One of the many criticisms that John Frame makes of Recovering the Reformed Confession is that it advocates an closed, isolationist, elitist view of the Reformed faith in order to exclude others unnecessarily and wrongly. Jerry Owen, a commentator on Frame’s review asks, “What does Reformed theology look like when it becomes a club with secret code words and handshakes?”In the words of Richard Nixon, “Let me say this about that.” There is nothing “secret” about the Reformed faith. Indeed, repeatedly the book defines the Reformed confession, narrowly considered, as a public ecclesiastical document. The Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster catechisms are not private, esoteric documents. They were intended to be read and, in the case of the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter catechisms, they were intended to be memorized. These are teaching documents. There were and remain the very opposite of “private.” We want people to know what we understand Scripture to teach. So this criticism seems to me to be very difficult to understand.
I also use the word “confession” in the broader sense of those who created the tradition within which those public, ecclesiastical documents were framed. Here I am accused of privileging some theologians over others. This is a harder criticism to answer because it is partly true, if somewhat misleading. I claim that those theologians who taught (and continue to teach) substantially what the Reformed churches confess are Reformed and those who denied (or deny) substantially what the churches confess are not Reformed. To give a historical example, I would argue that the confessional doctrine of justification is of the essence of the Reformed faith. That this is true seems incontrovertible. If we remove or substantially change WCF 11 or HC 60 we have cut the heart of of those documents. For this reason J. H. Alsted said that the doctrine of justification is “the article of the standing or falling of the church.” That this is so has seemed self-evident to Reformed people for hundreds of years. To take an historical example, Richard Baxter denied the substance of the Reformed doctrine of justification and John Owen affirmed it (against Baxter). There may be ways in which Baxter was “Reformed” (e.g., sociologically or on other theological issues) but on this issue he was not Reformed and, given the centrality of the doctrine of justification to the Reformed confession, Owen may be rightly privileged over Baxter. The same is true today. The Reformed confession hasn’t substantially changed since the classical period. Those who adhere to it are Reformed and those who don’t aren’t.1
The impression should not be created or left that this is a small, elite list. The Reformed tradition includes a mighty army of gifted pastors, teachers, and theologians who affirmed what the Reformed churches confess. In Recovering the Reformed Confession I introduced readers to some of those voices and authors and teachers. Anyone who reads the book could not fairly conclude that the list is narrow but the list does have limits. I understand that there are more difficult cases. For example, I would not consider Amyraut theologically Reformed. The doctrine of hypothetical universalism strikes at the “vitals” of the Reformed faith and yet I understand that Amyraut’s views were not initially and immediately condemned ecclesiastically. As I read the history of Reformed theology it seems to me that a consensus gradually developed that Amyraut’s views are outside the Reformed faith. At the same time, because of the ambiguity I understand that some will come to another conclusion so he’s a more difficult case but the existence of a few difficult cases doesn’t invalidate the notion that there is a mainstream of the Reformed tradition that confessed the faith with the churches.
This raises a broader question about boundary markers generally. A confession is a boundary marker, a fence. It necessarily marks territory and identifies two sides of that territory. Some folks apparently are having trouble with this notion. I suspect that the problem is less the ability to understand it, since fences are a matter of universal experience, but rather some folks are resisting the recognition that there is any stable or fixed boundary marker denominating those who are Reformed from those who are not. A confession is a sort of boundary marker or fence. If one agrees with it, that concordance places one on one side of the fence. If one dissents from it, that disagreement places one on the other side of the fence. Naturally the question rises as to what parts of the fence (confession) are essential. Well, that’s why I wrote the book, to try to think through that question. I argue for a maximal approach rather than a minimal or reductionist approach. I won’t try to boil down the book here but the maximalism, e.g., the Reformed theology, piety, and practice argued in the book does not constitute some “secret handshake.”
Let me be unequivocal. I am not trying to set up a system whereby I (Clark) am the arbiter of who is in and who is out, at least ecclesiastically considered. One of the great points of the book is that, ecclesiastically considered, that is the function of the churches as the divinely established body charged with the administration of the keys of the kingdom. No one person can usurp that function. I think I’m entitled to my opinion (e.g., Amyraut) and entitled to argue it and to try to persuade others but such arguments should not confused with ecclesiastical pronouncements. Those are two distinct categories of speech. To illustrate, let’s consider a contemporary case. In the case of one of Frame’s favorite theologians (see his “Warrior Children” essay or his recently published Festschrift), Norman Shepherd, it is not my opinion that renders Shepherd’s distinctive views on justification beyond the boundaries of Reformed theology. Rather, it is the declaration by or recognition by the Reformed churches (e.g., the OPC,2 the URCs, the PCA) that his views are errant that matters for ecclesiastical purposes. If one disagrees with that verdict (which is their right) their problem is not with the fence maker Clark but with the churches.
There can be no question whether there will be fences. Anyone who denies that Pope Benedict XVI is Reformed has a fence. Now we’re quibbling over the size and nature of the fence. That’s one of the major burdens of the book. A fence however, doesn’t only exclude it also includes. Every fence I’ve ever seen (or put up) has a gate. Recovering the Reformed Confession is also a tour guide serving to invite those who are looking for what we have to offer to “come on in.” Frame’s review mentions but doesn’t dwell on the extended invitation in the book to those who are tired of trite, bland, contemporary, “evangelical” theology, piety, and practice to consider visiting Geneva instead of moving to Rome, Constantinople, or the Emergent Village. It’s also an invitation to those who’ve left the Reformed churches to come home. Of course we need to make sure that the house to which we are inviting folks has what we’ve advertised, lest we be guilty of bait and switch marketing, and that’s another reason I wrote the book.
Finally, given some things said in the review (and some comments made in connection with the review) some, who have not read the book, might be surprised to learn that Clark is not the sort of traditionalist portrayed. Did you know that there is an extended argument in the book that the Reformed churches need to gather and to write a new confession? I won’t give that argument here but only ask. If Clark is arguing for a new confession how can he be dismissed as a mere traditionalist? Indeed, I think fair-minded readers of the book will find other elements within it which make the attempt to portray it as mere traditionalism ring hollow.
1This is not to say that there have been no revisions whatever. E.g., most of the American Reformed and Presbyterian churches have rejected theocracy, i.e., the civil enforcement of the first three commandments of the decalogue. They have revised the Belgic and Westminster Confessions accordingly. Logically it seems fairly obvious to me that theocracy is not so of the essence of the Reformed faith that to deny it is to deny the substance of the faith. By “substance” I mean, “that which makes a thing what it is.” If we amputate an arm, that’s a substantial change to a body. If we delete the Reformed Christology, we’ve substantially changed the Reformed faith but evidently theocracy does not have the same relation to the Reformed faith. Thus several denominations and traditions have made this revision to the WCF and the Belgic Confession.
2Norman Shepherd was an OPC minister who was forced to resign from Westminster Theological Seminary (Phila) in 1981 because of his controversial and errant doctrine of justification. John Frame was and remains a strong supporter of Shepherd and at least of his right to teach his doctrine of justification in Reformed churches. The OPC published a report on the doctrine of justification rejecting Shepherd’s doctrine but, as I understand OPC polity, that report itself does not have binding authority. Nevertheless, it does appear that the report expresses the views of a strong majority of ministers, elders, and congregations in the OPC.