Clark, Frame, and the Analogy of Painting a Magisterial Target Around One’s Interpretive ArrowJan 14th, 2014 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Westminster Seminary professor R. Scott Clark recently wrote a post titled “Should I buy it? (1),” in reference to John Frame’s recently published systematic theology text. Frame is currently a professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando. In his post Clark describes “two competing approaches to Reformed theology” as it exists today. Clark takes one of those approaches, and Frame takes the other. As Clark describes it, Clark’s approach takes the Reformed tradition and confessions as a “starting point,” and then enters Scripture from the framework given by those confessions. By contrast, Frame’s approach, as described by Clark, regards “the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways.” Clark’s post is attempting to explain why his confessionalist approach is right, and Frame’s ‘biblicist’ approach is wrong. The post reminded me of Jason Stellman’s recent comments in his interview on The Journey Home regarding painting an ecclesial-authority target around one’s interpretive arrow. I thought it might be helpful to review the recent history of that imagery and its underlying argument, and explain how it relates to the distinction between Clark’s confessionalism and Frame’s bibilicism.
On August 6, 2007, in a blog post he has not kept publicly accessible in his archives, Clark wrote the following concerning the Federal Vision (FV) controversy:
Remember, since the 16th century, revisionists and errorists have always said, “We’re just following the Bible.” That was the loudest refrain of the Socinians, who ended up denying the Trinity. They denied the deity of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement and justification by works all on the ground that, they were just following the Bible. All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it. (emphasis mine)
At that time, I briefly discussed Clark’s comment. This was in the midst of the FV controversy, which included a fundamental disagreement between biblicists on the one hand, and confessionalists on the other. Frame, a key figure on the biblicist side, had argued that treating confessions as binding makes them irreformable, and thereby weakens and threatens Scripture’s authority. For example, in his book titled The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Frame wrote the following:
Similarly, we should not seek to impose on church officers a form of creedal subscription intended to be maximally precise. We are often tempted to think that heresy in the church could be avoided if only the form of subscription were sufficiently precise. Thus in some circles there is the desire to require officers (sometimes even members) to subscribe to every proposition in the church’s confession. After all, it might be asked, why have a confession if it is not to be binding? But that kind of “strict” subscription has its problems, too. If dissent against any proposition in the confession destroys the dissenter’s good standing in the church, then the confession becomes irreformable, unamendable, and, for all practical purposes, canonical. And when a confession becomes canonical, the authority of the Bible is threatened, not protected.
In churches with looser subscription formulas than that described above, there is often pressure to define the church’s beliefs more precisely. Where officers subscribe to the confession “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures,” there are sometimes demands made that that “system of doctrine” be defined precisely. What belongs to the system of doctrine and what does not? It seems that we must know this before we can use the confession as an instrument of discipline. But once again, if the church adopts a list of doctrines that constitute the system, and if that list becomes a test of orthodoxy, then the list becomes irreformable, unamendable, and canonical. It will not then be possible to challenge that list on the basis of the Word of God. Thus those who seek a much stronger form of subscription are, in effect, ironically asking for a weakening of Scripture’s authority in the church.” (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 225-226, my emphases)
Frame is here claiming that if any creed or confession is made a test of orthodoxy, then that creed or confession cannot be challenged “on the basis of the Word of God.” And that implication, according to Frame, both weakens and threatens the authority of Scripture. It weakens the authority of Scripture, according to Frame, by removing that creed or confession from the possibility of correction by Scripture, thus pulling it out from under Scripture’s authoritative oversight. It threatens the authority of Scripture by placing something other than Scripture at the same functional level of authority as Scripture. No creed can be made a “test of orthodoxy,” according to Frame, because no creed has divine authority. Protestants believe that no interpretation of Scripture has divine authority, and any creed, unless it is merely a collection of verses of Scripture, is a human interpretation of Scripture, not divinely inspired or bearing divine authority.
On August 27, 2007, in a post titled “Federal Vision Questions #6″ on PCA pastor Jeff Meyer’s blog Corrigenda Denuo, no longer publicly accessible, but available here through the Wayback archive, I wrote the following in a comment to Jeff concerning the implications of the biblicist position:
If the authority of the WCF is based on the authority of those who wrote it, then that pushes back the question to the ground of their authority. And if the ground of their authority is your agreement with their interpretation of Scripture, that is the equivalent of painting the magisterial target around your interpretive arrow. Then phrases like “the Westminster Standards set the boundaries for us” and “confessionally bound” [to the WCF] are misleading, because then ultimately it is your own interpretation that is setting the boundaries, and you are picking the confession that matches your own interpretation. The Arminians have their Confession of 1621. Why do they think it is authoritative? Because they agree with the interpretation of those who wrote it. And the same can be said for Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, etc. This method of painting the magisterial target around our own interpretive arrow guarantees perpetual fragmentation and relativism. It allows there to be as many bull’s-eyes as there are arrows. And in theory there are as many arrows as there are individuals. So this raises the question: Did Christ intend us all to be painting magisterial targets around our own interpretive arrows, or did He intend us to conform our interpretations to that target offered by the sacramental magisterium? It seems to me that Tertullian and the fathers thought the latter. I don’t see any way we can strive toward that unity that Christ prays in John 17 for us to have, without considering this question.
So far as I can recall, that was the first time I used the language of painting a magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow. The following day Jeff responded:
Anyway, with the modern reality of competing ecclesiastical authorities, I don’t see any way of avoiding some level of individual judgment when it comes to churches. You’ve made such a judgment yourself. The Roman magisterium lines up with your interpretation of the way things ought to be, so you’re with Rome. And you go around trying to convince others that Rome’s interpretation of John 17 ought to be their interpretation.
Jeff’s claim here includes what I’ve called “the tu quoque,” i.e. you too do the same thing. But he claims more than just the tu quoque. He claims here that there is no alternative. I responded to that later that same day with a post titled “The alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow,” in which I briefly sketched out the beginning of my reply to the tu quoque objection.
About a week later, on September 6, 2007, Jeff wrote a post (still accessible) titled “Presbyterians & Liturgy – Part X,” in which he first quoted John Calvin:
Therefore, he who would find Christ, must first of all find the Church. How would one know where Christ and his faith were, if one did not know where His believers are? And he who would know something of Christ, must not trust himself, or build his own bridges into heaven through his own reason, but he must go to the church, visit and ask of the same. . . for outside of the church is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
Then Jeff wrote, “If this sounds odd or just plain wrong to us, it is because we have been infected with a gnostic mentality.”
Reflecting on that topic, I wrote a brief post three days later on September 9 titled “Finding the Church,” in which I examined three possible assumptions underlying the notion that painting a magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow is the way to find the Church. I pointed out that painting “the Church” around one’s own interpretive arrow (i.e. defining the Church as those who mostly agree with one’s own interpretation of Scripture) is no less individualistic (read: solo scriptura) than painting a magisterial target around one’s own interpretive arrow, by picking out who gets to count as one’s magisterium on the basis of their broad agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
On September 23 of that year, having just completed Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura, I wrote a brief response to that book, and this response later served as an initial reference point for me two years later when Neal Judisch and I wrote “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority” in November of 2009. There we argued essentially that because painting a magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow is not different in principle from denying that there is a magisterial target, there is no principled difference between “solo scriptura” and sola scriptura.
During the last two weeks of September of 2007, Bill Chellis, who at the time was the pastor of Rochester Reformed Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, hosted a two week discussion/debate between proponents and opponents of the Federal Vision on his blog De Regno Christi. Darryl Hart was one figure on the confessionalist side, and Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers (and others) represented the biblicist side. (Unfortunately that debate is also no longer publicly accessible.) In a post titled “Darryl Hart on the need for sacramental magisterial authority,” on September 24 of that year, drawing from what was written in that debate, I showed that Hart’s confessionalism reduces to biblicism, because it amounts precisely to painting one’s magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow.
On March 3, of the following year, Michael Brown posted an article titled “Sola Scriptura or Scriptura Solo?” That article has since been removed, but it is available through the Wayback archive here. Michael is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church, where Michael Horton is the associate pastor. In his article Michael (Brown), drawing in part from Nathan Hatch’s book The Democratization of American Christianity, argued that we should read and interpret the Bible “with the church,” not “apart from the church.” (his emphasis) He criticized American biblicism for claiming the inalienable right to read and interpret the Bible apart from any ecclesial authority, not subject “to any theological or ecclesiastical authority that might be contrary to their own interpretation.”
In that article Michael wrote:
Oddly enough, this kind of dismissal of historic theology actually does violence to Christ’s promise to his Apostles that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (Jn 16.13) and bring to their remembrance all things (Jn 14.26) in order that Scripture would be preserved for the instruction of the church until the end of the age (Mt 24.35; 28.20).
If I remember correctly, I learned of Michael’s article that summer through the late Michael Spencer (aka IMonk). When I read the article, I remember largely agreeing with Michael’s thesis, but wondering how he did not realize that his own position collapses into biblicism, on account of the “painting a magisterial arrow around one’s interpretive arrow” problem. So on July 14, 2008, I wrote a reply titled “Michael Brown on “Sola Scriptura or Scriptura Solo“,” and left a note on Michael’s blog with a link to my post. Shortly thereafter, a certain Jason Stellman raised the tu quoque objection in the combox of my post, and so two days later I posted “Tu quoque, Catholic convert,” which with further revisions and suggestions from other men of Called To Communion, later served as the starting point for “The Tu Quoque” which I posted here in May of 2010.
On August 6, 2008, Michael Brown wrote a reply titled “Finding the Bull’s Eye.” That post is no longer available, but the Wayback archive has it here. In it he argues that confessional Protestantism is not like biblicism, because while the arrow analogy applies to the biblicist, by contrast, in the case of confessional Protestantism, the arrow is already on the wall, and the interpreter must aim his arrow at that already existing target.
I responded to Michael on September 5, 2008, in a post titled “Choosing My Tradition.” There I showed that the way by which Michael (a former Calvary Chapel member) chose the Reformed tradition in the first place was by determining which tradition best matched his own interpretation of Scripture. And so he had not, after all, avoided the painting the magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow problem.
This brings us back to Clark’s recent comments mentioned at the beginning of this post, concerning Frame’s new systematic theology book. There Clark writes:
There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist …, has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.
Clark here claims that there are two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach treats the Reformed tradition and Reformed confessions as its starting point, and then seeks to read Scripture from within that settled, established position, not calling any of its beliefs into question, but only building on them. The other approach, which Clark describes as “biblicist,” sees the Reformed traditions and confessions as revisable on the basis of Scripture, and is therefore willing to diverge in significant ways “from historic Reformed theology.” As I have argued in the links provided above, the biblicist approach is at least right in its recognition of the non-authoritative status of creeds or confessions given the absence of sacramental magisterial authority. Frame et al, are here quite consistent. The problem with Clark’s approach, however, is the problem I’ve been describing now for over six years. By treating the Reformed tradition and Reformed confessions as the “starting point,” this approach hides from itself the biblicist way in which this particular tradition and these particular confessions were picked out as authoritative. It thereby hides from itself its own biblicist foundation, and in this way it is able to conceive of itself as different in some principled way from the biblicist approach it explicitly rejects and criticizes. This isn’t hypocrisy, but a simple failure to “know thyself,” i.e. unawareness of its own biblicist foundation, by failing to consider the processes and methods at work in the very formation and identification (as authoritative) of the Reformed tradition and Reformed confessions.
Hence, for example, in an older post, from 2009, titled “Peace (with Evangelicalism) in Our Time,” Clark bemoans what he calls “cafeteria Calvinists,” i.e. persons who pick and choose what they like or don’t like from Calvin or the Calvinistic tradition. But if there is no sacramental magisterial authority, then there is no binding obligation to accept and submit to all that Calvin said, as though he were at some time the pope speaking ex cathedra. Calvin himself picked and chose as he pleased, in forming what became Calvinism. The notion that one ought not be a “cafeteria Calvinist” presupposes that Calvin had an authority which he himself denied to any before him but the biblical authors. But this is the problem intrinsic to Protestantism itself, because Protestantism as a tradition is built upon and justifies its existence as such by way of the alleged correctness of Luther’s act against Church authority in order to follow his own conscience regarding what he believed to be the teaching of Scripture.
In his most recent comment in his post on Frame, in response to an objection by John Bugay, Clark writes:
In every case of biblicism someone is still interpreting Scripture. That interpretation leads to some confession, whether formal or informal. In this case, it’s his [i.e. Frame’s] reading of Scripture that trumps all. There’s your pope.
When Clark claims that “in every case of biblicism someone is still interpreting Scripture,” and that “that interpretation leads to some confession, whether formal or informal,” that’s true enough. Then Clark claims that in Bugay’s case, it is Frame’s reading of Scripture that “trumps all,” and entails having a pope in Orlando. Here Clark’s conclusion does not follow. Merely agreeing with Frame’s interpretation does not entail that Frame has interpretive or ecclesial authority. But Clark’s broader argument fails on account of special pleading: According to Clark, when biblicists follow their interpretation of Scripture, they are setting themselves up as their own pope, but when Clark follows his own interpretation of Scripture in order to pick out the particular confessions he chooses to recognize as authoritative, he isn’t setting himself up as his own pope. And that’s special pleading on Clark’s part.
Without a churchly confession, to whom is the biblicist accountable? No one but himself or perhaps his self-selected pope. Either way he’s back to papalism. In either case, he’s doing essentially the same kinds of things with Christian truth that Rome does with history: affirm and deny at the same time. His dialectical theology makes him infallible. Who can challenge him? It can’t be done. He says p and -p at the same time about the same thing. He’s always right. He’s never wrong. He cannot be wrong. Voilà ! you have an infallible pope.
Let’s put this in perspective. The biblicist is claiming that the confessions are not infallible, and should be subject to revision by the light of Scripture. If confessions can be corrected in light of the biblicist’s examination of Scripture, this entails that the biblicist’s interpretation of Scripture has equal or greater authority than does any confession. Clark responds by claiming that the biblicists are, in essence, returning to papalism, by making themselves (or their self-selected leader, self-selected by his agreement with their own interpretation of Scripture) their own pope, and thus making themselves both unaccountable and [as though] infallible.
Clark believes that he himself avoids this problem, because he is under the authority of the confessions. But as I have discussed above (and as Bugay points out to Clark by saying “which confessions?”), Clark has picked these confessions (and not others) because they most closely agree with his own interpretation of Scripture. So Clark is setting up a delusion of derivative authority, and decrying those who point out the delusion as persons returning to papalism. By insisting that only his confessions are authoritative, Clark is doing the very same thing he accuses the biblicists of doing, i.e. acting as pope. And he is doing so entirely on the basis of his own interpretation of Scripture, by which he picked the particular confessions he picked as ‘authoritative.’
In that same comment Clark writes:
You quite misunderstand the Reformed view of authority. We say that the church has ministerial authority. In contrast to triperspectivalism, when the church speaks as church, it does not create reality. We are simply recognizing and announcing what is and what God has said. It is God who does the binding. We do the ministering. As biblicist (of any sort) how can you appeal to [Andrew] Clarke against the unequivocal, quite non-dialectical words of our Lord?
He then cites Matthew 18:18-20, in which Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Clark claims (rightly) that when the Church “speaks as church,” “it is God who does the binding.” The problem however, lies in determining who and what count as this authoritative Church capable of speaking “as church,” such that by divine promise God “does the binding.” Anyone can arrive at his own interpretation of Scripture, then surround himself with a group of persons he calls “Church,” and then this group can elevate some of them to positions of ‘authority’ and claim that when these persons make a decision God does the binding. This way of identifying ‘church,’ however, is once again merely painting the target of ecclesial authority around one’s interpretive arrow. Such a person is constructing “church,” not locating the Church Christ founded. And biblicists, seeing that confessionalists are simply painting magisterial/confessional targets around their own interpretative arrows, do not see why they cannot do the same, without the magisterial/confessional hoopla.
Hence Clark cannot without inconsistency simultaneously stand as a Protestant on Luther’s “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason …” and decry both “cafeteria Calvinism” and the very biblicism by which Luther and Calvin justified their rebellion against and separation from the magisterium of the Church into which they both had been baptized. Clark is trying to maintain middle positions that are not available, such as the position according to which confessions formed without magisterial authority but rather as expressions of private judgments concerning the meaning of Scripture are to be treated as having such ecclesial authority, and the position in which ‘church authority’ chosen on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture is an actual binding authority, and not something that loses its ‘authority’ as soon as it fails to conform to the criterion by which one chose it as ‘authoritative.’ But when one sees the delusion of derivative authority, one sees that the solution cannot be to write another confession, or even revise a confession. And when one sees the farce of painting an ecclesial-authority target around one’s interpretive arrow, one sees that the solution cannot be to fire one’s arrow again, and paint another target. At that point, the paradigm begins to crumble, and one either consigns oneself to “solo scriptura” biblicism, or one begins to seek out the answer to the following question: Where is the Church Christ founded?