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.)