John Robbins and the Council of Trent

The controversy over justification by faith shows no signs of letting up. Every day I hear from some new quarter that the hubbub continues. One of the larger ironies in all this is that men who have abandoned the historic, Protestant understanding of faith have accused other men (who have not abandoned it) of doing precisely that. Thus we have closet Tridentine writer like John Robbins accusing faithful Protestants of adopting the errors of Rome on the question of justification by faith.

Naming is central in all this. Because the initial controversy was caused by a surprise attack, those making the charges had the luxury of naming as they pleased. Thus, the Auburn group was falsely accused of drifting Romeward. And initially the controversy was shaped by this. False accusations were made, and then accurately denied. “You deny sola fide.” “Actually, we don’t.”

But if there must be a controversy, the next stage in it is most necessary. We need to show how the charge needs to be turned around. Many of those who are attacking us have adopted the same basic definition of faith as was held by the Council of Trent — that is, that faith is assent to raw propositions, and is primarily an intellectual transaction. Trent held that faith was primarily an act of the intellect, and that is what John Robbins holds. The difference between them is that Trent went on to say that this raw assent was not enough, and had to be supplemented by works somehow. Robbins thinks that this lonely faith is the instrument of justification. In contrast to both Trent and Robbins, the historic Reformers held that saving faith did not need to be supplemented from the outside in any way because one component of this faith was fiducia, or loving trust. For the Reformers, faith was a gift from God, and when God gives faith, He does not give anything other than a living, obedient faith. Being the kind of God He is, this living faith is the only kind of faith He can give.

So the debate is not whether we are justified by faith alone. The debate is over what kind of faith God actually gives. And many of our hostile brothers need abandon their heterodox opinions, and return to the historic Reformed faith.

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