Last month, while convalescing after a brief hospital stay, I began reading Recovering the Reformed Confession by Dr. R. Scott Clark. He teaches church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary in Southern California. This is part of one of several posts that I will make on this subject. In this post I will limit my comments to Chapter One.
The book opens with a question: “What ever happened to reformed theology, piety and practice?” The author carefully defines the word, ‘reformed’, in terms that are broader and deeper than is commonly understood today: “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” (p. 3). Those documents are the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort) along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Closely related to these documents are the writings of those who have understood and faithfully expounded those confessions: Calvin, Ursinus, Owen, Turretin, Hodge, Berkhof, Machen, etc. And flowing from those documents is a settled tradition of piety and practice that isn’t always followed today.
What follows this introduction is a historical survey showing how the term ‘reformed’ has been applied in ways not consistent with this basic definition. Clark begins by navigating his way through the debates of interpreting Scripture in light of tradition (some argue that the reformed confessions are an impediment to interpreting Scripture). He cites Heiko Oberman and Richard Muller to show how the reformed tradition avoids the error of The Council of Trent which allows the interpretation of Scripture to be controlled by its own tradition. Clark, following Machen, argues that the confessions do not prevent doctrinal progress because we do not place the confessions above the Scriptures.
In light of this Clark mentions two modern foes to confessional Protestantism: Biblicism and Pietism. Biblicism is the attempt to understand Scripture apart from creeds and confessions. It uses the same terminology but assigns different definitions to those terms. It often reads Scripture “in isolation from the Christian tradition” (p. 19). Pietism is an attempt to have biblical faith without systematic theology (i.e. creeds and confessions). Both movements intentionally read Scripture without the benefit of the insights of the historical church. Both treat the Bible as if it fell from the sky yesterday and they were the first to discover it. One need not look far to see both movements alive and well in the modern evangelical church. Moreover, both movements have made significant inroads into the reformed church.
Clark also addresses those who pit Calvin against Calvinism by arguing that Calvin’s followers didn’t really understand the man and his theology. He shows how men like John Frame and Cornelius Van Til have contributed to this controversy either intentionally or unintentionally. Some might find fault with Clark at this point but one should note that he is not alone in these conclusions.
One of the strengths of Clark’s book are his voluminous footnotes: in chapter one there are more than 125 footnotes! That alone gives the work credibility for it shows that he has read widely and deeply. Admittedly, Chapter One is a high level overview and might be hard for some to follow. However, that should not serve as an excuse to avoid the book, especially for any reformed minister.
More posts to follow…