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.)