A couple of days ago, a friend linked me to a post by Westminster Seminary California (WSC) Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Dr. R. Scott Clark. It is entitled, “The Attraction of Legal Preaching,” and is a mildly creative rant against a fictional preacher “who majors in the law to the neglect of the gospel.” Acceptable so far.
And the post cannot, on the surface, be accused of antinomianism, for it begins with the disclaimer, “All biblical and Reformed preachers must preach the law in both the pedagogical and normative or moral uses. . . . So, this post is not a diatribe against preaching the law. This post is a diatribe against the abuse of the law.”
With that out of the way, Dr. Clark goes on to describe this alleged “legal preacher.” He writes, “In practice, he preaches nothing but law. He thinks that mentioning Jesus periodically or even regularly means that he’s not a legal preacher and he can’t imagine that people are concerned about the tenor of his preaching because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.”
That is where things begin to get fuzzy, and the disclaimer starts to seem like a fig leaf. Then, more:
Every so often he mentions grace and faith but he doesn’t dwell on it or get caught up in it. When salvation comes up in a passage at hand (e.g., the crossing of the Red Sea) he covers it but he doesn’t leave the people there. In his application he presses them as to whether they really believe it enough and whether they’ve really obeyed God.
Now, this guy just preaches this way because he “doesn’t know the law from the gospel,” Dr. Clark tells us, but rather reacts to an impulse to advance sanctification and obedience, and to stave off a declining culture. Then come the guilt-by-association references:
After all, those guys in Moscow seem like good fellows. They believe the bible and they understand that the culture is going to pot around us and they publish some pretty good things on the family and school.
Now we’re getting a little closer to home, and can begin to see something of whom Dr. Clark has in mind. One problem here is that like many critics, Dr. Clark won’t name a target openly, nor interact with him directly, and yet the description he provides of these now mentally-associated persons is perfectly false. It is at best a bad parody.
Dr. Clark follows with a series of “diagnoses”: the law-gospel-ignorant preacher also has never been convicted by the law himself (implying he’s unregenerate), doesn’t see himself as a sinner saved by grace (and thus can’t even think of sins he has to confess), doesn’t really even like the gospel, and is a power-hungry puppet master who manipulates his congregation by pushing their guilt buttons.
Now that’s one degenerate control freak in the pulpit! And I assume there probably are such preachers out there, especially in the Arminian world, but why would Dr. Clark drag the boys from Moscow into such a description? Why would he leave such an association like that hanging? By extension it certainly implicates the entire Christian Reconstruction movement, and well as every theonomist or those even close to us. And as we know, Clark has a history of criticizing such.
Indeed, one of the first commenters noted a good balance on the topic in John Carrick’s book, The Imperative of Preaching. Dr. Carrick is a professor at Greenville Seminary, which is a very conservative Presbyterian and Reformed seminary. Dr. Clark was apparently unimpressed, and met the commenter with a series of skeptical criticisms of his assessment of Carrick. It appears that even a non-theonomist, but simply classical Reformed preacher, will not escape Dr. Clark’s suspicion, if not condemnation, of the “legal preacher.”
What began to bug me about Dr. Clark’s parody was that he seemed to be criticizing general preaching of the law under the guise of criticizing the abuse of preaching the law. But he made that clear disclaimer up front, right? He’s not opposed to preaching the law at all, in fact he demands it.
So my simple question was this: what, in Dr. Clark’s view, is the proper or permitted mixture of law and gospel in a sermon? This is a starting point. So, I did something I rarely do, I left a comment in the comments section to another person’s blog. Then, after just a few short exchanges, as you shall see, my comments were being deleted and Dr. Clark was on another person’s thread stating, “Since Joel decided to be a jerk rather than a gentleman, he’s now on moderated status.”
Now, I have observed Dr. Clark in the past revise such over-the-top rhetoric on his blog posts without any notes of revision. So, just in case he decides to remove this uncharitable comment, I saved a screenshot for record.
In the meantime, I invite my readers to examine the exchange between me and Dr. Clark. And then I will reproduce my final response to Clark, which he deleted, as best I can from memory (upon request, he has so far refused to respond to me concerning the text which he removed).
Here is the exchange (or here) with some commentary post-hoc. Please pay close attention to see if I “decided to be a jerk” or, on the contrary, if someone else reacted to my repeated inquiry with condescension and belittling innuendo:
July 9, 2013 @ 12:13 PM
Perhaps RSC could link to examples of such preaching, because his description seems a bit like a parody to me. I know plenty of preachers who emphasize the uses of the law, but would not fit these descriptions in general. Nor have I heard of ANY seminary pushing that standard.
Also, RSC comments, “where is that [L/G] distinction clearly spelled out and applied to preaching in the way, e.g., that William Perkins did it?” As if this were the defining criteria. But this merely creating his own works-standard for preaching—i.e., that one must “clearly distinguish” to your extra-biblical satisfaction in order to escape his condemnation as a “legal preacher.” In trying to isolate and marginalize the so-called legal preacher, RSC has become one himself.
July 9, 2013 @ 12:14 PM
One also has to like the criteria for comments below: “Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. . . .” Lol. RSC is a “legal blogger.” It must be outside the Gospel.
is this your way of saying that you deny the third use of the law?
I take it that the post struck a neonomian nerve?
This is the traditional tactic of one who does not want to engage the subject. It is a particularly Christian sin which I’ve written about in my sermon on 1 Samuel 17:1–39. See point 2 under Application: “Ignore the mockers and naysayers.” This is the attempt to discourage or dismiss an opponent by claiming he has some kind of spiritual problem, or by reading his heart in a negative way—in this case, my stricken nerve. It’s a red herring and it’s also dishonest at best in that one must be God to read another’s heart and mind. So much for the moral law.
Nerves are beside the point (i.e., red herring). The still unanswered question would be, “Who gets to define how much law and/or how much Gospel must ‘preaching’ contain in order to escape your condemnation of ‘legal preacher’?” And exactly where does this apply? In the pulpit only, or on blogs, etc., too? And should we expect the same amount of admixture in whatever criteria you produce? And where does the Bible (not Perkins) say this? or who says so? and what makes them authoritative? If there is no clear biblical imperative for such a determination, then you have created your own imposition upon preaching, and thus you are the one being the legal preacher—and worse, since your criteria is not even biblical, one might say, “Pharisaical preacher.”
The Reformed Churches have a confession of what the Word teaches. The Reformed Churches confess a clear distinction between law and gospel. On the role of the confessions see RRC (in paper and on Kindle).
blessings on your studies.
What? We have to go back to Reformed Confessions 101 now? Now run along, boy, go do your studies. “Blessings.” Is Joel so far behind the curve that he must be spoken to like a member of R. Scott Clark’s youth group? And worse, the path out of my ignorance leads right through . . . Dr. Clark’s books! Oh wow. It’s one thing to be condescending and treat a fellow doctor like a school child, but then to entreat him with your own books and articles is the height of self-aggrandizement at the same time.
But I was undaunted by these childish tactics. Being insulted doesn’t bother me as much as watching a trained theologian with a reputation use such tactics to evade a simple question.
Perhaps you realize you can’t answer the question simply without establishing some kind of “legal” requirement for preaching content not found in Scripture, and thus violating your own description above. Thus the evasions.
I’ll be happy to read you books in my spare time. You can send review copies to: 3150A Florence Rd, Powder Springs GA 30127.
That is the address to American Vision. I would, honestly, not mind reading Dr. Clark’s books on the subject. But I refuse now to spend money on them after being treated with contempt by their author. Never honor bad service with repeat business. I just let him know that.
Clark fired back, this time with more condescension, and this time he called in some backup:
R. Scott Clark
I know it’s a fool’s errand but one more attempt.
Why do you assume that I’m opposed to the law? Don’t you understand that the confessional Reformed view is that there are three uses of the law?
I affirm all three.
Don’t you understand that one of the great differences between the Reformation and Rome is the distinction between law and gospel? That’s why Ursinus wrote:
Zacharias Ursinus. In What Does The Law Differ From The Gospel? The exposition of this question is necessary for a variety of considerations, and especially that we may have a proper understanding of the law and the gospel, to which a knowledge of that in which they differ greatly contributes. According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ, 1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man. 2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ. 3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience. 4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7) (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 92).
The law/gospel distinction isn’t a law, it’s a hermeneutic. It’s a theology and it’s the confession of the churches.
Have you read the Heidelberg Catechism?
2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?
Three things:1 the first, how great my sin and misery is;2 the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery;3 the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.4
3. From where do you know your misery?
From the Law of God.1
1 Rom 3:20. * Rom 7:7.
4. What does the Law of God require of us?
Christ teaches us in sum, Matt 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.Â” (22:38, 39,40)
18. But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man?
Our Lord Jesus Christ,1 who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.2
1 Matt 1:23. 1 Tim 3:16. Luke 2:11. 2 1 Cor 1:30. * Acts 4:12.
19. From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise;1 afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs2 and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law;3 and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.
1 Gen 3:15. 2 Gen 22:18. Gen 49:10,11. Rom 1:2. Heb 1:1. Acts 3:22-24. Acts 10:43. 3 John 5:46. Heb 10:7. 4 Rom 10:4. Gal 4:4,5. * Heb 10:1.
Nowhere in any of this does Clark come close to addressing my actual question. It’s all bluster and dust in the air, relatively speaking. It is one long series of red herrings, as well as falsehoods. I never “assumed” he opposes the law. I never said anything from which one could even deduce that. My understanding of the three uses of the law, or the confessions, is not the issue. I never said the law-gospel distinction was a law. All of this is beside the point. Professor! Please pay attention.
Dr. Van Til would have thrown his eraser across the classroom at this point.
But notice the repeated condescension: it’s all my lack of understanding, my lack of having read this or that document or theologian—and all without any reference to my question or any explanation of why this is the case.
Worse, my ignorance is now asserted to be incurable: discussion with me is now a “fool’s errand”!
At this point I decided to wrap up my interaction. I got as much as I expected up to this point. I gave my final response to Clark’s failure to engage. This is where I have to recall from memory exactly what I wrote. This is close:
Dr. Clark, go back to the beginning of our “fool’s errand” and read through. From the beginning I have done nothing but ask a simple question restated in many ways. From the beginning you have done nothing but belittle me me with condescension, attribution of assumptions I never made, question my understanding of basic concepts that are only tangentially related (and now long quotations to that regard), and now calling discussion with me a “fool’s errand.”
Grant for the moment that I, in fact, have read and do understand the law-gospel distinction as taught by Luther, Calvin, WFC, Heidelberg, and all the Ursinuses you can dig up, and I agree with them. Given that we agree on this, and on the uses of the law, can we now address the real question at hand?
[And I would add, now, given Dr. Clark’s disclaimer on the necessity of preaching the law, can we get to Dr. McDurmon’s real question?]
I am translating Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy as we speak, and from all of them I have seen so far, I am afraid Calvin could easily fall under much of your description of the “legal preacher” made above. He preaches through the law, preaches it AS law, makes plenty of applications as to what his congregation should do, and yet mentions Jesus or the Gospel only periodically. [Here is a brief example.]
Would Calvin fall under your condemnation as a “legal preacher” (at least for the eighteen months he preached through Deuteronomy)?
If not, why not? He certainly fits this part of your description above.
So I am afraid that and the end of the day, you will still have to answer the question: How much law is a preacher allowed to preach before he falls under RSC’s condemnation as a “legal preacher”? And who gets to decide this? By what standard? Can it vary from church to church? Where is the line between the necessary preaching of the law and the alleged “abuse” of the law, per RSC?
Perhaps you see that in answering this question, you cannot escape your own criticism above, for you have to impose a “legal” requirement of your own upon preaching.
Further, I would still like to see some examples of such preaching to avoid. Since I apparently don’t understand very well, some clear examples will go a long way in helping me. Thanks!
This post was almost immediately deleted, and quickly afterward, as far as I can tell, Dr. Clark went to the comment immediately below our interaction to post: “Since Joel decided to be a jerk rather than a gentleman, he’s now on moderated status.”
Now it was never my intention to be a “jerk,” but if I was, I apologize to Dr. Clark and all affected. I will let the reader decide, but I don’t think I was. Rather, I think RSC was being evasive, discourteous, and even arrogant in dealing with a very simple question. The last tactic for evasion is to play moderator and censor your opponent, then demean him further without letting him respond (at least not in the same forum).
Quite frankly I am surprised that a seasoned scholar would have such thin skin, and would resort to such dirty tricks so readily. Moreover, I am shocked that such a leader in a prominent Christian seminary who demands that others on his blog “must observe the moral law” in their comments would take the liberty to name-call while hiding behind such tricks. Jerk or no jerk, this is not how a Christian man, let alone a Christian leader and scholar, settles such disagreements.
Why would Dr. Clark not actually pursue the question? Aside from the obvious logical conundrum into which I believe it puts him, it would have taken most of the thunder away from his post by showing that it only applies to a handful of people, most of whom are outside of our broader theological tradition. It certainly could not apply to the John Carricks, the boys in Moscow, and many others which Reformed readers would likely assume, and as Clark himself implied in both the post and the comments. This would reveal once again that it is the boys in Escondido and Dr. Clark who have an agenda: an agenda to refashion that which is “Reformed” in their own image and likeness.
It is to this point that I would refer the reader to John Frame’s critique of The Escondido Theology, and Dr. Clark’s book Recovering the Reformed Confession in particular. He deals at a more general level with the same type of self-contradictory issue I was trying to get at:
Clark’s procedure in defining the nature of “Reformed” thinking is not itself found in any of the confessions or favored theological writings. Nor is there any way, so far as I can see, to support it from Scripture. But Clark thinks we should never claim that anything is Reformed unless it can be supported from the confessions. Clark’s methodology, therefore, is self-referentially incoherent. He is trying to establish the meaning of “Reformed” by what he regularly describes as a non-Reformed methodology.
What Clark really does in this book is to advocate a kind of Reformed theology and church life that appeals to him more than the more recent versions. But he has no authority, I think, and no good reason, to impose that vision on those of us who find it less attractive.
Right. He’s in a bind but either doesn’t realize it, or won’t face it. Yet he has no authority to impose his view. But, voila! He does have the authority to delete you and treat you with contempt on his own blog.
But recalling how Westminster Escondido condescendingly dismissed even John Frame’s very scholarly critiques, I feel I am in good company.
In the end, however, playgrounds tactics only go so far when the playground is bigger than you think it is, and your opponent has his own bat and ball.
In the world of blog bluster, it’s best not to try to censor your opponent when he has his own website with a web presence five times bigger than yours.
In the world of theological blogs, it is assumed mandatory not to misrepresent or belittle your opponent, for Christ’s sake and for love of neighbor.
Further, in the world of theological blogs that carry the following warning—“Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law”—one could earn the charge of hypocrisy by engaging in dirty tricks and/or name-calling.
If you would like to contact Dr. Clark in regard to this instance of calling yours truly a “jerk,” I would suggest sending him your very friendly and courteous displeasure at:
The administration for this Christian leadership can be reached at:
Westminster Seminary California
Address: 1725 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido, CA 92027
Email: [email protected]
Administrative Office Hours: Monday through Friday 8:00am-4:30pm (PST)
In the meantime, I will model my own preaching after Calvin’s. And I suppose that if Dr. Clark ever gets around to answering the question, he will, too.