Confessionalists and Pietists

When I was in seminary way back when, I read Donald Dayton’s Discoveing an Evangelical Heritage. Dayton reminded evangelicals that their 19th century forebears were social activists that supported the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, labor reform and other causes now deemed “liberal” or “progressive”. Dayton’s thesis was that what became the “social gospel” movement was rooted firmly in an earlier form of evangelical piety.

I recently read D. G. Hart’s The Lost Soul of American Protestantism which makes a similar argument: the progressive liberalism of mainstream Christianity and the social conservatism of evangelicalism are both children of what he calls Anglo-American revivalism that began with the Great Awakenings. Revivalism itself was the child of continental pietism.

The sort of religion heralded by the revivals of the First Great Awakening is chiefly responsible for the triumph of a utilitarian view of faith. The itinerant evangelists of these revivals, as well as their successors, transformed Christianity from a churchly and routine affair into one that was intense and personal. The conversion experience marked the beginning of this new form of faith. But it was only the start. True converts were expected to prove the authenticity of their faith through lives that were visibly different from nonbelievers. Indeed, the demand for a clear distinction between the ways of the faithful and those of the world not only propelled many of the social reforms associated with evangelicalism but also provided the foundation for viewing Christianity in practical categories. If faith was supposed to make a difference in all areas of life, not just on Sunday but on every day of the week, it is no wonder that the emphasis in Protestant circles shifted from church forms of devotion to one that should be seen in personal affairs, community life and national purpose. In other words, the cycle of revivals throughout American religious history, inaugurated by the First Great Awakening, secured the victory of pietism within American Protestantism. Like its European antecedents, American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrasts, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one transformed individuals, starting with their heart and seeping into all walks of life.

Hart also argues, however, that historians have ignored a “third way” within American Christian history. Hart identifies this stream as confessionalism.

Confessional Protestants resisted revivals in large part because the methods of the evangelists and the piety expected of converts were generically Christian – sincerity, zeal and a moral life. As a result, revivalism did not respect but in fact undermined the importance of creedal subscription, ordination and liturgical order. In a word, confessionalists opposed revivalism because it spoke a different religious idiom, one that was individualistic, experiential, and perfectionistic, as opposed to the corporate, doctrinal and liturgical idiom of historic Protestantism.

The pietists, Hart says, won. Confessionalism lost and persevered primarily in small, ethnically based denominations.

One way to measure this defeat is to ask any American Protestant if the Apostle’s Creed, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the ministry of the local pastor is as important as personal times of prayer and Bible study, meeting with other Christians in small groups, witnessing to non-Christians, or volunteering at the local shelter for the homeless.

Pietism fit America. Hart’s history of pietism and American culture is a great read.It’s particularly interesting to discover that before 1960, it was the mainstream or progressive side of the aisle that most saw itself aligned with American history and values.

My own Christian history belongs within the pietist movement. I was reared in a church that sang “Just as I Am” at the conclusion of every worship service and called for those accepting Christ to come forward. Yet I’ve come to believe in a form of Christianity that is at least as corporate as it is personal, that is sometimes intense but often routine, and that is confessional and liturgical at its heart. Creeds and confessions matter. What we believe matters. And, yes, I think to be a Christian is to be churchly. When I hear people disparage the routine, ordinary Sunday observances of word and sacrament by God’s assembled people, I cringe.

How did I come to be a confessionalist of sorts? The trend in post-modern Christianity is precisely in the other direction.

The church in which I grew up was both churchly and evangelical. It taught young people classes on something it called “churchmanship.” It would not have used these words, but its liturgy and corporate life were central to what it meant to be a Christian.

The pastor of the congregation in which I was originally ordained was a leader of the ACLU in North Carolina. You can imagine how socially active and politically vocal that church was, but boy did they know how to worship. The church’s constitution said, “The purpose of the church is to worship God.”

Some of the earliest pietists took their ecclesiastical foundations for granted. John Wesley, for example, was thoroughly immersed in the pietism of his day; he was also rooted in a churchly form of Christianity. His Methodist movement existed originally as a renewal movement within the Church of England, with its creeds and liturgy and Book of Common Prayer taken for granted. He expected his people to use the churchly means of grace. When American Methodists became an independent church, separate from the Church of England, Wesley sent them a liturgical prayer book adapted from the Book of Common Prayer. It never caught on in a church driven by the revivalist spirit. The lack of education and sparse conditions on the frontier surely played a role in that, but so did a suspicion of liturgical forms. The revivalists thought that proper liturgy was a poor substitute for religious zeal.

Pietists like Wesley saw dead churchmanship as the greatest threat to true faith. By neglecting the confessional foundation, however, we lose our identity. Without a confessional basis, warm hearts and open minds and catholic spirits can take you anywhere.

But if I have become a kind of confessionalist Christian, blame one of Wesley’s modern-day preachers. In 1980 I belonged to a sort of book club for preachers in the town where I lived. One month the group read William Willmon’s Remember Who You Are: Baptism, A Model for Christian Life and I was blown away.  Willimon’s emphasis on what God does in baptism – in the church – objectively and apart from my feelings about it or my inner experience – put me on a trajectory toward a more confessional view of Christianity. Later, the church fathers and the 16th century reformers would continue to take me in that direction. But it is Willimon’s book, along with Dietrich Bohoeffer’s Life Together, that I return to time and again. Each in its own way roots Christianity in God’s actions for us in Christ and given to us in the corporate life of the church.