revival and the QIRE

[Warning: Very Long Post.]

Here is a book that cheered me up immensely – Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R Scott Clark. It’s all about what it means to be Reformed, and the need to justify your claim to the label by a clear commitment to the theology, piety, and practice delineated in the historic Reformed confessions of faith (Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, etc).

There is something fascinating and thought-provoking on every page, and there’s just a small chance I might get round to a proper review of it at some point. (He identifies several areas where today’s Reformed-by-title community has departed from historic Reformed doctrine, piety, and practice, and outlines what needs to be done in order to recover the lost Reformed identity. Lots of valuable historical perspective, useful insights, and practical suggestions. There is a refreshingly robust and accurate discussion of the Regulative Principle, and of what it means to be “confessional”, and plenty other good things.)

There was, however, one place where it proved quite difficult to follow the argument.

That was in the chapter on the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. This, I think, is an extremely useful concept in itself – it’s defined on p5 as “the pursuit of the immediate experience of God without the means of grace (i.e., the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments) … the attempt to experience him in a way that he has not ordained.” Examples offered in chapter 3 include mediaeval mysticism, and the contemporary tendency for people to talk about having a word from the Lord on a matter, as if they had received some sort of private revelation. “If someone asks, ‘What is God teaching you these days?’ one has the sense that the expected answer is not to be a summary of this week’s sermon or reflection on the significance of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but an insight derived from a special experience or private revelation” (p73).

However, the bulk of this chapter is taken up with what I find to be a puzzling critique of revivals. The main point seems to be that, “taken individually or as a whole, the revivals represent a subjectivism that is alien to the Reformed confession” (p82). “American revivalism is a continuous history of the quest for the immediate encounter with or heightened experience of God distinguished by different soteriologies (Calvinism in the eighteenth century and Arminianism in the nineteenth century) and only relatively different methods. The moderate showmanship of George Whitefield … was really a prototype for Charles Finney’s New Measures, Dwight L Moody’s businesslike approach, and the outrageous stunts of Sister Aimee and Billy Sunday” (p98-99).

Rather than expecting Christian experience to be embedded in the due use of the ordinary means, looking for revival entangles you in (i) looking for unusual providences, (ii) focusing on religious feelings/experiences rather than the objective truths of Christ’s person and work, and (iii) striving for personal religious experiences rather than organising the Christian life around the shared means of grace. This, from what I can see, is what the criticism boils down to.

But the reason for finding this puzzling is twofold.

One factor is that no distinction is drawn, so far as I can see, between revival and revivalism. Earlier in the book a helpful distinction was made between piety and pietism – piety being the Christian life (good), as distinct from pietism, ‘a retreat into the subjective experience of God’ independent of doctrinal orthodoxy (much less good). But no parallel distinction is made for revival and revivalism. The position of Iain Murray (which I’m not familiar with in detail) that the two are different and even opposed to each other is stated but dismissed. Yet this is an analogously helpful way of thinking about the issue. For every kind or aspect of religious experience which is graciously and supernaturally given by the Holy Spirit, there is almost always some synthetic approximation or alternative in competition. This is true for the Christian graces, for example – Christian humility is a grace which natural modesty cannot compensate for, and joy in the Holy Spirit is qualitatively different from natural exuberance, etc. It’s also true of the benefits of redemption – the stupor of an never-disturbed conscience, for example, is wholly other than, and not to be confused with, the real benefit of peace of conscience granted by the Holy Spirit as something which accompanies or flows from justification, and so on. The possibility, then, that large scale artificially induced religious excitement might be the ersatz equivalent of a real phenomenon, where divine grace brings about the conversion of many souls at once and the intensifying of the faith/love/devotion of existing believers, should not be dismissed too lightly. The Reformation itself, so many would say, was a revival – the Holy Spirit working on a grand scale, bringing many souls from darkness to light, and granting a deeper and clearer understanding of the Scriptures than there had been for many years. There were also nineteenth century revivals in Scotland which were quite independent of the American import, Moody and Sankey. And the standardly recognised characteristics of these remarkable outbursts of religious activity, which marked them as revivals granted by the Spirit instead of humanly generated ‘enthusiasm’, include things like commitment to orthodox doctrine, a sense of sin which corresponded to the Scriptures’ view of sin, and lasting effects in the holiness of the lives of the professed converts. Looking and longing for revival is distinct from indulging in revivalism, is not guilty of the three accusations (i)-(iii) just mentioned.

The other factor is, I think, that (as a consequence?), the chapter as a whole hits at the wrong targets. The writings of Jonathan Edwards come in for particular criticism: it is said that Edwards “gave himself the nearly impossible task of trying to delineate proper religious experience from improper religious experience” (p92). Edwards did indeed write a great deal on religious experience. His Religious Affections remains to this day a manual for self-interrogation of a most searching, almost frightening, kind – not something to read lightly. But even if it’s a difficult task, it’s not an impossible one, to discriminate between “proper” and “improper” religious experience. There are false kinds of joy, false kinds of attentiveness on the preached Word, spurious shouts of Hosanna, and counterfeits of every thing that the living soul does or feels. Pastors need to be able to demonstrate, in case there is anyone in the pew who is worried, that grace is real, and grace is different from nature, and grace differs from nature in x, y, and z specific ways. Asking the question, How do I know that I’m saved, is not an inappropriate turn to the subjective – focusing on the objective is always necessary, but it’s not sufficient – it doesn’t fully take into consideration (for one thing) the difficulties which people sometimes have, when they fully accept the doctrines but still can’t tell if their use of the ordinary means is giving them any experience of God whatsoever. So it’s all very well to say that the church evaluates a profession of faith by a credible profession a corresponding life (p114), but an individual within the church needs to know that the faith they profess is real. Of course behaviour is the proof of faith, and the proof of your justification is in your sanctification, but how can you tell if your outward behaviours genuinely spring from a renewed heart rather than being merely hypocritical? The truth is true, but is it true to me? And so on and so forth.

It is also said that Edwards expected true converts to show something extra, in addition to orthodox belief and the ordinary Christian life – “he demanded more, an extraordinary experience of grace” (p94). Agan I’m not hugely familiar with everything that Edwards ever wrote. I’ve never been bold enough to read Religious Affections. But it’s one thing to describe and defend the reality of extraordinary experiences, and another thing to demand them in any professed believer’s life. Was Edwards really not sensitive to this distinction? Surely in his treatment of religious experience he was only following the footsteps of the English Puritans, who described in great detail their observations of the effects of grace in people’s spiritual lives – and did indeed describe, not prescribe, out of a desire (often explicitly stated) to respect the sovereignty of the Spirit in the diversity of his operations in individual souls. (Or for a Scottish example, think of Boston’s “strokes” – descriptive, not prescriptive, again.)

Prof Clark is no doubt writing in a context where revivalism is a big problem, a context I know very little about. No doubt there is a crying need for the Reformed church at large to return to a piety that is shaped by the Scriptures (try the Psalms in particular) instead of the traditions of the past 60-80 years, and pious sentimentalism. (Archibald Alexander said something to the effect that Christian experience will be defective to the extent that familiarity with the Scriptures is lacking.) I’m very happy to accept Prof Clark’s repeated statements that he believes there is an important place for the subjective aspects of religion, and that there is such a thing as ardent, heartfelt religious experience, and so on: it would be wrong to read any of this as endorsing some kind of sandemanianism. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that exposing the real and serious flaws of revivalism, or nurturing the ‘right kind’ of piety (p110), is best done in the manner of this chapter.

(This is, though, the only serious question mark that attaches to this book as far as I’m concerned. Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R Scott Clark (2008). It’s definitely worth the read.)

13 thoughts on “revival and the QIRE

  1. Link to the brief discussion of revival/-ism/experience which prompted this post:

    Also, a recent post on Prof Clark’s blog points to the so-called ‘Keswick theology’, as an example of the pietism to be avoided. Which is convenient, as I’m scouring Prof Clark’s blog all the more intently these days, trying to work out what exactly the QIRE looks like in practice. Following the links, you can arrive at a critique of ‘Keswick theology’ summarised in the following terms:
    Why a Quick Fix to Your Struggle with Sin Will Not Result in a Victorious Life, Higher Life, Deeper Life, More Abundant Life, or Anything Other Than a Misguided, Frustrated, Disillusioned, and/or Destroyed Life


  2. Off topic, but: I’m writing this on our Independence Day on July 4th: you know – celebrating the fact of our declaring ourselves separate from you guys over there across the water (we were irritated with George III, as you know: taxation without representation, and all that).

    But, our two countries have had a cordial “special” relationship (no matter what the ever-irrelevant Obama may think) ever since (OK, you guys came over here and burned down the White House in 1812 – but we sent you a bill for that, right?).

    Just a short, semi-facetious note (heh).

    Happy birthday to us! 234 years and counting!


  3. Cath,

    It may well be that there is something of a disconnect as one reads from a non-American context. But as an American, where revivalism has won the day, what Clark is mapping makes complete sense.

    And I would suggest that the categorical distinction would be reformation/revival (not, as Murray suggests, between revival and revivalism). Strictly speaking, the Reformation wasn’t a revival, it was a reformation. In point of fact, revival is actually a category more aligned with the Radical Reformation than with the Protestant Reformation. I have found this to be something quite often missed: the Protestant Reformation was a battle on two fronts, one against Rome and the other against Muenster. I think forgetting this is what accounts often times for some confusions as to what Reformed confessionalists like Clark are saying.

    If I might be so bold…when you say “…Religious Affections remains to this day a manual for self-interrogation of a most searching, almost frightening, kind – not something to read lightly…” but also admit to having never read it, I can’t help but wonder if there is an assumption going on here that needs head-on engagement, something Clark is trying to do. The assumption seems to be that certain stalwarts are relatively unimpeachable, even if we have never read them. But when I read Edwards I often hear the sort of odd inward, introspective spiritualism I have long since rejected in American evangelicalism. Yes, Edwards was important, but was he right?

    For my part, I found Clark’s assertion that Edwards “gave himself the nearly impossible task of trying to delineate proper religious experience from improper religious experience” absolutely brilliant (not off target). But maybe I could supplement the point: Edwards didn’t seem to have a category for subjective religious experience flowing from the objective means of grace so much as from subjective experience istelf. And to confessionalists who esteem the ecclesiastical and sacramental dimsension of Christian faith, it seems a rather impossible task to look to subjective experience to norm subjective experience. Isn’t it better to look to the objective Word (both audible and visible) to order subjective experience? Indeed, if, as Luther said, the gospel is outside us, if it really is an extrinsic reality, isn’t this the sort of pattern we should follow instead of going inward in order to go inward?


  4. Thanks, Zrim. Is is just the term ‘revival’ that causes the problem then? As far as I can recall, the only difference I’ve heard between reformation and revival was something along the lines that revivals take place in an outwardly reformed context (orthodox doctrine, reg-princ-compliant forms of worship, etc), whereas reformation is revival (inward/spiritual) plus the righting of external (ecclesiastical, practical) wrongs. In our context over here, I think people would worry if it was suggested that, once the externals are in place, there is no more scope for growth in grace etc – as if, having orthodox doctrine plus the right administration of the sacraments, nothing more was needed. People would then recognise, i think, that although every justified person is increasingly sanctified in the ordinary course of things, there are times when (a) lots more people are justified than usual and (b) their sanctification is more deep and obvious. They would call this revival.

    And it needn’t be the mere intensification of religious feeling, illegitimately divorced from word and sacrament. The standard way of critiquing alleged revivals is whether the phenomenon occurs (i) in the context of orthodox doctrine, where you expect to see a greater respect for these doctrines, (ii) within the boundaries of the church, where you expect to see people attending more intently on the means of grace, especially preaching, and (iii) as a deepening of the normal, ordinary religious affections that Christians have anyway, even in less dramatic times: hatred of sin and pursuit of holiness. Conveniently, some accounts of early 19th century revivals (i think pre-Moody & Sankey, who ravaged Scotland’s religious landscape) are provided by this Free Church minister – – see, eg, , or pick at random – the general picture is one of great caution in how the situation is described, including what to attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit versus mere ‘animal spirits’/mass hysteria/whatever, and often (perhaps not always) the sermons which had the greatest observable effects were preached by nobodys, not the pulpit stars of the day [interpreted to mean that the hearers were more interested in the contents of the preaching than the speaker’s personality or speaking gifts]. Little local revivals seem to have happened all over the place in Scotland ever since the Reformation, and until the appearance of Moody and Sankey and their ilk there wasn’t much doubt about their being firmly embedded in thoroughly calvinistic doctrine and the well-established church structures of the day. So (long-windedly) I think there is a real phenomenon here which can’t be reduced to the excesses of the First Great Awakening, as though its greatness, or indeed its firstness, is as unique as the name suggests.

    Religious Affections – I’ve read the odd page (well, and the contents page) but have always felt too fragile to sit down and read it in the spirit it was intended. Self-examination is undoubtedly a useful exercise, but maybe RA is more useful for certain personality types and/or in certain contexts. But then you see it bandied about as though it could be taken up as casually as any pop guide to evangelical-Christian living, which somehow jars as unsuited to what should be the rather alarming question it constantly poses, as to whether your union with Christ is real or not. It would be the same with Shepard’s Ten Virgins (which I have read!) or anything else in that genre.

    But this too is a question that needs answering: how can you tell if it’s real? I can’t venture to challenge how Edwards viewed the relation between subjective experience and the objective means – I would be surprised if it was really as bad as you suggest, going on vague folk-knowledge familiarity with Edwards which seriously predates and treats as irrelevant his rehabilitation-stroke-trivialisation by the New Calvinists – but don’t know enough to say for sure. But maybe it’s just a question of emphasis: in RRC it seems as though he’s dancing round the question of what Reformed piety actually looks like – I’m happy to believe him when he says he believes there is such a thing, but so far as I can see it doesn’t seem to be described very clearly. In the concern to avoid spurious religious affections, there is a risk of running to the opposite extreme, the dreaded Sandemanianism which views faith as no more than intellectual assent to true doctrine, and the life of faith no more than obedient attendance on the means and upright living. There is something in the Christian life which is ‘better felt than tellt’, even for those who are good at practicing the other mantra – for every look within, a thousand looks to Christ.


  5. The airing of further thoughts –

    1) hunted down the Archibald Alexander thing: preface to Thoughts on Religous Experience: “If genuine religious experience is nothing but the impression of divine truth on the mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit, then it is evident that a knowledge of the truth is essential to genuine piety. … There is reason to believe, therefore, that all ignorance of revealed truth, or error respecting it, must be attended with a corresponding defect in the religious exercises of the person. … Hence we find that those denominations of Christians which receive the system of evangelical truth only in part, have a defective experience; and their Christian character, as a body, is so far defective; and even where true piety exists, we often find a sad mixture of enthusiasm, self-righteousness, or superstition.”

    2) an article by Michael Haykin on Sandemanianism – . (Actually just happened to read yesterday that, according to James Buchanan in his book on Justification, the fundamental error in sandemanianism was mistaking the relation between faith and justification, so that in their concern to avoid making faith sound like a work, they emptied it of everything other than the bare assent of the intellect. That, quite clearly, is not where RRC is coming from, but it’s possible that RRC is licencing a move towards the same conclusion, evey by a different route.) (Buchanan = C19th theologian in the Free Church of Scotland, as orthodox as can be)

    3) the orthodox Scottish response to the Moody & Sankey phenomenon –

    John Kennedy and Andrew Bonar, both orthodox men, had a debate in print about the value of the M&S campaign, which was a new intruder on the scene of Scottish revivals (and whose slogan was blatantly stolen by a similarly named posh food retailer some 130 years later: “This isn’t just a revival. This is an M & S revival.”) Bonar thought everything was fine, because of the large numbers of conversions. Kennedy thought it was better to be cautious, 1) because neither the numbers nor the dramatic nature of professed conversions mean anything in themselves; 2) because M&S were using various methods/strategies which were alien to the practice of the Church at the time (including heart-string-tugging hymns, instrumental music calculated to work on the affections, etc): indicating, although he doesn’t say it in those terms, a quest for religious experience which sidelines the stated and ordinary means of grace; and 3) because the soteriology was slightly, but significantly, out of kilter with the robust, full-orbed Calvinism of the Westminster standards which had provided the background for the famous revivals up till then – Shotts, Stewarton, Cambuslang, Kilsyth, Dundee. BUT for all this, Kennedy and co were not opposed to revival per se, and nor did he scruple to take great interest in religious experience. (See eg The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, and his sermons.) The problem with M&S and similar campaigns was not that they brought about revival, but that they engineered a religious response which was superficially similar to revival — not that they stirred up religious experience, but that they stimulated people to largely artificial religious excitement. Same problem with every mechanically induced revival before and after.


  6. Something like that … !

    Fire away with stuff to talk about – I’m itching to say more, but talking to yourself is a bit dull. (Oneself, obviously, not a teuchterism.)


  7. Cath

    I had most difficulty with RRC in this chapter as well. I’m taking it on holiday next week to re-read.

    My take on it, from memory was that many of the criticisms Clark posited I could mostly understand and accept, but like you my memory kept going back to Cambuslang etc. which were firmly grounded in solid theology and in the sacraments, indeed what was all very common was that seasons of “revival” centred around the communion seasons. This of course is dissimilar to the US “scene”. Thus like you I just can’t identify the core problem very easily…I can see where problems may occur or have occurred but am not sure we have to dump the concept of revival, or increased “affections” at certain times, so long as those enlivened affections are connected with the Word and Sacrament ministry of the Church (as they were in the Scottish and Ulster revivals of an earlier period).

    I preached on the subject of assurance recently and the WCF et. al. are clear the chief source of assurance is to be found in the objective promises of the Gospel, secondarily in the inward graces and testimony of the Holy Spirit. This is perhaps analogous to what Clark is getting at…he wants us to get the balance right… in God first and foremost…which flows into right heart and right action.

    Perhaps I will comment again on a second reading.


  8. Thanks, Paul. I’m very grateful for the corroboration. This is such a thoroughly excellent book, and I’m recommending it to everyone I see these days … except for this chapter. If I tell people the author doesn’t believe in revival, they just look confused. So much of what he says though, I mean in this chapter, is extremely useful – it’s just hard to think of the historic revivals and see how the criticisms are applicable.

    The emphasis on the objective truths is the most valuable part of the book, and assurance absolutely has to be grounded on the objective promises in order to be real. (Under the heading of welcome focus on objective truths also comes the case for creedal subscription, incidentally. Post 1892 Declaratory Act, that’s what the FPCoS are all about, so it really warms the cockles of the heart.)

    Please do comment again. I suspended my disbelief for this chapter on first reading, and only crystallised objections on a second, calmer look :-)


  9. Pingback: Reformed Confession going cheap | ninetysix and ten

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