The Resurrection, Piety, and Pietism

I am advocating a return to the biblical theology, piety, and practice that we confess in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which piety is built around the divinely ordained means of grace. The Lord used the preaching of the Apostles to bring his elect to new life and true faith and through faith to union with the risen Christ and to a life of communion with him and with his people.

 

And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:31).

Perhaps since the rise of the late-medieval mystics, who desired nothing so much as to be absorbed into the being of God—in contrast with, e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, who was more focused upon Christ and the stations of the cross. Even in his commentary on the Song of Songs, however lurid it might have been, he was less interested in ontology and more in the person of Christ—and certainly since the rise of Pietism (not to be confused with piety) and after the rise of Romanticism there has been a strong impulse among Christians to make Christianity essentially a subjective thing, to be about one’s personal experience more than a claim about something that has objectively happened in history.

The old liberals had it that Christianity is no more than a reflection of human religious experience. Friederich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) re-defined Christianity as the “feeling of divine dependence,” by which he meant to say, Christianity is the quest for the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Schleiermacher was, of course, the child of Pietists. They loved the Lord and his Word but they defined Christianity not first as a claim about history and truth, doctrines taught by our Lord and his apostles, but principally an unmediated (literally, without means) experience of the risen Christ. For the Pietists, doctrine and history were secondary. The early Pietists tended to be personally orthodox but as in the case of Schleiermacher, when confronted with Modernity, the later Pietists collapsed and retreated into personal experience. When he got to university and encountered Enlightenment rationalism, his Pietism left him entirely unequipped to defend his faith. He became a “Modern” Pietist. He gave up historic Christianity, the history of redemption, the doctrines of the Scripture and the church, and re-made Christianity into an explanation of our personal experience. Even Karl Barth (1886–1968), who hated Schleiermacher’s theology, was really only just another Modernist and subjectivist. Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) was right. Barth was never actually “neo-orthodox.” He was always just a “neo-Modernist.” See Van Til’s The New Modernism (1947). At bottom, the “existential encounter with the Word” (through Scripture) was nothing but another form of subjectivism.

This should sound quite familiar to American evangelicals since Schleiermacher’s biography is the history of “evangelicalism” (if there really is such a thing—see D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism). In a remarkably short span of time American evangelicalism morphed from The Fundamentals (1910–15), chief among which were the substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ, the “emergent” and “emerging” movements, quite at home with the radical subjectivism of late modernity. It was never a long walk from “I know he lives, he lives within my heart” to “my truth.”

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