5. Definitions: Reformation, Revival, Awakening

5. Definitions: Reformation, Revival, Awakening

What does the word ‘Reformation’ bring to mind?

Communication depends on understanding the meaning of the words. Even if the context of the word ‘reformation’ is narrowed to just the Christian church, it may bring up a range of meanings for different people. This post sets out a definition that will be used for reformation and several similar movements within Christendom. Having these definitions in mind will help discern important aspects as historic reformations are re-examined.

Definitions used in this series of posts

These definitions were partly derived from their English language definitions and partly from historical records of each of the following three types of Christian movements.

Reformation is a re-alignment of beliefs and religious practices to be conformed to the word of God by throwing off beliefs and religious practices that are not in conformity with the word of God. Reformations change people’s beliefs, attitudes and actions. Those changes overflow to change church beliefs and practices, society (culture) and governments.

Revival occurs when the spiritual fervor and practice of members of an existing body of believers is re-kindling as a result of the Holy Spirit of God renewing their prior faith which had grown cold and renewing their foundation on the word of God.

Awakening is an evangelical outpouring of the Spirit of God over a short period of time in which many who were non-believers become believers founded on the word of God in the Bible.  The new believers are then enfolded into existing bodies of believers for growing in their knowledge of God and relation with God.

Confusion in definitions that arises from sharing common attributes

Among those are:

  1. the same Instigator, God, who works salvation and discipleship in many ways
  2. the same Means, the Holy Spirit of God working through one person or a multitude of people,
  3. the same Purpose, to expand the number of believers who are bringing glory to God through renewed lives, and a new relation with God through Jesus Christ and
  4. the same Outcome resulting from people who have been transformed by God. People are changed in their beliefs, attitudes and actions.  Their lives are less self centered and more directed toward glorifying God by how they live. This overflows to change the church (at all levels), the society (popular culture), and the civil governments.

So what really differentiates these three if they share these attributes?

  1. The length of time the changes stay in effect. Changes brought about by reformations last centuries, awakenings last decades and revivals last years.
  2. The scope of geographic area that is influenced. Reformations usually cross geopolitical boundaries and influence people over large regions. Awakenings often affect people across a whole country. Revivals rarely extend beyond one country, county or congregation.
  3. Which institutions are effected. Reformations influence church denominations, civil governments, popular culture, economics and history. The greatest effect of revivals are often seen in church congregations. The scope of influence of awakenings will be somewhere between that of a revival and a reformation.

The difficulty with definitions

Having definitions is good but it also can lead to another difficulty. Once definitions are written down, there is a tendency to sort items into the mutually exclusive bins created by the definitions. That often creates problems with either the definitions or the details of the items being sorted. This results from sharing common aspects between different terms.  Each item being sorted can have aspects that fit into more than one definition.

Another complication to sorting any specific event such as the “Great Awakenings” in the United States, is that each event may evolve from one term into the other through time. For example, the influx of new believers into a pre-existing body of believers resulting from an awakening will often stir revival within an existing body of believes.  Likewise, revival may stir some within the body of believers to become evangelists presenting their faith to unbelievers. True Biblical Reformations always spawn both revival and an awakening that spreads rapidly and enfolds those previously outside the body of believers.   As a result of any of these three movements, existing beliefs and practices are re-aligned to a more Biblical base and the number of believers grows rapidly.

Application of these definitions within the Bible

Armed with a definition of reformation, the Bible can be re-examined to find historic Biblical reformations.

According to these definitions, Josiah’s “reformation” more closely resembles a revival than a reformation.  The beliefs and practices of Judaism (the established religion) did not change. What changed was the religious practice of the people. They stopped worshiping other gods. There was a revival in the number of people worshiping the God of their fathers, the God of the Bible. When King Josiah died, so did the movement brought about through him.

Reformations recorded in the Bible

When the definition of reformation is applied to the Bible, there appears to have been three large scale reformations.  All three were spawned by a significant and well documented re-alignment of beliefs and religious practices. All three resulted in the revival of some of the faithful Jews. All three resulted in bringing some who were outside the Jewish system of beliefs into the body of believers. Remnants of all three reformations are still being practiced today. The first of the great Biblical reformations was the one led by Moses. A second great Biblical reformation coincided with  the return of a portion of the Israelites from their captivity in Babylon. The third great Biblical reformation was the Jesus Reformation.

In the next series of posts each of the three major Biblical reformations will be explored to see how they fit this set of definitions. Each major reformation recorded in the Bible will be documented from the Bible. During the exploration, care will be taken to identify the sequence of events in each of the three and identify common patterns.  The common pattern can then be applied to more recent extra-Biblical reformations. How does the Reformation of 1517 compare to those recorded the the Bible? Is it worth getting excited about the 500th anniversary of the 1517 Reformation in our own time?

Previous post 4. Josiah’s Reformation

Index of all posts in this series

Next post: The Biblical reformation recorded in Exodus (the Moses Reformation).


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