Friday, January 15, 2010

The marks of true faith: Cognitio

I have been laboring through Herman Witsius' The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity recently. This two volume work is Herman Witsius' (1636-1708) magnum opus, and reported to be one of the best volumes of Covenant Theology from the continental Dutch Reformed tradition.

In volume 1 Book III, Chapter VII — Of Faith, Witsius writes about what faith actually is. The first component of faith is what is typically termed cognitio or knowledge. On this aspect, Witsius wisely states:

... it must be confessed, that in the present dark state of our minds, even the most illuminated are ignorant of a great many things; and that many things are believed with an implicit faith, especially by young beginners and babes in Christ, so far as they admit, in general, the whole scriptures to be the infallible standard of what is to be believed; in which are contained many things which they do not understand, and in as far as they embrace the leading doctrines of Christianity, in which many other truths concenter, which are thence deduced by evident consequence, and which they believe in their foundation or principle, as John writes concerning believers, that they knew all things, 1 John ii. 20. ... (III.7.9. Vol. 1, p. 376. Bold added)

Witsius in this instance addressed the issue of "implicit faith", which is the faith of new believers who would know little of the Christian faith. If faith does includes cognitio, then saving faith must have certain cognitive contents in it in order for a person to be saved. No doubt new believers know little about the faith, yet they cannot be saved without some amount of knowledge.

Witsius thus distill the faith to two things mentioned here: 1) a belief in the Scriptures as the Word of God, and 2) "leading doctrines of Christianity". What are these "leading doctrine of Christianity"? According to Witsius, who in the next paragraph explains himself:

Moreover those things which are necessary to be known by the person who would believe, are in general, the divinity of the scriptures, into which faith must be ultimately resolved; more especially, those things which regard the obtaining of salvation in Christ; which may summarily be reduced to these three heads: 1st To know, that by sin thou art estranged from the life of God, and art come short of the glory of God, Rom. iii.23. That it is not possible, that either thou thyself, or an angel from heaven, or any creature in the world, nay, or all the creatures in the universe, can extricate thee from the abyss of misery, and restore thee to a state of happiness. 2dly. That thou shouldst know Christ this Lord to be full of grace and truth, John i.14. who is that only name given under heaven, whereby we can be saved, Acs. iv. 1. and in the knowledge of whom consists eternal life, John xvii. 3. 3dly. That thou shouldst know, that, in order to thy obtaining salvation in Christ, it is necessary that thou be united to Christ, by the Spirit and by faith, and give up thyself to him, not only to be justified, but also sanctified, and governed by his will and pleasure, proving what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God, Rom. xii. 2. (III.7.10. Vol. 1, p. 377. Bold added)

The "leading doctrines of Christianity" is nothing more than the Gospel; the "obtaining of salvation in Christ". The two things that all Christians, even new born believers, are to believe in are 1) that the Bible is the Word of God, 2) the Gospel of salvation.

If cognitio includes that, therefore by deduction those who deny one or the other cannot be true believers since they do not have true faith. For the first, while new believers certainly do not know the intricacies of the doctrine of Scriptures and its inspiration, yet they have a childlike trust that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. In the second, they do not have to know the intricacies of salvation either, of depravity, election etc, but they know that they are sinners and God saves them through the Cross of Jesus Christ.

According to Witsius' criteria therefore, all peoples and groups who deny the above two criteria are false believers in danger of the fires of hell. Denials of the first criteria would include the Neo-Orthodox, the Romanists, the Eastern Orthodox, the Liberals, Neo-Liberals and Post-Liberals and Post-Conservatives and Emergents. Denials of the second criteria include many if not all of the above groups as well, as well as Classical Arminians, Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Socinians, Universalists etc. Furthermore, since the Gospel message has as its object God, those who distort the doctrine of God are out as well since they cannot believe the true Gospel. That throws out all the Sabellians, Nestorians, Arians and all who do not subscribe to the Definition of Chaceldon.

"Implicit faith" or the faith of new Christians is indeed simple. Yet, a multitude of errors exist which destroy through denial or redefinition the simple "faith statements" in the cognitio element. It is indeed a sad reality that many professing believers educate themselves into hell instead of heaven, proving in themselves that "For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many." (Mt 7:13b). May we therefore keep watch over our life and doctrine and so manifest that we have the true saving faith in Christ instead of the false faith which damns. Amen.


Joel Tay said...

AMEN! Faith is assent to the propositions of scripture about the gospel. A denial of both the inerrancy of scripture or the propositions of the gospel, is a denial of the faith. I like how you summarised what faith is in this article. Cognitio. Not emotions, not a stranger warm feeling in the bosom, not a relationship with God (the popular definition of the term), not blind faith (wishful thinking), something you choose to believe out of your own free will, and certainly not "five impossible things you have to brainwash yourself to believe" before breakfast.

Can I post this on facebook?

Daniel C said...


you're welcome. Sure.