Posted by: mattcolvin | August 9, 2011

The Faculty of Faith

Since Wilson and I were debating whether faith is a faculty you can do things with, it might be helpful to point out that the main Reformed theologian who talks this way is Abraham Kuyper, who uses “The Faculty of Faith” as a chapter title in his book on The Work of the Holy Spirit.

If you have read Kuyper, you will probably remember that he is a major advocate of the superiority of formless, invisible, unmediated religion. For Kuyper, that religion is superior which is most denuded and deracinated. The Old Testament, with its ornate and symbol-filled sacrificial system, its plentiful rituals, and its poetic imagery, represents a “lower stage” in the development of man’s religious impulse.

Kuyper is pretty much the quintessential Reformed sacramental Marcionite.

One of my friends pointed out in a private message that it is fairly common for Reformed people to talk as though the reception of Christ or His benefits that happens in the Supper is a parallel event to the act of eating bread and wine. Thus, according to Wilson, you eat bread with your mouth, but your faith eats Christ. I am very skeptical of this way of thinking about the sacraments. I prefer Peter Leithart’s statements from Against Christianity: “Baptism is not a symbol of a man’s becoming a disciple. It is his becoming a disciple. “The Supper is not a symbol of a meal with Jesus. It is a meal with Jesus.”

For me, the biggest disproof of the “faith as a faculty” model of the sacraments is the test of experience. Not only have I never “used my faith” to partake of Jesus’ body and blood in any other way than by using my mouth to eat the bread and drink the wine, I don’t even know anyone else who can credibly describe to me how it happens, or what it feels like to do so. We are asked to believe that the observable actions of participants in the Supper are parallel to a bunch of invisible actions, and that the invisible actions are the ones that really make the Supper beneficial.

It is especially telling that when ritual meals in the Bible become occasions of judgment, it is never because of a failure of the participants to perform an invisible action with their faculty of faith at the time of eating. No, it is always failure to perform visible, outward actions. In Isaiah 1, Israel’s sacrificial meals are an abomination to God because of the people’s injustice. In 1 Corinthians 11, the problem is class divisions and the humiliation of the poor by the rich.

All this is sufficient reason for me to doubt the “faith as a faculty” model. To be honest, I threw it out when I became a paedocommunionist 11 years ago. It never occurred to me that anyone might claim to be a paedocommunionist and yet think the sacraments work this way.



  1. A side comment: I had not realized Kuyper was the main Reformed guy to advocate invisible, unmediated religion. Makes his staunch advocacy of Calvinism as a total cultural system seem somewhat odd. Why should Christianity, a totally invisible and unmediated religion, have totally visible cultural effects?

    • If you read the Stone Lectures, you’ll find him trying to come up with a reason why Calvinism hasn’t produced its own distinctive architectural style, much great music, etc. He’s aware of the problem, but he tries to deny that it’s a problem.

      Me, I like to point to Henk Helmantel, who is a modern, or perhaps anti-modern master. But I also acknowledge and own the problem. I believe that the reason Calvinism hasn’t produced as many great artists, architects, etc. as Roman Catholicism has is because Kuyper’s error about symbolism is pervasive in Reformed and Evangelical churches. And for me, that is a strong reason to be suspicious of Kuyper’s theology. It has poor fruit.

  2. Kuyper is also the guy who taught that the covenant is made with the elect only and that baptism is really baptism only in the case of those who are already in the covenant … which means that if you’re not elect, you’re not really baptized. In such cases, said Kuyper, you’ve received only “scheindoop,” an apparent baptism. The result is that no one is sure if he’s really been baptized or not.

    He also held to justification from eternity, which has its own set of problems. For one thing, it means that there are wicked people who are already justified even before they’ve come to faith and that coming to faith doesn’t change their status as justified.

    • Make that “schijndoop.”

  3. First, let me say that I am thoroughly enjoying the conversation here. As one of your resident, lurking Presbyterian, allow me to present something of defense for Calvin.

    Calvin’s disciples have sought to use a biblically foreign “regulative principle,” and because it isn’t actually there (in Scripture), it’s difficult to build anything substantial with it. It may be that the mid-19th century presbyterian affinity for neo-Gothic architecture is actually the correct response to Kuyper’s conundrum: the church already has an architecture, embrace it but clean it up somewhat. Downtown Cincinnati’s Covenant-First Presbyterian with it’s Gothic exterior and metaphorically interesting tithe-barn pattern is a perfect example.

    That said, in a less obvious fashion, one might argue that because Western Protesant Christianity embraced this stripped-down regulative approach, it actually has produced all sorts of things that are consistent with a “regulative” mindset, e.g. architecture that ignores scale or beauty but embraces simplicity, lack of high-themed religious fine art but the elevation of the mundane (Dutch still-lifes??), etc. Some of these developments might be good, some not so much.

    So too, Calvinists drove the explosion of literacy in the West, and the impact of mass literacy cannot be understated from a cultural perspective. An increasingly literate population means more people contributing ideas which leads to democratic desires influencing trends more readily and therefore any concentration of genius such as that which developed recognizable styles (i.e. Gothic throughout Christendom) is diluted much as Church authority itself was diluted.

    But the fact that we’re (laymen) having this conversation is the result of signficant Calvinist cultural influence.

    Finally, I don’t see any reference to the lasting stylistic influences of Hebrew architecture or art, etc. yet they had a typologically rich theology. Perhaps its a mistake to assume a quid pro quo here?


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