Recovering the Reformed Confession

Hall Gate SanctuaryAt my ordination service the first song was Psalm 100, “All people that on earth do dwell”. We sang it to the tune Old Hundreth which was written to be sung in the church in Geneva in Calvin’s day. Despite the efforts of some (tapes of the Vaughan-Williams setting being posted to me, etc) and the uneasiness of a few more we sang it unaccompanied. It was great. For many it was a novelty to sing without the organ/piano/praise band. But why? Especially when Reformed churches have sung a capella psalms from the beginning?

That’s one of the issues that crops up in Dr. R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. The book was written to warn those in the “sideline” churches (such as the OPC, PCA, URCNA) in the US that they’re in danger of losing touch with what it means to be Reformed. His argument is that “Reformed” has been defined in the confessions of the 15th and 16th centuries and that there are a number of things that take the churches away from those confessions.

The first half of the book looks at how this process happens – related to what he calls the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty” (QIRC) and the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience” (QIRE). In other words: QIRC = Knowing what God knows the way he knows it. QIRE = Looking for an immediate encounter with God.

An example of QIRC is defining orthodoxy by whether you believe God created the world in six literal 24-hour days. An example of QIRE is neglecting attending to the means of grace for “quiet time” spirituality. 

In the second half of the book Clark seeks to offer solutions. He reminds his readers that Reformed Theology makes a real distinction between the Creator and the Creation. It also states that despite this distance God has revealed himself in ways we can understand. The Reformed churches have summed up this revelation in their confessions. In being confessional people are signing up to a faith that is Biblical, catholic, vital, evangelical and churchly.

The final chapters of the book are a call to return to the historic practices of the Reformed churches. This means recovering the “Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW) and a high view of the means of grace. Clark admits here that he’ll step on some toes.

The RPW states that “God may be worshipped only as he has commanded and in no other way” p228. What does this mean in practice? Well, in your Sunday service there must be the elements of Word (readings, preaching, sacraments – the visible Word) and prayer. Anything that is not included in those elements must go. Candles that aren’t for giving light, holding a pebble, drama skits, musical instruments and uninspired hymns are all out. That’s right – nowhere are we commanded to play instruments in worship under the New Covenant so the organ’s out the door. Amazing Grace isn’t given to us by God therefore it’s for Mother’s Day CDs by crooners only.

“That’s crazy”, you say. But look back in the minute book of your church and see the splits that occurred over the introduction of the organ. The arguments weren’t based around God’s Word but whether an organ will make church sound better and attract the kids. Go forward 100 years and the church will have arguments again on whether to introduce the praise band. Clark says dodge the arguments about what gives us the best feelings in worship (QIRE) and get back to singing unaccompanied Psalms and NT songs.

He also reminds us that Reformed piety is based on the fact that God uses means. He doesn’t strike us with lightning, or give us personal revelation. He speaks to us corporately as we gather to hear his Word and through the administration of the sacraments which remind us of and confirm us in God’s grace. So don’t cancel the evening service – get along to it because God has promised to be there.

I liked the book with a couple caveats, which reflect badly on me rather than Dr. Clark:
1. I wish I’d carried on with Latin classes. There’s a lot of it in the footnotes.
2. I wish I’d done some proper theology – there’s a lot of talk of theologians and concepts that I should know but no-one taught me. 

Also, the challenge is how to relate this book to the URC(UK), a mainline denomination that’s very far from the Confessions. The QIRE is obvious – it’s everywhere. The upcoming Energy4Life weekend is full of it. Forget gathering to hear God’s Word – let’s juggle! Or scrapbook!

The QIRC is more difficult to find. There’s more of a Quest for Illegitimate Religious Uncertainty. Where God has clearly revealed himself, many would change it completely. All the central doctrines of the church are being questioned – not in a spirit of faithfully hearing what God has said but because it doesn’t chime with our experience or culture.

Of course, the Presbyterian Church of England got rid of the Westminster Confessions in the 1950s and the Congregational Union never subscribed to any confession, not even the Savoy. Dr. Clark would say that those confessions define what it means to be Reformed. Therefore, is it time for the United Reformed Church to change its name to something more honest or for those of us who value the Reformation, Westminster and its documents to stand up for Reformed Theology, Piety and Practice?

I commend the book and pray that Dr Clark’s URC doesn’t go the same way as mine.


9 thoughts on “Recovering the Reformed Confession

  1. Pingback: Phil is Reading RRC and Living It « Heidelblog

  2. “Forget gathering to hear God’s Word – let’s juggle! Or scrapbook!” – it’s scary to think that I can actually hear people say that! And I’d agree with you about the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Uncertainty in the United Reformed Church.

    But when it comes to a narrow definition of the RWP I’m not so sure. Scripture, in both the Old and New Covenants, records people singing “new songs” to the Lord (Ps 149:1; Rev. 5:9; Rev 14:3). Also in Ephesians 5:19 you have Paul telling us to sing, ‘Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs’ – now it is possible to distinguish both Hymns and Psalms within the Book of Psalms, but I’m still not confident that Paul means: ‘Psalms, Psalms and more Psalms!’ Moreover, some New Covenant passages, such as the first verses of John’s Gospel and the oft quoted words in Philippians 2:5-11, are considered by many scholars to be early Christian hymns.

    In principle, I’d support efforts to recover a more wholesome use of the Book of Psalms as the hymn book of the church. I also think we need to be more careful with what “modern” hymns and songs we use, some are just utter tripe. But I would like to preserve some hymns and songs such as, ‘To Him that chose us first. Before the world began’ (by Isaac Watts) and ‘In Christ Alone’ (by Stuart Townsend). I believe these hymns and songs are faithful to Scripture and glorify God rightly.

  3. James,
    Thanks for stopping by. The book’s got the arguments for the RPW so I won’t repeat them here.

    Those hymns are dear to me too, but does that make them right for public worship? It’s got me thinking, that’s for sure.

  4. Getting back to the Word for a moment, I couldn’t help but recall Psalm 144:9 “I will sing a new song to you, O God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you…” plus, of course, the New Testament use of fresh lyrics and tunes in Revelation 5:9 “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” James Church, I’m with you here I think!

    So I’ll sing the old Psalms with fresh tunes (but in English, and hence translated – because my Hebrew isn’t up to singing standard!), and I’ll sing new songs too …with old and new tunes and even (gasp?!) with a 12-string guitar. Or should I cut two of them off and claim it’s a ten-stringed lyre?

    And as for the QIRE aspect – well, I do recall Jesus commanding his disciples not only to remember his sacrifice via the symbols of bread and wine, but also commanding them (and us) to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that this is not only an authentic religious experience (though not necessarily one accompanied by particular feelings), but more importantly it is customarily overlooked by the vast majority of the URC.

  5. Paul,
    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t know you but I’m assuming you’re connected to the URC in some way. Welcome.
    The book I’ve reviewed addresses those verses. Any defense of the RPW will address those verses. Calvin, the Puritans, Reformed theologians in the last 200 years have addressed those verses. Singing unaccompanied Psalms has been one of the Reformed churches unique contributions to the church catholic. It’s worth investigating as to whether we’ve given away something important in our worship.
    That said, in worship services I lead we’ll have songs from Rejoice and Sing, Mission Praise and the Psalter.
    The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a whole other issue which I may address one day but not now. I think the greater battle in the URC is to proclaim Christ as all-sufficient Saviour to desperate sinners.
    Thanks again for your comments and God bless you.

  6. Phil,
    I am a minister of the EPCEW in Solihull. I used to be an elder a long time ago in the URC.

    Good to see someone in ministry in the URC with an interest in Reformed theology.


  7. Phil,
    I’m a URC Minister in Plymouth
    …an Evangelism and Renewal Advocate for GEAR
    …and a leader for the Dunamis Project (which fosters renewal within the Reformed, Presbyterian church culture).

  8. Phil …. BTW – it’s not very PC to call people “sinners” is it! And it’s not PC to focus exclusively on Jesus, either, come to think of it! No wonder we’re finding it a bit of a struggle. But for some reason, God won’t let me go… and He’s doing some good stuff here in Plymouth, thankfully.

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