Sunday, October 20, 2019

On being Reformed: An appreciative but critical response to Dr R. Scott Clark

What we have come largely to differ from our forefathers is on a particular ethical inference. This revision of Reformed ethics is not of the substance of the faith. We still hold and confess the same view of the moral law and its application of the Christian life. [R. Scott Clark, "A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Gribben, and Caughey," in Bingham et al., On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), p. 80)

The book On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity puts together three British and two American scholars in a debate over the identity label "Reformed." What does it truly mean to use the label "Reformed" as a theological identity of oneself or one's theological tradition? The three British men by and large locate "Reformed" as a historic identifier of a group of traditions linked to each other via a "theological family tree" (Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben, "History, Identity Politics, and the 'Recovery of the Reformed Confessions,'" in ibid., p. 20), with Matthew C. Bingham as a baptist claiming the title "Reformed" due to the "Reformed Baptist" utilizing of a covenantal framework to understand all of Scripture (Matthew C. Bingham, "'Reformed Baptist': Anachronistic Oxymoron or useful Signpost?," in ibid., p. 48).

In contrast, D.G. Hart and R. Scott Clark demur, claiming that the identifier "Reformed" is an ecclesial definition not a historical definition. Hart further points out the seeming inconsistency in Baptists wanting the name "Reformed" while not at the same time desiring the label "Lutheran" (D.G. Hart, "Baptists are different," in ibid., p. 65). Clark states that the Particular Baptists have a different covenant theology than those in the Reformed tradition as they reject "the Reformed view that the covenant of grace is substantially one administered variously in redemptive history" (Clark, in ibid., p. 79). Lastly, against the claim that modern-day Reformed churches are substantially different from those in the Reformational era, he asserts that the difference is one of ethics, not of the substance of the faith.

Having read both sides, I would say historically, the British writers do have a point. If one looks purely historically, one can sortof discern a type of family tree between various Evangelical traditions that have some relation to or derivation from the Reformed tradition. The question however is whether such genealogical relationship is sufficient to merit the label "Reformed." And here I appreciate the point made by Hart and Clark that the term "Reformed" should be an ecclesial label. If the church is the bride of Christ, it seems more logical that the label should be decided by the church more than the academy.

At the same time, I do not believe Dr. Clark has made a good case in his assertion that any changes through the centuries is merely one of applied ethics. First of all, in church history, there has been a huge diversity of churches and denominations (excluding Baptists) that were part of the Reformed tradition and still claim to be of the Reformed tradition. Yet, Dr. Clark will likely not regard them as being Reformed. I am thinking of church bodies like the PRCA with their monocovenantalism. I would ask Dr. Clark, "Is the PRCA Reformed?" Or how about many mainline Presbyterian churches around the world that revere Karl Barth, and think that to be Barthian is to be Reformed. Are these church bodies Reformed? Now, if it is admitted that these church bodies are Reformed, then can it be truly be said that to be Reformed is to have only a "revision of Reformed ethics" which does not touch "the substance of the faith"? But if Dr. Clark denies that these church bodies are Reformed, then does it not seem that "to be Reformed" = "being in NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) and having a similar understanding of Reformed theology like Dr. Clark (and Dr. Hart and WSCAL and so on)"?

Secondly, is it really true that the revisions like 2-Kingdom theology is merely a matter of application and not of the substance of the faith? I am here not saying that the changes are truly of the substance of the faith. But what I am questioning is the somewhat implicit assumption that everyone in the Reformed tradition will agree that 2-Kingdom theology is merely a "revision of Reformed ethics." Would the 17th century Scottish Covenanters see 2-Kingdom theology in its modern form (as advocated by Drs. Clark, Horton and VanDrunen) as a mere "revision of Reformed ethics"? I doubt so. So how does one go about determining whether any theory promoted by any Reformed theologian does not strike the substance of the faith? I have heard that Misty Irons (Lee Irons' wife) had used 2-Kingdom theology to condone homosexuality in society, and I have found a video of her as a "straight ally" in the apostate Revoice conference. Notwithstanding her particular case, is it true that 2-Kingdoms theology has nothing whatsoever to say about the obligation of society and the State to the Law of God?

The reason for me raising this question is not to assert that theories such as 2-Kingdom theology is or is not indeed a mere revision of Reformed ethics. The reason for raising this question is to show how it seems that the assertion that this is a mere revision of Reformed ethics is a self-serving reason that anyone in history who claims the label "Reformed" can use for his own unique brand of ethics. Coupled with the first question, Dr. Clark's statement seems to be a self-serving statement. Now, that does not imply he is wrong. But let us not have the illusion that it is some dispassionate statement of fact that Dr. Clark is putting forth in defence of his view of what constitutes the "Reformed" identity label. It is not!

In conclusion, it is appreciated that the "Reformed" identity label is to be an ecclesial label. Yet, it seems to me that it is also a label for a particular type of theological tradition, namely NAPAC as the representative of the Reformed tradition. The way I see it, this is where Dr. Clark's definition would lead us, and I do not personally have a problem with it, as long as it is explicitly stated.

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