Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Semper reformanda

Paul Manata has done us a service by reviewing Scott Clark’s new book:


I’ll venture a few comments of my own. These are not really comments on his review, per se. Rather, they’re comments on some of Clark’s material, which he cited or summarized.

If one thinks the particular understanding of Scripture found in the confessions is wrong, then Clark says, taking John Murray as inspiration, “sola Scriptura does not authorize him to argue against the confession from within the church. Rather ‘his resort in such a case must be to renounce subscription and with such renunciation the privileges incident to it. Then he may proceed to expose the falsity of the creedal position in light of Scripture. In a true sense, therefore, the creed, even in a reformed church, has regulative authority’” (p. 11).

i) I’m not sure I agree with this. It ought to be possible, up to a point, to challenge a system from within. To treat the system as so ridge that it’s immune to any internal challenge is too all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it. The system can never bend, only break. Surely we can’t treat every detail of the system as so integral to the system as a whole that any revision to any systemic detail requires us to chuck the entire system out the window.

For example, when John Murray wrote an article on the Westminster Confession, he was largely commendatory—yet he didn’t hesitate to suggest areas where the Confessional formulations could be improved.

Cf. “The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Collected Writings of John Murray, 4:241-63.

ii) I’d add that the Reformed confessions are consensus documents. They paper over a lot of disagreements. 16-17C Reformed theology is not conterminous with 16-17C Reformed confessions.

iii) What I would say is this:

a) You shouldn’t become a Reformed elder or Reformed seminary prof. if you have a fundamental disagreement with the system. And you shouldn’t become one of the above under false pretenses.

b) In principle, you could declare your disagreement at the outset, but I think it’s best not to join an organization if you’re fundamentally at odds with that organization.

c) But suppose you change your mind after you join? Then what? Let’s say you come to the view that the new perspective on Paul is correct.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with respectfully suggesting that traditional Reformed theology needs to be revised at that point to bring it more in line with Scripture. (Keep in mind that I, myself, am hostile to the new perspective on Paul.)

You shouldn’t have to resign your position (elder, prof.) in advance. You can submit your proposed revision for the evaluation of your peers or superiors.

d) However, just as you have a right to change your mind, they have a right to hold you to the terms of your membership. You shouldn’t put them on the defensive and attack them for upholding their traditions. They hired you or ordained you with a prior understanding of what you stood for. You went along with that at the time.

And if you can’t persuade them, you should then resign. You shouldn’t force them to conduct a heresy trial, then appeal the verdict, and so on and so forth. You shouldn’t try to destroy the system from within. That’s not an honorable reaction.

Clark begins by taking Frame to task for his claim in the paper In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism that Clark characterizes as Frame “affirming that there are extra biblical data for which the Christian must account in reading Scripture, but also denying that there is any such thing as extra biblical knowledge (p.22). But here I think Clark doesn’t understand Frame.

I think the main point Frame is trying to make here is that, if there were no God or divine revelation, there would be no obligation to respect the truth.

A godless world might be so grim that I'd prefer a beautiful illusion to the truth. And, under that scenario, I have no epistemic duty to prefer a grim truth to a beautiful illusion.

Believing the truth is only a virtue if there are objective moral norms. Believing the truth might still be useful, but it wouldn't be virtuous.

The Reformed understanding of Scripture, set down in the Reformed confessions, was not a theological de novo then, but rather respected tradition, like the exegesis of the early fathers, enough to make precise and elaborate its understanding in communication with them - making its views more ex novo. Therefore, “if we are to follow the classic Reformed pattern, we too must become scholars of the fathers and even of the medieval theologians, who established much of the Christian theological vocabulary and intellectual categories in which both the Reformers and the post-Reformation theologians did their work” (p.16).

i) That depends on who the “we” is. It’s fine to have Reformed scholars who are patrologists or medievalists. But that’s not the job of a modern exegete. That shouldn’t be their point of reference.

ii) Moreover, we have resources that our Reformed forefathers didn’t have. For example, Biblical archeology didn’t exist back then. So they were more dependent on patristic exegesis than we are.

iii) Furthermore, their appeal to the church fathers and scholastic theologians was, in part, an apologetic move. A way of showing that they were truer to tradition than the Catholic church.

But that has more to do with polemical theology than exegetical theology.

From here, Clark finds that a cause for either the rejection of Reformed confessional teachings, or an elevation of non-confessional teaching to the status “Reformed,” is due to a kind of narcissism - all to characteristic of our contemporary, rugged individualistic American society of consumers. Clark says this reasoning goes something like this: “I am Reformed. I think p, and therefore p must be Reformed” (p.18). Of course another cause may well be that some people just think some things in the confessions are unbiblical. They might think, “Unless I am convinced by reason or Scripture, here I stand.” And they may have come to these conclusions in light on “conversation” with a broader Christian community. Today we’re in an age of booming Christian book sales. New commentaries seem to come out every week. Many of today’s laymen are more educated than their pastors. Indeed, even than some seminary profs! But Clark’s point that we should not claim we’re “Reformed” follows if he’s correct that the Reformed confessions are definitional of what it means to be Reformed (as well as those reformed theologians who he endorses).

I think that Clark is simplistic here:

i) It’s true that individuals have no right to unilaterally redefine Reformed identity, for Reformed identity is a corporate identity. Many individuals have been involved in formulating Reformed theology.

ii) We should recognize that 16-17C Calvinism is a genuine expression of Reformed theology. At it merits a respectful hearing.

iii) At the same time, there’s no reason to freeze Reformed theology at a particular epoch, making the 17C the cutoff date. For corporate identity can also change over time.

One really can’t use history to fix identity, for history is fluid. There are other factors in Reformed identity besides historical identity. For one thing, I hope our theology is scriptural. Shouldn’t that be the bottom line? There’s also an inner logic to much of Reformed theology.

In the end, there’s no substitute for truth. Truth is the only criterion that counts. If our identity is at variance with the truth, then so much the worse for our identity. Our fidelity to sola scriptura must be a living commitment, not a perfunctory buzzword.

Clark does a good job showing that the confessions are not attempting to demand a literal, 6-day creation view on its subscribers. Rather, "the intent of the divines was to preclude (what they perceived to be) Augustine's nominalist view of the days of Genesis 1 as a literary device without any genuine connection to the acts of creation itself" (p.49).

I think that’s questionable. Even the OPC had to admit “it is widely agreed that most of the Westminster Divines apparently held to a view that the creation days were days of ordinary length” (2749-50).


And the Westminster Divines could exclude the patristic doctrine of instantaneous creation without using such a chronologically specific phrase (“space of six days”).

So I think that, at this point, Clark is guilty of special pleading. He wants to treat the Reformed confessions as definitive for Reformed identity where they happen to coincide with his own views.

But, as a 21C American, he does see certain issues differently than they did. So he’s exempting his own departures from 16-17C orthodoxy.

I am also convinced that the confessions did not intend to advocate for something as specific as, say, Bahnsen’s version of theonomy. But, Clark does note that the early confession, and many 16th and 17th century Reformed, were “theocratic” in their outlook. Clark claims that “It is a historical fact that when our confession was formed Christendom and the righteousness of theocracy (the civil enforcement of the first table of the Decalogue) were assumed. Theocracy, however, is not theonomy…” (p.62).

Even assuming that this is a valid distinction, it still marks a break with the past. At this juncture, the 16-17C confessions cease to be definitive for contemporary Reformed identity.

So, once again, I think that Clark is guilty of special pleading. Historical identity is an insufficient anchor.

As a modern American, Clark, and some of his colleagues, have undergone more change than some of them are prepared to admit. They’re more conditioned by their own place and time (not to mention the influence of Meredith Kline) than some of them are letting on.

Take the Puritan view of worship, which was codified in the Westminster Standards. Let’s remember that, historically, the Westminster Standards include the Directory of Public Worship:


Does Clark, or his colleagues, continue to use the Westminster Directory as their blueprint? I don’t think so.

So I’d like to see more honesty on their part. Clark is too much like the guy who, as soon as he squeezes through the entrance, slams the door behind the next guy in line.

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