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.