The Redeemer Report features an article by Tim Keller defending revival and conversion as biblical. Keller’s outspokenness on revivalism should not be a surprise since he was a student of Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of Spiritual Life), and since he has defended revivals on other occasions. Followers of Keller’s career and writings may be forgiven if they wonder how revival goes down with the upwardly mobile and aesthetically informed Manhattanites who gravitate to Redeemer Church. (You can take the boy out of Gordon-Conwell, but can you take Gordon-Conwell out of the boy?)
Keller’s latest column offers a succinct biblical theology of revival. What caught my eye, though, was less the theology or revival than the unspoken interlocutors behind Keller’s argument. Why all of the biblical data he assembles needs to be called a revival or a conversion is a question Keller does not answer. Revival itself is a confusing metaphor for spiritual life. It suggests someone who was alive, died, and is now brought back to life. How helpful can it be to use this image with reference to a person who is not regenerate? And just as pertinent, can it ever be used for a saint? Do saints die spiritually and then need resuscitation? If so, doesn’t revival imply that saints won’t persevere? This might explain the appeal of revival to the likes of Finney.
But back to Keller’s unidentified readers. He writes with a measure of hostility rarely seen:
As I sat looking at my computer screen at the title I’d written for this article, I was somewhat bemused by the fact that a defense of conversion and revival was even necessary. But so it is. There are quarters of the church now questioning whether or not conversion, the new birth, giving oneself to Christ, etc., are topics that should even be raised. Conversion, and its corporate expression, revival, are thought to be manifestations of Western individualistic thinking.
Keller adds, again with a surprising edge:
The point of this article is not so that you (or I) can win arguments with those of a different persuasion. Christians throwing theological brickbats at one another is only amusing the Evil One. Rather, we should move forward positively to seek revival in our own lives and churches and to joyfully share the Gospel with those who do not yet know Christ. Changed lives and changed community will both glorify God and fill us with the joy unspeakable.
Let me be clear, I am critical of revivals and revivalists not for the sake of throwing brickbats (whatever they are). I am interested in the ways in which revivals have undermined reformation. I would contend (and have) that the better word to use for improvement in the church is not revival but reform. The rise of Protestantism was not a revival. It was a reformation. Meanwhile, the interior turn that experimental Calvinism nurtured and that gave rise to revivalism, acted as a solvent on those marks of reformation by which we identified a true church — proclamation of the gospel (creeds), rightly administered sacraments (liturgy), and discipline (polity). If revivalists were not inherently anti-formalists, they might be more willing to consider the importance of these formal aspects of church life. But ever since George Whitefield, revivalists have been more concerned with “the heart” than they have with the churchly qualities that manifest the heart and unite believers to the body of Christ.
Of course, other good reasons exist for raising questions about revivals and conversion. From Charles Finney’s New Measures to Jonathan Edwards’ — another pro-revival New York pastor — gullibility over the conversion of four-year olds, revivalism has a checkered past. If Keller is such an effective apologist for revival, he needs to be as empathetic with revivalism’s critics as he is with Christianity’s unbelieving opponents who live in large metropolitan centers.