Search this blog

Those outside Presbyterian circles may not be aware (and may not care), but there has been a lot of discussion over the past few years about the dangers of pietism and how it differs radically from the older (read: better) model of confessionalism. Pietism, it is said, emphasizes dramatic conversions, tends toward individualism, pushes for unity based on shared experience, and pays little attention to careful doctrinal formulation. Confessionalism, on the other hand, is a more churchly tradition, with creeds and catechisms and liturgy. It emphasizes the ordinary means of word and sacrament and prizes church order and the offices. It is pro-ritual, pro-clergy, and pro-doctrine, where pietism, it is said, stands against all these things.

I am sympathetic with much of this critique of evangelical pietism. I agree with Darryl Hart's contention in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism that American evangelicalism has tried too hard to be relevant, has largely ignored organic church growth by catechesis, has too often elevated experience at the expense of doctrine, has minimized the role of the institutional church, and has worn out a good number of Christians by assuming that every churchgoer is an activist and crusader more than a pilgrim. Confessionalism would be good tonic for much of what ails the evangelical world.

Concern for Confessionalism

And yet, I worry that confessionalism without a strong infusion of the pietism it means to correct, can be a cure just as bad as the disease. Is there a way to reject revivalism without discounting genuine revival in the Great Awakening? Can I like Machen and Whitefield? Is there a way to say, "Yes, the church has tried too hard to Christianize every area of life" while still believing that our private faith should translate into public action? Hart argues that after revivalism Christian devotion was no longer limited to "formal church activities on Sunday or other holy days," but "being a believer now became a full-time duty, with faith making demands in all areas of life" (13). Given the thrust of the book, I think it's safe to say Hart finds this troubling.

Further, Hart clearly sides with the Old Side in New England that opposed the Great Awakening, its emphasis on inner experience, and the insistence that ministers be able to give an account of God's work in their hearts (32-42). While I agree wholeheartedly that experience does not a Christian make, I wish the strong confessional advocates would do more to warn against the real danger of dead orthodoxy. It is possible to grow up in a Christian home, get baptized as an infant, get catechized, join the church, take the Lord's Supper, be a part of a church your whole life and not be a Christian. It is possible to grow up in an Old World model where you inherit a church tradition (often along ethnic lines), and stay in that church tradition, but be spiritually dead. There are plenty of students at Hope College and Calvin College (just to name two schools from my tradition) who are thoroughly confessional as a matter of form, but not converted.

I have no hesitation in commending confessionalism. My concern is that pietism–with its private Bible study, small group prayer, insistence on conversion, and the cultivation of "heart" religion–is frequently set against confessionalism. For example, Hart argues, "Confessional Protestantism invites another way of evaluating the making of believers. Its history demonstrates the importance of inheritance and the way that believers appropriate faith over a lifetime through the sustained ministry and counsel of pastors as opposed to the momentary crisis induced by the itinerant evangelist or the pressures of sitting around a fire at summer camp" (184). I like the first sentence, but why so negatively caricature the work of itinerant evangelists and the real conversions that may come at summer camp? I could be misreading Hart. Maybe he has no problem with any of these things. But when he says, "the central struggle throughout Protestantism's history has been between confessionalism and pietism, not evangelicalism and liberalism" (183), I worry that committed Presbyterians will steer clear of anything that gets painted with a broad brush as "pietism."

A Confessionalism with Deep Piety

We all feel and respond to different dangers (for example, see Ligon Duncan's post and William Evans' post, both of which I like). No doubt, revivalistic, hyper-experiential, adoctrinal, deeds-not-creeds, tell-me-the-exact-moment-you-were-born-again, go-conquer-the-world-for-Christ Christianity has a load of problems. If that's pietism, then I want no part of it.

But I want a certain kind of confessionalism. I want a confessionalism that believes in Spirit-given revival, welcomes deep affections, affirms truth-driven experience, and understands that the best creeds should result in the best deeds. I want a confessionalism that believes in the institutional church and expects our Christian faith to impact what we do in the world and how we do it. I want a confessionalism that is not ashamed to speak of conversion--dramatic conversion for some, unnoticed conversion for many.

I want a confessionalism that preaches and practices deep piety. Whether this is labeled "pietism" or just part of our rich confessional tradition doesn't matter to me. What matters is that we have ministers and parishioners who realize there is an external and internal dimension to the faith. I want Christians to know that going to church, hearing the word, reciting the creeds, singing the hymns, and partaking of the sacraments is not peripheral to the Christian life; it is our lifeblood. And I also want Christians who do all those things every week to pray in "their closets," look for opportunities to share the gospel with the lost, submit to Christ's lordship in every area of life, and understand that true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance" that not only others, but they too "have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation" (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21).

View Comments


74 thoughts on “Can Pietism and Confessionalism Be Friends? (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. dghart says:

    Paul, I appreciate your comment. I wish the Baylys could disagree as charitably as you do.

  2. dghart says:

    Joseph Bayly,

    Of course every struggle is theological. It’s the pietists who usually disagree with that point. Ecclesiology is doctrinal. Worship is doctrinal. Personal devotion is doctrinal. But pietists talk of feelings and experience.

    Truth be told, it was the pietist Presbyterians who couldn’t figure out a whit what Machen was going on about in the controversy with liberalism. It was the “evangelical” Presbyterians Charles Erdman (who wrote a biography of Dwight Moody and was premillennial) and Robert Speer (who claimed to be evangelical to his dying day) who opposed Machen in the General Assemblies of the 1920s and 1930s.

  3. Joseph Bayly says:

    And it was the “pietist” Lloyd-Jones that opposed Billy Graham for his anti-theological ecumenism.

  4. henrybish says:

    Joseph Bayly,

    As one who is not aware of this history, this is very interesting. Can you provide any quotes/sources for Lloyd-Jones’ opposition to Billy Graham? Did he not support a lot of what Billy Graham did?

    Also, you mention the pietist Presbyterians couldn’t figure out what Machen was going on about in the controversy with liberalism. Can you give some examples and explain what is the point you are making?


  5. Paul says: “In my view, Darryl is correct about his interaction with the Baylys. I think they banned him from their blog because he was intelligent in disagreeing with the Bros Bayly and not because he misconstrued what the Baylys said. However, the evidence is still on the baybyblog (until the brothers edit or delete it) so everyone can make up their own mind about why they banned him.”

    As much as I hate seeing this discussion derailed any further…

    Dr. Hart wasn’t banned because he disagreed with the Baylys. There are many, many comments by Dr. Hart on their blog going as far back as 2007, nearly all of which are disagreeable (in every sense of the word). Like you said, Paul, the record is all there on The Internets.

    BaylyBlog is consistently full of diverging viewpoints in the comments–some intelligent and thoughtful, others not. And the Baylys have demonstrated themselves to be longsuffering with those who attack them personally or miscontrue their positions. They’ve also demonstrated themselves to be open to correction. They may be firm, but they’re not defensive.

    What the Baylys have been is consistent in demanding that commenters on their blog fight fairly with one another. That should be perfectly clear to anyone who bothers to look. Hart wasn’t banned for misconstruing what the Baylys said, as you’ve suggested, but for violating this principle.

    Bans from BaylyBlog are rare, and have included those who agree with the Baylys but have refused to identify themselves publicly, for example. Anonymity is not fair fighting. Neither is the constant and deliberate misconstrual of fellow commenters, turning both careful arguments and simple questions into straw men–a fault Dr. Hart is manifestly guilty of. Dr. Hart’s constant refusal to engage in honest argumentation made reasonable debate in the comments section impossible.

    But, as Paul says, it’s all on public record.

    That being said, this blog is not about that blog. How about sticking to Pastor DeYoung’s arguments? His points are good and deserve attention. Obviously, he struck a nerve.

  6. Paul says:

    @Jacob Mentzel,
    Glad to see you backing up your boss Tim Bayly. Maybe there’s a raise for you coming up.

    As for whether what you say is actually true, I’ll leave it for others to make up their minds. I think what you’ve said is mostly false but anyone can follow the baylyblog for a few months and decide for themselves whether they think you guys are honest or not and are fair or not in dealing with those who disagree.

  7. henrybish says:

    Wasn’t Tim Bayly executive director at CBMW for a while? Is he really a bad man?

  8. Bobby Grow says:


    Thank you, nice post! I think you strike a nice balance between the way these two disparate views of so called pietism and confessionalism are usually situated. Interestingly there were some Puritans, the Free Grace kind, like Richard Sibbes (“The Heavenly Doctor”) and John Eaton et al. who seem to achieve the pose that you describe between both confessional/pietistic (Janice Knight calls this kind of spirituality and Puritanism The Spiritual Brethren vs. The Intellectual Fathers akin to William Perkins/Ames and contemporaneously some WTSc types). Anyway, I think it’s good to highlight that these two realities do not need to be dichotomized with a heart vs. head duality (Scripture doesn’t think in these terms, so neither should we).

  9. John Thomson says:


    Re MLJ and BG read ‘Evangelicalism Divided’ by Iain Murray. MLJ principally resisted BG’s ecumenism.

  10. henrybish says:



  11. David says:

    This is very good, and something I’ve been trying to articulate for a while. It really is just a matter of acknowledging, accepting and allowing for the work of the Spirit. One of the central issues causing this dichotomy is that most, if not all, synergistic churches espouse pietism and anathematize confessional practices.

    By necessity, the reverse has taken place on the ‘opposing’ side. The confessional traditions want to be disassociated with modern evangelicalism to the pains of having no point of comparison save a belief in Christ. The problem with this is that the essence and object of their piety is sound, while their means are often fanatical. An absolute disassociation on our part means a necessary disassociation, with the right acknowledgment on their part, of the Spirit’s metaphysical methods.

    What I have noticed as a result of disassociation is a lack of sin conviction among many young-restless reformed. What is acceptable should not be, license is being justified as freedom; and to confront a brother along these lines means you will be labeled an over-churched legalist. It seems to me that when we ignore the work of the Spirit in the sense that Kevin is challenging we lose our practice of discerning His work elsewhere. There is a general consensus of repentance in our communal liturgy, but the individual conviction has waned.

    Within the context of this watershed our Liturgy often gives off the stench of ‘control for fear of abuse’, where Paul’s boundaries to the Corinthians were permissive rather than normative our boundaries seem to be normative with no room to breath. This is why I appreciate Sovereign Grace so much, I love the Calvinistic-Revivalistic ethos and I want more of that as well.

  12. David Drake says:

    Does this sentence mean what I think it means?

    ” Hart argues that after revivalism Christian devotion was no longer limited to “formal church activities on Sunday or other holy days,” but “being a believer now became a full-time duty, with faith making demands in all areas of life” (13). Given the thrust of the book, I think it’s safe to say Hart finds this troubling.”

    Is Hart really arguing for limiting our faith to Sundays? And that our faith should not effect every area of life?

  13. Josh says:

    Love this! Thanks Kevin!

  14. dghart says:

    David Drake, Hart is arguing that teaching history on Monday or fixing leaks on Tuesday is different activity from worship and rest on Sunday. Hart is simply following the Westminster Confession which teaches that Sunday is a holy day, and the rest of the days are common. Hart is also affirming the Protestant doctrine of vocation which allows believers to serve God and love neighbor by teaching history and fixing leaks without either having to be involved in full-time Christian ministry or having to attach an evangelistic tract to the plumber’s bill.

  15. Ken Stewart says:

    Kevin: This is a very worthwhile 3 part series and comes at a strategic time. Just one point where the discussion could use tweaking, though – and that is to push back the historical timeline substantially. Confessionalism, in the sense it is being discussed on this blog right now, may have a pedigree extending back to the sixteenth century. But in the practical and proximate sense, it is a product of the same circa 1830 period which established the practice of keeping an annual Reformation Day. Both in Germany and in America, this period was one in which concerned Christians looked back to find their bearings. The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, grew out of this period and is characterized by zeal for the Reformed Confessions of Lutheranism. Certain strands of the Calvinist world were similarly affected. 1834 was the year which gave rise to the Afscheiding in the Netherlands, which gave rise to both midwestern RCA and CRC. Both were characterized by renewed zeal for the Three forms of Unity (Heidelberg,Belgic, Dordt). Presbyterians caught this zeal also. Of course the Reformation confessions had been highly important, earlier; but insistence on confessional fidelity as the measure of orthodoxy caught fresh wind in its sails that recently. It would be good if today’s champions of the confessional position acknowledged this more recent pedigree of their stream.
    Conversely, Pietism can be shown not to be the child of the first or second Awakenings, but to have a honorable pedigree going back into the earliest decades of the Continental Reformation. Not without good reason, the Reformer of Strasburg, Bucer, has been called the ‘father of pietism’ because he saw that the taking over of whole Catholic populations and parishes into the Reformed movement did not sufficiently address the needs of those who could be termed the ‘awakened’, who desired and needed more instruction in the bible and more intimate Christian fellowship than conventional parish life could offer.
    All this to say, if we will look back earlier than the nineteenth century when today’s confessionalism got its start, a variety of pietism and strong Reformed theology were easily co-laborers. It is not Reformed pietists but Reformed confessionalists who want to press on us the either-or scenario of preferring one over the other. Reformed pietism substantially pre-dates the era of Great Awakening/Evangelical Revival. On this, the authority has long been Ernst Stoeffler, _The Rise of Evangelical Pietism_. From this existing European stream came Freylinghausen to New Jersey.

  16. danny daley says:

    Have you read Spener and Francke, the founders of Pietism? I have, and I find the vast majority of characterizations of Pietism to be rooted in later radical versions of the movement, but as a reformed guy I agree whole heartedly with Spener and Francke on most things. Like you, they kept balance, and their followers swung the pendulum. It’s sad, because if I want to use the term Pietism to describe good things, and I mean Spener and Francke’s commitments, people will hear me as anti-confessional, which isn’t true. People also lump Spener and Francke in with the later Pietists, sadly misrepresenting them. Pia Desideria is a wonderful book.

    David Carlson,
    Pietism was NOT out to reform confessionalism. They were out to reform poor ministers from within confessionalism. Read Spener. He praises and quotes Luther and early confessionalism dozens of times, and is clear that he started what he did simply to root out confessionalist ministers who didn’t love others and live what they preached.

  17. DD says:

    Thank you for the clarification Dr. Hart, I agree for the most part, but I was worried for a minute there!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search this blog


Kevin DeYoung photo

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

Kevin DeYoung's Books