One of the earliest and most rhetorically powerful charges made by the proponents of the eighteenth-century (colonial) revivals was that their critics were either unregenerate or impious. Religious experience is usually defined by proponents of revival as being composed of certain religious feelings and experiences. Those who’ve raised questions about those experiences have often been said to be “unconverted” or impious. Gilbert Tennent, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards all charged their critics with the crime of being unregenerate. That argument, or a version of it, continues into the present day.
One of the criticisms that John Frame levels against Recovering the Reformed Confession is that it seeks to stifle religious experience. Again, this is partly true and partly false. He takes RRC as being opposed to genuine religious feeling:
Can there be any objection to people having a deepened sense of the power and authority of God? Later we learn that in revival people sometimes experienced a heightened conviction of sin, assurance of salvation, relief of fears and doubts (90-91). Is any of this objectionable? Scripture tells us that our sins are heinous in God’s sight. Should we not agree with Scripture about that? And if we agree with Scripture about that, will we not feel a sense of our own wickedness? Can we have that conviction without an accompanying feeling? Think of David’s words concerning his own sin, in Psalms 32 and 51. Should we not feel the same way about our own sins, and feel an extreme joy (Rom. 8:1-39) in knowing they have been forgiven? If we acknowledge these facts “intellectually” as we say, but have no feeling about them, isn’t there something wrong?
The answer is no, there is no objection in RRC to people having a “deepened sense of the power and authority of God. There’s no objection to people experiencing a “heightened conviction of sin” etc. The objection in RRC is making the sorts of experiences described by Edwards and others either the measure of the ordinary Christian life or the thing to be sought above all other things or the organizing principle of the Christian life. In broad terms, I call the desire for the such extraordinary experiences the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). More narrowly, it is the desire to know God as he is, in himself (something on which Frame and Clark disagree), and/or to experience God apart from the divinely ordained means, apart from Word and sacrament ministry.
Over the years I’ve had conversations like the one represented by Frame’s critique and thus I tried (and apparently failed) to anticipate the very objections he makes. In several places in RRC I discussed what I understand the ordinary Christian life and Christian piety to be. I take it that, in John’s case, those passages did leave the impression I hoped. I won’t recount them all, but anyone who reads the book fairly and carefully will notice that I do discuss a warm-hearted, vital, and even passionate piety and experience of the presence of God but unlike some in the revivalist tradition, I keep that very closely connected to the divinely ordained means of grace, the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. I hope that other readers will be more patient than John has been with my account of what happened in the 18th century revivals and how they function for many Reformed folk today, as a sort of golden age to which we need to return. I realize that it is difficult to look at heroes such as Edwards and Whitefield and others in the light of critical, modern history but that’s what I tried to do, to introduce readers to the modern academic study of these figures and their time, drawing particularly on George Marsden’s wonderful and massive work on Jonathan Edwards.
Without rehearsing the whole argument of the book regarding Reformed piety let me simply say, as I do in the book, I’m in favor of piety. The subtitle is “our theology, piety, and practice. I argue that there is a Reformed piety, that it is hearty, that is warm, that it is passionate but it is not Anabaptist, it is not revivalist, and it is not quasi-Pentecostal. Failure to make that distinction in our time has led lots of Reformed folk to try to synthesize forms of Christian piety drawn from the mystical traditions into the Reformed faith. This book is an attempt to question that synthesis. So, yes, to the degree the Lord permits, I do hope to stifle or encourage the stifling of some forms of religious experience. I think there’s good biblical precedent for such stifling.
I hope that readers will not simply take at face value John’s summary of my argument but rather will investigate the book carefully and calmly for themselves.
Rest assured that your servant does love Jesus and he loves John Frame, and he loves Jonathan Edwards but he thinks that John Calvin, Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Standards, William Perkins, William Ames, and John Owen, to name just a few, present us with a different picture of Christian piety than is often presented to us today under the heading of “Reformed piety” and those voices are worth hearing, even if they may make us a little uncomfortable at first.