Pentecostal Outpourings…the Reformed Way

pentecostal_outpourings_cover_courtesy_publisher_croppedSmart, Robert Davis, Michael A. G. Haykin, and Ian High Clary, editors. Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016. Paperback, 260 + xii pages. ISBN 978-1-6018-433-9.

This is an excellent and edifying book. An effective combination of sound research, sustained scholarly reflection, solid Reformed theology, and strong pastoral focus on an all-of-life Christian piety that goes far beyond assent to correct doctrines, Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition merits high recommendation, deserves a broad readership, and is difficult to criticize. It could perhaps be improved by the addition of subject and Scripture indexes, since it lacks these standard supplements. Beyond that, though, there’s nothing in the book I would complain about or wish to change.

Since I cannot criticize, I’ll just just give you an ideas of the contents and look at a couple highlights.

The first and final pieces of writing in the book make clear that doctrinally sound studies of revival, such as one finds in Pentecostal Outpourings, are greatly needed in the church. It follows from this that believers making up that church are well justified giving their time and attention to this book. The Foreword, by Steven J. Lawson, of OnePassion and Ligonier Ministries, and The Master’s Seminary, well fulfills the usual function of a foreword, giving readers good reason to read the rest of the book. Revival, relates Lawson, is a “powerful work of the Holy Spirit” effecting “new awareness of the holiness of God” and bringing about “the conviction of sin” and “heartrending repentance”; or, as he says a bit later, it is “a season of vibrant renewal that comes to the church during a time of spiritual declension” (vii). No observer of contemporary Christianity should doubt that “a time of spiritual declension” is upon us. Nor, given this, should any doubt that revival is greatly needed. All should grant, then, that scholarly works on past revivals, specifically revivals that have not compromised Reformed doctrine, merit Reformed believers’ review and reflection.

As no observer of Christianity should doubt the present need for revival, so no such observer should fail to lament that doctrinally sound Reformed people—in response to revivalism-inspired excesses of Pentecostals, charismatics, and a dominantly-Arminian evangelical mainstream—have abandoned much of the revival-friendly language and behavior (such as praying for revival) that their equally sound forebears embraced and promoted. This is a reality specially emphasized at the end of the book, in editor Robert Davis Smart’s “A Concluding Word—A Call to Seek God for Revival Today.” (Smart is a pastor in Bloomington, Illinois). In combination, these first and final items make clear that Pentecostal Outpourings is not a collection of safe-to-ignore, practically irrelevant scholarly speculations on historical minutiae, but is instead a highly practical mining of church history for instructive evidence of God’s sovereign work of revival among his people. (The Introduction, also by Smart, in addition to the expected introductory overview of what is to come, adds to one’s sense of book’s importance and to one’s motivation to continue reading.)

As a collection of works by various authors, Pentecostal Outpourings varies in style and specific interest from one chapter to the next. Still, certain themes recur throughout. Rather than attempt a chapter-by-chapter summary, I’ll focus on two of these.

First, though, a listing of the book’s contents. The book has two parts: Part 1, “Revival in the British Isles,” comprises chapters 1 through 4; Part 2, “Revival in America,” comprises chapters 5 through 8. The Part 1 chapters are these: Chapter 1, by contributor Eifion Evans, a retired Presbyterian minister who served in Wales and Northern Ireland, is titled “‘The Power of Heaven in the Word of Life’: Welsh Calvinistic Methodism and Revival”; Chapter 2, by editor Ian Hugh Clary, fellow of Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies (at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky) and lecturer at other institutions, is titled “‘Melting the Ice of a Long Winter’: Revival and Irish Dissent”; Chapter 3, by editor Michael A. G. Haykin, director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and professor at its host seminary, is titled “‘The Lord Is Doing Great Things, and Answering Prayer Everywhere’: The Revival of the Calvinistic Baptists in the Long Eighteenth Century”; and Chapter 4, by contributor Iain D. Campbell, of Point Free Church of Scotland (Isle of Lewis), is titled “Revival: A Scottish Presbyterian Perspective.” The Part 2 chapters are these: Chapter 5, by Smart, is titled “Edwards’s Revival Instinct and Apologetic in American Presbyterianism: Planted, Grown, and Faded”; Chapter 6, by contributor Peter Beck, of Charleston Southern University and Doorway Baptist Church (North Charleston, South Carolina), is titled “‘The Glorious Work of God’: Revival among Congregationalists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”; Chapter 7, by contributor Tom J. Nettles, retired from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is titled “Baptist Revivals in America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”; and Chapter 8, by contributor Joel R. Beeke, of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, Michigan) and Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation, is titled “Revival and the Dutch Reformed Church in Eighteenth-Century America.” After Smart’s conclusion, the book contains some basic information on the editors and contributors (259-60).

As can be seen from this listing, Pentecostal Outpourings makes a point of surveying revival history in each main branch of the Reformed faith in Britain and America, from Calvinistic Methodists (not to be confused with the Wesleys’ Arminian Methodists), to Presbyterians and Congregationalists, to Particular Baptists. One also can see from the chapter titles, and would expect given how many of the authors are affiliated with universities or seminaries, that these are not fluffy chapters good only for light devotional reading, but sound scholarly works of English and American church history. Given their subject matter, the chapters are also, it should be noted, a treasury of references to edifying and instructive works now in the public domain. (The Internet Archive is your friend.)

As noted, certain themes recur throughout Pentecostal Revivals. I’ll look at just a couple. One such theme is the need to embrace revival without losing doctrinal purity. Revival is a sovereign work of God, not (contrary to Charles Finney’s revivalism) something humans can engineer, and true revival neither requires nor is benefited by doctrinal compromise. Though this theme is prominent throughout the text, as it should be, the treatment of it that stands out most in my mind is Beck’s Chapter 6 discussion of a lesser-known Second Great Awakening preacher, Asahel Nettleton (182-92). If you’ve spent any time around Reformed people, of whatever denomination, you’ll know that, though they might see much good in the First Great Awakening, they don’t so often have good things to say about the Second. This was, after all, the revival brought to us by Charles Finney and his human-centered, free-will, emotion-manipulating revivalism. No, thank you! If that’s revival, we’ll have none of it.

Turns out, though, that there was some real revival, some God-driven, soundly Reformed, non-revivalist revival going on at the same time. Beck characterizes the reason for contemporary ignorance of Nettleton’s Finney-opposing revival ministry this way: “Unfortunately, most historians limit his role in the Second Great Awakening to his opposition to the more famous revivalist of his day, Charles Finney….Such selective memory overlooks that Nettleton’s contemporaries admired him for the power of his preaching ministry and his mind” (183). Later, discussing their differing treatments of the doctrine of human sinfulness and original sin, Beck characterizes the contrast between Nettleton and now-better-known Second Great Awakening figures as follows: “While Nathaniel Taylor…and Charles Finney watered down this key tenet of the Reformed faith, Nettleton remained firmly convinced of its veracity and the crucial role it plays in one’s theology of revival and man’s response to it” (187). As in the First Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards had insisted on doctrinal purity and offered principles for distinguishing between the true and false in alleged movements of God’s Spirit (principles drawn upon throughout Pentecostal Outpourings), so Nettleton insisted on doctrinal purity and distinction of true from false in the Second Great Awakening. And the evidence is that this paid off: Beck relates that the work God performed through Nettleton’s ministry “produced…lasting results” (191), whereas the work Finney performed got mixed results of short duration (191).

Another prominent theme is the central role of prayer in bringing about revival. Though revival, as is emphasized throughout Pentecostal Outpourings, is a sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit, God seems to have ordained that this work should be effected through the prayers of his people, much as he has ordained that his people’s sharing of the gospel should be his means of effecting conversion. Haykin’s Chapter 3 treatment of revival among English Calvinistic Baptists might take on this theme most directly. (It also does a good job discussing “the theological position known as High Calvinism, sometimes called hyper-Calvinism” [68], siding with those who opposed and corrected this error without maligning those who, attempting to best honor God’s absolute sovereignty, adopted it.) Discussing a 1784 call to pray for revival proposed by John Sutcliff (91), Haykin notes that the biblical justification offered by those issuing the call was Ezekiel 36:37, then offers this observation: “At first glance this passage from Ezekiel hardly seems the best text to support the prayer call. Yet…it reflects a biblical principle: when God intends to do a great work He stirs up His people to pray for the thing He intends to do. Preceding times of revival and striking extensions of Christ’s kingdom, the concerted and constant prayers of Christians invariably occur” (93).

Obviously, my basic listing of contents and brief look at examples of two prominent and recurrent themes cannot do justice to the richness of Pentecostal Outpourings. But it should help you decide if you care to read the book yourself. (In case it matters, I’ll note in passing that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

For my part, I found this book very worthwhile reading. I have to admit, I’ve always identified most with the more grim biblical characters, such as the mournful Jeremiah destined to prophesy bad news, or the bravely fatalistic Thomas (John 11:16) who just couldn’t believe good news when he heard it (John 20:24-5). Surveying the current state of Christianity in America, and I don’t mean just the decisions I see Christians making this election year, I tend to think that God has decided to withdraw his influence and protection from the American nation and its professing Christians, that if spiritual awakening and the advance of God’s church are going to happen, they’ll happen elsewhere (in Africa or China, perhaps). But Pentecostal Outpourings gives me hope, since, as one discovers in this excellent survey of past revivals, significant spiritual decline typically does precede God-wrought revivals. We have the decline. Will revival follow?

Speaking on behalf of all the volume’s editors and contributors, and on behalf of supportive Reformed leaders more generally, Smart calls upon readers “to join us in seeking God for revival today” (256). This is a call we would do well to accept. And this is a book you would do well to read.

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