Anti-Scholasticism, Revival(ism), Pietism, Or The Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice? (2)

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionIn the last few days two different authors have published articles seeking to remind evangelical and Reformed readers first toward a “revival” model of piety and practice and then toward Pietism. These two movements are closely related historically and so I will address them together in this response. Before I proceed, let me make clear that I am not contesting the relationship between revival(ism) and Pietism to modern evangelicalism. I am completely disinterested in a political contest over turf or control of evangelicalism. I agree with Mike Horton. I wish evangelicals and the rest of us could think of evangelicalism—to the extent there really is such a thing. See D. G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism—as a village green rather than a piece of contested territory. My intent in these essays is not to contest for territory. It is to discourage those who identify the Reformed theology and those who actually subscribe the Reformed confession from pursuing these alternatives to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The first of these two alternatives is revival, which some (as I discuss in the book) want to distinguish sometimes from revivalism. I doubt that distinction works as an explanation of history and, as I showed in the book, even the proponents of the distinction agree with that. When push comes to shove, a bad revival (e.g., the 2nd Great Awakening) is better than no revival.  So I have been signalling the blurriness between revival and revivalism by using revival(ism). I agree with the author that revival(ism) is a mark of evangelicalism but I want to distinguish sharply between the original evangelicals, i.e., the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches and evangelicalism as it came to be formed by Pietism and revival(ism). These are two distinct things.

Strangely, the author thinks that the great revivalists are being left behind.

Thus, while many appreciate Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the First Great Awakening, they almost invariably write off later American revivals as hotbeds of human activism, heresy, cults of personality, and emotional extravagance. Better to leave all that in the dustbin and get on with the mission of preaching the gospel and building the church. Right?

I should very much like to see the evidence of such marginalization. Amandus Polanus (1561–1610) is not anyone’s “homeboy” but apparently, judging by what I see, Jonathan Edwards is. Indeed Edwards is a principal influenced upon the so-called New Calvinism and the Young, Restless, and Reformed movements. That hardly seems like marginalization. I and others have been trying to persuade the Reformed to recognize that the 18th and 19th century revivals are not as distinct (the first supposedly a good revival and the second supposedly a bad revival) as we have been told nor were they a natural outgrowth of the classical Reformed theology, piety, and practice. I am surprised to find that the author thinks that some are hearing this message. That is encouraging but I doubt that he is right. In truth, the Reformed do not confess a theology, piety, and practice of revival(ism). I am certain that the magisterial Protestants would have been horrified by both the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings and I do not think that most of the orthodox of the 17th century would have been entirely comfortable either with the rhetoric of the 1st Great Awakening nor with the practice and the associated phenomena.

I am grateful for the essay advocating a renewal of revival theology and practice because it puts the issues squarely before us. The author writes, “I advance the opposite thesis: Revivals embody the true flourishing of Protestantism precisely because they intensify and expand on central Protestant themes.” This claim is fundamentally false. The only place in the 16th century where anything like Northampton happened was among the Anabaptists and the magisterial, confessional Protestants all denounced it as fanaticism. The seventeenth-century Reformed were, as far as I can tell (yes, I am aware of the passages in Owen to which some are appealing for support. I doubt very much that those passages are being understood correctly) the orthodox had no sympathies for the doctrines and practices that would become essential to the 1st Great Awakening.

As I noted in the book and as I have noted here, the are serious questions not only about Edwards’ orthodoxy on the doctrine of God (Charles Hodge called him a “Pantheist”) but also on the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church (J. H. Alsted): the doctrine of justification. Scholars of Edwards have known this for many decades since Thomas A. Schafer’s seminal 1951 essay in Church History, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith” in which Schafer concluded, “it is not, therefore, by the doctrine of imputed righteousness that Edwards prefers to safeguard human dependence and divine glory; rather it is by the doctrine of ‘infused grace'” (62–63). Since Schafer, other writers (e.g., W. Robert Godfrey, have also criticized Edwards’ doctrine of justification.

The author’s account of the three great interests of the Reformation (preaching, conversion, and missions) is anachronistic. These are marks of 18th and 19th century “evangelicalism” but these are not (as he characterizes them) the way the Reformed and Lutherans spoke about themselves. The Belgic Confession (1561) identifies three marks of the true church, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (art. 29). These are Reformation-era marks. We may not read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century categories and concerns back into the 16th and 17th centuries.

In RRC I characterized revival(ism) and Pietism as two aspects of the QIRE: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. Fundamentally, this is the desire to have an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. This is the irreducible core of modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice. It is not the theology nor was it the practice of the Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries. They certainly wanted believers to have a vital religious experience but their confession and practice focused on God’s grace in salvation and the consequent fruits of the Spirit as they flow from God’s grace to his redeemed people. Experience is fleeting. It is not the ground of assurance nor is to be sought as a good in itself. What is to be sought is Christ. Our confidence is in work for us and his promises to us.

As our second author notes, these are not the key tenets of Pietism. The essay comes in the form of a review and he helpfully lists Spener’s six principles of Pietism:

  1. a pronounced Bible-centeredness
  2. an activistic approach to the priesthood of all believers
  3. a Christianity that creates an integrated and holistic way of life
  4. an irenic posture that prioritizes Christian unity
  5. an approach to Christian formation rooted in following Jesus
  6. the proclamation of the good news in words and deeds

The list is as important for what it does not mention as for what it does: the means of grace, the visible church, and confessional boundaries. Neither does it stipulate exactly what the gospel is. For the confessional Reformed and Lutherans the gospel is preached and we live in it and out of it but we do not “live it.” The 6th point is ambiguous on this. The core of the Pietist movement is an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ, typically in small groups (conventicles) separated from the visible church, which produces religious and social activity. Encounter and activity are the essential nouns of Pietism.

Pietism sought to transcend church and sacrament. In that sense, it was a true predecessor of the revival movements in the 18th and 19th centuries and of modern evangelicalism but it was a reaction, in part, to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation as much as to the state churches of Europe. The early Pietists were mostly orthodox but the confession of the churches did not animate them. Experience and action animated them. The confessionalists argued about the doctrines of Christ, salvation, worship, and the Lord’s Supper but these questions did not animate the Pietists as much as the transcendent, supra-historical experience of the risen Christ.

The succeeding generations of Pietists realized that theological orthodoxy and orthopraxy were immaterial to their project and not long after that they realized that the history of redemption was irrelevant to their faith. These children and grandchildren of the Pietists were the great liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. So, our author’s list of contempoary Pietsts is instructive: “Like many authors before them—including Donald Dayton, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Kenneth Collins, Randall Balmer, Jim Wallis, and Roger Olson, among others—Gehrz and Pattie commend the Wesleyan/Holiness/Anabaptist/Pietist trajectory of evangelical identity: what the authors call the Pietist ethos.” What unites them? Encounter and activism or the QIRE.

Again, I am glad to see this summary and invitation to Pietism because it highlights the differences between the theology, piety, and practice of Pietism with that of the Reformed churches. Like our two authors, please consider this a warm invitation to consider the Reformed confession on its own terms and not as modified or moderated by modern evangelicals (e.g. as in the “New Calvinism” or in the YRR movement). As I argued in the book, if you will give it a try, on its own terms, you will find in the Reformed confession much of what you say that you want: a truly and deeply biblical theology, a genuine connection with the history of the church, an ordered worship (when we follow our stated rule of worship), a Christ-centered faith, a warm, personal, genuine piety, a high (but not sacerdotal) view of the sacraments, and a real community of believers seeking to live out the faith coram Deo, before the face of God in Christ.

from The Heidelblog


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