"Reformed" or "Revived"? Why Words Matter

by D.G. Hart

©1998, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

Was the Protestant Reformation a revival? If we define revivalism as a dramatic increase in new converts and an increased zeal on the part of believers to live godly lives, then the Reformation was at least an urban revival in the sense that it took root and changed church life in a number of Northern European cities. And if we add that genuine revivals usually include a recovery of the Gospel in the context of a church that has substituted human wisdom for God's Word, then again the Protestant Reformation qualifies as a revival. Looking at the Reformation as a revival may explain why most contemporary histories of Evangelicalism trace its historical roots first to Martin Luther and John Calvin, then to both seventeenth-century pietism and Puritanism, then to the revivals of the first and second Great Awakenings, and finally to the urban revivalism of Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham. To be sure, interpreters of Evangelicalism would want to differentiate among the efforts of Martin Bucer, George Whitefield, and Charles Grandison Finney. But on the whole, modern Evangelicalism has been shaped by the Reformation and revivalism. In other words, reformation and revival are at least compatible if not complementary.

Calvinistic evangelicals would, of course, want to qualify the evangelical narrative. Reformation and revival were mutually supportive, they might argue, up to the nineteenth century when revivalism's theology soured. Up until Finney and the "new measures," revivalists were predominantly Calvinistic, George Whitefield being the classic example. What is more, throughout the nineteenth century Calvinists, as David Calhoun's two-volume history of Princeton Theological Seminary proves, continued to profit from, pray for, and promote revivals. One of the striking features of Calhoun's valuable work is how many of Princeton's Old School Presbyterian professors were converted in revivals, even after, in many cases, having been reared as covenant children. From a Calvinistic perspective, revivals are not inherently defective. They only turn bad when Arminian people run them. Revivals are like the White House--when Republicans live there, big government isn't so bad, but when Democrats move in, there goes the neighborhood.

This selective approach to revivalism--welcome when Calvinists preach but nefarious when Arminians manipulate--reveals an inherent weakness in Reformed self-awareness. The standard Reformed assessments of revivalism these days often only consider issues such as sound doctrine or the preaching's content. Yet, good reasons exist for questioning the compatibility of revivalism and the Reformation, reasons that involve the very definitions of the words "reform" and "revive." Recently, historians of the first Great Awakening have raised important questions about the way the methods of revivals, even when conducted by Calvinists, undercut the work and ministry of the visible Church. But even more harmful is the way the term, "revival," inherently skews our understanding of the Christian life and how we discern it. But before contrasting the significance of the words, "reformed," and "revived," a brief foray into revivalist history is in order.

Effective Preaching
Gilbert Tennent would no doubt be a worthy candidate for ministry in most Presbyterian churches today. A strong adherent of the Westminster Standards, long-time successful pastor of a prominent Philadelphia congregation, and fierce opponent of both liberalism and hypocrisy in the ministry, Tennent is usually considered one of the "good guys" of colonial American Presbyterianism. But even good guys can go bad under the influence of revivalism. In 1741, during a heated controversy among Presbyterians over Whitefield's itinerant preaching, Tennent added fuel to the fire with his sermon, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." He insinuated that opponents of Whitefield's preaching were unregenerate, or just like the Pharisees, that is, church leaders who had not been born again. What is more, Tennent argued that God would only bless the ministry of converted pastors. "These foolish builders," he exclaimed, "do but strengthen Men's carnal Security, by their soft, selfish, cowardly Discourses." These false ministers kept pointing the unregenerate to their duty to obey God's law, as if such obedience would "recommend natural Men to the Favour of GOD, or entitle them to the Promises of Grace and Salvation." Not only was Tennent suggesting that he could tell a converted minister, but according to his logic, only regenerate ministers could produce sound and true preaching. An unregenerate pastor automatically preached false doctrine.

To be sure, the ideal pastor is one who has truly trusted in Christ for salvation. But Tennent's conception of the ministry appears to have little room for the views expressed in the Second Helvetic Confession (1561). In the first chapter on Scripture, Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich Zwingli's successor in Zurich, wrote that when the Word of God was preached by pastors "lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful." Such a high view of preaching applied to unfaithful pastors as well, "for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good." And just in case Reformed believers missed the point, Bullinger added in chapter 18 on the ministry that "we know that the voice of Christ is to be heard, though it be out of the mouths of evil ministers" in the same way that Sacraments were sanctified "by the institution and the word of Christ," and were effectual to the godly, even if "administered by unworthy ministers." In contrast to Tennent's argument that only the preaching of converted ministers would be effectual, Bullinger taught, in the Second Helvetic Confession, that God would bless even the preaching of wicked ministers.

Tennent's sermon and the Second Helvetic Confession represent different ideas about effective preaching. Tennent indicates a view widely prevalent in evangelical circles that locates effectiveness in the soul or salvation of the minister. If the minister doesn't believe what he preaches then his sermons will lack power and conviction. This understandable desire for a believing pastor can lead to modern Evangelicalism's excesses, where the minister's charisma, personality, and charm determine his ministry's success. (This is not to say that pastors should be poor speakers, unlearned and dull.) The Second Helvetic Confession, in contrast, makes the effectiveness of the sermon depend on God only, not the spiritual (or natural) abilities of the minister. Even in the extreme case, when the sermon comes out of the mouth of an unregenerate minister, those in the congregation still hear the very "Word of God." (And this is not to say that we should ignore the profession of faith of a candidate for Gospel ministry.) The contrast here can be drawn too starkly. As a good Calvinist, Tennent would not deny the necessity of God's power for preaching to lead to repentance and conversion, or mercy and comfort. Nor would Bullinger deny the importance of godly, and therefore, believing ministers. Still, the difference between the Reformed and revivalistic conceptions of the ministry is evident in Tennent's writings and the Second Helvetic Confession. The Reformers knew that only God could turn the word preached into a means of salvation and sanctification, while revivalists acted as if the actions and affects of men were necessary for a work of God to occur.

The modern upshot of revivalism's influence is the triumph of the subjective over the objective elements of the Christian religion. Because of revivalism's concern for the internal state of the preacher or the convert, it has fostered an attitude that places a premium on the sincerity and assurance of Christian experience. At the same time, it has nurtured disregard for the necessity and importance of external forms, whether in liturgy, creeds, or church polity. As long as the heart is in the right place, as long as methods lead to conversion and repentance, then the forms of religiosity don't matter (do the worship wars come to mind?). In contrast, the Reformed tradition has refused to separate the internal from the external aspects of Christian faith and practice. It has taught that as important as the subjective state of the soul is, the objective expressions of Christianity are no less important. Worship, confession, and government--the external forms by which we judge the faithfulness of churches--matter not only because God desires true worship, faithful teaching, and right order in his Church, but also because these objective forms are the means he has ordained to minister to human souls. Consequently, while effective preaching for revivalists is that form of communication that shows the presence and power of God in the preacher's life, for the reformers it is a sermon that conforms to the truth of God's Word no matter whether the pastor believes or conversions follow from it. Unfortunately, because of revivalism's triumph since the eighteenth century, the older Reformational synthesis of the external and internal has been neglected.

O Be Careful Little Mouth
Perhaps a better way of showing these distinctions is to contrast the words "revive" and "reform." These words connote the same difference already noted between Tennent and the Second Helvetic Confession. The word "revive" suggests an effort to recover genuine spiritual existence and vitality in the lives of believers, and to introduce nonbelievers to the eternal life that comes through Christ. A revival penetrates the forms and "vain repetitions" of established and hypocritical religion and goes to the heart to cause and nurture genuine conversion and real repentance. Not only does revivalism thrive on the desire for authentic religion but its aim is individualistic. To be sure, the more people revived, the better the church may be. But revival stresses individual conversion and personal morality.

The word "reform" however, suggests a restructuring of a specific order. A reform's purpose is to take an existing organization or body and make it conform to a correct or true standard and norm. So while revivals aim at generating or deepening spiritual life in individuals, reformations strive to impart a more faithful shape to the visible Church in its corporate life, in doctrine, worship, and government. For example, individuals sitting through the Mass may be Reformed in their understanding of the Lord's Supper, but the liturgy presently violating their conscience hardly is.

Though these definitions of "revive" and "reform" don't come from Webster's dictionary, they are implicit in the arguments used to defend both revivalism and reformation. If a revival occurs, its defenders argue that spiritual life has been imparted, in other words, that the Spirit of God is at work. This was not only true in the eighteenth century but is still true today. Tennent, for instance, not only thought that ministers who supported Whitefield's revivals were regenerate, but also presumed that the revivals of his day were a work of God. More recently, British theologian Iain Murray has followed a similar logic. Though he has not gone so far as Tennent in questioning the regeneration of the individual ministers who opposed Whitefield, Murray is convinced that the First Great Awakening was a work of God. While believing that revivals are occasions where God blesses the ordinary means of grace in an extraordinary way, Murray is not reluctant in concluding that the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century was the result of the work of the Spirit. Murray's conclusion should not be surprising. Since Calvinists believe that only God can give spiritual life to the unregenerate, a revival ipso facto has to be a work of God. But that begs the epistemological question of whether we can know for sure where and when God's Spirit is active.

The interpretive stakes are not quite so high, however, when it comes to evaluating whether reformation has taken place. The marks of the Church, according to the Reformers, are one very important way to discern where the Gospel is. Unlike revivalism, which encourages the evaluation of things that are invisible, namely, the human soul, the Reformation promoted the search for phenomena that can be observed by the human senses. In the words of the Belgic Confession, Article 29, "The marks by which the true church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God." In other words, to look for Reformation is to consider visible or external forms. But to look for revival is to make judgments about things invisible and internal.

So the "reformed" and the "revived" make two different kinds of determination when they look for Reformation and revival. Proponents of revival make claims that should be reserved for God, that is, whether a soul has truly come to new life in Christ. To be sure, the "revived" look for evidence in visible and external things such as profession and deed. But to say that a revival occurred is to determine that God did actually regenerate a remarkable number of souls. The parable of the sower suggests the need for less certainty in making such a determination. The "reformed," however, do not pretend to look into the state of souls or make judgments about God's intervention into human history. Yes, they do use the language of "true" and "false" churches, which are forms of evaluation that connote eternal significance. Still, they make no claims about the spiritual state of individuals. And in the context of sixteenth-century Europe, one did not need to be a believer to recognize a Reformed church. A professing Roman Catholic would see an extraordinarily different liturgy in a Protestant church and know that this congregation had been "reformed." The difference, of course, would be that the Protestant would call such visible changes "true," while the Catholic believer would regard them as "false."

The lesson taught by the differences implicit in the words "reformed" and "revived" is not simply that we should be careful about claiming to know things we can't know. It is also that our assessment of Christian expressions and practice will always be limited to forms. We cannot see into the human heart and therefore must judge whether the words and deeds of an individual believer's life are credible, and whether a congregation's liturgy, teaching, and government are reformed according to the Word. In other words, we are limited to the world of appearances and our conclusions should always reflect a caution befitting the limits of our knowledge. For this reason, professing believers who cherish the Reformed Faith might consider deleting the words "revival," "revived," and "revive" from their vocabulary. If you are Reformed you should know that detecting either the pulse of spiritual life in a convert or the hand of God in human history is work that only God, who surpasses human understanding, can do.



Dr. D.G. Hart is Head Librarian and Associate Professor of Church History and Theological Bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary. From 1989-1993 he directed the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and taught history at Wheaton College. He earned his Ph.D. in American History at The John Hopkins University and also did graduate work at Westminster Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School.

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