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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5 comments on “Review: Recovering Reformed Confession

  1. I once heard this work described as “Recovering Scott Clark’s Confession” and I think that is a good way to describe the book. There are a lot of good things in the book, but it is riddled with Clark’s peculiarities on creation and 2K.

  2. Angela Wittman says:

    Thanks for this post… I confess I haven’t read too much of Dr. Clark’s work, but I have studied much about the Scottish Covenanters and would like to direct others to this sermon “Covenanting: Part 1 – Repentance and Revival” by Andy McCracken of the RPCNA in Columbus, Indiana: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=126081950124 (43 minutes). Also, I agree with Jacob’s assessment of Iain Murray’s distinction between “revival” and “revivalism” and recommend his book “The Puritan Hope.” In fact, I think I’ll read it again! 🙂

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