The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (Clark)

Sometimes Reformed churches and Reformed Christians mix up essential and non-essential religious beliefs and practices. For example, some people are certain that Scripture is without error and they are certain that their favorite translation of the Bible is only true translation. Others are certain that Adam was a historical person and they are certain that their view of “biblical masculinity” is the true view. In these examples, the essential religious truths (Scripture is without error and Adam is a historical person) are mixed with non-essential beliefs (the only true translation of Scripture and the view of “biblical masculinity.”). These are just two examples of confusing essential truths with non-essential beliefs or opinions.

Speaking of this tendency, Scott Clark calls it the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty.” This is a very helpful category that goes hand in hand with the “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.” Here’s how Clark introduces these topics near the opening of his book, Recovering the Reformed Confession:

In 1844, upon being made professor in the seminary of the Reformed Churches in the United States, Phillip Schaff gave his inaugural address…published the next year as “The Principle of Protestantism.” He argued that American religion was infected with two diseases: “Rationalism and sectarism then are the most dangerous enemies of our church at the present time. They are both but different sides of the one and the same principle – a one-sided false subjectivity, sundered from the authority of the objective. Rationalism is theoretic sectarism; sectarism is practical rationalism.” In the century and a half since Schaff issued this warning these two diseases have continued to afflict the Reformed churches.

What Schaff called rationalism we will call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty or QIRC, that is, the quest to know what God knows, the way he knows it. This quest often manifests itself in the attempt to find certainty on issues that are not of the esse (being) or even of the bene esse (well-being) of the Reformed confession. For those on this quest, what matters more than finding the truth or getting it right is being right. According to QIRC, there is no distinction between essential and nonessential doctrines or practices, since QIRC renders them all equally important.

What Schaff called “sectarism” may also be described as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience, or QIRE. This is the pursuit of the immediate experience of God without the means of grace (i.e., the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments). It is the attempt to experiencey him in a way that he has not ordained, and more specifically, to experience him in a way that we do not confess. The first half of this work sketches the nature of the QIRC and QIRE, offers examples of both in the Reformed Churches, and finally offers criticisms of both.

As I mentioned, these are helpful categories. I think Schaff and Clark make some excellent points on these issues. One other aspect of this discussion – especially the QIRC – is the disease of biblicism in Christian thinking and practice. But that’s the topic of a different post! For now, check out this resource: Recovering the Reformed Confession by Scott Clark.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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