The Danger of Revivals and of Their Critics

Our favorite PCA blogger has once again kicked up a little e-dust with a review of Kenneth Stewart’s new book, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. The review itself is worth reading, as is a subsequent post that explains the author’s perspective (the author being pastor William H. Smith aka The Christian Curmudgeon). But what is particularly striking about the review and its responses (some from Ken Stewart himself) is how sensitive the topic of revivalism is.

Not to make this all about me (about which it generally is), but Stewart even calls my interpretation of revivalism “dangerous.” In fact, one of the underlying factors in Stewart’s purpose and in the book’s reception will be the way Reformed Protestants consider the relationship between being Reformed and being evangelical. Some like Stewart – John Frame may be the most notable exponent of this – tend to view evangelicalism and Reformed Protestantism as co-extensive, with Reformed being in some constructions a subset of evangelicalism. Others like the informal members of the Old Life Theological Society regard this relationship as more troubled than peaceful because of important differences between evangelicals and Reformed Protestants.

One of those differences is revivalism. Stewart believes that Reformed Protestants have generally been supportive of revivals. He even wonders who would not be in favor of unbelievers being converted and believers becoming more devout. Stewart believes that the critics of revivals have been a minority view, and that such folks are – well – dangerous. Is this the evangelical academic version of Gilbert Tennent’s “The Danger of An Unconverted Ministry”?

But the critics of revival, like myself anyway, are not opposed to conversion nor to increased godliness among the saints (why we need to call that revival is another matter). At the same time, critics of revival see that revivals generally undermine those aspects of church life that make Reformed churches Reformed. If you look at the Old Side Presbyterians critique of the supposedly good First Pretty Good Awakening, their concerns about subscription and church polity were not without merit. Similar criticisms informed the Old School Presbyterian critiques of the pro-revival New School Presbyterians. New Side and New School Presbyterians were of course pro-revival and so less attached to Presbyterian convictions and practice that was becoming officers who had taken vows about being Presbyterian. (Do evangelicals have vows?)

Here is how Charles Hodge put the division among colonial Presbyterians during the allegedly Calvinistic revivals of the First Pretty Good Awakening (danger alert!!):

It appears from this history that the great schism was not the result of conflicting views, either as to doctrine or church government. It was the result of alienation of feeling produced by the controversies relating to the revival. In these controversies the New Brunswick brethren were certainly the aggressors. In their unrestrained zeal, they denounced brethren, whose Christian character they had no right to question. They disregarded the usual rules of ministerial intercourse, and avowed the principle that in extraordinary times and circumstances such rules ought to be suspended. Acting upon this principle, they divided the great majority of the congregations within the sphere of their operations, and by appealing to the people, succeeded in overwhelming their brethren with popular obloquy. Excited by a sense of injury, and alarmed by the disorders consequent on these new methods, the opposite party had recourse to violent measures for redress, which removed none of the evils under which they suffered, and involved them in a controversy with a large class of their brethren, with whom they had hitherto acted in concert. These facts our fathers have left on record for the instruction of their children; to teach them that in times of excitement the rules of order, instead of being suspended, are of more importance than ever to the well-being of the church; that no pretence of zeal can authorize the violation of the rules of charity and justice; and on the other hand, that it is better to suffer wrong than to have recourse to illegal methods of redress; that violence is no proper remedy for disorder, and that adherence to the constitution, is not only the most Christian, but also the most effectual means of resistance against the disturbers of the peace and order of the church. (Constitutional History, Part II, pp. 249-50)

So the criticisms of revivalism and evangelicalism more generally is not necessarily the product of idiosyncratic or Dutch Reformed (as Stewart alleges) outlooks. It may simply follow from reading the splits in American Presbyterianism caused by revivals.

But to make sure my own views of revivalism are not obscure, and to let folks see if they are dangerous, I conclude by listing my major objections:

1) Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) is anti-formal because of an emphasis on the work of the Spirit (especially in conversion but also in preaching). This stress makes presbyters or church members less worried about the wording of creeds or the requirements of polity than they should be. “It’s the Spirit that matters, not whether presbytery follows church order.”

1a) Revivalists (and evangelicals generally), because of their anti-formalism, disregard the importance of the sacraments. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the way that pro-evangelical Reformed folk regard Baptists as Reformed.

2)Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) cultivates an appetite for the extraordinary in matters of devotion. This leads to a piety that is often discontent with the outward and ordinary means of grace that God has instituted in the church, such as the word preached by ordinary ministers, and the ordinary elements of bread, wine, and water, or even the really dull aspects of session and presbytery meetings.

3) Revivalism (and evangelicalism generally) does not know what to do with children of the covenant except to demand conversion. How you take a child who has grown up participating in family and corporate worship, has tried to lead a pious life, has prayed regularly, and tell him to convert from his wicked ways is beyond me. It is also a recipe for spiritual schizophrenia or a baptized child going to a non-Reformed church as an adult.

These views may be dangerous. But how could anyone who has studied the history of the church look at revivalism or evangelicalism as Christian expressions without problems? Reformed churches, of course, have problems too. But you can’t be Reformed if you think that basic aspects of your creed and ministry are your problems. And that is what evangelicals want from Reformed Protestants – give up those distinct aspects that make you Reformed (in doctrine, worship, and polity) and we’ll give you a seat under the big evangelical umbrella. (I might be tempted if they were serving drinks with umbrellas, but that would be really, really dangerous.)


34 thoughts on “The Danger of Revivals and of Their Critics

  1. “It is… a recipe for spiritual schizophrenia” amen, Amen, AMEN! got the t-shirt. Actually I have about 6 of them, since that’s how many times I walked the aisle.


  2. Dr. Hart,

    Do you know of any material that explores the Old Side and New Side controversies further? Especially the idea of conversion that seemed to be changed with the New Side? I can’t remember if you have anything in Lost Soul dealing with the differences the two had regarding conversion.


  3. Agreed and agreed, Dr Hart. It’s like the “spirit” vs “the letter” for some Reformed evangelicals, which may account for their semi-creedal / semi-confessional tendencies. Some of these folks, however, actually subcribe to creeds and confessions. Which are, in the end, summaries of what we believe Scripture itself teaches. But if they wish to hold on to them so loosely, why subscribe to them at all? At least those that do not hold to creeds or confessions are somewhat consistent. Although what they hold to is a creed in and of itself. Whew, they’re pretty difficult to keep up with!


  4. Eegads, Darryl, will have to reflect on this more. “Anti-formal” recurs in your objections (and mine). Later.


  5. Funny thing. I know some London Baptist guys that take the Lord’s Supper much more seriously than I do some PCA I know. Thtas a bit backwards. Funny, but backwards. 🙂


  6. A little Hillbilly religion for entertainment until more robust analyses are forthcoming.


  7. (Actually, Benjamin, there’s an even better buzz from Acts 4:23-31 where the apostles invoke Psalm 2 but drop the impreccatory stuff against worldly enemies and instead petition for boldness in their midst.)


  8. “Reformed churches, of course, have problems too”

    Sure. But at least those problems aren’t doctrinal.


  9. Pardon my nitpick: Why, as a Presbyterian, am I duty-bound to uphold formalism? I see a distinction between good order, a divine command, and formality, which is an aesthetic stance.


  10. Randall, what for a Presbyterian is merely a form, for an evangelical is formalism. It’s as if the administration of a sacrament makes you a sacramentarian.

    We can’t escape forms. The body is a form. In which case insisting on the ordination of men is all about forms. Some body have the appropriate form. So it seems to me best to be up front both about your use of them and which ones you are using. The Reformed confessions do this.


  11. Fascinating articles, and amen to the ecclesiastical objections. From his Noll review wrt evangelicalism:

    “activism, or the dedication of all believers, including lay-people, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism…and mission”

    I don’t want to elevate secular concerns above the effects on the church, but as a layman, this is realistically my daily hangup with revivalism. It obscures the doctrine of vocation in favor of more prayer, more Bible reading, more self examination, and more effort in leading one’s coworkers to Christ. But you’re never told how much would be enough, and asking the question is a sign of reprobation.

    You’re either permitted to work inasmuch as a fallen son of Adam needs to feed his family and himself, between devotions, or as a transformationalist worldview warrior conquering his trade for Christ. But if you just want to be a doctor because you like medicine or helping people, you’re insufficiently persuaded of heavenly glories or something.


  12. I’ve been praying for revival among our congregation and the Church everywhere. When I pray for revival, I am praying that God will give his people a hunger for preaching, prayer and the sacraments, a new and enhanced appreciation for the public reading of scripture, and the reading/study of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, a biblical understanding of office in the Church and faithfulness in the worship of the Triune God and a renewed awareness of and commitment to the vows one has taken as a Presbyterian.


  13. Dr. Hart, thank you for this insightful post. I would add my “amen!” to your sentiments.

    In my Pastor’s Blog I wrote a 7/4/11 post entitled “Revivalism versus Confessionalism” where I seek to lay out some of the differences between revivalist Christianity and confessional Christianity. It was largely inspired by your “Lost Soul” and R. Scott Clark’s “Recovering the Reformed Confession”, and thus it reflects some of your points above. If you’re interested it can be found here:

    Keep up the good work.


  14. “I’ve been praying for revival among our congregation and the Church everywhere. When I pray for revival, I am praying that God will give his people a hunger for preaching, prayer and the sacraments, a new and enhanced appreciation for the public reading of scripture, and the reading/study of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, a biblical understanding of office in the Church and faithfulness in the worship of the Triune God and a renewed awareness of and commitment to the vows one has taken as a Presbyterian.”

    Alan – It seems that you are praying for a “revival” of confessionalism. The problem, IMO, is that most evangelicals today wouldn’t identify the things you are praying for as “revival.” Perhaps a better word to describe your petitions would be “renewal,” or perhaps even “reformation.” (But maybe you were just using the term “revival” in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.)


  15. Reformed churches, of course, have problems too. But you can’t be Reformed if you think that basic aspects of your creed and ministry are your problems.

    Right on.

    Historical question, Darryl: what is the “violence” perpetrated by our old side/school Fathers to which Hodge refers? I mean, did they start punching the revivalists in the face, or what?


  16. Baus, it looks like Hodge referred to Tennent’s action as violence:

    “Their only tendency was to exasperate. Other men as faithful as Mr. Tennent, were never guilty either of his censoriousness or violence. We never hear of any complaints against President Dickinson, Mr. Pierson, Mr. Pemberton, and other active friends of the revival. For these gentlemen the highest respect and the kindest feelings were, on all occasions, expressed by those who differed from them in opinion, as to the general character and probable results of the religious excitement which then prevailed. There can be no doubt, therefore, that Mr. Tennent’s unhappy violence was one of the principal causes of that entire alienation of feeling, which soon resulted in an open rupture. When such denunciations come from men of doubtful character or feeble intellect, they are commonly and safely disregarded. But when they are hurled by such men as Tennent, men of acknowledged piety and commanding power, they can hardly fail to shatter the society among which they fall. Mr. Tennent became fully sensible of the impropriety of this censorious spirit, and laboured hard to correct the evils it had occasioned. It is difficult to believe that the same man could write the Nottingham Sermon and the Irenicum Ecclesiasticum.”


  17. I want to second that emotion expressed by Baus………………Right on!! when it comes to this statement…………….
    “Reformed churches, of course, have problems too. But you can’t be Reformed if you think that basic aspects of your creed and ministry are your problems.”

    If that does not in a nut shell nail what has been going on in Reformed churches, I don’t know what does.

    Example………..We can’t have every community/cell group at a mega (2500 members) PCA church read, embrace, and study Bill Hybel’s book “Contagious Christianity” and promote it as the model for where to take the churches ministry philosophy and then still call it “Reformed”. I guess one can say anything one wants, but it does not make it so. I am blown away at how many folks claim to be “Reformed” and yet embrace the Saddleback/Willow Creek theology. Any elder/pastor willing to take that tact ought to man up and just leave the church and start a Baptist/E-free church or something. It would be more honest and less confusing to the flock.

    As mentioned above, along with the many great works Dr. Hart has produced, for a deeper look at the drift in Reformed churches leaving their confessional roots this book by Dr.Clark is a must read.

    I know many assume (I once did) that most “New School” brothers in Reformed leadership must have already read much of the “Old School” side of the debate. My experience in talking with many of them is that most have not and are stuck in their Synchronized Reformed/Revivalist world dismissing anything “Old School” as dead orthodoxy, etc.. Most “New School” I have encountered really don’t grasp the historical roots of Reformed piety, theology & practice. Where as most “Old School” I have visited with personally or read , etc. actually do have a very good understanding of the roots of the “New School” side of these debates.

    Perhaps that is my own misguided perception, but in this sense the “New School” actually seem to be far more dogmatic and dare I say traditionalist/curmudgeon than the “Old School.”


  18. Thanks, Joel. So, the “violence” to which Hodge refers was Tennent and other revivalists saying that the critics of revival were unconverted, or had bad character, or some such?

    I supposed that when Hodge mentions “the opposite party” (in Darryl’s quotation) that this referred to the critics and not to the revivalists. Maybe it does, and so both parties were unduly denouncing each other, or doing so in a disorderly fashion.

    Unrelated to my question, I must say that another crucial lesson here is the need for close communion and confessional membership… but, it seems neither Hodge nor Hart can quite find their way to that conclusion. Of course, there’s still hope for Hart on that score. 🙂


  19. Baus: I suppose the question is: can a session/congregation require subscription to the Confession and Catechisms in every particular in order to recognise that person as a Christian, thus saying that profession of faith is not enough? Isn’t this the opposite extreme of requiring personal experience as a condition of membership? A Christian is under obligation to join a church and partake of the sacraments. Thus surely requiring subscription to the creeds merely to become a member is a supra-Biblical, if not unBiblical, requirement; an undue burden; even a violation of their liberty of conscience? The officers of the church are charged with maintaining and teaching purity of doctrine and practice, that is why they should be requires to subscribe. But office-bearing is voluntary; membership (partaking of the sacraments, submission to elders) is not.

    I understand where you’re coming from, but it seems to me to be going too far.


  20. I agree with Alexander here. However the point being is that if Reformed (NAPARC) Pastors & Elders really are Confessional they will by duty, conviction & vows teach the same with passion and vigor to the flock in the pews. They will seek out Confessional resources rather than Bill Hybel’s, etc. Which will in turn lead to a Confessionally Reformed (and informed) flock.

    Here again R. Scott Clark’s book “Recovering the Reformed Confessions” is a must read for any Reformed (NAPARC) member let alone a Reformed leader/elder.

    (PS..I of course use the term “must read” hyperbolically and do not believe it a must for membership, but almost 🙂


  21. I’m curious as to what assessment you give of Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience – and Alexander in general. I’ve always appreciated this book as exhibiting a high regard for warm, vibrant piety, while eschewing pietism and ‘enthusiasm.’ Further, in the several times I’ve read it, I have never perceived even a subtle depreciation of the outward and ordinary means, or a pietistic downplay of Christian nurture of covenant children. In fact, his ‘Advice to Christian Mothers’ in the appendix is a masterpiece. Do you interact with Alexander vis a vis Nevin in your book? I haven’t picked it up yet.


  22. Michael, it’s been a while since I read it so I went back and glanced through some sections. It still strikes me as way too introspective for my sensitive disposition. Maybe macho guys like Driscoll need this stuff. But to me it places Pilgrim’s burden right back on my back. I also noticed that he says we are to treat covenant children as if they are unregenerate. That seems like a pretty important building block for revivalism.


  23. Alexander and Burns, I’m afraid you misunderstand the Presbyterian and Reformed view on close communion and confessional membership. It is definitely not about “requiring subscription to the Confession and Catechisms in every particular in order to recognise that person as a Christian”.


  24. As my wife and I drove to morning worship last Sunday morning, we passed a church that had scheduled, presumably with the acquiesence of the Holy Spirit, a revival, which was to last from July 10 through the 16th. The parking lot was empty. When we passed by again on the way home a few hours later, the parking lot was empty. I’m thinking that revivals just aren’t what they used to be.


  25. Chris – I just read that. Good stuff (even if I didn’t understand half of what he was saying, lay person that I am!

    If “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” as Piper claims, then God, at the end of the age, will miss out on a lot of glory of which he rightly deserved but didn’t attain. Doesn’t this mean that God is going to miss out on a lot of glory, which is the end for which he created the world? That argument alone is enough for someone to question Christian Hedonism.


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