Saturday, February 6, 2010

Recovering the Reformed Confession, Part V

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.


R. Scott Clark said...

Thanks for this Dave. As you noted, this was a large chapter as is just sketching the history of Reforemed worship. I did give some biblical arguments for the traditional, confessional view. I did also give a decent breadcrumb trail in the footnotes for further study. I especially recommend John Murray's study/minority report.

As to the history, there's no question that the original reformers worshipped without instruments and sang only God's Word in response to God's Word. So, the question is whether the original understanding was correct? If not, where is the case that they were wrong?

I understand that it's a challenge. You're right, even those who are "conservative" have a ways to go to recover the Reformed confession of worship. The biblical example of Josiah is encouraging here.


Dave Sarafolean said...


Thanks for the breadcrumbs - lot's to figure out on this topic.

Based on where I studied and got my MDiv. I'm sure that you can pretty much discern what I was taught about our tradition. As you noted, The Directory for Public Worship, is merely advisory in the PCA. Few have read it and fewer are guided by it. It's no wonder our church is in the shape that it is in.

I'm grateful for your research and look forward to further study on this topic.

Kaitiaki said...

Dave, and Scott,

If I may, I would like to be a part of your discussions on this subject. I was brought up a Presbyterian in New Zealand and had never heard of the Directory for Public Worship (though I left as a teenager to join the Navy).

When I finally joined the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (at 25) I joined an exclusively psalm-singing congregation initially being unaware that there were other opinions in the denomination. It was then I discovered the regulative principle and the basis for its application to worship (in the two sons of Aaaron, Nadab and Abihu, who died after bringing "strange" incense before the Lord. That, and the catechism's explanation of the second commandment, convinced me and it informed my practice when I later became a minister.

I am happy to join your discussion here (where it may be a help to other readers) or by email if you prefer.

Dave Sarafolean said...


Thanks for your comment.

I'm not necessarily disagreeing with Dr. Clark on this topic -- I need to follow the 'breadcrumbs' that he has left in the footnotes.

Part of the challenge of implementing his vision has to do with the nature of the church as it exists today. Ever increasing numbers of churches have gotten rid of hymnals in favor of choruses on a screen. On top of that is the demographic of where one lives.

In my part of Michigan reformed theology is not well-known or embraced (it is chiefly Catholic and Lutheran). Thus, the challenge of planting a distinctively reformed church (with hymns and psalms) is pretty difficult. To plant a church that only sings Scripture (per RRC) increases the difficulty exponentially. Put differently, I'd have no problem doubling my congregation if we'd lighten up our worship with a band, projector and choruses.

I'm not arguing for pragmatism as much as for survival. Had we tried to start a church based on Clark's recommendations we would have failed long ago -- there are far too few people who understand that view or are willing to stick around and learn that view. That said, given my current congregation, we can begin to move in that direction. Time will tell how far we will go.

Kaitiaki said...


I understand what you mean about Reformed theology not being well known in this part of Michigan. I am a little north of you (in Standish), without transport. Faced with attending a Church that does not follow the Regulative Principle in worship, but where the minister does at least base his sermons on the text of the Bible, it becomes a case of applying the principle personally. That can be difficult especially if one wishes to avoid becoming judgmental in attitude.

There is a real difficulty in trying to show the principles involved in biblical worship and (at the same time) encourage those who are in your situation or in mine. We at least know the Reformed Faith and the Churches in which we worship give assent to a soteriologically Reformed confession.

How much more difficult it must be as a theologically Reformed minister of a congregation that has neither the confessional background nor a grasp of thoroughly biblical teaching. I am sure that, in such situations, the minister must feel as if he has no idea of where to begin. It is easy to say in such situations: "Worship should be honoring to God ..." and move to introduce the regulative principle of worship. Maybe that is true. But we do live in the real world and we need to be sure those who gather for worship have embraced the Reformed soteriology before we tackle the way we worship. In that case, surely all we can do is encourage one another to stand firm and speak a word in season where opportunity is given.

Does that sound fair to you?

Dave Sarafolean said...


Yes, I think that you are right on. We began our church with an emphasis on reverence for God in worship. With that established we began to teach about the Regulative Principle of Worship to our mixed group as defined by the PCA (note this is not quite the same application as R. Scott Clark's). I'm happy to report that we are doing pretty well bucking the trends of the contemporary evangelical church.

Standish isn't that far away. We'll have to meet sometime. I'll try to bring some articles that might be of assistance.