The next chapter in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry is by Scott Clark, and is entitled “Do This and Live.” In it he argues for the active obedience of Christ as (an essential part of) the ground of our justification. Okay, I agree with that. So how hard could this be?
But alas. On p. 234, Clark says this in a footnote.
“Since the proponents of the so-called federal vision seem to affirm both an eternal, unconditional election and a historical, conditional election that can be lost without perseverance, it is difficult to see how they escape the strictures of the Synod of Dort on at least half their position”
Now this is a fine way of doing theology! If we only get credit for half our theology, or we get blamed for the unbalanced half, which is unbalanced precisely because that half (in isolation) is condemned by some council or other, what shall we then do? The half position was condemned because the initial bad guys had not affirmed the balancing portion, but now along comes these new fellows who do affirm what they need to. What now?
One time Scott Clark walked into a diner and ordered a grilled ham and cheese. When it came to his table, he complained to the waiter because he didn’t want a grilled cheese. The waiter (helpfully, he thought) pointed out the ham that was in there, big as life. But Clark had a riposte at the ready. “I am not counting the ham. And I would like a ham and cheese.” The waiter hadn’t been to seminary, so he was a little bit disoriented. “You are not counting the ham?” “No,” said Clark. “And if we don’t count the ham, this is clearly a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese alone was clearly condemned at the Synod of Dort. The ham is really necessary.” “But the ham is right there,” the waiter said. “I mentioned this before,” Clark replied stiffly. “I am not counting the ham.”
Let’s use a theological example. The Calvinist position is to affirm the exhaustive sovereignty of God over all things as well as human responsibility. Both and. God freely and unalterably ordains whatsoever comes to pass and He gives free agency to His creatures. Clearly each half of this by itself is a grievous error, and so this must mean that balanced Calvinism which affirms both must be unbalanced both ways by denying each, provided we don’t count their affirmations of each. We are not counting the ham, and we want the grilled cheese sandwich taken away. It displeases us.
This is simply astonishing. Clark would have a point if federal vision types affirmed eternal unconditional election and historical conditional election as applying to the same people in the same way. That would be an attempt at A/not A, and in such circumstances to highlight one of the contradictory principles is fair game. But we do nothing of the kind. Decretal election applies to the elect, and only the decretally elect. Historical election applies to the Church in history, all the baptized. Where on earth can Clark find any kind of A/not A business in there? The federal vision affirms two positions, each affirmation being necessary to the orthodoxy of the other. Clark detaches one of them, carries it off, and then says, “Huh. Looks heretical to me. Where’s the necessary context?”
We are not very far into this chapter, and things are looking pretty grim.
“Despite his discomfort with the traditional and confessional doctrine of the covenant of works, John Murray (1898-1975) affirmed the imputation of active obedience repeatedly” (p. 237).
I am glad that Clark recognizes that someone can differ with the traditional language of the covenant of works, and yet affirm repeatedly the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and be cited positively by Clark. This being the case, I have to wonder why Clark has been unable to publicly recognize that I too have repeatedly affirmed the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. My personal goal is to make it into one of Clark’s footnotes, clutching a position I actually hold.
In this chapter, the closest he comes is this. Clark says “some federal-vision proponents also reject the imputation of active obedience. Rich Lusk argues . . .” (p. 241, emphasis mine). Now leaving aside for the moment whether Clark understands Rich Lusk’s argument, even on his own terms, this formulation means that some federal vision proponents affirm the imputation of active obedience. But how does this fit with Clark’s larger criticisms of federal vistion theology as a whole? Why wouldn’t it have been helpful for Clark to list the federal vision proponents who affirm the imputation of Christ’s active obedience? He appears to know that they are out there. Might it be that this would sort of make the current campaign against us a little bit more difficult?
This leads to another curious point in this chapter. And by curious, I mean really curious.
Clark, to his credit, acknowledges that there were delegates to the Westminster Assembly who denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. This would place them in disagreement with ME, be it noted. I place ME in all caps here so that scholars in future generations can pick up on this particular nuance, to wit, that I AFFIRM the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. But my position is similar to the majority of the Westminster theologians in two respects here, not just one. Not only do I affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, but I also affirm that it would be okay to include (as fellow Reformed colleagues) men who denied it. The roof of that deliberative chamber did not fall in when the assembly allowed the 17th century equivalent of Norman Shepherd to join with them in their important ministry.
What Clark does not really note about the behavior of the Westminster Assembly is how they tolerated this minority view within their ranks. Actually Clark does note it, but inadvertently. He notes it, but he doesn’t notice it.
“Reformed resolve would be tested by the opponents of the imputation of active obedience, eventually forcing a verbal compromise at the Westminster Assembly, but the center held, and the language of the confession remained sufficiently strong” (p. 235).
And again, he says
“I agree and am suggesting here that the Westminster Divines removed the more explicit language (i.e. ‘the whole obedience of Christ’) regarding active obedience to allow the opponents of the imputation of active obedience (Twisse, Vines, and Gattaker) to subscribe the confession while providing language sufficient for the preservation of the doctrine” (p. 235).
And then, near the conclusion of his chapter, he says this.
“That the Westminster Divines graciously formed the confession to allow a small minority who denied the imputation of active obedience to affirm it should not blind us to the external evidence (from the minutes) that the majority held and understood the Westminster Standards to teach the imputation of active obedience” (p. 264).
This is a big deal, and so let us discuss what it means. In the first quote above, Clark says that a verbal compromise was “forced” by the opponents of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. But in the last quote above, he says that these opponents were a “small minority.” How does that work? The small minority was actually accommodated because the vast majority at Westminster was far more conciliatory on this point than Clark is currently being. They held to the doctrine, as do I, and yet they deliberately framed the language to accommodate men who denied the doctrine. Clark says that they kept the substance of the doctrine, but note that he also says that the verbal formulation was intended to accommodate men like Norman Shepherd, who denies the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. So, if Twisse, Vines, and Gattaker subscribed the Confession would it be appropriate to then call them liars? Did the majority frame the language in such a way as to be able to give Twisse the right hand of fellowship afterwards? Clark says yes, and he says further that if we imitate them in this then we are compromising the gospel. But the men who showed us how to compromise the gospel in this way were not guilty of compromising the gospel themselves, because they, after all is said and done, were Westminster divines.
Speaking of the law/word of God in the Garden, Clark says:
“In this case, the formal ‘doing’ required by the law was abstinence, but the material obedience was loving God and obeying him completely. Those who lived under the Mosaic system will be judged accordingly (2:12-13), and those who did not (2:15) shall face judgment on the basis of the ‘law written on their hearts’ . . . but they are substantially identical. All human beings live under the same law: ‘do'” (p. 244).
Now yikes, as the apostle Paul might say. Again I say yikes.
First, notice that Clark is again confounding the Mosaic covenant with the covenant of works, despite the fact that the Westminster Confession clearly says that the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace.
And notice another way that Clark is sailing a little close to the wind here. By saying that our first parents were to fulfill the material obedience of “loving God and obeying him completely,” he is allowing us to mix a little love in with the merit. And what kind of merit is that? At Westminster West, they take their merit raw. In the past, when we have said, as many Reformed theologians before us have said, that the covenant of life in the Garden was essentially gracious, we are accused of all kinds of horrendous things. But Clark says something like the above, and then says (in a footnote, to be sure, but still) that this is an opinion upon which the Reformed tradition has been divided.
“After Dort, the Reformed orthodox spoke of God’s grace in making the covenant of works, and some (e.g. William Bucanus, John Ball, Anthony Burgess) said grace was necessary for Adam to complete it, but others (e.g. Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock, Johannes Wollebius, Amandus Polanus, James Ussher, John Owen, Johannes Cocceius, J.H. Heidegger, H. Witsius, W. a Brakel) said that Adam, by virtue of his creation, had natural ability to meet its terms” (pp. 257-258).”
This is the second time in this chapter that Clark has established and shown the existence of a Reformed catholicity that he himself is refusing to imitate. Look again at what he just said. Some said that God was gracious in making the covenant, others that grace was necessary for the fulfillment of it, and others say that Adam had natural ability (from God via the creation) to fulfill the covenant. I call that last option grace, by the way, but my point here is not to debate with the third option. Back then if you took the second option, you could be a father in the Reformed faith and be in print down the present day, thanks to Banner of Truth. But if you take the second option today, then the folks at Westminster West hold conferences and publish books about you, saying that you are attacking the gospel.
One last point. I am beginning to think that Clark has a particular kind of tunnel vision that afflicts some scholars. He can nuance the heck out of a particular position, provided the problematic position needing the nunaced massage was held by a man who has been dead and deep, lo, these three and a half centuries. But if the person in question is alive today, has an email address and a phone on his desk, and is willing to talk about it at any time, there is a curious inability to get even the simplest things straight.
Here is an example, and then I am done for the evening.
“The federal-vision advocates suggest that we are justified so long as we are united to Christ, but we retain that union partly by cooperating with grace” (p. 262).
This is simply a screwy and irresponsible misrepresentation. Our position is NOT that we are justified by our cooperation with grace. I don’t maintain my union with Christ. How could I possibly do that? I am fond of a Spurgeon story, where his suspicions were aroused one day when a man said something like “in my salvation, Christ did His part and I did mine.” “What do you mean?” was the obvious question. And the suspicions were eliminated when the man replied, “Christ’s part was to do the saving, and I got in the way.”
When Clark says some like “federal-vision advocates suggest,” and then follows it up with some fruity and heretical comment, he really ought to cite some examples. For my part, I flat deny it. Don’t believe anything of the kind, and never have. Scott Clark needs to learn how to be as careful with living authors as he appears to be with some dead ones.