Tuesday, November 27, 2012

B.B. Warfield and the Quest for Immediacy

B. B. Warfield
Echoing the anti-creational orientation of the classical Gnostics, much of late nineteenth and twentieth-century Presbyterianism  has fed off the assumption that the created order is spiritually ineffectual, and consequently that secondary, mediating causes are at best unnecessary and at worst deeply problematic, especially when such mediating causes are embedded in materiality, as in the sacraments.

This is the standpoint adopted by the great Calvinist theologian B. B. Warfield. In his book, The Plan of Salvation, Warfield asserted that “precisely what evangelical religion means is immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation.” He is critical of any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit. . . .”  

One sees this antipathy to means again in Warfield’s discussion of sacerdotalism, where Warfield happily separates the work of instrumentalities with the work of God’s Spirit. In their discussion of Warfield, Fred Zaspel and Sinclair Ferguson write that the key question separating sacerdotalism and evangelicalism is the question of divine grace comes to us "immediately or by means of supernaturally endowed instrumentalities - the church and sacraments.” (Fred G. Zaspel and Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, p. 415) 

What is puzzling is that these authors fail to recognize that faith in the evangelical view is also an instrumentality. (See my 'Questions about Sola Fide' where I expand on this important point.) Thus, Zaspel and Ferguson ask, “Does God save men by immediate operations of his grace upon their souls, or does he act upon them only through the medium of instrumentalities established for that purpose?” Their answer to their own question is that evangelicalism “sweeps away every intermediary between the soul and its God, and leaves the soul dependent for its salvation on God alone, operating upon it by his immediate grace.” In practice, this sweeping away of every intermediary would include not only a rejection of sacramentally-mediated grace, but also a rejection of parental and ecclesial nurture as instruments of saving grace. As Zaspel and Ferguson note, “The point at issue is the immediacy of God’s saving activity…The evangelical directs the sinner, in need of salvation, to look to God himself for grace rather than to any means of grace.”

The key word here is “immediacy.” Taking the Zwinglian idea of immediacy to its logical extension, Zaspel and Ferguson follow Warfield in arguing that if salvation is dependent on the ministry of the church then it depends on man. However, we might equally say that if salvation depends on faith then it is dependent on man. If someone replies that this is not the case with faith because faith is a gift, then one could certainly ask: is not the church and her ministry also a gift? Moreover, while Zaspel and Ferguson write that “This ‘evangelicalism’ is, simply, Protestantism”, their position can be contrasted with that of Calvin who, for all his Gnostic leanings, did put a premium on secondary means in a way that Zaspel and Ferguson, following Warfield, oppose.

Further Reading.

'Questions about Sola Fide', by Robin Phillips


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