, mainly with respect to initiating physical motions, a popular distinction in emphasis is made; but the common threefold division of the person into emotion, intellect, and will is as misleading as the id, the ego, and the superego.

It is not surprising to find modern psychology eisogeted into the text of the Scriptures today.  Even if we find Freudian categories useful for explaining the operation of the psyche, we must not impose them on the Scriptures or let them hinder our exegesis of a biblical psychology.

There is also a further complication in the notion of belief or assent that motivates the antipathy to intellectual activity. Those who say that intellectual belief in Christ is of no value not only fall into the errors exposed above, but they also in some instances fail to distinguish assent from understanding. When they attack “mere assent” they probably mean – though it is rash to guess what some people mean – that salvation is not obtained by knowing the propositions in the Bible and understanding their meaning. Obviously this is true. Many intelligent men know very well what the Bible says; they understand it far better than many Christians; but they are not saved and they are not Christians. The reason is that though they understand, they do not believe. They know what the Bible says, but they do not assent to it. But because understanding and believing are both intellectual acts, those who think carelessly identify them. The distinction between knowing the meaning of a proposition and believing it seems to be too subtle, and therefore some preachers conclude that “mere belief” is of no value. This conclusion is fallaciously drawn. Just because one intellectual act – the understanding of what words mean – is less than faith, it does not follow that faith or belief is not intellectual.

Exegesis will reveal that faith, Christian faith, is not to be distinguished from belief. Consider Hebrews 11:1. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This may not be a formal definition of faith, but it must be accepted as a true statement about faith. The American Revised Version says that “faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” Assurance and conviction are belief, strong belief, voluntary belief, and as intellectual as you please. They are intellectual because their objects are meaningful propositions. Their objects are truths. The heroes of faith, whom the chapter goes on to describe, all believed some definite intellectual truths. In these cases, admittedly, their faith was followed by physical action. Abel offered a sacrifice and Noah built the ark. But the physical actions were not the faith itself. Faith is something internal, mental, intellectual; as Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand” something about the creation of the world. Surely this is an intellectual act.  And in explaining why “without faith it is impossible to please [God],” verse six says, “for he who comes to God must believe that he is.” As a reply to those who disparage intellection with the illustration of the chair, the considerations adduced seem to be sufficient.

Few people suggest that there is no intellectual element in faith.  However, in the argumentation above, Clark has showed that some of the common arguments for a non-intellectual component of faith have failed.  Below, he focuses on anti-intellectualism and provides the remainder of a response to the use of James 2 to support non-intellectual faith.

The many confusions relative to faith, assent, volition, understanding, and so on were used as a first example of a faulty psychology. There is now a second example. Underlying the faulty psychology that gives rise to misleading illustrations about chairs and banks is a distaste for creeds. Creeds are too intellectual, and the type of religion we have been discussing has strong tendencies to the emotional. Sometimes it hardly recognizes a role for volition. But at any rate it exhibits a distaste for creeds. Perhaps, however, this distaste should not be cited as a second example of the faulty psychology. It might be better to take the distaste for creeds and the faulty psychology itself as two examples of an underlying anti-intellectualism.

From the standpoint of Calvinism, anti-intellectualism – a disparagement of creeds, an essentially emotional outlook or a reliance on some ineffable mystical experience – is a far more serious error in religion than some unfortunate illustration in popular preaching. It may sound pious to minimize belief in a creed and to exalt faith in a person, but the implication is that it makes little or no difference what a man believes. Religion – I refuse to say Christianity – thus becomes non-doctrinal. This anti-intellectualism, clearly, is a broader theory than faculty psychology; and if faculty psychology conflicts with Christianity at one or two points, the broader theory will conflict at many more – in fact, at all points.

To return for a moment to Hebrews 11:6, we see that faith in God is impossible without a creed. The first article of this necessary creed is that God exists. And how obvious! Can a man come to God if he believes that God does not exist? To turn an illustration back upon its originators, can you take your money to a bank which you believe does not exist? It is not even necessary to put the matter so strongly. The blatant atheist who believes that God does not exist will not come, of course. But what of a man, not a blatant atheist, who merely fails to believe that God does exist? Can such a man any more easily come to God? Hebrews says, No; he who comes to God must believe that he is.

This creed has also a second article which must be believed before one can come to God. If a man believes merely that God exists, he will not come: God in this case might be an indifferent deity with no concern for man; he might even be annoyed at a man’s bothering him; or possibly this god might be some impersonal force. Therefore, before a man comes to God, he must believe that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him. This, of course, implies that God is personal. What an extensive theology we are getting into! And how intellectual we have already become, for we are now using the logical form of implication.

NazgulThe slow progress of this argument may provoke an impatient rejoinder that nonetheless intellectual belief is of no value. Do not the devils believe and shudder? Misinterpretation of this verse in James has gone to the extremity of making it conclusive against any saving efficacy of belief in Christ. Yet the Scriptures say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” and, “for with the heart one believes to righteousness.” The Epistle of James should not be so interpreted as to produce a contradiction with the apostolic preaching in Acts. The belief that causes the devils to shudder is a belief that God is one. Nothing more is said. Certainly it is not a belief that Christ died for them. To show, as James does, that some intellectual belief is inadequate, to show that some is fruitless, or even to show that some is condemnatory is not to show that true faith is not intellectual. The verse in James does not destroy the argument of this chapter to the effect that faith requires a creed and must have intellectual content. So also the points of the creed so far enumerated from Hebrews are not said to be sufficient for salvation. They are said to be indispensable. No one can come to God without this creed. For all its insufficiency, its necessity must be emphasized because of the contemporary disparagement of creeds and intellect by fundamentalists and by the modernists as well.

The argument that James 2 presents a non-intellectual dimension of faith has been shown to be invalid.

For the same reasons, faith in Christ, no less than faith in God, requires intellectual assent to theological propositions. The disjunction between faith in a person and belief in a creed is a delusion. None of us proceeds on such a principle in our human affairs. Trust in a person is a knowledge of a person; it is a matter of assenting to certain propositions. Suppose I ask you to lend me a sum of money and to trust me to repay it. On the pleasant assumption that you have the money and do not immediately need it (this is an intellectual belief too), will you make the loan without believing certain propositions about me? Suppose you have heard that I am dishonest? Suppose you believe I will skip out on you? Could you, with these beliefs, say that intellectual assent is trivial and that you will trust me all the same? Not many people are so stupid in business affairs. This stupidity is reserved for non-intellectual, emotional religion. It is in religion that the “heart” is said to be important, but not the head. But if this were true, we could trust Christ for salvation without believing that he is trustworthy, without believing that he can save, without believing that his blood cleanses from all sin. We would need no creed, no statement of the atonement, no historical information about Jesus; we would need only a comfortable feeling around the non-Biblical “heart.”

Although there have been mystics and assorted anti-intellectuals in every age, although the influence of Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl have made anti-intellectualism popular in the form of modernism, and although neither Neo-orthodoxy nor the ecumenical movement has returned to the historic creeds (or to any creeds), the main current of Christianity has always been intellectualistic. There has been variation of emphasis, of course; but creeds or statements of belief have not been abandoned. There has always been some recognition of the primacy of the intellect. Even the primacy of the will, when in medieval Augustinianism it was opposed to the Thomistic primacy of the intellect, did not devalue intellectual currency as contemporary irrationalism does. And if, as suggested above, the intellect and the will cannot really be separated, the medieval controversy militates all the less against the intellect.

This long argument has had to treat of many details, not all taken from the same source. To gather the complexities together, let it be remembered that the Bible teaches the unity of the person; that faculty psychology is unscriptural; that the Old Testament term heart is far more intellectual than its use in present day preaching; that faith is an inner or mental act, not properly compared with sitting on a chair; that Hebrews shows the necessity of creeds; and that belief in a creed is both intellectual and voluntary. Woven together like a tartan, some of the lesser strands of the argument may be hard to keep in mind; but the overall pattern should be obvious enough. However, before a final conclusion can be drawn, the Biblical position on faith and reason should be given a more definite and positive expression. This is all the more necessary because, in addition to the many preceding complexities, there is still another most important factor, so far hardly mentioned.

…and you’ll have to get the book to break the suspense created in your heart and in your mind by this last sentence.  One might be tempted to dismiss Gordon Clark’s view as cold-intellectualism.  Does this intellectualism take away the power, the glory, the wonder, the excitement, the emotion, the fire, the spirituality, and the love in the Christian life?  No.  This would be a misconception.  Rather, instead of adding power to the gospel, instead of elevating experience alongside saving faith, Gordon Clark explains the Scriptural teaching that the truth, itself, is powerful.  The gospel is the power of God – it isn’t the gospel plus power – it is the power to salvation for everyone who believes.  You shall know the truth, and the truth, alone, shall set you free by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ the Truth alone, for God’s glory alone.






[1] To my knowledge, nobody has even tried to substantiate this claim so I suspect that they, like many others, have a personal problem with John Robbins, who’s sometimes-Luther-like personality made him difficult for some people to get along with.

[2] Other articles written on this subject are:  The Marks of a True Clarkian by Carlos Montijo and Tim Shaughnessy where Clark’s view are explained from WSF and Faith is Understanding with Assent by Sean Gerety where an audio lecture is quoted and explained.

[3] Gordon H. Clark. Religion, Reason and Revelation (Kindle Locations 2191-2204). The Trinity Foundation.

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  • Ron Gilbert

    Your footnote on Robbins I have found to be accurate of Clarkians in general, myself included, although I prefer not to be known as a Clarkian, per se.
    Robbins, in response to the need of the hour, was much more focused on justification by faith alone than on sanctification. He took no prisoners when engaged with those he perceived to be enemies. He was, however, gracious in many of his ways. He just wasn’t tolerant of errorists.
    Because of the high premium moderns place on emotions, logical arguments are generally fruitless, and Robbins (and those who emulate him) was at times sharper than necessary with his rhetoric when the misologists cane to the fray.
    You may be aware that Alan Strange’s review of “WISF” was answered by Robbins. Robbins’ answer to Stranges review is found at

    Some contemporary writers seem to be almost as sound as Clark in regard to assent, even if they may mean not to be so. Mark Jones, in “Knowing Christ”, states:

    “…our minds, which assent to the truth of the gospel, grow in the knowledge of the gospel and of Jesus Christ”. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015) page xiii.

    Later, the popular but erroneous psychology comes rushing back in:

    “We are to love Jesus not only with all our heart, but also with all our soul (synonymous with ‘spirit’). In our devotion to Christ, our soul is responsible for our highest spiritual exercises. It is the seat of our emotional activity.”

    Clark addresses this faulty psychology in “Faith and Saving Faith”. He does an inductive study that shows that biblically, the heart comprehends the mind, the will, and the emotions.

    • Ron, thanks for the info. That’s some good stuff. Also, about Robbins, I modified the footnote slightly because it implied that he was always hard to get along with. I didn’t mean to say that because I never knew the man. It sounds like many people got along with him really well. I meant to say that some people had a very hard time with him because of his harshness with those with whom he disagreed. Sounds like you have come to a similar conclusion. I’m sorry you don’t like to “be known as a Clarkian, per se”. Maybe we can discuss that sometime. 🙂

      • Ron Gilbert

        No, John wasn’t always hard to get along with. He was easy to get along with most always in the few years I knew him.
        As to being called a Clarkian:
        It is “an injustice to Christ when some call themselves Benedictines instead of Christians, some Franciscans, some Dominicans; and when they haughtily take to themselves these titles as their profession of religion, while affecting to be different from ordinary Christians!” John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), IV.13.14, p. 1269.

        • Haha, but I’m a Calvinist too!

          • Ron Gilbert

            So, I’ll tell you a story.
            When I was laboring with a certain man here in Unicoi County, we were discussing things, and I suggested that theology was like a mountain, and theologians each had a vista that we should sit with them and learn.
            The man’s reply was to the effect that Clark’s seat was the only seat to sit in. I don’t think so.
            So, no, I don’t like to be called a Clarkian, or a Calvinist, though I am certainly agreeable to both the presentations these men made of Scripture.

          • Oh, so you are in the Uncoi crew!

            I think it is a shame when people only will listen to 1 theologian. Some types of parrots are similar. My uncle had a parrot who would bite anyone else who came near.

            Anyway, it is especially silly for a Clarkian to only listen to Clark because Clark, himself, set such a good example of someone who could always learn from those who didn’t agree with him. In fact, he steals so much of his argumentation from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, WM Urban, and even Brand Blanshard, that he makes me feel like I should stop reading Clark and read these other guys. And I do.

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