What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.