Is Reformed Theology "Isolationist?"

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.

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  1. “There is nothing ‘secret’ about the Reformed faith.” Yes, the only thing “secret” about the Reformed is “the secret things of God” (Deut 29:29), which many evangelicals seek to discover in their QIRE (“Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience”).

  2. >> If one disagrees with that verdict (which is their right) their problem is not with the fence maker Clark but with the churches. <<

    Dr. Clark, you are not the fence maker, you are the Field Tour Guide to the fence, and to the gate in (or out). As the next paragraph makes clear. Let's hope more understand the tour guide, check their autonomous baggage at the gate and enter in. I recall the gate was too narrow for me AND my autonomous baggage!

  3. I agree with Frame that your appraoch is far too narrow but I think Frame is far to open. In my mind reformed= 5 solas, canons of the synod of dort (either supra or infra understanding of certain controversal points), and some form of duel covenant theology that has them BOTH existing in the Old and New Testaments in which both are given in their fullness in Christ and His teachings and redemptive work while maintaining the important distinction between the visible and invisible church and maintains that God has always had a visible institution on earth. This seems exclusive enough to disqualify extreme dispys, many 4 point calvinist baptists, piestic evangelicals, etc… but broad enough to affirm Congregationalists (like Owen- by the way why would you call Owen Reformed when I asked you in a personal e-mail if congregationalists can be called Reformed and I believe you said no?),presbyterians, episcopalians, baptists, free churchers, etc… who theologically understand the Gospel in the same way with no difference. The way I look at it is that the Reformed family is not bound of with eccleastical membership as much as it is with the theology confessed and all these differences is that of application but not a problem of the underlining theology. Are Ligonan Duncan or R.C. Sproul not reformed because they have strongly argued for the singing of unspired music while this posistion has been foreign to Calvin, the puritans, the Dutch furtherreformationers (is that a word?)? The answer should be clearly not. Both parties agree with the confession on the regulative principle of worship but their application and undersgtanding of it. Some persons may belong to a non-reformed church (historically speaking as defined by RRC) and agree 100% with the 3 forms of unity. I think it is helpful to think of the Reformed faith as a mighty river steming from the ocean of the universal Church that has produced several streams that differ but all going torward the same place as perhaps parellel rivers but this stream is the safest, most true and friendly generally speaking. Not all the offshots of this reformed river are equal and some are better than others (in terms of kayaking down it). A more edwardian approach verses a MLJ approach is prefered less than a Machen, Vantil or Murray appraoch in my opinion and I am sure many who have chosen to take those streams would disagree, but one thing I can say is that I wouldn’t call them non-reformed just they are following the Reformed path in a follish and sometimes dangerous manner. I obiously took this metaphor from an actual experience on a river while kayaking where we all started from same place but at many points had many disagreed which was the best path to talk. So we made our choices and we all eventually reached our final destination. My analogie breaks down here because other completely different rivers (which represent other forms of orthodox christianity) were not seen. But I think if you think about it just for an instant, the metaphore works again if you think about the fact that all the water (the body of divinity if you will) all comes from the same place- the oceans and the dividing line between the oceans is not exact it is just general and relative.

    -Juste des pensées

  4. Dear Dr. Clark (a.k.a. “the fence maker”):

    Your comment about Amyraut illustrates an important point: The Reformed Confession can become both more clear and more certain over time. Hundreds of years of teaching the confessions as well as the task of examinging every church officer in light of the confessions has a way of doing that.

    I mention this point in light of Robert Letham’s recent book on the Westminster Assembly. Dr. Letham points out that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification was vigourously debated at the Assembly. Several people have commented to me that this means we should not be too strict on requiring candidates for ministry to affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. But haven’t a few centuries of debate and teaching made this doctrine (which is in the Shorter Catechism) all the more clear?


    • David,

      Yes, that’s why I think we need to gather to write a new confession to address such developments. I think we know better now that theocracy was a mistake and should not have been confessed by the churches (just as the Lutherans shouldn’t confess anything, as they do, about garlic and magnets!). We should confess formally, ecclesiastically and unequivocally, in the narrow sense of “confess,” that Christ’s “whole obedience” (the term disputed at the Assembly) is imputed to us, that Jesus did not obey to qualify himself to be Savior but that he obeyed in our place.

      This also illustrates the interplay between confession in the narrow and broad senses. In the latter sense, as the tradition works on a problem clarity comes over time. That developing tradition, i.e., the churches reading the Scriptures together and with the past, should be codified by the churches.

  5. What strikes me as remarkable is that so many people want to get in on “Reformed” without wanting to take upon themselves “the yoke of Christ” in the process.

    Reality is hemmed in by abstractions. Properties define these abstractions. If an object (an instance) does not display the necessary properties of a given abstraction then it cannot be said to be an instance of that abstraction.

    Now, “Reformed” properties must be said to be denoted by the confession. Those who challenge this are averse to the prospect of placing themselves in submission to “the yoke of Christ”, i.e. the authority of apostolicity, historicity, and catholicity.

  6. Does anyone in the Reformed tradition ever wonder that Jesus wasn’t confessionalist? In fact, the only time Jesus ever separates people (the Sheep and the Goats) it’s over deeds not creeds.

    OK, Paul is arguably confessionalist because, for him, faith marks out the new people of God but its plainly not faith in some doctrine (i.e. Justification by Faith) which is that particular, demarcating belief but rather, Romans 10:9, that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. And even granted this demarcation, Paul is far from the exclusivist position most Reformed folk hold, that ONLY the people of God are saved.

    • When Jesus said, “it is written” that was “deeds not creeds”? Really? Have you read Christianity and Liberalism? (1923) Check it out and get back to me. I’d be gobsmacked if Frame agrees with your criticism.

      Sent from my iPhone

      • I’ve not read that work but I have studied the synoptics and don’t find there a Jesus who divides the world into the believers and non-believers, or liberals and conservatives, but ratherinto those who obey and those who disobey.

        Jesus’, and our, reference to Scripture is for the purpose of regulating our deeds and not informing our creeds. What you believe IS important but not in and of itself – it is because your creeds (or your narrative framework) dictate your behavior that they are important.

        • Marc,

          Your “deeds v creeds’ framework is the result of 19th-century liberalism not the teaching of Jesus nor the reading of Scripture confessed by the holy catholic church.

          There are in fact creedal statements in Scripture. Consider Deut 6:4, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One.” That’s a creed. Consider 2 Tim 3:16, that’s a creed. Consider Paul’s repeated instruction to Timothy regarding “faithful sayings worthy of acceptance.”

          What Jesus and James reject is dead faith, i.e., mere pharisaical affirmation of the truth that leads to nothing except, as James 2 notes,backbiting, murder etc.

          Jesus was more than the mere preacher of law, as you have him, he was also a preacher of the gospel: Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” That gospel is a creed and Jesus is the object of that credo (I believe).

          The Jesus you are advocating here is a historically conditioned Jesus of 19th-century liberalism, not the Jesus of Scripture or of the historic Christian faith.

  7. Marc,

    That’s equivocating on the meaning of “doctrine.” “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” is indeed doctrine, but claiming this as the “summa” of the economy of redemption is severely reductionistic.

    Indeed, many will claim “Lord, Lord” whilst still rejected by Christ.

    Paul never taught “universalism.”

    • Warren, I’m no fan of how Paul puts it in Romans 10:9-10 but there it is. For Paul, obedience is assumed (Rom 6, 1 Cor 7:19), and held together with Jesus teaching (Mt 7:21), must to mean that those who really mean the statement of faith – verified/falsified by their behavior – are those marked out for salvation. The statement “Jesus is Lord” implies of course that the one affirming it is an obedient servant and Jesus is clear that obedience is key to salvation.

      RE: Universalism – it depends which verses you play off against the others – our readings are always mediated by our traditions. Nevertheless, my only claim is that he is not explicitly exclusivist.

      • So, Marc, you essentially accept the 19th-century liberal dichotomy between Paul and Jesus too?

        Why on earth should we find you a credible guide to what Christianity is?

        I take it that you haven’t read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism?

  8. “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.”

    I’m sure that as a historian you will get your “personal assurance” that you are right from your frequent commenters here, Clark. Though that is unlike other theologians like Frame who have history on their side and don’t rely on a blog to “sell things” like Charismatics or get therapeutic friends from comments.

    • Neil,

      One of John’s criticisms of the book is that, like Muller & Wells there’s too much history in my work & not enough Jesus. So either it’s too historical or not enough. Which is it? Have you read RRC? I would be happy to have specific criticism so I can do a better job of telling the truth about the past as best I can. Thanks.

      Sent from my iPhone

      • Why do you need me? Isn’t what others from the OPC wrote and also Frame’s critic good enough? There has already been enough criticism on your use of Reformed history and theology for you to consume.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I agree with you that “the Reformed churches need to gather and . . . write a new confession.” I wonder, however, what the final result would be . . .

    Would we have the new confession stand alongside our older confessions, or would the new confession be THE confession from that point on?

    If the new confession stood alongside our older confessions, how would we handle any differences between the new and older? (If there are no differences and we’re simply rewriting the WCF in modern English then what would be the point of gathering together to write a new one?) Would we allow a certain amount of tension in the held beliefs of our churches, or would the new confession “trump” the older ones?

    How would we handle issues concerning exclusive psalmody, unaccompanied singing, details about Sabbath observance, etc., where there are sharp differences among the Reformed churches? (Unless “the deck is stacked” when it comes to who would be invited to help write such a confession, the historical, reformed understanding of these issues may not be concluding consensus of the new Confession).

    I’ve thought for years that the Reformed Church should have a new confession, but these are a few of the questions that make me wonder what such a project would actually bring us.

    Any thoughts?

    • Hi Stuart,

      I address this in the book so I’ll refer you to it for a detailed discussion. This problem has been faced before. Newer confessions supersede the older. I’m calling for a new confession that, unlike the PCUSA’s confession of ’67, faithfully incorporates the substance of the older confessions and simply applies the Reformed faith embodied in them to theological and ecclesiastical issues that have developed since the confessions were first drafted. In that respect the various “testimonies” that have been attempted as half-way houses don’t seem to really do the job.

      I have a plan for a new confession. See the book for more.

      • Dr. Clark,

        First, thank you for the excellent historical sketch of subscription that you provide in your book.

        I very much like the idea of a NAPARC confession rather than new confessions being created by each denomination. Although I disagree with Prof. Frame’s approach to “Evangelical Reunion” I do think that churches within NAPARC should be working toward “Reformed Reunion” and creating a common confession could greatly aid in this effort (as per RRC 190).

        Here is the chicken and egg question: Do we need to agree on the nature of subscription before we draft and ratify a new confession? You advocate “quia” subscription (p. 190), but clearly this is not by any means the uniform practice within NAPARC and the nature of subscription may drive how precise delegetes are willing to make a new confession (As you put it: “It should contain nothing from which anyone who genuinely holds the historic confessional Reformed faith should need to dissent”).


        • Hi David,

          i think so. We need a confession on which we can agree to subscribe fully or without setting up a system where every presbytery has its own version of the confession. No confession is going to be perfect but I think, perhaps naively, that we could sit and draft one or revise one that would confess the Reformed faith without forcing people to distinguish between the confession and “the system” (as if the confession isn’t the system).

          I don’t think this will happen any time soon but it’s something to which we should give thought.

  10. So theocracy was more of a cancerous mole that needed surgical removal?

    And what’s this about Lutherans, garlic and magnets? Am I unaware of some interesting Lutheran history?

    • I’ll leave your first question to some one else.

      The Lutherans, garlic and magnets is a reference to the Formula of Concord’s Epitome 1.15 where it says in the Rejections section of Original sin:

      5. Also, that original sin is only an external impediment to the good spiritual powers, and not a despoliation or want of the same, as when a magnet is smeared with garlic-juice, its natural power is not thereby removed, but only impeded; or that this stain can be easily wiped away like a spot from the face or pigment from the wall.

      Dr. Clark in RRC on page 60 says that there was a scientific idea in the 16th-century that garlic-juice ruins the power of magnets. The larger point, however, is that confessions of faith should only speak to matters of theology, piety, and practice in church not make references to other disciplines of study.

      Did I understand your point correctly Dr. Clark? I realize that you didn’t exactly conclude your section on 6/24 creation as a boundary marker the way I explained it, but that seemed to be the point of your discussion about geocentrism and helocentrism.

    • Alberto,

      Check out the book. I give the reference to the Book of Concord there or do an online search.

      On theocracy, in hindsight, it was a mistake. The WCF is right to say that only the civil laws of national Israel expired with that state. There has been only one national covenant in history and that was the national covenant with Israel, now expired. All other nations have only a common, creational status. The selective attempt by many Reformed folk in the classical period to make their nation (whether France, or Geneva, or Scotland) into “God’s nation” their monarch into King David was an abuse of Scripture. If one reads enough of the classical writers, one sees the tension they were experiencing between their principled affirmation of national Israel’s uniqueness, on the basis of which the mocked the Anabaptists for trying to re-establish the Mosaic civil laws toward a glorious millennial reign of Christ on the earth, and their own appropriation of the national covenant as part of their argument for resistance against tyrants. One sees this Beza’s De iure magistratuum and the anonymous, Vindiciae contra tyrannos.

      By the mid-17th century the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War had exhausted both Europe and Great Britain and people began to reconsider the whole matter of state churches. The theory that began to be articulated in the mid-16th century, which was elaborated in the early and mid-17th century came to fruition during the 18th century.

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