The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice”

with 14 comments

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

P&R, 2009 (234pp, pbk)

In Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), R. Scott Clark seeks to establish himself as the bouncer on the door of the Reformed Club: if your confession isn’t down, you’re not coming in. With crisp clarity, and a confidence that borders on abrasiveness, Clark makes his case: the concept of being “Reformed” is firmly situated in time and space and documentation (the Three Forms of Unity – the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort – together with the Westminster Confession and its Catechisms), and Geneva is its high-water mark. Clark contends that, outside of this tradition, Western Christianity has succumbed to two false pursuits: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (seeking epistemic and moral certainty on questions in which it is neither desirable nor attainable, seen, for example, in the desire to make 6/24 creation a boundary marker and the pursuit of theonomy) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (the desire for an unmediated encounter with God apart from the use of ordinary means, epitomised in something like Finneyism but encompassing Jonathan Edwards and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Positively, Clark sets out his pursuit of a genuine Reformed identity in such matters as a right distinction between the Creator and his creatures, a genuine, strict and carefully-defined confessionalism, holding to the Lord’s day Sabbath, and a strict application of the regulative principle of worship, understood in a limited historical context. Also interesting is that the kind of high Presbyterianism espoused by Dr Clark sometimes bears more than a passing resemblance to the position of the Federal Visionistas, and – while I have no particular delight in that grouping – it may be that one of the reasons for the cutting antagonism (in this and other forums) between Clark and friends on the one hand and proponents of the FV on the other is precisely because the boundary between the two is quite a low one, and they are fighting over much of the same territory. These boundaries and territories need to be aggressively maintained to prevent a blurring of identities that neither party would countenance. Dr Clark would find his position easier to defend if he put more clear Scriptural water between the two groups.

As our author lays down his law, many believers may be surprised to discover that they are not Reformed. Baptists are by their very nature infra dig. Congregationalists have abandoned proper polity (John Owen, I think, somehow scrapes through by virtue of being John Owen). Some Presbyterians will be afforded the honour, but only if they attain to the Genevan standard (to be honest, by the time Genevan gowns were mentioned I was struggling to discern whether or not Dr Clark was joking). Are you persuaded that, while there is a normative core of Christian truth and experience, there are occasions in which they are known and felt in more unusual degree, and do you long for more of it? You may be more than a little quirky (perhaps, QIREy), and therefore beyond the pale.

And yet, for all this, in reading through the book many will find much with which to agree, often strongly. For example, some of Clark’s defence of the Lord’s day and the regulative principle of worship is cogent and helpful. Confessional Christians of different stripes might applaud his desire to see those confessions properly confessed, together with his readiness to accept that – under the proper circumstances – fine-tuning an existing confession or producing a new one may be required.

All in all, this not an easy book to categorise. Dr Clark’s tone can be aggressive to the point of caustic, shifting quickly through the gears from helpfully distinctive to unnecessarily antagonistic. Always incisive, whether or not you consider the book essentially divisive or unifying probably depends on where you sit in terms of Clark’s categories, for Dr Clark seeks to leave no middle ground.

Is Clark right to be concerned about the loose and open-ended employment of the word “Reformed”? I think so. Is he right to look at the historical realities in order to address the nature of the beast? To a degree, yes. Are predestinarian convictions the sole mark of a Reformed Christian? No, there is much more to it than that, and Dr Clark is right to point that out – issues of ecclesiology, pneumatology, and doxology also enter the mix.

At the same time, I am not persuaded that Dr Clark’s Reformed absolutism (perhaps, supremacism) is the answer. His thesis is primarily historical, and one could suggest that he is guilty of as much arbitrariness in his arguments as are those against whom he argues. Certainly he has as much of a tendency as those he stands against to make assumptions grounded in his own convictions and experiences. Even if we accept that Geneva has some sort of historical primacy in terms of defining what it means to be Reformed, the notion that a return to Geneva would invariably be progress and could never be regress is never addressed. Others would argue, both from Scripture and history, that some of the principles applied in Geneva needed to be further applied, and in additional areas, and that this continuing work of reform has as much right to claim the notion of being “Reformed” as any others, and perhaps more so. There are more streams that flow from the Reformed fountain than Clark is willing to admit, and there are more nuances within the camp of the genuinely Reformed than Clark will acknowledge – the creature is simply not as monolithic as Dr Clark is saying it is, or perhaps would like to have it. By making the matter of Reformed identity an all-or-nothing issue, there is perhaps a risk of many saying, “Fine – nothing!” and walking away without receiving any of the good things on offer.

Genuinely polemical, most readers will be much stimulated, and many will be significantly provoked. Dr Clark has set himself up as the arbiter of what it means to be Reformed. Leaving us in no doubt what he thinks and why he thinks it, Clark makes a fairly brutal gatekeeper. This is a book which demands engagement, requiring an intelligent understanding of the issues, a degree of conviction in the response, and a historical sense not only of the “period of orthodoxy” that Clark identifies, but also of the streams that flow out of it. I would also suggest that a Spirit-governed heart and tongue would help to keep any respondents from being sucked into a vituperative war of words. I would imagine that Dr Clark is not as high-minded and dismissive in person as he can appear on the page of the book and the post of the blog, and he should be answered not only with a serious and sensitive attention to his historical nous and well-argued thesis but also in the spirit which he doubtless intends to manifest, but which is not always evident in his writing.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 26 July 2010 at 17:27

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with , ,

14 Responses

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  1. I was speaking to a friend recently who told me you have a reputation for strongly-worded reviews.

    In this case you have met a tome worthy of strong words! I am still to read it but have followed the Heidelblog and other discussions for a long time.

    As for the whole ‘you’re not reformed’ thing – I don’t care and I go by ‘Particular Baptist’ anyway ;-)

    Jonathan Hunt

    Monday 26 July 2010 at 22:44

    • I had no idea I had such a reputation, nor that I am entitled to it (whether as compliment or otherwise). I seek to be gracious, honest, and direct. As I know you would agree, it would surely be wrong to recommend something that did not bear the weight of a recommendation, just as it would be equally wrong to condemn something merely because of its provenance, for example. I try to produce a critical review, in the best sense of the phrase, genuinely interacting with each book, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and giving a fair assessment that helps potential readers decide whether of not they should invest in a book, and – if so – why, and what to look out for (for good or ill).

      As for being a ‘Particular Baptist’ – a splendid and underused designation that I am quite willing to embrace. My response to Dr Clark is not grounded in pique at being denied a word (I think his concerns about its casual use hold some water), although I admit to being slightly, and I believe legitimately, piqued.

      PS If any readers believe that I overstep the mark in terms of “strongly-worded reviews” then please let me know, or at least take issue with the particular review.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 27 July 2010 at 08:40

  2. Good review. Dr. Clark is a mixed bag. I appreciate a good deal of his work, but I’m vexed at his hobby-horse narrowness. I think, for example, 6-day creation and some variety of theonomy (the Old-New Error, don’t you know?) is very close to the Reformed standards, but those things CANNOT be marks of what it is to be “Reformed,” as Clark and the Westminster boys don’t hold to them. It’s a bit too subjective.

    In any event, thanks for the review!

    Tim Prussic

    Tuesday 27 July 2010 at 03:54

  3. What I like about your reviews Jeremy is that you don’t do that thing of saying that each and every book is the best eva, read it now and buy one for each of your friends. And your pastor.

    So if something has a weakness, it’s only right to mention it. That way, it doesn’t devalue the currency. (Just the other week I bought a book which was endorsed in glowing terms by all sorts of big names and felt a wee bit let down when it arrived.)

    For this particular book I’m not sure I can have caught the same tones as you – forthright, unapologetic, even provocative, maybe even brutal, but I wasn’t finding it especially abrasive or caustic. I don’t really understand the big drive to exclude baptists, find it perplexing and unnecessary, and think that RSC’s case there is massively overstated (although perhaps on his blog more, compared to the book?). But the call to divert attention away from the periphery (6 days) to the core truths of the gospel (hold the truths of the confession in the same proportion as the confession), the call to be serious about what it means to subscribe to a confession, the call to bring the ordained means of grace back into the centre of the Christian life – all these were extremely well argued and make the book an extremely valuable contribution.

    And with the appropriate modifications for baptism, I think that defining Reformed according to the historic Reformed confessions, as RSC is trying to do, is actually the only way to do it *without* subjectivity.


    Tuesday 27 July 2010 at 10:33

    • Thanks, Cath: I have tried to be fair here, also, because I think many of RSC’s insights are good ones. I may be transposing my exposure to his blog into the review, but I found that the tone was fairly constant. As a confessional Baptist, I think he had much to say that was helpful, and I have much sympathy with the conviction that ‘being Reformed’ has more to it than mere predestinarianism. From previous discussions, I think we have similar concerns about his take on QIRE. I am glad that you have found the book so helpful: it can be so precisely because it is clear and to the point. At the same time, and as we have also discussed before, when some of those who are discovering the Reformed universe (multiverse?) for the first time ask “What more?”, I think that the tone we adopt in conversing and critiquing now will either open or shut the door through which an answer might then be given. I think Dr Clark is too quickly and caustically dismissive at times, but that is not something which he only must guard against, nor is it something that I invariably avoid. Faithful surgeons with sharp knives can still wear gracious smiles.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 27 July 2010 at 11:56

  4. […] Vision movement but written thousands of words here, in a booklet, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, he finds RRC helpful, at least in some […]

    • The title of Dr Clark’s post still makes me laugh. If “strangely” means “not as much as I would like” or if “attracted” means “disagreeing with certain emphases of” then maybe, but otherwise not.

      Jeremy Walker

      Saturday 24 December 2011 at 09:29

  5. The closeness of Scott Clark to FVism is this: FVists are ecclesiastical authoritarians and Scott is a confessional authoritarian. He’s QIRCy about confessions, but throws Genesis under the bus.

    Vern Crisler

    Friday 30 July 2010 at 17:17

    • Wrong, Vern. He throws Vern’s interpretation of Genesis under the bus.


      Friday 30 July 2010 at 18:11

      • Daryl, if interpretation is so up in the air, as you seem to imply, maybe the idea that Jesus rose from the dead is just another interpretation.

        Vern Crisler

        Friday 30 July 2010 at 18:53

        • Vern, you’re not waffling on the resurrection, are you? “Maybe”?


          Saturday 31 July 2010 at 03:31

          • I may be wrong, but this thread feels like we have broken into a long and continuing and somewhat personal argument. If there is something substantive to be said, gentlemen, please feel free to say it, but if this is going to be personal sniping that no-one else understands, please find another forum.

            For further help, see the code of conduct.

            Jeremy Walker

            Saturday 31 July 2010 at 08:47

  6. Jeremy, I’m pinning a lot of hope on the possibility that RRC is speaking to a different context than UK readers recognise.

    Eg, it does not come as a shock to Scottish Presbyterians who subscribe (quia) to the Westminster Confession to discover that infant baptism is a must, unlike what their English Baptist friends think. However, RRC seems to be written for an intended audience of American recovering Evangelicals, and perhaps this is something they need to be told. (I assume the situation over there must be something like that, otherwise what would be the point.)

    Further, Scottish Presbyterians recognise that English Baptists are not Anabaptists. They also, I would assume, imagine that when the Confession speaks of the sin of “neglecting” the ordinance, the target was people who couldn’t be bothered applying for baptism, not so much anyone who conscientiously held to a different understanding of the proper subjects of baptism.

    I didn’t find the book itself to share the tone of some of the posts or perhaps especially the comments on the Heidelblog, which are amazingly insulting to people who should be dear friends even when they take a different view of this ordinance. If there were “like” buttons on those discussions, the Baptists would get my likes all the time. The point no doubt needs to be made, but the persistent harping on this one note, with the eye-watering insensitivity of some of the comments, is frankly incomprehensible. It also seriously detracts from the other, extremely worthwhile, things that RRC and the HB have to say.

    I speak, obviously, as a Scottish Presbyterian.


    Friday 30 July 2010 at 19:03

  7. I’m not sure whether anyone has noticed this yet on the thread, but the Apostles’ Creed does not in fact refer to baptism, as Dr Clark claims in the page linked to above.

    More constructively, I am familiar with some of the historically grounded attempts to deny that Baptists can be “Reformed,” despite their (that is, our!) sometimes claiming the name. Some of the best historical scholarship does let Baptists join the club: it is interesting to note that Richard Muller includes John Gill among the post-reformation Reformed dogmatists (eg PRRD i. 32, second ed).

    More generally, I wonder why those defending infant baptism don’t often want to deny the tag “Baptist” to “Baptists.” Doesn’t the logic of Dr Clark’s comments require Reformed infant baptist believers to recover (and thereby deny to the “opposition”) the term “Baptist” as much as the term “Reformed”?

    (I write as a rather strict 1689 type.)

    Crawford Gribben

    Saturday 7 August 2010 at 12:41

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