Justin Taylor recommends Richard Lovelace’s pro-revival book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, and shows the telltale faults of the gospel allies. Taylor praises a book that is more theology than history as a work of church history, and he reproduces endorsements from TGC heavyweights about how important Lovelace’s book was for their ministry and careers:
There is not another book quite like Richard Lovelace’s The Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (IVP, 1979).
It was published before Tim Keller and John Piper had written any popular books.
It was written back when Jonathan Edwards was hardly anybody’s homeboy.
It was written by an author who is a bit eccentric, but whose every page—agree or disagree—is worth wrestling with and pondering.
Tim Keller says that if you read this book, you’ll say that you now know where he got all his material. He still thinks we can’t do without this book.
David Powlison says he read the book multiple times in the 1980s.
Ray Ortlund has said that this book is rarely far from his thoughts.
So we have the problem of the veneer of uncontested scholarship followed by the problem of group think. Does anyone challenge Lovelace on historical or theological grounds? Or is Lovelace wonderful all the time because he means so much to TGC celebrities? (I suppose Justin has to adjudicate such questions sometimes as an editor at Crossway books but among TGC eminences such critical perspectives rarely arise.)
I ran a search of Lovelace’s book and discovered that it received no reviews in the standard historical journals (religious or secular). But at Reformed Journal, Mark Noll, then a relatively obscure young scholar, raised precisely the sort of concerns that should have dawned on Taylor, Tim Keller, Ray Ortlund, and David Powlison before praising the book in such glowing ways. Noll’s concerns are also those that confessional Protestants bring to the book:
The more diffuse second half of the book proposes programs for personal and parish renewal, while warning against emotional, spiritual, and theological errors which lead revivals astray. It contends for a faith that neglects neither personal spirituality nor doctrinal orthodoxy nor structural reform. It concludes with a potpourri of concerns pointing out the value to renewed Christians of remaining in their denominations, offering a blueprint for artistic revival among evangelicals, and stressing the need for a socially active faith.
The book attempts so much that it is bound to leave each reader unsatisfied at some points. To quibble, I found it strange that Lovelace would exalt Jonathan Edwards as a flawless model for ongoing spiritual renewal. However influential Edwards’ Narrative of Surprising Conversions was for the Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s, the message of renewal evidently did not permeate even Edwards’ own Northampton congregation, which dismissed him less than a decade after the flowering of the revival. Also, Lovelace’s repeated contrast between the spiritual vitality of today’s young people and the enculturated sterility of the older generation is naive.
More seriously, Lovelace exhibits a strange lack of concern for “steady state” Christianity. He focuses so intently upon the manifestations of spiritual renewal in local churches, denominations, and society as a whole—his enthusiasm is so great for the rare moments of dramatic spiritual quickening in Christian history—that he neglects what have been the day-in, day-out realities for most Christians in most eras of the church’s history. Work and family life, for instance, receive little attention here Yet if spiritual renewal is to be a sustaining presence in the church at large, it must certainly go beyond what theologians, preachers, denominational officials, and other professional Christian workers do for a living It must even go beyond what lay people do in devotion, worship, witness, and Christian social involvement. One group of Lovelace’s heroes, the Puritans, recognized the need for Christian renewal to remake relationships in the home and workplace. Yet, except for a few brief comments concerning “theological integration,” Lovelace seems content to leave untouched that artificial division between spiritual and secular worlds which has so bedeviled the church. (“Breadth and Longevity,” Nov. 1980)
Is Noll being unnice to suggest that Lovelace promises more than he delivers? Or that steady state Christianity (what some might call confessional Protestantism) is superior to the emotionally laden and earnest evangelicalism that Edwards promoted and for which the gospel allies are nostalgic? Are the gospel allies guilty of the same flaws as Lovelace? Who will compel them to see their weaknesses if critics don’t do it? If they refuse to listen to meanies like Old Life, how about Mark Noll?
Fewer high fives, more sobriety.