As part of his commitment to speaking the truth at length in love, John Frame has written a review of Scott Clarkâ€™s, Recovering the Reformed Confession for his website. (How long, O Lord, how long? Over 17,500 words not including 60 [!!] notes. Let me help with the math. At 250 words per page, thatâ€™s 70 [a lot of] pages.)
The review reveals a very interesting difference between Clark and Frame on the Reformed tradition. For Clark, the Reformed faith has an objective standard, found in the churchesâ€™ creeds and confessions. He concedes diversity as the churches emerged in such diverse settings as Scotland and Transylvania. But Clark (like me) finds these confessions the best way to understand what Reformed Protestantism stood for, while also providing a good deal of uniformity on what it means to be Reformed.
Frame, however, thinks this is a narrow way of understanding the Reformed tradition and suggests an alternative: â€œI think it better to regard anyone as Reformed who is a member in good standing of a Reformed church. I realize there is some ambiguity here, for we must then ask, what is a really Reformed church? Different people will give different answers. But, as I said above, I donâ€™t think that the definition has to be, or can be, absolutely precise. The concept, frankly, has â€˜fuzzy boundaries,â€™ as some linguists and philosophers say.â€
What would such different approaches to defining Reformed Protestantism mean for understanding the meaning and identity of the United States? This is no idle question since Frame draws on this analogy to identify his differences with Clark. For Frame, Clark is one of those originalists who puts much stock in the founders and the Constitution. But for Frame, the United States cannot be held to such a definite and time-bound standard. He writes:
Imagine someone saying, â€œif you want to know what â€˜Americanâ€™ means, look at the founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the writings of the founders like The Federalist Papers.â€ There is a certain amount of truth in that. Certainly these documents tell us much of what makes the United States different from other nations. But these documents presuppose an already existing community of ideas. For example, although they mention religion rarely, they cannot be rightly understood apart from the history of New England Puritanism, Dutch Reformed Christianity in New York, Quakerism in Pennsylvania, Anglicanism in Virginia, and so on.
And the history of America subsequent to these documents is also important. Many claim that these documents are largely neglected and/or contradicted today. There is a large disconnect between what America was at its founding and what it is today. Defining America by the founding documents, and defining it as an empirical community, lead to two different and inconsistent conceptions. People who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are â€œunamerican.â€ But so say that is merely to express a preference. That preference may be a good one. But merely to express it is not likely to persuade anyone to share that preference. This case is similar to the attempt to define â€œReformed.â€
On the view I advocate, it is not possible to state in precise detail what constitutes Reformed theology and church life. But one can describe historical backgrounds and linkages, as I have done above in the example of the United States. And there are some general common characteristics, a kind of â€œfamily resemblance,â€ among the various bodies of the last five centuries that have called themselves Reformed. The idea that â€œReformedâ€ should be defined as a changing community is not congenial to Clarkâ€™s view. But it seems to me to be more accurate and more helpful.
A number of arresting implications follow from Frameâ€™s analogy between the Reformed and American traditions.
One that stands out is who qualifies as a good American. If someone is Reformed because they belong to a Reformed church, then someone is a good American if they belong to the United States. That means that the liberals writing for the New York Times and the atheists writing books against Christianity are as much Americans as the U.S. faithful attending church each Sunday. In other words, the United States is what it is; it has no objective norms for determining what the nation means or who belongs to it. No matter your beliefs, you belong to the United States if you are American.
Another implication that stands out like low-hanging fruit is what Frame appears to be saying to those who spend much time appealing to the nationâ€™s Christian founding for understanding what the nation should be today. As Frame writes above, â€œPeople who define America only by its founding documents are likely to say that subsequent developments are â€˜unamerican.â€™ But to say that is merely to express a preference.â€ Likewise, to say that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the United States needs to return to its Christian heritage is, according to Frameâ€™s argument, not objective reality but a â€œpreferenceâ€ with as much force as an opinion from Scott Clark.
I myself tend to be an originalist all the way down. I regard the Constitution to be important for understanding the United States then and now, the Reformed creeds important for understanding Reformed history then and now, and even the Bible important for understanding Godâ€™s plan of salvation then and now. Maybe this is the hobgobblin of a small mind, though I think it also has something to do with the way we read law, whether for the state or the church.
Still, Frameâ€™s argument would appear to cut off at the knees those folks who think the American nationâ€™s Christian origins are relevant for today. The message seems to be, â€œjust say goodbye to â€˜in God we trust.â€™â€
Postscript: for some reason the Bayly Brothers seemed to miss this feature of Frame’s review when they recommended it.