Those outside Presbyterian circles may not be aware (and may not care), but there has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about the dangers of pietism and how it differs radically from the older (read: better) model of confessionalism. Pietism, it is said, emphasizes dramatic conversions, tends toward individualism, pushes for unity based on shared experience, and pays little attention to careful doctrinal formulation. Confessionalism, on the other hand, is a more churchly tradition, with creeds and catechisms and liturgy. It emphasizes the ordinary means of word and sacrament and prizes church order and the offices. It is pro-ritual, pro-clergy, and pro-doctrine, where pietism, it is said, stands against all these things.
I am sympathetic with much of this critique of evangelical pietism. I agree with Darryl Hart’s contention in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism that American evangelicalism has tried too hard to be relevant, has largely ignored organic church growth by catechesis, has too often elevated experience at the expense of doctrine, has minimized the role of the institutional church, and has worn out a good number of Christians by assuming that every churchgoer is an activist and crusader more than a pilgrim. Confessionalism would be good tonic for much of what ails the evangelical world.
Concern for Confessionalism
And yet, I worry that confessionalism without a strong infusion of the pietism it means to correct, can be a cure just as bad as the disease. Is there a way to reject revivalism without discounting genuine revival in the Great Awakening? Can I like Machen and Whitefield? Is there a way to say, “Yes, the church has tried too hard to Christianize every area of life” while still believing that our private faith should translate into public action? Hart argues that after revivalism Christian devotion was no longer limited to “formal church activities on Sunday or other holy days,” but “being a believer now became a full-time duty, with faith making demands in all areas of life” (13). Given the thrust of the book, I think it’s safe to say Hart finds this troubling.
Further, Hart clearly sides with the Old Side in New England that opposed the Great Awakening, its emphasis on inner experience, and the insistence that ministers be able to give an account of God’s work in their hearts (32-42). While I agree wholeheartedly that experience does not a Christian make, I wish the strong confessional advocates would do more to warn against the real danger of dead orthodoxy. It is possible to grow up in a Christian home, get baptized as an infant, get catechized, join the church, take the Lord’s Supper, be a part of a church your whole life and not be a Christian. It is possible to grow up in an Old World model where you inherit a church tradition (often along ethnic lines), and stay in that church tradition, but be spiritually dead. There are plenty of students at Hope College and Calvin College (just to name two schools from my tradition) who are thoroughly confessional as a matter of form, but not converted.
I have no hesitation in commending confessionalism. My concern is that pietism–with its private Bible study, small group prayer, insistence on conversion, and the cultivation of “heart” religion–is frequently set against confessionalism. For example, Hart argues, “Confessional Protestantism invites another way of evaluating the making of believers. Its history demonstrates the importance of inheritance and the way that believers appropriate faith over a lifetime through the sustained ministry and counsel of pastors as opposed to the momentary crisis induced by the itinerant evangelist or the pressures of sitting around a fire at summer camp” (184). I like the first sentence, but why so negatively caricature the work of itinerant evangelists and the real conversions that may come at summer camp? I could be misreading Hart. Maybe he has no problem with any of these things. But when he says, “the central struggle throughout Protestantism’s history has been between confessionalism and pietism, not evangelicalism and liberalism” (183), I worry that committed Presbyterians will steer clear of anything that gets painted with a broad brush as “pietism.”
A Confessionalism with Deep Piety
We all feel and respond to different dangers (for example, see Ligon Duncan’s post and William Evans’ post, both of which I like). No doubt, revivalistic, hyper-experiential, adoctrinal, deeds-not-creeds, tell-me-the-exact-moment-you-were-born-again, go-conquer-the-world-for-Christ Christianity has a load of problems. If that’s pietism, then I want no part of it.
But I want a certain kind of confessionalism. I want a confessionalism that believes in Spirit-given revival, welcomes deep affections, affirms truth-driven experience, and understands that the best creeds should result in the best deeds. I want a confessionalism that believes in the institutional church and expects our Christian faith to impact what we do in the world and how we do it. I want a confessionalism that is not ashamed to speak of conversion—dramatic conversion for some, unnoticed conversion for many.
I want a confessionalism that preaches and practices deep piety. Whether this is labeled “pietism” or just part of our rich confessional tradition doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that we have ministers and parishioners who realize there is an external and internal dimension to the faith. I want Christians to know that going to church, hearing the word, reciting the creeds, singing the hymns, and partaking of the sacraments is not peripheral to the Christian life; it is our lifeblood. And I also want Christians who do all those things every week to pray in “their closets,” look for opportunities to share the gospel with the lost, submit to Christ’s lordship in every area of life, and understand that true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance” that not only others, but they too “have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21).