In part 1 I began to sketch the outline of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21 on true faith by looking at the three aspects of true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. In this post I want to consider the second aspect of true faith, assent.
21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
The German text of the catechism, on which the translation above is based, implies this aspect in the words “certain knowledge” (gewisse Erkenntniß) but the Latin translation, made in 1563, makes it explicit when it says, “I assent firmly” (firmiter assentior). What is assent?
The dictionary defines the English noun thus: “the expression of approval or agreement.” Our noun is derived from the Latin noun assensus, which has the same sense of approval, agreement, or approbation. Assent depends on knowledge. Like knowledge, it has an object, an extra-mental reference. It agrees with or to something outside of itself.
One way to come to a clearer understanding of an idea is by antithesis. There are two things it is not. The first thing we should say is that it is not ascent or climbing up a ladder into the intellect of God. That was a journey on which a large number of medieval theologians and mystics embarked. It is a journey on which contemporary mystics and rationalists are engaged. The desire to know what God knows, the way he knows it is the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC)—for more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. It is an ancient desire, going all the way back to the garden. In the history of Christian theology, via mysticism and rationalism, we’ve baptized it as it were but it still violates the Creator/creature distinction. “In the beginning God.” Full stop. It was not “In beginning God and humans.” We are creatures. We are image bearers. We are not the Creator. We do not impress our image on God and it is idolatry when we try to do so.
Mysticism is just as seductive as rationalism and it is very much the spirit of our age. In the 19th century, when, in Europe at least, confidence in the power of almighty reason to solve all problems was already beginning to show cracks, the Romantic movement turned to the power of religious experience to explain Christianity. The lines between theological liberalism and evangelical pietism began to blur. Behind those movements lay Anabaptist mystics in the early 16th century and behind them a long line of medieval mystics who sought union with the being of God through contemplation and abandonment of this world.
We live in an ostensibly post-Enlightenment age. That’s only partly true. In fact most folks assume the same sort of autonomy on which the Enlightenment was premised. They’ve simply shifted the center of authority from the intellect to feelings. People no longer make claims about what is true objectively but what is true subjectively or personally. “Well, it’s true for me.” Underneath that apparently innocuous subjectivism, however, is the same bedrock conviction that “I am the measure of all things.”
The Christian faith, however, requires us to give assent to facts, to realities, to truths that exist apart from our experience of them. Our experience doesn’t make the resurrection a fact. The tomb was empty before the disciples and the women got to it, before they experienced it. Jesus didn’t rise in their hearts or in their feeling of divine dependence. He rose in objective reality and he will return in the same way. His return won’t be a mere subjective experience but it will be an objective, empirical, undeniable fact in the way Hurricane Katrina was an undeniable fact, a reality with which millions had to reckon. There were many experiences of that hurricane but there was only one hurricane.
Assent is an aspect of faith but it is not the whole of faith. Unbelievers can know that Jesus was raised from the dead. They can give assent that it really happened. We know from the gospel narratives that, in fact, unbelievers did know and agree to the fact that Jesus had been raised and yet they did not believe. This is because faith is a gift that involves the intellect but it is not the product of the intellect. Faith is a supernatural act by God the Holy Spirit, who makes dead bones live, who raises the spiritually dead to live and who grants to them faith and through it union with Christ and all his benefits (e.g., justification, sanctification, adoption etc).
Assent implies personal knowledge. It is not mere theory about hypotheticals or possibilities. It is not implicit faith about things that other people claim to know to claim to have experienced. This sort of credulity is a problem for both Romanists and neo-Pentecostalists. True faith rests in God as he has revealed himself in Christ the Word of God incarnate and in the inspired, infallible Word written. When we give assent to the Christian faith, we are giving assent to concrete claims and propositions to in Holy Scripture and to the tri-personal God.
Via rationalism (the identity of the human intellect with the divine intellect) and mysticism (identity of the human being with the divine being) we have sought to ascend to God when we should be content to assent to him and to his truth. Paul says,
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:6-9, ESV)
When we assent to the faith, we are not going up to God but rather we are agreeing that he has come to us, in Christ, and that he has revealed himself to us in his Word and that his Word is truth.
Next time: Keep the faith baby.