There are once again calls for revival and restoration among the various sects of the church. In their zeal they forget that in repeating the history that gave us their sectarianism, we are better off without them.
Jonathan David Faulkner
In my Thesis on the concept of Catholicity within the Mercersburg Theology I addressed the debate between John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff with Charles Hodge over the nature of the Church and included an entire chapter on the agreement between the three in regard to revivalism. At the time The Rev. Charles Finney was active in New England and by the end of Nevin’s life the famous D.L. Moody was beginning to gain prominence as a revivalist. They feared what Billy Graham eventually told us plainly, that Christianity would become: “A mile wide and an inch deep.” The Second Great Awakening was and the debate over it, was a debate, at its core, about the nature of the church and what was needed to keep it healthy. For the revivalist crowd it was a matter of reaching as many as possible for the Gospel. It is for good reason that many of the revivalists are known for their “hellfire and damnation” sermons. Meanwhile, Hodge, Nevin and Schaff were members of what was called the “old school” who believed in the nurturing methods of catechetical instruction through, for Hodge, the Westminster Greater and for Nevin and Schaff, the Heidelberg. Finney who once claimed in his lectures “On Revivals” which first appeared in The New York Evangelist in the 1840’s that revival were led by the Holy Spirit eventually himself conceded that revivals happened “primarily in the springtime.” The “New Measures” put forward by the New School like Finney and later Moody were particularly troubling to Nevin. Especially what was known as “The Anxious Bench” which was either a bench brought forward before the alter by the evangelist or a special pew reserved for members wanting special preaching. Nevin, in his work by the same title says of revivalism in his preface to the second edition: “Popery started, in the beginning, under forms apparently the most innocent and safe. What might seem to be for instance, more rational and becoming than the sign of the cross as used by Christians on all occasions in the early Church? and yet, when the corruption of Rome were thrown off by the protestant world in the sixteenth century, this and other similar forms were required to pass away with the general mass.” Revivalism, in Nevin’s mind, started out innocently enough but had now become consumed by excess. Charles Chauncy would prove prophetic, even if he was mostly wrong in his judgment of Edwards and Whitefield in the First Awakening.
Still, as insidious as Revivalism, with its pure emotionalism and forced moralism rather than actual conversion to Christianity, no one could have conceived of the extremely dangerous, deadly and gracelessness of 20th century Restorationism and its later counterpart Reconstructionism. It is from this movement we get the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and other denominations that are today known for their ultra-fundamentalism and abuses. Were Nevin and Schaff alive in the twentieth century it may not have been modernism that was the enemy of faith, but the sectarian impulse of restorationism. Unlike Revivalism, which stayed within the realms of pietistic moralism, these groups considered themselves the only true church on earth. You all know the joke about the man who comes to heaven and Peter takes him around and shows him the Presbyterian Room where everyone is standing frozen and singing hymns, the Pentecostal room where everyone is shouting and singing and then he takes him to the Baptist room and tells him to be quiet because the Baptists still think they are the only ones there. That is the best explanation of the restorationist churches even to this day. They assume they are the only real church. Reconstructionism went another step further, being birthed by a group that did not think Bob Jones University was far enough to the right. It is from this movement you get things like “Purity culture” in the extreme and the “Quiver Full Movement” both of which have less legalistic evangelical iterations that still depend on the dead letter, not on the living Word. One modern example of this sort of legalistic movement would be the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) which includes people like Mike Bickle (IHOP) and Bill Johnson (Bethel). The legalism and thought control techniques used in restorationism and reconstructionism (ultra-fundamentalism) qualify them as cults, as do the same techniques present in the NAR.
I suppose this is the outcome of the “common-sense” religion that Hodge loved so much and which Nevin and Schaff called him on in their debates. The irony is that both the revivalist and Princeton applied the common-sense ideas to their belief systems. Similarly, the modernists and the fundamentalists were both using the same underlying interpretive tools. While Nevin himself was raised and trained in this system by the time He and Schaff began their time together at Mercersburg he had been heavily influenced by the German School of Neander and Schaff who traced their theological roots back to Kant and Hegel and the Romantic School of Idealism. He becomes, to use D.G Hart and David W. Laymen’s phrase, a: “High Church Calvinist.” Influenced by the sacramentology of the High Church Prussian movement whose instigators had been Hodge’s companions in Germany in 1826-27 and whom Archibald Alexander had warned him against. The Mercersburg Theologians led the charge against desacramentalizing of the faith and the rampant sectarianism that had existed in some form since the debate between Luther and Zwingli at the time of the reformation and which would be the basis for both Restorationism and the NAR in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Thus, within Mercersburg we have a robust sacramentology based in the incarnation of Christ and an equally robust definition of the Church that is also rooted in the Incarnation of Christ. Both give us the theological means, rooted in totality in scripture, to correct the many errors and heresies that sectarianism and desacramentalization have allowed. Since “Christ is exhibited as the end of all separation and strife to them that believe” everything in the Christian Life and tradition answers to, exists within and is sanctified by Christ. There could not be an outward forcing of the inward change as revivalism demanded. Upon closer inspection it seems that it was the revivalist that saved you, not Jesus, and if that was the case, you were not saved. That is why my neck bristles when I hear someone say that many were saved by Billy Graham (yes, I have heard this exact phrasing). Christ does the saving; Graham was just the vessel. Jesus does the transforming, The Navigators (invited by Graham to do follow-up) walked alongside as people discipled themselves to Christ. We “Make Disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18) by leading people to be Discipled by Christ. The great failure of revivalism is that it may have made converts, but it did not make disciples. Restorationism and Reconstructionism created pharisees and Sadducees in the biblical definition of both offices. Both made Christianity about the personal piety of the individual not the Holiness of God, no matter how much they made claims to the contrary.
Nevin refers to sectarianism as “Anti-Christ” because it divides Christ while coming in the name of Christ and claiming to be Christ. It looks good, especially if someone is claiming they are the only true representative of the faith. It makes one feel good to claim that are part of the only true expression of Christianity. But if that Christianity is rooted in anything other than Christ, be it emotionalism, personal piety, personal preference, moralism or whatever else we make it about. If Christ is not in, though, above, underneath and around it in word and deed, it is not Christianity and its leaders are, in Nevin’s interpretation, Anti-Christ. As Nevin writes in his sermon at the Triennial Convention the Reformed Dutch and German Reformed Churches in America in 1844 (As a newly arrived Schaff sat in the gallery): “The Church is one and universal. Her Unity is essential to her existence.” Sect, Schism and Segregation violate this essential quality of the church and are thus unacceptable for God’s Holy people. Interesting that Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians 1-3 (“Is Christ divided?” would become the model for which we would carry out the life of the church in America.
It is this history that makes me nervous when someone says to me “We need a revival” or “we do not need reformation, we need restoration.” The inevitable question is: “Revival of what? Restoration to what?” and the resulting conversation usually has something to do with that person’s own individual interpretation of scripture devoid of any understanding of Church History. These two phrases may as well be code for “We need another sect, one claiming to be the truest form of Christianity.” To which I must strictly and forcibly reply “No!” If the solution is something man-made or man forced, what revivalism became and what restorationism was birthed out of, then we will never see either.
Reformation, on the other hand, is another matter altogether. Now, before I go on let me clarify something. Some of you reading this will accuse me of the same charge I have made against revivalism and restorationism above. I think the difference between revivalism/restorationism and reformation, however, are two-fold. 1. Reformation seems to be organic, the three times it has happened in Church History (almost every 500 years exactly) have not come from man imposing his own ideology but from the scriptures opposing the ideology of man. Martin Luther would not have sought reformation in the Roman Catholic Church had he not read Romans and his fundamental assertions challenged. Had Pope Leo listened to him, we would not have had a split and we would still be Roman today. He was also moved out of pastoral concern for the people he saw starving for gospel truths that the RC had abandoned in favor of the penitential system. Reformation for Luther was the natural result of the work of the Holy Spirit working through Scripture, not him forcing his own ideas upon man. So, Reformation is organic and 2. Scriptures show us a pattern of laxity and reformation even within the early Christian Congregations. Paul’s concern in writing 1st Timothy was not that we in the 21st century would have a tool for setting up the church, but a way to reform the church when heresy and schism had become the norm. The same is true about 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Galatians. We were meant to be formed and reformed by the Holy Spirit. We should all be experiencing mini reformations within our own bodies of believers as we examine the scriptures. Since we are never perfect, we should always be reforming in some manner. Every generation may, at some point, need to reform in their understanding of something in scripture. This type of body reformation is meant to draw us back to the truth of scripture and to the traditions of our spiritual ancestors. The Scriptures as the authority and the tradition as the Holy Spirit incarnated activity that are meant to reform us. Every time we take communion, we should be asking God to be reformed in His image for the sake of our neighbors. Since we are by nature a fickle and ignoble people who like to go their own way and try to have God bless our sins. Sanctification then, is nothing more than a process of reformation or as Titus 3:5 puts it “Renewal of the Holy Spirit.” We cease to be what we were and become a new creation where the sinful old-man should no longer be recognizable because we have sought to daily put him to death.
So I do not think we are on the verge of a revival, I also do not think we will see restoration, however, it does seem we are at the beginnings of another whole sale reformation of God’s people, at least in the west, as sectarianism, schism and segregation become increasingly unsustainable and we start to recognize them as sinful we are coming back to the scriptures and being reformed a new by them. The future of Christianity in the west looks more like the Christianity of the early church and not the Christianity of 1517. Luther and Calvin, for all the good they did, retained the Augustinian and Gnostic construction of the church as “Visible and Invisible” with the visible being corrupt and the invisible being perfect. This is the justification Hodge used for what he called the “necessity” of sectarianism. Yet we are finding this to be fraudulent in its application and Jesus and Paul would both reject it. The Church then is one because of the spirit and consists of those who have the incarnate spirit of God whom Christ promised and who draws us up into Christ. If this is true, and as I read the Church Father’s I find this logic present and accounted for as much as I find it in Christ in Scripture, then I am connected with my reformed brothers and sisters on the south end of town as much as I am with the Lutheran’s five blocks away. It also means that those distinctions are not necessary and are in fact a hinderance to the Gospel because Christ is presented as divided and not united. It also means that the church is not an institution undergoing reform, but an organism undergoing reformation. We have more in common with a caterpillar in its cocoon dissolving into goo and reforming into a butterfly, than we do with shuffling around a few people and changed the names of their positions. In a sense, what we are experiencing now is a restoration of such, but it is restoration of unity by reformation and it is being driven not by the whims of man but by the Spirits concern for the Unity of God’s people. The rise of secularism and the increasing marginalization of the church in the west (a process complete in Europe and the Coasts of the United States) means we no longer have these luxuries and the only avenue we have is to come back to Holy Scripture and take our place among the church catholic. This is the beyond mere ecumenicism I wrote on last year. It is, or should be, spirit bonded unity that cannot be forced or mimicked.
Philip Schaff understood the reformation not as a sectarian effort but as a “coming of age” of Christianity, our movement from childhood to adolescence and towards maturity. He believed that the end result of sectarianism was to die away or rejoin the main body and by the trends he appears to be correct. Increasing pressure on the Church has forced us to lay down the weapons we used in the culture war and embrace the love of enemies and prayers for our persecutors that is so central to Jesus ethic in the Sermon on the Mount. As the political influence of the church wanes we enter a time when our cultural influence can start to grow again. As we care for those who the culture rejects and tears down, as we make sure that everyone has what they need while we preach the resurrection (see Act 4:32-37). We will have to also embrace that which our ancient siblings embraced. Orthodoxy for Orthodoxy’s sake and orthopraxy for orthopraxy’s sake. Not because they are beautiful, but because they are commanded by God. That includes the essential unity of the church, its oneness that comes because it is eternally fused, wedded and caught up within Christ. The future of the church is not as institution but as organism as we engage in the activity of reformation by scripture and church history which answers to and is judged by those scriptures. As we walk by faith and not by common-sense sight. Eating and drinking the body of blood of Christ in their mystical form within the elements of bread and wine (or grape juice). This is how it was meant to be, reforming and reforming until Christ returns. May we embrace the Spirits call to reformation and renewal by sanctification.
Solo Dei Gloria.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.