Review of R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice

Review of R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice1

by John M. Frame

A friend told me that this book should have been titled, “why John Frame is wrong about absolutely everything.” Well, that overstates Clark’s interest in me and understates his other concerns in this book. He has bigger fish to fry than yours truly. But there are nine references to me in the index, only one leading to a favorable mention, and I will not ignore those in this review. More broadly, Clark presents here a view of what it is to be “Reformed” that is very different from mine, and it may be good for the two of us, and other readers, to have the differences set forth and analyzed.

This review will be largely negative, but I should say at the outset that there is much good in the book. Clark presents a number of excellent historical studies, on pietism (74-78), revivalism (78-98), creeds and confessions (154-170), worship (244-257), and views of the Sabbath (295-326). On the whole, these are accurate and helpful. As I see it, Clark does well in developing his historical narratives, less well in his theological evaluations, and not well at all in his ventures into philosophical epistemology.

 

 

An Objective Definition of “Reformed?” 

Let us begin, however, where Clark does. The title of his first chapter poses the question, “Whatever became of Reformed theology, piety, and practice?” (1). The Reformed community seems to be losing its sense of identity, Clark thinks. The “mainline” Reformed denominations have gone liberal, meaning that they have little interest in historic Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Other denominations are “in transition” (2). Only the “sideline” denominations (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America, United Reformed and others) have a serious interest in the meaning of their Reformed commitment. Even they, however, he says, are in danger of losing their grip on the Reformed faith.

Indeed, the very concept of “Reformed” is unclear to many today. Clark complains,

Much of what passes as Reformed among our churches is not. Its sources, spirit, and methods are alien to Reformed theology, piety, and practice. There are significant segments within the Reformed communion that define “Reformed” in ways that our forefathers would not understand. (4)

His main examples of “alien” ideas passed off as Reformed (summarized on 4) are literal six-day creation (as a test of orthodoxy) (47-61), theonomy (61-64), some views of justification (65-69). Here, however, the question is, how do we decide what should and should not be called “Reformed?” He says,

I contend that the word denotes a confession, a theology, piety, and practice that are well known and well defined and summarized in ecclesiastically sanctioned and binding documents. (3)

Those documents are the church confessions like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Second, and more broadly, however, I mean the understanding of those confessions as articulated by the classical sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theologians and by those who continued their tradition, the outlines of which are evident to anyone who reads Calvin, Ursinus, Wollebius, Owen, Turretin, Witsius, Hodge, Bavinck, and Berkhof. Third, by “confession” I mean the theology, piety, and practice agreed upon by our churches, held in common by them, which bind us together, by which we have covenanted to live and worship together. (3)

The confessional documents, of course, are objective works of literature. They say what they say, and that gives Clark’s understanding of the Reformed tradition some stability, though, as the book later shows (154-190), there are disagreements in the Reformed community as to how these documents should be interpreted, and what authority they should have. There are also differences among the confessional documents themselves, which Clark minimizes in this book. For example, the Westminster Confession presents a different view of the Sabbath from the Heidelberg Catechism, and a different view of the relation of assurance to saving faith.

Beyond that, however, Clark understands that the Reformed faith is not just a set of documents. It is also a community that makes use of those documents from generation to generation in the course of its ministry. In the paragraph quoted above, Clark mentions theologians who he thinks are faithful to the confessions, but these are his personal choices, and others might disagree. Note that he omits Jonathan Edwards, whom he later criticizes extensively (84-98). Edwards, to be sure, labored in the 18th century, later than Clark’s deadline. But why should that deadline be sacrosanct? Further, even the 16th and 17th century theologians disagreed among themselves about some things, leading to the differences among the confessions I mentioned earlier. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, for example, has held that Calvin’s view of the Sabbath is unacceptable in a minister.

And the last sentence of the above quotation makes his definition even more subjective. Evidently he is speaking here of agreements above and beyond the confessional documents themselves. (But how can unofficial traditions be described as “covenanting?”) So Clark fails to protect himself entirely against subjectivity, although the main goal of his definition of “Reformed” is largely that: to avoid subjectivity, to avoid “mistaking subjective experience for objective reality” (17).2

In my view, a certain amount of subjectivity cannot be avoided in the understanding of what it is to be Reformed, or in any other intellectual endeavor. For one thing, objective reality is always known by means of our subjective capacities: reason, sensation, feeling, intuition, etc., not to mention endowments given or withheld by the Holy Spirit. For another, confessional documents and theologies are not intended to be museum pieces. They are to be used in the ongoing life of the church, to evaluate our ideas and behavior, and their use varies from time to time and place to place. To judge whether an idea or practice is warranted by the confession requires insight, the ability to show agreement or disagreement between a past and a present reality. And, although Clark does not like to speak of application, the standards must be applied by human beings to present situations if those documents are to function as authorities. As to what judgments and applications are right, there is often disagreement.3

Further, even apart from these problems, it is not obvious that “Reformed” should be defined by the confessions, a group of favored theologians, and informal traditions. Clark’s procedure in defining the nature of “Reformed” thinking is not itself found in any of the confessions or favored theological writings. Nor is there any way, so far as I can see, to support it from Scripture. But Clark thinks we should never claim that anything is Reformed unless it can be supported from the confessions. Clark’s methodology, therefore, is self-referentially incoherent. He is trying to establish the meaning of “Reformed” by what he regularly describes as a non-Reformed methodology.

What Clark really does in this book is to advocate a kind of Reformed theology and church life that appeals to him more than the more recent versions. But he has no authority, I think, and no good reason, to impose that vision on those of us who find it less attractive.

But what is the alternative? Is there any other way to describe the nature of the Reformed community? I think there is.

I would propose understanding the Reformed community as a historical community that began as Clark describes, but which no longer follows the original pattern in detail. Even the original community was not as uniform as Clarkpresents it, and of course greater diversity entered later. In this respect, the Reformed community is like other religious and nonreligious communities. It should be described in all the diversity it had originally and has developed over the years, far more diversity than Clark’s approach admits. In my view, that diversity is not necessarily wrong. It is not necessarily, as Clark would propose, “non-Reformed.” In some ways the newer views and practices represent growing understanding and legitimate applications of biblical truth.

Imagine someone saying, “if you want to know what ‘American’ means, look at the founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the writings of the founders like The Federalist Papers.” There is a certain amount of truth in that. Certainly these documents tell us much of what makes the United States different from other nations. But these documents presuppose an already existing community of ideas. For example, although they mention religion rarely, they cannot be rightly understood apart from the history of New England Puritanism, Dutch Reformed Christianity in New York, Quakerism in Pennsylvania, Anglicanism in Virginia, and so on.

And the history of America subsequent to these documents is also important. Many claim that these documents are largely neglected and/or contradicted today. There is a large disconnect between what America was at its founding and what it is today. Defining America by the founding documents, and defining it as an empirical community, lead to two different and inconsistent conceptions. People who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are “unamerican.” But to say that is merely to express a preference. That preference may be a good one. But merely to express it is not likely to persuade anyone to share that preference. This case is similar to the attempt to define “Reformed.”

On the view I advocate, it is not possible to state in precise detail what constitutes Reformed theology and church life. But one can describe historical backgrounds and linkages, as I have done above in the example of the United States. And there are some general common characteristics, a kind of “family resemblance,” among the various bodies of the last five centuries that have called themselves Reformed. The idea that “Reformed” should be defined as achanging community is not congenial to Clark’s view. But it seems to me to be more accurate and more helpful.

Clark is not entirely opposed to change in the confessional theology. He believes that new confessions are needed from time to time (182-191), and he advocates orderly changes in the confessions when the church comes to believe it has been wrong (343). But his view of confessional subscription is so strict (153-176) that it is impossible to imagine how anyone could accomplish changes in them, except in detail. On Clark’s view, the confessions are treated for practical purposes as if they were as authoritative as Scripture; for anyone who differs with them cannot be accepted as Reformed. This is why many churches in the Reformed tradition have somewhat loosened their formulae of subscription. Clark’s complaint that such loosening is not Reformed is not taken seriously in many circles, and, in my view, it should not be.

I think it better to regard anyone as Reformed who is a member in good standing of a Reformed church. I realize there is some ambiguity here, for we must then ask, what is a really Reformed church? Different people will give different answers. But, as I said above, I don’t think that the definition has to be, or can be, absolutely precise. The concept, frankly, has “fuzzy boundaries,” as some linguists and philosophers say.

We should also accept as Reformed people those who hold to generally Reformed convictions, but are members of non-Reformed churches. Again, the phrase “generally Reformed” indicates that the concept is not precise.

Then, what is the Reformed faith? It is the consensus of Reformed believers.

 

Sources of Subjectivism

Narcissism

Clark, however, we recall, thinks that by his supposedly objective definition of “Reformed” we can wholly eliminate “mistaking subjective experience for objective reality” (17). Being wrong about the nature of the Reformed faith is not merely a mistake, however. It reveals a defect of character. If we depart from Clark’s approach, he claims, we are “Narcissists” (17-18). Indeed, we are worse than Narcissus, who mistook his reflection for reality, for we have intentionally “spurned the objectivity of the Reformed confession in favor of [our] own reflection.”

Here Clark attempts to read and condemn the motives of those who disagree with him. They are self-centered in his eyes, representatives of a “Me Generation” (17).

So we are warned that Clark does not intend to deal with his opponents as colleagues, let alone as brothers in Christ. In his mind, since he has the objective standard, those who differ with him are morally corrupted, and therefore not worthy of genuine dialogue. There are no shades of grey that can be discussed, balanced, and weighed. There is only light and darkness, and Clark, because he knows the objective truth, is always on the side of light.

I would be the last to deny that analytical error can have moral causes. But for Clark to attack his opponents as narcissists, in a discussion of complicated issues, before even making his case or describing his opponents’ case, is in my judgment appalling.

So he says on 25 that my definition of theology as “the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life” is man-centered:

Rather than beginning with God and his revelation as the objective norm relative to us and our experience, this definition begins with our experience and us because it is we who do the applying of Scripture.

Phrases like “begin with” are often ambiguous. It depends on what time frame you have in mind. In the first exposition of my view of theology, in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,4 I begin in the first chapter with a discussion of “God, the Covenant Lord,” including God’s transcendence and immanence, his control, authority, and presence. I then discuss the relationship of God’s lordship to our knowledge, analyzing at length biblical teachings about God’s knowability and incomprehensibility. Then I discuss human knowing as a covenant relationship with God, contrasting the knowledge of the believer with that of the unbeliever. Then I discuss the objects of our knowledge, first God’s revelation, then the world, then ourselves, then the relationships of all of these to one another. Only after all that, on p. 76, do I state and expound my definition of theology: the application of God’s word (which I have focused on for the first 75 pages) to human life. Am I not permitted to make any mention of what we do with God’s word? Even after speaking elaborately about the primacy of God in revelation? Theology is certainly something we do (though Clark seems to grant that fact rather grudgingly), and it is certainly the application of the revelation of the Word. I will let the reader judge whether, given the context of my book, I have “started with our experience and us” and whether this definition is man-centered or narcissistic.

Another ambiguity in the phrase “start with” is this: it can refer to the temporal location of a concept in a discussion, or the pre-eminence of an idea or concept in a system of thought. I have taken it in the first way in the previous paragraph, because I think that this is primarily what Clark has in mind. But in the second sense, which I think is far more relevant here, to “start with” God or Scripture is to say that God or Scripture are the highest authority in the discussion. I suspect thatClark confuses these in the discussion above. Perhaps he thinks (erroneously) that I don’t begin temporally with a discussion of “God and his revelation,” I have therefore denied the pre-eminence of God and his revelation. That is wrong, and, as I pointed out, he is wrong even in his description of the temporal sequence of my discussion. But he is even more seriously wrong when he says in effect that I make human experience more authoritative than divine revelation.

The reader will also have to judge Clark’s development of this theme, which I find wholly without merit:

As a confessional matter, Frame’s proposal threatens5 to confuse the biblical and confessional notion of the unique, sole authority of Scripture with American evangelical individualism. It seems5 to give support to the Roman Catholic critique of Protestantism, that we really do subject the Christian religion to the whims of millions of private judgments. Yet, nothing could have been further from the minds of those who wrote our confessions. The WCF says, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10).

I will discuss the rest of this paragraph in a later connection. For now, does anyone see anything in my definition of theology that subjects the Christian religion to millions of private judgments? I say that all theology is application of the word, not that anybody’s application constitutes theology or serves as a norm for other theologians. Theology is application, but not all application is good theology. Does anyone see anything in my definition that contradicts WCF 1.10? Is there anything man-centered here? Narcissistic?

Clark’s discussion of my work is as careless and inaccurate as it is hostile. We shall find that he is consistent in that carelessness and hostility throughout the book. I earlier commended the historical sections of Clark’s book. But that commendation assumes that Clark is much less careless with historical figures than he is with me.

 

Transformationalism

Even more incredibly, he finds the cause for his opponents’ narcissism in cultural transformationalism. “Transformationalism” is a term derived from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture which he uses to describe the typical attitude toward culture in the Reformed churches: not Christ against culture, not the Christ of culture, not Christ above culture, not “Christ and culture in paradox,” (what we sometimes call the “two kingdoms” view) but the view that Christ, through his people transforms culture.6 The term transforms may be too grandiose, to be sure. The earth will not be fully to God’s liking until after the return of Christ and final judgment. But Christians have made meaningful and salutary changes in human culture, being active in the development of science, medicine, care of widows and orphans, the abolition of slavery, and many other things. I prefer to define transformationalism as simply the view that God expects believers to apply his word to all areas of human life. But Clark says,

Is it possible that we are tempted to think that, having determined to bring every square inch under the lordship of Christ, we are now in no need of correction?7 As we will see in the following chapters, it seems that just as we began to speak about bringing everything under Christ’s dominion, we were really in the process of bringing less of Reformed theology, piety, and practice under Christ’s dominion. Some in the Reformed community have come to believe that everything they do is premised on some Reformed principle and is, for that reason, beyond criticism. (18)

I suppose it’s possible that some Reformed people have gotten so busy seeking God’s justice in society that they have overlooked other principles of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. I also think the reverse is possible. But I can’t think of any instances in which confusion about Reformed principles has been due to excessive zeal in obeying God, that is, in applying his word to our circumstances. As I have defined and defended transformationalism,8 It is simply “bringing every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), or doing “all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), on the assumption that what brings glory to God is also best for the world. That is to say, it is simply obeying Christ in all areas of life. Is it likely that obedience to Christ, perhaps too much obedience, is the main reason for the Reformed community’s ignorance of its own confession?

Confusion today about the nature of the Reformed faith likely has many causes (some of them moral). To blame it all on transformationalism, even assuming transformationalism is wrong, is wholly groundless. Clark has not, and does not through the book, offer a shred of evidence for such a hypothesis.

His suggestion that transformationalists typically (?) think they need no correction is another insult without any basis that I can see. I know of no transformationalist who thinks that his views are beyond correction. It is more plausible, at least, to find such dogmatic self-assurance in people like Clark who imagine that they have the objective truth with no admixture of subjectivity.

 

Biblicism

But Clark presses on. He defines the narcissist/transformationalist way of reading Scripture as “biblicism,” focusing on my article on the subject. He accepts my definition of biblicism (19, n 63),9 but he misunderstands or misrepresents my position, saying that I want to “rehabilitate biblicism for use by Reformed Christians” (22). I do not. As the very title of my essay indicates, and as the article argues in much detail, I mean to defend, not biblicism, but “something close” to biblicism. Clark ignores all my explicit qualifications10 and describes my position as an “only slightly milder” form of biblicism as it is generally understood:

(1) He accuses me of teaching Scriptura nuda, the view that “Scripture is the sole resource for the Christian faith” (22). I do not teach that, and the article makes that clear. I emphatically do recognize the value of studying the Fathers, confessions, and theologians. I do believe that biblicism in the standard sense may be accused of this error, but not my “close to” Biblicism view. But Clark doesn’t bother to state or assess the difference.

(2) He accuses me of failing to distinguish general and special revelation, so as to claim that all revelation is found in Scripture (24). I have in fact distinguished often in my writings between biblical and extrabiblical revelation.11 What, then, is the source of Clark’s criticism? Here is the paragraph from my biblicism article that he questions:

It is important both to distinguish and to recognize the important relations between Scripture itself and the extrascriptural data to which we seek to apply biblical principles. Scripture is something different from extrabiblical data. But what we know of the extrabiblical data, we know by scriptural principles, scriptural norms, the permission of Scripture. In one sense, then, all of our knowledge is scriptural knowledge. In everything we know, we know Scripture. To confess anything as true is to acknowledge a biblical requirement upon us. In that sense, although there is extrabiblical data, there is no extrabiblical knowledge. All knowledge is knowledge of what Scripture requires of us.12

As Clark observes (22), I make a distinction here between Scripture itself and extrascriptural data. He balks, however, at my suggestion toward the bottom that in a certain sense (note the qualification, which Clark again ignores) there is no extrabiblical knowledge. I have in other contexts not hesitated to speak of extra biblical knowledge.13 But here I mention a “sense” in which all knowledge is biblical. That sense is simply that as believers all our knowledge should have “the permission of Scripture.” That is, all our claims to knowledge must be compatible with what Scripture says. This is the same as Calvin’s argument that we should see the natural world through the “spectacles of Scripture.” The point is not unique to me; it is a staple of Reformed theology. Clark seems to think that this argument of mine entails that “everyone and everything… is revealed in Scripture.” In fact I have never said that, and I would deny it, while affirming that we know everyone and everything by permission of Scripture.

So again Clark takes a carefully qualified argument of mine, ignores the qualification, and uses that false analysis to reach an extremely negative conclusion about my position, that I “fold together general and special revelation” (24). That is not only inaccurate; it is irresponsible.

(3) Clark’s third criticism of my “Biblicism” article is this, continuing a paragraph I began to criticize earlier in this review:

As a confessional matter, Frame’s proposal threatens to confuse the biblical and confessional notion of the unique, sole authority of Scripture with American evangelical individualism… The WCF says, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be not other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10). We confess that the Christian religion is a public religion that is measured by a publicly accessible, divinely revealed text. Notice that the Confession expressly mentions “opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits” among those things to be tested by Scripture. In other words, the divines understood (and we confess with them) sola scriptura not to teach that the Bible means what one says it does, but that the Scriptures, being God’s Word, form the church, and the church in subjection to the Scriptures is able to interpret them well enough to decide controversies. (25-26)

I have thought long and hard about this paragraph, and I have been completely baffled as to how it opposes my view. I am not entirely sure what “American evangelical individualism” is, but I’m reasonably sure that I have never advocated it. In DKG14 I have discussed the importance of tradition, creeds, and confessions as tools of theological method. In my view, as the confessions themselves assert, none of these are the word of God. But it is necessary for us to read them with respect, since “the Christian has an obligation to hear the teachers that God has given the church over the hundreds of years of its existence.”15

I fully agree with Clark’s statement that “the Christian religion is a public religion that is measured by a publicly accessible, divinely revealed text.” And I fully agree that sola scriptura does not teach “that the Bible means what one says it does.” (How could he have imagined that I would have asserted such a thing?) Finally, I have often emphasized the importance of church discipline,16 including doctrinal discipline. I have certainly never denied that the church is able to interpret Scripture well enough to decide controversies.17

I have to conclude that Clark’s three criticisms of my “Biblicism” article are entirely gratuitous and irresponsible.18

 

 

The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) 19 

Clark argues that much of the current decline in confessionalism is based on faulty epistemology. The erroneous epistemologies he calls QIRC (the quest for illegitimate religious certainty) and QIRE (the quest for illegitimate religious experience).20 He says,

QIRC is the pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes this goal is achieved by finding theone great insight that gives coherence to and controls all other facts or phenomena. (39)

Examples of these “great insights” are exclusive use of the King James Version of the Bible, opposition to women serving in the armed services.21 Clark finds these to be evidence that

…some of us really do take the Scriptures as a guide to civil government and moral renewal for American society and not chiefly as the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history. (40)

This sentence is a good example of how not to do theological analysis. Though it is brief, it makes a number of assumptions that could well be controverted and should at least have been discussed before being dismissed.

(1) It draws an antithesis between “civil government and moral renewal for American society” from “God’s saving work and Word in history.” In fact, God’s word says a great deal about civil government and moral renewal, and redemption deals with these subjects as it deals with all areas of life.22

(2) It is unclear whether the sentence is about what Scripture “chiefly” teaches, or about whether it teaches anything at all about government and moral renewal. If the latter, see my comment under (1). If the former, then it is irrelevant to the question being discussed. Nobody believes that civil government and moral renewal are the chief teachings of Scripture. The only question is whether Scripture is relevant to such matters at all.

(3) The term “guide” introduces additional ambiguity. Clark may be taking “guide” to mean “textbook” or some such thing. But of course that is a misuse of “guide.” One can deny that Scripture is a textbook for civil government while affirming that it gives us guidance in this area. Would Clark actually say that the Bible gives us no guidance about civil government?The question, again, is whether Scripture has any relevance at all to these areas of concern.

(4) Clark inserts the words “infallible and inerrant” which perhaps create some reader sympathy for his alternative, but they are irrelevant to this discussion and therefore misleading. Those who think Scripture is relevant to civil government and moral renewal are not likely to be less in favor of biblical infallibility/inerrancy than those who limit Scripture to the realm of salvation. Indeed, it is the latter group that in modern times has been less willing to confess biblical inerrancy.

But then he says, “This episode is an example of the attempt to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions that are properly matters of liberty” (40). Why should we agree with Clark that these questions are matters of liberty? His claim seems to be that anything Scripture says, or appears to say, about civil government or moral renewal must be a matter of liberty. But that is by no means obvious. Only if Scripture never addresses these subjects does Clark’s conclusion follow. But it is by no means obvious that Scripture speaks only of salvation narrowly defined, and there are lots of reasons to think otherwise.23 If Scripture does speak authoritatively on some such topics, then they may or may not be matters of liberty.

I actually agree with Clark that use of the King James Version and the place of women in the military are “matters of liberty.” I say that, not because of some principle that Scripture never teaches about such things, but rather, simply, that Scripture has not in fact told us what to think in these areas.

I also agree with his similar views of preterism (40), the length of the creation days (41), and theonomy (41), but not on the basis of some theory concerning what subjects Scripture addresses and does not address. Certainly Scripture does have an interest in Christ’s return, the nature of creation, and the bearing of God’s law on society. Rather, I think simply that these views have failed to make their case.

Oddly, however, Clark also brings into this discussion the denial of the free offer of the gospel (41) and “covenant moralism” which moves toward “the old medieval and Roman doctrine of justification by sanctification…” (41). These are clearly matters of concern to Scripture, and I think Clark, like myself and most Reformed people, would agree that Scripture speaks a clear word about them: it affirms the free offer, and it denies justification by sanctification. But what are these topics doing in a discussion of matters Scripture supposedly does not address?

Clark brings these subjects in with the others, because he thinks that all these controversies are symptoms of a single problem: an unwillingness to live with uncertainty, or QIRC. I think that there is indeed such a problem in much theology, not least among confessionalists.24 The insistence on making literal six-twenty-four-hour day creation (he abbreviates as 6/24) a test of orthodoxy is a pretty good example of this problem, as are theonomy and covenant moralism as he describes them. But Clark’s analysis is not sufficient for an adequate critique of these movements. If you tell a 6/24 advocate that he is claiming more certainty than he is entitled to, most likely he will not abandon his position on that account. You will have to show him that his position exceeds the bounds of proper certainty. To do that, you will have to dig into the exegetical issues in Gen. 1-2. Is there some way of assessing the degree of certainty we are entitled to, without entering into the details of the substantive issues, case-by-case?

Clark thinks that confessionalism is the answer. For him, confessionalism tells us what certainty we can expect. To show this, he discusses at length the controversies he mentioned earlier over the length of the creation days (6/24), theonomy, and covenant moralism. Let us consider these discussions.

 

6/24

The 6/24 controversy, he says, has arisen out of fundamentalism, defined as “the belief that one’s interpretation of Scripture is inerrant”25 (45), evidently a variation of QIRC. Clark thinks this definition clearly distinguishes fundamentalists from Reformed confessionalists. Actually, it is a hostile value judgment, even a caricature. Nobody, fundamentalist or otherwise, would accept it as a definition of his own position. It is, rather, a description we apply to someone else who seems to us to be too dogmatic or cocksure. For myself, there are many people in the fundamentalist tradition who I do not consider to be fundamentalists on this definition, and many in the Reformed confessionalist tradition who seem to me to fit this definition precisely.

Nevertheless, Clark thinks that his definition is precise enough to generate conclusions as to what doctrines should be “boundary markers,” by which I presume that he means tests of orthodoxy:

Most importantly, one’s view of the length of the creation days is an improper boundary marker, because it does not arise from the interests of the Reformed confession itself but has been imported from fundamentalism. (50)

So, regardless of what Scripture says in Gen. 1, we know that that teaching is an improper boundary marker, because the question emerges from a tradition other than our own. Here Clark will have to go to greater lengths than he has to distinguish his position from Roman Catholic traditionalism. Further, this principle is meaningless in this case, given his failure to provide an adequate definition of fundamentalism.

Actually, I do agree with Clark that the confession is useful in helping us to determine the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. In general, people should not be disciplined in the church for holding interpretations of Scripture that the confession does not condemn. And I agree with Clark that the various views of the creation days should all be tolerated in Reformed churches.

But this principle does not resolve broader questions, such as when the confession should be revised to accommodate or exclude a certain teaching. That sort of question should be faced, at least in any comprehensive view of ecclesiastical authority, unless we wish to argue that the confession is inerrant and unamendable.26 In a discussion like Clark’s that purports to define the general limits of human knowledge about God (contra QIRC), questions like that should be pursued. Useful as the confession is, it is not an absolute judge of religious truth.

Clark pursues the epistemological question further in Chapter 4, but for now I will continue to discuss Chapter 2. I shall pass over Clark’s historical treatment of science and theology, with which I am in substantial agreement, though on 61 I think he draws too sharp a distinction between science and theology. On the same page, he also seems to say that boundary markers may never include assertions about “specific exegetical conclusions,” a conclusion I think is far too broad.

 

Theonomy

After his discussion of science, he addresses theonomy, another view that sometimes claims to be a boundary-marker. Clark again denies that it has this status. Theonomy is the view that the civil laws given by God to Israel in the Old Testament apply to modern states today, including the penalties for crimes, such as the death penalty for adultery.

Clark says that the Westminster Standards, in their original form, were theocratic, but not theonomic: that is, they accepted “the civil enforcement of the first table of the Decalogue” (62) (theocracy), but did not believe that the civil government should enforce every detail of the biblical civil law (theonomy). It is interesting to me that Clark regards the Standards as theocratic. Given his earlier formulation of confessionalism, requiring our allegiance to the Reformed standards and theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is strange that he does not give some attention to defending theocracy. Of course, he indicates that the theocratic teaching of the Westminster Confession was rescinded by the American Presbyterian churches in 1729 (63, note). But 1729 was in the eighteenth century, well past Clark’s confessionalist boundary of 1699. And this would be a very convenient place for Clark to advocate his allegiance to the confessions over against “American individualism.” But at this point it appears that Clark’s two kingdom theology trumps his confessionalism, though he gives no substantial argument to this effect. Theocracy is inconsistent with two kingdoms, since it charges the civil magistrate with the enforcement of true religion. At the end of the book (343) he says more explicitly that “Christendom was a mistake.” But it was a mistake that was only corrected in the eighteenth century.Clark doesn’t see any need to revise his general definition of confessionalism to accommodate that kind of correction.

On 65 he mentions the theonomic claim that the Israelite civil laws have “abiding validity,” and he says that claim is refuted by the statement of the WCF that these laws have “expired.” Any theonomist (and in this case I agree with him) would regard this dismissal as simplistic. Even if the civil laws given to Israel are not required as such for modern states, they continue to display God’s wisdom in a way that modern states should heed (Deut. 4:6). That is a form of “abiding validity” that we must take account of.

In any case, we see the same pattern here that we saw in the case of 6/24: we should not accept a boundary marker that is not affirmed in the confession. Again, I accept this as a general principle, but I don’t think it reaches the heart of the epistemological problem, namely determining what kind of certainty is illegitimate (QIRC). For that problem requires us to determine, not only what the confessions say, but what they ought to say. Certainly Clark is wrong if he thinks the Reformed confessions serve as some kind of ultimate criterion of human certainty.

 

Covenant Moralism

The current discussion in Reformed circles over justification is, in my judgment, more complicated than Clark thinks and more difficult to adjudicate, but this is not the time to enter into the details of the controversy. I agree with the view that Clark finds in the confessions, but I am not ready to condemn everyone he condemns. In my view, some of these have tried to understand the doctrine in greater depth and, in doing so, have used language different from that of the confessions, but their positions on that account are not inconsistent with the confessions.

I will express disagreement with Clark’s contention that those who oppose the traditional view do so from a rationalist motive. He says,

Conflation of theology as we know it with the way God knows, the theology of glory, is a form of rationalism because it diminishes the scandal of the cross and of the gospel: the justification of sinners. (68)

I agree that introducing works as part of the ground of justification does ease the apparent contradiction of God justifying the ungodly. But it doesn’t completely eliminate that scandal unless one claims that human works are the whole ground of justification. And that would raise even more difficult logical problems: 1. If works suffice to justify, why the cross? 2. If works are sufficient to justify, how do they do so? Can present day works bring forgiveness for past sins? Original sin? Must they be perfect to the end of human life? The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone answers these questions and therefore arguably makes our salvation more rational. Certainly a number of Reformed theologians have commended it as such.

My impression of the debate about justification through the centuries is that it is not primarily an attempt to lessen mystery or to increase it. Both Protestant and Catholic views lessen mystery in some areas and increase it in others. Rather, the argument is about the meaning of Scripture. That is as it should be. The issue is primarily exegetical, not, as Clark thinks, epistemological.

 

 

The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience

We move, now, from QIRC (though we shall return there) to QIRE, Clark’s second epistemological category. The illegitimate religious experience we should not seek, in Clark’s view, is “immediacy” (74, 78, 87, 93, 99, 116), that is, an experience of God “apart from the mediation of word and Sacrament.”27 Although he believes this quest has medieval roots, he focuses here particularly on Anabaptism (early sixteenth century), pietism (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and modern revivalism (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) (72).

Clark mentions a number of examples of this quest for immediacy, but these cover a lot of territory, perhaps too much for the examples to fall under the same criticisms. In the contemporary period, he mentions Christians who seek the “still small voice” of God to discern his moral will (72). I agree that this quest is usually wrong.28 But he also mentions what he considers excessive singing and use of visual materials in contemporary worship (73). Are these practices intended to give the worshipers an experience of God unmediated by word and sacrament? I think not. It seems to me that visual materials in contemporary worship are almost always intended precisely as ways of communicating the word. And as for excessive singing, well, how much is too much? Are three hymns acceptable, while six hymns are an illegitimate quest for immediacy? Are Clark’s views here necessitated by Scripture, or are they merely an expression of his personal (subjective!) preferences?

 

Pietism

In his critique of pietism, Clark says that Reformation piety “points the sinner first29 to the objective divine promises and only secondarily to one’s awareness of the Spirit’s presence within” (74). Pietism does the reverse. Earlier in this review, I criticized Clark for trying to create a sharp separation between the objective and the subjective. The same problem exists here. We understand and cling to the divine promises only by means of the subjective capacities renewed by the Spirit. Is there some order between these, as Clark implies? Well it is the promises of God that authorize the Spirit’s presence within. But those promises must be received by faith, which is a work of the Spirit within our subjectivity. Is Clark saying that the ministry of the church should emphasize the objective over the subjective? Nothing in Scripture teaches that. In fact, Scripture never refers to God’s objective works and promises without at the same time showing how these bear on human beings: the characters in the narrative, the biblical writers, and the readers. Consider the Psalms which, if anything, emphasize the subjective.

 

Revival and Revivalism

Clark’s account of revival and revivalism begins with a formulation from J. I. Packer’s account of the view of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

What he was after was the new quality of spiritual life that comes through knowing the greatness and nearness of our holy, gracious Creator—something that in former days would have been called enlargement of heart, and usually starts with a deepened sense of the power and authority of God in the preaching of the biblical message. (78-9)

Notice that this definition conflicts with Clark’s initial description of QIRE as a quest for “immediacy.”30 For Lloyd-Jones, the revival experience was not “apart from the mediation of word and Sacrament.” Rather, it starts with “the preaching of the biblical message.”31

Let us ask straightforwardly: is there anything wrong with revival understood in this way? Can there be any objection to people having a deepened sense of the power and authority of God? Later we learn that in revival people sometimes experienced a heightened conviction of sin, assurance of salvation, relief of fears and doubts (90-91). Is any of this objectionable? Scripture tells us that our sins are heinous in God’s sight. Should we not agree with Scripture about that? And if we agree with Scripture about that, will we not feel a sense of our own wickedness? Can we have that conviction without an accompanying feeling? Think of David’s words concerning his own sin, in Psalms 32 and 51. Should we not feel the same way about our own sins, and feel an extreme joy (Rom. 8:1-39) in knowing they have been forgiven? If we acknowledge these facts “intellectually” as we say, but have no feeling about them, isn’t there something wrong?

I don’t believe that regeneration necessarily makes us more emotional than we were before, any more than it makes us more intellectual or gives us more physical energy. But surely it does give us the disposition to devote all our emotional, intellectual, and physical capacities to the service of Jesus. So, among other things, regeneration does change our feelings. The unregenerate hates God and loves evil. In the regenerate, these dispositions are reversed. So when a Christian is moved with godly feelings such as hatred of sin and the love of God and neighbor, we should certainly be pleased. When those feelings are “extreme,” well, shouldn’t we feel strongly about the true God and the good news of Christ?

Yet, Clark’s evaluation of revival is largely negative. I shall here deal with some of his objections:

1. Clark says that “Lloyd-Jones was arguing that anyone who disagrees with his interpretation of the history of the modern revivals is quenching the Spirit” (80). Clark thinks that Lloyd-Jones made this charge, not based on exegesis or Reformed history, “but upon his interpretation of providence” (80). In general I agree with Clark’s point here. There was good and bad in the history of revival. But anyone who thinks that there is something wrong in itself with the expression of godly emotion described above is indeed quenching the Spirit.

2. He criticizes Lloyd-Jones for thinking that the Reformed confessions and tradition are inadequate to deal adequately with the experience of revival. Lloyd-Jones worries that in some Reformed circles the confessions may in effect replace the Scriptures as the “primary standard.” Here I agree with Lloyd-Jones. It is one thing to say that the Confessions are adequate to determine boundary markers as we discussed earlier. But here Clark goes beyond that assertion to say that we should reject acts of God that are not described in the Reformed confessional and theological tradition. That is an extension of Clark’s original definition of confessionalism. It implies that we cannot learn anything from other traditions or from the ongoing work of God (even when Scripture itself validates that ongoing work). Here Clark argues, not only for the authority of the confessions and tradition, but for their sufficiency. How can that not be a violation of sola Scriptura?

3. Clark claims that what Lloyd-Jones praised should rather be understood in the Old Side Presbyterian way as “misguided enthusiasm” (80). He says,

By “enthusiasm” I mean something like the sort of uncontrolled emotional excess (intemperies) practiced by those whom Calvin called “enthusiasts” and of which he was so critical. (80-81).

Now I have not found in Lloyd-Jones any endorsement of uncontrolled emotional excess, only of emotional response to the preaching of the biblical message. Perhaps other defenders of revival were less cautious, and they must be discussed in their own terms. But it does not seem to me that one must defend “excess” in order to defend revival. I grant that once one admits that emotional response can be a work of God, it is then incumbent to distinguish between genuine works of God and mere human excess. That was the task Jonathan Edwards set for himself in his Treatise on the Religious Affections. Clark says of Edwards,

Having failed to distinguish clearly between the history of redemption in the apostolic epoch and our postcanonical epoch, he gave himself the nearly impossible task of trying to delineate proper religious experience from improper religious experience.

I don’t think that task is nearly impossible. If a person’s emotional response is a biblically warranted response to the biblical message, then it is a “proper” experience. If someone is grieved by a sense of sin, as David was in Ps. 51, then it is a proper experience. If he runs around the church barking like a dog, most likely it is not.32

4. As in the paragraph most recently quoted, Clark thinks that those favoring revival, Edwards in particular, fail to distinguish adequately the apostolic age from the postcanonical. I think this distinction is largely irrelevant to the evaluation of revival. Certainly in our age God continues to work through the preaching of the gospel to transform the hearts of people, and that includes their emotions. If Clark means to suggest that once we have the canon God ceases to affect people’s emotions, he is saying something with no support in Scripture or the confessions.

5. Clark thinks that Edwards’ search for “marks of true revival” was in effect a search for the marks of a true church and of true Christians (103-106). On the contrary, I think the two questions are very different and that what Clark says about the Reformation “marks” of the church and of true faith are irrelevant to the question of revival.

6. Clark seems to think that those favoring revival confuse the fruits of the Spirit with the gifts of the Spirit. If I understand him, he believes that all the gifts (not only prophecy and tongues) ceased at the end of the apostolic age (108-9). That is a minority view in Reformed circles, and I don’t agree with it. My main concern here, however, is that Clark regards all the phenomena of revival (including, evidently, heightened consciousness of sin and joy over redemption) to be among the gifts of the Spirit that have ceased. We should not look for these, he thinks, rather look to the “fruits” of the Spirit, that are somehow very different (103-112). I see no biblical basis for this. The phenomena of revival can be understood just as easily as fruits of the Spirit as gifts. The fruits of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22 are in part emotional. Even on an extreme view of the cessation of the gifts, one can still affirm many of the revival phenomena under the category of fruits.

7. Clark says, “the quest for extraordinary religious experience is illegitimate because it is driven by a false theology” (109). That false theology is the “theology of glory,” in which “the Christian life moves from triumph to triumph.”33 This theology is opposed to the “theology of the cross” which, he says,

Teaches us that this epoch in the history of redemption, the period between the advents, is a time for patience, hope, and earnest expectation of Christ’s return… The quest for revival is a subspecies of the theology of glory, which is not content to wait for him who descended and to wait for him especially in the word preached… but seems to want a sort of glory which is not appropriate for the interadventual pilgrimage. (109).

If Clark meant to say as some do that the theology of the cross excludes any positive blessings to the believer before Christ’s return, I must disagree. Scripture often speaks of such blessings, as in Mark 10:29-30. This world is not only a place of suffering and defeat; it is also a place in which God is at work bringing his grace of Christ to the whole world and blessing believers for Jesus’ sake.

But Clark evidently does not want to say that the theology of the cross excludes joy, even joy anticipating the heavenly glory. On 111 he quotes favorably the Heidelberg Catechism statement in Q. 58 that through the Spirit I “feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy.” Further, through the Spirit, Christ “shall abide with me forever” (Q. 53). Can this personal and individual presence of Christ be called “immediate?” I don’t see why not. These experiences are not restricted to the preaching of the word and the sacraments in worship services, though it is the word of God that promises these feelings. They penetrate all the experiences of life. So what is the controversy about? Revival is about heart-feelings given by the ongoing work of God in our hearts through the preaching of the gospel.

If this is the nature of the Christian life, we should surely give revival the benefit of the doubt. When the indwelling Spirit gives to someone a deep emotional joy, shouldn’t we be glad of that? How can a desire for such spiritual maturity be criticized as aspiration to some illegitimate glory? So here, as usual, I find Clark’s argument unpersuasive.

 

 

Clark’s Theological Epistemology

On 119, Clark begins a chapter called “Recovering a Reformed Identity.” Earlier, as we have seen, Clark said that many Reformed people have forgotten the meaning of “Reformed,” which is given in the confessions, a favored group of theologians, and some informal (though somehow covenanted) traditions. He claimed that his definition is objective; that through it we will avoid “mistaking subjective experience for objective reality” (17).

Here he reiterates that this definition is the only possible definition. He opposes the attempt of Richard Lovelace and myself to define the Reformed faith as a form of evangelicalism (121). First, let me say that my definition is a definition of the place of the Reformed faith in the American context. I apologize if in previous writings I have not made that clear. My definition would not be useful in a culture that had not experienced the evangelical movement or something like it. In the American context, Evangelicals are orthodox Protestant Christians, Christians who maintain belief in the supernatural work of God to save us from sin, including Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, atoning death, resurrection, and return. The Reformed also maintain these doctrines (with some slippage on both sides). Since they hold every doctrine that defines evangelicalism, they can be regarded as evangelicals. But of course they also believe some things that do not define evangelicalism, which makes them a distinct strand of the evangelical movement.

I do not believe that everything in the world has one and only one perfect definition. Definitions are tools of language, intended to be put to various uses. For some purposes (botanical) a tomato can be defined as a fruit, for others (culinary), a vegetable. A man can be defined biologically as a featherless biped, or theologically as the image of God. Ethics may be defined as “the study of right and wrong,” or as “the study of what persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessing.”34 The same thing may be defined differently as we look at it from different aspects. There is no contradiction between saying that the Reformed faith is a religious movement based on confessions and saying that it is a subclass of evangelicalism. In America it is obviously both things,35 just as a cow is both four-legged and mammalian.

Clark argues now that to restore a true understanding of “Reformed” we need to recover the basic idea that we are analogues of God: not identical with him, but images of him. We are not part of God, or part of a continuum between God and the world. So there is a sharp distinction between the creator and the creature (Cf. 127). I agree that this view is biblical. Indeed I have argued to this effect many times.36

This ontological understanding correlates with an epistemological principle expressed in Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Clark’s own translation, on 124). Clark rightly concludes that “we are not to inquire into God’s secret decree and providence, what our theologians have called the decretive will or the hidden will. We are to devote ourselves to God’s revelation of his will or his perceptive will.”37

But Clark is not content to set forth these biblical principles. He insists also that they be expressed in a particular vocabulary, which comes from outside the Bible. As he has said that there is only one definition of “Reformed,” so he now insists that there is only one way to express the creator-creature distinction. He quotes a number of classic Reformed theologians to the effect that we should distinguish God in se (God in himself) from God erga nos (God revealed) (127). I have no problem with this language if it is clearly used with this meaning. But I think that it has been used with other meanings and that it is not always clearly understood, and I sought to warn my readers of that in DKG.38

Clark thinks that the phrases in question can have only one meaning, and he presents some references to classic Reformed theologians to show the uniformity of usage. One of his main sources here is Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics39 which he contrasts with my account of this language. I had pointed out40 that Bavinck used the phrase “in himself” in two different ways, creating some confusion for his readers. Clark thinks I was not “entirely fair” with Bavinck’s statement, and he points out that Bavinck understood perfectly well that he was using “in himself” in two different senses. I was not accusing Bavinck, however, of misunderstanding the issue, only of using the term “in himself” in two ways, which in fact he did, by his own admission. I find that dual use somewhat confusing, though Bavinck evidently did not, and so I discuss ways of clarifying the difference between these uses and other possible uses of the phrase. Clark, like Bavinck, thinks there is no confusion to resolve. I’ll leave it up to others to resolve this disagreement.

But I do think it is significant that Clark seizes on this disagreement to argue that the phrase “in himself” has only one meaning (It does not, as Bavinck admits), and that it is non-reformed for me to think otherwise. On the larger question of God’s incomprehensibility, Bavinck’s own survey of the theological and philosophical literature, which Clark refers to, shows that there have been many different concepts over the centuries, some biblical, others unbiblical. Clark’s insistence is that I use the relevant terms (“in self,” “essence,” etc.) only in the way the classical Reformed theologians did. I could not so restrict myself to these traditional uses of “in self,” “essence,” etc., because my purpose, like Bavinck’s, was to deal with the issue more broadly, both in theology and in philosophy, both historically and in the present, from both Reformed and non-Reformed, Christian and non-Christian sources.

My purpose in this study, however, was to defend the traditional Reformed position: (1) creator and creature are distinct. (2) God’s mind and the human mind are distinct. (3) No thought of God is identical to any thought of a human being. (4) We cannot know God exhaustively or as he knows himself. I think these formulations are biblical, true to the Reformed tradition, and that they summarize the teachings of Scripture and classic Reformed theology about the incomprehensibility of God. Further, I believe that they are easier for modern readers to understand than sentences like ‘we cannot know God in himself” or “we cannot know God by his essence.”

Clark’s formulations themselves are rather questionable, from a biblical standpoint. He says Frame

…fails to acknowledge the distinction between knowing that a thing is (e.g. God in se) and what a thing is. We know that God has attributes, but we do not know their whatness (quidditas). (130)

Really? We know that God has attributes, but we don’t know what those attributes are? In fact, Scripture speaks of particular attributes of God (love, power, wisdom), but not at all about the general ontological fact that he has attributes. I think the latter is a valid inference from Scripture’s particular statements. But I think it is not Scriptural to claim that we have only a general and ontological knowledge of God’s attributes and not a knowledge of any of them in particular. Here Clarkventures into a kind of skepticism that is deeply unbiblical.41 Scripture reveals to us clearly and truly that God is love, that he knows all things, that his power is supreme.42

Indeed, we should question even the general notion that we can know that something is without knowing (in any degree, I presume) what it is. Can we know that a neutrino exists without having any idea what a neutrino is, even that it bears the name “neutrino?” As for God, Cornelius Van Til rightly says,

We must first ask what kind of a God Christianity believes in before we can really ask with intelligence whether such a God exists. The what precedes the that; the connotation precedes the denotation; at least the latter cannot be discussed intelligently without at once considering the former.43

Then Clark goes on an even more dangerous path:

Fourth, Frame does not seem to realize that the classical Reformed theologians understood there is a certain degree of falsehood in human speech about God. Call this the “as it were” principle. (130)

Then on the next page,

…because of our finitude, in order to say something true about God we must use divinely authorized analogies to say something that entails a certain degree of falseness. (131)

In defense of the “as it were” principle, he cites the use of this phrase in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 27, which refers to God’s “hand,” but emphasizes that that term is a metaphor by the phrase “as it were.” The “as it were” principle there is only a way to refer to metaphors, and as such I have no problem with it. By definition, a metaphor states something that is not literally true. However,

1. Clark evidently thinks that the presence of a metaphor makes a sentence somewhat (?) false. But that is not the case. A metaphor does not make a sentence false in any degree. It often introduces some difficulty into the interpretation of the sentence, but even that does not always happen. Sometimes metaphorical statements are easier to understand than literal ones. Compare, for example, “The Lord is my shepherd” to “God governs, disciplines, provides, and guides his elect.” But the statement ‘The Lord is my shepherd,” spoken by David, is not one bit false.

2. I don’t know what it means to say that a statement has “a certain degree of falseness.” I know what it means to say that “God created the earth” is true, and I know what it means to say that statement is false. But to speak of truth and falsity of sentences as a matter of degree, in my judgment, is simply confused, and is confused about a matter from which confusion should be excluded. From a logical point of view, if an assertion includes any degree of falsehood, that assertion is false, period.44

3. Clark wants to apply this “as it were” principle, not only to metaphorical expressions, but to “human speech about God.” That would include all human language about God, even that in the Bible. So on this view there is falsehood even in biblical speech about God, as well as the speech of theologians and ordinary people.45 That doctrine would destroy the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture as well as the ability of Christians to speak truly of God. This is a very serious matter.

4. Further, if this principle applies in a general way to “human speech about God,” then it invalidates, not only Scripture and theology in general, but every specific statement about God in Scripture and elsewhere (including the confessions!)

5. This skeptical turn in Clark’s book is rather jarring, considering that, as we saw earlier, he thinks he has an “objective” definition of “Reformed” that avoids any “mistaking of subjective experience for objective reality” (17). He seems to move from a kind of rationalism there to a kind of irrationalism here.

6. Although Clark is usually conscientious to document his assertions about classical Reformed theology by reference to the sources, he offers no documentation of “a certain degree of falseness,” except a citation of Michael Horton’sCovenant and Eschatology. That merely raises questions about Horton’s position as well as his own. I doubt that there is any Reformed consensus for the view that God’s revelation is in some measure false, and most everything in the Reformed doctrine of revelation and Scripture contradicts this idea.

7. Calvin and other Reformed theologians did speak often of God “accommodating” his revelation to human beings, “lisping” to them as a parent speaks to a child. Clark speaks of this on 140-41. Liberal theologians have seized on this metaphor as evidence that according to Calvin God’s word in Scripture is not wholly true. But Calvin resisted any such application. Accommodation does not mean that God gives us revelation that is somewhat false. When a parent speaks to a child as he should, he does not lie to him. Rather, he presents the truth, but not exhaustively.

8. Nor are metaphorical expressions beyond human understanding. As Clark speaks of Calvin’s use of this principle, he shows that Calvin has no trouble telling us what metaphorical expressions mean and do not mean. When Lam. 2:3 says that God’s nose gets “hot” (141) it doesn’t mean that “God, in himself, has a nose or that it actually changes temperature.” Rather, it means to say “that God is morally displeased.” So the metaphorical language enables us to confess literal truth. That literal truth is not “as it were,” but “as it really is.” Clark recognizes that objective truth is at stake here: “To read too much or too little into the form of expression is to actually misunderstand the teaching of Holy Scripture.” So on Clark’s own account, contrary to other things he says, the metaphorical language of Scripture does necessitate any falsity in the text.

9. Make no mistake: this skeptical position is entirely inconsistent with the Reformed view of Scripture as being infallible and inerrant, that is to say, wholly true.

I will largely pass over Clark’s discussion of Aquinas (134-142). I agree with him that Aquinas gives some credence to the idea of a continuum between God and man, though this is perhaps not as clear in Aquinas as Clark presents it. Certainly, we should reject that sort of thinking. I do think, however, that Aquinas’ and Clark’s views of analogy have some things in common, not least the tendency toward skepticism I mentioned above.

Clark’s discussion of “The Parts of Theology” (142-145) is similarly confused. He begins with the traditional distinction between archetypal theology (theology as God does it) and ectypal theology (theology done by creatures). This is simply an implication of the creator-creature distinction in the realm of thought, which I have defended on many occasions.46 But he connects this distinction with the distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. I understand that Clark is very fond of this distinction and inclined to bring it into all sorts of contexts. But it is very confusing to identify ectypal theology with the theology of the cross (as he does again on 151). Our theology is ectypal, not because we are sinners redeemed through the cross, but because we are creatures. Unfallen Adam’s theology was no less ectypal than ours. Although saving grace renews our knowledge of God, it does not make our knowledge archetypal.Clark understands this; he makes various distinctions within the general category of ectypal knowledge, and he denies the Lutheran claim that human knowledge can sometimes be archetypal (144-5). But the identification of ectypal knowledge with the theology of the cross is simply another instance of Clark’s carelessness.

On 145-150, he criticizes those who discuss the nature of theology without emphasizing or explicitly mentioning the archetypal/ectypal distinction. On 150, he says,

The archetypal/ectypal distinction is essential. It is this distinction that distinguishes Reformed theology from Rome in soteriology, the entire thrust of which is salvation through divinization.

Now certainly it is important to distinguish the creator from the creature both in being and in knowledge. The archetypal/ectypal distinction is one way to express this. But this terminology is not found either in the Bible or in the Reformed confessions, and it does seem to me that other ways of making the point are equally good or better (see the most recent footnote). To insist on this terminology is to elevate it to the position of a boundary marker. Recall his earlier argument that such boundary markers should be limited to the teachings of the confessions.

Then Clark goes on to say that this distinction

…undermines the two illegitimate quests criticized in chapters 2 and 3 of this book: QIRC and QIRE. It undermines the latter by breaking down the intersection between the divine and the human which was the unstated premise behind much of the theology, piety, and practice of the First Great Awakening. The Reformed understanding of things is that we do not have immediate access to God’s being. We have mediated access through God the Son incarnate and through the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. The goal of our theology is to think God’s thoughts after him, as his image bearers, as analogues. (151)

Of course I agree with the last sentence, but that’s about all.

1. First, Clark has not given any basis for his claim that the whole First Great Awakening presupposed an “intersection” between the divine and human. I presume that by ”intersection” he means an ontological and epistemological identity, because that’s what is at issue in this chapter. Clark did, at an earlier point refer to the theory that Jonathan Edwards “taught a doctrine of divinization” (84). But that theory is controversial, and even if true there is no reason to think that this was the view of anyone else who favored the revival.

2. The question of whether God and creatures are distinct is a very different question from the question of how we can have “access” to God. The fact that we are creatures does not imply that our “access” to him is limited to certain kinds of mediation. But Clark treats these questions as the same.

3. As a matter of fact, I think it is right to say that we have no access to God except through Christ (John 14:6).

4. Is this access to God through Christ limited to preaching and sacraments? Not in any general sense. We encounter God in natural revelation as well as special. We encounter God in his word, and not only the preached word. (The praise of God’s word in Ps. 119, for example, deals with the written word, not with any particular context in which that word is proclaimed.)

5. We also encounter God whenever he wishes to be encountered. His regenerating work, for example, occurs whenever he wishes (John 3:8).

6. But even people who think God can meet them only in word and sacrament may not measure up to Clark’s standards. We should recall that Clark’s objections extend to people who themselves identify preaching as the source of their experience. Remember Clark’s earlier reference (78-9) to Lloyd-Jones who, according to Packer, sought a “deepened sense of the power and authority of God in the preaching of the biblical message.” So Clark opposes not only those who seek experience of God outside the word and sacrament, but also some who seek it in the word and sacrament. Clark’s objection, therefore, must be based in some principle other than a limitation of religious experience to word and sacrament.

Then he says,

The categorical distinction [between archetypal and ectypal—JF] also subverts the QIRC by putting us creatures in our place. It relocates our center of gravity, as it were, away from biblicism or our private understanding and application of Scripture, back toward the church. It changes the questions. Rather than asking how we can apply the Mosaic civil penalties, determine the length of the creation days, or reengineer Reformed doctrine to create a better product, we can now ask how the Reformed churches understand the Scriptures. What questions do the Reformed churches think are important and why? Put negatively, if the Reformed churches have not confessed or taught the application of the Mosaic civil law to post-Mosaic societies, or if they have not confessed the nature of the creation days in detail, perhaps it is because Scripture does not teach these things. If Scripture does not teach them, then perhaps the theology of the cross (ectypal theology) and our status as image bearers constrain us from teaching and confessing them too…

The Reformed churches define the “Reformed” reading of Scripture, what it is to be Reformed, and they have codified that definition in public ecclesiastical documents.

Here, Clark goes far beyond his previous argument for Reformed confessionalism. Earlier (50-51), he said that we should not accept “boundary markers” (tests of orthodoxy) unless they are affirmed as such in the confessions. So he rejects the claim that 6/24 and theonomy should be boundary markers. I agreed with that restriction, while questioning other assertions he made in the context. But now the question is not about proper vs. improper boundary markers. Here he says that the confession tells us what questions we may and may not ask of Scripture, whether or not those questions are about boundary markers.

But that is a very large restriction on the freedom of the believer to study the Bible. If a believer is concerned, say, about the length of creation days, is he forbidden to study the question because it has not been addressed in the Reformed tradition? Clark seems to see the Reformed confessional tradition as a static monolith. If something was not discussed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we should not discuss it today. Clark will not consider the possibility that discussion of issues in our time might in fact add to and enrich the tradition, even to modify the confessions. Rather, for him, such discussion must be forbidden, because it was not carried on four hundred years ago.

He thinks that if the tradition did not take a position in past centuries, “perhaps it is because Scripture does not teach these things.” I’m glad that he said “perhaps,” because it is by no means obvious to me that every idea not found in the Standards is unscriptural. But obviously he considers this possibility to be very likely, likely enough to decisively control our theological method. So he says, “The Reformed churches define the ‘Reformed’ reading of Scripture.” This seems to mean that if our Bible study leads to a conclusion contrary to Reformed tradition, we must reject it, because such Bible study is not a Reformed reading of Scripture.

I cannot make any distinction between this and Roman Catholic traditionalism. Clark is cautious enough to use the term “perhaps,” but we can see where his convictions lie. The Roman Catholic Church taught historically that the Bible was in its hands, that it had the right authoritatively to determine what the Bible says. It rejected the notion of “private interpretation,” that believers have the right to study the Scriptures for themselves. Any interpretation of Scripture that runs against Roman teaching must on that account be rejected.

Protestants, on the contrary, defended the “private interpretation of Scripture,” which of course does not mean that individuals can understand Scripture without help. WCF 1.7 says that Scripture is sufficiently clear that the way of salvation is plain to learned and unlearned readers by “a due use of the ordinary means.” It is quite possible that such Bible study may lead to conclusions contrary to those taught by the church, and indeed this has happened. See WCF 1.4, 10, 31.4. This teaching I believe is inconsistent with Clark’s idea that there is a “Reformed reading of Scripture” that governs not only the conclusions of theology, but even the questions the theologian may ask.47

To deny Clark’s view, he thinks, is to seek an illegitimate certainty (QIRC). I don’t think there is anything illegitimate in seeking certainty through the Bible, even over against Reformed tradition if necessary.

But I do think there must be some name for what Clark is seeking here. What motivation could lead someone to limit theological questions and answers to a particular church tradition? Let me propose QIRS, the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Stability.48

On page 4, in setting forth his program for the book, Clark says

It is the argument of this book that the Reformed confession is the only reasonable basis for a stable definition of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

It is important to Clark to have a concept of the Reformed faith that never changes. It is painful for him that the Reformed churches have “drifted from their moorings” (4). But everything seems to change in this world. The actual Reformed community, too, constantly changes. It is not irrelevant that Scripture presents change as a characteristic of created reality, as distinct from God:

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

And the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;

They will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe,

And they will pass away,

But you are the same, and your years have no end. (Ps. 102;23-27).

So how is it possible to have a “stable definition of Reformed theology, piety, and practice?” By stipulating one. Rather than looking at the actual Reformed community, with all its twists and turns, as I suggested toward the beginning of this review, Clark posits an ideal Reformed community by raising a fence around the early confessions, theologians, and practices, and saying that nothing else can be called Reformed.

This procedure requires him to exclude many churches and persons who consider themselves Reformed and who are often considered Reformed. The Anglicans, whose Thirty-Nine Articles have often been described as a Reformed confession, are not even mentioned in Clark’s book. The very significant Dutch movement of Van Prinsterer and Kuyper is almost completely left out. And who would have guessed that Jonathan Edwards was not Reformed? In the actual Reformed community, many people have supported revival, at least to the extent that I have in this review. Many indeed have argued that the basic ideas behind revivals are compatible with the Reformed confessions. But Clark will have none of it. He has drawn his line in the sand, and nobody and nothing will be permitted to cross. If anyone ventures to go over the line, it is because he is not Reformed, and that’s all there is to say. On this question, there is no “as it were,” no uncertainty. There is only objective truth, no mistaking it for subjective experience. What his net can’t catch isn’t fish.

 

 

Confessional Subscription 

Given this general orientation, we expect to find Clark advocating a very strong view of confessional subscription. We are not disappointed.

He begins his chapter on this subject by noting Scripture passages speaking of confessions (such as Rom. 10:9-10, 1 John 4:1-3), a practice related to covenant oath-taking (Ex. 24:3, 7-8, Ezek. 16:59). I more or less agree with what he says here, but I question its relevance to his eventual conclusions, for two reasons. First, the content of the biblical oaths and confessions is very short, simple, and basic: “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9-10), “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-3), “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex. 24:7). But what Clark advocates is confession to a set of extensive theological documents49 that define biblical doctrine in extensive detail. Second, the biblical confessions are made by the whole people of God, not by a group of people defined by a tradition distinct from the rest of the church. But Clark calls us to subscribe to confessions adopted by denominations. Denominations, groups of churches out of fellowship with others by virtue of some distinctives of doctrine, practice, ethnicity, or historical background, play no role in biblical church government.50

Clark’s minute discussion of confessions and the various ways people have subscribed to them is interesting, but it is strikingly different from the way Scripture speaks of the church. The New Testament nowhere requires churches to have written confessions as tests of orthodoxy, beyond the simple utterances noted earlier. The notion that church leaders, indeed all members! (179) must subscribe to an elaborate theological treatise in order to have fellowship with the body of Christ is quite alien to the letter and the spirit of the Scriptures.

Clark has no response to the obvious objections to his proposal. Among those: (1) This kind of confessionalism limits the membership of the church to those well-enough educated to understand and intelligently affirm the treatise. This makes the door to Christ far narrower than Scripture does. This is, I think, a large part of the reason why Presbyterian and Reformed churches have largely been limited to the higher social and economic groups in society. (2) Young children are excluded from the church by this procedure, meaning that membership in the church is limited to those old enough to affirm the confession.51 (3) Those who want to join a church but who either fail to understand or have doubts about a few propositions will be strongly tempted to subscribe to the confession hypocritically. (4) This method of protecting the church leads the church to be preoccupied with the details of confessions and subscription, at the expense of the Bible itself. The present volume is a case in point.

How, then, should we guard against immorality and heresy in the church? In Matt. 18:15-20, Jesus provided a way to deal with sin in a congregation. Beyond this, church leaders are charged with setting a good example in their life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6-7, 12, 6:14-15, 2 Tim. 2:22-26), and dealing with sin and error in their teaching and pastoral ministries (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Are these methods adequate to preserve the soundness of the church’s doctrine? If they are not, then Scripture is insufficient. If these biblical methods don’t meet our standards, perhaps our standards need to be changed.

It is interesting that for all his devotion to the confessional tradition, Clark believes that new confessions are needed (182-191) to address problems that have developed since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is the only place in the book where he seems to admit the legitimacy of change in the theology of the church. Nevertheless, given his hostility to the development of the actual (as opposed to the ideal) Reformed community, it is hard for me to imagine any really thoughtful modern confession that would meet his approval.

 

 

The Joy of Being Confessional

In the chapter by this name, Clark sets forth advantages in the Reformed confessionalism he has been defining. He has in mind the uneasiness of evangelicals that has led them to embrace Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and the “emergent church.” Here he calls these evangelicals “to consider relocating theologically and ecclesiastically not to Rome, or to Constantinople or even to the Emergent Village, but rather to Geneva” (195). He also hopes to influence dissatisfied members of the Reformed community to remain in the Reformed camp. One difficulty in this project, he says, is that people are too prone to identify the Reformed faith with fundamentalism and revivalism (196), as if they could possibly be so confused after reading the first 196 pages of Clark’s book.

He recommends the Reformed faith on the grounds that it is Biiblical, Catholic, Vital, Evangelical, and Churchly. I largely agree with Clark on these points, so I will be brief.

Under “Biblical,” Clark mentions the large amount of reflection on the doctrine of Scripture in the Reformed community, along with the huge amount of Bible study done in the Reformed community and its attempt to avoid imposing a theology upon the Bible. Clark’s discussion is entirely positive, not a “warts and all” account. But this chapter is essentially an advertisement, and that’s the way advertizing works.

Under “Catholic,” Clark reminds us again that Reformed theology respects the Fathers of the church (while differing with them “modestly,” 208). It upholds the Trinitarian theology of the early church and considers itself to be “subject to review’ by other branches of the church. I would add that Calvin sought organic church unity with both Lutherans and Roman Catholics. This project seems to me to be contrary to the spirit of Clark’s book, which is to isolate the Reformed community from ideas coming from Christians outside it. And I haven’t seen much in Clark’s book that reflects an openness to review by other branches of the church.

Under “Vital,” Clark says that Reformed confessionalism embraces a living piety and practice (211). Dead orthodoxy, he says, is an oxymoron (though “dead heterodoxy raises even greater problems,” 212).

Under “Evangelical,” Clark faces a problem, because his book has opposed revival, which has been considered a defining feature of evangelicalism. After wrestling a bit with the problem of how evangelicalism should be defined, he settles on the idea that “those who embrace this identity do so on the basis of a shared religious experience” (215).52 This would suggest that in Clark’s view the Reformed faith is not evangelical. But Clark recovers his balance and notes that the Reformed faith is evangelical after all, in the sense that it embraces the gospel (the evangel) (218) and the free offer of the gospel blessing to all (219).

Under “Churchly,” Clark discusses for several pages the relation of nature and grace. I don’t find this discussion entirely cogent. In any case, it is difficult to relate all of this to the “churchliness” of the Reformed faith. Given his conclusion on 224, he seems to be saying that Reformed theology, as opposed to others influenced by neoplatonism, respects the body: both the literal body of Jesus and the body of material persons which is the church. A skilled advertiser would have gotten to the point more clearly and quickly.

 

 

Recovering Reformed Worship

Clark’s discussion of worship again criticizes my own positions, so I must, alas, resume defending myself. In general, I think Clark has defined here a conservative Reformed position on worship (whether it should be called “confessional” is another question)53 , but he has not shown any awareness of the difficulties that have led some of us to seek other alternatives.

He rightly emphasizes that Reformed worship is governed by the “Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW), which says that everything we do in worship must be, in the words of Zacharias Ursinus,

…within the bounds which God has prescribed, and that we do not add anything to that worship which has been divinely instituted, or corrupt it in any part, even the most unimportant. (228)

Taken literally, however, this would exclude sitting on pews, standing for hymns, reading Psalm 50, and any number of things which God does not specifically “prescribe.” Therefore Clark, following the tradition, distinguishes between “elements” and “circumstances” (230). The RPW literally governs only the “elements” (word, sacraments, and prayer), but not the circumstances, which would include such things as the time and place of worship, the use of pews, etc.

One problem here is that there are some things we do in worship that are neither elements nor circumstances in the official definitions. Reading Psalm 50, for example, is not an element, because God nowhere commands us to read precisely that passage. But neither is it a circumstance, because circumstances are “common to human actions and societies,” (WCF 1.6). So some have spoken of “expressions” or “forms” as a third category. But it is not clear what the status of this category is with regard to the RPW. Clark shows no awareness of this problem in his discussion.

Nor has he noticed, apparently, that Scripture makes no distinction between elements and circumstances. He rightly links this distinction to the philosophical distinction between substance and accident (230), but he does not indicate any biblical reason why we must think of the RPW in terms of this philosophical distinction.

He also says,

Frame changes the terms of the RPW by redefining worship to refer not to stated assemblies but to all of life. Certainly it is true that, in one sense, all of life is an act of worship, but the RPW was formed and intended to govern worship conceived narrowly, that is, to what occurs during a stated service. (240)

This may be true of the historical formulation of the RPW, though I don’t see how this interpretation can be drawn from the confessional documents themselves. I am obviously suggesting a revision of this historical tradition, something that, of course, Clark cannot even consider, since he incorporates these traditions as part of his confessionalist basis for the Reformed faith.

My revision is intended to deal with a problem, and, as often in this context, Clark has no thought that there could be any problems in the tradition. But I do consider it problematic that the traditional RPW does not account for the totality of human worship. In Reformed theology, the RPW is supposedly based on the second commandment of the Decalogue. But the second commandment makes no distinction between different kinds of worship, and its requirement is certainly not limited to “stated services” (240). Nor does Scripture anywhere else make such a limitation. That is as it should be. Does anyone imagine that God would be happy for his people to exclude idols from stated services, but to worship them in non-stated services, or to adore them outside of formal worship? When Jesus, echoing and applying the second commandment, said “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24), he was not speaking about stated services at all, or even of non-stated services, but of all of life. And Rom. 12:1-2 and other passages speak of all the believer’s life as worship. If the traditional RPW does not take this fact into account, then so much the worse for the traditional RPW.

Clark continues,

Frame also subverts the RPW by redefining the notion of “command.” According to Frame’s definition of theology, there is no real distinction between what Scripture says and one’s application (an essential term in his theological method) of Scripture to a given situation by a given person. This application has the same force as a divine “command.” As a result, every application of Scripture or even general revelation is a command. Thus the principle that we must do only what we are commanded now becomes: We can do whatever one concludes from one’s application to revelation to any circumstance. What began as a principle of restriction has become a license. (240)

I have never said that all human applications of Scripture are right applications. Rather, I think it obvious that many of them are wrong, including a number of Clark’s. So a human application of Scripture is emphatically not the same as a divine command.

But when a human being applies Scripture to a life-situation and has a settled belief that his application is legitimate, then of course he has an obligation to act on that conviction. If I believe “You shall not steal” forbids me to cheat on my income tax, I have applied the verse to my situation. I have applied God’s command to a situation in my life. But if I believe that application is correct, then I must take it as a divine command not to cheat on my taxes.

If I tried to excuse myself by saying, “well, that idea of being honest on my tax returns is, after all, only my own application—a human idea, not a divine command; so I can disregard it” would God accept that excuse? I doubt it. So I take it that right applications of Scripture, which I believe are right, carry the force of divine commands.

Every time we think or do something in obedience to Scripture, we are applying it. If applications have only human authority, then everything we do in response to Scripture is based merely on human authority. Divine authority as such no longer exists. So it is Clark, not I, who eviscerates biblical authority.54

Reformed theologians have always believed that logical implications of biblical teaching are part of the whole counsel of God. WCF 1.6 says,

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…

I believe that “applications” as I define them, have the same status as logical implications. The only difference is that with an “implication,” strictly speaking, all the premises are found explicitly in Scripture. In an “application,” some of the premises serve to relate Scripture to the extra-scriptural situation. But in either case if the argument is valid, then the conclusion carries the same divine authority as the premises. The logical process preserves the truth of the biblical premises.

Now I have related “application” to “worship” only in the following way: Instead of speaking about elements and circumstances, which are not mentioned in Scripture, and not terribly helpful in guiding our decisions about worship, I have proposed this principle: we should do anything in worship that is a genuine application of God’s commandments concerning worship. That principle, far from allowing “license,” as Clark says, makes it clear that our purpose is to be subject to God’s word. Just as “thou shalt not steal” requires us to be honest on our taxes, so “sing joyfully to the Lord” requires us to praise him gladly in worship. To say that this understanding turns restriction into license is slanderous.55 It is Clark’s view, which denies divine authority to any application of Scripture, that turns restriction into license.

Clark, as often in this book, is appalled by my conclusions, but he seems quite unable to describe them accurately, and he is completely unaware of my arguments for them, and of the problems that have led me to rethink these issues. In contrast, I have tried in this review to consider carefully, not only Clark’s conclusions, but his arguments. I will not let myself reject any of his conclusions without considering and evaluating his arguments. Criticizing an author’s conclusions without considering his arguments is a very common error in theology, and it is especially common among those who, like Clark, develop their theology out of history, rather than seeking to apply (!) biblical principles to our present questions and situations.

Following his critique of my work, he takes up that of R. J. Gore. Gore, whom I admire, can defend himself, so I won’t deal with that section, or with the following section, which sets forth “A Brief History of Christian Worship” (244-257). In that section, and several more (to p. 291), Clark argues his belief that Reformed worship should include only “inspired songs” (that is, Psalms and other portions of Scripture, like the Decalogue and the Song of Simeon), sung without musical instruments, using Reformation liturgies. I have dealt with these issues in Worship in Spirit and Truth,56 and since Clark doesn’t discuss the argumentation on the other side by me and others, I will not respond to his.

In the chapter, “Whatever Happened to the Second Service?” (293-342), he defends the Reformed doctrine of the Sabbath. Most of his argument I agree with, though I think he understates the difference between the Westminster Standards and the continental Reformed confessions on this matter.57 He also renews his emphasis on the “ordinary means of grace,” word and sacrament, as opposed to the desire for extraordinary experiences of God (QIRE).

In a short concluding chapter, “Predestination is Not Enough” (343-345), he tries to correct the impression that his position is ‘conservative.” No, he says, it is radical. It demands radical change from the position of the modern church.

 

 

Two Visions of the Reformed Faith

Toward the beginning of this review, I criticized Clark’s definition of “Reformed.” Here I will say something about his general view of how the Reformed communion is related to the overall body of Christ. As one reads this book, the general picture that emerges is of what Van Til used to call the “isolation” of the Reformed community. We are not Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, or Anabaptist, or evangelical. We are distinctive, holding a viewpoint defined more or less unchangeably by our confessions, a favored group of theologians, and various traditions. From Clark’s point of view, it is very important that such distinctiveness be maintained. So we must define every aspect of church life by the confessions and tradition. Both officers and (however implausibly) the whole congregation must subscribe in a strict and comprehensive sense to the confessions. We should study the Scriptures too, but there is a “Reformed reading” of Scripture that we must never depart from, a way of reading Scripture that will be governed by the confessions and therefore will never lead us away from the Reformed traditions. So when controversies arise, the most prominent question is not “what does Scripture say?” (which would be “biblicist”), but rather “what do the confessions say?”

How should we relate to other branches of the church? Clark recommends a friendly, yet separatist posture. Those who seek to break down denominational barriers to become one church he criticizes as holding a “big tent” approach (216). In its place, he advocates Michael Horton’s “Village Green” model:

In this scheme, evangelicalism would not be reckoned so much on the basis of a shared faith or religious experience but rather on the basis of shared interests. In a tent, some are in and some are out and there is, to switch metaphors, a gatekeeper. In contrast, a village green is a commons shared by all and owned (or controlled) by none in particular (217).

So we should not try to be part of the same church with people of other confessions, even with evangelicals (which are the main focus of Horton’s proposal). Our homes are the denominations and congregations. But from time to time we may associate in a friendly way with others who mingle on the village green, on the basis of “shared interests.” Our home is the Reformed tradition. Non-Reformed Christians are only casual acquaintances.

I have belonged to churches and Christian organizations that hold this view of things. My testimony is that these communities are often spiritually debilitating. In them, one hears a lot about tradition and church history, much less about Jesus58 and the Bible. Children are catechized, rather than receiving detailed teaching of Scripture. (Sunday school, of course, is considered by many to be an evangelical aberration, not a Reformed institution.) Sermons are little doctrinal treatises or objective redemptive-historical narratives, making no attempt to touch the emotions, even when the texts of these sermons are intended to arouse godly feelings. Much less will these sermons attempt to give people practical help with spiritual problems, even though that help may be found in the passages themselves.

In these bodies, one of the main topics of conversation is who is and who is not “truly Reformed.” Presbyteries, classes, and congregations get tangled up with debates about doctrinal and procedural minutiae. Factions about such subjects spring up, and church bodies divide over them. People speak with dogmatic assurance that they, and not their opponents, represent the tradition. They are assured of matters far beyond their area of expertise. And their expertise is often merely academic, rather than the expertise of those who have grown to be spiritually mature. Those given to prayer and evangelism are treated with some suspicion, as if they are at least on the brink of losing their allegiance to the Reformed movement. Even those who prefer to “emphasize” themes different from the traditional emphases are under suspicion.

The impression is given that all of this is the Reformed way, and anyone who dissents from it is not truly Reformed. The Reformed tradition is the best of all traditions; indeed, most likely it is the only tradition that actually embraces the Gospel. Little is done to cultivate love in the body and love for those outside the body, even though love (John 13:34-35) is arguably as much a mark of the church as are the traditional marks of Reformed theology (the word, the sacraments, and discipline). When the subject of evangelism arises, the main emphasis is that we should not do evangelism as the Arminians do. There is no suggestion that we can learn from any other branch of the church about anything. The cessation of the charismata is presented in such a way that believers should not expect God to do anything in the world except for the word and sacrament in the church service.

There is a very different way to look at the Reformed faith, and I would recommend it as an alternative to Clark’s. We begin with Jesus himself, who by his atoning death and resurrection built one true church (Matt. 16:18, Eph. 2:19-20). After the time of the apostles, he continues to rule that one church from Heaven, granting authority to elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13, Tit. 1:5-9, Heb. 13:17). He has left no alternative method of ordering the church. Nobody is given the right to leave the one true church and start his own denomination. Nevertheless, the one true church eventually divided. Groups broke away from the fellowship: west broke from east, Protestant from Catholic, Protestant from Protestant. These divisions grieve our Lord, who prayed before his death agony that all his people would be one (John 17:21-23). The blame, of course, is not on everyone equally, but these divisions always resulted from someone’s sin—either the sin of those who illegitimately left the one body, or that of those who illegitimately forced them to leave, or, in most cases, both.

So the one true church is now broken up into thousands of denominations and varying traditions, contrary to our Lord’s will. The church is still one in that it has one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. But there are divisions of theology, practice, ethnicity, of which the Reformed tradition is one.

Christians are committed first to Christ, then to the one body of Christ, and only then to a particular form of the church. They must make the third commitment only because history has made it necessary. Because of the tragic division of the church, one may not be a “mere Christian.” He must join a congregation that does not have fellowship with all other congregations. So he must be Reformed or non-Reformed, not both. But a believer ought to be at least a little sad about this historical necessity. There should be in his heart a purpose to do something, even if he can only do a little bit, to lessen the divisions of the church and to make progress toward the reunion of the church.

If a believer is Reformed, he should give due appreciation to the achievements of that tradition in theology, church government, and other ways. But the focus of his life should not be on his denomination or tradition. It should be on Christ and the Scriptures. He should feel deeply the errors of Reformed chauvinism, the attitude that celebrates and seeks to preserve the distinctiveness of Reformed Christianity from the influence of other branches of the church. He should learn from other traditions59 and recommend what he learns to his Reformed friends. He should do what he can to avoid the practices I mentioned earlier that are spiritually debilitating.

His church home, contrary to Horton’s “village green” model, is the whole body of God’s elect. His relation to non-Reformed Christians is spiritual oneness with Christ, not “shared interests.” (Shared interests! What a trivializing of the unity of Jesus’ body!)

A Reformed community that maintains its biblical heritage while seeking to grow in its love for the church as a whole is well worth supporting and recommending to others. That is not Clark’s vision of the church, and that I take to be the most serious criticism of the book under review. But it is one I heartily recommend to my readers.60

 

 


1 Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008.

2 If we could avoid that entirely, we would be infallible. Is that what Clark is claiming?

3 Clark makes a similar point when he discusses God’s archetypal and man’s ectypal knowledge, claiming that there is “a certain degree of falsehood in human speech about God” (130). I will try to show later that this discussion is confused. But if true it implies that it is impossible for us to achieve absolute objectivity in any statements we make about God or his creation, even when we are making them on the authority of a written confession.

4 Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987. Henceforth, DKG.

5 By words like “threatens” and “seems,” Clark pulls his punches. He also renders the precise thrust of his criticism unclear. It is usually fairly clear what it means when someone says “A contradicts B.” It is not clear when someone says “A threatens to contradict B,” or “A seems to contradict B.” It is irresponsible for a writer to criticize someone in such vague terms that they can be withdrawn when the target of criticism tries to hold the writer accountable. Further, many perfectly true statements can “seem” to be wrong to some people. That does not imply that these statements should be withdrawn.

6 As I understand him, Clark holds something like a “paradox” or ‘two kingdoms” view, and he believes that transformationalism, being a later development within the Reformed community, is not properly Reformed. I think, rather, that the transformationalism of Abraham Kuyper, for example, is a legitimate application of the Reformed view of God’s comprehensive sovereignty over all things and his redemption of all areas of life. This illustrates the difference between Clark’s restriction of “Reformed” to what was explicitly said in the 16th and 17th centuries and my view that the “Reformed” should be understood as an empirical community that extends to our own time.

7 Here a footnote cites W. Robert Godfrey, who evidently is his source for this critical point.

8 As, for example, in my Doctrine of the Christian Life (henceforth DCL), 863-75.

9 This is the one favorable reference to me in the book. He refers to my essay, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” in Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 269-91.

10 I hope the reader notices a pattern here. The same was the case in his critique of my “theology as application.” He ignored all my explanation of that phrase, the accompanying theological context, and the qualifications, and attacked an oversimplification of his own making.

11 See my DKG, 62-75 and DCL (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2008), 131-236. There will be further discussion of this matter in my forthcoming Doctrine of the Word of God, from the same publisher.

12 “Biblicism,” 273.

13 For example, DKG, 67, where I affirmed the “need to gain extrabiblical knowledge to understand the Bible.”

14 304-311.

15 304.

16 Salvation Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 241-44, 256-59, Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 46-47, 84-98. Compare also my treatment of tradition and creeds in DKG, 304-306.

17 In this regard, see also my discussions of the clarity of Scripture, in DCL, 147-50, and in Doctrine of the Word of God (forthcoming). This is not to deny that some churches decide controversies better than others.

18 For my own amusement, I correlated Clark’s reasons for the decline of Reformed confsssionalism with the “three perspectives” I have emphasized in my writings: narcissism (a heart attitude) is existential, transformationalism situational, and Biblicism normative.

19 I have chosen not to comment on Clark’s subheading, “Our Uneasy Relation to Our Own Past,” which argues continuity between Calvin and his post-reformation successors. For what it’s worth, I largely agree with his critique of those who pit “Calvin against the Calvinists,” though I think his discussion does not do justice to the depths of Van Til’s (critical, to be sure) allegiance to the Reformed tradition.

20 I’m not sure how he relates this to the previous causes he described (narcissism, transformationalism, and biblicism). In general, of course, everything is related to epistemology since everything is an object of knowledge. But it doesn’t appear to me how the earlier three errors are the results of QIRC and/or QIRE.

21 I can understand people claiming that supralapsarianism, postmillennialism, theonomy, or presuppositionalism serve as great insights that govern all other thought. I cannot imagine anyone giving similar weight to the two examples Clark cites, though I agree with him that these are not biblical ideas. Of course, this discussion raises the question of the status of Clark’s own “great insight,” confessionalism, which, he thinks, yields perfectly objective truth with no admixture of subjectivity.

22 My forthcoming Doctrine of the Word of God emphasizes the comprehensiveness of Scripture, since the gospel transforms all things. See also DCL, 150-53. Clark is evidently assuming a “two kingdoms” view of Christ and society, which attempts to make a sharp distinction between religious and secular matters. On that, see ibid., 609-16, 870-73, and my review of David Van Drunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, at www.frame-poythress.org. Clark never argues for a two-kingdoms position in this book, and I don’t think he could do so, either from Scripture or from the Reformed confessions. Reformed theology does distinguish church from state, but it does not distinguish ‘two kingdoms” as Luther did.

23 Ibid. For the time being, just consider Rom. 13:1-7, which speaks of civil government, and Eph. 4:23-24, which speaks of moral and spiritual renewal. I do agree with Clark’s comment on 42 that in these areas we should “turn to Scripture for specific answers with more hesitation,” for the reasons he gives there. But that too is confusing. In the paragraph I quoted from 40, he seems to deny that we should seek any guidance at all from Scripture in these areas. Now it seems it is all right to turn to Scripture on matters of civil government and moral renewal, even to seek specific answers to our questions, but that we ought to do so “with more hesitation” than on other subjects. This is far too vague to generate the kind of “objective” theological method that Clark has been advocating.

24 Case in point: Clark’s assurance that Scripture does not speak, or doesn’t speak much, about civil government.

25 I understand what Clark is trying to say here, but, like many of his formulations in this book, this one is somewhat careless. In one sense, anyone who makes any statement believes it is inerrant. Inerrant simply means true, and the very act of making a statement implies a claim to truth. So what I say “Clark denies QIRC,” I believe I am saying the truth, I have not made an error, and therefore I have spoken inerrantly. Probably what Clark meant to ascribe to the fundamentalist is the view that his interpretation of Scripture is infallible. Infallible means not only that the interpretation is true, but also that it cannot be false.

26 And wouldn’t that be fundamentalist?

27 There are other kinds of immediacy, such as the claim of some mystics to achieve ontological identity with God. Clark associates pietism and revivalism with this kind of view, but he fails to show that these movements embraced such a view of immediacy. Another view of immediacy is the view that God performs many works in the world without created means, such as regeneration (John 3:3), or using created means in a way that requires his personal concurrence, such as providence. I think immediacy in this sense is biblical. See my Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002) (henceforth DG), Chapters 13-14.

28 I say “usually,” because people mean different things by “still small voice.” One of the things they can mean is the “Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

29 “First” and “second” here have the same ambiguities as the phrase “start with,” which I discussed in a previous footnote.

30 On 99, Clark says, “Even in its best and most admirable form, the revivalist program is still misguided, because, as Packer, Lloyd-Jones, and [Iain] Murray define revival, it is fundamentally the quest for a particular religious experience: the immediate encounter with God.” If this is true,Clark has not provided evidence from these writers. To establish a point so central to Clark’s argument, evidence is needed. Remember, Clark defined “immediacy” as an experience of God apart from word and Sacrament. Lloyd-Jones says that revival experience comes from the preaching of the word. Unless there is more to be learned about Lloyd-Jones, his view of revival does not involve immediacy in Clark’s sense.

31 I would dissent a bit, however, from both Lloyd Jones and Clark on this matter. When Reformed writers speak of “word and sacrament” in such contexts, they usually mean by “word” the sermons preached in stated services of the church. That concept is biblically dubious. Scripture never mentions sermons (as we understand them today) as part of the post-Resurrection worship of the New Testament. Preaching in the New Testament is the evangelistic preaching of the apostles and others, not in Christian worship services, but in synagogues and marketplaces. The only New Testament reference to instruction as part of a Christian worship service is 1 Cor. 14:26, which mentions a “lesson.” Nothing in the New Testament suggests that these lessons have the centrality for the Christian life that Clark and others ascribe to “the preached word. ” Certainly in Scripture the word of God is a primary means of sanctification. But that is not limited to, nor specifically identified with, the preaching of “sermons” in weekly worship. My concern here, however, is not part of my defense of Lloyd-Jones in the present context. Lloyd-Jones is actually closer to Clark in his formulation than he is to me.

32 Of course, God does use foolishness to confound the wisdom of men.

33 He also says that the theology of glory seeks to know hidden things of God rather than to be satisfied with his revealed will. I confess I don’t understand the connection Clark draws between the triumphal view of the Christian life and dissatisfaction with God’s revelation, except that he believes that Scripture doesn’t teach the triumphal view. But one can err in his interpretation of Scripture without being dissatisfied with what God has revealed, without a desire to know what God has kept secret.

34 See my discussion of the definition of ethics in DCL, 10-11.

35 The main difference between “Reformed” and “Evangelical” is that the latter is almost always favorable toward revival, while at least one type of Reformed theology is hostile to it. Clark, as we have seen, belongs to that type. So we can understand why Clark wants to separate Reformed from Evangelical as far apart as possible. But that separation is not required by the nature of the Reformed faith.

36 Incidentally, I believe that almost every self-conscious evangelical would also agree with this.

37 Although I am commending this formulation, there are some minor problems with it. For one thing, the decretive will is not entirely secret. As events actually take place, we learn what God has decreed to take place.

38 32-33.

39 Vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 36-52.

40 In DKG, 32, referring to an earlier English translation of part of Bavinck’s DogmaticsThe Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1951).

41 This is certainly unintentional, of course. But it illustrates the danger of being dogmatic about topics outside of one’s specialization.

42 Still a further dimension of skepticism appears on 131, where Clark claims that “properly speaking, God does not have attributes.” So it appears that when it comes to divine attributes we know neither the what nor the that. We don’t know what attributes God has, and we don’t know that he has them, for in a “proper” sense he doesn’t have any. We seem here to be in the depths of ignorance. But on the other hand, how does Clark learn how to speak “properly?” Where does his knowledge of proper speech come from? Did Clark mean to say, perhaps, that this speech is only proper with the qualification “as it were?” Or is he shifting here to another level of rationalism: we can’t know if God has attributes, but we can know that properly he doesn’t have any? As I said earlier, Clark’s theology is worse than his history, and his philosophy is worst of all.

A further note: He denies that God has attributes based on Deut. 6:4, which he claims asserts divine simplicity, which in turn is incompatible with God’s having multiple attributes. I don’t believe that Deut. 6:4 teaches divine simplicity in any technical theological sense. I do believe in divine simplicity, on the basis of a different sort of argument (see DG, 225-230). And I don’t believe that God’s simplicity, rightly understood, rules out his having a multiplicity of attributes.

43 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, Fourth edition (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 30. In a note, editor Scott Oliphint says, “this point is central to Van Til’s approach.”

44 If of course we are talking, not about individual assertions, but of longer discussions, it is possible for a discussion to be “somewhat false,” meaning that some of its claims are true and others false. But Clark is talking about all “human speech about God,” which presumably includes individual statements as well as longer discussions.

45 My article, “God and Biblical Language,” responds to the argument that God cannot reveal himself infallibly because he is too transcendent to be spoken of truthfully in human language. That article will be republished as an Appendix in my forthcoming Doctrine of the Word of God and is now available at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1974BiblicalLanguage.html. I think the arguments of the article also bear on Clark’s skeptical formulation. In many places I have argued that the concept of divine transcendence presupposed in this type of formulation is false and unbiblical. See, for example, the discussions of the rectangular diagram in DKG, 14, and DCL, 41-49. When Scripture speaks of God being high, exalted, above us, it does not imply that God is too far above us for us to speak truly of himself in our language. Rather, it means that he is king, the one in control of our world, who speaks to creatures with supreme (and therefore infallible) authority. The notion that God’s transcendence keeps him from speaking truly to creatures is an idea that comes from Greek philosophy, taken up in our time especially by neo-orthodox and liberal theologians. In Scripture, God’s transcendence, precisely equips him to speak to us with ultimate truth.

46 On blogs, Clark has claimed that I deny this distinction, because I haven’t used this terminology. That is absolutely untrue. See the elaborate discussion in DKG 18-40 of the relationship between God’s thoughts and ours, also the discussions of analogical knowledge and the Clarkcontroversy, chapters 7 and 8 of my Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995). There I maintain emphatically that God’s thoughts in all areas (including theology) are different from ours. His are original, ours derivative. His is the original interpretation of all things, ours only a reinterpretation of his interpretation. Our thoughts are at best analogous to his. My concept of analogy is not, of course, that of Aquinas, nor that of Clark which we have recently discussed. It is Van Til’s concept, that our mind is designed to “think God’s thoughts after him,’ i.e. to think in submission to God’s revelation. I have not used the archetypal/ectypal terminology, but I have no objection to it. I avoid it, because I address modern readers who are not experts in historical vocabulary, and I see no need to burden them with terminology that is obscure to them, when the same thing can be said in contemporary language.

47 Even the Roman church did not seek to govern the questions its theologians could pursue.

48 Some of my readers will be amused that I find it necessary to distinguish three quests rather than two. QIRC is normative; QIRS is situational, and QIRE is existential.

49 The Westminster Standards, with proof texts, cover 236 pages in my desk edition, which has fairly fine print. This volume does not include the Westminster Directory of Worship, to which Clark would like to see Presbyterians subscribe, nor does it contain the “three forms of unity,’ the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort.

50 I argue this position in Evangelical Reunion, available at www.frame-poythress.org.

51 Ironically, this is very similar to the Baptist position that membership is limited to those who can make an intelligent profession of faith. But it demands far more of would-be-communicants than Baptists require.

52 Most all analysts of evangelicalism add that the movement supports traditional Protestant doctrines of Jesus’ virgin birth and miracles, substitutionary atonement and resurrection. Clark has little to say about this high degree of doctrinal unity.

53 In my essay, “A Fresh Look at the Regulative Principle,” http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/RegulativePrinciple.htm, I argue that my position is in agreement with the Westminster Confession, though not with early Reformed tradition. I do take exception to some elements of the Westminster Larger Catechism, answer 109. For my most recent formulation, see DCL, 450-486.

54 To day nothing about his argument that I discussed earlier, to the effect that all language about God has “a certain degree of falseness.’ I argued that if Clark was right about this, the Bible could not be inerrant.

55 Nor does this approach compromise the liberty of the Christian, as Clark alleges on 243. The Christian is free from any command except God’s.

56 Phillipsburg: P&R, 1996, 123-134.

57 For my analysis, see DCL, 513-574.

58 Did anyone beside me notice how little there is about Jesus in Clark’s book?

59 In my debate with Darryl Hart over the regulative principle, http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1998HartDebate.htm, toward the end, I list ten things I think Reformed people can learn from non-Reformed Christians.

60 I make this argument at greater length in Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), available at www.frame-poythress.org.