After a hiatus of a few days where I’ve been pre-occupied with other matters I’ve returned to reviewing Recovering the Reformed Confession by Dr. R. Scott Clark.
Chapter Six is entitled, “The Joy of Being Confessional.” It is an apologetic for those exploring reformed theology and the broader reformed tradition. Clark provides five solid reasons why those who might only embrace reformed soteriology ought to go farther and become reformed in a confessional sense. The chapter is pretty straightforward not requiring much additional comment.
Chapter Seven, entitled, “Recovering Reformed Worship” is another story altogether. Hands down it is the longest chapter in the book and perhaps the most controversial. The chapter begins on an ominous note with the acknowledgement that in general, worship is in trouble. This includes the worship that goes on in reformed churches. Clark zeroes in on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) that ought to govern our worship practices: “(I)n stated Lord’s Day services, God may be worshiped only as he has commanded and in not other ways” (p. 228). Behind this is the view of Zacharias Ursinus who argued in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism that we are not free to improvise in worship but that we are bound to conduct it according to God’s commands. Clark notes that this view is largely uncontested in the reformed tradition though in his opinion it is not always faithfully followed today.
At stake in all of this is the application of ‘sola scriptura’ (Scripture alone) to the topic of worship. Following Ursinus and his exposition of the 2nd Commandment in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Assembly which drafted the Directory of Public Worship (DPW) in 1644, Clark points to these sources to prove that at its earliest stage the reformed tradition was unanimous about what should be sung in worship: God’s Word. Thus, the early reformed tradition was marked by the singing of psalms without instrumental accompaniment. He notes that this practice was uniform in the various reformed churches until Isaac Watts began paraphrasing psalms and eventually writing hymns (p. 251). In America, Presbyterians came under the influence of revivalism and by the 1830s hymns and hymnals were being introduced in many churches. Clark’s thesis is that reformed churches need to recapture this earlier practice albeit with a few modifications (sing Scripture from the New Testament as well as the Old and allow the use of instruments). This history is largely unknown among today’s reformed churches.
One weakness in this chapter is that the basis of his argument is more assumed than proven. Sure, Ursinus addressed the 2nd Commandment but aren’t there other passages of Scripture that could be brought to bear? Were there solid exegetical arguments from Scripture that led the early reformed tradition to these conclusions on the Regulative Principle of Worship? I’d like to see them. Just to assert that this was the practice of Calvin, Ursinus, and others, and therefore must be our practice begs the question. To hear that American Presbyterians have had wrong for nearly 200 years is truly depressing. As one who was not raised Protestant I thought I was doing well to be familiar with the Trinity Hymnal and using it to introduce the singing of psalms to my congregation. In light of this chapter, it truly feels as if the goal-posts have been moved.
Clark is well aware that his perspective is in the minority even in his own denomination. Additionally, many confessional folks do not agree with his interpretation of the early reformed tradition concerning worship. That said, there is much to reflect on in this chapter. Based on the voluminous footnotes there are many works I need to read to gain a fuller perspective of reformed worship. I hope that others will do the same and not just brush off his thoughts as idealistic and unattainable.