What is the relationship between revival and rich theology? Between a fresh, heaven-sent outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit and doctrinal purity and precision? Between living faith and sound doctrine? Between spiritual experience and Biblical truth?
Some seem to consider the two as polar opposites, working one against the other. If you try to bring the similarly charged ends of two magnets together and if the magnetic charge is not too great, you can intentionally hold the two together. But the moment you release your grip or let your attention wander they spin away from one another in opposite directions, repelled one from the other.
But is this a necessary relationship when it comes to revival and theology? Is this God’s doing? Is this God’s intention? Or is this something we’ve freighted both revival and theology with, something neither was designed to carry?
Paul repeatedly, especially in his later letters, makes a plea for “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 4:3; Tit. 1:9; 2:1), “sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:10), and “sound words” (1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13).
By speaking of “the faithful word” (Tit. 1:9a) the Apostle underscores that fidelity is something essential to the nature of this “word.” But fidelity to what? Paul’s words imply a standing body of recognized truth which calls for loyalty and love, for allegiance and affection.
The trajectory of such logic is precisely correct for Paul says that “the faithful word” is “in accordance with” something he refers to simply as “the teaching” (1:9b). The literal word order of the Greek text is “the according-to-the-teaching faithful word.” The “word” under consideration is the one which jibes with what Paul and the other Apostles have taught (and is given to us by God in the pages of the New Testament). This differentiates it from the content of the false teachers (vv.10-16). Its conformity to the apostolic teaching is what makes this “the faithful word.” It is “faithful” in that it is in conformity to the apostolic teaching. But the adjective “faithful” is also qualifies “word.” Thus “the word” is qualified twice—this is not just any word, but the “faithful” one and that which distinguishes it as “faithful” is that it is “in accordance with the teaching.”
But this all sounds so, what shall we say, bookish? Dead? Sterile? So un-alive!
But this is a false echo, for “sound doctrine,” says Paul, is something that we are to be “nourished ” on (1 Tim. 4:6). That is to say, “sound doctrine” gives life! So revival and theology are not polar opposites after all! Indeed, the word translated “nourished” comes from the realm of parenthood and education. It is what parents strive to achieve in their children and what educators aim to produce in their pupils. They see a better future toward which they long to send their child or pupil, so they nourish them in the truth that will guide them to that future.
Revival will never be achieved by dotting our doctrinal i’s and cross our theological t’s. Church history, if nothing else, has taught us this. Scripture itself holds before us the persnickety Pharisees of Jesus’ day as an example of the deadness of such a pursuit. We cannot define our way into a movement of the Spirit. Let us be clear on this point.
But, with equal energy let us affirm that neither will we be revived by abandoning the diligent, collective, corporate pursuit of truth. Good, solid, Scriptural theology is not an ideal which would be nice to arrive at, but which is pragmatically impossible. As I argue vigorously in Revival in the Rubble, the Bible makes clear that genuine revival is always marked by a return to God’s Word with a ravenous hunger to know what He has said. Church history, I believe, will bear this out as well.
What we seek is truth to which our experience must bow and truth from which our experience must arise.