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