As I continue my review of Recovering the Reformed Confession I will cover chapters 4 & 5 in this article. They are entitled, Recovering a Reformed Identity, I & II. These are the first two chapters of the section entitled, The Recovery (the first section chronicled the loss of reformed piety and practice).
Chapter 4 is devoted to the categorical distinction between God and man: i.e. the distance between God and man and the corresponding difficulty of communication between the two. This has been lost in many of today’s reformed churches. This distinction was mentioned earlier in RRC (chapter 2, The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty) but finds fuller discussion here. Clark’s thesis is that much of the reformed community fails to operate from the perspective that man is God’s analogue and that God speaks to man via analogy. Central to his thesis is Deuteronomy 29:29 (The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever) and Isaiah 55:8-9 (God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not His). Thus, QIRC reigns: “This kind of rationalism…says that we can have certainty only by knowing something that God knows, the way he knows it. If effect, we must, if only temporarily, become the Creator” (p. 133).” Again, we must remember that God’s knowledge is archetypal while man’s knowledge is ectypal (derived, revealed).
Of particular value is Clark’s historical overview beginning with Aquinas and running through Berkhof, John Murray and Cornelius Van Til, on this topic. Aquinas used the analogue/analogy language but assigned a different meaning to the terms than did Luther and Calvin. Lutherans, with their unique doctrine of Christ’s humanity, assign archetypal knowledge to Christ’s humanity, thus parting company with the reformed at this point. While the reformed confessions retained the categorical distinction as did men like John Owen, it has been downhill ever since. Sadly, Clark shows such reformed stalwarts as Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and John Murray and either treat the topic with brief attention or don’t mention it all. Fortunately it was ‘recovered’ by men like Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til.
At stake in all of this is how we should expect God to relate to us. Clark summarizes nicely with these words: “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 the administration of the sacraments” (p. 151). God has chosen to make Himself known through his Son and that is abundantly clear from Jesus’ rebuke to Philip: “He who has seen me as seen the Father” (John 14:9). In other words, if we want to see the Father we must look at Jesus. This is at the heart of Luther’s Theology of the Cross. The reformed church must recover this categorical distinction and until it does it will fall prey to the theological fads of our day.
Chapter 5 deals with an entirely different matter that is vital to the health of the reformed church: subscribing to a theological confession. A confession of faith is a theological summary of what a particular community of believers in a certain place, think the Scriptures teach. To subscribe to a confession means giving assent, agreeing with, or confessing that something is accurate. For a minister it means taking vows to teach within the parameters of a given confession.
What follows is a detailed discussion of theological subscription and how it has played itself out in various reformed denominations. This discussion might be over the head of the average layman but for ministers in reformed churches this strikes at the heart of what is central and vital to the health of our congregations. What separates the URCNA from the CRC and the RCA? How they relate to the Three Forms of Unity. What accounts for the differences between the PCA, the EPC and PC-USA? How they related to the Westminster Standards. The core issue is what role to the confessions play in the life of the church? For those on the liberal end of things the confessions are historical relics. For those who are theological moderates, the confessions are advisory. For those who are termed conservative, the confessions are the boundary markers for what can or cannot be taught in the church.
That said, not all within the PCA, the OPC or the United Reformed Church of North America agree with what constitutes faithful subscription. Thus, a given presbytery or classis may grant certain exceptions to the confession or simply allow for more than one interpretation of a particular propositional statement. Complicating the matter is the topic of Clark’s third chapter, Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty, (QIRC): a given presbytery may refuse to grant a common exception granted elsewhere or it might become very dogmatic about a secondary issue (i.e. length of creation days). Thus, in the end the confession begins to resemble Swiss Cheese.
Clark proposes a bold solution: write a new confession of faith that will address the theological questions of our day while overcoming the antiquated language of earlier confessions. After all, the Westminster Standards are over 350 years old while the Three Forms of Unity are even older. All were crafted in a particular place and time to faithfully summarize the faith and deal with the theological issues of their day. Clark notes that there were multiple reformed confessions of faith drafted in the first one hundred years of the Reformation. Why? He writes, “They did so because that is that what Reformed churches did. They understood something that we have forgotten: the faith must be confessed anew in every generation and in every place, or it will be lost or deformed” (p. 184).
To me this statement captures well the tensions within my own denomination on a host of theological issues. While some in the PCA marvel at our church planting success and overall growth since our beginning in 1973, I see a gnawing hollowness to our success. Part of it is driven by our ‘good-faith subscription’ and part is driven by a loss of reformed piety and practice. The former is reflected in the variety of views on justification by faith alone and the role of women. The latter manifests itself in an increasing number of PCA churches that are broadly evangelical with the only reformed distinctive being their form of government.
Can a new confession be crafted? Certainly. Will it be drafted anytime soon? Probably not. In my own denomination there are many who will not tamper with the Westminster Standards in the least. Some are those who believe in strict subscription (no exceptions) while others are happy with the current arrangement of allowing exceptions that do not strike at the vitals of the reformed faith. Outside of these camps there are not enough people to carry the day.
This leaves me torn because I see my denomination slipping. In our rush to plant churches and reach the lost we are not stopping to ask if those sort of churches are worth planting. In many presbyteries ‘confessional’ churches find themselves outnumbered. Worse, sometimes a presbytery permits a ‘progressive’ church to be planted practically on top of a confessional church. Thus you have two churches in the same denomination ‘competing’ with one another being separated by just a couple of miles. While ‘good faith’ subscription, as practiced in the PCA sounds good, it is producing a schizophrenic denomination that is finding it increasingly difficult to speak with one voice on the confession, reformed worship, piety and practice.