Implicit Faith And The Cult Of Personality

Superstar PastorMore than a couple observers of the Reformed and evangelical worlds have noted the rise and danger of the superstar pastor. Yesterday, however, in conversation with a colleague another came to mind: implicit faith.

Implicit faith (fides implicita) is the medieval (and Romanist) doctrine that the Christian believes whatever the (Roman) church believes even if one does not know it personally.

Thomas (Aquinas) wrote:

Therefore, as regards the primary points or articles of faith, man is bound to believe them, just as he is bound to have faith; but as to other points of faith, man is not bound to believe them explicitly, but only implicitly, or to be ready to believe them, in so far as he is prepared to believe whatever is contained in the Divine Scriptures. Then alone is he bound to believe such things explicitly, when it is clear to him that they are contained in the doctrine of faith (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae 2.5).

Today, the Roman Catechism does not speak explicitly (no pun intended) of implicit faith but the notion seems to be contained in this summary in §182: “We believe all “that which is contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church proposes for belief as divinely revealed.” “[W]ritten” and “which the Church proposes” seems to imply that Romanists believe whatever the church holds even if they do not know what that is (credulitas). Of course, it’s nearly impossible for one to know completely what Rome believes. You’re not really meant to know all that it believes because that changes. Rome also uses the expression “implicit faith” to account for those outside the church (Vatican II) but that is for another post.

The connection with superstar pastors is this: when evangelicals make the transition to the Reformed confession it is not uncommon for them to go through a period of implicit faith. On this question, however, the difference between Rome and the Reformed is that we are not (or should not be) content with implicit faith. I mean to say that when Christians begin consciously to adopt the Reformed faith it is usually through the influence of some visible teaching figure. People begin to see that the theology, piety, and practice they’ve accepted hitherto is inadequate. When they see the doctrines of free acceptance with God through faith alone in Christ alone, his sovereignty in salvation, covenant theology, Christian liberty, orderly and reverent worship, Word and sacrament ministry as a means of grace and the other doctrines and practices that distinguish the Reformed confession from broad evangelicalism they only see a part of the elephant, as it were.

The temptation is to say to one’s self, “Well, I don’t have to know everything because so and so knows it and I trust him.” Now, it is true that there is much that one need not know. It’s not really material whether you understand the logical order of the decrees (infra v supra). I doubt that it matters if you know the length of the creation days or which Bible translation is the perfect English translation (it doesn’t exist). I doubt that you need be an expert in eschatology to be Reformed. There are any number of things that you need not know but, to paraphrase Luther’s Leipzig Disputation (1519) superstars and coalitions do err.

What must you know and believe explicitly, i.e., embrace intelligently and heartily because Scriptures teaches it:

All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum (Heidelberg Catechism, A:22).

The articles are the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed, which we confess as a summary of the faith and explain in the catechism. So, the list of things that a Christian must read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, to borrow a phrase, is not unending but neither is it nothing. We believe these things not, in the first instance, because they are taught by the church but rather because they are taught by Scripture. The church confesses them because Scripture teaches them. We confess the faith with the church and in the church and even under the ministerial authority of the church as she confesses God’s Word.

That’s a beauty of confessing the faith together. There are great mysteries in the Christian faith: one person, two natures; one God in three persons etc but what the true church actually believes is not a mystery and it’s not a matter of implicit faith. We confess our faith and believe explicitly and that is all that we are bound to believe as a matter of discipline and that’s a source of great freedom.

No personality is the arbiter of our faith and practice. Indeed, in Reformed churches personalities tend to fade into the background. God’s Word is in the foreground. Ministers come and go. The Word stands. The ministry stands. We should give thanks for those gifted, articulate persons whom God has used to strengthen our faith but our confidence rests not on this famous person or that but on the Word incarnate and written.

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  1. “In, with, and under”?! Surely this man is a Lutheran. 😉

    Do you think the tendency to follow a popular teacher is the result of failing to distinguish between the Office itself and the man occupying the Office?

    • Nate,

      Yes. American evangelical Christianity, going back to the first great awakening in the 18th century and intensifying in the 2GA in the 19th century, has always emphasized personalities. It’s probably a function of the relative weakness of ecclesiastical institutions among other things. That history colors and affects the practice of the faith in Reformed congregations and among those evangelicals who identify with aspects of Reformed theology.

      • Thanks Dr. Clark, that’s very helpful. Is it possible that this comes from the pietistic emphasis on the priesthood of the baptized (or, in their parlance, “priesthood of all believers”), interpreted in opposition to (in our confession) Aug. V and XIV. If PoAB negates the office of the ministry, all we are left with is charismatic personalities and their personal expositions of Scripture, no?

  2. Excellent article, Dr. C.! It’s something that today much of Evangelical and even Reformed Christians seek what you’ve coined as QIRC and QIRE, thinking they constitute the royal road to knowing God. And yet the necessary and very adequate tenets/foundation of what has been given and what one must know and believe (Apostle’s Creed, confessions, etc.) are ignored. Thus the endless popularity of the latest and newest innovative teachings and teachers. “Give us the secret…” the tickling of the ear…

  3. Another paragraph in the CCC that seems to speak of implicit faith is par. 87: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” Though this is not an explicit statement of implicit faith, it seems pretty close.

    Although to be fair, when it speaks of “receiving with docility,” this might not have such a “blind following of the magisterium” that it seems. After all, par. 87 contains a reference to par. 2037, the end of which reads: “[The faithful] have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity.”

    It is hard for me to hear the phrase “receiving with docility,” however, without hearing some form – or at least some echoes – of implicit faith.

  4. Spot on, Dr. Clark! The evangelical world today is rife with the cult of personality and the implicit faith that goes along with it, and it is often a lengthy process for evangelicals coming into the Reformed confession to unlearn those evangelical traits.

    Early in my ministry I once preached a sermon wherein I made some critical comments about the antinomian dispensational teachings of a popular “celebrity” preacher (Charles Stanley; my criticism were directed toward his popular but heterodox book “Eternal Security”). I don’t make it a habit of regularly criticizing other preachers from the pulpit, and I made my critical comments almost in passing; but nevertheless there was one dear sister in the congregation who was quite upset with me that I would dare to criticize one of her favorite preachers. (Sadly, this Christian sister eventually ended up transferring her membership into a more broadly evangelical local church.) I have also on occasion gotten in trouble for making some critical comments about Billy Graham’s Arminian theology.

    On those few occasions when I have criticized the teachings of popular evangelical celebrities I have tried to do so in as charitable a manner as possible (attacking the teaching, not the man). Nevertheless, I can say from experience that those who would dare raise even mild criticisms against the teachings or ministries of popular evangelical celebrity preachers can expect the wrath of congregants and/or fellow believers, so deeply ingrained is the cult of personality and implicit faith within the evangelical mindset. It seems to me that many evangelicals (and evangelical-leaning Reformed) feel a sense of greater loyalty to their favorite celebrity preachers than they do to their own pastor and local church leadership.

  5. Excellent and very edifying article, Dr. Clark! Reminds me of Calvin’s “our hearts are idol factories” phrase since we (all humans!) tend to make idols especially out of persons wether it be popes, pastors, philosophers, scientists, musicians, celebrities, ourselves, et al.

  6. …Ty for this post. I’m not quite sure what you mean about celebrities preachers. For example, a lay person (especially one laboring under conditions that make it hard to come to understanding of meaning of the Gospel, I.e. depressions, schizophrenia, lack of education, lack of ability to analyze context, etc), how can he get R she hope to ever know the truth of the Gospel!? Some of us have no hope to ever understand the Scriptures rightly UNLESS a pastor literally guides us. In almost all decisions of the church and life, we are forced to rely on him/them, along with Creeds, to be able to know what Gospel is and how to live under it. One may understand next to nothing of Scriptural truth, but since he sees that the particular pastor or Creed was very faithful in explaining the Scriptures in those things that we do understand, we just rely and trust such person to explain other things from Scriptures to us. Personally, idk original languages, historical context, often times my brain doesn’t have the ability to think simple things through–regardless how hard I try–yet I just read what can understand in the Bible (very little) and the rest is where I rely on a local pastor, consistory, Creeds,etc. Isnt the same thing as you believe!?

    • Ed,

      We all need pastors, churches, and creeds. The concern is that people put their trust in men rather than Christ and his Word.

      We put our trust in the Word, even when we don’t fully understand it or as we grow in our understanding.

      Scripture is clear enough to understand what we must understand. You were able to write this comment. You can read. With the Spirit’s help you can make enough sense of the clearer passages(e.g., “for God so loved the world…”) to understand them for salvation and the Christian life.

      You already know his because you write about “faithful” pastors. How do you know they are faithful? Because you know what the Word says and you measure them by it.

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