White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Piety vs. Pietism / Confessional vs. Confessionalism

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.

WHI-1045 | Stricken, Smitten & Afflicted

Continuing their series through the book of Acts, the hosts arrive at chapter 8 where they find Philip talking with an Ethiopian about the meaning of Isaiah 53, which says in part, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Like Philip, the hosts take this opportunity to walk through the text of the original prophecy, showing how the Servant Songs of Isaiah are ultimately fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ. White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it.

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The Atonement
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Pierced for Our Transgressions
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E-Pop

How is He changing me?

One of the more embarrassing campfire ditties I sang way back when went a little like this:

He’s changing me, my precious Jesus
I’m not the same person that I used to be
Sometimes it’s slow-going, but there’s a knowing
That one day perfect I will be!

When it comes to our progress in the Christian life, I think this chorus reflects an overly optimistic view that we all have (even if we wouldn’t dare admit to singing that particular song): the Christian life is always upward, victory upon victory, making small but regular advances toward the perfection that will be ours in our glorification. But is that the way our Christian life actually looks? Is that the right way to define progress?

These questions become especially pressing whenever we turn inward to consider the work that Jesus is doing in our lives. If you’re anything like me, you wonder how much Jesus is really doing when you can see next to nothing that is commendable in your life. And after a few times of venturing into the dark chasm of my inner-man, I stop making the journey because I know that it will become a never-ending and despair-inducing search for what does not exist. But of course the problem here is that I have misunderstood what it is that is commendable to God.

The work that God does in me does not commend me to him–that is, it isn’t the basis of my standing before him; only Jesus and his perfect righteousness can put me on a sure foundation before God. Instead, the work that God is doing in me bears witness to the act of God already accomplished, to the verdict of “not guilty” already announced over me intruding into this life from the Day of Judgment.

When I understand God’s work in that way, I don’t just look inwardly for evidence of my obedience; I also look for evidence of my repentance. Any good thing that I do is a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in me and is rightly counted a progress in the Christian faith. So too, any recognition of sin and failure, any longing for the fullness of eternal life, any feeling of the ache that recognizes in me a life not yet in line with the promise is also a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and should be rightly counted as progress in the Christian faith.

When we consider that God is changing us, not just by making us do better things but recognize and repent of our sin, our view of progress changes. Our good friend, Tullian Tchividjian, wrote up a great blog post on this very subject. As you prepare to worship God this Sunday, we commend it to you:

[R]eal change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is “not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us.” Sanctification involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”

Read the rest.

Mike Horton on Rob Bell with Tony Jones

On Sunday afternoon, Mike Horton was a special guest on the Doug Pagitt Radio program in Minneapolis on AM950. The show’s guest host that day was Tony Jones, who works with Doug at Solomon’s Porch, an emergent church. Mike had referenced a book by Tony in a March WHI blog post on the internet and the church. That sparked a few blog comments and offline conversation between Mike and Tony, culminating in Tony’s invitation to Mike to participate in the show.

It was a great dialogue and it models how those who disagree can speak honestly about their disagreements without being flippant or dismissive. If you haven’t yet tired of the whole Rob Bell/Love Wins/hell and universalism dialogue, you should spend some time listening to the show from Sunday. In fact, even if you are tired of it all, you should listen to the show to get a better understanding of what we mean when we say that theological conversation is at the heart of what we do here at White Horse Inn. After all, if we only talk with those with whom we agree, the conversation will grow dull and we will be ingrown and inattentive to what people are saying outside our circles. But by honestly engaging those outside our circles, we are able to better articulate what we believe and why it matters.

We’re grateful to Tony Jones and the Doug Pagitt Radio show for the opportunity to join an important conversation. You can read Tony’s thoughts on the conversation here.

WHI-1044 | Words of Life

In Acts chapter 5 we read that the apostles were arrested and imprisoned for speaking about Jesus, and that an angel set them free and spoke to them about their mission. So what was it that the angel said? Did he mention anything about working for social justice? Was there anything about “being the gospel.” No, the angel simply told the apostles to go and “speak to the people all the words of this life.” And so they went back to teaching and preaching. On this edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts continue their series through the book of Acts as they unpack the implications of the Great Commission.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
The Message of Acts
John Stott
Why Johnny Can’t Preach
T. David Gordon

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Dave Hlebo

WHI-1043 | Faith in Christ Alone

What was the basic message of the world’s earliest Christian missionaries? Did they focus on psychological or emotional wellness, having your best life now, or moral or political agendas? Is the essence of Christianity living life Jesus’ way? On this program the hosts continue to unpack the radical message of the Great Commission as it’s unpacked throughout the book of Acts. Focusing on chapters 3 and 4, they discuss the early emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection, and the fact that there is “no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.”

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
Christ Alone
Rod Rosenbladt
Let’s Study Acts
Dennis Johnson

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Doug Powell

Horton on Biblical Theology

The good folks over at The Resurgence asked Mike Horton to write up a short piece on biblical theology. Here’s his conclusion:

Biblical theology is essential if we’re going to feel the Bible’s own pulse and follow its unfolding plot. Without it, systematic theology can easily succumb to a deductivist scheme. Going back to the street-map analogy, it’s easy to deduce where roads must go because of the map even if they don’t! Yet it can never be used as a rival of systematic theology. Christ was not only crucified and raised; he was “crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.” Doctrine arises from the drama, indicating the significance of God’s acts in creation, redemption, and consummation.

Read the whole thing.

Live at The Gospel Coalition

Our friends at The Gospel Coalition have invited us to record a live taping of the White Horse Inn in the Skyline Ballroom at the McCormick Place in Chicago on Tuesday, April 12th at 5:30 p.m. All four hosts will be in Chicago to discuss the important relationship between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment:

The Great Commission (making disciples through the gospel) and the Great Commandment (serving our neighbors through loving works) can neither be separated or confused. What is the relationship between the church’s divine mission and the Christian’s high calling? What is the relationship between our worship and our vocations? The hosts of the White Horse Inn want to equip Christians to know what they believe and why they believe it!

If you were at the Desiring God conference last September, you got to see first hand how much fun a live recording is. We’re very grateful to the folks at The Gospel Coalition for this opportunity. We have one or two other live tapings planned at other national conferences this year and next. We’ll post more information on that as plans are finalized.

We’ll be recording during the dinner break, but you’ll have time to grab something to eat before or after the recording.

Last Week for “Kick Off” Rate on WHI Cruise

This is the last week to get the “Kick Off” rate for our January 2011 cruise. As I mentioned in the last blog post, the “Kick Off” rates for this cruise are as low as you can find at other websites that specialize in finding budget deals on cruises. So, you’re not just getting a great cruise filled with great content and opportunities for interaction with the White Horse Inn hosts, you’re getting it as cheap as you can probably find it anywhere!

Last week we were at the Ligonier National Conference in Orlando, Florida and got to speak to many of you who are considering coming with us on the cruise. After explaining what we hoped to do while out at sea to one lady, she looked at her husband and said, “we have GOT to be on that boat!” I hope that you share her enthusiasm! Let me share just a little bit more about our plans.

In a day and age like ours when too much inter-personal communication is decidedly NOT personal, we have to make the effort to have face to face interactions. That’s especially true for the work that we do here at White Horse Inn. We love producing a radio program and a magazine, but the interpersonal communication that takes place at events or through notes and phone calls that we receive from you is what really motivates us to continue our work. That’s the great value of this cruise: we’re building lots of opportunities for real interaction to take place while we’re on board the ship.

We want to hear from you, and not just about the impact that White Horse Inn has had on your Reformation pilgrimage. We want to hear from you and partner with you in creating 95 Theses for a Modern Reformation. That’s why the theme for the cruise is “Conversations for a Modern Reformation.” For 20 years we’ve been proud to host that conversation on the airwaves and in the pages of our magazine. Now, we want you to join that conversation: to put pen to paper, to pull up a chair, to think out loud with us about the future of the church.

Some of you have already registered to come with us. Thank you! In a few weeks we’ll be sending some information and materials to you to help prepare you for our time together. If you haven’t yet registered, be sure to take advantage of this last week of low fares. Starting April 1, the fares go up a little bit.

We only have about 150 cabins and when they’re gone, we won’t be able to welcome any more of you onboard. So, please make your decision as soon as possible! You can register here. We’re looking forward to seeing you in January.

WHI-1042 | Word & Sacrament

Many Christians today are preoccupied with the extraordinary over the ordinary. They see God at work only in the big events such as revival meetings or stadium sized worship events. But in the second chapter of Acts we find the apostles engaged in the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Is this merely “church-ianity” or is this the apostolic fulfillment of the Great Commission? That’s our topic for this week as the hosts continue their study of Acts chapter 2.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
The Preached God: Proclamation in Word & Sacrament
Gerhard Forde
A Better Way
Michael Horton

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Zack Hicks

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