Editor’s Introduction -- By: Jonathan Armstrong

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 06:1 (Winter 1997)
Article: Editor’s Introduction
Author: Jonathan Armstrong

Editor’s Introduction

John H. Armstrong

American religious history has been shaped by great spiritual awakenings, or movements, of God’s Spirit, called revivals. This is a point generally undebated by historians.

What is debatable is the lasting impact and ultimate value of these periods of awakening. Were they an evidence of normative Christianity? Even a return to conditions like those during the era of the apostles? Or were these revivals interruptions of effective day-to-day ministry that brought problems generally not worth the confusion which resulted? Are these awakenings really An Endless Line of Splendor, as Dr. Earle E. Cairns calls them in the title of his book on revivals? Or were they the unleashing of forces inimical to holy and healthy religion that destroyed doctrinal foundations and elevated emotions to a place far beyond what is warranted by the Scriptures? The answer you give to these questions depends entirely on your view of several matters.

First, what warrant do we have from the New Testament itself for such awakenings? Are we to expect God to move in this manner? What is our responsibility toward this subject? Should we pray for further outpourings of the Holy Spirit, if that is in fact what these historical awakenings really were? Or should we conclude, as many have in this century, that revivals are a thing unknown in the New Testament and thus an old covenant phenomenon? Is there a difference between the recorded revivals of Israel and those known in the new covenant community since Pentecost? If so, what are these differences? These questions touch upon the meaning of several New Testament texts. How are we, for example, to understand Acts 3:19 and Luke 11:13 in the light of revival theology?

Second, were the American awakenings of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century really helpful to the church in the long run? Doesn’t your answer depend, ultimately, on your presuppositions regarding these matters?

Further, what effect did these historical revivals have upon the theological consensus and well-being of the church? If we believe the confessions of the Protestant Reformation were generally sound and helpful expositions of the Gospel, did these awakenings solidify the church’s faith and life, or help, in reality, to break it down?

I confess a great deal of skepticism about the benefits of many awakenings, especially those that are touted in our own time. I have seen little, except for a few flickers of light here and there (e.g., the “Jesus Movement” of the 1970s and some of th...

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