This is the second in a series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is…
GD: Hello R. Scott Clark and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
RSC: Hello Guy. Thanks for the invitation. I became a broadly-evangelical Christian in the mid-70s. I found the Reformed faith (or perhaps I should that it found me!) about 1980. I was raised in the midwest of the USA and attended seminary at Westminster Seminary California and served a congregation in Kansas City, Missouri (pronounced “Miz-ur-rah” in Kansas City) from 1987-93. For the next two years my family and I were in Oxford, UK pursuing graduate studies. After that we were in Wheaton, IL at Wheaton College. I’ve been back at Westminster Seminary California since 1997.
GD: Your blog is called ‘The Heidelblog‘ please explain.
RSC: The title is a reference to the home of the German Reformed Church and theology, Heidelberg. It’s also a pretty blatant plagiarizing of Kim Riddlebarger’s “Riddleblog.”
GD: What made you start blogging?
RSC: I began the HB as a way to comment on the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), a worthy project from which I’ve been diverted and to which I need to return. Somewhere I read that “writers write.” I needed a place to write on a regular basis and to try to do on a more public basis what I found myself doing privately by email, namely, answering questions.
GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?
RSC: One strength is that it has taught me certain particularly sinful habits and attitudes and thence it has taught me humility. It regularly reinforces to me the limits of my abilities and reading. The immediacy of the medium puts me quickly into contact with a wide range of questions and issues of which I would otherwise be ignorant. It usually takes months or longer to get an article into print and it usually takes at least a year to get a book into print. Because it can be done so quickly it can be a great way to start or have a conversation and to try out new ideas. It is not a good medium for presenting detailed, careful, academic research. Because blogging lacks editorial controls it demands of the writer the virtues of self-control and prudence—virtues that are not as much in evidence in me as they should be.
GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?
RSC: Packer’s Knowing God and Calvin’s Institutes were the first Reformed works I read. I’m sure that they have shaped me in ways of which I’m not even aware. Bob Strimple’s biblical-exegetical approach to systematic theology at WSC laid strong foundations. Bob Godfrey’s lectures in church history put me into contact with the whole Christian tradition. Reading 16th- and 17th-century Reformed orthodoxy (especially Wollebius) Recently I think I’ve been most influenced by Mike Horton’s series with WJKP and by Darryl Hart’s work (especially, ‘The Lost Soul of American Protestantism’).
GD: Why should today’s Christians be interested in church history and historical theology?
RSC: Christians are redeemed by Christ alone (sola gratia, sola fide) to be a part of the covenant community, i.e. the visible church. The church did not begin last week. It has a history and every Christian, by virtue of the the fact of being a Christian, is a part of a historic tradition. Consider the very name “Christian.” We are given the name of Christ in baptism. It is a historic name (given to us by others). It is the name of a historic person, God the Son who entered into history to be our Redeemer. Thus our faith itself is grounded in the history of salvation. The Christian faith is unavoidably historical. The way we worship, the way we read Scripture, the way we think of God, man, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, sacraments, last things, and the Christian life are all conditioned by history. Thus the question is not whether we are going think about history but whether we are going to do it well.
GD: There has been a reassessment of the value of scholastic theology in the last few years. What can Reformed Christians learn from the scholastics?
RSC: Much in every way. They mediated to us a theology, piety, and practice. Many of the great Protestant confessions were formed by and under the influence of Protestant orthodoxy. They gave us our vocabulary, a hermeneutic, an approach to worship, to prayer, to the Christian life that we’ve been begun to recover.
For much of the modern period we were tempted to try to think of the history of the church after the medieval period as consisting of the Reformation and modern churches. We sort of leap-frogged the post-Reformation church and theology. In this view we were too often willing victims of Enlightenment hostility to a rich resource for theology and church life. Now, however, thanks to the pioneering work of a number of scholars in the 70s and 80s we’ve begun to clear away the vines from a solid old footbridge between the Reformation and the modern church and we’ve found there was much to learn. My students can’t imagine what it be like to be without Ursinus, Ames, Wollebius, Turretin, or Wtisius, just to name a few.
GD: David Bebbington famously claimed (in Evangelicalism in Modern Britian) that evangelicalism is largely a product of the 18th century Enlightenment. What do you make of his thesis?
RSC: It’s all a matter of definition. If the adjective “evangelical” is used in its original Protestant sense, then “evangelical” simply means “confessional” or “magisterial Protestant.” It refers to the recovery of the biblical (and Pauline) doctrine of justification in the Reformation, the Reformation doctrine that acceptance with God is by God’s undeserved favor alone and received through faith resting in and receiving Christ and his righteousness imputed alone as the ground of acceptance with God. It refers to the notion that salvation (justification and sanctification) is mediated through the visible church, through the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. It refers to the hermeneutical/theological distinction between law and gospel. As a matter of sociology and modern history, the modern evangelical movement is, in many important ways deeply influenced by modernity. The theology, piety, and practice mediated to us by the so-called “First Great Awakening” is at least partly indebted to the idealism of the Cambridge Platonists. The subjectivism of modern the evangelical movements is indebted to Romanticism. Modern fundamentalism was influenced by Enlightenment rationalism. In ‘Recovering the Reformed Confession’ I describe the subjectivist impulse of modern evangelical religion as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE), i.e. the desire to experience God without mediation. This quest was fueled partly by a reaction to the doubt and fear created by early modern criticisms of the faith. The rationalism of modern fundamentalism reflects the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) or the desire to know things the way God knows them as distinct from the way he reveals himself to us. It is a desire to get behind revelation.
There is also a real question as to whether there really is such a thing as “evangelicalism,” at least in North America. The project of the modern evangelicals, especially since the mid-1940s was to form an alliance organized around a common religious experience and a high view of Scripture. The movement was intentionally churchless. The minimalism of the neo-evangelical movement, however, did not prepare it well for what was to come. Today, in North America, it’s almost impossible to say what makes one “evangelical” since there is no common doctrine of God, man, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments or last things. For example, the split over “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” revealed that there was no longer even a common definition of “the gospel” or of justification and that was the material doctrine of justification. There’s been no shared doctrine of Scripture since at least the early 70s. Thus, Darryl Hart, in ‘Deconstructing Evangelicalism’, has questioned whether “evangelicalism” even exists anymore.
GD: You have written on Recovering the Reformed Confession. If “the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants”, why do we need confessions of faith?
RSC: In the book I use the word “confession” in two ways. In the first and narrow sense it refers to those public, authoritative, ecclesiastical summaries of the Word adopted by the Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the broader sense, however, it refers to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches that forms the context for those documents and in light of which they must be read. I wrote the book to try to encourage those who identify with the Reformed faith to see the confessions as the definition of the adjective “Reformed.” Too many folk think that the doctrine of predestination is the alpha and omega of Reformed theology. The Reformed churches know nothing of such a definition! The Reformed churches confess much more than divine sovereignty and predestination. They confess a holistic theology, a distinct piety (that is neither pentecostal nor sterile), a churchly, sacramental practice of the faith. So the confessions themselves are essential to being Reformed and to recovering an authentic Reformed identity and life. Confessions are unavoidable. Every Christian has a confession, even if very brief. “No creed but Christ” is still a confession. The church has always confessed her faith whether in the Shema of Deut 6:4 or in 1 Tim 3:16, to name but two places. So the question is whether one will have a confession that reflects the scope of biblical revelation and practice. The original evangelicals were confessing people. Modern evangelicals have experimented with churchless, “creed-less” Christianity for two centuries and it has been a failure. We should take note of Luther, Bucer, Bullinger, and Calvin and of all the great Protestant churches of the Reformation in virtually every place. They were all confessing churches.
GD: What factors under God have led to a widespread recovery of Reformed teaching in the States?
RSC: If you’re referring to the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ movement or the increased interest in divine sovereignty among some segments of evangelicalism, that is a cause for encouragement. The doctrines of grace essential to the historic evangelical faith but they are just an on-ramp to Reformed theology. The most obvious cause for a turn to the doctrines of grace is the vacuous, narcissistic, therapeutic, and moralistic nature of so much modern “evangelical” theology, piety, and practice. The baby-boom generation largely wrecked what they inherited from Carl Henry (and that inheritance was problematic). It is not surprising that the children of those ruins have begun to cast about for an alternative. I hope they don’t try to add a doctrine of divine sovereignty to the rickety house of modern evangelicalism.
GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical Church history would you most like to meet and what you say to him/her?
RSC: Oh, this is very difficult choice for a historian! I have questions for some many different people. I think I would enjoy talking to Luther more than to Calvin (whom, I fear, I might find a little solemn). I would ask Luther about his view of baptism (did he really teach baptismal regeneration?) and his view of Calvin.
GD: Martin Luther said that when it comes to contending for the faith we should fight for the truth that is most under attack at any given time. Where is the battle raging most fiercely today?
RSC: The most fundamental question of the modern (early and late) period has been the authority and reliability of Scripture. The great question of the pre-modern period was, “What has God said?” The Roman and Protestant communions gave different answers but they they agreed that divine authority is pre-eminent. In the modern period the question became, “Has God said?” Of course that’s not a modern question The current attempt to revise the doctrine of justification is probably a manifestation of that problem. It has been in the background for the last two decades but it appears to be re-emerging into the foreground. Related to both of these is the hermeneutical crisis of the last several decades. These were the formal and material issues of the Reformation: sola Scriptura and sola fide so it shouldn’t surprise us too much to see that they are the most basic issues we face today.
GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?
RSC: This is very difficult to answer. For one thing my interests tend toward history and historical theology. One volume that stands out might be Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). Everyone should read it because it’s a model of how to read texts and how to write about them winsomely.
GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?
RSC: In no particular order here are three tunes I always turn up.
Green Onions, Booker T and the MGs
I Wanna Be Sedated, Ramones
Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones
GD: Tell us three things you know about Wales and the Welsh.
RSC: The Welshmen I know (and have known) have
1) a wonderful grasp of the English language
2) a dry sense of humor
3) dislike generalizations about the Welsh
GD: You must be thinking of your colleague at WSC, Hywel Jones, who was Principal of the London Theological Seminary when I studied there many years ago. Do give him my regards. Now, what is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
RSC: There are three great problems: Christlessness, Wordlessness, and churchlessness. The very fact that there is likely no such thing as “evangelicalism,” i.e., virtually no common confession among those who identify themselves as “evangelicals” signals the magnitude of the problem faced by those who identify themselves as evangelicals. They are bound together by a common experience of or quest for the immediate experience of the divine but they are united in and defined by little else. Such could not have been said about the original evangelicals. The original evangelicals were united by their understanding of the gospel, the doctrine of justification and the unique and normative authority of Scripture as God’s Word and by their conviction that God has promised to work savingly in the visible, institutional church through Word and sacrament. Modern evangelicals have really been gradually becoming Anabaptist in their approach to theology, piety, and practice since the 1970s. However passionate the Anabaptists were they were not Protestants and they were not evangelicals. The Christian hope is not grounded in immediate experience of the divine presence nor in continuing, extra-biblical revelation, but in the good news of the risen Savior revealed in the inerrant, canonical Word of God and sealed in divinely instituted sacraments and administered in the visible church.
GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?
RSC: I’m subscribed to more than I should admit. I am enjoying many, including this one. If I had to pick five (with apologies to all the other outstanding blogs):
Martin Downes, Against Heresies
Darryl Hart and John Muether, Old Life Theological Society
The Confessional Outhouse (Zrim, Rick, and Ruberad)
Creed or Chaos (Brannan and Chaos)
These, among others, come to mind because they are consistently faithful or thoughtful, and thought provoking or all three. I always learn from them.
GD: Well, that just about wraps things up. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation. Bye!