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Pietism and Confessionalism Round Up

Ligon Duncan started things off with a short post called Bavinck v. Nevin.

Then William Evans weighed in by reminding us that we need Bavinck’s warning against spiritual presumption and Nevin’s caution against conversionistic piety.

I entered the fray arguing for a confessionalism that is rich in piety and does not shun the good contributions of pietism (part one, part two, part three).

Next came Darryl Hart, who imagined a conspiracy was afoot when my initial post disappeared (I just hit the wrong button on my computer and posted it too soon). Hart went on to explain his disagreements with my posts here and quoted Nevin on revival here.

Back to Ref21, William Evans later argued that the issue is not about pietism and confessionalism as much as it is about different models of piety, one the stresses nurture and one that emphasizes conversion. Good point, and I would argue that churches should nurture faith in their covenant children, while also preaching/teaching in such a way that stresses the importance of heart transformation.

Yesterday Michael Horton posted a great piece that explores the historical dimensions of the discussion. This is a helpful summary:

We desperately need to recover the emphasis evident in a host of New Testament passages that celebrate the gradual, ordered, organic work of the Spirit through ordinary means.  At the same time, the  promise is not only “for you and your children,” but also “for those who are far off.”  Regardless of whether one is pro- or anti-revival, it’s one thing to imagine that one can manipulate God into sending revival by “new measures” and “excitements” and quite another to pray and hope for seasons of greater blessing.  Writers like Iain Murray who speak of revival as the Spirit’s extraordinary blessing on his ordinary means of grace stand in a long line of “experimental Calvinism.”  If revivalism is antithetical to “the system of the Catechism” (and I agree that it is), it is nevertheless true also that confessional Protestants have often prayed for special periods of awakening and revival.  Pro-revival Calvinists include the Puritans and the great Princetonians (Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield), not just Edwards and Whitefield. So the debate over the meaning and legitimacy of “revival” is in-house.  There is no historical justification for pro-revival or anti-revival Calvinists to write each other out of this heritage.

Then Horton makes three concluding points worth repeating.

1. Regardless of the historical accuracy of our definitions, what we call “pietism” today is different from the piety exhibited in the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage.  To the extent that “pietism” conjures the picture of a personal relationship with Christ and an immediate work of the Spirit over against the public means of grace and ministry of the church, it is inimical to Reformed piety.

2. At least in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, “confessionalism” is just as unhelpful a description.  I know what it means to be confessional: it’s to affirm that Scripture so clearly reveals “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” that churches can recognize and affirm this faith together across all times and places.  But what exactly is a “confessionalist”?  Typically, this is a swear-word hurled at those who are simply confessional.  However, sometimes it is worn proudly as a label by anti-pietists. If “pietism” sets the inward work of the Spirit over against the external means of grace, “confessionalism”—in some versions, at least—simply reverses the antithesis.  This is a dangerous opposition that is foreign to the Reformed confession.  And that leads to the third point.

3. For some—on both sides of the debate, “confessionalism” is in danger of becoming identified with extreme views that are opposed to the actual teaching of our confessions.  The Belgic Confession treats the marks of the true Christian (faith in Christ, following after righteousness, love of God and neighbor, mortification of the flesh) in the same article as the marks of the true church (Art 29).  Although assurance of God’s favor is founded solely on his promise of justification in Christ, “we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86).  Personal faith, repentance, and growth in godliness are enjoined in the Westminster Confession (chapters 13-16).  There is no hint of the public and corporate means of grace being opposed to one’s personal relationship to Christ.  It would be ironic—and tragic—if “confessionalism” became identified with positions that are actually inimical to the confessions themselves.  Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin have become flag-bearers for Calvinistic “pietism” and “confessionalism,” respectively.  However, in my view, both are somewhat idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition.  To move beyond polarization, we need to include more mainstream voices through the ages.

All in all, I would say this is a healthy conversation. I’m glad we’re having it.

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