In the June/July 2009 issue of Ordained Servant Alan Strange published a surprisingly negative review of Recovering the Reformed Confession. The editor kindly invited me to reply and that reply appears today in the August/September issue. According to editorial policy, Alan gets the last word in the Ordained Servant. The HB, however, isn’t the Ordained Servant and thus I want to reply a bit to Alan’s final criticisms.First, it is apparent in the rejoinder that Alan’s real problem with RRC is with my criticisms of Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening (hereafter 1GA). Unfortunately, instead of being explicit about this he couched his criticism in the review in global terms so as to give the impression that I was arguing things I did not. It would have helped the discussion had Alan been more explicit about his concerns. Indeed, even in the rejoinder Alan gives the impression that I ignore or distort the Zurich (and related) elements of the Reformed Reformation in the 16th century. Again I wonder whether Alan actually read the sections of the book where I discuss Zurich and Basel.
Second, the nub of our disagreement then is how to evaluate the 1GA. My point in that chapter is mainly to call attention to some of the discontinuities between the theology, piety, and practice of some 18th-century colonial Reformed folk and that of the 16th and 17th centuries. I also want to call attention to the modern work done on colonial congregationalism and presbyterianism and thereby to cause folk in the NAPARC world to re-assess the reigning mythology about the glorious golden age that prevailed in the 18th century. If anyone doubts that such a view of colonial Christianity persists in our circles one had only to go to Geneva to hear a notable teacher in a notable American Presbyterian college call for a return to the 18th-century revival pattern. It was in view of this frequent use of the 1GA as a paradigm for contemporary theology, piety, and practice that I offered a re-contextualization of the period in light of the 16th and 17th centuries and in light of the Reformed confessions.
Further, judging by the literature and by my experience few readers will be aware that there was a confessionalist and rather less exotic alternative to Edwards and co. Few readers will be aware of the “Old Side” Presbyterians of the 18th century because their existence has been virtually hidden from view and where the Old Side does receive attention it is usually marginalized as “dead orthodoxy.” Strange complains about my treatment of the 1GA (and Edwards in particular) but he cannot refute the fact that it was in the 18th century that American Presbyterianism lost its hold on the understanding and practice of the RPW as articulated in the Directory for Public Worship and that there is a direct connection between the theology, piety, and practice of the 1GA and the movement away from the DPW. Whatever the benefits of the 1GA one of the more considerable costs was the practice of Reformed worship.
Here is another reason I dared offer some mild criticism (and re-contextualization) of the 1GA and of the influence of Jonathan Edwards: because, despite the general orthodoxy of Edwards’ theology, the evidence is that he was influenced deeply by some of the philosophical currents that underlay the Enlightenment. Those who are personally devoted to Edwards may find this a difficult pill to swallow. I understand. I only ask patience. I ask that before the Edwardsean reader reacts that he take the time to read the same modern literature on Edwards, which is not as hagiographical as that which is perhaps more familiar to some readers. I ask that those deeply influenced by and sympathetic Edwardsean theology, piety, and practice at least take the time to read George Marsden’s brilliant study in Edwards. I don’t claim that my account of Edwards is comprehensive. It is only suggestive. I understood that it would be controversial and I wrote it with fear and trembling if only because one could predict the firestorm of reaction by fans of Edwards. My experience suggests that such are, shall we say, intolerant of criticism of America’s Greatest Theologian.
In fact I wrote the book, in part, to highlight the division of opinion that exists between confessionalists and revivalists (i.e. those committed to the QIRE). As I showed in the book, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer and others are convinced that orthodox Calvinism must be tempered with, to use the Doctor’s word, “methodism” lest it become dead orthodoxy. The great historical difficulty I have with this analysis is that there is precious little evidence to support it. I do not see Strange engaging this argument. It was the Enlightenment, not orthodoxy, that weakened and finally marginalized orthodoxy. It was pietism (the father of revivalism) that almost did in Reformed orthodoxy (i.e. confessional theology, piety, and practice). Indeed, Reformed orthodoxy as it came to expression in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards had just under 200 years to get going, and that under severe strain of violent persecution wherein virtually the entire French Reformed Church was wiped out in a single stroke, and to come to ecclesiastical expression.
In contrast, the theology, piety, and practice of the 1GA has had since the 1720s to establish itself and to flourish and that without massive persecution. What has revival brought us? Is there not a substantial connection between the New Haven Theology and Edwards? Would there have been a Second Great Awakening without the First? Are these connections really controversial from a historical point of view? I don’t think so but it is considered impolite in some circles to bring them up.
Let me begin to close with an account of a conversation I had recently with a reader of RRC. He said that one of the things he appreciated most about RRC was its account of Edwards and the 1GA. He recounted how for years, when reading Edwards, in light of the almost universal approval Edwards and the 1GA seems to receive in NAPARC circles, he could not understand why it seemed to him that there was such a discontinuity between what he was reading in Edwards and what he read in the older writers and between what he read in Edwards and what he found in the Reformed confessions themselves. Until he read RRC he had always assumed that he must be missing something, that, as he put, “there must be something wrong with me.” No, dear reader, there it’s not you. You’re not alone. Others have had the very same experience.
Strange’s reaction to RRC hinges on his rejection of my account of colonial American religion. He uses this lever more or less to dispense with the entire book. His reaction, however, seems to vindicate the chapter and the concern than animated it. When we remember the 18th century, we do not discuss “the due use of ordinary means.” I don’t know anyone who treasures 18th-century colonial religion because of its emphasis on “the due use of ordinary means.” What folk tend to value in the 18th century is precisely the opposite of “the due use of ordinary means.” No, what most people tend to value about 18th-century colonial religion is the extraordinary and it is that for which they pray: another outbreak of the same sort of extraordinary phenomena. If so, why am I wrong about the QIRE?