Lent Is Methodist

Bill Smith, always worth a read, thinks Old Life has declared another war on objections to Lent. He acknowledges two chief objections among Reformed Protestants to Lent — the regulative principle of worship and the fear of Romish practices. The regulative principle should actually take care of the matter for the sake of corporate worship and the life of the church. If a Christian wants to engage in some kind of Lenten activities as a means to holiness, well, whatever floats your sanctification. But for officers in the church to make Lent the norm for a congregation or a communion, then they better come with something more than “it looks like a pretty good idea” and “our motives are generally pious.” Plus, if church members may opt out of Lenten abstemiousness, then what’s the point of officers calling for the wider body to “special” actions during a certain number of days in late winter?

Still, Bill is not content with those objections. He returns fire and argues that Lent is actually a reasonable form of temporary form of sanctification:

Another objection is that those who observe Lent use it as a time for the temporary repentance from certain sins which are normally indulged, while Jesus calls us to repent of all sins all the time. It may well be that some poorly instructed Christians view Lenten practice in that way, but in my experience I have never heard anyone who observes Lent speak of a temporary giving up of sin.

Fine. So a Christian who pursues holiness 365/12 now adds an intense time of repentance for a specified forty days before a Sunday some communions designate Easter. Maybe that’s how it works among Reformed Episcopalians.

But why THESE forty days and not another thirty in September and October, or maybe a dozen or so in late spring and early winter? Why not more intense forms of repentance sprinkled throughout the year? Or why not leave each family and person to decide when and for how long to engage in certain times of self-denial? Why these days that some designate as Lent?

Could it be that some churches embrace a formula for Lent and so follow the spiritual equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet for the pursuit of holiness? The Lent practitioner follows these forty days with the other saints of similar inclinations and so doesn’t have to consider whether another time of fasting and prayer is needed or useful for another time during the year?

That kind of methodical piety is what Charles Briggs called, “Methodist.” It was a word he applied to the proponents of the First Pretty Good Awakening who insisted that godliness manifest itself in certain predictable and uniform ways. Of course, the idea of likening the church calendar to revivalism is oxymoronic. But to everyone who concedes that believers mature and bear different kinds of spiritual fruit in the course of their lives, the idea that you can prescribe a certain number of days — the same ones every year — for extra special holiness, and the one that requires the same kind of religious zeal to prove your conversion, are not so far removed. Both pietism and prescribed liturgicalism promote a one-size fits all spirituality that is perfect for bureaucracies, but not so hot for the diversity of human experience.

Advertisements

Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

Tim Keller Plants, New York City Gives the Growth

In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of context that Joe Carter had in mind for the Gospel Coalition’s journalistic forays:

The three main forms of journalism we use at TGC (opinion and advocacy journalism; reporting and narrative journalism; explanatory journalism) are all used to help the church think more clearly about the gospel and how it leads us to interact with the world.

Although, since Carter thinks journalism at TGC should promote revivals, Zylstra’s piece certainly does that. Her account shows, whether she intended or not, how much Keller’s position in New York City made him stand out in ways that no one else among the Allies could. If you do a word count on Zylstra’s story, she mentions the PCA twice, Presbyterian six times, and New York 37 times. As for the work of the Holy Spirit — nada.

If religious journalism at TGC is supposed to promote revivals, that would place Zylstra’s rendering of Keller more on the Finney than the Whitefield side of pretty good awakenings since Finney wasn’t big on the Holy Spirit either.

What I don’t understand is why Mark Dever doesn’t get more attention in the TGC world. There he is ministering in the nation’s capitol, the center of American power, the place from which the United States leads the free world. And yet, to get traction as an urban church planter you need the mojo of the nation’s biggest city, the place that nurtured and shaped Donald J. Trump.

What’s up with that?

You Can’t Claim the Reformation and the First Gross (think German) Awakening

While the Gospel Allies put on the mantle of Luther — LUTHER!!! (that antinomian, beer drinking, potty mouth) — they should really be reading Garry Wills on the problem with evangelicalism. As I’ve been trying to say for some time, revivalism is antithetical to reformation. The church (as in reform the church) matters to Luther and Calvin. The parachurch is at the heart of revivals and the Gospel Coalition. To that end, consider the following:

Evangelicalism tends to break out of any single denomination—think of the preachers from various bodies at Cane Ridge. It is fissiparous even in its most favorable environments—think of Methodism branching into the Disciples of Christ, the Holiness Movement, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Whitefield, it should be remembered, was an ordained Anglican.) Evangelicalism is a style—Mark Noll calls it a “value system.” It can affect even some “high church” bodies or members. There are Pentecostalists among Roman Catholics. (Phyllis Schlafly, it should be remembered, was a Catholic, as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are. Bannon showed his allegiance in his 2014 Skype address to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican.)

Given this description of evangelical style, two things should be noticed. America is, or likes to think of itself as, a “do-it-yourself democracy.” Many of the traits I have been listing are ones Americans will fancy themselves as embodying (or wanting to). People who hit the sawdust trail are working a kind of do-it-yourself salvation. The credentialing by the people is what all presidents claim. No wonder Noll thinks of evangelical religion (despite its roots in Wesley’s England) as native to America, as giving America its most recognizable God. Calvin said God “elects” his chosen ones. In America we choose to elect our leaders. The crowd credentials the preacher. Historians rightly observe that our national political conventions have borrowed elements from revivals.

The Allies should be especially mindful, as the crowds gather this week that “crowds credential preachers.”

The Shelf Life of 2k — Part One

In 2009, David Strain, then a PCA pastor in Columbus, Mississippi, did a four-part interview with me about 2k and the spirituality of the church. These links are dead but they do prove that I’m not making this up. And through the wonders of the interweb, you can retrieve old web pages (and you wonder what the NSA can do).

Here is the first of the interviews. Pastor Strain tries to situate 2k in the vicissitudes of Presbyterianism in the U.S.

2 Kingdoms ideas and the complex of doctrinal issues that accompany them have been creating a bit of a stir of late. Among those with whom I am in contact much of the debate is generated by misunderstanding. So what else is new, I hear you cry.

Well, to help us (or help me at least) work through some of the areas of potential misunderstanding Dr. Darryl Hart has graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Just to ease us in, today we begin with a few general comments on common features of the contemporary evangelical landscape….

1. Darryl, would you comment on the distinction that is often made in conservative reformed circles between revival and revivalism? Is it a helpful distinction?

I am inclined to think it is a distinction without a difference. It has been a way to try to distinguish the good First (Really) Great Awakening from the Second (bad) Great Awakening. I will take Edwards over Finney any day. So the theology of the First GA may have been better. But typically the assessment of Edwards and Whitefield does not go a lot farther than the 5 points of Calvinism. But what about preaching the “terrors of the law” to apparent believers? What kind of theology leads to that? And what about the frankly bizarre conversion experiences of even Presbyterian revivalists like the Tennents? And what about Whitefield’s pulpit antics (well documented in Stout’s biography)? When you look more closely at the First GA you are getting a lot more than that for which you bargained. And then there is the problem of conversion and the way that a dramatic experience became the norm for detecting regeneration and effectual calling. So in the end, I’m not inclined to think revivalism was all that hot.

2. What is an Old Side Presbyterian, and do you qualify?

An Old Side Presbyterian was a guy who opposed revivalism because revivalists were not as concerned about subscription as Old Siders were, and was opposed to the way that some New Siders completely disregarded church polity and the authority of synod and presbyteries. So if to be an Old Sider is to favor subscription to the Standards, believe in the real authority of the church, and to be suspicious of subjective religious experience, I am one.

3. Do Old Siders believe in evangelism?

Old Siders do believe in evangelism. They believe that preaching is an ordinance that convicts and converts sinners. Old Siders believe in preaching. This isn’t quite a syllogism, but you get the point. Now, because of the influence of revivalism – just as conversion has taken on a different meaning from the Reformation, so has evangelism. For many revival-friendly Protestants, evangelism is what every Christian does. My “witnessing” is apparently no different or worse than God’s appointed means (let’s not forget Romans 10) for drawing his people to himself. But if there is still room in the universe for churchly evangelism, then I believe in evangelism.

4. Do individual believers have a responsibility to engage in evangelism?

Not to be coy, but some do and some don’t. All believers should be able to give a defense of their faith, but I do not assume that this is the same as witnessing or giving one’s testimony. Having had to go door-to-door as a kid for evangelistic purposes I may be overreacting. But I also think that the way that evangelism is often advocated leads to Christians who are constantly on the make, looking for a way to close the deal. In other words, they don’t seem to take other people as people; non-believers are persons to be converted and then the evangelist moves on to the next non-Christian.

You see this very well illustrated in the movie, The Big Kahuna (which has lots of bad language so believers whose consciences cannot bear such words should beware). It is an amazingly sympathetic view of a born-again Christian who feels compelled to witness on the job. Not only does the movie show that sometimes this approach makes Christians look like one-dimensional people, but it also says important things about vocation. If we serve God in our work, then we don’t need to make it really religious by using it to evangelize.

So some people may be called to evangelize, others are not (some do not even have the gifts for personal evangelism). The guys who are definitely called to evangelize are preachers.

For Those Without Ears to Hear

Justin Taylor revives Billy Sunday’s career by collecting comments on what the evangelist sounded like and even a few clips of the preacher himself. Taylor leaves out arguably the most insightful observer of Sunday, H. L. Mencken, whose critique extends as much to evangelicalism as to the baseball-player-turned-evangelist himself:

As for his extraordinary success in drawing crowds and in performing the hollow magic commonly called conversion, it should be easily explicable to anyone who has seen him in action. His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Will A Revival Save Us?

In hopes of understanding my own blindness about race relations in America and what I (me me I I me me) might do to make the nation and me less racist, I listened to Thabiti Anyabwile’s discussion with Carmen Fowler LaBerge. Here’s what I learned. First, I need to acknowledge that whites have treated blacks badly:

We need to acknowledge the ways in which the church has intentionally, historically refused to be the Body of God along the lines of race. Whether it from Virginia’s enactment of laws that if a slave became a Christian did not mean they would be freed from slavery, to the segregation of congregations in the 1800s and into the 1900s, to the Evangelical church just missing the ball in the Civil Rights Movement and other areas. We have to tell the truth- the bone deep truth- about our complicity if we will ever be free from it.

When I taught colonial America last fall, I ended with the point that race is one of the lasting and darkest legacies of colonial slavery. I may need to do more in class. But I think I’ve got this part of it. I understand in part if not in full.

Second, I need to do something:

Pastor T says one tangible step is to pray for revival. Pray that God pours out his Spirit on His church, and that His spirit would graciously bring conviction of sin. That He would quicken His church in repentance and holiness. Pray that God would subdue the hearts of those hearts in rebellion against God and turn to Him.

Pastor T hopes the Lord would use the grief and mourning that has gripped the nation to break our hearts in repentance and so we would draw near to Him in revival.

Here I’m scratching my head. Does Pastor Anyabwile (and Carmen) not know that revivals were incredibly divisive throughout U.S. history? Revivals don’t unify. They divide churches between pro- and anti-revivalists.

If Pastor Anyabwile means that revival might bring sanctification, I appreciate the point. But in the case of cop shootings, does that mean city governments should only hire applicants who have made a profession of faith? If revival saves America, aren’t we still thinking about politics the way Constantinians, neo-Calvinists, Covenanters, and theonomists do? Can we only trust officials who are saved?

So what do we do if we are to live with non-Christians? Any policies? Interestingly enough, Pastor Anyabwile faulted Ta-Nehisi Coates in the latter’s piece on mass incarcerations for not recommending any policies:

Coates repeats the significant failure he recognizes in an earlier Moynihan. Coates tells us that the fatal flaw in Moynihan’s infamous report was Moynihan’s decision to omit specific policy solutions. Having seen that so clearly, it’s odd that Coates should repeat that failure so often in the important writing he now undertakes. A mind as formidable as Coates’s ought not stop with descriptive analysis, however compelling its portrayal of the problem. It should push itself to hazard a prescription, to call for some specific redress.

Pastor Anyabwile is of course right. He should also know that revival is not policy.

So what policy is out there? Maybe Peter Moskos is on to something about what California and Chicago police can learn from New York City’s patrol people and their supervisors:

Last year in California, police shot and killed 188 people. That’s a rate of 4.8 per million. New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania collectively have 3.4 million more people than California (and 3.85 million more African Americans). In these three states, police shot and killed (just?) 53 people. That’s a rate of 1.2 per million. That’s a big difference.

Were police in California able to lower their rate of lethal force to the level of New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — and that doesn’t seem too much to ask for — 139 fewer people would be killed by police. And this is just in California! (And California isn’t even the worst state; I’m picking on California because it’s large and very much on the high end.)

Now keep in mind most police-involved shootings are not only legally justifiable, they are necessary and good at the moment the cop pulls the trigger. But that doesn’t mean that the entire situation was inevitable. Cops don’t want to shoot people. They want to stay alive. You give cops a safe way to reduce the chance they have to pull the trigger, and they’ll certainly take it.

I really don’t know what some departments and states are doing right and others wrong. But it’s hard for me to believe that the residents of California are so much more violent and threatening to cops than the good people of New York or Pennsylvania. I suspect lower rates of lethal force has a lot to do with recruitment, training, verbal skills, deescalation techniques, not policing alone, and more restrictive gun laws. (I do not include Tasers on this list.)

If we could bring the national rate of people shot and killed by police (3 per million) down to the level found in, say, New York City (The big bad NYPD shoots and kills just 0.7 per million) we’d reduce the total number of people killed by police 77 percent, from 990 to 231!

The thing is, we don’t need the Holy Spirit’s miraculous powers for this. Providential control is always appreciated.

Revivalist or Metaphysician?

Marilyn Robinson (thanks to our virtuous commonwealth correspondent) joins the New Calvinists in claiming Jonathan Edwards as her homeboy. Along the way she makes one significant concession:

The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.

It does make you wonder if the New Calvinists get their Calvinism from Edwards whether they have found the genuine article.

But Robinson is not really concerned with John Piper or Tim Keller — can you believe it? She writes to explain how Edwards’ philosophical theology informed her w-w as it were:

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

This kind of insight leads Robinson to discount Edwards’ revivalism as mainly a circumstance of his time but not something that should make him known primarily as a preacher of hell-fire. I concede that Edwards was the rare revivalist, by twentieth-century standards. Who could imagine Billy Graham or Billy Sunday engaging Foucault and trying to come up with a justification for original sin? At the same time, revivalist achievements may have been higher in the age before mass communication. Think Charles Grandison Finney as a professor of moral philosophy and president of Oberlin College. Revivalism was not necessarily opposed to intellectual pursuits.

At the same time, Bruce Kuklick’s encounter with the apocalyptic Edwards should perhaps have guarded Robinson from an overly intellectual reading of Edwards — an interpretation that is, by the way, more congenial with her church, the United Church of Christ, yes the communion of Winthrop, Nevin, Niebuhr, Jeremiah Wright, and President Obama:

A scream of an owl at night represented to Edwards the misery of devils residing in eternal darkness. In 1745, the Catholic French defenders of Cape Breton, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrendered to their Protestant English attackers. Edwards wrote that the surrender was “a dispensation of providence, the most remarkable in its kind, that has been in many ages.” It was for him a portent of what was to come. The biblical book of Revelation taught Edwards that the Roman papacy was the anti-christian force of the Antichrist that would fall in 1866, presaging a glorious time for the true church that would begin about 2000. These examples are not random—they are bits of reasoning that I can at least grasp; they are the tip of a far more mysterious premodern iceberg.

Confronting this material is paradoxical and perplexing. One is able to appreciate the technical philosophy of a thinker as a manifestation of abstract intelligence. Simultaneously, one can see that the lived world of a thinker is as limited, peculiar, and foolish as one’s own. As a Calvinist colleague of mine has suggested, Edwards’s understanding of his connection to the immediate world around him is no more or less reasonable than that of Linda Tripp when she declared it to be her “patriotic duty” to expose the relation between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To put my concern another way, reading volume 15 and pondering its implications, I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought. (Bruce Kuklick, “Edwards for the Millennium,” Religion and American Culture, 2001)

I have no dog in this fight. Edwards is so yesterday.

Golden Oldie (part two)

An excerpt from “‘Reformed’ or ‘Revived’: Why Words Matter”, Modern Reformation (July/August 1998):

Perhaps a better way of showing these differences is to contrast the words “revive” and “reform.” These words connote the same difference already noted between Tennent and the Second Helvetic Confession. The word, “revive,” suggests an effort to recover genuine spiritual existence and vitality in the lives of believers, and to introduce non-believers to the eternal life that comes through Christ. A revival cuts through the forms and “vain repetitions” of established and hypocritical religion and goes to the heart to cause and nurture genuine conversion and real repentance. Not only does revivalism thrive on the desire for authentic religion but its aim is individualistic. To be sure, the more people revived, the better the church may be. But revival stresses individual conversion and personal morality.

The word, “reform,” however, suggests a restructuring of a specific order. A reform’s purpose is to take an existing organization or body and making it conform to a correct or true standard and norm. So while revivals aim at generating or deepening spiritual life in individuals, reformations strive to impart a more faithful shape to the visible church in its corporate life, in doctrine, worship, and government. For example, individuals sitting through the Mass may be Reformed in their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, but the liturgy presently violating their conscience hardly is.

Though these meanings of “revive” and “reform” don’t come from Webster’s dictionary, they are implicit in the arguments used to defend both revivalism and reformation. If a revival occurs, its defenders argue that spiritual life has been imparted, in other words, that the spirit of God is at work. This was not only true in the eighteenth century but is still so today. Tennent, for instance, not only thought that ministers who supported Whitefield’s revivals were regenerate — after all, he assumed that Whitefield’s opponents were dangerous because unconverted. But Tennent also presumed that the revivals of his day were a work of God. More recently, Iain Murray has followed a similar logic. Though he has not gone so far as Tennent in questioning the regeneration of individual ministers, Murray is convinced that the First Great Awakening was a work of God. Though he believes revivals are occasions where God blesses the ordinary means of grace in an extraordinary way, Murray is not reluctant in concluding that the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century was the result of the work of the Spirit. Murray’s conclusion should not be surprising. Since Calvinists believe that only God can give spiritual life to the unregenerate, a revival ipso facto has to be a work of God. But that begs the epistemological question of whether we can know for sure where and when God’s Spirit is active.

The interpretive stakes are not quite so high, however, when it comes to telling whether reformation has taken place. The marks of the church, according to the Reformers, are one very important way to discern where the gospel is. Unlike revivalism which encourages the evaluation of things that are invisible, namely, the human soul, the Reformation promoted the search for phenomena that can be observed by the human senses. In the words of the Belgic Confession, Article 29, “The marks by which the true church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God.” In other words, to look for Reformation is to evaluate visible or external forms. But to look for revival is to make judgments about things invisible and internal.

So the “reformed” and the “revived” make two different kinds of determination when they look for Reformation and revival. Proponents of revival make claims that should be reserved for God, that is, whether a soul has truly come to new life in Christ. To be sure, the “revived” look for evidence in visible and external things such as profession and deed. But to say that a revival occurred is to determine that God did actually regenerate a remarkable number of souls. The Parable of the Sower suggests the need for less certainty in making such a determination. The “reformed,” however, do not pretend to look into the state of souls or make judgments about God’s intervention into human history. Yes, they do use the language of “true” and “false” churches, which are forms of evaluation that connote eternal significance. Still, they make no claims about the spiritual state of individuals. And in the context of sixteenth-century Europe one did not need to be a believer to spot a Reformed church. A professing Roman Catholic would see an extraordinarily different liturgy in a Protestant church and know that this congregation had been “reformed.” The difference, of course, would be that the Protestant would call such visible changes “true,” while the Catholic believer would regard them as “false.”

The lesson taught by the differences implicit in the words, “reformed” and “revived,” is not simply that we should be careful about claiming to know things we can’t. It is also that our assessment of Christian expressions and practice will always be limited to forms. We cannot see into the human heart and therefore must judge whether the words and deeds of an individual believer’s life are credible, and whether the liturgy, teaching, and government of a congregation are reformed according to the Word. In other words, we are limited to the world of appearances and our conclusions should always reflect a caution befitting the limits of our knowledge. For this reason, professing believers who cherish the Reformed Faith might want to delete the words, “revival,” “revived,” and “revive,” from their vocabulary. If you are Reformed you should know that detecting the pulse of spiritual life in a convert or the hand of God in human history is work that only God, who surpasses human understanding, can do.

Between Whitefield and the Vatican

A winsome Oldlifer reminded me yesterday of how troubling the First Great Pretty Good Awakening was and is. He was referring specifically to George Whitefield’s sermon on Romans 14:17, “The Kingdom of God.” There Whitefield does exactly what John Williamson Nevin detected when he experienced a revival, namely, the outlook of revivalists that the church and her ordinances “are more a bar than a help to the process” of becoming a Christian.

Here are three points that Whitefield makes:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.

. . . neither does [the kingdom of God] consist in being baptized when you were young. . .

. . . neither does it consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.

These are sentiments that explain why Whitefield can express the sort of disregard for denominational differences that would become common among Protestants in the so-called ecumenical movement and continue to afflict The Gospel Coalition (and which by the way would make mid-twentieth-century mainline historians and ecumenistsfans of the First Great Pretty Good Awakening):

. . . there are Christians among other sects that may differe from us in the outward worship of God. Therefore, my dear friends, learn to be more catholic, more unconfined in your notions; for if you place the kingdom of God merely in a sect, you place it in that in which it does not consist.

Whitefield is arguably one of the biggest problems facing confessional Protestants because his effort to do justice to the Spirit winds up doing an injustice to the Word and the ordinances the Bible prescribes. Consequently, when confessional Protestants become sticklers about worship or church government or even doctrine (as we tend to do with Gospel Coalition types), then followers of Whitefield construe us as as being liberal Protestants (only protecting the order of the church) or even Roman Catholic (having too high a view of the church).

Seeing support for Whitefield among conservative Presbyterians (Iain Murray, for instance, but the vast majority of Presbyterians in the U.S.A. after the Plan of Union, 1758) who subscribe the Westminster Standards, is equally frustrating since the evangelist took dead aim at the confession’s teaching (whether he knew it or not):

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (ch. 25)

So the line confessional Protestants walk is the real via media, between the enthusiasts who justify what they do by appealing to the Spirit (without the Word) and the Romanists (who rarely let the Spirit get in the way of the magisterium). The Reformation was about Word and Spirit, about ordinances and godliness, about a churchly pattern of piety. It is too formal for Whitefield and too loose for Rome. But that’s where we are — in the moderate middle, plain, vanilla, simple, buttoned-down (but never perfect).