Review: The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and WhitfieldJoseph Tracy. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019 (first published 1842).

Summary: A reprint of the first comprehensive history of the English and colonial revivals of the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, focusing in New England and upon the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In New England in the 1730’s, if one had been baptized in infancy into the church, had given assent to its doctrines and led a life without scandalous behavior, this was sufficient to receive communion, even if one could not give an account of God’s saving work, or “regeneration” in one’s life. Regeneration is the idea of passing from being dead in one’s sins to spiritually alive in Christ through a gracious work of God’s Spirit. One passes from deep concern and dread concerning one’s state to great consolation as one knows one’s sins forgiven through Christ and that one is now alive in Christ and able under God’s grace of living a life pleasing to God.

Due to this state of affairs, men even entered the ministry without such an experience of the grace of God. It was sometimes the case that in an affluent household of several sons, one of these took a church position, in part to relieve stretched family finances. As Jonathan Edwards, and others began to address this issue of the “unconverted” within the church, a great revival broke out. It began with many being greatly troubled about the state of their souls. Edwards urged people to trust not in their good acts but to resign themselves to God, hoping in the work of Christ to be accepted by God. There were no “anxious benches” or altar calls of the later revivals. The belief was that God would come in God’s time to whom God would, to save, and God did. Many reported experiencing great comfort and consolation in God’s grace, and there was a new liveliness of holy living and service in the lives of many of these.

Joseph Tracy was a Congregational minister who lived from 1798 to 1874. This work by Tracy represents the first comprehensive history of the Great Awakening, particularly focusing on the events of 1740-42, when this awakening was at its peak. What he does is feature the two major figures of the revival, Edwards and Whitefield, and reports of revivals in various parts of the American colonies (with one chapter on Whitefield in England). This is a valuable historical document because Tracy cites many primary source reports written at, or shortly after the time of the Revival. many of these accounts repeat occurrences along the pattern of great concern, an experience of consoling grace, and transformation of behavior following.

The reports also recount the controversies that arise which include the following:

  • Excesses of emotion, faintings, other bodily manifestations. Quickly, wise leaders like Edwards grasped that these are not definitive signs of awakening grace, which is most evident in the amended life of converts. They are neither necessary nor conclusive of conversion, and may be either genuine adjuncts or spurious in nature.
  • Declarations that ministers were “unconverted.” While there were unconverted ministers, and a legitimate concern for the state of their souls, some revivalists made sweeping, summary and public statements about the unconverted character of particular ministers which often did not go down well.
  • Itineracy. A number followed the example of Whitefield in going from town to town preaching rather than confining their ministry to a particular place. This was not a problem when a minister longing for the benefit of his people invited a guest to preach, but this courtesy was not always observed, and open-air preaching circumvented the need for such invitations, but amount to “sheep stealing” in the eyes of local ministers.
  • Exhorters. These were unordained enthusiasts who arose particularly out of the concern that existing ministers were unconverted.
  • Excesses or errors on the part of revivalists. This was most noteworthy in the case of Rev. James Davenport, who made wholesale judgments against ministers, acted more by “impulses” of the Spirit that scriptural warrant, and gathered numerous informal assemblies in homes and public places.

Tracy recounts all of this through reports, public statements of individuals and church bodies, and other documents of the time. Some of this can be heavy going if one is reading straight through but it is a trove of insight second only to Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections on the nature of spiritual awakenings, and the controversies, excesses and errors that may arise amid a genuine work of God.

He also shows the efforts of some, no doubt looking at the excesses and errors, and perhaps stinging from questions about their own spiritual state, to thwart the efforts of the preachers of the Awakening. We see the maturation of a Whitefield, who is able to acknowledge errors while not relenting in what he sees to be a God-given ministry, or Edwards, whose careful reflection and pastoral leadership addresses problems, and then offers a record of abiding value.

If you bog down amid the various accounts, don’t turn from this book without reading the final chapter on “The Results.” Tracy believed that as many as 50,000 were converted, and that the transformation of so many substantively affected the character of the colonies at the time of the War for Independence. It led to a renewed concern for the spiritual qualifications of the minister, fostered mission efforts, laid a basis for religious liberties, and led to the establishment of Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.

I hear a renewed hunger for revival and awakening in many circles. The value of a book like this is to give theological substance, as well as practical warnings, that may prove useful should God be so gracious as to grant this work in his churches in our day. This history also warns us of the temptations of pride and censoriousness for preachers in the center of such movements, most evident in the ministry of Davenport. Banner of Truth Trust is to be applauded in bringing this classic work of history of the Awakening of 1740 to a new generation, who hopefully will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

The Month in Reviews: April 2016

The Warmth of Other Sons

My reading this month ranged from rain to a runaway girl by the name of Rifqa (how is that for alliteration!). I reviewed Isabel Wilkerson’s account of the unheralded immigration of Blacks from the south to the north and west in the twentieth century, and a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. There was the usual collection of more “theological” works, including one on the theology of Jonathan Edwards, future directions in biblical interpretation, a biblical theology of that unusual book in scripture, Daniel. I began the month with several shorter but thoughtful books on the paradoxical relationship of strength and weakness, different ways of fasting over forty days, and a book on the psychological motivations of religious striving. Finally, I revisited one of my old favorites by C. S. Lewis. So here are my review summaries with links in the title to the publisher’s website, and at the end to my full review.

strong and weakStrong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together. Review.

40 Days of Decrease40 Days of Decrease, Alicia Britt Chole. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. A collection of 40 readings, reflections, and different kinds of fasts that encourage us to “thin our lives to thicken our communion with God.” Review.

16 Strivings for God16 Strivings for God, Steven Reiss. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015. A new psychology of religious experience that argues that religions enjoy such a wide embrace because they offer repeated opportunities to satisfy sixteen basic motivations or “strivings” common to all human beings. Review.

future of biblical interpretationThe Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics. Review.

The Warmth of Other SonsThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families. Review.

With the Clouds of HeavenWith the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review.

DruckerThe Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do GoodPeter F. Drucker. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016 (forthcoming, expected publication date June 14, 2016). The two novels of management guru Peter Drucker, the first of which is an interlocking tale of the lives of bankers and aristocracy in pre-World War I Europe as they face an impending meeting, the second a tale of an act of kindness by a Catholic college president that goes horribly wrong. Review.

screwtape lettersThe Screwtape LettersC. S. Lewis.  New York: Macmillan, 1962 (Link is to current edition). The classic collection of letters between a senior demon and junior tempter charged with undermining the new found faith of his “patient.” Review.

Jonathan Edwards Among the TheologiansJonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015. By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work. Review.

RainRain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. An exploration of this elemental reality on which our lives depend, how we have tried to control it, produce it, predict it, protect ourselves from it and how it has shaped our lives and how we are shaping future rainfall. Review.

Hiding in the LightHiding in the Light, Rifqa Bary. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2015. A memoir of Bary’s turning from Islam to Christianity during her teens, her flight from her family when she feared for her life, and her subsequent struggles to prevent the courts from forcibly returning her to her family. Review.

Best of the Month: I’ll give the nod to The Warmth of Other Suns for this eloquent chronicle of the largely untold story of the migration of Blacks from south to north and west in response to Jim Crow racism and how it changed both the migrants and their destination cities. It helped me understand in new light the dynamics of race that became a growing issue in my and many northern cities during the years I was growing up.

Quote of the Month: I can’t resist some C.S. Lewis here from The Screwtape Letters:

“He is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or onlylike foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at his right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least–sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side” (pp. 101-102).

Reviewing Soon: One of the classics I’ve never read and am currently enjoying is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, another migration tale of farmers escaping the 1930’s dust bowl for dreams of a better life in California. I’m reading an intriguing book on how our physiology enables us to connect with God and serve others titled What Your Body Knows About God. In this political season there are a couple political books: Randall Balmer’s Faith in the White House on faith and politics from the Kennedy through Bush II presidencies, and Ask the Questions on why religious clarity is important to ask of our political candidates. And along the lines of recent reading, I will be reading Jose’ Orduna’s The Weight of Shadows on immigration and displacement, and Benjamin Watson’s Under Our Skin on addressing our racial divides.

The Month in Reviews is a great way to see all the books reviewed at Bob on Books. Just click on “The Month in Reviews” on the menu to access review summaries going back to February 2014.

 

 

 

Review: Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians

 

Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians

Jonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.

Summary: By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work.

It has been more and more common to read statements about Jonathan Edwards describing him as America’s greatest thinker or at least greatest theologian. In some ways, it is quite gratifying to see him recognized for something more than an excerpt from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which should be read in its entirety, at very least.

This book helps make the case for his greatness as a thinker. Sometimes, he might simply be considered as one of those “Reformed guys.” Oliver Crisp explores how Edwards was not simply a confessional theologian but rather one who brought this theological heritage in conversation with the philosophy of his day. Crisp does this by bringing Edwards into dialogue with other theologians around particular theological foci: with Anselm on the doctrine of God, with Arminius on Creation, Girardeau on Free Will, and Bellamy on the Atonement.

For example, Edwards was far less cautious than Anselm on the question of what may be known about the nature of God by reason. His Trinitarian doctrine presses the distinctiveness of the persons to a degree that is in tension with his views of the simplicity or non-composite nature of God. In the case of Arminius on creation, Arminius is show to be orthodox, with the allowance for “middle knowledge,” while Edwards preserves the sovereignty of God through a view of creation that is “moment by moment” where reality is a serial collection of God’s creative acts, which opens Edwards to the charge that he is a panentheist (the cosmos exists within God who is greater than creation).

In the comparison of Edwards and Girardeau, Crisp argues that Edwards opposition to libertarian views presses moral responsibility totally onto God, going further than the Reformers. Edwards endorsed Bellamy, even though Bellamy supported the idea of unlimited atonement, that Christ died for all, not simply the elect. Crisp believes that Edwards may have this as innovating within the Reformed tradition.

The concluding chapter of the book returns to the tension between Edwards avowed commitment to the simplicity of God and the implications of his occasionalist view of creation that implies at least a panentheism or even verges at times on pantheism, plainly outside the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. Unless you were to dispense with the occasionalism, the alternative might be a slightly less simple view of God, allowing for a succession of God’s thoughts within the unchanging and undivided essence of God.

What Crisp points up is how Edwards in his theological writing engages in constructive theology in conversation with the philosophical currents of the day. He might at points be one of the most “unorthodox” of those within the Reformed camp, coming up with his own formulations of the doctrines of creation and articulations of the relations of the persons of the Trinity. And because of this he is a model both of the task, and perhaps the challenges of this kind of theological engagement.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith

Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith
Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delighting in the Trinity was indeed a delight to read! I’ve read several books on this truly delightful aspect of Christian belief that were turgid tomes that seemed to confirm the suspicions many have that doctrine is the dry, dusty stuff of human invention.

For Michael Reeves, the Trinity is a joyous essential of Christian belief. He observes how in fact the contention that “God is love” makes no sense of God is a unitary, singular being. He shows how in fact the good and beautiful relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit overflow into a good and beautiful creation. And when we used our freedom to love God to rebel, the Triune God worked to restore us with Father and Son acting as one to make atonement for us. Likewise, the Spirit of God brings us into the intimacy of relationship by not only making sense to us of the deep things of the Trinity but through actually residing in us and drawing us into the life of the Trinity.

Reeves contends that the problem in fact with God that so many atheists and “anti-theists” have is with a monotheistic conception of a God far removed from his creatures and creation, that is puritanically holy but with no real connection with his creatures. The Trinity gives the lie to this idea. He even argues that even the wrath of God is in fact the love of God fighting for his good intentions in the face of evil–or as Jonathan Edwards would say, his “strange work”.

This is a short work (130 pages) but one written with great clarity and warmth turning what is often thought dry and dusty and obscure into joyful truth that nurtures our love and intimacy with the Triune God.

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