I have often struggled with the whole idea of historical faith, which is the idea that someone can assent to the propositions of Scripture and yet not have true faith. Gordon Clark rejects the whole idea, saying that faith is very simply assent to the propositions of the Scripture. Yet he is in the minority. John Calvin certainly spends a great deal of time talking about those who have an “intellectual assent”, an agreement that the events related in the Scriptures actually occurred, and even have a general agreement as to the meaning of those events, and yet have no faith in God. It seems very strange to me that a man could truly agree with what the Bible says and yet have no real faith. An example that Joel Beeke used once was the example of seeing a man’s house burning down, running to the window and finding him asleep in his bed. You shout to him that his house is burning down, and he says, “I know”, and rolls back over to sleep. This kind of behavior does not correspond to anything that I can understand about human behavior.
But I think that perhaps a partial explanation of this disconnect can be found in the different times we are living in compared to the times of the Puritans or of John Calvin. In their cultures, would it not be true that practically every child was raised hearing the stories of the Bible as historical truth? And therefore they would concur with those events as being historically true and even assent to some agreed-on interpretation of those events, but hold these views only because they really had never been given anything else to believe. In many times and in many cultures, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe, for example, was the only account there was. And it would be practically unthinkable, culturally or intellectually, to challenge the historicity of the Biblical accounts. Therefore a man could grow up in this culture, giving assent to these various propositions, and yet having no faith, no trust in God, no “firm persuasion of the truth of God” (John Calvin’s definition of faith). In fact, this means that there are quite a number of other propositions in the Bible that this man would not assent to- the proposition that he is a hopeless sinner, utterly dependent on the sacrifice of Christ for his salvation, but that such salvation is freely offered to him, and that in that salvation every blessing of God is readily available to him, if he will but trust God and wait on Him patiently. These are all propositions of Scripture that such a man could not possibly assent to, even if he were perhaps to pay them lip service.
Now compare that to the current day, when every aspect of Biblical truth is under constant assault from all corners of our culture. Here, for a man to believe that the earth was created by God about six thousand years ago, and that Jesus was the Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified, dead and buried, and rose again from the dead, requires already a strong commitment to the truth of God’s word. Maintaining such beliefs in the face of a culture that is largely hostile to such beliefs requires an active effort. Holding such beliefs even now does not of course indicate true faith. But it indicates a lot more that someone holds such beliefs today than if he held them in the day of John Calvin, when there was really no competition.
True faith requires a choice, requires that one decide that God’s word is faithful and reliable, that God speaks truth in all that He says. It means much more than simply believing what one was taught from childhood or agreeing with the opinions of one’s culture, even if those opinions happen to be correct. In this way I can understand what the Puritans and Calvin and others are concerned about in their warnings against “historical faith”- they are warning against a false security that merely because one has the correct opinions of certain historical or academic facts, that therefore one has true faith. And yet Clark is correct as well, that faith is truly intellectual assent (for what other kind of assent can there be?) to the propositions of Scripture. Those propositions will teach a man that God is true and trustworthy, that He is and that He is the rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. Those propositions are the propositions that Christ is the redeemer of men, and that by faith and trust in Him I am given every spiritual blessing by God’s promise.