Proponents of confessionalism often turn to John Williamson Nevin (1803-86) for support. And with good reason. Nevin introduced the so-called Mercerburg theology, a kind of high church Calvinism which stressed the churchly, liturgical, sacramental, and clerical elements of the faith.
In his most famous work, The Anxious Bench (1844), Nevin attacked the revivalistic system that made surprising conversions the norm and weakened the role of the institutional church. He maintained that Finney’s New Measures could not be reconciled with the older method of lifelong catechesis: “The spirit of the Anxious Bench is at war with the spirit of the Catechism” (62). On one hand, you have the system of the Bench which “makes conversion, in its own sense, to be the all in all of the gospel economy and the development of the Christian life subsequently a mere secondary interest” (70). On the other hand, you have the system of the Catechism which believes in sermons, systematic instruction, pastoral visitation, catechetical training, attention to order and discipline, and patient perseverance (61). These two systems are altogether different. You must choose one or the other. And according to Nevin, “It must be ever a wretched choice, when the Bench is preferred to the Catechism” (63).
Nevin was concerned that the New Measures were putting all the attention on bending the will to make a decision for Christ in a moment of great existential angst. By contrast, the better method of ministry is the slow, deliberate, ordinary work of preaching, worship, sacraments, discipline, instruction, and catechism. Nevin is right: the best ministries are “constant, regular, earnest; not marked with noise and parade; but like the common processes of nature, silent rather, deep, and full of invisible power” (76).
Old School, New Side
But it would be a mistake to read The Anxious Bench as a blanket attack on revival, religious fervor, or experiential Christianity. According to Darryl Hart, Nevin later moved away from his Princetonian pro-revival training (John Williamson Nevin, 101-103). But in 1844 at least—in his work that is usually seen as a devastating polemic against evangelical pietism—Nevin was decidedly not against the Great Awakening. Nevin opposed the New Measures, but in The Anxious Bench he puts his lot squarely with the New Side Presbyterians.
Nevin was not anti-conversion. He believed in “sudden conversions in later life, attended with experience more or less violent.” Conversions like this “under the proper circumstances are entitled to entire confidence and may be expected to occur frequently under faithful ministrations on the part of the Church.” The error “is in making this the exclusive conception of the process” (68).
Likewise, Nevin was not anti-revival. Because of the abuses of revival, some maintained strong prejudice “against everything of the sort.” But in truth, true revivals “belong constitutionally to the system of the Catechism” (74). Although the system of the Catechism “makes more account of the regular, the ordinary, and the general than it does the occasional and the special” it does not “by any means preclude the presence of what is out of the usual way” (72). Indeed, “For such special showers of grace, it is the privilege of the Church to hope, and her duty to pray, at all times. To call in question either the reality or the desirableness of them, is a monstrous skepticism, that may be said to border on the sin of infidelity itself. They are the natural product of the proper life of the church” (72-73).
Less Bathwater, More Baby
Nevin was careful to say what the system of the Bench did and did not entail. He didn’t want to lift up the Catechism by pulling down every good thing that might be associated with revivalism and the Bench.
In this system, room is found naturally and easily, of course, for all evangelical interests. It is a prodigious abuse of terms when some of the most vital and prominent of these are crowded out of their proper place, and made to stand in another connection entirely; when social prayer-meetings, for instance, and the various missionary and benevolent operations of the Church, are divorced in imagination from the regular life of Christianity, and ranked in the same bad category with such tricks of human device as the anxious bench. Family prayer, and social prayer, belong as much as private prayer itself, to the very nature of the Church. The spirit of missions is identical with the spirit of Christianity. For a church or a minister to oppose prayer-meetings, or efforts to send the gospel to the heathen, or efforts to raise up faithful ministers, or to circulate Bibles and tracts, for the promotion of genuine godliness at home, is to oppose Christ. We hear, it is true, of churches and ministers that look upon all these things as fanaticism, while they pretend to honor the good old way of the Catechism; but such ministers and churches, in the emphatic language of the apostle, “lie and do not tell the truth.” They honor neither the Catechism, nor the Bible, or Christ. And the evidence of this appears invariably in the fact, that the same ministers and churches hate all serious, earnest godliness, are perfectly worldly in their temper, make no account of the new birth, and show no sense of religion whatever any farther than as it may be supposed to consist in a decent morality, and an outward use, to some extent, of its standing ordinances. (72)
At times, Nevin could sound downright pietistic:
Dead churches and dead ministers that turn catechetical instruction into an empty form, and make no account of inward living piety, as a necessary qualification for membership in the Church of Jesus Christ, have no right most assuredly to identify themselves with the system of the Catechism. . . . God forbid that we should countenance for a moment that dreadful supposition that the work of the ministry calls for no special zeal, no missionary devotion, no full and entire consecration to Christ, no earnest concern for the salvation of immortal souls; or that a church may be considered in a right state, where the voice of prayer is silent, the tear of penitence unknown, the hand of benevolence palsied, the language of Canaan despised, and, the power of godliness treated as an idle dream. A church without life is an abomination in the sight of God. (71)
If nothing else, I’ve written these posts on confessionalism to get to that paragraph. I love the Catechism (I wrote a book on one!). I love the church (and wrote a book on that too). I don’t believe I’ve been shy to criticize the shallowness of evangelical theology and the general adoctrinal nature of contemporary evangelicalism. I like much of what I read from the proponents of confessionalism. I’ve always thought of myself as a confessional Christian, ministering in a confessional church. But I’ve learned over the years that confessionalism is not, by itself, Christlikeness. I’m not suggesting anyone is saying exactly that. I just don’t want young Presbyterian pastors and young, restless, Reformed Christians to think that a passion for evangelism, or small group Bible study, or doing good in the world, or a concern for piety, or an insistence on private prayer and inner experience is somehow antithetical to being good Calvinist churchmen. Most of the time I’m after the evangelical pietists to be more confessional. But I also believe those in the confessional tradition can easily lose the vibrancy, sincerity, warmth, and personal piety that have marked experiential Christianity at its best, from the Dutch Reformation to the Puritans to the Great Awakening to neo-evangelicalism. Provided we define our terms thoughtfully, confessionalism and pietism can be friends. In fact, we would all do well to introduce one to the other.