Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Confessions of a former strict Confessionalist (Part 2)

Into strict confessionalism

Reformed theology is rigorous, and precisely the type of spiritual food that appeals to one starved of biblical truth. It was not fast before I encountered what I now recognized as strict confessionalism, particularly as mediated by one of its foremost proponent R. Scott Clark.

In his book Recovering the Reformed Confessions, Clark argued for his idea of confessionalism, utilizing his expertise in historical theology to buttress his claims. According to Clark, situating the Reformed churches (in the United States) in the sideline denominations, the divisions in the Reformed churches comes about because people are tempted towards two errant paths: The “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty” or QIRC, and the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience” or QIRE. QIRC is “the pursuit to know God in ways he has not revealed himself and to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions where such certainty is neither possible nor desirable.” QIRE is the “quest to experience God apart from the mediation of Word and sacrament.” Utilizing these motifs, Clark addressed the issues of 6/24 creationism and theonomy under the motif of QIRC, and revivals and emotive worship under the motif of QIRE. The main point of Clark’s argument against 6/24 creationism is not whether it is right or wrong, but that the issue is not an issue addressed by the Reformed tradition in a way that excludes other views. In other words, with the Reformed confessions as boundary markers, we must not draw boundaries more tightly than them, leaving room for disagreement. Clark points out the diverse ways Reformed theologians have addressed scientific issues in the past, in order to buttress his assertion that 6/24 creationism is not a proper boundary marker but one imported from rationalistic fundamentalism.

Clark’s view of confessionalism, where the Scriptures are foundationally the ultimate source of authority, while the Reformed confessions became the secondary standards norming our faith, practice, and life, sounds indeed like that of confessionalism proper, and indeed it mostly is. Strict confessionalism is however lurking behind the scenes, when one reads between the lines, something I failed in my earlier days. For example, it sounded charitable to not want to draw narrow boundaries on the issue of 6/24 creation, which both the OPC and the PCA Creation Reports agreed upon. It seemed helpful to warn against moralism, and call for Christians to return to historic Reformed worship. The problem comes however when we question the use and breadth of these categorizations (QIRC, QIRE) and how it relates to differences among the Reformed who hold to the Reformed confessions as well.

On the issue of 6/24 creationism for example, Clark gives the impression that those promoting 6/24 creation are using these as boundary markers to throw Christians out of the church if they do not hold to 6/24 creation. There does not seem to be any discussion of the diverse ways one can or cannot hold to a belief in 6/24 creation and its application in the church context. In fact, on this issue, Clark shows a shocking ignorance of the modern creationist movement, citing Ronald L. Numbers’ false history asserting a Seventh-Day Adventist origin for modern day creationism. He then asserts that “proponents of 6/24 interpretation have been unable to explain the theological reason for making the 6/24 interpretation a standard of orthodoxy.” That Clark has not seen even one theological reason for such shows his ignorance of the writings and teachings of Young Earth Creationism. One can agree or disagree with these reasons, but for Clark to claim that there has been no theological reason ever given for making the 6/24 interpretation a standard of orthodoxy is a bad sign.

My focus on 6/24 creation is not to litigate whether 6/24 creation should be placed into the category QIRC per se, but rather to make it clear that there is no real discussion over whether the categories apply to any one thing and thus how one should place anything in any category. In other words, QIRC and QIRE are broad categories that Clark can use to place anything he disagrees with as long as he can link those doctrines or teachings to something resembling “rationalism” or “pietism.” The categories function as a rhetorical sleight-of-hand enabling Clark to discount anything he does not like as either QIRC or QIRE, hoping that the smear or association is enough to tar whatever he dislikes with the label of being contrary to the Reformed Confessions, without any argument over why that is so.

In my time over at Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Clark was a major topic of discussion among the students. While strict confessionalism calls for charity towards others who are Reformed, calling for unity around the Reformed confessions, one starts to suspect unity was not the goal here. Clark had asserted in his book that “it is not a belief that the Bible is true which makes one a fundamentalist; rather it is the belief that one’s interpretation of Scripture is inerrant which qualifies one as a fundamentalist.” Interacting with Dr. Clark, one gets the impression that he views his own interpretation of the Reformed tradition as inerrant, which qualifies him as a “Reformed fundamentalist” I guess. Dr. Clark absolutely detests Douglas Wilson, John Frame, and who knows how many other enemies he has. This is not to say that Wilson or Frame are right or wrong, but I find it really strange that the idea of returning to the Reformed Confessions can go hand in hand with such vitriol and hatred.

The suspicion that strict confessionalism is something separate from and going beyond confessionalism is seen in the book On being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. In this book, Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben wrote an essay essentially arguing that there is no such fixed identity of being “Reformed” in such a way that certain “Truly Reformed” (TR) people can use to exclude others from the Reformed tradition. Rather, there is indeed a Reformed tradition, but one that proceeds as branches of a tree throughout history, a “theological family tree” as it were. In their response to Caughey, Gribben [and Matthew Bingham], [R Scott] Clark and [D.G.] Hart argued that there is a real Reformed tradition and identity that is determined not by scholars but by the churches, and therefore Reformed identity is real and what they see as attempts by the other scholars to deconstruct the Reformed tradition have failed.

The problem with reading such a book is that there are valid points all around, and certainly Clark and Hart are correct in claiming the Reformed tradition is real and Reformed churches are the living legacy of what it means to be Reformed. But on the other hand, there is a deeper problem at play here, which ties in with one of Caughey and Gribben’s main point: the diversity among those that call themselves Reformed. If “Reformed” just refer to the body of Reformed teaching in the Reformed tradition, and “Reformed” is determined by the church, why not “Reformed” as defined by the PCUSA? After all, they are a church with a “Reformed” tradition of sorts. Of course, we can assert that the PCUSA has apostatized and so on, but those are not part of the criteria given by Clark and Hart. If the argument is made that they deviate from the “substance” of the Reformed faith, how do we find this substance as a canon within the Reformed “canon” of its own tradition, without at the same time assuming this “substance” to be truly its substance? Clark’s and Hart’s rejection of theocracy as part of the “substance” of the Reformed faith, for example, presupposes that theocracy is part of ethics instead of part of the third mark of the church (right discipline), a position which I personally agree but which has not been proven by either of them. After all, would Calvin or the Magisterial Reformers hold that theocracy is merely an ethical issue? I sincerely doubt it!

All this is to say that arguments for a “Reformed” identity, as defined by Clark and Hart, argue in a circle. Something is or is not “Reformed” because it is or is not part of the substance of the Reformed faith. Something is or is not part of the substance of the Reformed faith because it is traced to the Reformed Confessions. Something in the Reformed Confessions is part of the substance of the Reformed faith because it is traced to the Reformed churches and tradition. Something that is traced to the Reformed churches and tradition is Reformed, but other teachings or practices traced there are not, because … it is or is not “Reformed”? It can be seen here that attempts to claim a “Reformed” identity in the manner Clark and Hart do, even if they are correct, cannot work.

This is not to claim that confessionalism is wrong, but rather that this book makes clear Clark and Hart’s project of strict confessionalism, even if and where they get various things correct, does not work. Strict Confessionalism asserts definite ways of being confessional, promises unity and biblical fidelity around adherence to said principles, yet in the end it does not deliver.

[I have decided to put the footnotes in a consolidated document which will be published after this is done]

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