«Revivalism is not simply a matter to be studied as history. It is most assuredly alive and present with us in our own day. However, the historical ...»
The Anthropocentric Predisposition of Revivalism
J. Seth Wallace
Church History in America
Dr. Bob Crandall
Revivalism is not simply a matter to be studied as history. It is most assuredly
alive and present with us in our own day. However, the historical revivalistic roots of
modern evangelicalism are important to understand, for the minister as well as the
layperson. In fact, apart from the historical roots of revivalism, evangelicalism cannot be
properly understood. Additionally, in order for change to come about in America’s churches, tendencies that were carried over from this period must be abandoned. The dominant tendency, it will be argued, is the anthropocentric concentration of the revivalists and later entire denominations as opposed to a biblical theocentric focus that ought to define the Christian church.
Revivalism is defined by Merriam Webster as “the spirit or methods characteristic of religious revivals; and, a tendency or desire to revive or restore.”1 For this paper, the definition of revivalism in America will combine the aforementioned definition and the conclusion made by W. Glyn Evans that American revivalism has been particularly strong in regard to its preaching being “person-directed and person-compelled.” 2 It is my aim to contend that the thrust of revivalism was man-centered and thus a core characteristic of modern-day evangelicalism is anthropocentrism. This mancenteredness has been carried over into all denominations and can be found in church growth efforts, evangelism, spiritual growth teachings, and on any given Sunday in the pulpits of most churches. It removes God from his throne and rapes him of his sovereignty. It is prominent in Arminianism which promotes man’s will as well as in Dispensationalism which promotes individualism. Although most Christians would argue Merriam-Webster, I. (1996, c1993). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (10th ed.). Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.: Merriam-Webster.
W. Glyn Evans, “Jonathan Edwards – Puritan Paradox,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 124 (January 1967) : 58-59. Dallas Theological Seminary.
that they are God-centered in their thinking, the proof is in the pudding. Our capitalistic disposition that is instilled in us from infancy effects us as Christians. If we are to understand and combat our man-centeredness, we must understand, historically, how we got to where we are.
True revival begins with true believers first. To revive something assumes that it has once been alive. Therefore, revival begins with the repentance of the Church and then may or may not see a large harvest of souls. In America, however, the term revival has been redefined. It is used to describe not usually a repenting of the Church and a revitalization of the Body of Christ toward holiness, but rather an effort to evangelize lost people through preaching and possibly through other modes. “Revivals” are held annually at many churches throughout the country. These meetings are usually evangelistic in focus and are characterized by preaching, singing, invitations, and sometimes healing services. The problem arises quickly when pastors and churches can conduct such “revivals” while sin is never dealt with among believers. An example of this is the number of revivalistic periods that occurred and found success in the South during slavery and racism. Even recently, years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Reinhold Niebuhr urged Billy Graham to preach more about racism in a country where revivalism prospered in the midst of this great sin that was as prevalent among the “born again” as those who were not.3 When the focus is on man, how he can be saved, how he can get help from God, and such, sin does not truly have to be confronted.
Robert A. Pyne, “The New Man and Immoral Society,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 154 (July 1997) : 273. Dallas Theological Seminary.
Charles Grandison Finney was a significant figure in America’s revivalism. Born in 1792, he has been called “the father of modern revivalism.”4 He developed a theology of revivalism to defend his methods, many of which were criticized. Finney did not believe men were depraved, but rather had the capacity to sin. Men did not have a “sin nature” but rather were only sinners when they sinned. For one to be saved, therefore, he must cease making decisions to please himself and start making decisions to glorify God. It is the individual who must change his own will.5 Donald Wiseman comments on Finney by quoting B.B. Warfield who said, “It is clear that what Finney gives us is less a theology than a rationalistic system of morality.” 6 This rationalistic system of morality is clear today among those who are more interested in issues of morality than they are in a broken and contrite heart. Churches that forbid beer tolerate and in some cases promote racism. Churches that restrict women from wearing makeup tolerate pornography. I personally served in one church alongside a senior pastor who had me commit to not drinking any alcohol before he hired me, only to find out later that for more than two years he was involved in an adulterous affair. Revivalism because of its anthropomorphic thrust, promoted a pharisaical conformity to the law, while never dealing with the matters of the heart.
Finney’s rationalistic system of morality was ripe for the picking during this time.
The Age of Reason had sent shockwaves throughout the world. Ahlstrom explains that this period was dominated by uncertainty in the “relevance of the church” and “science
Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, (New Haven, CT :
Yale University Press, 1972), 459.
Sean Michael Lucas, “Charles Finney’s Theology of Revival: Moral Depravity,” Master's Seminary Journal Volume 6 (Fall 1995) : 208-209. The Master's Seminary.
Donald J. Wiseman, “Abraham in History and Tradition – Part II: Abraham the Prince,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 134 (July 1977) : 252-253. Dallas Theological Seminary.
seemed to undermine the Christian message.”7 People wanted to feel justified in their choices for why they did things. Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was published in 1859 compounding the attack on the supernatural. Christians became intimidated by those who claimed scientific proof for a variety of things. As much as Finney and other revivalists may have wanted to promote the Gospel of Christ, this rationalistic system only etched away the confidence that many Christians up to that point had in the Bible being God’s element of communication to man. This etching was and still is “below the radar.” Many people who claim a belief in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture still hold to Finney’s type of thought-pattern, whereby rationalistic systems are taught and studied pertaining to discipleship, evangelism, worship, etc… When one church grows rapidly in America today, books are written and seminars are held so that people can emulate the “rationalistic system” in their own community in hopes of duplicating the growth. John Muether comments on Finney’s impact in contemporary evangelicalism in his article regarding the “New School” in contemporary evangelicalism. Specifically, Muether addresses Fuller Theological Seminary and the leadership of Donald McGavran over the Institute of Church Growth. Muether writes, “McGavran’s pragmatism, his attention to marketing considerations, and his mastery of technique were all rooted in the nineteenth century New School revivalism of Charles Finney, who replaced “Calvinism with milder, more preachable doctrines in most of American revivalism.”8 Ahlstrom, p. 738 John R. Muether, “Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Triumph of the New School,” Westminster Theological Journal Volume 50 (Fall 1988) : 343. Westminster Theological Seminary.
Finney’s rationalistic system was not the only dominating thought system that emerged during this time. Another dominant thought pattern that developed was the individualism of salvation and religion. Where the Puritans saw salvation as an act of God upon man, many of the revivalists saw and preached salvation as an act of man upon God. This Armenian thought pattern multiplied and soon it became so entrenched in people’s minds that entire denominations moved from a Reformed heritage to becoming predominantly Armenian and man-centered. However, these denominations, even today, do not boast that their theology is man-centered, or that they have a low view of God’s sovereignty, or that salvation is not God’s work. On the contrary, many would vehemently argue they hold to such dogmas. However, just as this anthropomorphic mindset crept in “under the radar” during Revivalism, it has remained “under the radar” to this day. In commenting on Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, John Hannah writes, “Noll…and others…see the church being informed more by pragmatism, individualism, emotionalism, and technology than by the Scriptures. The roots of what might be called Gnostic or docetic evangelicalism—a Christianity that is focused on separatist, privatized spirituality—are found in three movements: revivalism, which has “hamstrung the life of the mind”; the American Revolution, wherein disestablishment brought marketing strategies into vogue; and the Enlightenment, the rise of Common Sense egalitarian theories of reality and apologetics. These three forces have limited evangelicalism’s influence on the nation by creating a false separation between spirituality and the pursuit of the arts and sciences, the realm of the heart and the realm of the public.”9 Revivalism played an integral role in voiding America’s churches of their ability to think, simply by centering its theology upon man’s experience rather than on God’s John D. Hannah, “Book Review of ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’ By Mark A.
Noll,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 152 (April 1995) : 234-235. Dallas Theological Seminary.
unchanging Word (even if that man-centered theology was based on his experience to God’s Word, it is still based upon a subjective experience rather than an objective standard).
One system of theology that this individualistic framework served best (and was also served by) was dispensationalism10. Michael Williams suggests this in his article in the 10th volume of the Grace Theological Journal (a journal published by a dispensational-sympathetic seminary, nonetheless). However, as Williams points out, as much as individualism and dispensationalism are associates, this “heightened individualism of classical dispensationalism…was never required by dispensationalism as a theological system.” 11 It has still come to characterize many in dispensational circles, including entire denominations. For example, many Baptists claim no creed but the Bible. It is surprising, as Clark Pinnock12 points out 30 years ago, that such a stance
would lead to a low view of the Bible. He writes:
“It is less surprising when we consider the strong tendency of Baptists to locate truth in the saving encounter with Christ, rather than in the objective My intention is not to attack dispensationalists or Baptists, but rather to show the effects of the anthropocentric predisposition of revivalism upon a significant number of evangelicals today (i.e. dispensationalists). I recognize that many in this camp do have a high view of Scripture and of God’s sovereignty, but I have also observed that at times this theology is not applied to all of life when these same people pursue programs and methods without confronting heart issues and by this try to be like everyone who appears successful, or swing to the opposite end of the pendulum and become isolationists, pointing out how everyone else is wrong on some doctrinal issue or another.
Michael D. Williams, “Where’s the Church? The Church as the Unfinished Business of Dispensational Theology,” Grace Theological Journal Volume 10 (Fall 1989) : 177 Grace Seminary.
As helpful as this quote by Pinnock may be, it is interesting to note his most recent flirtations with the notion of open theism. It was just last month that he was brought before the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) at their annual meeting for a vote on
whether to remove him for his stance on this issue. More information at:
http://www.etsjets.org truth outside themselves. The effects of revivalism upon them prepared the way, oddly enough, for them to be ravaged by liberal and later by neoorthodox theology. For this simple reason, Liberalism and neo-orthodoxy also emphasize that the doctrines of Christianity are grounded in personal religious experience and not upon external authorities. Therefore, when untrained Baptists are confronted with subtle forms of liberal theology, classical or existential, they are not able to resist it intellectually, even though their instinctive reaction is hesitant.” 13 What Pinnock notes here is a tendency that is duplicated in throughout numerous evangelical churches in America, of which the Baptists are only one example. When one’s theology is concerned more with man’s experience rather than God’s actions (known most clearly and certainly through His Word), his ability to confront heresy as it creeps in becomes impotent.
Beyond Baptists, but certainly including many, revivalism shaped a movement that climaxed in the early 20th century that came to be known as Fundamentalism14. The beginnings of this movement were a reaction to evolution, the Social Gospel, and liberal theology as it lured more and more Christians away from the truth.15 But this fight against modernism became so man-centered that it developed into legalism and flirted with heresy. It was not easy for Christians during this time to decide which camp to join.
This conundrum can be seen no more clearly than in the life of Gresham Machen.
Machen did not care for the term “fundamentalist”, nor did he believe that Christians Clark H. Pinnock, “Baptists And Biblical Authority,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 17 (Fall 1974) : 203. The Evangelical Theological Society.