Recovering the Reformed Confession (repost)

I had a Facebook conversation last week that touched on the issue of what’s acceptable in worship. I felt this post from a couple of years back would help to keep the conversation going. If anything, I’d say my convictions in this matter have firmed up.

Hall Gate Sanctuary

At 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.

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6 thoughts on “Recovering the Reformed Confession (repost)

  1. Good post, Phil, thanks, but there’s the underlying question of the status of and boundaries of the capital R Reformed tradition and its relationship to the rest of the Christian tradition. Why define the tradition by the Confessions and by which of them? If one decided that it was imperative to be Reformed and that to be so was defined by the Westminster Confession much of what you say would follow, but why would one think this was the case? What is it about the 1640s that leads you to believe that God’s will was uniquely revealed at that time? What prevents someone from saying that they will return to Scripture and read it again under the inspiration of the Spirit and reach different conclusions from the Westminster divines?

    As I’m sure you’re aware this question has been a recurrent one in the Presbyterian churches and the answer that strict adherence to Confessional standards is an absolute requirement has been a minority position for quite a long time (I’d suggest from the second half of the nineteenth century at least).

    So my question is what authorises you to dissent from the position adopted by the councils of the church body to which you belong and which ordained you? I’m not suggesting that nothing can authorise such dissent, only that when it takes place the authority being claimed should be clear, in order that everybody can be clear what sort of conversation is possible, i.e. what is in question and what must be assumed and accepted.

    Having established the premises and axioms, as it were, the kind of deductive reasoning you have undertaken can then move towards conclusions. Where things go wrong, I think, is when we argue about conclusions with establishing that we disagree about unstated premises and thus simply fail to understand one another.

    Again, thanks for this post, which treats the question of the forms of worship with a theological rigour and seriousness often sadly lacking.

  2. Phil

    How can you on the one hand sing in worship:
    3 Praise him with trumpet’s sound; his praise
    with psaltery advance:
    4 With timbrel, harp, string’d instruments,
    and organs, in the dance.
    5 Praise him on cymbals loud; him praise
    on cymbals sounding high.
    6 Let each thing breathing praise the Lord.
    Praise to the Lord give ye.
    which is the second half of the 150thpsalm in the Metrical version and at the same time say there should not be instruments in worship?

  3. Dr. Clark’s book needs to be read by all Reformed Churchmen and laity alike, very eye opening and thought provoking book

  4. This brings us back to one of the points in the Congregational/Presbyterian debate of the 1640s. If the higher councils of the church become effectively self perpetuating oligarchies and then apostatise so fully that they are outside the pail of the teachings stated in the Word itself what can a congregation whose people and minister adhere to the Word do? In this sense a higher council can appear, as one Congregationalist of old put it, as a body of 15 Popes. Of course, this is made worse when church property and the payment of ministers is controlled by trustees who represent the said church councils as financial pressure can be applied to force a minister or people to comply with unbiblical practices brought on by modern seminary fashions rather than biblical understanding.

    The 1630s English Presbyterian John Paget considered this issue in his debate with the New England minister John Davenport – Unlike Davenport he made it clear that a higher council was good for protecting individual congregations against errant or fanatical ministers, or the rise of factions within congregations, and so should be binding on those congregations. However, where the dictates of a higher church council went against what the Word commanded, the orders of that Council was to have no binding authority whatsoever. This was the early Seventeenth century meaning of Christian liberty – not a liberty to do what you want, to have a radical welcome of any heresy going, but a liberty to serve God as He commands, free fromt he dicates of Popes, bishops or councils that order otherwise.

  5. I suggest that its time for us in the URC who are Reformed in theology, Piety and Practice to stand up a nd let are voice be heard. Most URC people I speak to are very saddened about the way the URC has gone.

    Before moving to London, I was member of a small village URC congregation numbering 16 – Often there was no organist and we sang the hymns/psalms acapella and it always sounded wonderful and very up-lifting too. Indeed, people in the village used to comment on how wonderful the singing sounded in the chapel. Also, we had NO minister but some very good and biblical lay preachers. During the 15 years that I lived in that village, the chapel’s congregation grow from 3 to 16.

    Furthermore, in the NGK (Nederlands Gereformede Kerk) in which I grow up, the use of the organ was not allowed in the morning meetings and we sang only psalms acapella style. The organ was only ever used for the evening meetings when the preaching was more gospel focused, whereas the morning meetings were for the teaching and edification of the saints. There was no modern music or worship bands making a noise, but the church filled up with whole families each week. Still today when I return to visit my family, the church fills up and we have had to build a second church on the other-side of the town because the church became to small – And this was in the south of the Netherlands, in the north where the Protestant population is far higher, you will see new churches going up everywhere in the town and villages and I am not talking about Charismatic or Pentecostal denominations but SRICT Reformed Churches!

    If anyone has ever attended a reformed church in the Netherlands, then they will know that the churches are bright, modern, warm, clean and churches still fill up – Why? Because of biblical reformed preaching, teaching and reverence for God.

  6. Thanks for this. Those worship services sound so wonderful. The ingredients for church growth and revitalization are as you say: Biblical preaching in a simple worship service. Yet the large and growing churches that practice this in the URC are ignored and we chase after the latest fads.
    Thanks again.

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