Presbyterianism and Renewal

Rev. Dr. Ian RennieDr. Ian S. Rennie retired from being Dean at (now) Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, and now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The rhythm of declension and renewal is a readily observable fact upon the broad canvas of Christian history. There has been a succession of great renewal which have lasted for several generations, have influenced large sections of the Church, and have energized its faith and life so that it exercised a very effective ministry. And with each major movement of renewal, the Church has been thrust into new areas and dimensions of ministry.

These great movements may be described as:

  1. The Early Church from the time of Our Lord to c. 275.
  2. Early Monasticism c. 325-500, with a later expression in the Celtic Church c. 500-700.
  3. The High Middle Ages c. 1075-1275.
  4. The Reformation c. 1500-1650. It is impossible here to begin to consider the complex subject of the relationship of Protestant and Roman Catholic renewal.
  5. Evangelicalism c. 1735-1890.
  6. Today?

These were the dynamic periods. After these, generations of decline would occur.

Jonathan Edwards, the outstanding leader of what was known as The Great Awakening, or the first Evangelical Awakening, in eighteenth-century colonial New England, sought to describe the salient characteristics of the movement, and with perhaps a little refinement they could be taken as the supreme hallmarks of all the great renewals. In his book on The Distinguishing of a Work of the Spirit of God he stated that the hallmarks were:

  1. Christ was exalted;
  2. The Scriptures were honoured;
  3. Sound doctrine was promoted;
  4. There was an outpouring of love towards God and humanity;
  5. The Kingdom of darkness was attacked.

Edwards was a man of integrity, so in Thoughts on the Revival in New England, he outlined dangers that could accompany renewal: pride, undue emotion, too much talk and over-emphasis on experience. Renewal might have dangers, and they had to be watched against, but they must not be allowed to keep us in declension. In the movements of renewal a new face is put upon Christianity.

Presbyterianism is germanely related to renewal, because in a particular way it is a product of the Reformation. The section of the Reformation led by the great John Calvin of Geneva produced what in the English-speaking world became known as Presbyterianism. Calvin was amazingly Christ-centered, and it was the Jesus Christ of the Bible that he presented. He translated the Bible into the vernacular, preached it three or four times a week, taught it to the theological students in the Academy, and exegeted it and expounded it in his Commentaries. Then he systematized his understanding of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures in his theological Institutes. Calvin's logo was a burning heart, expressing his love to God, while his care for society revealed his love for humanity. And has anyone ever laboured more assiduously for the building of Christ's kingdom — burning himself out in his fifties — or sought more to overcome the realm of the Adversary? This is the heritage that was bequeathed to Presbyterians, and has been at their best. Early in this century a Scottish minister, James Burns, published a volume entitled Revivals: Their Laws and Leaders, in which the chapter on "Calvin and the Swiss Revival" was appropriately followed by "John Knox and the Revival in Scotland," indicating the common line of descent.

John Knox led the Reformation in Scotland, and shaped it after the model of Calvin. Irish Presbyterianism in turn emerged in the early seventeenth century as Scottish Presbyterians migrated to the northern province of Ulster. At the same time the often-remembered services at the Kirk o'Shott occurred, which were merely a congregational expression of the great movement of revitalization that was taking place. As the movement of the Reformation began to wind down, the commitment of the Scots to the Reformation and all for which it stood, was reaffirmed by the Solemn League and Covenant, the acceptance of the Confession of Faith and the other Westminster Standards, and the emergence of such saints amid great suffering, as Samuel Rutherford.

The Evangelical renewal began to penetrate the English-speaking churches by the 1730s, and by the next decade the Church of Scotland was being powerfully affected. George Whitefield, the famous Calvinistic Anglican evangelist, found a great response in Scotland, where he is particularly remembered for the powerful sermons which he preached at the Communion season at Cambuslang in 1742. During the second half of the century the Moderate majority in the General Assembly did what they could to hinder renewal, but the vitality was retained by leaders such as John Erskine of Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, and John Witherspoon, who would accept a call to be president of Princeton University in New Jersey. At this time the faith of many in the Scottish Highlands was encouraged by the remarkable lay leaders known as "The Men." Soon after the nineteenth century began, the adherence of Thomas Chalmers to the movement of renewal began to precipitate a much greater change. Minister, theologian, mathematician, philosopher and social reformer, he led the forces of renewal to dominance within the Church of Scotland by 1834. Andrew Thomson was a strong force for renewal from the pulpit of the great congregation of St. George's West, Edinburgh, while profound movements of congregational renewal took place at Kilsyth in 1839 under the ministry of the youthful William Chalmers Burns, who a short while later would also be involved in the renewal in St. Peter's, Dundee, where the minister was the almost equally young Robert Murray McCheyne, probably the greatest saint of nineteenth-century Presbyterianism. Although he died at twenty-nine, he made a powerful impact through his rigorously exegetical and evangelistic preaching and a character luminous with the reality of God. As remembered by a member of the great renewal family of the Bonars; "There was something singularly attractive about Mr. McCheyne's holiness. It was not his matter not his manner, either that struck me; it was just the 'living epistle of Christ' — a picture so lovely, I felt I would have given all the world to be as he was." Perhaps it should also be mentioned that Evangelical renewal brought about the modern Protestant missionary movement, typified in the case of Scottish Presbyterianism by Alexander Duff, who would in 1830 become the first Church of Scotland missionary to India, and one of the towering figures of modern missions.

Scottish evangelical Presbyterians moved to Canada, and particularly to Ontario, in considerable numbers after 1815. They were strengthened by the arrival of Robert Burns as the minister of Knox Church, Toronto, in 1844, when he also became a professor at Knox College. Of special importance was the arrival in the next year of his nephew, W.C. Burns, on his way to China as a missionary. On his way he came to visit his uncle, and in the course of his travels preached from Quebec City to Windsor. He was most effective among the Glengarry Highlanders around Zorra in Oxford County in the more westerly region. There his life and ministry was particularly remembered by the family of little George Leslie MacKay, the pioneer Canadian Presbyterian missionary of Taiwan, who would pattern his apostolic endeavours after those of Burns upon his arrival in 1871. The other very prominent Goforth; whose ministry was as characterized by renewal as that of MacKay.

Evangelical renewal came to Atlantic Presbyterianism by some of the same migration as went to Ontario. And in the West there was the historic renewal home mission work of James Robertson as the prairies began to fill with settlers. It is also significant that a major study of Canadian Presbyterian academics in the nineteenth century is entitled The Evangelical Century, by Michael Gauvreau, which includes Thomas McCulloch of Nova Scotia and Michael Willis, William Caven and William MacLaren of Knox College. But as the nineteenth century came to a close another of the great movements of renewal was in decline.

During the twentieth century Presbyterianism, along with most other major denominations, has been in a period of declension, not only in Canada, but throughout the Western world. But there are signs of renewal. At this juncture we must remember that renewal movements do not require new structures. In fact the word suggests the renewal of the existing. So we look for renewal to revitalize our congregations and denominations. In this way we do not cease to be Presbyterians, but our Presbyterianism is reinvigorated. One of the great problems often is that the old wineskins cannot or will not receive any of the new wine of renewal. This problem frequently arises from the fact that the old wineskin thinks that it is still in very good shape, and in need of nothing but business as usual. However, we are far beyond that today. Anyone with a shred of discernment knows that we are in need. But at the same time there are signs of renewal in some of our congregations and in aspects of our denominational life. What a knowledgeable friend said to me about the English scene a few years ago is applicable to Canada: "The churches that are basically maintaining a tradition, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, are declining; but those that in some way are plugging into renewal are growing."

Some of the signs of renewal that are evident in sections of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, as I see it, are an acknowledgement of dependence on God, an emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, and an attempt to have a culturally relevant worship in vernacular idiom. Dependence on God is particularly evident by prayer, and how important and encouraging it is to see all kinds of groups emerging for prayer and intercession. Then there is an openness to the Holy Spirit, who makes Jesus real and near to us, and working in our midst. Gifts of the Spirit are being conducted. As the Holy Spirit draws us to Jesus there is a desire for worship in the language of the people. So there is a new music and new worship teams. And then in almost every place desiring renewal there is the Alpha program. It seems to be a universal sign of God's grace. How wonderful it has been to hear from Murat Kuntel at St. Columba Church in multicultural south-eastern Vancouver, with the news that they have some forty in attendance at their first Alpha, and that people are coming to faith in Christ. Of course we must look beyond aspects or pockets of renewal, until we see congregations in every part expressing the beauty of renewal. And we are seeing congregations like this.

Just this week I was at a meeting being held in Coquitlam Presbyterian Church, and there I saw evidence of a renewal congregation. A large addition has been made to the building in recent years, so that as you stepped through the door you were attracted by the large and welcoming narthex, the warm and inviting sanctuary and the beautiful meeting rooms. In conversation Terry Hibbert told me that they have two Sunday morning services, the one at 9:30 with some eighty in attendance for what might be called a contemporary renewal service, and the other at 11:00 with 160 in attendance for what might be described as a blended service. Then Terry spoke of a half-time youth director and the more recent addition of a half-time worship leader, who came via an ad in the west-coast BC Christian News. This young married woman had come with her husband from Saskatchewan when he was moved to a new position in Vancouver. As a grad of Briercrest Bible College she was seeking some sphere of service, saw the ad, and is now leading worship through which more and more people are being drawn to the congregation. After Terry left I had the opportunity to look around and saw announcements for children's and youth ministries, and a list of what seemed to be some 150 people in home Bible studies. Then during our meeting on the second floor we could hear the glorious music coming from the sanctuary of the worship team at practice, comprised of what looked to be about a dozen vocalists and instrumentalists, young men and women, singles and marrieds. So while we worked away we were engulfed by praise. Thank God for renewal congregations like Coquitlam Presbyterian, and may we pray in faith for many more, until the Presbyterian Church in Canada is known as a denomination expressive of renewal Christianity.