R. Scott Clark


Written by R. Scott Clark |
Saturday, February 18, 2023
The social gospellers taught that we may and must “save” ourselves “through love.” For Machen, however, such a doctrine was just “semi-Pelagianism.” For the social gospellers, the hope of the world is to “apply the principles of Jesus” to it, as though He were a mere teacher or prophet. For Machen, however, the “redeeming work of Christ which is at the center of the Bible is applied to the individual soul . . . by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, we “find no permanent hope for society in the mere ‘principles of Jesus’ or the like, but we find it in the new birth of individual souls.”

World War I turned Europe on its head, brought crashing down the optimism of the Enlightenment, and ushered in post-Enlightenment Europe. In America, however, young people undeterred by the war set about attempting to bring to earth the kingdom of God through social action. They called their message “the social gospel,” and its principal preacher was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), who endeavored to address the poverty he found in Hell’s Kitchen (in New York) by preaching a “gospel” of social improvement and working toward bringing about the kingdom of God on the earth through social action. This was their definition of salvation.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936), however, also survived World War I and defended a different doctrine, which held that the visible church represents Christ’s spiritual kingdom on the earth and that Christians exist in what John Calvin had called a “twofold kingdom” (Institutes 3.19.15). For Machen, salvation was too grand an idea to be brought utterly to earth. He recognized that Christianity was “certainly a life,” but how was it produced? The social gospellers thought that they could bring about that life “by exhortation,” Machen wrote, but such an approach always proves “powerless.” “The strange thing about Christianity was,” he explained, “that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” He recognized that such an approach seems “impractical.” It is what Paul called “ ‘the foolishness of the message.’ . . . It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal teachers today.” Nevertheless, the “effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.”

The social gospel reduced the human problem to material poverty. For Machen, a student of Paul and an Augustinian, our problem is much more profound. In his 1935 radio addresses, he explained that sin is much more than “antisocial conduct,” as the progressives and the social gospellers had it. The true definition of sin is “disobedience to a command of God.” It is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so wonderfully says, “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (Q&A 14).

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The History of Covenant Theology

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Throughout the history of the church there has always been a theology of the covenants. The Reformation recovery of the gospel and the biblical distinction between grace and works made it possible for Reformed theology to construct a detailed and fruitful covenant theology.

Until recently, it was widely held that covenant theology was created in the middle of the seventeenth century by theologians such as Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669). In fact, covenant theology is nothing more or less than the theology of the Bible. It is also the theology of the Reformed confessions. In the history of theology, the elements of what we know as covenant theology; the covenant of redemption before time between the persons of the Trinity, the covenant of works with Adam, and the covenant of grace after the fall; have existed since the early church.
Indeed, Reformed readers who turn to the early church fathers (c. 100–500 AD) might be surprised to see how frequently they used language and thought patterns that we find very familiar. The covenant theology of the fathers stressed the unity of the covenant of grace, the superiority of the new covenant over the old (Mosaic) covenant, and that, because Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, all Christians, whether Jewish or gentile, are Abraham’s children. They also stressed the moral obligations of membership in the covenant of grace.
The covenant theology of the medieval church (c. AD 500–1500) was related to that of the early fathers but distinct in certain ways. In response to the criticism that Christianity gave rise to immorality, the early church tended to speak about the history of redemption as the story of two laws, the old (Moses) and the new (Christ). They tended to speak of grace as the power to keep the law in order to be justified.
This habit only increased in the medieval church. The major theologians argued that God can only call people righteous if they are actually, inherently, righteous. This, they thought, will happen when sinners are infused with grace, and cooperate with that grace, so that they become saints. In this scheme, sanctification is justification, faith is obedience, and doubt is of the essence of faith.
In medieval covenant theology the word “covenant” became synonymous with “law.” They did not speak of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, as we do. Rather the grace of the covenant enables one to keep the law.
Late in the medieval period, some theologians began to stress the idea that God has given a kind of grace to all humans and made a covenant so that “to those who do what is in them, God does not deny grace.” In effect, God helps those who help themselves. The Reformation would not only reform the covenant theology of the early fathers, but wage full-scale war on the covenant theology of the medieval church.
When he rejected the medieval doctrine of salvation by cooperation with grace, Martin Luther (1483–1546) rejected the old law/new law understanding of redemptive history. He came to understand that all of Scripture has two ways of speaking, law and gospel. The law demands perfect obedience, and the gospel announces Christ’s perfect obedience to that law, his death and his resurrection for his people.
Not long after Luther came to his Protestant views, others were already reforming covenant theology along Protestant lines. In the early 1520s, the Swiss Reformed theologian Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) was teaching what would later become known as “the covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son from all eternity. He also distinguished between the covenant of works as a legal covenant and the covenant of grace as a gracious covenant. A few years later Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) published the first Protestant book devoted to explaining the covenant of grace. Like the early fathers, this work stressed the graciousness and unity of the covenant of grace.

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The Commander of Yahweh’s Army: The Son and the Covenant of Grace Present in the Types and Shadows

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, September 27, 2022
The very same Son who was to submit to the humiliation of incarnation, of gestation, of birth, of obedient suffering and death, who was to be raised for us and and who intercedes for us now at the right hand was with his church even before the incarnation because there is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. 

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of Yahweh. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my Lord say to his servant?” And the commander of Yahweh’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13–15).
One of the more profound points of disagreement between some Particular Baptists and the historic Christian and Reformed understanding of the history of redemption (historia salutis) centers on the question of the nature of the covenant of grace before the New Testament. There are more moderate Baptists who see the covenant of grace as actually present in the Old Testament (i.e., Gen-Malachi). The school of thought that concerns us here, however, is the more radical strain of Particular Baptist theology who reject the idea that the covenant of grace was actually, substantially present in the types and shadows of the Old Testament. In this view, the covenant of grace is only actually present in the New Covenant. In this view, there is a witness to the covenant of grace in the types and shadows and believers under the OT might be said to have apprehended Christ and the covenant of grace by faith but the covenant of grace itself remains wholly future relative to the types and shadows. Indeed, some proponents of this view have argued that all the covenants (including the Abrahamic) before the New Covenant were, in essence, covenants of works and that only the New Covenant is the covenant of grace.
One counter argument that I have been offering to the more radical Particular Baptist view is to say that such a view cannot account for significant events in the history of redemption nor does it account for the way the New Testament itself interprets the Old Testament. In other essays I have noted how much Paul’s appeal to the history of Israel (in 1 Cor 10:1–4) relies on a substantial continuity between Israel and the New Covenant church. I have also observed that in (the most likely textual variant of) Jude 5, it is Jesus who “saved the people out of the land.”1 For these discussions see the resources below.
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Paul’s Golgothic Doctrine of Sanctification

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, September 20, 2022
The starting point of sanctification is not obedience. It is faith, trust, confidence in the Christ who was obedient for us sinners. Paul calls the gospel foolishness because that is how it seems to pagans. What has the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of a Jewish rabbi to do with power, success, and influence in this world? From the perspective of this age, nothing at all. 

Was there a more un-sanctified and immature congregation of which we have an apostolic record than the Corinthian congregation? From a reading of Paul’s two canonical letters to them they were beset by power struggles and schisms within, tolerant of gross immorality, besotted with flowery rhetoric, and unimpressed by the very gospel message itself among other things.
The Dismal History of A Notorious Congregation
Post-canonical church history confirms that the Corinthian church was a mess. One of the earliest post-canonical writings we have is a lengthy letter known to us as 1 Clement. We do not know who actually wrote it or exactly when it was written (probably in the late AD 90s or very early 100s) but it was written to address some of the very same issues that Paul had addressed four or five decades prior. Then, perhaps five decades after that letter, we have the oldest post-canonical Christian sermon aimed at the Corinthians (2 Clement, c. AD 150).
The Corinthian congregation was one of those congregations about which pastors say (among themselves or perhaps to themselves), “I probably would not have taken that call.” It must have required a very strong sense of an internal vocation to agree to try to shepherd them. Every classis or presbytery has one or two of such congregations where, for whatever reason, there are always problems and the people (and sometimes the leadership) just do not seem to mature.
No one who reads either of the canonical letters to the Corinthians or the post-canonical letter and sermon to them could doubt that the Corinthian Christians lacked sanctification. What should interest us more, however, is how Paul addressed it. He knew that they lacked sanctity. Did he respond by telling them to be more sanctified? Did he preach to them about the necessity of obedience? Did he leave them with the impression that they were under a covenant of works and that they had better perform or else?
Paul’s Surprising Response
The two canonical letters that we have from Paul were probably part of a stream of correspondence between the Apostle and the Corinthians. We have either 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th but we speak of First (One) and Second (Two) Corinthians.1 The first of several presenting issues appears in 1 Cor 1:11. Paul explained, For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers (ESV).
Quarreling in the church reveals a lack of maturity and sanctification, i.e., a lack of Christlikeness. Some of them (perhaps more) are not esteeming others more highly than themselves. They are not, in important ways, dying to self and being made alive in Christ.
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He Is a Pastor, Not a Priest

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Wednesday, September 14, 2022
Fundamentally, ministers and pastors announce. They report. They do not create. God creates. God saves. He uses the ministry of the Word to accomplish his purposes and he uses the sacraments to confirm his promises, but he has no need of earthly priests nor of priestcraft.

One of the great temptations that reporters face, especially as they become famous (or notorious), is the temptation to think that they are part of the story or that they are in charge of the story. In other words, it is tempting, some might say easy, to get bored with merely gathering the facts, getting them right, and then reporting the news so that the public, politicians, and policy makers can act accordingly. This is one reason why it is so difficult to find old-school, “straight news” reporters.
Moving On from Mere Ministry?
A similar thing can happen in pastoral ministry in the confessional Protestant traditions. Their vocation is right there in the name: “Pastoral ministry.” Our English word pastor is really the Latin noun for shepherd. You might see photos or paintings of what are said to be “pastoral” settings. A pasture is where livestock graze and it is the pastor’s calling to guide, guard, and feed the livestock. The noun ministry is from another Latin noun, minister. It means servant. It is the Latin translation for deacon in the Vulgate, the Latin Bible of the Medieval church. In Reformed church polity, the Pastor is the minister of the Word, i.e., the servant of the Word, and the Deacon is the minister of the physical needs of the congregation. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, some pastors appended the letters V.D.M. to their name. “The Rev. Mr. So-and-So, V.D.M.” Those letters stood for “Verbi Dei Minister, servant of the Word of God. That’s a fine title and one that we should probably return to using.
Sometimes, however, pastors become weary of being mere servants of God’s Word and they give into the temptation to give themselves a more elevated sounding title. The Anglicans are very good at this. They have all sorts of titles for unordained and ordained offices in the church. Depending on local circumstances a pastor might also be a vicar, a rector, a canon, or a dean. One of the titles that some in the Protestant traditions sometimes take to themselves is “priest.” This happens in other traditions too but among Protestants it seems to crop up most often. Indeed, in the website linked above, it is given as one of the three basic offices of the church (the others being bishop and deacon).
The Problem with Priests
Why should not a Protestant minister call himself a priest? After all, the Oxford English Dictionary says that our English word priest is derived from the Latin word presbyter, (which itself is borrowed from the Greek noun, πρεσβύτερος). A Presbyter is a biblical office (e.g., Acts 20:17; 1 Peter 5:1; James 5:14). It is usually translated as “elder.” So, what is the problem?
The first problem is that we use the word priest to translate the Hebrew word (e.g., Lev 1:7; Cohen; ἱερεῖς in the LXX) for the official charged with the responsibility of offering sacrifices. That office was essential to the period of types and shadows (i.e., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Prophets). Along with the Kings and the Prophets, the Priests held a divinely instituted office that was identified with the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats. This is not arbitrary. It is literally the first thing the Book of Leviticus says: “and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar…” (ESV). To be sure, the Levitical priests performed other functions but their central and essential function, the thing they were meant to do, which the other two offices were not meant to do, was to reconcile the people to God and God to the people through the shedding of blood.
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Should Lay People Administer the Sacraments?

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, August 23, 2022
Christ brought with him the Kingdom of God and not the Democracy of God. A king is an office. Jesus is, in distinct ways, King over the church and the world. As King over the church, where he exercises his special, saving providence, he has instituted offices and sacraments. He has not empowered all the people to do everything.

A correspondent wrote to ask whether Christian laity should administer the sacraments? This is an ancient question, though typically we face it in a different form. In the Reformation, Calvin dealt with this question because midwives would administer baptism to infants in view of infant mortality and under the conviction that baptism is necessary to salvation.
Sacraments Not Sentiment
In our setting, the question is a little different. Most evangelicals take a much lower view of the sacrament of baptism than did the sixteenth-century midwife. Most evangelical laity, in 2022, are more likely to administer the sacrament for sentimental reasons (e.g., it’s nice) or under the influence of a radically egalitarian (or democratic) view of the church and sacraments.
To be sure, the medieval, priestly (sacerdotal) view of the sacraments was grossly mistaken. Despite what you might hear from some quarters, the sacraments are divinely instituted signs of divine grace and seals of the same to those who believe but they are not the things signified. Radbertus (a ninth-century monk) was wrong: at consecration, the elements of holy communion do not become the literal, actual body and blood of Christ. Ratramnus was correct. Were that true then they would, by definition, no longer be sacraments. Christ is one thing and a sacrament another. Baptism signifies what Christ does in justification and sanctification but baptism does not itself confer new life, justify, or sanctify. The same sovereign, free, Holy Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen 1:2), ordinarily (in both senses, i.e., routinely and by divine ordination) grants new life to his elect through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14–17). In the sacraments, he signifies to our senses the things promised (e.g., in the washing of baptism and in the sight, smell, and taste of the bread and wine) and confirms (seals) the promises of the gospel. They testify to believers that what we have heard preached is really true for us personally. This is why we speak as we do in the Heidelberg Catechism:
73. Why then does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?
God speaks thus not without great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby that like as the filthiness of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are taken away by the blood and Spirit of Christ; but much more, that by this divine pledge and token He may assure us, that we are as really washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.
We deny that baptism is itself the washing away of sins. Baptism is called the washing of regeneration rhetorically or figuratively (Titus 3:5). The one thing (the sign) is said figuratively to be another, i.e., the reality. This is a sacramental identity or union (See, e.g., Calvin Institutes, 4.15.15). The benefits signed and sealed in baptism are received through faith alone (sola fide) not through baptism.
We say the same sort of thing about the Lord’s Supper:
75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?
Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.
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Paul Was A Gospel-Man

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Wednesday, July 27, 2022
Paul was “set apart” for the Good News that Christ has saved sinners. Christ justifies sinners. He sanctifies sinners and he glorifies sinners by sola gratia, sola fide. Does that scandalize you? That is a warning sign, is it not? If it scandalizes you, if that sounds a little Antinomian to you, then perhaps you are not yet a gospel-man like Paul.

Paul Was A Gospel Man
Gospel means good news and Paul was a “gospel man.” I am uncertain where I first heard this expression but it is a good expression because it captures a basic orientation to the faith. There are those Christians who are perpetually glum, whether about the state of the world (this is a big pothole into which it is easy to fall) or about the state of their sins. To be sure, there are plenty of examples in the Psalms and elsewhere of believers reckoning with both and crying out to the Lord, but there is a difference between realism and honesty before the Lord and others about the state of things or the state of one’s soul and perpetual, relentless misery. I am increasingly convinced that those whose spiritual environment (e.g., church, Christian friends, the spiritual culture in which one lives) is dominated by the law (e.g., “do this” “you need to get better at that”) tend toward glumness. Eeyore (the fictional donkey in Winnie the Pooh) is amusing because he represents such a contrast to the generally upbeat characters in the stories. Christopher Robin is generally cheery. Of course, Pooh, so long has he has had his honey, is cheery. Eeyore is the exception and we only have to bear with him briefly.
A gospel-oriented spiritual culture makes a real difference in a congregation and in one’s outlook generally. Paul was a gospel-oriented Christian. To be a gospel-man, of course, means that one is utterly committed to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul was that. He brooked no corruption of the good news by anyone, not even by a fellow apostle (e.g., Peter. See Gal. 2:11–14). When the Apostle Peter compromised the gospel by refusing to eat with Gentile Christians (for fear of offending the Judaizers), the Apostle Paul rebuked him publicly and to good effect. If the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) happened after the rebuke, then we see the fruit of it. Peter stoutly defended the gospel against the Judaizers and insisted on their full inclusion into the visible church. After all, in Christ the dividing wall (contra the Dispensationalists) has been torn down (Eph. 2:11‐22). In Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile (Col 3:11; Gal. 3:28–29).
Because he was a gospel-man, Paul preached the Good News. He preached the law in its three uses (pedagogical, civil—contra the theocrats, we never see him calling any magistrate to enforce the 1st table—and the normative, i.e., as the rule of the Christian life) but the thing that got him into trouble with the civil authorities, with the Jews, and with some Christians was that he was relentless about preaching the good news. We may infer from Romans 6:1 that some were accusing him of antinomianism. “The Doctor,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is famous for his comments on Romans 6:1:
If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism, you are probably not putting it correctly. What do I mean by that? Just this: The Gospel, you see, comes as this free gift of God–irrespective of what man does. Now, the moment you say a thing like that, you are liable to provoke somebody to say, “Well, if that is so it doesn’t matter what I do.” The Apostle takes up that argument more than once in this great epistle. “What then,” he says at the beginning of chapter 6, “shall we do evil–commit sin–that grace might abound?”… So, let all of us test our preaching, our conversation, our talk to others about the Gospel by that particular test…If you don’t make people say things like that sometimes, if you’re not misunderstood and slanderously reported from the standpoint of Antinomianism, it’s because you don’t believe the Gospel truly and you don’t preach it truly.
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Psalmody and the Sexual Revolution: Or Yet Another Reason Why We Should Only Sing God’s Word

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, July 19, 2022
The Old Testament is coming alive before our eyes. Suddenly Sodom and Gomorrah seem more real, do they not? Nothing will subvert the new sexual order more than singing joyfully the Songs of Zion in the midst of the nations raging against the King (Ps. 2).

It was only a matter of time. There is a story on CNN about the the 2019 publication of a LGBTQ hymnal, Songs For The Holy Other: Hymns Affirming the LGBTQIA2S+ Community. This collection is published by the Hymn Society, which is a century old this year.
The story begins with an acknowledgement of the affective power of singing. The first interview is with a Lesbian who chafed at being “tolerated” in the church. She wanted her Lesbian sexuality be affirmed even as she wanted to retain her Christian faith. She sought to synthesize Christianity with feminism as she studied music and “fell in love” with her “now-wife.” She contributed two hymns to the collection.
The title is a play on words. Theologians often speak of God as “wholly other” as a way to characterize his transcendence. The title uses a homonym but applies it to homosexuals in the church. They are the “holy” other. According to CNN, the hymnal was compiled by people from “seven denominations and a wide range of sexualities and gender identities.”
The contributors are explicit about their aim: “It is important for churches to explicitly state who is welcome there. It is important for members of our community to hear their names spoken—and sung—in their houses of worship…”. One authority contacted for the piece identifies as “pansexual.” “Queer people,” she says, “are longing to be heard,” she says “The church was supposed to protect them and love them and teach them about God. It has made a lot of mistakes, and we have a lot to make up for.”
We are in the midst of the third phase of a great sexual revolution in the last century. The first, a century ago, was about the role of women in secular society and in that revolution women gained the freedom to drive and to vote. In the second phase, in the 1970s, women left the house for full-time careers, gained no-fault divorce, and abortion on demand. In the third, the very definition of marriage has been turned on its head and the heterosexual hegemony—grounded in nature since time immemorial—is being overturned in favor of queer, pan-sexual neo-paganism. It turns out that Pandora’s Box is pan-sexual chaos. It is so radical that even some third-wave feminists and advocates of homosexuality and homosexual marriage are complaining about being marginalized.
In the face of this revolution Christians have two choices, to try to co-opt the culture (or be co-opted by it) or to resist it. Of course, the mainline churches (e.g., the United Churches of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church USA et al) will try to incorporate the radical new sexual ethos in a sad attempt to remain relevant, but after giving up the Scriptures as the un-normed norm, what else can the seven sisters do?
For our purposes, the question facing the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches is this: is there a rule of worship or not? It is the unquestioned assumption of this hymnal and its advocates that it is the function of the church and her hymns to affirm and to express the religious experience of the church. As the church changes, so must the hymnal.
The confessional P&R churches, however, do not begin with that assumption. They begin with the assumption that it is not the function of singing in worship for us to say whatever we want to God but to repeat God’s Word after him. The role of a song in worship is not for us to say to God what is on our hearts but for the congregation to say to God what is on his heart.
This is how the classical Reformed churches understood the function of singing. They understood worship to be a dialogue in which God speaks and his people respond but the Reformed all understood that God’s people are to respond with his Word. This is part of what they understood sola Scriptura to mean: God’s Word is sufficient for the Christian faith, the Christian life, and public worship.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, as religious subjectivism swept through the Modern church, first under the influence of Pietism, and then under the influence of the liberal children and grandchildren of the Pietists, God’s Word was gradually marginalized in favor of Watts’ paraphrases of the Psalms and then, finally, hymns. Eventually, in virtually every quarter of the church (and even in most P&R churches) the hymnal completely routed the Psalter.
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Secular When it Should be Sacred

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Thursday, July 7, 2022
Recovering the distinction between sacred and secular will not solve all our problems but, like its analogue, the nature/grace distinction (not dualism), the sacred/secular distinction is an important tool as we continue to learn how to navigate a post-Christian culture.

A significant part of the process of recovering and applying classical Reformed theology to our contemporary situation (sometimes called ressourcement, a French word which refers to getting back to original sources) is recovering the distinctions that we lost in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a number of these, e.g., the archetypal/ectypal distinction, which, in Recovering the Reformed Confession, I called the categorical distinction; the distinction between law and gospel, which, in the classical period of Reformed theology (i.e., the 16th and 17th), was received as basic. Another lost distinction is that between the sacred and the secular. This is a distinction that our classical writers employed regularly but one that is regarded with suspicion today. In this discussion, sacred refers to that which is devoted to God. Think of the way Leviticus speaks of that which is dedicated to God or holy. Secular, in this context, refers to that which is common to Christians and pagans alike, which is not dedicated to God or holy in that sense. It does not mean “unclean” or defiled but simply not specially set apart. Think of the difference between the loaf of bread in your kitchen and the bread that has been consecrated for use in the Lord’s Supper. We often say during the administration of the Supper, “this sacred meal.” That there are secular meals is necessarily implied. Your family dinner is such a meal but it is not dirty or corrupt.
Recovering the Distinction Between Sacred and Secular
The traditional Christian (and Reformed) distinction is regarded with suspicion by some because it is unfamiliar. It is also, as a recent correspondent wrote to me, regarded by some as a Roman Catholic distinction. Some have been taught that the sacred belongs to God and the secular belongs to the Devil. That would be Manichaeism (i.e., the theology behind the Star Wars films). Others have been taught (directly or indirectly) by the followers of Abraham Kuyper that any distinction between the sacred and the secular somehow removes the sovereignty of God.
Neither of these was true in the classical period of Reformed theology and they are not true now. The Protestants saw the secular and the sacred as two distinct spheres over which and through which God exercises his sovereign providence.
Calvin used “secular” as a category without prejudice regularly. E.g. in Institutes 1.8.2, he contrasted the different styles between the human authors of sacred Scripture and “secular” writers. We see the same usage in 1.8.6. Calvin regularly wrote of secular judges, secular philosophers, secular work. E.g. in 4.7.22 he contrasted the properly sacred work of ministry with Gregory I’s complaint that he was forced to be too occupied with “secular affairs.” This way of thinking, speaking, and writing was universal among the magisterial Protestant Reformers and the Protestant orthodox.
We should not confuse the category secular with the use of “secular humanism” and “secularism” as pejoratives. Just as there is a difference between science and scientism so there is a proper distinction between things that are secular and a philosophy of secularism.
One way to think about the distinction between the sacred and the secular is to consider the restriction that the Apostle Paul placed on us in 1 Corinthians 10:14–21. The problem facing the Corinthian church was what to do about sharing meals with pagans.
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Nature, Grace, and Film

Written by R. Scott Clark |
Tuesday, July 5, 2022
When we think about film we should ask, “is this a good piece of filmmaking? What is the nature of film? What makes a good film (e.g., screen writing, cinematography, directing, editing, acting etc)? These are the sorts of questions that Christian film critics ought to be asking and answering about film
I love a good film. I took three courses in film criticism as an undergraduate. They were more difficult than one might think. First, taking notes in the dark is challenging and reading them afterward is even more difficult. Second, I had to watch a lot of hard-to-watch films, which I would not recommend. Still, I got to watch a number of great films and got to learn a bit about how films are written, shot, and edited. I learned that the really great thing about Citizen Kane is not the banal script or even Orson Welles (1915–85)—the best performance in the film is Joseph Cotton’s—but the cinematography of Gregg Toland (1904–48). The opening shot amazes me still, even after CGI, etc. By the way, the best way to experience Orson Welles is to listen to him. If you enjoy podcasts go to archive.org and search for “Orson Welles old time radio.”
There is an approach to film criticism popular among evangelicals that seeks to find some aspect of a film, e.g., a theme, a story arc, or a character that somehow connects to the Christian faith. This is a mistake driven by a confusion over nature and grace. Evangelicals have long had trouble with the category of nature. For the most part they do not have that category in their intellectual toolbox. Things are thought to be valuable only insofar as they relate to grace (e.g., the new life).
When I became a Christian in the mid-70s, one of the fist things I learned informally, from other Christians, was that once a Christian has been redeemed he should no longer be interested even in the ordinary things that interested him when he was a pagan. Thus, an interest in sports must be replaced by an interest in what they called “spiritual things.” What they were saying is that Christians need to abandon nature for grace.
The Three Ways of Relating Nature and Grace
My new evangelical friends did not realize it but they were repeating an Anabaptist way of thinking about nature (creation) and grace (e.g., redemption). There are broadly three ways of relating nature and grace. The Anabaptist view is, as the Reformed complained, that “grace destroys nature.” The way I explain it to my students is to say that, in the Anabaptist view (which has greatly influenced American evangelicalism since 1800), grace obliterates (i.e., paints over) nature. They think this way because they have an over-realized eschatology, they expect too much of heaven and the future state now. This over-realized eschatology iReas a leaven throughout their theology. It leavens their theology, their ecclesiology, their view of the sacraments, their ethics, and their rejection of nature as a category of thought. In the Anabaptist/evangelical system, nature is thought mainly in terms of fallen nature and thus there is a quasi-Manichaean quality to the way they relate nature and grace.
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