Reformed Is Enough Or Why I Wrote RRC

Recovering the Reformed Confession-FeaturedDavid J. Miller published a lengthy account yesterday of his journey out of the OPC to Eastern Orthodoxy and to Anglicanism of different sorts and back to confessional Presbyterian and Reformed theology, piety, and practice. It’s a long-ish piece but it’s a great illustration of why I wrote RRC. Miller testifies that the theological education he received from Westminster (Philadelphia) in the 70s and 80s was strong on biblical studies and counseling but didn’t really connect him to the Reformed tradition or the Reformed confession broadly defined. Others have said similar things, if from different perspectives, e.g., that the confessions themselves were not strongly emphasized in the curriculum. Some of those who participated in the Shepherd Controversy (1974–81) noticed that those who defended or excused Shepherd’s doctrine of justification (acceptance with God) “through faith and works” (his language, emphasis mine) or through “faithfulness” (his language) seemed quite unaware of both the confessional doctrine of justification in WCF chapter 11 and in the Larger Catechism, both of which were written specifically to reject just such errors, which flourished in the 1640s when the Assembly was deliberating.

microfilm readerThough the confessions and catechisms themselves were available they were often either taken for granted or just ignored. Reformed folk had fallen into the habit of ignoring them, as Miller himself implies. The tradition (or the confession broadly defined) was less available in English. Due to ill considered educational “reforms” (deforms!) the study of Latin had fallen on hard times after World War II and most of the Reformed tradition was locked away in a lost language and read on barely-visible microfilm readers.

For a variety of reasons, over a long period of time, we became disconnected from our past and our confessional documents no longer functioned as intended. I explain how this happened in more detail in the book but Miller’s story is not atypical. He knew something was missing theologically and liturgically and he went looking for it. Because he was never given a tour of Geneva or Heidelberg, as it were, he went to Constantinople and to Canterbury to find the nutrients missing from his diet. It wasn’t necessary. Like a lot of folks in the post-war period (and before) he assumed that what he had been given in school was Reformed theology. That’s understandable. Like a great lot of others he came to Reformed theology from the outside. Naturally he assumed that what he was being taught was the real thing, but it wasn’t. It had been modified in important respects. The covenant theology taught in the Reformed world in the 20th century was a revised version with the covenants of works and redemption either omitted or downplayed. Then, as now, it’s almost impossible to find a worship service that would be recognizable to our 16th- and 17th-century forebears. It’s even harder to find a coherent justification for the liturgical revisions we’ve made. This is not our liturgy:

  • Casual welcome and announcements
  • Stand up for 4-5 songs
  • During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
  • Sermon
  • Closing song
  • Dismissal

It is, however, the one that folk are likely to find in many of our NAPARC congregations. Tragically, it’s not even that attractive to the young people for whom we are ostensibly offering it. Just last night a young person said to someone else about the liturgy above—I paraphrase—”That’s not why I come to church. I come for reverence, to meet with God.” I’ve had other conversations with young people who are frustrated with what passes for “Reformed” in too many places. The reigning liturgy that the boomers have passed down the Xers and thence to the millennials, not only isn’t Reformed, it isn’t that attractive.

The explanation given to the sacraments offered for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, in many places in North America, bore little resemblance to what was originally taught in the Reformed churches or what is confessed. How many of us know that, in Belgic Confession Art. 35 we confess, in Lord’s Supper, “what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body, and the proper blood of Christ”?

It’s not surprising that folks would go looking for something more. There is more but there’s no need to go to Rome, to Constantinople, or even to Canterbury to find it. Before folk go touring they should get to know Geneva and Heidelberg and Edinburgh before they decide to move.

One caveat, however. The sort of recovery for which I’m calling in RRC doesn’t exist in many places and getting there will take a long time. There are entrenched interests who like the hybrid (Reformed + whatever) status quo to be found in many places. Real liturgical reformation will not come easily or soon. Even those in NAPARC who identify with the confessions aren’t really interested in going all the way back to Geneva and Heidelberg. Theological recovery is also a long-term project. Attempts to recover classical Reformed covenant theology are being and will be dismissed as “radical” and even (bizarrely) as “Lutheran” by those who take the revisions as their baseline.

Thus, I’m asking a great deal of those who are tempted to leave. I’m asking you to stay,  to pray, and to work patiently, graciously for a more complete recovery of our theology, piety, and practice and to do so with no guarantee that any of us will see it in our lifetimes. The glimpses of our confession (broadly defined) that do exist in our contemporary theology, piety, and practice and those bright lights where it shines uncovered are enough to encourage us t press on.

Here are some resources for those tempted to go touring or even to move:

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  1. Thank you Mr. Clark for your right on analysis. Amen! I’m going to read your book as soon as I can obtain a copy.
    God bless!

  2. It’s because at least in the American Presbyterian “tradition” the songs of Isaac Watts are more important than the confession. The meetings of the Great Awakening were the original “confessional-free” safe zones when it came to worship, and the people were seduced to seek their own experience via the word of man instead of the external focus of seeking to thankfully worship God in the manner He commanded.

    The churches “had” to conform to the will of the people, just as Aaron did, and so worship according to the Word of God was out-the-door.

    The first “redefinition” of a term in the confession was when “psalms” in 21.5 was changed to include the abominations of Isaac Watts. And not content with just those, entirely for all intents and purposes replaced the Word of God for singing. Poor unfortunate souls who think that God needs them to compose hymns to him, their own religious experience is their own reward. Better to stick with what God has supplied for singing in His worship, and thereby have the Lord Jesus as their exceeding great reward. They thinking that because public worship of God benefits the worshipper tremendously, and is the primary presentation of the means of Grace, that worship is more about the worshipper, when in fact even though it really is all about the God and Him alone and what He has done.

    Whether or not the Reformed from the 15th and 16th centuries would recognize the following as reformed, well who can tell?

    Call to Worship (read by the minster from a Psalm or other appropriate Scripture)
    Congregation sings a Psalm – making music with only their voices.
    Minster alone leads in prayer – congregation prays silently with him
    Congregation sings a Psalm – making music with only their voices.
    Minster alone reads to the congregation at least a full chapter from the OT.
    Minister alone leads in the pastoral prayer – congregation prays silently with him
    Congregation sings a Psalm – making music with only their voices.
    Minister alone reads to the congregation at least one full chapter from the NT.
    Minister preaches a sermon (from a text from either of the two reading)
    Minster alone leads in prayer – congregation prays silently with him
    Congregation sings a Psalm – making music with only their voices.
    Minster pronounces the Benediction (taken verbatim from scripture)

    * Periodically include the observance of the the Lord’s Supper using the same menu as the scriptures report the Lord Jesus himself used.

    Definitely too much Psalm-singing for today’s reformed.

  3. Correction: The “Sermon” is actually (and tragically) called the “Message”. Because, well, “Sermon” sounds too strict and imposing and old. And the casual welcome is almost as if the pastor is welcoming people into his own house, not God’s. I’ve heard people say, “If I can’t dance and feel God in the praise music, then I want something else.”

    •Casual welcome and announcements
    •Stand up for 4-5 songs
    •During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
    •Closing song

  4. I found this post interesting. Not long ago I visited an OPC church that, while definitely a step in the right direction from where I am, and which I learned was teaching the WCF in a class or group setting, didn’t strike me as quite as Reformed in its worship as I had hoped it would be. In the morning it used a non-denominational hymnal plus a couple of “chorus” songs with the words on a projection screen, then used the red Trinity Hymnal in the evening. While I wouldn’t write the church off if it worked best for my family (i.e., not making a decision solely on my own assessment), I also didn’t see nearly the “antithesis” from my current evangelical church as I’d seen at another nearby NAPARC church, which methodically includes psalm singing as part of its worship.

  5. It’s interesting that the only tradition with something like the RPW doesn’t have doxology as a fourth mark of the church.

  6. Your observation about the student not having learned Reformation theology from the pen of the actual “Reformers” was very interesting. A historical faith seems to be more of an objective faith. One cannot get away with “what does this verse mean to me?” when the question is really, “What has this verse always meant to the Church?”

    Dr. Clark, do you think the apathy toward our historical Christian heritage is somewhat of a rejection of the 5th commandment in the sense that it fails to honor (or respect) those that have gone before us?

  7. I really appreciated Miller’s article, as I have a brother-in-law striving to plant an ACNA (Anglican Church in North America) church. Miller articulated well the concerns I have had over mysticism, charismatic bent, and ecclesiological structure. Also, since they are less confessional, I don’t see how this denomination isn’t going to end with a split like the Episcopalian churches they left. Even the issue of women priests seems to be a non-issue currently. This reveals a lack of theological foundation.

    Also, the emphasis I see from my brother-in-law on N.T. Wright’s teachings troubles me. That seems to be blending well with their desire to define themselves not by their confession, nor by the One whom they worship, but “as the kind of church that loves our community enough to have monthly clean-up days…” And then there’s the whole structure for planting a church that is weird…

    Thank you for this explanation of how we have drifted from our own confession.

    • Thank you for your post, Aimee. It’s heartening to hear that that the Lord might use my story to resonate with another Christian’s journey.

  8. This is a good reminder that modern pietism/charismaticism/mysticism is NOT historic Protestantism, of any flavor.

    There is much beauty in historic Reformed worship (coming from an Anglican here). While I have some issues with certain parts of the Westminster Standards, overall, they are an excellent confession, together with the Three Forms of Unity. Reformed folks shouldn’t be ashamed of that heritage.

    Speaking of Canterbury, and Anglicanism, the real problem with Anglicanism is that there aren’t many Anglicans left. What passes for Anglicanism in this country is laughable at best, dubious at worst. I subscribe to the theology of the Thirty-nine Articles, Books of Homilies, and the 1662 Prayer Book, all of which are based upon Scripture and were within the broad Reformed movement of the 17th c. (until Laud came about). However, you won’t find many Anglicans who uphold any of those things, more the pity.

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