Measuring the Health of a Church

For many the 18th century is regarded as the “century of mission” or perhaps century of the so-called First Great Awakening (for more on this see see ch. 3 of RRC) but if fidelity to the Reformed Confession is a mark of the health of the church, there are many ways in which the 18th century was perhaps not the benchmark of spiritual vitality that many would have us think. Wes Bredenhof provides a quote from Rolf Christiaan Janssen’s PhD dissertation, “By this our Conscription: Confessional Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition Since 1816,” (Proefschrift Theologische Universiteit Kampen, 2009) illustrating the weakness of confessional commitment and fidelity in the Hervormde Kerk (the Dutch Reformed Church) in the 18th century.

There are other indicators. Yesterday morning, as part of his summer series on Reformed theology after Calvin (orthodoxy), WSC student Dan Borvan discussed the career and teaching of Jacob Vernet (1698–1789), a student of Jean Alphone Turretini (son of Francis) who had already begun to downplay and even reject significant aspects of the Reformed confession. Vernet continued that trajectory in most unhappy ways, so much so that Socinians (rationalists and the forebears of modern Unitarian Universalism) thought of him as one of their own.

There were orthodox figures in the 18th century but it was, it seems to me, largely a century of compromise with modernity and equivocation. The orthodox writers of the period, whether in Europe or the English-speaking world are, by and large, not very interesting and the creative figures (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) are ambiguous and problematic in significant ways.

The point of this post, however, is to ask us to think about how we measure well-being in the church. For many the 18th century is a paradigm of a healthy church because it is the period during which the modern missions movement got its start. For others, the 18th century is paradigmatic because of the outbreak of revival. According to these two measures, every period since the 18th century is more or less unsuccessful or unhealthy because it lacks the missions fervor or the necessary marks of “revival.” What if, however, at the same time religious excitement (to use a more neutral term) broke out, the genuinely evangelical faith of the Reformation, the original definition of “evangelical,” was being undermined by a loss of confidence in the Word of God as the true, reliable, revelation of God in Christ? What if, at the very same time, fundamental Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, or the doctrines of predestination and justification were being lost in favor of autonomous human reason? What if the movements that became known as Romanticism (a turn to subjective affective experience) and rationalism (the replacement of objective, divine authority primarily in the Scriptures and secondarily in the church with autonomous human reason) profoundly shaped 18th century theology and set the stage for the collapse of Christianity in the 19th century? The evidence suggests that, in fact, that’s exactly what was happening.

Most people would recognize that, in many ways, the 19th century was a most unhappy one for evangelical Christianity. It witnessed the rise of Protestant liberalism and higher criticism in biblical studies, a resurgence of Tridentine Romanism, the Anglo-Catholicism of the Oxford Movement (Darryl Hart’s account of Nevin notwithstanding, a version of Anglo-Catholicism appeared in corners of the (German) Reformed Church in the U. S.), Romanticism, and Finneyite revivalism. From where did these phenomena arise? Did they drop out of the blue sky with no connection to the 18th century? No, they did not. These developments had precursors in the 18th century.

This might seem like a wholesale indictment of the 18th century. It’s not meant to be exactly. It is meant to ask to us to re-think how we measure ecclesiastical and spiritual prosperity. The 18th century was a time of religious excitement, busy-ness, and novelty. In those respects, at least, our time (as Dan pointed out Sunday morning) is like the 18th century. It may seem prosperous and thrilling but examined from a distance such times may look a bit different. The collapse of Reformed confessionalism in the 18th century may, in fact, be a better indicator of the true state of things. In that century the Reformed churches effectively lost the regulative principle of worship (to which loss the revivalists contributed mightily) and other essential elements of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice (such as a piety ordered by Word and sacrament ministry). Judged by these indicators, the 18th century may not be the one we want to try and imitate.

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  1. Provocative as always, Dr Clark.

    I will admit that, even having read RCC, I find myself genuinely torn over the 18th century. One area in particular is missions. I very much hope to go into Church planting in Spain and while I’m a baptist (of the London Baptist Confession type) I have a great deal of sympathy with many of your concerns.

    As a British conservative Evangelical, I live in a church milleiu which places a very high value on the missionary endeavours of the 18th Century. Could you possibly recommend a history of more confessional missions? I’d be interested to see how their methods differ.



  2. I see that you’re not issuing a wholesale indictment (exactly) of the 18th century, but are showing that we must be discerning about what was happening. The missionary impulse was good, I’m sure. You’re asking us to consider that even in the midst of good impulses, there was a deterioration going on in practice and doctrine. I see that, and I was a great lover of all things 18th century in the church (including Edwards and Watts and Whitefield). From where I sit, Dr. Clark, there seems to be no hope to bring the churches back, amidst all this prosperity and busyness and good impulses and the means to carry them out, to ask leaders to stop and look back to church history and Scripture with a willingness to be warned and instructed. But nothing is too hard for God. I’ll keep at prayer for the church as I know so many others are, and trust God’s plan and Providence.

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