Calvin: Implicit Faith

Alright let’s do implicit faith. We’re skipping ahead a bit again – depending on how you want to count things, we’re either a third or a half of the way through Calvin’s Institutes. We’re in the third book of four, but the third and fourth books are each the length of the first and second put together – so take your pick. In the relatively short passage of Book 3, Chapter 2, section 2, Calvin tells us about why implicit faith is a stupid idea. Great: let’s hear it.

Implicit faith, in Calvin’s telling, is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to believe all the correct things in order to be saved. Instead, you can kinda just lump the responsibility onto the church institutional, and they’ll cover it for you. You believe implicitly – passively, if you like – by your general assent to the hierarchy of the church rather than by actively and knowingly believing all the different bits and pieces of doctrine. Calvin doesn’t approve of this idea: “Is it faith to understand nothing, and merely submit your convictions implicitly to the church?”

This is a little difficult, actually – we’re working backwards from Calvin’s criticisms to try and reconstruct the original idea, rather than starting from a tidy positive definition and then refuting it. I poked around to see if I could find a Catholic definition of implicit faith, and came across this nice little citation from Aquinas (and you know we love Aquinas):

“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.”

That’s from the Summa Theologica, obviously, from 2a.2ae.2.5. The article (again, here) that I pulled the quote from is actually from 2013, from some guy talking about theology, and – is he still going? I think he is. Good for you, Heidelblog. And, uh… comments are welcome, but must observe the moral law? Hang on – sorry, run that by me again.

Comments that advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession are subject to deletion. Huh. That’s on a more recent post, by the by – comments for the Aquinas-citation article are closed, no doubt owing to it being from 2013. Fuck knows I wouldn’t want to be moderating comments on posts from six years ago. I’ll have a bit of a bash though – we’re getting right off topic today, friends.

The basic premise of that article is that implicit faith is a problem surrounding superstar pastors, by which I assume he means just kinda those big famous celebrity pastors attached to megachurches and the like. It’s a pretty simple through-line: we should be focused on learning about the faith from the Bible and not purely through the lens of some famous guy who’s probably trying to fleece us for our money anyway. Fair enough – pretty straightforward argument. Terms are a little messy, though. He starts off talking about implicit faith as a Catholic position, and then pivots to treating it as an evangelical problem. We get clumsy transitions that can’t quite commit to either focus. For instance, after explaining how implicit faith is a Catholic idea, we get this:

“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.”

So we start off with that transition to superstar pastors, but swing straight back to Rome. Is it really a Catholic vs Reformed issue if you’re attaching implicit faith to these evangelical pastors, though? Like I say – terms could be tidier. It’s also pretty funny how the definition of good, not-implicit faith that the author eventually puts forward seems broadly of a kind with the Aquinas citation that he’s trying to refute as bad:

“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.”

Key point here, there’s a list of things you do have to believe explicitly. It’s a pretty important list, uhh, so we might call it something like the primary points or articles of faith. Are there some things you don’t need to know immediately, if at all?

“Now, it is true that there is much that one need not know.”

Oh cool, we’ll just give those things a name like ‘other points of faith’ so we can tell they’re not immediately the most important. But, like, that’s not to say that you can just act as if those points didn’t exist, just because you don’t know about them. You have to be ready to accept the things that the Bible says when you learn about them, right? Bible’s still authoritative, even if you don’t know everything that’s in it?

“No personality is the arbiter of our faith and practice … God’s Word is in the foreground. Ministers come and go. The Word stands.”

Yeah, cool. So if it’s not in the primary articles of faith, it can chill out for a bit, but once you learn that it’s in the Bible, you have to believe it. Heidelbug hasn’t said that last bit explicitly, but I don’t see why he’d disagree. You have to be prepared to believe whatever is contained in the Divine Scriptures – what’s contentious about that? And at that point, I don’t see any substantive difference between Heidelblog’s position and the extract quoted from Aquinas. There probably is still a material difference in practice, particularly regarding the authority of the church institution under the different Reformed and Roman traditions, but if that’s the case, guy shoulda picked a better quote to argue against. Again: simple argument, messy terms. Instead of just saying ‘believe the Bible first over some fancy-ass preacher’, we’ve got a reference to this Catholic doctrine that’s awkwardly forced to serve as a summary of evangelical behaviour, and then the solution put forward by the writer against that doctrine fundamentally aligns with the quote initially used to describe the supposedly problematic doctrine in the first place.

Anyhoo: real tangent there, sorry team. Man – wouldn’t it be crazy if Calvin also made basically the same sweeping over-assertion and ended up landing more or less right next to the tradition that he’s complaining about? Let’s see…

“Is it faith to understand nothing, and merely submit your convictions implicitly to the church? Faith consists not in ignorance, but in knowledge – knowledge not of God merely, but of the divine will” (3.2.2).

Yep, okay, that’s a good start. Please now proceed to tell me about how we don’t have to know everything, but that there’s a core base of things that we should know, and we can’t use implicit faith as an excuse not to learn.

“I indeed deny not (so enveloped are we in ignorance), that to us very many things now are and will continue to be completely involved until we lay aside this weight of flesh, and approach nearer to the presence of God. In such cases the fittest course is to suspend our judgement, and resolve to maintain unity with the church. But under this pretext, to honor ignorance tempered with humility with the name of faith is most absurd. Faith consists in the knowledge of God and Christ, not in reverence for the church” (3.2.3).

I think we’re about done here. Calvin proceeds to explain some of the ways in which faith is implicit after all (3.2.4 and 3.2.5), all the time maintaining that the Catholics are evil fuckwits. There is a bigger theological issue in play here – there are really legitimate questions here about different types of religious authority, of the balance of power between the institutional church and the Bible. For instance, there are extremely important questions about the interpretive norms of evangelical communities. Sometimes you get evangelicals who say ‘You have to learn what the Bible says, but also I’ve already decided what it says and if you disagree with me you’re not welcome in my church.’ That seems like putting the horse before the cart. And what’s worse, because their whole thing is treating the Bible as the pre-eminent religious authority, they struggle to critique or analyse the ways in which evangelical churches sometimes operate as a form of religious authority over and against the authority of the Bible. Clearly there was a point in time where some dudes sat down and read the Bible and were like ‘yeah I think it actually says this and I think the established religious traditions are based on a misinformed reading.’ Clearly there was a point where the Bible was legitimately, if briefly, the primary form of authority against certain established religious traditions. But over time, a lot of those new ideas hardened into their own traditions, and now they go around pretending that they’re not traditions because they broke from the traditionalists and they’re just actually reading the Bible on its own terms and so they’re not subject to the problems that plagued the traditions they broke from. These are all problems that are worth exploring. But if you’re not gonna bowl something straight down the middle, and very explicitly explain what you’re attacking and why, you end up with some silly, roundabout arguments. Implicit faith is a red herring. The princess is in another castle.

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