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Piety vs. Pietism / Confessional vs. Confessionalism

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One of the great things about movements is that they can bring together people from diverse backgrounds for a common cause. One of the dangerous things about movements is that they can create artificial positions that undermine the integrity of institutions that have grown organically through the years.

In recent discussions, especially in the blogosphere, “pietism vs. confessionalism” has provoked fresh debate. Some of it is helpful. Some of it, in my view, is not. The much-publicized “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement tends to side with pietism in this debate. While passionate critics of the nearly Pelagian revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Charles Finney), this movement’s leaders are equally ardent defenders of the First Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield). Then the “confessionalists” (some of them, at least) claim John Williamson Nevin in his famous contrast between “the system of the Catechism” and “the system of the anxious bench.”

Lines in the Sand
As is often the case with movements, there is always a danger of raising flags that each side can salute and under which each side can defend its territory—even if these positions are of rather recent origin.  The hard-and-fast categories of “pietism” and “confessionalism” can easily fall into this over-simplification.

When you look back at Lutheran and Reformed churches in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth churches, it’s a lot harder to identify the clear lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists.” Especially in the Reformed tradition, many of the formative figures in what’s called “orthodoxy” or “Reformed scholasticism” were also defenders of further reformation in doctrine and life.  They not only wrote doctrinal treatises and liturgies, but devotional guides, prayers, and resources for evangelism and missions.

For example, there is Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676).  A pastor at a time of great turmoil in the Dutch Reformed Church, Voetius was used by God to convert many Roman Catholics and to defend the gospel against the rising challenges of the Remonstrants (Arminians).  Voetius rose to prominence as a leading delegate at the Synod of Dort.  Appointed first as professor of Oriental science (teaching Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac) at the University of Utrecht, he also taught physics and theology, eventually becoming the rector (president) of the University.   Among the first critics of the new rationalism associated with René Descartes, one of Voetius’s students wrote a dissertation that was so persuasive that Descartes himself felt obliged to write a refutation.  In Voetius we find not only an ardent defender of the Reformed confession but one who played a prominent role in drafting one of them: the Canons of the Synod of Dort.  Defending the confession against Arminianism, he also challenged a rising tide of mysticism, identified with Jean de Labadie, who called for a separation of truly sanctified believers from the institutional church.  At the same time, his first book was The Proof of Godliness and he was especially ardent in his defense of the Christian Sabbath over against fellow Reformed theologian Johannes Cocceius. In addition, Voetius was was a pioneer of Reformed missions.

Meanwhile, the leading defenders of further reformation in England were nicknamed “puritans” by their detractors, because they wanted to pursue more serious discipleship and reforms in church government.  They decried the nominalism of state churches, while warning also against Anabaptist mysticism and separatism.  It’s hard to call them pietists, since this term has come to be identified with an individualistic, unchurchly, and enthusiastic tendency.  But they could hardly be dismissed as advocates of “dead orthodoxy."

William Perkins, the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, was a staunch Anglican whose book, The Reformed Catholic, reminds us that reformation, not radicalism, was the goal.  The “spiritual brotherhood” that led from Perkins to Richard Sibbes to Thomas Goodwin was cut from the same cloth, despite growing differences between episcopal, presbyterian, and independent views of church government (respectively).

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were drafted by “Puritans.”  From these documents one cannot detect any internal conflict between a high view of the church’s ministry (Word, sacrament, and discipline) and a clear delineation of the need for personal conversion and piety.  It was not a “church-within-a-church”—the truly regenerated remnant within the institutional church—that these divines encouraged, but a visible church truly reformed according to God’s Word.  Anyone looking for a clear line between confessional orthodoxy and concern for personal piety will not find much support in these writers.  The body of their work, from Perkins to John Owen, exhibits a fuller range of interest than “pietism versus confessionalism” might suggest.

Not all pastors and theologians of the official churches in The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and elsewhere were advocates of the “further reformation.”  Some staunch Reformed leaders in the Church of England, for example, were nevertheless opposed to the reforms in church government and piety that Puritans encouraged.  Nevertheless, the lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists” are not as thick as contemporary debates often suggest.

Revival, Anyone?
“Pietists” and “confessionalists” are in danger today of making one’s stance toward “revival” a litmus test of fellowship.  This is hardly new, of course.  Many Reformed Christians have been opposed to the idea of revival as subverting the ordinary means of grace, encouraging Christians to look for spiritual vitality in surprising and extraordinary works of the Spirit.  Isn’t this like trying to pull Christ down from heaven or descend into the depths to bring him up from the dead, when he is actually as near as the preached Word, as Paul instructed in Romans 10?  It certainly can be, and has been.  Our generation is especially given to enthusiastic hyperbole.  It’s not enough that God’s covenant mercies be experienced through Christian nurture in the home and church, gradually over a lifetime.  Authentic conversion and piety require adjectives like “radical,” “glorious,” “overpowering,” and so forth.  This longing for spontaneous, unmediated, and visible experiences of grace often creates impatience and ingratitude for God’s normal way of working.  Some Calvinists have fallen into spiritual depression waiting for the revival that never came.

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.

So what does all of this mean for the current discussion?  Several things could be mentioned:


  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.



As I suggested at the beginning, debates like this one point up the benefits and dangers of movements.  “Iron sharpens iron,” and it’s helpful to move out of our parochial rooms from time to time and mingle in the hallway.  It’s easy for healthy emphases to sink into unhealthy fetishes; we need the occasional diversion.  Movements, with their conferences, blogs, books, and sound-bites can provide occasions for these “hallway” conversations. Yet they are not churches, where we are bathed, clothed, fed, taught, and raised.

Let’s stop expecting too much of the hallway and let it be what it is: a place for mingling conversation.  Movements have no authority to marginalize or excommunicate, but they can provide opportunities for mutual admonition and edification.  As for me and my house, our church’s confession will continue to articulate my own understanding of the Bible’s faith and piety.  And a movement—whether “pietist” or “confessionalist” is no substitute for that.
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  • Insightful post. One thing I wanted to comment on: the phrasing in your first point there at the end is slightly confusing and took a few rereads. The emphasis in the final sentence seems to be on "personal relationship with Christ... is inimical to..." I recognize that's not what you're saying (your third point clarifies that, if nothing else), but even just italicizing the "over against" in that sentence might help your meaning come through more clearly. In any case, I hope my comment might illuminate that chunk if anyone else comes through reading as densely as I obviously was!

    I appreciate most of all here your recognition of the hallway: TGC, and evangelicalism in general, are a wonderful public forum for us all to mix in—but, as Lewis pointed out, we all have to go back to our own houses at the end of the day; all sorts of problems will arise if we decide to live out on the village green. Let it serve its purpose (a good purpose), and do not try to force it to do more than it ought.

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  • [...] Piety vs. Pietism [...]

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  • [...] background and are a frequenter of theological blogs, youve heard those words a fair bit. Michael Horton (host of the White Horse Inn) has an insightful discussion of the supposed dichotomy between the two sides, arguing that the lines between [...]

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  • [...] Piety vs. Pietism / Confessional vs. Confessionalism - Theres been a helpful debate on reformed blogs lately about pietism vs confessionalism. Dr. Mike Horton gives very helpful comments on the topic. For a more information on the debate, check out Kevin DeYoungs roundup. [...]

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  • Guest - dghart

    I wonder if folks would be more willing to choose between the two if pietism were defined this way:

    "Among other things, the Pietists emphasized:

    a truly reformed church, characterized by small group Bible studies and increased lay participation in various aspects of ministry;

    individual devotional lives revolving around Bible study and prayer;

    the importance of right living. In other words, the Pietists believed that Christianity should be characterized by more than just thinking the right things about God, it should be characterized by living in ways that demonstrated one's commitment to God;

    the importance of a "heart-felt" faith, sometimes called the "new birth."

    In many ways, the Pietists' concerns mirrored those of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, which likewise claimed the Protestant Reformation had not reformed the church as thoroughly as it needed to be reformed. On the other hand, Pietism was malleable enough to be combined with other theological traditions besides Anabaptism. Jakob Spener was himself a Lutheran minister, and he believed his emphases meshed well with Lutheran theology. The English Puritans combined Pietist emphases with their Calvinist theology, and another Englishman, John Wesley, incorporated Pietist emphases into the eighteenth-century Methodist movement (see Wesleyanism). (From http://www.messiah.edu/siderinstitute/pietism.html)

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  • [...] Even if you arent up to date on the discussion, I recommend reading Mike Hortons contribution to the [...]

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  • Mike

    Darryl writes: 'In other words, the Pietists believed that Christianity should be characterized by more than just thinking the right things about God, it should be characterized by living in ways that demonstrated one’s commitment to God.'

    Darrl seems to dismayed by Christianity that goes beyond 'thinking right things about God'. Do you agree with him for I am reading with a discussion group 'The Gospel-driven life' and understood you and DGH to be on the same page? It seems I may be wrong. I wonder if you could clarify?

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  • Guest - Mike Horton

    John, Darryl and I are good friends and, yes, we're on the same page about the need to recover the ordinary means of grace at a time when evangelicalism (and much of the Reformed/Presbyterian world) seems obsessed with "something else." I just think that, historically, the Reformed tradition has been less divided than the Lutheran tradition between "orthodox" and "pietist." Reformed "pietists" (like the Puritans) were formative in our confessional history. I just don't want to see the healthy critiques turn into polarizations that force us to react against even aspects of piety that are part of our Reformed confession.

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  • Guest - Mitchell Hammonds

    It seems in Scripture that true piety is descriptive of the Christian life... without "it" being the focal point of the Christian's life. Having said this I would also add we (Christians) aren't very good at being pious... at least not in the true Biblical sense.

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  • Guest - Tim Henwood

    I have come to this article from a perspective of ignorance and as an immature Christian still very much seeking from a personal perspective as opposed to the corporate one. I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 'Life Together'. I came across this statement: 'For the salvation of his soul let [the confessant] guard against ever making a pious work of his confession.' To understand better, I Googled the phrase and your blog came up. So my remarks are more focussed on the personal act of confession and the risk of this becoming a pious work- something Bonhoeffer says ‘will become the final, most abominable , vicious and impure prostitution of the heart’. I suspect that the principle is the same in the matter of confession of our faith whether as a corporate or individual.

    As with all matters where we seek to interact with God I think it is not how we interact even in confession but why we interact. Our purpose is in what we seek rather than how we seek- in my case forgiveness.

    Bonhoeffer goes on to say this: 'It is only God's offer of grace, help and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession. We can confess solely for the sake of the promise of absolution. Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life. The forgiveness of sins is the sole ground and goal of confession.’

    Whether we apply “the system of the Catechism” or “the system of the anxious bench”, is totally unimportant because God is surely not looking at how we do things but why we do them. It is interesting that Bonhoeffer also says that ‘it is not a good thing for one person to be the confessor for all others. All too easily this one person will be overburdened; thus confession will become for him an empty routine, and this will give rise to the disastrous misuse for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls’- I wonder how many will be reminded of church leaders and Churches when considering this.

    Perhaps this is oversimplifying the matter?

    Rather I think that we should use all means possible to reach a state of absolute confession in the understanding that our tiny human minds need change and variety to ensure that we focus on the real objective- in my case true confession of our sins and in the other case the confession of our faith. That is perhaps why our Churches wax and
    wane so that the church of Christ can survive to minister to us.

    Personally: I’m always up for a revival! On reflection isn’t that what confession is all about- reviving ourselves?

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