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Response to the Review of Recovering the Reformed Confession

R. Scott Clark

Recovering the Reformed Confession (hereafter RRC) was written to provoke discussion and thus it is good to be able to reply to this review. For the sake of economy, the response will focus on the areas of apparent and genuine disagreement. The principal concerns with the book appear to be 1) that it fabricates a consensus in the Reformed tradition that never actually existed, at least in the way suggested in the book, and 2) it attempts to impose this mythical straightjacket on the confessional Reformed churches to the potential harm of the same.

To those who are well-read in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European and British Reformed theology, there can be little question whether there was a broad and deep consensus in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. That consensus crossed national boundaries and extended from the early sixteenth century through at least the early eighteenth century. To give but one evidence, from the end of the seventeenth century, Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706) routinely spoke of "the Reformed" as distinct from "the Lutherans," or "the Remonstrants" and others. This was not an artificial or controversial way of speaking but an accepted category of analysis. Mastricht was able to see a sufficient consensus in the Reformed tradition and confession to use the adjective "Reformed" as a universal, as if his readers would understand what he meant because they did understand what he meant.

In Van Tillian terms, RRC highlights the "one" more than "the many." This is because the concern of the project is to attempt to re-establish a baseline for what it means to be Reformed. My appeals to various writers within the tradition are to explain the confessional documents to which we all subscribe and which, under the authority of the Word, norm our theology, piety, and practice.

In the classical period, the Reformed churches, confessions, and theologians were agreed on the main lines of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. There is a Reformed doctrine of God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and sacraments. This consensus was not purely theoretical. There was broad and deep agreement that the sovereign Spirit operates through Word and sacraments, and this conviction was tied to their view of the Sabbath (on which there was more consensus than is often reported). These convictions lay behind the widespread agreement on the second service, and on the nature and application of the Regulative Principle of Worship. The suggestion that my account of the history of worship is unduly narrow or misleading simply does not account for the history. The Directory for Public Worship was a mainstream document representing the consensus of the Reformed theology and practice of worship. That consensus began to fall apart in the eighteenth century but that fact does not obviate the historical truth that the Reformed Churches and theologians were largely agreed as to how God ought to be worshipped and on the principle by which we are to do so. Those principles were expressed in Heidelberg Catechism Q. 96 and Westminster Confession chapter 21. The unity and even uniformity of practice in the classical and confessional period is truly remarkable, especially as compared to the chaos of modern worship. The reviewer's claim that RRC appeals only to a "thin slice" of the tradition is puzzling. If carefully documented discussion of and appeal to a wide variety of Reformed writers from five centuries (not to mention the patristic, medieval, and modern authors) and from the British isles, Europe, and America constitutes a "thin slice" of the Reformed tradition, one supposes that the reviewer has an idiosyncratic definition of "thin." Perhaps I need to find my way back to Chicago for some deep dish pizza?

The review does not acknowledge clearly that RRC explicitly uses the word "confession" in two senses throughout the book. In the narrow sense "confession" refers to those ecclesiastical, public, and authoritative documents that define the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed Churches. Doubtless there was variety in the classical period but the internal unity of the Reformed confessions and the unity among the Reformed confessions in the sixteenth and seventeenth century is prima facie evidence of the sort of unity described in RRC. At its heart, the book is an appeal to normalize Reformed theology, piety, and practice not as defined by one's interpretation of the Reformed tradition but as defined by the Reformed confessions, namely the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Standards. To the degree that this is the major thesis of the book, it should be uncontroversial among those who have subscribed the Reformed confessions and who have taken oaths to uphold and defend the same.

Strange suggests that my categories QIRC ("The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty") and QIRE ("The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience") are misguided and perhaps even fallacious, but he seems to misunderstand the nature and function of such categories. They were not offered as a refutation of the various problems raised in these areas but rather as a way of understanding why people have turned to these two quests as a way of defining the Reformed faith and how these two quests function as practical alternatives to the Reformed confession. These two categories are nothing more than corollaries to what RRC calls "the categorical distinction," i.e., Creator/creature distinction. The review misses this connection. The evidence is overwhelming that the Reformed made this distinction, and that it has been gradually lost. The categories of QIRC and QIRE are simply ways of describing concrete examples of the consequences of losing the categorical distinction.

Then there is the problem of historical method. He writes: "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." Were this criticism true, a reader should ask for his money back as the book would be guilty of false advertisement. This work is an attempt to harvest my research and to present the results to intelligent readers for the benefit of the church. There is necessarily some historical compression and perhaps the reviewer thinks that such surveys are illegitimate, but in a work that seeks to both to illumine the Reformed confession by its broader and narrower contexts and to encourage readers to come to grips with that confession and to once again apply it to contemporary Reformed theology, piety, and practice, such surveys are unavoidable.

The charge of repristination is simply misguided since RRC addresses this problem explicitly. To repristinate is to "restore to the original condition." As I pointed out in the book explicitly, it is necessary to look backward in order to go forward but the point of the book is not to go backward but to go forward. To give but one example, the reviews ignores my argument for a new confession. In some circles such an argument is regarded as radically progressive. If so, perhaps the book is a radically progressive repristination, or perhaps it is neither?

The review raises concerns about the piety advocated in the book, even associating it with "practical deism." One might have expected such an insinuation from Azusa Street but not from Dyer, Indiana. Perhaps my contrast between Muntzer and deBres hit a nerve, or perhaps the reviewer missed it? Reformed piety is grounded in our Trinitarian theology, and in our strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but we do not juxtapose Pneumatology with our means-of-grace piety. We expect the sovereign, life-giving, regenerating Spirit to operate richly and mysteriously through the "due use of ordinary means." If this is "practical deism," let us have more of it. On this point one cannot but wonder if the reviewer is seeing the ghost of another author? Perhaps this explains why he ignores the several extensive discussions of the vitality of Reformed piety (e.g., chapter 6) and the necessity of private piety where RRC speaks to this issue at length? If, however, the review accepts the premise that an "ordinary means" piety needs a little revivalist leavening, then on this we shall agree to disagree.

Finally, he worries that disaster might result should "young ministers try to enforce" what he calls "outward conformity." We agree, but a book that calls pastors, elders, and parishioners to take to hand the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards and to begin to evaluate our contemporary theology, piety, and practice by those secondary standards and to recover our historic confession (broadly and narrowly) cannot be so threatening unless the confessions and the tradition themselves constitute such a threat.

One can only hope that this exchange will stimulate readers of the Ordained Servant who have not (yet) read the book to read it for themselves and, as at least some readers have done, to follow the breadcrumb trail left in the footnotes to the sources of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

R. Scott Clark a minister in the United Reformed Churchs of North America, is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California, and Associate Pastor at Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California. Ordained Servant Aug./Sept. 2009.

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