Review: Recovering Reformed Confession

Whether intended or not, Dr Clark’s book can be focused around three themes: 1) a distinctively Reformed piety flows from a Reformed theology and this piety will be directly counter to the 2) Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and 3) The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The latter two are evident when people want to have a type of infallible knowledge beyond that which human beings are capable of (QIRC) and a religious experience that promises more of heaven than is possible in this present age (QIRE).

Dr Clark has an interesting chapter on confessional subscription and thoroughly summarizes the debates within conservative Reformdom. To be honest, I couldn’t follow it, though I suspect it raised an interesting point for Dr Clark: he wants to hold to a thorough and strict confessional subscription, yet he recognizes the he differs from the Confessions on the civil magistrate and creation.

He has a strong chapter on the Regulative Principle and convincingly argues for the singing of only inspired songs (not EP, though).

Analysis and Conclusion

Sometimes God does promise and give heaven

Clark’s larger argument is that we should be suspicious of those who claim that we should have spiritual experiences outside the divinely-established means of grace and preaching of the Word. Admittedly, this is a fair point. Clark’s antagonist is Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ). MLJ repeatedly urged for a “revival” to come, understanding revival as an experimental outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Clark, 79). Clark rebuts him, noting that MLJ is advocating Calvin’s doctrine without Calvin’s sacramental piety. Clark does admit, though, that MLJ never used “revival” to manipulate his own people (81).

Clark takes issue with Iain Murray’s distinction between “revival” and “revivalism.” In the first category would be Reformed evangelists like Edwards and Whitefield. In the latter category we have the horror of today’s evangelicalism. Clark accuses Murray of using providence to justify revivals he likes but ignoring providence on revivals he doesn’t like (81-82). Clark concludes his critique of Murray by asserting on Murray’s gloss what unites true Christianity is “experience, not doctrine” (82).

Clark does a good job in pointing out some weaknesses in individual Reformed evangelists and in some of the more inane happenings in the First Great Awakening. He also points out what many are now beginning to realize: Jonathan Edwards departed from the Reformed confession on a number of key philosophical points. Clark also establishes that Harry Stout’s narrative of Whitefield cannot be so easily dismissed.

There are some inconsistencies and factual errors in Clark’s analysis, though. Murray does not simply lump the Arminian and Calvinistic revivals in the same category. He is very critical of the Second Great Awakening towards its end. Further, Murray does not promote experience over doctrine as the basis of unity. Murray is specifically arguing, however, that the communions in North America shared a common, if somewhat broad, doctrinal agreement on soteriological concerns. I would probably side with Clark on this one, since Murray’s account downplays important ecclesial issues, but it is not the case that Murray simply compromised doctrinal agreement. Most importantly, however, is that Clark does not come to grips with Iain Murray’s distinction between revival and revivalism. The latter is not merely hoping for the Spirit of God to be poured out as an alternative to the means of grace. It is more properly seen as “whooping and hollering” until the decisions come. Revival, on the other hand, is when God sovereignly displays his power among his people in an unusual way. Further, Clark seems to grant that distinction with regard to MLJ (Clark, 81) but not with Murray.

I suspect MLJ overplayed his hand on the importance of revival. Clark is correct on one point: the church’s sanctification is through the means of grace and discipline. That is the established norm. I think I can also argue, though, that MLJ’s views can be modified and accommodate some of Clark’s concerns on this point. MLJ strongly argued “that the New Testament appeal to sanctification is always an appeal to the reason of the believing man” (Murray, The Fight of Faith, 173). Of course, one would need to supplement this statement with a discussion on the Lord’s Supper, but it is a good start.

While Clark is correct that MLJ probably doesn’t represent good Reformed ecclesiology, MLJ’s exegesis is not so easily dismissed. Perhaps MLJ’s understanding of the 1859 revival doesn’t rest on exegesis (with that I agree with Clark), but MLJ’s understanding of the nature of revival and even the continuation of spiritual gifts (and I know this is uncomfortable with many) does rest upon carefully-reasoned exegesis (cf. MLJ, Prove all Things, 32-33; Joy Unspeakable, p. 21, 23; The Sovereign Spirit, p. 26, 120, pp. 31-32). In any case, MLJ does encourage his congregation to delight in the day of small things and to be careful in seeking “phenomena.” That at least must be granted. I agree with Clark that MLJ was perhaps a bit too dismissive of anyone who disagreed with him. That was not helpful on the latter’s part.

I fear that Clark’s model of QIRE, while valuable, can be overused to filter out any contrary evidence. Further, it does not account for a lot of the Puritans’ experiences where they were in fact met with much of the Spirit of God. At this point if Clark dismisses them and uses Calvin’s praxis against them, then it is hard to see how he is not adopting some form of the Calvin vs. Calvinists scheme.

I have had some questions about Clark’s analysis. I think I have demonstrated that it is incomplete. I agree with his overall vision for the Reformed church’s sanctification through Word and Sacrament and that those who constantly seek revival downplay this. Further, I agree with all of his criticisms of Edwards and most of his criticisms of Whitefield. That said, however, Clark’s analysis really can’t account for the fact that God indeed does refresh his church in powerful ways from time to time. Admittedly, we are interpreting facts at this point, but they are still facts. While we shouldn’t sit on our hands waiting for revival to come, that does not mean that when God sovereignly displays his power in our lives we should say to him, “No God, this isn’t how you work.” (Of course, I don’t think Clark is saying that).

An Infallible Assurance?

We are grateful that Clark has shown us how to develop a piety around a specifically Reformed epistemology. A proper use of the ectypal distinction can save one from spiritual death. The ectypal distinction is one of the most useful Reformed tools against some traditionalistic apologetics. If we can only know according and within the human limits of knowledge, then we can rest content with a modest certainty on some important issues (election, the canon, etc). I have to wonder, though, if Clark’s model can accommodate all the evidence. For example, how can a proper limited certainty coexist with the WCF’s affirmation that we can have “an infallible assurance?”

Clark’s model is good and should be employed in the Reformed world. I think, however, it might become a victim to its own successes. As when Vos’ “already-not yet” model proved very helpful in eschatology, it also unwittingly served to stifle further discussion.

 

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An Eschatological Musing

There is no logical contradiction between the fact that some nations covenant with Christ in the last days but yet Antichrist rules over some nations and wars with the saints. I think even a lot of Reformed people default to the Left Behind mindset that Antichrist rules the entire globe by a supercomputer.

This allows for several things.   The amil wants to affirm the NT passages about falling away and a darkening of culture.   The postmil wants to affirm the passages about nations coming to Christ.    There is no logical contradiction between these two statements.  Many historic premils have successfully affirmed both propositions.

Notes on some recently finished books

Deere, Jack.  Surprised by the voice of God.  I had found this book at a  used sale for .50.   It’s an easy read and while it might look like Evangelical fluff (published by Zondervan and such), it is written by a seminary professor and so retains a modicum of scholarship.    Here is what I am taking away from it:  even if you do not believe the gifts happen today, you could very well still profit from this book.  He goes into how to keep small group settings from ending disastrously and how to deal with difficult members in the church.  The exegesis in the book is not easily dismissed.   Unfortunately, Deere could use a lot of Reformed ecclesiology.  For all of the hang ups about Presbyterianism, the latter really does protect you from stupid stuff.

Recovering the Reformed Confesssion by Scott Clark.  Mostly really good.  Lots of excellent technical theology in here. If all people take from this book is a recovery of the ectypal/archetypal distinction, then we should sing his praises.  Unfortunately, I do not think Clark has fully escaped the Calvin/Calvinists paradigm, seeing that he never hesitates to play off Edwards and Ames against Calvin and de Bres (which is more than ironic since he has so mightily combated it).  While valuable, I think his QIRC/QIRE model will function more to filter out anything he doesn’t like (similar to Reformed types in eschatology always saying “Already-Not Yet” when what they really mean is “Not Yet/Not Never”).

He was met with much of the Spirit of God

That line was originally from Maurice Grant’s biography of Richard Cameron.   I was reminded of it when reading Murray’s bio of Lloyd-Jones.  It was the summer of 1949 and Murray describes MLJ as going through “a complete agony of soul” (208).  MLJ even went so far to say he “was deeply conscious of the devil’s presence in his room” and felt “a sense of evil in the room.”

Then God ministered to him upon his seeing a page of [A.W.] Pink and the word “glory–instandly, ‘like a blaze of light,’ he felt the very glory of God surround him…The love of God was ‘shed abroad in his heart.’ The nearness of heaven and his own title to it became overwhelming certainties and, at once, he was brought into a state of ecstasy and joy which remained with him several days

MLJ goes on to describe similar experiences of the Puritans:

William Guthrie:  It is a thing better felt than spoke of. It is no audible voice, but it is a ray of glory filling the soul with God.”

Thomas Goodwin:  “There is light that cometh and over-powereth a man’s soul and assureth him that God is his, and he is God’s.”

Robert Bruce: “No sooner had a leapt upon my horse but the gates of heaven were cast open to me.”

Similar experiences are recorded by John Flavel and Christmas Evans.   Jack Deere asserts, though he admits he could not find documentation, that Lloyd-Jones’ The Puritans documents how Sarah Edwards was “transported across the room.”  I am currently looking for that documentation.  If it exists, it would be in Edwards’ works on revival.  It is  documented, however, that Sarah “lay prostrate for 19 days.”  The problem with the “transportation” claim is that sceptics like Perry Miller would have had a field day with it, and yet I don’t recall Miller making much of it (but then again, Edwards historiography has come a long way since Miller).

Two good cessationist responses to Strange Fire

I cite Doug Wilson with caution.  Few men have done more mischief to the Reformed faith, but this is a good article.  The next one is by a Fundamentalist Baptist.   They are both perceptive.  Exactly on what grounds can 90% of the Conservative Evangelical world criticize these guys for “strange fire” when nobody in this discussion even pretends to have a biblical view of worship (e.g., what God commands)?

Problems with using Temple as liturgical template

Scott Clark hits a home run on this point.   Critics of Reformed worship point out that high church traditions have a rich heritage that draws upon the intricate symbolism of the Mosaic temple.   We Reformed agree, actually.   That is the problem.  Clark notes (244ff):

  1. The temple was instituted under Moses as part of a theological system that was temporary.  It was the center of the cultus that Paul described as “fading” (2 Cor. 3:7-11).
  2. The NT does use temple imagery to describe Christians, but it never draws liturgical inferences from that imagery, only moral and theological.
  3. To use the temple as the center of Christian worship is inherently defective from the writer of Hebrews perspective (Heb. 8:1–10:18).

Cromwell, the Covenanters, and a Critical Reflection

This is a hard post to write, not only because I am not entirely certain where I stand on this issue, but that the answer to this question appears for force the answers to a number of other questions.  My goal in this post is not to vindicate Cromwell.  I want to add clarity to a few key moments in English history where Cromwell clashed with the Covenanters.  Ecclesiastically, I side with the Covenanters.  While I have an appreciation for many Independents, I think it is problematic.   Further, the Covenanters’ testimony during the Killing Times is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  However, some problems remain and I will try to explore these:

  1. Cromwell may be a covenant-breaker, but how was Scots’ aligning with Charles II not a similar violation of the Covenant on the grounds of allying with malignants?   While Rutherford may have had distaste for Cromwell, I think he realized this very point (cf Coffey, 251).
  2. If (1) is true, and if Covenanting Scots had even fought against Charles I and his bishops previously, as they had (Fissel:  1994), then on what grounds can later Covenanter tracts condemn Cromwell as “the Usurper?”
  3. Following (2), isn’t it likely that Cromwell would have left alone Presbyterian Scotland had they not crowned a Stuart Monarch?  Cromwell, being a military and political genius, saw it as cementing a Stuart (and probably quasi-papist, Charles II’s swearing to the Covenant notwithstanding) political power to his north, which would have been a danger.  Cromwell didn’t necessarily want to invade Scotland for invasion’s sake.  The Scots had already proved their mettle earlier and have even defeated some of Cromwell’s lieutenants earlier. Indeed, even when Cromwell brought the bulk of his army to Scotland, he found himself in a terrible trap.  Inexplicably, the Scots abandoned their military vantage point, met Cromwell on equal footing, and lost their army, and soon their liberty.  Precisely who is at fault here?
  4. Following (3), even a Covenanter like Maurice Grant admits that Cromwell’s occupation of Scotland silenced many church disputes and allowed the church to flourish spiritually (Grant, 37).
  5. This is not to say that Cromwell was 100% in the right.  It is sad that Christopher Love was executed.  Assuming he was innocent of those charges, exactly how was correspondence with Catholic monarchs in Europe supposed to be viewed by Cromwell?   I say this as someone who loves Thomas Watson, for example.

Works Cited

Coffey, John.  Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Fissell, Mark.  The Bishops’ Wars: Charles I’s Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640 (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Grant, Maurice.  The Lion of the Covenant: The Story of Richard Cameron.