Anti-Scholasticism, Revival(ism), Pietism, Or The Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice? (2)

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionIn the last few days two different authors have published articles seeking to invite evangelical and Reformed readers first to a “revival” model of piety and practice and then to Pietism. These two movements are closely related historically and so I will address them together in this response. Before I proceed, let me make clear that I am not contesting the relationship between revival(ism) and Pietism to modern evangelicalism. I am completely disinterested in a political contest over turf or control of evangelicalism. I agree with Mike Horton. I wish evangelicals and the rest of us could think of evangelicalism—to the extent there really is such a thing. See D. G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism—as a village green rather than a piece of contested territory. My intent in these essays is not to contest for territory. It is to discourage those who identify the Reformed theology and those who actually subscribe the Reformed confession from pursuing these alternatives to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The first of these two alternatives is revival, which some (as I discuss in the book) want to distinguish sometimes from revivalism. I doubt that distinction works as an explanation of history and, as I showed in the book, even the proponents of the distinction agree with that. When push comes to shove, a bad revival (e.g., the 2nd Great Awakening) is better than no revival.  So I have been signalling the blurriness of the line between revival and revivalism by using revival(ism). I agree with the author that revival(ism) is a mark of evangelicalism but I want to distinguish sharply between the original evangelicals, i.e., the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches and evangelicalism as it came to be formed by Pietism and revival(ism). These are two distinct things.

Strangely, the author thinks that the great revivalists are being left behind.

Thus, while many appreciate Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the First Great Awakening, they almost invariably write off later American revivals as hotbeds of human activism, heresy, cults of personality, and emotional extravagance. Better to leave all that in the dustbin and get on with the mission of preaching the gospel and building the church. Right?

I should very much like to see the evidence of such marginalization. Amandus Polanus (1561–1610) is not anyone’s “homeboy” but apparently, judging by what I see, Jonathan Edwards is. Indeed Edwards is a principal influence upon the so-called New Calvinism and the Young, Restless, and Reformed movements. That hardly seems like marginalization. I and others have been trying to persuade the Reformed to recognize that the 18th and 19th century revivals are not as distinct (the first supposedly a good revival and the second supposedly a bad revival) as we have been told nor were they a natural outgrowth of the classical Reformed theology, piety, and practice. I am surprised to find that the author thinks that some are hearing this message. That is encouraging but I doubt that he is right. In truth, the Reformed do not confess a theology, piety, and practice of revival(ism). I am certain that the magisterial Protestants would have been horrified by both the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings and I do not think that most of the orthodox of the 17th century would have been entirely comfortable either with the rhetoric of the 1st Great Awakening nor with the practice and the associated phenomena.

I am grateful for the essay advocating a renewal of revival theology and practice because it puts the issues squarely before us. The author writes, “I advance the opposite thesis: Revivals embody the true flourishing of Protestantism precisely because they intensify and expand on central Protestant themes.” This claim is fundamentally false. The only place in the 16th century where anything like Northampton happened was among the Anabaptists and the magisterial, confessional Protestants all denounced it as fanaticism. The seventeenth-century Reformed were, as far as I can tell (yes, I am aware of the passages in Owen to which some are appealing for support. I doubt very much that those passages are being understood correctly) the orthodox had no sympathies for the doctrines and practices that would become essential to the 1st Great Awakening.

As I noted in the book and as I have noted here, there are serious questions not only about Edwards’ orthodoxy on the doctrine of God (Charles Hodge called him a “Pantheist”) but also on the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church (J. H. Alsted): the doctrine of justification. Scholars of Edwards have known this for many decades since Thomas A. Schafer’s seminal 1951 essay in Church History, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith” in which he concluded, “it is not, therefore, by the doctrine of imputed righteousness that Edwards prefers to safeguard human dependence and divine glory; rather it is by the doctrine of ‘infused grace'” (62–63). Since Schafer, other writers (e.g., W. Robert Godfrey) have also criticized Edwards’ doctrine of justification.

The author’s account of the three great interests of the Reformation (preaching, conversion, and missions) is anachronistic. These are marks of 18th and 19th century “evangelicalism” but these are not (as he characterizes them) the way the Reformed and Lutherans spoke about themselves. The Belgic Confession (1561) identifies three marks of the true church, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (art. 29). These are Reformation-era marks. We may not read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century categories and concerns back into the 16th and 17th centuries.

In RRC I characterized revival(ism) and Pietism as two aspects of the QIRE: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. Fundamentally, this is the desire to have an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. This is the irreducible core of modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice. It is not the theology nor was it the practice of the Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries. They certainly wanted believers to have a vital religious experience but their confession and practice focused on God’s grace in salvation and the consequent fruits of the Spirit as they flow from God’s grace to his redeemed people. Experience is fleeting. It is not the ground of assurance nor is to be sought as a good in itself. What is to be sought is Christ. Our confidence is in work for us and his promises to us.

As our second author notes, these are not the key tenets of Pietism. The essay comes in the form of a review and he helpfully lists Spener’s six principles of Pietism:

  1. a pronounced Bible-centeredness
  2. an activistic approach to the priesthood of all believers
  3. a Christianity that creates an integrated and holistic way of life
  4. an irenic posture that prioritizes Christian unity
  5. an approach to Christian formation rooted in following Jesus
  6. the proclamation of the good news in words and deeds

The list is as important for what it does not mention as for what it does: the means of grace, the visible church, and confessional boundaries. Neither does it stipulate exactly what the gospel is. For the confessional Reformed and Lutherans the gospel is preached and we live in it and out of it but we do not “live it.” The 6th point is ambiguous on this. The core of the Pietist movement is an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ, typically in small groups (conventicles) separated from the visible church, which produces religious and social activity. Encounter and activity are the essential nouns of Pietism.

Pietism sought to transcend church and sacraments. In that sense, it was a true predecessor of the revival movements in the 18th and 19th centuries and of modern evangelicalism but it was a reaction, in part, to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation as much as to the state churches of Europe. The early Pietists were mostly orthodox but the confession of the churches did not animate them. Experience and action animated them. The confessionalists argued about the doctrines of Christ, salvation, worship, and the Lord’s Supper but these questions did not animate the Pietists as much as the transcendent, supra-historical experience of the risen Christ.

The succeeding generations of Pietists realized that theological orthodoxy and orthopraxy were immaterial to their project and not long after that they realized that the history of redemption was irrelevant to their faith. These children and grandchildren of the Pietists were the great liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. So, our author’s list of contempoary Pietsts is instructive: “Like many authors before them—including Donald Dayton, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Kenneth Collins, Randall Balmer, Jim Wallis, and Roger Olson, among others—Gehrz and Pattie commend the Wesleyan/Holiness/Anabaptist/Pietist trajectory of evangelical identity: what the authors call the Pietist ethos.” What unites them? Encounter and activism or the QIRE.

Again, I am glad to see this summary and invitation to Pietism because it highlights the differences between the theology, piety, and practice of Pietism with that of the Reformed churches. Like our two authors, please consider this a warm invitation to consider the Reformed confession on its own terms and not as modified or moderated by modern evangelicals (e.g. as in the “New Calvinism” or in the YRR movement). As I argued in the book, if you will give it a try, on its own terms, you will find in the Reformed confession much of what you say that you want: a truly and deeply biblical theology, a genuine connection with the history of the church, an ordered worship (when we follow our stated rule of worship), a Christ-centered faith, a warm, personal, genuine piety, a high (but not sacerdotal) view of the sacraments, and a real community of believers seeking to live out the faith coram Deo, before the face of God in Christ.


  1. Spener’s six principles of pietism are so vague that they say very little about what the Christian faith is about. Ironically, by rejecting the confessions as being an extra biblical document, it leaves the definition of the faith to be nothing in particular, and as varied as anyone’s opinion. Everyone is free to believe and do what is right in their own eyes. Experiencing an emotional high becomes the goal rather than worship that glorifies God in obeying His commands. In contrast, the Reformed confessions are concerned with worship that is in keeping with the means ordained by God in His Word. How we are right with God in Christ is the focus of the confessions, rather than how to get an emotional
    experience. Sadly the emotional experience may be interpreted as an encounter with God that gives assurance of acceptance and salvation, so it is the experience and not trust in God’s promises that becomes the basis of trust for acceptance with God.

  2. Dr Clark, you have said it right on but I fear that you are preaching to the converted (of which I am one). He who feels that he must play a significant part in his own salvation, he who feels inadequate or insignificant unless he has had this special encounter with God, he will not listen to your wise words because your premise puts God in the centre of the redemption story and that he cannot countenance. Man, this wonderful being, must have centrestage, must have the will and the power to arrange his own salvation…God is just there to rubberstamp man’s decision.

    • Dr Neveling,

      I think soteriology is part of the problem, especially in re the 2nd Great Awakening, but I also think that, in both the 1GA and the 2nd, the QIRE reflected a certain lack of confidence in the promises of Scripture. The QIRE doesn’t really trust the objective Word of God sufficiently (and neither does the QIRC by the way).

  3. Dr. Clark,
    The last sentence in your last comment, “The QIRE doesn’t really trust the objective Word of God sufficiently…”, really hit it on the head for me. The problem I am seeing in my church and in my own family is that for them it simply isn’t enough to place one’s trust (a deep and abiding trust) in the propositional truths of Scripture. These statements found in Scripture are true regardless of our experience, or lack thereof.

  4. In RRC you show how the Reformed faith is defined by the goal of confessing what the Word of God teaches. The Reformed confessions were produced to give a clear and precise statement of that faith and how it shapes our theology, piety, and practice. It is motivated by the sincere desire to know and obey God as He reveals Himself in His Word. Pietism and Revivalism do not share these goals. Rather the focus is on an immediate, unmediated encounter with the risen Christ through emotional experiences that are uncritically accepted as that very thing. In fact there is no accountability allowed! Any questioning of experiential convictions is likely to be met by something like, ” I know what I know because I had this experience from God! You didn’t have my experience, how dare you question it!” It seems like this is an abandonment of the sole authority of the Word of God. As such it is actually contrary the Reformed faith. It denies Sola scriptura. How misguided it seems to make a compromise with pietism and revivalism in our Reformed churches. The reason to maintain our Reformed confessional identity, and the best recommendation for others to join us, is this goal of being faithful to the Word of God by confessing what it teaches.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    You deny that there is much or any distinction between the first and second great awakenings, between revivals and revivalism. You write:

    “I doubt that distinction works as an explanation of history and, as I showed in the book, even the proponents of the distinction agree with that. When push comes to shove, a bad revival (e.g., the 2nd Great Awakening) is better than no revival.”

    I wonder if you have read Iain Murray’s classic book on the subject, Revivals and Revivalism. He spends the whole book carefully distinguishing the two and is very critical of both the means and results of the second great awakening.

    • Hi Robert,

      There are some differences but they are not as sharp as we sometimes think or say. I learned that from two places: 1) my own reading of the history and the sources; 2) (in part), Murray’s book (and from a lecture he gave in Wheaton to support the book) where, when push comes to shove, he blurs the distinction. Sometime c. 1993–95 he was in Wheaton lecturing on revival and revivalism (just after the Wheaton “revival” of 1992–93) and there I heard him answer a question with the answer that he would rather have Finney and a revival than no revival at all.

      Please take a look at RRC where I interact with his work.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I must run in different circles because this is the first real criticism of the “Revivals and Revivalism” thesis that I’ve come across, and many of the commenters seem take the criticism as a foregone conclusion. Again, thank you for your response.

  6. Robert,
    Murray wants to distinguish between acceptable and non acceptable experiences in revivalism. It seems to me that the whole idea of looking to subjective experience is wrong. Even a strong conviction of sin and contrition can be misleading if it is accepted as proof that I am saved. It is not our contrition or repentance that saves, but only the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It becomes ours when we rest our trust in it, based on the objective promises of God’s Word. Revivalism and Pietism, in looking to subjective experience, is trusting in my feelings or what I did.

    • Thanks Angela,
      I think I am beginning to understand where everyone is coming from. It seems to me that the critique of Revival(ism) in the First Great Awakenings (shall we say) has to do less with the widespread conviction of sin and true conversions, and more with the Pietistic tendencies of the Puritans to seek assurance of salvation (or election) through self-examination rather than in the finished work of Christ?

  7. Robert,
    I’m not sure what you mean when you suggest that the Puritans were preoccupied with self-examination rather than looking to the finished work of Christ. There is great diversity among the Puritans. Edwards is one who is considered to be a Puritan who promoted Revivalism and Pietism, however it is my understanding that for most of the Puritans it is the objective promises of God’s Word that is the basis of their assurance. The Westminster documents are Puritan. Puritans wrote it to provide a precise summary of the doctrines contained in the bible. It is very much concerned with stating how the theology, piety and practice of the Church are to be based on objective promises and precepts found in the bible, rather than Pietism. Pietism was severely criticized by Luther and Calvin and the vast majority of the Reformers. Pietism is a movement that traces back to mysticism and enthusiasm, which looks to an immediate, unmediated encounter with God. The Reformed confessions, including the Westminster documents insist that we are to know God only as He reveals Himself through the medium of His Word and sacraments. Pietism is at odds with the Reformed view because it looks away from the means of the Word and sacraments to subjective feelings and experiences.

  8. As I continue to think about this issue, it becomes clear to me that it really is about the article of the standing or falling of the church. I was quite shocked to find a quote from Philipp Jackob Spen(c)er, in his book, Pious Desires, “No one will be justified other than those intent on sanctification.” You can find this in an excellent lecture on Lutheran Pietism by Dr. Ryan Reeves, available on youtube. Spener might be considered a founder of Pietism, as Dr. Reeves notes. In his book, Spener says that the Lutheran confessions are insufficient for Christian
    life, that the preaching of law and gospel is problematic, and that there must be something that generates pious desires. Spener moves from justification through faith alone to justification through faith AND emotions\piety. As Spener writes, “no one will be justified other than those intent on justification.” Spener makes sanctification part of the ground of justification. By mixing justification and sanctification you return to a type of the mediaeval, Roman Catholic moralism. Spener is arguing that you have to be emotionally sanctified. If you are not, you need to doubt your justification.

  9. It seems that Pietism had already become an issue in the New England churches of Edwards’ day. In order to become a member, you had to be able to demonstrate that you had a dramatic conversion experience in order to be considered a true Christian. This made emotional sanctification necessary for justification! People were desperate for that qualification and Revivalism provided it. Tragically they were now looking to themselves, rather than to Christ alone for assurance of salvation. This would seem to be perpetuated in the “born again”experience of modern Evangelicalism, and the “baptism of Spirit” in the Charismatic movement. The objective promises of the bible, as spelled out in the confessions had given way to subjective, dramatic emotional experience as a requirement for assurance of salvation. The Sola’s as defined in the Reformed confessions were abandoned. A good part of the reasoning in setting out the confessions had been to avoid such tragic false teaching. That is why we need to retain and return to the confessions.

    • Thanks Angela,

      This is finally a thesis I can understand and interact with. Up until now, I was confused because I thought the people in the First Great Awakening, such as Edwards, were not seeking an experience, but quite on the contrary were trying to explain experiences they were not expecting (Edward’s Treatise on Religions Affections). But you have explained how the expectation of a dramatic conversion experience could have led to a desire for such experiences. Thank you for your time in responding.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    This is a little off topic from the rest of the comments posted, but I was wondering, in regards to Pietism and Revivalism, would you consider a Calvinist Anglican like JC Ryle to fall under this category? I have found much of his writings helpful, even in doctrinal issues, but I do come across some weird applications where it becomes more “experimental” in nature. Examples would be some of his writings in “Holiness” and “Practical Religion.” Would you recommend his writings, and in which sense? And would you consider much of what Banner of Truth publishes to fall under the QIRE?

    • D,
      I have not read everything J. C. Ryle has written, but he is one of my favorite authors. His sermon, Are You Born Again? is, at least in my opinion, squarely in line with Reformed teaching because the answers he gives are based entirely on Scripture texts. You can listen to it read on YouTube. As far as I understand Ryle, his teaching on piety and holiness is as a response of gratitude for God’s gift of salvation, not to somehow qualify us for it. If someone sees a problem with Ryle on justification, I would be very interested to know exactly why.

    • D,

      I do not equate “experiential” with “revivalist.” Ryle was a fairly traditional Reformed theologian and pastor. There is a difference between cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, Christian virtues, and Edwardsean “affections.” The latter developed in a very different setting and created a different culture than that in which the earlier Reformed existed. Ryle reads like the older Reformed writers.

      I’m grateful for the work of the Banner. They have helped us reconnect to the English Reformed writers. That movement was diverse thus I have encouraged people not to talk about “the Puritans” as if they were all one thing. Some of the English Reformed were orthodox, confessional (e.g., Perkins and Ames) and others were heterodox and did great damage (e.g., Richard Baxter). We should always measure what we read against God’s Word as confessed by the churches. Were there QIRE-ish writers in the 17th-century, surely but we have always had them.

    • Thank you Dr. Clark and Angela,

      This was very helpful. I’ve enjoyed your posts and they have been edifying.

    • Sorry, I actually, I had one more question. Some link William Ames to being a predecessor to Johnathan Edwards and his piety. In what sense is that so? Is there a minor common ground between the two theologically, or is it just in regards to Congregationalist sentiments?

      Thanks again!

    • Well, both were congregational but Edwards’ thinking underwent significant change (under the influence of Cambridge Platonism) for which some scholars do not sufficiently account. Both had an experiential bent and both had formally similar definitions of theology but Ames was not a pantheist nor was he at all vague (let alone heterodox on justification). The same cannot be said for Edwards, who theology and legacy remains problematic. Take a look at Recovering the Reformed Confession too see the secondary lit.

    • I was actually just reading my copy. Thanks for all that you’re doing on this site. It has been a helpful tool.


  11. Perhaps one should make it clear that that a criticism of Pietism is not a criticism of holiness or piety. Reformed teaching is that we are justified by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, and the objective promises of God’s Word alone, not subjective, emotional experience, are the rock solid underpinning of our confidence when we rest our trust in them. If we are justified, we will be sanctified because we have been brought to faith by the indwelling Holy Spirit who is gradually conforming us to the image of Christ. The fruit and evidence that this is true of us will be striving to obey God’s law as way of demonstrating gratitude and love to God and love to neighbor. We exercise piety and holiness BECAUSE we are already justified. Pietism wants to make our holiness and piety a condition of justification!


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