When Al Kimmel began his thread on Christian assurance, using Triablogue as a foil, I was naturally waiting for the coin to drop.
It came as no surprise that Kimmel’s alternative would take a sacramental turn.
Before we get to that, let’s quote and comment on some other things he says along the way:
“The logic of faith in Calvin can be described in the following syllogisms:
Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.”
Doesn’t this have a familiar ring to it? Sounds an awful lot like Jn 3:16, does it not?
Yet Kimmel is going to criticize this syllogism.
Here is one of many points where the Catholic and the Calvinist inhabit different worlds. For the Catholic, it’s as if Scripture doesn’t matter. It makes no difference if the logic of faith in Calvin parallels the logic of Jn 3:16.
For Kimmel, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t solve the “problem” of assurance. And let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he’s right. Suppose Jn 3:16 fails to close the gap.
But how does that disprove Calvin’s position?
What Kimmel is doing is to treat assurance as a problem, and then cast about for a solutin in the form of a problem-solving device. If Jn 3:16 doesn’t solve the problem, then, for Kimmel, that disproves the Reformed position.
And let us say that Jn 3:16 doesn’t’ solve the problem. How does that have any bearing on where the truth lies? Isn’t Jn 3:16 true?
The fact that it may or may not suffice as a problem-solving device in resolving the uncertainties of assurance does not mean that we are at liberty to brush it aside and move on to another hypothetical alternative.
After all, doesn’t Jn 3:16 say that whoever believes in Christ shall not perish, but have eternal life? Is it wrong for a Christian to invoke that verse if you ask him why he believes that he is heaven-bound?
Even if Jn 3:16 were insufficient to fully ground the assurance of salvation, it is still supplies a necessary condition. Even if there were more to the assurance of salvation than Jn 3:16, can there be any less?
Kimmel then goes on to say:
“Faith here works reflectively. It looks to Christ, but it also looks back upon the self and its act of faith.”
True, and how is this avoidable? How do I know I’m saved? Well, if Scripture says that Christians are saved, and I’m a Christian, than I know I’m saved if I know I’m a Christian; and if I don’t know I’m a Christian, then I don’t know I’m saved.
Is there really any way around this? And even if there were, should we be looking for a way around this?
Kimmel then says that the Lutheran view, inasofar as it remains indebted to traditional Catholicism, can avoid the reflexivity of the Reformed view, and by avoiding that, can also avoid the uncertainties which attach to a reflexive doctrine of assurance:
“The logic of faith in Luther can be described in the following syllogisms:
Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).
Faith for Luther is nonreflective. Faith rests directly on Christ. It does not look away from the sacramental event; it hears the promises and believes or not…The object of faith is a divine promise spoken directly to the sinner by Christ, through the mediation of the Church.
For Luther, assurance is not the product of an act of self-reflection; assurance is identical to the act of believing. I do not need to know whether I truly believe. I do not need to know whether my faith is authentic or not. All I need to do is believe the promise; the promise is fulfilled in me in that very act. Believing does not necessarily mean knowing that I have faith.”
But there are several serious problems with this analysis, any one of which is enough to sink this alternative:
i) It does not avoid the reflexivity of assurance. For the subject must still reflect on the fact that he is saved because he has been baptized, and therefore enjoys the salvific warrant which baptism (supposedly) confers.
Kimmel has simply concealed the reflexivity of Lutheran assurance by the way he phrases the syllogism. But it’s a simply matter to recast the syllogism in a manner that parallels the Reformed syllogism.
Major premise: Whoever is baptized is saved.
Minor premise: I am baptized.
Conclusion: I am saved.
ii) Notice the bait-and-switch tactic as Kimmel leaps from direct faith in Christ to the promise of the sacramental event, mediated through the church. Is looking to the sacrament, or looking to the church which administers the sacrament, equivalent to direct faith in Christ? Obviously not. Kimmel has smuggled in one or two addition steps in the process of assurance, and each step is, itself, a theological construct.
iii) Vesting your assurance of salvation in the sacraments would only a compelling inference if the sacraments are, indeed, an efficacious means of grace such that whoever participates the means of grace is thereby instated in a state of grace.
Yet this can break down at many steps along the way. It assumes apostolic succession. It assumes that the priest has satisfied the preconditions for the valid administration of the sacraments. It assumes that the recipient has satisfied the preconditions for the valid administration of the sacraments. In Catholic theology, there are many possible impediments to the valid administration of the sacraments. And even if these do not obtain at the time, sacramental grace is still resistible. I can be in a state of grace on Sunday, and commit mortal sin on Monday.
Indeed, Kimmel goes on to say as much himself:
“The statement ‘Whoever believes in Christ is saved’ is always true, in all times and places; but the baptismal form of this gospel, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ is true only when spoken in the right circumstances. A sacrament requires its proper context. It must be performed at the right time and right place, in accordance with the sacramental mandate.”
And, further down, “The non-reflective believer, therefore, believes the gospel and receives the gift of justification, but without the certainty of perseverance.”
Kimmel then says: “But when the mandate is fulfilled, the sacramental word is there to be believed or disbelieved.”
Ah, yes, but that’s the rub—that implicit conditional. Even from his viewpoint, you have this rider attaching to the promise.
Moreover, “The non-reflective believer, therefore, believes the gospel and receives the gift of justification, but without the certainty of perseverance.”
Furthermore, Kimmel’s viewpoint takes many other things for granted: “The sacraments do not work impersonally but work precisely because they speak God’s promise.”
And, again, “What he needs are sacraments. Sacraments do not tell us what conditions we must fulfill to be saved; they simply give the salvation they promise—and that is the only assurance we need.”
Do the sacraments promise salvation to every recipient? Does Kimmel really believe this? Is every duly baptized Catholic and regular communicant heaven-bound? Aren’t there conditions we must fulfill in order to be saved?
BTW, I’m not trying to equate Kimmel’s view with Luther. But the similarities and dissimilarities share a common flaw.
Now, let’s go back to Jn 3:16. What’s wrong with the antinomian appeal to Jn 3:16? Is the verse itself inadequate? Or does the inadequacy lie elsewhere?
The antinomian appeal is deceptively simple. For the antinomian uses an antinomian translation key.
Here is how one very vociferous antinomian redefines the key terms:
1) Eternal life is a guaranteed absolutely free gift received immediately by the intermediate agency of a simple act of punctilliar faith in Jesus Christ alone for the purpose of receiving eternal life, apart from works of any kind; and at that simple moment of faith in Christ, he is eternally secure!
2) At the moment of faith the believer is regenerated
There is no such thing as a spurious faith in Christ alone that has for its purpose the reception of eternal life. The modifiers, such as "head" faith, "false" faith, "spurious" faith, "temporary" faith, etc., are the machinations of those who oppose the idea that eternal life is, in reality, an absolutely free gift. No such modifiers to faith exist in the Bible. The Bible knows nothing of any such thing as a “substandard” faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life (not even in the Epistle of James or parable of the sower!).
So when an antinomian and Sandemanian like Antonio appeals to Jn 3:16 and other such verses, he is making some tacit substitutions. For Antonio, saving faith is a punctiliar event or one-time act of faith. If you ever exercise this ephemeral faith in Christ, you will be saved, even if you thereafter lapse into impenitent unbelief for the rest of your days.
For Antonio, saving faith is unregenerate faith. Regeneration is not the cause of faith; rather, faith is the cause of regeneration.
This is how Antonio quotes John out of context. John has a highly integrated soteriology. For John, the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit are coordinated.
Antonio dissevers saving faith from its moorings in the agency of the Holy Spirit, who engenders saving faith by renewing the elect. If you read Jn 3:16 in light of Johannine pneumatology, then Calvin’s implicit syllogism can, indeed, stand on its own two feet.