The reformed Scholastics

The idea that faith entails knowledge, assent and trust was also taken up by most Reformed Scholastics, including James (Jacobus) Arminius.[1] In this regard, they not only had Melanchthon’s Loci communes for their inspiration, but even the later editions of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the 1559 edition of the Institutes, for example, Calvin complains about earlier Roman Catholic Scholastics who have gone entirely astray when identifying faith ‘with a bare and simple assent arising out of knowledge, and leave out confidence and assurance of heart’.[2] [3] [4] Throughout his remarks on faith, Calvin charges his Roman Catholic opponents, perhaps unfairly, with understanding faith to be solely knowledge and assent (and so a matter of the intellect), and thus neglecting faith as trust and confidence (as also a matter of the heart). There is some small irony here, for the earlier editions of Calvin’s Institutes tended to interpret faith primarily as knowledge. Some scholars have argued that the growing emphasis on faith as heartfelt trust in God’s promises in the later editions is due to the influence of Melanchthon’s 1536-1537 Loci communes on Calvin.10 11

The Swiss theologian Johannes Wolleb (1589-1629) offers a fine example of both the use of Aristotelian terminology as well as this account of faith. In his Compendium theologiae christianae (1626), for instance, Wolleb notes that the ‘efficient cause’ of faith is God and that its ‘instrumental cause’ is the preaching of the gospel. Generally speaking, the ‘matter’ or ‘object’ of faith is the Word of God, but more particularly it is the free promises of Christ. The ‘form’ of faith, finally, is knowledge, assent and trust. For Wollebius, knowledge means understanding all that is necessary for salvation; assent means firmly believing that these things are true; and trust means that the believer holds that the gospel’s promises apply to herself or himself.11

The highly influential Swiss-Italian theologian Francis Turretin (1623-1687) also highlights faith as a multifaceted reality. In his Institutes of Elenctic Theology (16791685), which became widely used as a textbook, Turretin notes that faith is not just one simple habit and that it involves both the intellect and the will. Faith is a varied and composite reality, and when theologians consider faith to have just one aspect (assent), or two (knowledge and assent) or three (knowledge, assent and trust), they are attempting to unfold and describe a complex reality. Faithful to his own insight regarding the complexity of faith, Turretin develops no less than seven different aspects of faith (perhaps only outdone in sheer number by Hermann Witsius, who identifies nine).[5] He does think, however, that these seven can be referred to the traditional three.

The first three acts of faith which Turretin discusses are the familiar knowledge, assent and trust. As knowledge, faith understands all the things to be believed, either of God or of humanity’s misery. As ‘theoretical assent’, faith believes the above to be true. As ‘practical assent’ or ‘fiducial assent’, faith is fully persuaded that God is the highest good and thus worthy of love and desire. It is when he reaches the fourth through seventh acts of faith that Turretin richly expands its affective element. The fourth act of faith is ‘the act of refuge’, which means fleeing to Christ as the one who forgives sins and to whom one is to be united. The fifth is the reception of Christ, which means being united with him such that ‘we are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh and one with him’.[6] The soul flees to Christ and Christ offers himself and all his benefits and blessings. One participates in the blessings of Christ inasmuch as one is united with him: ‘From this union of persons arises the participation in the blessings of Christ, to which (by union with him) we acquire a right (to wit, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification).’[7] The sixth act of faith is reflexive. Having been united with Christ and having received his blessings, believers know that Christ belongs to them, and they to Christ, and that nothing can separate them from his love. The seventh act of faith is consolation and confidence, and is characterized by joy, tranquillity, peace and delight. Confident and assured of having been united to Christ, the believer rejoices in him, overcomes adversity and continues to go about doing good works, confident that the one who began them will also perfect them (Phil. 1.6).

  • [1] James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, ed. James Nichols, vol. 2 (London: Longman, Bees,Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828), pp. 400—401.
  • [2] Calvin, Institutes, III.II.33, p. 581.
  • [3] Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 163.
  • [4] Johannes Wollebius, ‘Compendium Theologiae Christianae’, in Reformed Dogmatics: J. Wollebius,G. Voetius, F. Turretin (ed. and trans. John W. Beardslee III, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965),pp. 26—262 (162—163).
  • [5] Herman Witsius, The Oeconomy of the Covenants between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank,vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Turnbull, 1803), Ш.УП.УШ-ХХУП, pp. 379-389.
  • [6] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George MusgraveGiger (New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994), p. 563.
  • [7] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, p. 562.
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