I wanted to continue to engage with Kevin DeYoung’s recent couplet of posts on the doctrine of ‘assurance of salvation.’ In my last post,
as you might recall, I tried to simply poke the exegetical basis upon which DeYoung feels (apparently) sure-footed relative to articulating a doctrine of assurance based upon his straightforward reading of I John. I intimated a few things in that post (in regard to further critique and alternative), and so in this post I would like to further elaborate upon a kind of critique of what DeYoung believes in regard to assurance of salvation, and its exegetical basis.
As we discussed previously (in my first post), as is typical, I believe it is really important to be cognizant and upfront with how we have come to our exegetical conclusions. In other words, instead of asserting that we just believe that this is what the Bible communicates (on whatever topic), I think it is of the upmost importance to be aware of the theological assumptions and tradition that we are committed to; DeYoung should be commended for this, on one hand. He is very open about his Calvinism, and does not try to hide that. But as we can see his Calvinism (of the variety that he follows) informs his exegetical conclusions in regard to first John. This is what I would like to highlight further in this post; i.e. the history of interpretation and the power it has not just for DeYoung, but for all of us, of course!
In DeYoung’s second post he wrote this:
There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.
As DeYoung notes, he is in comfortable company; he has a lot of compatriots when it comes to his particular view of assurance as found, ostensibly, in I John. But even though DeYoung is in good company, does that make his view of I John and assurance true? No, of course not! And I am sure that DeYoung would agree with me; but then he most likely would go on (as he has) and continue to hold the view that he does and continue to claim that his view and understanding of I John is unremarkable when it comes to the history of Protestant Reformed interpretation. One problem I see with this is that it engages in ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). It presumes that the conclusions it has come to (the view that DeYoung holds on I John) is self-evident, almost tautologous , and that the burden of proof is on those who would question his conclusions about assurance in I John as I do. But why is that? I mean why is the burden of proof on those who disagree with DeYoung?
The form of Calvinism that DeYoung holds to, as I noted in post one, has a metaphysic; in other words, it has a way of viewing and presenting God (a view that doesn’t just fall off the pages the of Scripture). As a result of this view, we end up with a conception of God that elevates ‘performance’ before and for God, I would contend, to an unhealthy level. One prominent example of this is evidenced in the theology of one of the “founders” of the style of Calvinism that DeYoung is a proponent for; the example is provided by Puritan theologian William Perkins (of the 17th century). Indeed, it is this period where this kind of performance based style of thinking about God and salvation was introduced; at least for the Western, English speaking, west. And it is this style that, I contend, provides the theological (metaphysical) categories through which DeYoung, and much of the tradition DeYoung breathes from, gets their strength (as it were) from. Richard Muller describes what this style of theology looked like in Perkins’ theology, and in particular with reference to assurance of salvation:
William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.
In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,
The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mind and conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:
Every one that believes is the childe of God:
But I doe beleeve:
Therefore I am a childe of God.
What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”
What this quote further helps to shed light on (beyond helping to establish my point about the history and theological categories behind DeYoung’s theological approach that have led to his exegetical conclusions) is the role that ‘election’ plays in all of this. A doctrine of assurance of salvation flows, quite naturally, from a view of election that is both unconditional and supported by definite or more popularly limited atonement; indeed this is the categorical history behind DeYoung’s style. In other words, DeYoung’s Calvinism, like Perkins’ (in this respect) holds that God, in eternity past, ‘elected’ that some people would necessarily become Christians, and in order for this to happen Christ then came and died for these elect people alone thus satisfying the requirement of God’s holiness, paying for the penalty of sin (for the elect). But this created a dilemma, Karl Barth explains this dilemma in his critique (yes) of Calvin’s view of election (which for all intents and purposes is very similar to Perkins’ and DeYoung’s); he writes:
How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.
Here we see further how not only is someone’s psychology at play in this discussion, but also what this view of salvation, election, etc. has to do with the type of God behind it. This insight from Barth also takes us further than we want to go in this post; suffice it to say, as Barth insightfully notes, the kind of election behind DeYoung’s approach untethers Jesus as the basis and ground of election for humanity by placing that burden upon individual people. What this does is to thrust people upon themselves, and to somehow “prove” that they are indeed one of the elect for who Christ died (this used to be called in Perkins’ day experimental predestinarianism).
Lest we lose the forest for the trees let’s try to reign this rain-deer in by way of summarizing where we currently stand.
We have noted that Kevin DeYoung’s approach to assurance has a history, and that this history took shape under the pressures of a certain theological trajectory (primarily the one found in Puritan Calvinist theology). As a result of this history, DeYoung has come to the text of I John, in particular, with certain categories in place when it comes to thinking about the “elect’s” relationship to God in salvation. We have come to see (if ever so shadowy) that there is a certain conception of God driving the shaping of these categories, and as a result there is an emphasis upon ‘performance’ in salvation placed upon the elect individual; of the sort that will lead elect people to attempt discern if they are truly one of the elect for who Christ has died. We have also come to see (with the help of Barth’s critique of Calvin) that the framework that DeYoung is operating under, relative to God, places the emphasis upon God’s choice of individual people for salvation, instead of placing the emphasis upon God’s personal choice to be elect for all of humanity in his own humanity in Jesus Christ; with the result of forcing the elect to continuously attempt to prove their salvation (and thus find assurance) through “1) personal belief, 2) personal obedience, and 3) personal morality.” So the emphasis, if all of this is the case, is upon introspection and what some have called ‘reflexive faith’ (i.e. looking at our good works, etc., and then looking to Christ and being able to attribute those good works, belief, morality to Christ’s life in us – thus what Muller identified for as the practical syllogism).
DeYoung has a history. It causes him to read I John a certain way. I have a history, an informing theology, and it causes me to read I John much differently. In the next post or whenever I have the chance, I will try to elucidate what my theology is, and why I think it better makes sense of a passage like I John, and how it handles the claims put to I John that make it sound like it supports a Puritan like doctrine of assurance.
 Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.
 Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.