Faith not mere Assent.

Part 1 of 4

By Robert Whyte

The present inquiry relates not to faith as a general principle, but to that special exercise of it known as saving faith, faith in the gospel, or faith in Jesus Christ. It is the faith which is effectual to salvation in its widest sense, by which we are both justified and sanctified—the initial, determining, and formative principle of the whole Christian life. Now the question is, Is the faith on which such momentous issues hang merely an intellectual act? or is it also emotional and moral?—merely the assent of the understanding to certain propositions, or, in addition to this, the trust of the heart, or, as we prefer to put it, the self-surrendering trust of heart and will, in a personal Saviour?

The question may not be one of such living interest at the present time as it possessed a generation or century ago, but it is by no means a dead controversy, or a question of barren metaphysics, or a mere dispute about words. Touching, as it does, the apple of the spiritual eye, it has a vital and abiding interest both for theology and for practical religion. Not that a correct theory of faith is essential to the possession of a real or even of a strong faith.· To assume that it is would be an aggravated form of one of the worst vices of the intellectual theory of religion, which it is our object to impugn. To walk, we do not require to ascertain the precise number, structure, and movements of the muscles brought into play in walking. To see, it is not necessary that we understand the laws of optics and know the true theory of light. While the Greeks were the most imaginative of peoples, it was not till the time of Aristotle that they analysed the processes of imagination, or even possessed a word to designate that faculty.1 And, in like manner, one may not only have faith, but even the "full assurance " of faith, without a correct knowledge, or even without any theory at all, of the mental process it involves. Still, serious error here may be productive of grave mischief, as even wrong theories about walking may bring one into trouble. Lord Bacon has pointed out two opposite errors as incidental to all explanations of phenomena; namely, that of needless complexity on the one hand, and that of excessive simplicity on the other. Now both errors have been committed here. On the one hand, the view held by Bishops Bull,2 Burnett,3 and Jeremy Taylor,4 that faith is the sum total of all Christian graces and good works, errs on the side of complexity. It strains the meaning of the term beyond all reasonable and Scriptural warrant. It practically denies the immediateness and absoluteness of the Divine forgiveness, and so encumbers the simplicity and freeness of the gospel as to exert a depressing and repelling influence on sensitive consciences, and to foster in others a legal and self-righteous spirit. On the other hand, the theory that faith is mere assent is an exaggeration of its simplicity, and tends to encourage a false confidence in a merely intellectual salvation. It was held, among others, by Bishop Pearson,5 Thomas Erskine, of Linlathen,6 Drs. Chalmers7 and John Brown,8 of Edinburgh, and, in its baldest form, by Robert Sandeman,9 from whom it is sometimes called the Sandemanian theory. His favourite definition of faith was, "bare belief of the bare truth," his idea being that the mind is purely passive in believing, that to believe is simply to receive " a correct impression " or "just notion " of the truth, and that we are justified by this while still we are ungodly or unrenewed; otherwise faith would be "a work exerted by the mind," and justification would be by works. The theory, as formulated by Sandeman, can hardly be said to have survived the incisive "Strictures" of Andrew Fuller, but in its more guarded and moderate form it still finds able advocates. The doctrine of the Church of Rome is a singular combination of extremes, a medley of the discordant views of Sandeman and Bull. It is, that faith is, properly, assent, but that this assent is not necessarily saving. There is indeed a saving grace of faith, but this is really only another name for love, fides formata caritate, as distinguished from fides informis, which does not save; we are justified much more by love than by faith.10 Now we hold with Rome that assent is not necessarily saving, but the conclusion we draw from this is, not that faith alone does not save, but that assent is not the faith that saves. We fully admit that faith includes the knowledge of the truth and assent to it, that it is intelligent conviction, though based on evidence other than that of the senses or of logical demonstration. We protest as earnestly as any intellectualist against the divorce of religion from intelligence and the highest reason, whether as exemplified in the agnosticism which resolves all religion into emotion excited by the Unknown and the Unknowable, in the obscurantism which is satisfied with implicit faith, i.e. an intention to believe whatever the Church believes, in the pietism which mistakes rapture, or blind trust, or caprice for the witness of the Spirit, or in the sentimentalism which revels in mere spectacular emotion, like that displayed by the weeping daughters of Jerusalem. Feeling without knowledge or rational thought is as worthless, morally, as knowledge without feeling; for it has no criterion within itself by which to distinguish one feeling from another, the holiest from the most impure, faith from the veriest fetichism. An ignorant believer is an anomaly, an absolutely ignorant believer is a contradiction in terms. What we propose to shew is, not that faith is mere feeling, but that it is the fusion of feeling, conviction, and volition; not assent alone, but affiance and self-surrender.

Our arguments rest on a variety of grounds, philological, biblico-exegetical, theological, psychological, and ethical; but while our remarks will proceed generally along these lines, yet as they cross each other at various points, it may be more conducive to logical order to present the arguments in a more detailed and explicit form.


Our first ground of objection to the intellectual theory of faith is the primary and natural meaning of the term.

Take first the Hebrew הֶאֶמִין (He'emin), translated πιστεύειν in the Septuagint, and believe in our English version. It is the Hiphil of אָמַן to nurse, rear, uphold; in the Niphal, to be nursed, to be firmly established, to be trustworthy: in Hiphil, to regard as trustworthy, to place reliance upon, to trust, to believe. Undoubtedly it often means to believe or credit a statement as well as to trust in a person or thing; arid the general rule for distinguishing the two senses is that with לְ it means to believe, and with בְ to trust, though the rule i~ not absolute; but the derivation of the word seems to shew that the primary idea is trust. Firmness or stability, that which sustains our trust or confidence, is the quality to which it has respect, and it is thus conceived as making the subject of it firm and stedfast. This. idea is strikingly expressed in 2 Chronicles xx. 20, "Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established" (וְתֵאָמֵנוּ) the two words for believe. and be established being different parts of the same verb. (Cf. Isa. vii. 9.) In Psalm cxix. 66 it is used of believing in commandments, and in Deuteronomy xxviii. 66 of being assured of one's life, ideas of a moral and:fiduciary kind, and considerably more complex than that of mere assent to propositions. Though used variously with reference to God, to his prophets (as in 2 Chron. xx. 20; Exod. xix. 9), to his works (Ps. lxxviii. 32), to his words (Ps. cxix. 66), and to men generally (Prov. xxvi. 25; Mic. vii. 5), yet when it denotes justifying or saving faith (as in Gen. xv. 6, "Abraham believed in (בְ) the Lord"), it has generally God for its object, and denotes, as Cremer says, "reliance upon Him, a firm trust which surrenders self to Him, feels sure of God as 'my God,' and thus gives strength and stedfastness to the subject of it."

The Greek words πίστις and πιστεύειν are also used to express both belief and trust, alike in classic Greek and in the New Testament, though the πίστις θεῶν of classic writers denotes no such personal relationship as we understand by faith in God, and πιστεύειν is never used at all by them in a religious sense. But of the two meanings, belief and trust, the best lexicographers, like Liddell and Scott, and Cremer, give trust the precedence both as regards origin and common use. Πείθω, ·from which they are derived, favours, though it does not necessitate, the idea of personal influence on the one hand, and of personal trust on the other; and, at all events, πεποίθησις certainly means strong confidence. The idea of trust appears also in the expression πιστεύειν τινί τι, to entrust anything to any one;11 in the secondary meaning of πίστις, fidelity; in πιστός, faithful; and in ἀπειθής and ἀπειθέω, (to be) disobedient.

So too the Latin fides means first (acc. to Andrews) trust in a person or thing, then credit in the mercantile sense, then faithfulness. Hence fidus, faithful; and (acc. to Peile) fædus, a covenant. So also credere is originally to give as a loan, then to entrust, then to trust, then to believe. But we can trace the history of the term to a remoter origin than faith, fides, or πείθω. The root, according to Professor Skeat, is the Aryan Bhidh, to unite, from Bhadh, or more fully Bhandh, to bind; which suggests, as the radical idea, not mere assent, but consent, affiance, or a binding of one's self to another in personal union or covenant. It also sheds a striking reflex light on the fact that faith—the mutual trust of man in man—is the great bond and cement of society, that socially as well as spiritually we are saved by faith. This tendency to trust in our fellow men, which is an ultimate fact of our nature, and which our whole environment from our birth onwards is fitted to develop, is thus at once the ethical basis of society and the psychological mould or type of all religious faith.12

Even our word believe (from Anglo-Saxon ge-lyfan) is shown by Skeat, Wedgwood, and Ogilvie to be identical or closely allied with leave, lief, and love; with the Latin libet, it pleases; with the German loben, to praise; glauben, to believe; verloben, to promise; erlauben, to permit, give leave; and, they might. have added, with the expressive Scottish lippen, used with telling effect by Dr. Chalmers in conversation with a Scotchwoman to explain faith: the common Aryan root being lubh, to desire, and the fundamental idea common to all being that of approving, sanctioning, or having satisfaction with. The opinion of Richardson, cited approvingly by Dr. Hodge,13 that believe is etymologically connected with live, and that belief may thus be viewed as that which we live by, though highly suggestive, is apparently without foundation, being entirely ignored by the other and more trustworthy authorities just named, who give an entirely different account of its origin.

The root-idea then, not only of the Hebrew and Greek terms, but of the corresponding words in other languages, is not assent, but a mental act in which feeling, whether confidence, approval, or satisfaction, is an essential if not the principal element. We grant that etymology may put an inquirer on a false scent as to the true idea of a word, and one may well take warning from the fantastic metaphysical superstructure elaborated by Mr. Matthew Arnold from an etymological analysis of the parts of the verb to be; but when, as in the present case, the radical is also one of the recognized ideas of a term, etymology, though it cannot have the last word, may with advantage be allowed to have its say. That the recognized and current meaning of our own word faith, taken generally, is trust, and especially trust with a view to some desired object, a moment's reflection will suffice to shew. Conviction of the existence of the object is, of course, involved in it; but this is not all, for if the object believed to exist is an evil, then it becomes an object, not of faith, but of distrust or fear. To believe in the devil, in the sense of believing in his existence and power, is one thing; to have faith in him is something entirely different. It has been thought by some that faith, and indeed all belief, has always respect to action, explicitly or implicitly, that it is the outgrowth of spontaneous activity, and that action therefore is its true test.14 That this is the case with many of our beliefs is certain, but whether it is so or not depends on the nature of the particular belief. Even faith does not in all cases contemplate action. It does so very frequently, but not always, unless perhaps we include in action what Aristotle calls the potentiality of action, i.e. mental preparedness to act as soon as occasion requires or opportunity offers. The essential idea of faith is trust for some desired good; and if the attainment of the good is conditional on our own action, then it necessarily becomes purposive, is impregnated with will, and has action for its test. Belief, or assent, and faith are therefore distinguishable thus. When I say that I believe that the sun will rise to-morrow, I merely assent to a proposition viewed theoretically; but when I say that I have faith in to-morrow's sunrise, I mean that I anticipate it with desire and confident expectation, and also, as it so happens from the nature of the case, that I contemplate being guided in my actions by this belief. When I say that I believe that a certain person is honest, I express a general conviction which may have no reference to my own personal or practical relations to him, which might even apply to an inhabitant of Jupiter or Saturn; but when I say that I have faith in him, it is with a view either to actual or possible relations of a personal or practical kind, that is, to something touching my interests or feelings. The distinction is still more signally brought out by the fact that, while we can say that we believe that such a person is dishonest, it would be doing violence to the language to say that we have faith in his dishonesty. We might say, indeed, that we have faith in the statement as to his dishonesty: but even this expresses more than believing it, or even than believing in it; namely, that we repose in it with a view to being guided by it in actual or possible dealings either with the author of the statement or with the subject of it. It is unfortunate that the English language has no verb formed from faith like πιστεύειν from πίστις, and that we are accordingly obliged to translate that verb by a word of different origin, either by trust, or, as is generally done in our version, by believe. The latter does not quite express the full sense of faith; it marks the transition from assent to faith. Bishop O'Brien well expresses the common-sense view of the general meaning of faith when he says, "They who know what is meant by faith in a promise know what is meant by faith in the gospel; they who know what is meant by faith in a remedy know what is meant by faith in the blood of the Redeemer; they who know what is meant by faith in a physician, faith in an advocate, faith in a friend, know too what the Scriptures mean to express when they speak of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."15



1) Sin A. Grant's Aristotle (in Blackwood's Ancient Classics), p. 93.

2) Harmonia Apostolica. Diss. Post., cap. 4, § 4.

3) Exposition of the XXXIX. Articles: on Art. XI.

4) Life of Christ, Part II. Sec.10, Disc. vii. 4, 7.

5) Exposition of the Creed, Dobson's edition, p. 14, and 23, note.

6) Essay on Faith.

7) Institutes of Theology, vol. ii. chap. 6.

8) Commentary on Romans.

9) Letters of Theron and Aspasio, vol. i. p. 483; Epist. Corresp. with Pike. Letter II.

10) Bellarmin's Disputationes: De Justif. i. 4, and ii. 4. Council of Trent, session vi. canon 28.

11) Luke xvi. 11; John ii. 24.

12) May not this derivation of faith throw light also on the disputed etymology of "religion"? Does it not favour the view of Augustine that it is from re-ligare, as that which binds man again to a higher power, as against the Cioeronian de. rivaiion of it from re-legere, the gathering of one's thoughts, careful pondering about Divine things?

13) Systematic Theology, vol. iii. p. 43.

14) So Mr. Bain in his Emotions and Will, p. 554; but he has renounced this view in the last edition of his Compendium of Mental Science (1872), Appendix, note p. 100.

15) Nature and Effects of Faith, Sermon I.