Monday, December 29, 2008

Talk Amongst Yourselves, I'll Give You a Topic: The "Great Awakening" - It Was Neither Great, Nor an Awakening. Discuss....

In his book Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray contends that due to the Calvinistic flavor of the First Great Awakening and the Pelagian flavor of the Second Great Awakening, the former is to be considered a legitimate work of the Spirit while the latter was largely spurious and manmade. Scott Clark, on the other hand, argues in Recovering the Reformed Confession that “both awakenings were species of the same genus, the QIRE [or, the quest for illegitimate religious experience].” He continues:

… it is sometimes said and even more frequently assumed that confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice need to be augmented with the piety and evangelical fervor of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivals. In such a marriage, however, classical Reformed theology and piety are unequally yoked.
In fact, Clark’s contention is that it was not soteriological issues at all that caused Murray to bind together the good revivalist to the exclusion of the bad ones, but “a common heightened personal experience of the divine presence.”

Judged, however, by confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, it is more difficult to see [revivals] as models for our theology, piety, and practice. Rather, taken individually or as a whole, the revivals represent a subjectivism that is alien to the Reformed confession.
Let me be clear about the fact that I agree with Clark wholeheartedly (due in no small part to all the yelling at me he did while I was his student). Still, I can remember back to the days when I was an ardent Banner of Truth guy, and the objection I would have raised would go something like this: According to whose standard of “legitimacy” should one’s quest for religious experience be judged? In other words, Clark’s QIRE label can easily sound as if any quest for a level of religious experience that exceeds Clark’s is excessive and illegitimate.

Of course, Clark’s response will be that it is not his standard that he is commending, but that of our Reformed confessions and catechisms. But pro-revival Reformed theologians like Murray or the Old Princetonians subscribed to the same standards that we do, and their definition of revival as an extraordinary degree of blessing upon the ordinary means of grace would seem to comport just fine with the experimental language of the Westminster Standards (not to mention that of Paul).

So the question is, how do we avoid combating the subjectivity of revivalism with an equally subjective standard of our own?