The second essay question in the Introduction to Systematic Theology Module was 'Is Assurance essential to Christian Faith?' I can humbly offer a selection of observations from my answer:
- Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer all saw assurance as a normative component of faith - however, Calvin at least (and I assume the others) acknowledges that the level of assurance can vary. Reformed thought gradually diverges from this position: the Canons of Dordt and the Westminister Standards disconnect assurance from faith, putting the grounds of assurance additionally in the testimony of the Spirit and the doing of good works.
- Like the Imago Dei, the subject of assurance is conceptualised in systematics several degrees beyond its conceptualisation in the Bible. In Schreiner and Caneday's book, The Race Set Before Us - a Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, the biblical warnings on 'falling away' are considered as a touchstone for a biblical doctrine of assurance. It's my view that Reformed dogmatics has struggled to reflect the biblical data in failing to maintain the distinction between the experience of the believer and (i) the secret elements of God's counsel, (ii) the salvific state of the soul. If these distinctions are maintained, the possibility of 'falling away', which seems a very real possibility in the NT epistles, causes fewer doctrinal problems.
- Berkhouwer highlights another much-needed challenge to systematic formulations around assurance: the NT emphasises salvation as a process, not a singularity in the experience of the individual. The future aspect of salvation is required for a correct formulation on assurance: faith as the assurance of things hoped for. So, for me, assurance is essential to faith since it is the conviction that 'I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him, until that day'.
- Rather controversially, I say this at one point: 'continuing in assurance of salvation is essential to faith, but not necessarily to salvation'. And also this: 'We need not baulk at McKnight's statement that final salvation is 'conditional, and that single condition is persevering faith', since this is the commanded pattern and normal expectation for the experience of the believer'.
- Basically, the conclusion is that Calvin was right in proposing that assurance is a component of faith and therefore essential to faith. No surprises there then. But wait...that means that the Westministers standards went a bit wonky...? What I do say is that 'attempts at systematising soteriology have falsely sanctioned the intrusion of the secret elements of the divine counsel into the experience of the individual.' Indeed.
Finally, I have several thoughts about the module itself. It's a great shame that an introduction to systematics module barely mentions biblical theology. John Murray, as I am always keen to point out, wrote in his lectures on Systematics that Biblical Theology is the true foundation for systematics, and that awareness of this is a key corrective to the inherent tendency in systematics to get taken up with systematising, sometimes at the expense of a biblical balance in emphases. I would prefer to see an Introduction to Theology module: beginning with a short overview from the Fathers to the present of trends in theology. This would allow the development of biblical theology as a discipline, and its relationship to systematics, to be set in context. Then the need to connect Systematics with Biblical Theology could be explored before moving on to a fast-paced setting out of the main sections of a popular Reformed systematic theology. Of course, you'd want to be using Bavinck, but perhaps a more-manageable one volume would suffice for an Introductory module! In closing, my thesis is that some of the controversies that feature in reformed theology at the minute have resulted from systematicians not heeding John Murray's words. In some quarters dogmatics is 'it' - biblical theology remains an undiscovered discipline. A new generation of theologians and preachers should not follow this path.