John Owen on Revival

If you listen to some of our modern American Reformed historians today, you’ve been led to believe that the buggaboo of (cue the spooky music) “revival” is an 18th century phenomenon of the First Great Awakening. You’ve been led to believe that every pastor who believes revival is a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit is a “revivalist” no different than Charles Finney and his ilk in the 19th century Second Great Awakening. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this presentation: it doesn’t fit the evidence of history. The fact is, the concept of revival was not a 19th or even 18th-century deviation from the Reformation. A case in point is the giant of 17th century English Reformed Orthodox theologian, John Owen. 

 

Way back when (Feb. 15, 2010) in the previous incarnation of Meet the Puritans, I posted on John Owen’s use of the phrase “spiritual revivalls” (sic.). This post was subsequently cited in Kenneth J. Stewart’s Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (p. 103 n10) as the evidence that Owen made the earliest use of the term revival in English despite the Oxford English Dictionary’s attributing it to Cotton Matther in 1702. What follows is an expanded version of that orginal post.

If you listen to some of our modern American Reformed historians today, you’ve been led to believe that the buggaboo of (cue the spooky music) “revival” is an 18th century phenomenon of the First Great Awakening. You’ve been led to believe that every pastor who believes revival is a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit is a “revivalist” no different than Charles Finney and his ilk in the 19th century Second Great Awakening. There’s just one teeny tiny problem with this presentation: it doesn’t fit the evidence of history. The fact is, the concept of revival was not a 19th or even 18th century deviation from the Reformation. A case in point is the giant of 17th century English Reformed Orthodox theologian, John Owen. In “Letter 85: To Charles Fleetwood” written in 1674 (The Correspondence of John Owen, ed. Peter Toon, 159–160), Owen wrote at a time when he and his wife were sick, and he thought the Lord was preparing him for death. Listen to what he said to his close friend:

“The truth is, if we cannot see the latter rain in its season as we have seen the former, and a latter spring thereon, death, that will turne in the streams of glory unto our poor withering souls, is the best relief. I begin to feare that we shall die in this wilderness; yet ought we to labour and pray continually that the heavens would drop downe from above, and the skies poure downe righteousness—that the earth may open and bring forth salvation, and that righteousness may spring up together. If ever I return to you in this world, I beseech you to contend yet more earnestly than ever I have done, with God, with my own heart, with the church, to labour after spiritual revivalls.”

When I originally posted this quote from Owen in an effort to recover this part of our tradition, one historian immediately rebuked me for “going after one of our own” and “abandoning the cause” while saying a la the great wide receiver Rod Tidwell “Show me the Latin!” Unfortunately Owen wrote the letter in English. I guess this is the Reformed version of “98% of climate scientists agree.”

Notice again Owen’s last phrase above: “to labour after spiritual revivalls.” This exhortation was not penned by some 17th century Quaker or Shaker or 19th century advocate of “new measures” a la Finney, but arguably the greatest of English Reformed theologians. As a Reformed theologian this meant Owen believed Scripture to be principium cognoscendi—the basis of knowledge of God, his world, and his redemptive plan. We see that here in Owen’s letter as he looks to the pattern of the biblical prophets for spiritual revival, citing Isaiah 45:8, “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it” (KJV). Later, in his posthumously published treatise of 1684,Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (Works 1, 395–396), we read Owen describing the reality that Jesus Christ at times withdraws our experience of him from us because of our sins:

“Do any of us find decays in grace prevailing in us;—deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season, and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? and would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases? Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea, no other way but this alone,—namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory, putting forth its transforming power unto the revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case; as shall farther be showed afterward.”

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