RMK: mains

DG Hart’s Recovering Mother Kirk has many good things to recommend it. It provides a much needed critique of, and a sparkling case against, the kind of sloppy, soppy innovations which burden the contemporary church, plagued as it is with that general sort of sentimental undoctrinal religiosity, and casual pragmatism in respect of evangelistic and discipleship techniques. So its affirmations of the need for both confessing a concrete biblical creed, and worshipping with all and only the right external forms, are very welcome.

What I’m going to take issue with is therefore neither to do with the ‘high church’-ism nor the liturgicalism – consider me sold, by background and personal conviction, on both these points. Instead, my concerns are these.

1) The classification system proposed at the outset is unhelpful.

The Introduction describes different flavours of the Reformed brand, distinguishing (i) doctrinalists, like Machen, (ii) culturalists, like Kuyper, (iii) pietists, like Jonathan Edwards, and (iv) liturgicalists. Like, I suppose, Hart.

One quibble would be that selecting the representative figureheads from different time periods and different contexts makes it hard to evaluate how distinct they really are from each other. But more to the point, there seems to be a lack of recognition that the Reformed tradition is best and most typically represented when the doctrinal, “pious,” and liturgical strands combine in one and the same individual/congregation/church. Machen, for instance, undoubtedly prized true doctrine, but he also understood what doctrine ‘felt’ like – Christianity, he said in Christianity and Liberalism, “begins with the broken heart,” and includes consciousness of sin. In exclaiming, “Where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary?” he not only references the precise orthodox teaching on the atonement achieved at Calvary, but equally clearly expects this very orthodoxy to be realised in inner personal experience.

Or think of someone like Samuel Rutherford – his devotional writings verge on the mystical, never mind the experiential, but they flowed from his theology. For orthodoxy, and indeed for high views of the Church, he cannot be faulted; see, eg, his tremendous theological output, his contributions to the Westminster Assembly, and his commitment to the spirituality and liberty of the Church (Lex, Rex, and his imprisonment). (See him also featured recently on Ref21.) Indeed if Jonathan Edwards wasn’t already blacklisted, he would be the next most obvious person to cite, so think instead of John Calvin himself. Or the C19th Hugh Martin – writer both of The Atonement and The Abiding Presence. Or John Owen, C17th writer of both The Death of Death and Christologia. Or Thomas Boston – Human Nature in its Fourfold State and, er, Human Nature in its Fourfold State. In short: in every place and time from the Reformation onwards, the best “doctrinalists” have been the deepest “experientialists.” A “doctrinalist” who is not simultaneously an “experientialist” is subverting the very doctrines he/she is ostensibly affirming.

The same, more briefly, goes for ‘liturgicalism’ too. All the doughtiest defenders of the spiritual independence of the church and the regulative principle of worship (easy examples being, well, Calvin, or Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie, or more recently Thomas Chalmers, John Kennedy, James Begg) were the also most insistent on inward personal godliness. The sheer pointlessness of having the right forms of worship without a worshipping heart should be evident to anyone with any hope of standing in the Reformed tradition.

2) There is a certain hostility to Jonathan Edwards and his accounts of religious experience.

This remains perplexing. The objection to Edwards is apparently that he indulged sensational and revivalist excesses and somehow therefore gives license to contemporary aberrances in terms of both novel evangelistic techniques and the problematic concept of “Christian hedonism” (associated with John Piper and critiqued here by Jerrold Lewis). But not only is Edwards’ culpability on these points unsubstantiated, I’m not convinced that it’s even substantiable. It’s hardly as though Jonathan Edwards can be regarded as heterodox, and the care which he took in discriminating what was valid and what was blameworthy in the New England revivals has indeed made him a standard resource for how to critique religious excesses and extravagances, and avoid undue subjectivity. (My earliest recollection (I know, this dates me) of controversy over alleged revival was in reactions to the 1994 Toronto Blessing, where simply to mention the name of Jonathan Edwards was to explode any claims to authenticity which this phenomenon might have had.) No doubt there are people who might lay claim to Edwards’ name in order to cash in on his prestige and respectability, but Edwards himself, read in context, might not be particularly keen to acknowledge them all as his spiritual heirs.

3) The criticism of revival is unwarranted.

It relies on a conflation of revival and revivalism, and either a failure or a refusal to distinguish reformation from revival. Ie:

  • reformation involves the setting right of doctrine and/or external forms in church life. Coming to a clearer understanding of the truth, or moving from a prelatical to a presbyterian form of government, or singing psalms instead of hymns in corporate worship, would be instances of reformation
  • revival involves the striking increase of grace in an already reformed context. The many revivals in Scotland until the mid-19th century were of this nature; see for instance the communion services at Shotts in 1630
  • revivalism involves using illegitimate means to induce religious excitement in the absence (denial or minimising) of orthodox doctrine.

It is possible for reformation and revival to coincide, as in the 16th century Reformation, and less spectacularly any time when a local congregation recovers a more biblical set of practices and experiences encouragement in the form of conversions and the edification of existing believers. It is also possible for revivals to be tainted with revivalistic illegitimacies, and indeed it seems that much of Hart’s criticism of “revival” seems to hinge on the view that it is indistinguishable from illegitimate doctrines/methods, a view which fails to take into consideration all the available historical data. In the context of orthodox doctrine and the due use of the ordained means of grace, when there are unexpected conversions (numbers-wise or person-wise) and/or an unexpected increase in believers’ sanctification, if we’re going to talk about such events, the most conventional way of labelling them is to call them revivals.

4) Finally, RMK stops short of describing what happens once the case for liturgy in the Reformed tradition is accepted.

In a context where a high view of the spirituality of the church and a habitual due use of the corporate means of grace have been attained, what next? Even allowing for the fact that the intended audience is presumably those whose view of the church and of worship stands most in need of reforming, there is still a danger of giving the impression that, once we all confess accurate scriptural doctrine and regulate worship scripturally, nothing more remains to be said.

This would be a mistake. (i) Because Scripture is clear that religion must be heart-deep. ‘With their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness,’ was the charge against people who came to hear gospel preaching from a divinely commissioned prophet, sitting and listening and looking for all the world as if they were God’s people. ‘This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but [they] have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.’ The message which Christ brought to those within the church who knew the scriptures from a lifetime’s immersion and observed all the ceremonies was, ‘Ye must be born again.’

But also (ii) because our confessions of faith insist that religion must be heart-deep. The work of salvation in a sinner’s experience means the Spirit “enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh, renewing their wills, … and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ,” WCF 10.1. And, “they who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally,” WCF 13.1.

There is, in other words, a marked incongruity between arguing for a clear articulation and practicing of the truths which the Holy Spirit has revealed in his scriptures, and failing to insist on the need for the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of those who congregate around these scriptures. This is, alternatively, the incongruity of confessing faith in such a great and glorious God and his great and glorious work of salvation, while remaining cool and apathetic about the degree to which the entire soul requires to be engaged and devoted to his worship and minute-by-minute obedience in everyday life. This does not require gushing about how nice the gospel is and how spiritual you are, but simply a recognition that it is the believer’s business to give the Lord all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and, as an outcome of being ‘in Christ’, increasingly to press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.

I don’t say that RMK fails in an absolute sense to make this kind of point, but, as a matter of priority or emphasis, there is a certain feeling that punches are being pulled and calls muted on this the most striking implication of the position so persuasively argued for. Maybe, now that we’ve had Recovering the Reformed Confession and Recovering Mother Kirk, it’s time for someone to release Recovering Confessional Piety.

Go here for starters.
DG Hart blogs provocatively at Old Life.


39 thoughts on “RMK: mains

  1. Cath, I appreciate the comments. But I don’t understand at all your fourth point. (I also take issue with point 3, but that is a long argument — who gets to say which revivals are legitimate). When you note the incongruity “of confessing faith in such a great and glorious God and his great and glorious work of salvation, while remaining cool and apathetic about the degree to which the entire soul requires to be engaged and devoted to his worship and minute-by-minute obedience in everyday life,” why haven’t you assumed that the case for liturgicalism is content with something cool and apathetic. Why isn’t restrained hot, or calm interested? You don’t like the categories that I use (though following the well-worn path of Wolterstorff and Marsden), but how is your distinction between cool and hot any better, or between revival and revivalism. No offense, but these categories are merely your opinion.

    You then add, “This does not require gushing about how nice the gospel is and how spiritual you are, but simply a recognition that it is the believer’s business to give the Lord all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and, as an outcome of being ‘in Christ’, increasingly to press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.” But nowhere have you said anything here about vocation. And one of the great insights of Luther and Calvin was to recognize piety (whether hot or cold) in the love that believers show to neighbors whether as mothers, plumbers, shoe makers, or cops. How exactly does one show one’s love for the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind while changing a diaper?

    So you haven’t changed my mind. It looks to me like pietism is all about those ecstatic experiences that leave ordinary faith and work by the road because undercooked.


  2. Thanks.

    I’m not sure I understand the response.

    Let’s say the term “cool” had never been used. How legitimate is it to be apathetic in the use of the means of grace? Considering how the confession stresses diligence in the means of grace, how is apathy consistent with a confessional liturgicalism? Is it not the case that doctrinalists and liturgicalists who are not simultaneously experientialists are subverting the very doctrines and practices which they are ostensibly affirming?

    I’m thoroughly puzzled about vocation. As far as I’m aware I have absolutely no objection to Luther and Calvin’s insight on the matter, and I’m not sure how the question arises from what I’ve said here. In any case, the question is not how to show this love but whether your professed conf/lit -isms affirm it. I’m prepared to believe that you do affirm it, but that you too often give the appearance of trampling it underfoot in the rush to condemn ecstatic experiences.


  3. Again, why do you assume that someone who does not affirm revivals affirms apathy? And how do you know who is apathetic or diligent in the use of the means of grace? Do you really think you can tell? You can tell generally when someone has an ecstatic experience.

    The point about vocation is that someone can be diligent about their work and not engaged in ecstatic experiences while fixing leaks. So why would diligence in worship be any more visible?


  4. I thought we were avoiding the revivals issue (although I do still wish RMK (not to mention RSC’s RRC) was a bit more nuanced).

    It’s dodging the issue (if i may say so) to ask whether or not you can tell if someone else is apathetic. Whether or not you can tell, diligence remains a duty, a responsibility, and something to figure prominently in any discussion of the means of grace. In RMK, it isn’t particularly prominent, and I would go further, and say that to this extent, RMK doesn’t reflect the emphases of the Confession and Catechisms. By all means point out religious extravagances, but don’t let misuse undermine due use.

    Vocation, ok, I see.


  5. But Cath, why don’t you see that someone who may look apathetic and cold (your words) may actually be diligent? And it has been the case since the First Pretty Good Awakening that diligence has become a visible manifestation — why else the closed eyes, the waving hands? And why else are Presbyterians who do not do these things regarded as the frozen (note the temperature) chosen?


  6. I’m honestly not that fussed about how people look, compared to what people are saying. If you want to say “be diligent regardless of how apathetic you might look to others” that’s one thing, but the emphasis that keeps coming across from what you say is more like, “who cares whether you’re diligent or not (because no-one can tell from appearances anyway).”

    The more worrying question is probably, what makes you think that confessional piety is indistinguishable from innovations like waving hands. Can it really be that your own concept of piety is so far removed from what the confession envisages, that you shy away from religious experience altogether for lack of an idea of what it has ever looked like in practice.

    Entire generations in whole denominations of presbyterians in Scotland (to venture no further afield) have successfully, piously adhered to the Confession and the Regulative Principle without resorting to things like what you mention.


  7. Cath, okay, so what did I write that says “don’t be diligent”? Or is it the case that you conclude that I say such simply because I critique revivalism?

    I have no idea what you mean when you say that I do NOT think confessional piety is INDISTINGUISHABLE from waving hands. I do think Reformed piety is distinct from evangelical excitements. I would have thought that was clear in RKM.

    And speaking of Presbyterians in Scotland, the Communion Season, for all of its virtues, did lead to Cane Ridge. One might also wonder about the value of quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper and whether it cultivates a piety geared to special seasons, rather than weekly observance. I get it, the Scots could only go so far thanks either to English rule or Kirk regulations. But some could raise questions about Scottish piety and where it led (not to mention the mysticism roving around in the Celtic soul).


  8. Not at all – “I don’t say that RMK fails in an absolute sense to make this kind of point, but, as a matter of priority or emphasis, there is a certain feeling that punches are being pulled …”

    This is a separate point from revivals, which (even to their defenders) are extraordinary and not for norming the everyday life of the church. Regardless of what degree of agreement there might be on revival/ism, the 4th point in the post is about the ordinary daily life of believers who understand the confession and worship appropriately: how are the confessed doctrines operative in the believer’s life? given the forms, how do we worship?

    It seems to me that the most obvious source for an answer to this kind of question is in the Confession and catechisms: a believer worships by:
    * fearing, loving, praising, serving God with all the heart, soul, and might,
    * reading the Scriptures with godly fear,
    * hearing the Word preached with faith and reverence,
    * anywhere and at any time, daily and privately,
    * and so on, WCF 21.

    Yet (respectfully) when this kind of thing is suggested, the response seems to be either along the lines that this kind of talk leads to emotionalistic excesses or something similar, or that the Confession itself is too detailed or otherwise flawed.

    The first of those responses is only a slippery slope argument which in any case is not borne out by historical fact. The second has the tendency to seriously undermine the claim to be confessional, (*especially* if we’re talking quia subscription, which I was chuffed to see treated by Clark in RRC) and might even leave observers wondering who’s now being guilty of narcissism.

    As for the communion season – well, one Cane Ridge in, what, 300 years suggests that revivalistic excess can’t be blamed directly on the practice itself. (And Celtic mysticism! – see James L Macleod, The Second Disruption, for a thoughtprovoking thesis on that particular bogeyman.) (http://www.amazon.com/Second-Disruption-Presbyterian-Historical-Monographs/dp/1862320977/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1303235603&sr=8-1)


    • Yes! Like, like, like! I’m just fresh from reading it, to discover your comment trapped in the moderation queue.

      “on both sides of the debate, “confessionalism” is in danger of becoming identified with extreme views that are opposed to the actual teaching of our confessions. The Belgic Confession treats the marks of the true Christian (faith in Christ, following after righteousness, love of God and neighbor, mortification of the flesh) in the same article as the marks of the true church (Art 29). Although assurance of God’s favor is founded solely on his promise of justification in Christ, “we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86). Personal faith, repentance, and growth in godliness are enjoined in the Westminster Confession (chapters 13-16). There is no hint of the public and corporate means of grace being opposed to one’s personal relationship to Christ. It would be ironic—and tragic—if “confessionalism” became identified with positions that are actually inimical to the confessions themselves. Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin have become flag-bearers for Calvinistic “pietism” and “confessionalism,” respectively. However, in my view, both are somewhat idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition. To move beyond polarization, we need to include more mainstream voices through the ages.”


  9. Cath, perhaps you’ve heard of the Six-Mile-Water revival. It preceded Cain Ridge by almost two centuries and was not entirely decent and orderly, according to the accounts I’ve read.

    The items you mention regarding piety are all outside the corporate church. You have bunch of middle-class assumptions built in to boot — people with time to do these things (what about a slave or servant), and people who can read. And you have the adverbs built as well as the qualifications — with all your might — which indicate that you must really, really, really do these. Which also implies an “or else,” or else you’re not pious, or else you don’t have real faith.

    What’s wrong with ordinary faith and routine piety. Why can’t faith be small? It still moves mountains.

    BTW, the problem with all the talk about confessionalism, whether Evans, Horton, or DeYoung is that they treat it as if it’s a movement. Confessionalism is really synonymous with churchly piety, a piety that is grounded in the ordinary means as ministered by the church (with the rest of the week being given to worldly occupations and vocations).


  10. Dr. Hart

    Perhaps you’ve heard of Simon the sorcerer, and indeed of the church at Corinth? That is, perhaps you have heard of bad things happening in the middle of good things – and yet they still do not render the good things bad. None of that justifies the bad, but it does mean we ought not to rubbish the good along with the bad.

    I live 7 miles from the Six-Mile-Water, I live in the village where the 1859 Revivial commenced, and while I would not support some of the things that took place, to deny that these events were in general mighty movements of the Spirit seems to me to be historical revisionism. Our country was changed for generations. In fact the Six-Mile-Water is sometimes seen as the beginning of widespread Presbyterianism in Ulster as after it the first presbyteries etc. were called for – in other words this ‘revival’ actually was used by God to establish the gathered church – for the purpose of facilitating Word and Sacrament. In general likewise the 1859 literally in many cases built churches in Ulster.


  11. Paul, the point here is not about Corinthians or about Henry VIII. It’s about the ordinary believer who is going to church and going about his weekly affairs and revivalists like Tenent or Frelinghuysen or Edwards conclude that without the outward expressions of intensity and zeal this fellow is a nominal Christian. I understand that saints sin and that the church has hypocrites. What bothers me is the idea that ordinary and routine manifestations of devotion aren’t good enough to qualify as true religion, especially when a believer is simply attending to the means of grace and calling God has given him.

    It strikes me that pietists want to be wrapped or caught up in God and don’t realize that this is an illegitimate desire in this world and this life. Jesus went away and we are waiting and looking for his return.


  12. DGH,

    The items I mentioned (a) aren’t all outside the corporate church, and (b) come from the Westminster Confession.

    It’s the Confession, not me, that says “all sorts of people are bound to read [the Word] apart by themselves and with their families,” or at least that’s the Larger Catechism. Class doesn’t become much of an issue until at least the next century.

    Again, it’s the Confession’s adverbs and the Confession’s qualifications, not mine.

    Ordinary, routine piety, is all I’m talking about here. But according to the Confession, ordinary, routine piety is meant to be with all the heart, with godly fear, with faith and reverence, everywhere and daily, both in secret and “more solemnly, in the public assemblies.” That’s just what the Confession teaches, without even going outside chapter 21. How can someone object to this teaching, and still claim to be confessional?

    I have no objection whatsoever to churchly piety, as set out in the church’s Confessions, and I’m fine with worldly occupations. All power to your elbow on the churchly bit. But there is a certain brand of something calling itself confessionalism which seems to be such a reaction against anything related to experience whatsoever that it even overlooks and disparages what the church itself through its confessions is teaching about piety. Call it a movement or call it chats in the hallway, it still has a bit more work to do to fully justify its claim to the label. (Cf also point 1 in the original post…)

    I’ll leave 1859 to Paul, except to say that when revival and revivalism are kept distinct, revivals are no threat to ordinary routine devotion whatsoever.


  13. Dr. Hart,

    For what it’s worth I actually pretty much agree with all that you write here – that the ordinary life of the Christian can be (and thank the Lord is) faithful and enjoyable, and satisfying without the ‘exciting bits’ i.e outward expressions of intensity. And I agree we should neither expect such, nor judge the trueness of religion on the basis of the presence or absence of them.

    But I’d also say that many, many who were involved in many of what are termed ‘revivals’ would also have agreed. In other words I agree with Cath that so long as revival and revivalism are defined separately we should not be afraid or against revival.

    All I’m saying is that there can be true revival without any of that – when the church grows, when saints grow in love (i.e. obedience) etc. For me the Reformation was a revival in the true sense of the word (cf. Psalm 85). Intensified outward expressions are not the sine qua non of revival – a greater turning to the Lord in obedience is.

    Historically revivalism and its abuses have frequently accompanied outpourings of the Spirit, but that accompaniment does not of necessity negate the legitimacy of revival as a concept.


  14. Paul, agreed, but why call a reformation a revival. Reformation came first. Can’t we call revivals reformations? Well, actually, we can’t because revivals did not produce the same results as reformations.

    Cath, and that point leads me to yours. Why so attached to revivals? I’m glad you are for churchly piety. But then I’m scratching my head when it comes to your affection for revival. Church is not something that comes to mind when we think of revival, nor means of grace or word and sacrament. Revivalists are not known for the ecclesiastical credentials. Granted Billy Graham is not the same as Jonathan Edwards. But do we really think Church of England when it comes to Whitefield?


  15. I think we could call revivals reformations, because in fact in my mind they are synonymous. Granted however, the times recognised historically as revivals, let’s say the Great Awakening, did not have the same results. I understand that and agree.

    I actually think this conversation has been useful. ‘Revival’ for you is something that exists or we notice it because of the ‘outward experiences of intensity (I like that phrase!). I guess we can all see why you would say that. In other words ask someone what happened during a given revival and they will almost certainly tell you about people falling on the street, wheezing, shouting etc. You would also suggest that a mark or result of these historical revivals is ecclesiastical confusion (my term). Again this is not without evidence. I’m not sure if you have ever written it this way but I’d add there is evidence to an over-attachment to certain personalities.

    But, and perhaps this also partly answers your question to Cath, not infrequently ‘revivals’ in Scotland and Ulster started in connection with the church’s means of grace – even at the Communion seasons, and their main results were for producing ecclesiastical strength and growth. Now that’s not to ignore the aberrations and the probably unhealthy attachment to certain personalities. I think that in some way explains Cath’s ‘attachment’ to revival, though I think Cath would probably terms it an attachment to experiential Calvinism. In other words many in the UK look back to times when whether there was silliness or not God built his church in a somewhat more extraordinary rate than normal. I guess we could call it reformation or revival, both or maybe just a time of great blessing. We do so (or I do so) in spite of the silliness not on the basis of it.

    However, again, I’m all for the steady, week-after-weak gathering in ministry of the local church through Word and Sacrament. That’s the normal and biblically based expectation.


  16. Well, my point was in fact quite independent of revivals. Ordinary piety is heart-deep and (if we must go in for the linguification) adverbial. Anyone who has a problem with that needs to take it up with the Confession.

    On revival – I very much second what Paul is saying about aberrations and irregularities.
    Also, I quite agree that revivalists are not known for their ecclesiastical credentials, or at least their liturgical purism. But revivals take place within the church and in the due use of the ordinary means. What happens in a revival is not qualitatively different from what goes on in the steady weekly and daily routines of ordinary believers: the only difference is in degree. Mass hysteria (etc) belongs to revivalism, and has never been recognised as a sign of revival, in just the same way that fainting fits and ‘bodily sensations’ are no sign of everyday regeneration or sanctification.
    If you accept no difference between times of unexpected special blessing bestowed by the Spirit and times of engineered special excitement worked up by Man, then you have no way of accounting for a rather substantial amount of historical data from all over the Reformed world, where large numbers of converts were rapidly brought in (to the Church) and existing believers were given a deeper experience of the truths they had already believed. Stewarton, Shotts, Cambuslang, Kilsyth, … what happened in these and other places are matters of historical fact.

    Still, this is no license to despise what the Spirit is doing today (calling effectually, regenerating, sanctifying) just because his works are not as dramatic today as they have been in the past. I’ve often wondered if it isn’t a failure to recognise how significant, how divine these things are, that leads us (collectively) to overlook them – either in the sense of wishing for more or more obvious signs of them, or in the sense of taking them for granted once the truth is known and worship rightly regulated.

    (Ps, not entirely sure if it’s true to say that reformation comes before revival. Assuming that revival is distinct from revivalism, it must have taken a more-than-ordinary work of the Holy Spirit to give the Reformers the understanding of Scripture they had, which then led to the Reformation. Ie the unbidden/sovereign work of the Spirit in the souls of those men was what started the whole process, and resulted in outward reformation of forms and doctrines as well as internal increases of grace.)


  17. Cath, so let me get this straight. Whenever something happens in the church that is good, it is revival? That is a curious use of words and may be revealing of following the leads of the First Pretty Good Awakeners who commandeered the terms you are using. They weren’t in evidence much before the 1730s (in English at least). And please don’t forget that the revivals of the FPGA were ginned up as much by man-made efforts as Finney’s. In fact, the term itself is ginned up.

    Why are you so attached to “revival”?


  18. That’s perfectly true re the terminology – they used to just speak about outpourings of blessing from the Holy Spirit.

    I would want to be cautious in my attachment to revival. Whenever spiritual good happens in the church, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Ordinarily these good things consist of people here and there being effectually called and sanctified, as they and the church make use of the ordained means. (This is ordinary in the sense of the predominant experience of the church over the generations, not a disparagement of the greatness of the Spirit’s work of bringing someone from death to life.) But occasionally, in the routine use of the ordinary means, lots of people are unexpectedly effectually called and rapidly deeply sanctified. This unusual work of the Holy Spirit may be accompanied by irregularities and aberrances, but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is a man-made effort, any more than remaining sin in a believer means they aren’t actually regenerate at all. Whether it’s one child of believing parents, or many irreligious people from outside the church, if we’re talking regeneration and sanctification, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

    In that sense, asking why ‘revival’ is worthy of attachment is analogous to asking why I’m so attached to regeneration. Who wouldn’t be?


  19. Cath, the last leg of this exchange took up what was one of my original impressions reading your post. But I’m still unsatisfied with your efforts to explain your attachment to even the term “revival.” (If you guys don’t want to be mistaken for revivalists then maybe quit championing the very derivative term? I mean, I don’t mind being slotted a confessionalist because I am confessional who champions confessionalism. I take it all…-al, -ist and -ism, so why can’t you?) It still seems to lean heavily on subjective understandings in the first place: when there is mass hysteria it belongs to revivalism and is bad, but when “people are unexpectedly effectually called and rapidly deeply sanctified” it belongs to revival and is good. I still don’t get why mild hysteria beats mass hysteria. But more than that I also wonder how anyone knows that the mild hysterics is “the work of the Holy Spirit.” I know by the Scripture that the Spirit accompanies the Word and sacraments, but how does anyone know he attends revival except that you say so?

    I mean, you and Paul both blithely say things like “…to deny that these events were in general mighty movements of the Spirit seems to me to be historical revisionism.” Huh? The Spirit in 1859 is subject to historical scrutiny and to question that even mild hysterics are movements of the Spirit is historical revisionism?

    But you also say this at the end of the post-proper:
    “Finally, RMK stops short of describing what happens once the case for liturgy in the Reformed tradition is accepted.
    In a context where a high view of the spirituality of the church and a habitual due use of the corporate means of grace have been attained, what next?”

    Obviously, you have a premise in place, namely that the instituted and ordinary means are simply not enough. But if the biblical analogy is marriage—and it is—then this is like saying that more or less remembering one’s vows each day isn’t enough to sustain a marriage. Actually, it is, and I routinely wonder at those who seem to show the barest cognizance of this fact. And likewise being harkened back to God’s vow to us in Word and (weekly) sacrament is quite sufficient to sustain our personal relationship with him. Maybe vows don’t give zip and vigor to a sacred relationship, but it sure seems to me a function of adolescence to assume that these things are essential to solemn relations. So what’s next? How about the final consummation where faith will become sight, that reality to which the shadowy sacramental signs point? I get that it takes long range outlooks to see that but I really do think that’s the point, instead of expecting sight to come before its due time.


  20. Zrim

    If you took the time to actually read instead of typing you would have seen the rest of what I wrote. I think it is not only acceptable to question the hysterics, but I question them myself.

    What I’m saying is that the hysterics were not the whole story nor near it, and I refuse to rubbish the whole thing because of them.

    You also failed to notice why I believed these were works of the Spirit – not because of any level of hysteria, but because the church was built up for generations, because people came to the Word and Sacrament with greater loyalty than ever.


  21. Zrim, I’m with Paul – that’s an over-reaction and a hasty leap to conclusions we’ve both expressly resisted.

    One of the most important features of worship (or, religion in general) is that it has to be “intelligent,” ie a response to known truths understood in the mind. That rules out any form of hysteria as a good thing in the church, mild or mass. Nobody is recommending or defending religious activity which bypasses the mind, or emerges merely from emotions or feelings.

    When you talk about the Spirit “attending revival,” it doesn’t sound like you’ve grasped the argument. Revival isn’t something that happens and then the Spirit might or might not get involved. Revival is what might better be known by its older names, “a remarkable effusion of the Spirit,” “an especial outpouring of the Holy Spirit,” “a special season of mercy,” and so on. In other words, if something has the right to be called revival at all, it will start as the work of the Spirit, sending blessing through the channels he has already ordained to be the means of grace.

    The work of the Holy Spirit is utterly essential in the church at all times. For regeneration we are completely dependent on the Spirit. For any efficacy of the sacraments, we are completely dependent on the Spirit. For any nurturing and nourishing of souls under the preaching, we are completely dependent on the Spirit.
    Ie, the regeneration of *any* soul is a miracle worked by the Spirit, and he does it in times and ways of his own choosing. So if it occurs in the history of the church that more than usual numbers of souls are regenerated, it can only be the work of the Spirit. If it occurs in the history of the church that many souls are specially nourished under the preaching of the gospel, it can only be the work of the Spirit.
    In the same way that we don’t expect the Spirit to send someone into hysterics in an average sermon (as in: we know-from-scripture that the Spirit won’t send anyone into hysterics), we don’t expect, or we expect that he won’t send anyone into hysterics in a sermon which he is making specially edifying either.
    In other words, it’s not on the say so of any random pundit that we recognise something as being the work of the Spirit, but it’s the application of the standard metrics provided in scripture: the hallmarks of the Spirit can be discerned in normal circumstances from what we know of him and his works revealed in Scripture, and when circumstances become more unusual, we can again only evaluate them on the basis of whether or not they are consistent with his normal activity. Revival rightly so called differs from the routine only in degree, not qualitatively.

    Finally, on “not enough.” Marriage is the analogy for a believer’s union and communion with the Saviour. It is not the analogy for the believer’s relationship to the Word or to the Church or to the Sacraments. To borrow your analogy to make my point, having the Word and having the Sacraments is like having the Bridegroom’s CV and the Bridegroom’s portrait. Once these things are in place, what next? I say, Turn to the Confession! You say, We just don’t talk about it.


    • PS, I also meant to make a second point on “not enough” – the instituted and ordinary means are enough and plenty for what they are ordained for. But the whole point of calling them “means” is that they are not themselves the end. They are means *of grace*. Using them without having their ordained end in view is a misuse of them. So for the form of our approach to God, these are perpetually sufficient. But worship itself requires the heart as well as the means, and in that sense, the means on their own are not enough.


  22. Cath, up above you wrote: “But occasionally, in the routine use of the ordinary means, lots of people are unexpectedly effectually called and rapidly deeply sanctified.”

    I’m curious what this says about your expectations. Lots of people are unexpectedly effectually called. I’m not trying to be precious but you have expectations that small numbers will be effectually called?

    Also, I have to throw a flag on the phrase “rapidly, deeply sanctified.” In my understanding of mortification and vivification, not to mention the human heart, that rapid and deep part only comes in death. I’m not joking entirely. Again, I’m not sure how anyone would know that sanctification is rapid or deep. And I’m prone to be suspicious about rapidity. Even Edwards realized that his revivals turned out to be a whimper.


  23. “You also failed to notice why I believed these were works of the Spirit – not because of any level of hysteria, but because the church was built up for generations, because people came to the Word and Sacrament with greater loyalty than ever.”

    Paul, the point about hysterics aside, your criterion still seems vapid to me. People come sanely to the Mass with great loyalty and the Roman Church has been built up for generations, and the same could be said for any host of Pentecostal churches (minus the sanity). Does that mean the Spirit is at work? And what about the Reformed church that is a young plant with no chance to meet the longevity test yet? Could it be that the better test of the work of the Spirit is simply where the gospel is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered and discipline is practiced (Belgic 29)? I’ve great respect for longevity and loyalty, but since when were those the marks of the Spirit’s work?

    Cath, if you’re with Paul, then same goes for you. Maybe you’re right that I haven’t grasped the argument for revival. But if revival is so important and needful to be grasped I wonder why it doesn’t have any chapters devoted to it in the confessions.

    And I don’t think my point about “what’s next” is quite landing yet. My point is to wonder why one wonders “what’s next” when one has already been sufficiently supplied. You say, “…having the Word and having the Sacraments is like having the Bridegroom’s CV and the Bridegroom’s portrait. Once these things are in place, what next?” You already have Word and sacrament; to have his tokens is to have him. Why do you think you lack if you already possess? But maybe this is a function of the semi-eschatological ache we all have, in which case I surely get it. But this is part of the point: we live by faith, we live in the midst of the tension of the already-not yet. And we ought not look to have more than what we have been given to sustain us, meager as it may seem.


  24. Zrim

    “Could it be that the better test of the work of the Spirit is simply where the gospel is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered and discipline is practiced ”

    Yep! that’s what I meant when I said the church was built up for generations. The Gospel was and is preached more that it had been, the sacraments were and are rightly administered more than they were, and discipline was and is practiced more than it was pre-1859. Northern Ireland is still the most churched and most faithful region in Western Europe perhaps the world, and that is in no small part because of God’s work in 1859. Pick up on the semantics of that if you will as you don’t seem to really want to actually discuss the matter in hand.


  25. DGH –

    On numbers being effectually called – I don’t really know what to say about large vs small numbers. It’s all relative innit. Think the point was just that sometimes there are unusually large numbers, relative to whatever counts as the local usual. Unexpected in the sense that it also involves people from outside the church who weren’t necessarily religious before.

    On sanctification, for sure, total sanctification occurs rapidly and deeply at death and not before. But even in this life, there are degrees of sanctification even in the same person at different times of their life. Being able to identify something as ‘deeper’ sanctification is obviously dependent on being able to identify sanctification at all — but given that it is in fact possible to identify sanctification, it’s also possible to identify different degrees of it. The reports of revivals usually include some mention of existing believers becoming more serious about the gospel, listening more intently to the preaching, taking more of an interest in eternal realities, focusing more clearly and directly on the Saviour, and so on. It’s only what they would have been doing anyway as part of the ordinary routine life of a believer (what believer isn’t serious about the gospel, etc), but just in a greater degree.

    In his 1742 Thoughts, Edwards actually spoke in terms of “the wonderful work of God that has of late been carried on in the land.”


  26. Zrim,

    Revival is important as a historical phenomenon, not a doctrine. The doctrine is already taken care of in (i) the fact of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and (ii) the sovereignty of his works of regeneration and sanctification, – both of which are included in the confession. If you accept these doctrines, there is no reason in principle why you can’t accept that at some times the Spirit will work more powerfully (or, better perhaps) more discernibly to the human observer, than at other times. Which is all that we’re arguing for.

    On sufficient supply – the means are not meagre – they are the means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation. These benefits are not small, and the means are surely fit for purpose. But even on your own analogy, the tokens aren’t enough on their own. The soul needs not only the tokens of the Saviour but the Saviour himself (known and interacted with by means of the tokens). This is why we confess that saving faith consists of not just knowledge and assent, but also trust: knowing the doctrine about Christ is necessary but not sufficient, and ditto for having forms of worship which Christ has instituted.


  27. Paul, I know of churches here in the states in quite secular environs (which is to say NOT the most churched and faithful regions) that preach the pure gospel, rightly administer the sacraments and exercise right discipline. Is the Spirit at work there? I think you’d agree with me and say yes. So why do you point to longevity and loyalty as markers of the Spirit’s work and proof of the goodness of revival? I’m not trying to take anything away from Northern Ireland, but I am wondering where there is in your pro-revival-o-sity (trying to avoid the –ism) for saying the Spirit is just as at work where longevity and loyalty and widespread geographical faithfulness don’t overwhelm. It seems to me that pro-revival-o-sity depends on putting the accent on markers no where found in Scripture or the confessions the way the accent is put on the marks of the church.

    Cath, if all you’re arguing for is the fact that the Spirit can work more specially in various and sundry places and times, fine. But why the semi-fixation on that phenomenon to the point of suggesting it normative? Sometimes providence does extraordinary things, but wouldn’t it be odd for southern regions that get snow to suggest that marks of true tropical regions are not only routine swampiness but also the occasional flurry?

    You say, “The soul needs not only the tokens of the Saviour but the Saviour himself (known and interacted with by means of the tokens). This is why we confess that saving faith consists of not just knowledge and assent, but also trust: knowing the doctrine about Christ is necessary but not sufficient, and ditto for having forms of worship which Christ has instituted.” But this is my point: to have his tokens IS to have him. This is why we confess the real presence of Christ in the sacraments. He really is there and he really is enough for now.


  28. Zrim,

    That is all I’m arguing for. Honestly. I’ve consistently called That Phenomenon extraordinary and unusual. It’s not at all normative. The marks of the true church do not include experience of It. There is ample space for saying that the Spirit is at work BOTH in underwhelming and in overwhelming contexts.

    As for the sacraments – yes, he really is there (discussed here eg). But he is present to faith there in the same way as he is present to faith at any other time. Ie receiving Christ in the sacrament is the same activity as receiving Christ anywhere else. The important point though is that it is indeed receiving Christ, ie himself: the sacramental actions by themselves, the giving and receiving of bread and wine etc (which is how I understand ‘tokens’), are not Christ.

    (I’ll try and come back to your response at the Outhouse as soon as I can, but it might not be till tomorrow, or if not, Mon.)


  29. Zrim,

    Last comment: You wrote,

    “I’m not trying to take anything away from Northern Ireland, but I am wondering where there is in your pro-revival-o-sity (trying to avoid the –ism) for saying the Spirit is just as at work where longevity and loyalty and widespread geographical faithfulness don’t overwhelm.”

    You are the best at putting words into people’s mouths that I have ever read. And that’s saying something because I’ve read a lot of blogs over the last 10 years. Where, where, where apart from in your imagination did I ever write, suggest or infer that the Spirit is JUST at work where there is longevity and loyalty etc.?

    I refuse to discuss the issue further with you. You are not discussing it with me, but with someone in your own head.


  30. Paul, I’m not sure I would attribute N. Ireland’s churched condition to 1859. Here’s my problem. My own church, the OPC, would likely regard the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as the best of the churches in Ireland. And yet it is tiny. And this is my point. How much does revivalism add to the identity and maintenance of distinct theological traditions and specific communions? Or does it water them down so that everyone being in church is good, people being in a Reformed church less important?


  31. Dr. Hart

    I hear you on this one. I think historically speaking there is some evidence that revivalism (certainly the ‘ism’ if not the thing itself) does have a tendency to ‘level the theological playing field’ or ‘democratise’ the church – a kind of a lowest common denominator dynamic. This WAS observable in the 1859, where non-ordained men (and for all I know women) addressed congregations.

    I’d also say that testimonies and descriptions of events seemed to come to the fore more often than they should have and the objective truth of the Gospel put somewhat behind it on occasion. Not good.

    Here’s my own take on that. New York has more muggers than some tiny little town in South Dakota, the reason (or at least one) is that cities accumulate and concentrate people. I tend to think that there are always, harebrains, renegades and false teachers who attach themselves to the church but when you have times of reformation or something approximating that you get concentrations of them, and likewise concentrations of people who will naively attach themselves to such.

    I guess my other point is that all this watering down is just a dynamic in the church, certainly the modern church, and that it becomes very noticeable in periods like the revivals. I read your comments on the Gospel Coalition, same kind of thing, right?

    I’m not sure I have an answer to that, I see the problem. I guess I’m not sure its exclusive to periods of ‘revival’, just becomes more noticeable.


  32. Paul, you asked, “Where, where, where apart from in your imagination did I ever write, suggest or infer that the Spirit is JUST at work where there is longevity and loyalty etc.?”

    I’m not saying you did. What I said was, “…where there is in your pro-revival-o-sity (trying to avoid the –ism) for saying the Spirit is JUST AS at work where longevity and loyalty and widespread geographical faithfulness don’t overwhelm?”

    My point was that when you previously said, “You also failed to notice why I believed these were works of the Spirit – not because of any level of hysteria, but because the church was built up for generations, because people came to the Word and Sacrament with greater loyalty than ever” you seem to be saying that longevity and loyalty are aspects that prove the Spirit is at work in revival-o-sity.

    My point is that the three marks alone are ways to discern the Spirit’s work. L&L are great, but they do not prove the Spirit’s activity. Otherwise we’d have to say that the Roman Church has the Spirit at work in the Mass, since the Roman Church also enjoys L&L. I don’t know why you think I am carrying in in my own mind. I am responding to your own words.


  33. Zrim,

    If I understand Paul right, the emphasis was at least as much on “Word and sacrament” as on “loyalty and longevity”. It was just another way of naming the first two of the notes by which the true kirk shall be determined from the false. In other words, what you’re claiming are the only marks of the church are by and large the very marks which Paul has been saying can be found in the visible church in NI subsequent to 1859. (I hope I’m not putting words in his mouth.)

    Changing tack slightly, what do you make of the chapter on the Lord’s Supper in the Westminster Confession, where in addition to “outwardly partaking of the visible elements,” those who receive the sacrament are also said to “inwardly” (by faith, really and indeed, spiritually) receive and feed upon Christ crucified. Doesn’t that contradict what you said about how ‘to have his tokens is to have him’?


  34. Cath, I took Paul to be trying to lend legitimacy to what he understands as “revival.” And he did that by pointing to the longevity and loyalty of the people to the church where that “revival” took place. I understand Paul agrees that the three marks legitimize a church. But what I take issue with is the idea that the two marks of longevity and loyalty legitimize a “revival.” If the three marks existed before and after the “revival” I chalk that up to the work of the Spirit; I don’t surmise that the “revival” had anything to do with the apparent faithfulness of the people.

    As to your back-track, I don’t see how there is any contradiction. Those who have faith and receive his tokens in that faith have him really and spiritually.


  35. Can’t win with you guys. DGH complains because Northern Ireland isn’t denominational enough, Zrim assumes 1859 only happened in one church :-)

    If the revival had happened in some context other than the preaching of the gospel within the institutional church, you would have a point. But it’s the weakest part of the anti-revival position (not your anti-revivalist position, which is v useful) that it either isn’t aware of or refuses to recognise the historical reality that, in the context of orthodox doctrine preached within the church, at some times more people are regenerated and more deeply sanctified than at other times. As briefly discussed here some time ago. If Paul had been pointing to fainting fits (or whatever) as legitimising a putative revival, I would be joining you in rejecting that as extremely unwelcome and dubious. But you can’t pick and choose when you’re going to recognise the true marks of the church – just as any mark of grace in the individual is the work of the Spirit, so any mark of the church is the work of the Spirit – if the historical evidence is there, why insist on conflating the work of the Spirit with man-made counterfeits?

    Ok re the ‘in faith’ point. Snatched in the nick of time from the jaws of heinous error once again. But that’s what I meant by asking “what’s next”. It’s the “having faith and receiving in faith” that’s so uncomfortably underemphasised (not absent, but under-emphasised) in these discussions. Press and press and dig and dig, and finally there’s a grudging acknowledgement – but of things which appear centre-stage in the confession itself. Which is why I’m still not convinced that the priorities and emphases of “confessionalism” really match the priorities of the Confession itself.


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