Scott Clark: “Let’s Get Back to the Word of God”

By Will Graham
Greetings brothers and sisters and welcome once again to Fresh Breeze. This week it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Dr. R. Scott Clark.
R. Scott Clark was raised on the Great Plains in the USA. He earned his BA in the University of Nebraska, his MDiv in Westminster Seminary California, and his DPhil in St Anne’s College, Oxford University. He was a minister in the Reformed Church in the United States (1988–1998) and has been a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America since 1998. He has served congregations in Missouri and California. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1995 at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Concordia University, Irvine and Westminster Seminary California.
He is the author of two books and the editor of, co-editor, of and contributor to several others. He writes regularly at http://heidelblog.net/ and maintains http://rscottclark.org as a reference site. He hosts two podcasts, Office Hours and the Heidelcast. He and Mrs. Clark have two children.
Let’s move onto the interview.
Will Graham (WG): Greetings, Dr. Clark. It’s great to have you with us today. Could you maybe start by telling us about how you came to know the Lord?
Scott Clark (SC): I began to come to faith through the witness of a layman in an evangelical Southern Baptist congregation in the mid-1970s in Lincoln, Nebraska. I made profession of faith in St John’s Reformed Church in Lincoln in 1980.
WG: When did you know that the Lord was calling you to the pastoral ministry?
SC: I did not see clearly that I was being called to pastoral ministry until the summer before my senior year in seminary. That summer I realized that what I ought to be doing was to be teaching catechism, preaching, making house visits and the like, that the church really is where “the action” is, i.e., it is the institution established by our Lord for the advancement of the kingdom of God through the foolishness of Gospel preaching and through the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
WG: Let’s move onto some theological matters. Could you elaborate a little on what concerns you about ‘The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty’ (QIRC) and ‘The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience’ (QIRE) within the reformed camp for our readers?
SC: As I tried to explain in Recovering the Reformed Confession, QIRC is the desire to know what God knows, the way he knows it. Biblical and confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice is content to receive God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, in which God has condescended to reveal himself truly. We read God’s Word and submit to it as creatures. We understand that we are image bearers, analogues of God. The quest to know what he has not revealed is destructive of genuine Christian piety in a variety of ways. It destroys humility for one thing. The QIRE is search for the next great, sublime religious experience. In RRC I drew a contrast between the warm, vital piety of the 16th and 17th centuries and the rather different piety of the First Great Awakening in the 18th century. The theology that undergirded that episode was, in significant ways, different from the theology of the Reformed confessions and the great Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. Further, the quest for certain types of experience devolved, in the 19th century into a theology and practice that did great damage to the Reformation churches and which continues to influence evangelicalism today.
WG: Now that you’ve touched upon the topic of evangelicalism, what do you think is the key difference between being reformed and being evangelical? Is there a distinction between the two?
SC: It is helpful to distinguish between being “evangelical” in the old, Reformation and post-Reformation sense of the word and “an evangelical” in the more contemporary sense of the word. The Reformation was intensely concerned to recover the evangel, the Good News that Christ obeyed, died, and was raised as the substitute for sinners and that all who trust him are justified, saved, being sanctified, and shall be glorified by God’s favour (grace) alone, through faith alone. The modern evangelical movements, however, inasmuch as they are the children of the so-called Second Great Awakening have not proven to be very interested in the gospel or in the churches of the Reformation. The evangelical movements have been organized around busy-ness, around extraordinary experiences (e.g., the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements) and around social concerns more than they have been around the good news and the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
WG: Thanks for clearing that up. Since you’re a real lover of church history, who are some of your theological heroes? And why?
SC: As a church historian I understand that all men are sinners and they all have clay feet but I am impressed with Polycarp, among the early fathers. He combined a remarkably mature understanding of the faith with a courageous piety during one of the more difficult periods in the history of the church. Gottschalk of Orbais preserved for us the authentically Augustinian doctrines of grace in a time when much of the church had abandoned them and him to house arrest in a monastery. That they actually beat him for teaching what Augustine taught says much about the 9th-century church in the West. Luther turned the church on its head for the gospel and for the Word of God. Without Luther there would not have been a Reformation. In the period 1513-21 no other figure was as clear about the gospel, how to distinguish law and gospel, the supremacy and clarify of Scripture, the nature of grace and faith, and about the Christian life as Dr. Luther. We owe him everything. Calvin and the Reformed orthodox did a marvellous job of helping to put Luther’s great Reformation insights into a more comprehensive and covenantal context. To Calvin we owe a superior explanation of the Lord’s Supper and the nature of Christian worship. I am very impressed with Herman Witsius’ ability to focus on the most important things and to draw together the best parts of Reformed covenant theology as it developed in the 17th century. I’m grateful to B. B. Warfield for his remarkably intelligent and thoughtful defence of the faith, to Machen for his courage and grace, and to Van Til for defending the Christian faith consistently and for seeing the true nature of Barth’s theology.
WG: And how about books? If you could name –say- your top fifteen books, which would they be?
SC: In no particular order:
1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923). 2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vol. trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeil (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
3. Johannes Wollebius, Compendium of Christian Theology in John W. Beardslee, ed., Reformed Dogmatics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).
4. D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)
5. Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus Publications, 2009).
6. Caspar Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, trans. Lyle D. Bierma, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995)
7. Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism (Philipsburg: P&R, 1946) 8. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 2 vol. (Philipsburg: P&R, repr., 1990)
9. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. Willard (Philipsburg: P&R, repr. 1985).
10. Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (New York: HBJ, 1949)
11. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948).
12. Peter Dathenus, The Pearl of Christian Comfort, trans. A. Blok (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997)
13. Franciscus Junius, On True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).
14. Anonymous, To Diognetus in Michael. W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapidsl Baker Academic, 2007)
15. Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, trans., O. R. Johnston, ed. J. I. Packer (Cambridge: J. Clarke, repr. 1973).
WG: Fantastic. Thanks so much. Now brother, what things concern you most about the current state of the evangelical world at large?
SC: Through the course of the Second Great Awakening evangelical theology in the USA and the West came to be dominated by the subjective, by feelings, impressions, and claims of extra-biblical revelation. The remnants of the older confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice served as a curb on evangelical subjectivism until about 25 years ago. As broader evangelicalism has become self-aware of its antipathy for the Reformation the only course it has, it seems, is apocalyptic moralism and mysticism. There does not seem to be much space for the objective truth of God’s Word, the gospel of the incarnation, Christ’s substitutionary obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension. Those who tire of mysticism and moralism flee to some form of Byzantine Christianity or Romanism and the Reformation becomes even more marginal.
WG: That’s a pretty sad indictment. Something that’s troubling is here in Spain is pro-homosexual theology. What can be done to stop the advance of such a theology? And why do you think it has come about?
SC: Christians have always been tempted to baptize the culture and call it Christianity whether it was the imperial cult in the 4th century or the modern doctrine of human perfectibility in the 19th century. Homosexual behaviour and other sins have been normalized in the culture at the very time when Christians seem to be least prepared to confront it. Christians seem shocked to find that the Bible thinks differently about creation and sexuality than they do but it does. There are two ways forward. The first is to recover the biblical doctrine of nature, that God is not only our Redeemer but also our Creator and that, in creation, he established certain universal patterns. Our late-modern culture is conducting a Blitzkrieg on the very concept of nature (that there are any universal, fixed, creational norms) but as Paul says in Romans 1 and 2, such a war is futile. The second thing we must do is to begin to read the Scriptures again at home and in our services. Pastors must be willing to risk alienating those who would be entertained on Sundays by reading God’s Word to the congregation and then proclaiming it thoughtfully and faithfully. The Scriptures are that Word that the Spirit has promised to use and we can trust that it will not return without accomplishing God’s will.
WG: Amen. Why do you think there has been such a revival of Calvinism amongst young Westerners? How do you feel about this phenomenon?
SC: It is a mixed blessing. The Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) are not so young anymore and some would say that they are not so Reformed but they do still seem restless and that might be a good thing. It is well that people are paying attention to aspects of the Reformed confession but there is much more to being Reformed than the doctrines of election and reprobation. The Reformed theologians taught and, more importantly, the Reformed churches confess in catechisms and confessions much more than the YRR movement seems to have grasped. There is a reading of the history of redemption (a theology of the biblical covenants), a doctrine of Scripture, a way of reading Scripture (a hermeneutic), a doctrine of humanity (anthropology), a catholic Christology, a doctrine of the church and the sacraments (ecclesiology) that seems to be largely ignored. The YRR movement is like a foyer in the church or an on-ramp to a freeway: neither is a place to stop. My fervent wish is that folk would read our great writers, our churchly confessions, and embrace the Reformed theology, piety, and practice as an alternative to Rome, Constantinople, and Seattle.
WG: To wrap up, Dr. Clark. If you could give a piece of godly advice to our younger readers on Evangelical Focus, what would it be?
SC: Contrary to what you may have been taught, the world was made to be known and you were made to know it. Contrary to what you may have been told, the world around you, though corrupted by sin, is not an illusion and evil is not winning. Believe your eyes and ears but do not believe everything you read and hear. You can and should, however, trust that God’s Word is reliable and true, that Christ is the Saviour, that he really came, that he was really raised, and that he is really coming again to make all things right again. Until that time you and I have a great calling to trust Christ with all our heart and out of that confidence to serve him in this world by loving God and our neighbour. Find a true church where the gospel is purely preached, where the sacraments are purely administered, and where they love the people enough to practice loving, gracious discipline.
WG: Thanks so much, Dr. Clark. It’s been great chatting to you. Thanks for all your insights. We wish you every blessing in your labours for the Lord Jesus.