Recovering the Reformed Confession: A Review Article

Alan D. Strange

Ordained Servant: June–July 2009

Evangelism: Whose Responsibility?

Also in this issue

Ambassadors of the Heavenly King

Evangelism and the Church

Evangelistic Responsibility

Review: Seeking a Better Country

Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice, by R. Scott Clark. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008, 384 pages, $24.99, paper.

Scott Clark, in his new book Recovering the Reformed Confession, makes a case that all is not well in the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches. He not only seeks in this book to diagnose what ails the church, however, but also to prescribe the remedy for our ecclesiastical shortcomings. We have departed, Clark argues, from the old paths of the Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some have argued in response to that claim of declension that a return has begun in recent years, seen particularly in many younger evangelicals coming to embrace soteriological Calvinism (343–345).

Clark maintains, however, that the emergence of what Christianity Today and others have called the "young, restless, and Reformed" does not necessarily mean that the recovery we need is underway. Though some observers of these newly Reformed claim that, because of them, "Calvinism is making a comeback" (343), Clark, like Gershwin's classic character Sportin' Life, demurs, "it ain't necessarily so." Clark argues that these so-called newly Reformed folk may be predestinarian in their soteriology, but they are not otherwise Reformed and covenantal, falling short in terms of theology, piety, and practice. And to recover the Reformed confession (note the singular), Clark argues that we can do so only by recovering Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

A bit of initial analysis might be helpful here. What it means to follow the Reformed confessions (note now the plural)—to develop one's theology, piety, and practice from such—is more textured and varied than Clark lets on in this book. It is not accurate to present such a thin slice of what it means to be Reformed and argue as if that constricted view is exhaustive of the Reformed faith. Clark occasionally cites Richard Muller in support of his approach, as if Muller's project of showing concord between Calvin and the Calvinists was intended to present a narrow, uniform Calvinism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Muller's work, however, sought to demonstrate that a variegated Calvinism remained a united Calvinism, though it was never a monolith. Clark's attempt at repristination often de-contextualizes historical moments and re-contextualizes them in an expression that is not quite like any of those moments taken on their own terms. Hughes Oliphant Old, Horton Davies, and other liturgical historians have better depicted the greater complexity that obtained among the Reformed with regard to worship practices (despite Clark's disagreement with Old, 231–232). Clark in this book cherry picks post-Reformation church history to form a pastiche that models what he thinks the church should look like.

Clark proceeds after his general assessment of Reformed deficiencies (1–36) to address more pointedly "the crisis," as he terms it, in the church. He sees two primary problems: "The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty" (QIRC), and "The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience" (QIRE). There are, Clark writes, "three movements in our churches that by their existence give evidence of the influence of the QIRC: the movement to make six day, twenty-four interpretation (hereafter 6/24) of Genesis 1 a mark of Reformed orthodoxy, theonomy, and covenant moralism" (41). What Clark means by QIRC is what Phillip Schaff meant by "rationalism ... , the quest to know what God knows, the way he knows it" (5). For those committed to QIRC, "there is no distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines or practices, since QIRC renders them all equally important" (5). Clark further describes as QIRE what Schaff called "sectarism," which is "the pursuit of the immediate experience of God without the means of grace (i.e., the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments)" (5).

The QIRC, in its rationalism, would, in addition to 6/24, theonomy, and covenant moralism, include things like a "KJV only" position, a conviction of "no women in combat," employing the Bible as a science or psychology text, using the Scripture as a "guide to civil government and moral renewal for America," as well as a denial of the free offer of the gospel (39–40). Clark argues that "liquid modernity," including the epistemic uncertainty of postmodernism, has engendered a "search for solids" among certain evangelical and Reformed folk that has yielded an unlikely fundamentalism (42–47), resulting not in the stance of historic Calvinism with respect to such things (as noted in this paragraph) but an "anti-intellectual" obscurantism (47).

Clark engages in a useful survey of science and Scripture, especially with respect to the question of the length of the creation days (47–61). He shows that 6/24 has never been a Reformed boundary marker and that, historically, in the Reformed faith, we have not changed our commitment to the complete veracity of Scripture due to new science (59), though some who have abandoned the faith may have. We have, however, changed our interpretation of Scripture at points, due to the various paradigm shifts that have occurred, particularly from a world in which all was viewed through the lens of Aristotle to that of Newton.

Clark often seems to reject any modifications in theology, piety, and practice since the era of the Reformed confessions. However, he gladly acknowledges scientific development (even permitting science to modify exegesis) and ecclesiastical/social development (the idea of Christendom, so important to the Reformers, now regarded as passé). He, rather unaccountably, does not recognize the same in other areas, such as developments in piety and practice (as if the regulative principle of worship, or some version of it, meant precisely the same thing on the continent and in Britain over the whole course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). This propensity to pick and choose historically and to call what one chooses "Reformed" and what one rejects "not Reformed" is pervasive—and troubling—in this work.

The QIRE is akin to mysticism: direct, unmediated experience of God (71). Further the QIRE stresses the individual at the expense of the corporate, privileging the private and subjective and seeing Christian piety chiefly in such terms (73). Clark then critiques contemporary corporate Reformed piety as exemplified in its public worship, using a variety of techniques (flashy music, drama, etc.) to garner interest and support in our current climate. Clark continues, "It is the contention of this chapter that reformation and revival are distinct and largely incompatible models of theology, piety, and practice" (74). Though some, like Iain Murray, have distinguished "revival" and "revivalism," Clark equates them, seeing all revival as revivalism. Clark argues that the need of the hour is reformation and restoration, not revivalism. "The basic difference between revivalism and reformation is evident in the terms themselves. The first speaks to the interior world of the believer (however conceived), and the latter describes objective institutional change and doctrinal reorganization" (74).

Clark, in fleshing out the participants in the QIRE, surveys some mystics (75–6), Anabaptists (76–7), then Ames and Voetius, who as partisans of the Nadere Reformatie were "committed to a piety oriented around the means of grace" and thus have rendered the adjective "pietist," when applied to them, so elastic and inconclusive as to become meaningless (77). Clark had earlier defined pietism as a "retreat into the subjective experience of God," arguing that it is always a critique of orthodoxy (74). Clark maintains that Ames, Voetius, Coccieus, and others of the Nadere Reformatie, were not pietists, though "Theodore Frelinghuysen and perhaps Jonathan Edwards are more aptly called pietists." Along these same lines Clark is also critical even of the piety of the Princeton theologians (82), noting that Alexander and others, while differing from Jonathan Edwards, and other revivalists, on some significant matters, nonetheless drank too deeply, at points, from the well of American revivalism.

Speaking of Jonathan Edwards, Clark then proceeds to criticize Edwards at some length for promoting an almost entirely subjectivized piety that undercut the public administration of the means of grace (84–98). He also finds Edwards deficient, or potentially so, in his metaphysics, his doctrines of God, creation, man, and Spirit (including Edwards's allegedly compromised view of justification), and ecclesiology (particularly his requirements for communion). Clark wants to make it clear that the Reformed "confess a vital religion, but it is not identical to the religion of Edwards's Affections" (114). Rather, the Reformed faith, as Clark sees it, is concerned chiefly, as pertains to sanctification, with the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit (as opposed to the apostolic gifts of the Spirit), achieved through the due use of ordinary means (112).

In the second major part of his work ("The Recovery"), Clark transitions from diagnosis to prescription. He begins with two chapters entitled "Recovering a Reformed Identity (1) [and] (2)." The first of those chapters contains a rather lengthy exposition and defense of the archetypal/ectypal distinction, arguing that human knowledge is analogical (not univocal) to God's, particularly as that has been developed in the Creator/creature distinction as a part of classic Reformed theology (133; 150–151). This reviewer agrees here and elsewhere with much of what Clark sets forth. However, it must be said that while Clark's particular setting forth of the archetypal/ectypal distinction is confessionally warranted it is not confessionally mandated and to write as if it is seems misleading (and his treatment of John Frame, among others, thus inequitable, 129–31).

In the second chapter on "Recovering a Reformed Identity," Clark discusses confessional subscription, asserting that "among confessional Protestants there have been primarily two approaches to subscribing the confessions": the "quia (because) approach" in which "the confession is said to norm and bind subscribers because it is biblical. The second approach is quatenus (insofar as), in which the confession is said to norm and bind subscribers only insofar as the confession is biblical" (160). Clark argues that, though the Scots in 1560 (with the Scottish Confession) and in 1647 with the adoption of the Westminster Confession took a strict, or quia, approach, such was not what came to prevail in America (some would argue even as early as the Adopting Act of 1729, though Clark tends to view 1729 as maintaining the quia approach). Gradually, "looser" subscription came to prevail in the mainline churches, leading ultimately to the doctrinal train-wreck known as the Confession of 1967 (162–70).

Even in the confessional churches, a looser, or "system," subscription came to prevail, in its more lax form among the New School Presbyterians but in some form even among the Princetonians. At the same time, there have always been some who maintain a stricter, or full, subscription position (170–177). Clark argues not only for a return to quia subscription (178), but also for the abolition of "two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers" (179). Clark wants, in fact, the churches to stop regarding the creeds and confessions as museum pieces and thus be prepared to revise them and require strict adherence to them, so that the confessions reflect what the church not only really teaches but requires all its members to believe. "The Joy of Being Confessional" (chapter 6) sounds a positive note and argues for a confessional approach that is biblical, catholic, vital, evangelical, and churchly.

Chapters 7 and 8 both have to do with recovering Reformed worship, which is central to our identity and well-being as Reformed. In chapter 7, Clark argues that public worship should be strictly in accordance with God's Word, i.e., it should follow the regulative principle of worship. In this regard, he not only strongly stresses Word and Sacrament but that the Reformed need to experience a recovery of historic Reformed worship in which we sing only Scripture (predominately psalms), no hymns, and in which musical instruments play no part. Clark argues that instruments, justified on the basis of being a circumstance, not an element, have come to play an elemental role in our worship. Reformed recovery will be enjoyed when our worship looks more like that of our ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Clark understands it. Chapter 8 calls for a recovery of the second service on the Lord's Day. This is not merely, of course, a call for such in the barest sense, but a call to keep the Lord's Day with greater fidelity and to be in the public worship every time such is held so that one might most benefit from the means of grace therein offered.

How might we further assess this rather wide-ranging work? We need, indeed, as Clark argues, to be sanctified, to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit, and to do so by profiting from the means of grace. We need preaching, the sacraments, and prayer. We need discipline, fellowship, biblical and confessional fidelity. We need to sing the Psalms much more and not have an undue emphasis on musical instruments. We need to recapture a high view of the Lord's Day and of fidelity to the second service. Clark points out many things that would improve our churches and we would be well-advised seriously to consider the many proposals that he sets forth and reforms for which he calls. But we need more than these things.

The whole of our spiritual lives needs an inner dynamic expressive of the union that we enjoy with Christ and the communion that we have with God and each other as members of his mystical body. There is a reason that the WCF has a chapter on "The Communion of the Saints" (chapter 26) following the one on the Church (chapter 25): Without such, we are liable to fall into a formalistic view of the means of grace. Clark pooh-poohs R.—B. Kuiper's warning about "orthodoxism" as if there were no such creature (98). There is, and this book seems headed in that direction at times. I would see "orthodoxism" as an emphasis on the forms, on the means of grace, for example, in which the means threaten to become ends in themselves, failing to keep in view that the means (and the forms of their administration) serve to engender spiritual life as we draw near to Christ, who is the end of all the means and to whom the means are to lead us.

Clark is not wrong to note the propensity to yield either to rationalism or mysticism. But it is never enough to dismiss a position with which one disagrees by consigning it to a category that one has already defined as problematic and then dumping everything deemed objectionable into that category. Might not such an approach be guilty of faulty generalization or other informal fallacies, if not, more seriously, involve a category mistake? It is doubtful, whatever problems may pertain in the approach of 6/24 as a test of orthodoxy, theonomy or covenant moralism, that rationalism, thus constructed, lies at the root. All of these approaches or schools must be dealt with exegetically and theologically and may not be dismissed simply by labeling them as savoring of the QIRC.

Similarly, with QIRE, to assert that all the religious experience pursued by Edwards and the like is illegitimate needs considerably more proof than it enjoys here. Perhaps Lloyd-Jones, with his non-cessationist views of a sort, falls, arguably, into this category, but I am not sure that Edwards does, merely because he speaks of being love-sick with reference to Christ, such language being found in a host of writers of the time (92). There may be lamentable excesses in Edwards, but a careful reading of him permits one to profit from a remarkably sin-sensitive, Christ-centered writer. Space forbids citing other instances of inequity in Clark's treatment of Edwards.

A problem that often bedevils Reformed spirituality is what Larry Wilson has pegged as the tendency of the Reformed to fall into "practical deism": God is out there and we are down here with our theology, lacking vital communion with and connection to our gracious covenant God. One of the chief remedies against such is a vital prayer life, not only publically but privately. Clark argues, however, that "private prayer is not a means of grace" (112; though highly valued nonetheless). He argues along the same lines (329–330), that the Westminster Standards viewed prayer as a means of grace only in public worship. But this is not true. WCF 21.6 says, "Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto." Prayer, according to Westminster, is a means of grace, not only publically, but also privately (in families) and secretly (in one's own personal prayers).

The restoration that we need is not to be had by the sort of blueprint that Clark would impose on the church. If young ministers try to enforce such outward conformity, especially in their own strength, disaster lies ahead. We need charity and its fruits, first and foremost. We need to wait on the Lord and to not stop asking him to cause his face to shine upon us, to bless the means that he has appointed (the Word, sacraments, and prayer), so that in them we are truly drawn to him, being transformed more and more, enabled to die to sin and live to righteousness. We need restoration in which the outer follows the inner. This was the dynamic of the great Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Alan D. Strange, an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is associate professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. Ordained Servant, June-July 2009.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2009

Evangelism: Whose Responsibility?

Also in this issue

Ambassadors of the Heavenly King

Evangelism and the Church

Evangelistic Responsibility

Review: Seeking a Better Country

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