Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Clark versus Robbins: On the Church

[This is in response to a question from a friend]

The September/October 1989 Trinity Review by the late John Robbins has an article on it simply entitled The Church. In this article, Robbins writes concerning what a church is and should do. As Robbins is supposed to be Gordon H. Clark's successor (although I have no idea how such non-apostolic succession is supposed to be calculated), the impression may be given that such is the Clarkian position on the church. However, is that really the case? In this post, I will like to summarize Robbins' view of the Church, put forward Clark's view of the Church, and analyze Robbins' view closer.

Robbin's view of the Church

Robbins' view of the Church is extremely simple. According to Robbins, "If once we understand what the purpose of the church is, all the rest of the doctrine of the church falls neatly into place. But if we do not know what the purpose of the church is, then we cannot understand how the church is to be organized and operated" ("The Church," 1). In other words, what the church is is determined by its purpose and that only. Teleology governs ontology. The purpose of the Church is education in the truth. Utilizing 1 Timothy 3:15 as proof-text, Robbins states that the church is the pillar of the truth and thus that is her purpose and goal, citing John Calvin's commentary on that passage with approval. Another text utilized by Robbins is John 21:15-17, with Robbins remarking that feeding the lambs is "figurative language for educating them in the truth" ("The Church," 2). Robbins rounded up his tour through the Scriptures by looking at Matthew 28:19-20, noting the focus on teaching. Apologetically, Robbins next launched into a polemic against those who attacked the idea of propositional truth and thus use "idolatry, ritual, invitations, dance, drama, and music" as instruments to convey truth ("The Church," 3).

Having established in his article what the Church is, Robbins then moved to apply this theory of the Church to particular situations. Robbins excoriated single elder churches and hierarchy among teachers, the latter aimed specifically at the distinction between teaching and ruling elders in Presbyterian circles. He advocates for the election of teachers from within the local church, rejects women leadership, attacks the idea of excommunication, promotes the idea of all the elders having a part-time secular job outside, and calls for sermons discussions after sermons so that believers could be edified after the service instead of the sermon being a mere monologue. All of such is to be done for the purpose that there would be much teaching within the Church.

Clark's view of the Church

For Clark's view, I have chosen to look at his book What do Presbyterians believe? The Westminster Confession Yesterday and Forever (Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 1965, 2001). Now, the material for this work was written earlier in Clark's life and career, and I do not discount the possibility that he might have changed his views since then, although I have no reason to believe that had happened. This book is Clark's brief commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, and serve more to illuminate Clark's understanding of the Confession than what the Confession itself teaches.

Here are some citations from the book which illuminate Clark's understanding of the Church:

The local congregations, of course, exist chiefly for the purpose of public worship and at all regular meetings should engage in prayer, praise, reading and preaching the Word, as well as at stated intervals administering the sacraments. … (p. 198; Commentary on Chapter XXI Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath-Day)

The invisible Church, or more accurately a part of it, becomes the visible church as those who confess Christ, together with their children, are organized into congregations. … (p. 220; Commentary on Chapter XXV Of the Church)

In opposition to Rome the Presbyterian and Reformed churches without compromise exalt the Word rather than the sacraments. In fact, it may be said that the Word is essential and the sacraments unessential. Let there be no superficial misunderstanding here: God’s commands to baptize and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper ought to be obeyed. Any theory that omits the sacraments from the regular observance of the church is not Biblical. And any individual who refuses or neglects to participate in the sacraments is in open rebellion against God. The sacraments are means of grace, instituted by Christ for our spiritual advancement. Only at our own risk and our own loss can we despise them. At the same time, if by reason of necessity, like the thief on the cross, or even if by reason of unjustifiable carelessness, a person is not baptized and does not eat of the Lord’s Supper, this omission does not render his sincere faith of none effect. Fortunately, God forgives the sin of neglecting the sacraments, as he forgives other sins. But the forgiveness is granted to those whose faith is sincere; and faith can come only by hearing the Word. (p. 235; Commentary on Chapter XXVII Of the Sacraments)

It can be clearly seen that Clark does not write about the Church like Robbins does. Clark has the public worship of God as the central focus of the Church (p.. 198), which is gathered together for confessing the faith (p. 220). Clark prioritizes the Word, or the preaching of the Word, above the Sacraments, for a person does not need to partake of the sacraments to be saved. However, Clark does believe that the sacraments are necessary for the Christian life, and are means of grace for our spiritual advancement. Neglecting or despising the sacraments of God is "rebellion against God," not just a lifestyle choice. Elsewhere in the book commenting on the issue of church censures, Clark agrees with the necessity of church discipline even up to excommunication from the church (pp. 252-5).

Clark as such is an orthodox Presbyterian, with the ministry of the Church focused on both Word and Sacrament. Comparing Robbins' view of the Church to Clark's view of the Church, does anyone think the two look even remotely the same? I would hope not! How then can Robbins claim to be a Clarkian and yet promote such views? It is most likely that Robbins pick up on Clark's main focus and made it the main point. Clark to be certain was often engaged in controversy. In the growing anti-intellectual climate of his time, Clark's emphasis has always been on recovering the rationality (note: I did not say rationalISM) of Christianity. The importance of doctrine and teaching within the Church are thus bound to be emphasized over and over again, and it is likely that Robbins picked up on this emphasis and ran away with it to create an entire system of thought. What was one of the motifs in Clark's view of the Church was taken, blown way out of proportion, and made THE central motif of one's doctrine of the Church


The problems with Robbins' view are present at the very beginning. Robbins first assumes that teleology determines ontology; the purpose of the Church determines the nature and activities of the Church. Such however is a premise not taught by Clark, neither is it found in Scripture. Teleology is not ontology, and that is why for example, on a completely different topic, I reject the idea of dominion being part of the Imago Dei. Teleology does of course have bearings for the activities of the Church, and something to say concerning the nature of the Church, but it does not determine both the nature of the Church and all the activities of the Church.

Secondly, Robbins is a reductionist. Yes, one purpose of the Church is teaching, but does it therefore mean that the Church has only ONE purpose? Such a reductionistic understanding of the Church runs throughout Robbin's entire article, and everything is funneled through that one lens. It is however illuminative that Robbins managed to make some logical leaps in his application, for it is not evident how having only the one purpose of teaching necessitates the denial of hierarchy among leaders, or even that there should be no paid full-time ministers. The applications Robbins make seem at times to be a logical leap from his idea of the Church to Robbins' personal opinions of what a church should look like. Robbins' attack on the distinction between teaching and ruling elders for example does not flow from his one purpose of teaching, for ruling elders do teach, just in general not preach. Also, the idea that elders do not require seminary training and should all have secular jobs suffer from too low an estimation of the demands of what pastoring a church actually requires. Not all elders know Greek and Hebrew, or have the time to study and prepare sermons and write articles for the flock. Yes, seminary training is not required, if by that it is meant that one does not need to undergo an ontological elevation to become a "seminary grad" in order to preach and teach. But it is required, if by that it is meant that training in exegesis and theology is necessary for the vocation of the ministry. It is certainly possible for someone not a seminary grad to study exegesis and theology and church history etc by oneself, but highly unlikely.

Another application Robbins has made concerns the election of teachers from within the local congregation. The problem with Robins here is not that it is not good if someone within the local congregation rises up to be the pastor, but that Robbins sees this as the only acceptable practice. This application does not flow from his doctrine of the church, and does not even flow from his exegesis of Acts 14:23 and Acts 6 in the paragraph where he discussed the matter. It is a logical leap to move from the claim that office bearers are elected by a show of hands, to asserting that office bearers must come from within the local congregations. Even more fundamentally, Robbins merely asserts without argumentation that the congregation elects first before the apostles appointed the office bearers, instead of things happening the other way around. This application of Robbins is thus without any basis and does not even need to be taken seriously.


Clark versus Robbins. As I have shown, Robbins' view of the Church is not the same as Clark's view of the Church. Robbins' view is severely lopsided and based upon a single truth blown way out of proportion. Yes, there ought to be teaching in the Church. But teaching is not the be all and end all of the Church. As Clark said, the local congregations "exist chiefly for the purpose of public worship" which includes administration of the sacraments. The ministry of the Church is Word and Sacrament, not just mere intellectual teaching and learning of doctrine. On the doctrine of the Church, it is Clark versus Robbins, and the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition side with Clark on this one. Clark 1 Robbins 0.


Charlie J. Ray said...
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Daniel C said...

[Since you are banned, I have decided to do it this way]

Charlie Ray:
I would humbly suggest that Robbins' view is more in line with Clark's view than you think. Clark emphasized intellectual knowledge in practically everything he wrote. So Robbins' criticism of these other sensory approaches to "worship" is in perfect agreement with Clark. For Clark the sacraments are not "mystical" but a visible means of preaching the Gospel. The central feature of all Reformed churches is the Word. Without the Word or the Bible, the sacraments are empty signs.

My response:

totally irrelevant and missing the point. Also misconstrue Robbins' doctrine of the Church. Did I mention that Robbins' view of church governance logically leads to a denunciation of episcopacy and towards congregationalism?

Charlie J. Ray said...
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Charlie J. Ray said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charlie J. Ray said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charlie J. Ray said...
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Daniel C said...


which part of being banned do you NOT understand? I can respond to your arguments, which are just full of misconceptions and misunderstandings, but what's the point? You don't listen, ever! I'm not interested to be the sounding board for your monologue.

Being banned means you can't post any comments. I have decided to enforce this. If I wish to allow any other comments anywhere, I will do it like how I handle your first comment on this thread.