IMD Interview: Dr. R. Scott Clark on Piety
This article is part of the series entitled The Inward Man’s Delight by Christian Herring and Konrad Holden. The purpose of The Inward Man’s Delight is to declare the benefits and joys of Reformed piety and practice. This particular article is an interview that was conducted by Konrad Holden.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is a Reformed theologian, church historian, professor, author, and pastor. He has written much about Reformed theology and especially in the way of piety. This abridged version of the interview is meant to give a brief explanation of Reformed piety. The full interview can be listened to via an episode of the Collective Cast. That episode can be accessed here. All the other episodes can be found here.
The interviewer, Konrad Holden, will be denoted by bold text, while Dr. Clark will be denoted by plain text. The reader should understand that this is an abridged version and therefore, only a brief overview of Dr. Clark’s argument.
What is piety?
Piety, generally, in the classical definition, is the way one relates to the gods. So, it is discharging one’s religious duties to the gods would be the classical way of understanding it. The Reformed would have said it is the way we relate personally and corporately to God. And specifically, it is the discharge of our duty in response to the grace of God manifested in Jesus Christ. God has graciously granted us new life, sovereignly elected us from all eternity in Christ, in time and history applied that salvation by his Holy Spirit, and granted us true faith. Through that faith, he has united us to Christ and by his Holy Spirit is enabling us to respond to the preached gospel and to respond in lives of gratitude by the Spirit in union with Christ. All of that is entailed in piety.
Again, if you ask the classical tradition what piety is they would say it begins with religion. I know that is controversial and that it is commonplace to say “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” From a traditional point of view, that’s incoherent. True spirituality results in an outward religion. If you have no outward religion, then the Reformed would say we have every right to question whether you have an inward spirituality.
We begin with the public which is the gathering of God’s people to hear the law and gospel, receive the sacraments, and respond with praise as he has ordained. Out of that flows our private which is family devotions, personal devotions, prayers, and our reading of Scripture. In the modern period, we have reversed that order in fundamental ways. Now, the private comes first and even makes the public secondary or even unnecessary. That is a real divergence from not only the Reformation, but really the whole Christian piety and practice going back to the early church and apostles.
How has the modern evangelical church flipped the order of piety from public/private to private/public?
There has always been a mystical strain in Christianity. There have always been people who wanted to withdraw privately and seek God apart from what we call in Reformed theology, the due use of the ordinary means, i.e. the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. There are various mystical movements through the early church and medieval church always pulling away from the community and the gathering together on the Lord’s Day for public worship. In some way or the other, they would marginalize the visible church. In communal monasticism, the monastery replaces the church. The monastery becomes the true measure of piety. Two classes of Christians develop: those who are really spiritual join the monastery and those who are just ordinary Christians continue to attend public worship in the visible church.
You and I understand this since we’re both involved in college. What’s the first thing you learn in college? You need to go to a college ministry. One of the things I learned even as a high schooler and in college is that truly spiritual people are involved in college ministry and mere ordinary Christians go to church. “Real spirituality” is being on staff with some college ministry. So there are analogies of this way of having two classes of Christians.
In the 16th and mainly 17th century, there is a movement called pietism. Pietism said, “The orthodox confession is great but what really matters is your personal encounter with the risen Christ. That’s what really matters.” They generally believed the faith but they were more concerned with the experience of the risen Christ. The children and grandchildren of the Pietists became liberals.
What happened in the 19th century is that the private overwhelmed the public. What matters is whether you came forward at the altar call, which is a 19th century invention. What matters is whether you have accepted Jesus into your heart. Now, it is absolutely essential for one to have true faith, but it’s not essential for one to walk a sawdust trail. It’s not essential for one to have a particular kind of emotional experience to a chord progression. Those are all 19th century inventions.
Is the characterization of Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist piety as “emotionless” or “devoid of the Holy Spirit” true?
The first thing we need to understand is that there are different paradigms for the way that people define piety and the way they think about the Holy Spirit and religious experience. Reformed Christians believe in the Holy Spirit, we confess the Holy Spirit, and our theology, on its own terms, is fairly characterized as a theology of the Holy Spirit.
But we are not Pentecostal. Neo-pentecostalism reemerges in America, for example, at the turn of the 20th century in 1906-7 at the Azusa Street Revival in Topeka. For many American evangelicals, that becomes the baseline for what it means to believe in the Holy Spirit or what it means to experience the faith. Then they look at the Reformed and say that we are not Pentecostal and therefore not spiritual. That’s not a fair criticism simply because we are not pentecostal. We are deliberately not pentecostal.
Then as a response to this, there is a small number of Reformed people seeking to synthesize Pentecostalism with Reformed theology. Part of what I am arguing is that that is a bad marriage. The two things are really not meant to be together. We don’t need to become pentecostals to become spiritual. What we need to do is recover our own spirituality and piety. Our own piety is a word and sacrament piety. It begins with the objective and overflows into the subjective. We certainly believe in a vital, personal religious experience. But we don’t believe in, typically, is falling on the floor and defining piety as falling on the floor.
Reformed theology and piety has to be judged on its own terms. On its own terms, we believe that God the Holy Spirit sovereignly, mysteriously operates through the due use of ordinary means. The ordinary means are the preaching of the law, by which he brings conviction of sin, and the preaching of the gospel, through which he brings new life. He also uses the sacraments as the gospel made visible to confirm those promises. Baptism signifies that by pointing us to his death and our union with him by grace alone through faith alone. The Lord’s Supper confirms this to us by saying that Christ loved and gave himself for us and as surely as we taste this bread and taste this wine so surely is the gospel true for us who believe.
As I say, our piety flows from the objective to the subjective. Nobody could read the Heidelberg Catechism fairly and say that it is a dry document or that it is not a warm, pious document. Nobody could read William Perkins, Williams Ames, or any of our writers and say that he is disinterested in piety. Most of these guys were preachers and ministers. We do have a different paradigm, but, on our own terms, we are deeply interested in a vital, personal relationship with Christ, growth in godliness, and a vital living experience of the risen Christ.
What are some of the ways that Reformed piety is more beneficial to us than the alternative?
I think a rightly ordered Reformed church is the best thing and a biblically-grounded, confessionally-oriented Reformed piety is the best thing for God’s people for a variety of reasons. One reason is our theology releases people from trying to save themselves. Nothing is more injurious to Christian piety than trying to save oneself from the wrath of God or trying to sanctify oneself. The medieval scheme of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace did not produce godliness.
In order to have a true godliness and a real piety, we first have to get some basic things right. God is God and we are not God. That is another fundamental truth that we have to grasp in order to understand and grow in Christian piety. And so, piety cannot be defined as it is by various mystics as becoming God. That’s not piety.
Piety is the result of God’s gracious working in us whereby he is conforming us to the image of Christ. That’s how we tend to define sanctification: conformity to the image of Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism characterizes sanctification as putting to death the old man and the making alive of the new. That is the essence of the Christian life. What we used to call mortification, which is just Latin for the death of self and sin, and vivification, the being made alive by the Holy Spirit. That is the essence of the Christian life.
We should not live a Christian life which is on an endless quest for the next intense religious experience. I call that the quest for illegitimate religious experience where the Christian life really becomes like a drug addiction where we’re waiting for the praise band to play the right chord progression that produces in us a sense of euphoria. As we understand Scripture, that is not piety. In fact, that really has little to do with Christianity.
What are ways or resources for pastors and congregants to pursue Reformed piety?
One of the most basic things people can do to is to get to know the Reformed confessions. If you’re interested in getting to know what Reformed theology, piety, and practice looks like, rather than looking at all these other resources, simply sit down and read the Heidelberg Catechism. Read the Belgic Confession. Remember, all of the major Reformed confessions can be found at rscottclark.org. Read the Canons of Dort with the rejection of errors. Read the Westminster Standards.
As an editorial note, I highly recommend you add Recovering the Reformed Confession by Dr. Clark to the top of your reading list for 2017 for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.