I picked up a church publication recently and read their welcoming message, “The Bible is not a book of dry doctrines, but it is full of practical instruction for your life, home, etc.” The message is clear. Doctrine and theology are “dry, boring, and irrelevant.” “Give us something that we can take home and apply to our lives.”
People often associate doctrine and theology with spiritual deadness. Though it can be true that theology can become an end to itself–a mere mental exercise in logic and rhetoric, practiced solely to elevate the pride of the theologian or preacher– it can also be true that theology and doctrine (the teaching of that theology) can lead one to a true knowledge of God, both factually and experientially.
In chapter 4, When Theology Took Fire, Murray describes a transformation in the Presbyterian Church from a cold, dry, doctrinally accurate atmosphere to one that retained its doctrinal clarity but added to it a vitality brought by the Spirit of God.
The spiritual condition among the Presbyterians in Virginia right after the War for Independence was deathly still. Archibald Alexander, whose grandfather was converted during the Great Awakening and whose father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, stated, “. . . among the Presbyterians I had never heard of any one who had experienced the new birth, nor could I recollect ever to have heard it mentioned (pg. 94).”
An interesting story on pages 95 and 96 relates an account of students at Hampden-Sydney College who met for prayer secretly in the woods. An anticipated rain drove them inside for the meeting, and they sang and prayed in suppressed voices inside a locked room to avoid being discovered. Once other students heard about the meeting, a mob quickly gathered at the locked door, pounding, threatening, and demanding they cease this kind of activity. Some of the leaders of the riot later stated that they tried to break it up because those praying were “carrying on like the Methodists.”
The president of the college, John Blair Smith, was overjoyed at the news of the prayer meeting because it was “the first evidence he had seen of a spiritual concern among his students (pg. 96).” The next week, the president hosted the prayer meeting in his own parlor. Within two weeks, nearly half of the student body “appeared deeply impressed and under conviction of sin (pg. 97).”
This revival spread from Hampden-Sydney College to several counties in Virginia. The revival made a sudden transformation of one preacher, William Graham. Graham, who was Archibald Alexander’s pastor (under whom Alexander had never heard of the new birth), preached in a Sunday service after Smith. The people in attendance expected Graham’s normal, dry theological dissertation, but in the midst of his sermon on Isaiah 40:1, Graham was suddenly transformed. He delivered what Smith called “the best [sermon] he ever heard, except one. . . (pg. 101).” Interestingly, the evening before, Graham was with some of the college students who thought that Graham’s feelings did not match their fervor. They requested of Smith that Graham not be allowed to preach! Graham’s sermon rang in the ears of those students for the rest of their lives. After that weekend, Graham’s ministry was completely transformed as he preached sound doctrine and objective truth but now with “authority, tenderness, compassion and pity (pg. 109).”
This revival in Virginia brought several changes in the Presbyterian churches. A greater importance was placed on “experimental religion.” There was a greater emphasis on prayer and ‘fervent charity.’ Church membership was no longer based on a profession of faith or attendance from birth. Ministers and elders looked at the consistency of life before accepting a candidate for membership, recognizing that the effectiveness of the church was bound to its spirituality and unity. This was a spiritual unity that was not devoid of doctrine and theology, but rather found its basis in clear, sound and powerful preaching of the doctrines of Scripture.