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Part of the problem with this whole discussion is that there is no agreed upon definition of pietism or confessionalism. It's not like "Presbyterianism" which is defined by the Westminster Standards. Confessionalism and pietism, as Carl Trueman points out about the Puritans in a different, but related, context, are not single, definable entities (Histories and Fallacies, 165). In some discussions, then, it's easy for confessionalism to stand for churchly, doctrinal, mature Christianity while pietism is code for shallow, kitschy, decisionistic evangelicalism.

But the lines are not always neat and clean. For example, Jean Taffin (1529-1602), a Dutch reformer writing in the 16th century, well before pietism or Edwards' Religious Affections, argues "that there are two main ways by which God shows us who his children are. The one is external and consists of visible marks to men. The other is internal and consists of testimonies by which the believer feels within himself that he is a child of God" (The Marks of God's Children, 35-36). The external mark is "that we are members of the church of Christ" (36). The internal mark is that God "opens our eyes and ears to comprehend the revelation of our adoption and to certify to our hearts the assurance of faith" (38). External allegiance to the church and inner piety of the heart: these are the two ways God shows us we are his. If you'll permit anachronism, this sounds like a good blending of the concerns of confessionalism and pietism.

Let me give one more example, this time from the father of pietism, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705). In his classic Pia Desideria ("Pious Desires"), Spener argues for several innovations (for his day) that now seem commonplace to most evangelicals. He encourages lay ministry, arguing that one pastor is incapable of caring for the whole church. He advocates personal prayer, small group Bible studies, and accountability with a "confessor." He criticizes overly academic sermons and the prevalence of constant polemics in the pulpit. While careful not to disparage learning, he maintains that "study without piety is worthless" (42). Moreover, Spener urges that those who "have put on Christ in Baptism, must also keep Christ on and bear witness to him in our outwardly lives" (48). He writes to cultivate an orthodoxy that affects the inner man and translates into living Christianity.

But for all this, he does not set this new "pietism" opposite the older "confessionalism." Spener writes:

As the [Luther] Catechism contains the primary rudiments of Christianity, and all people have originally learned their faith from it, so it should continue to be used even more diligently (according to its meaning rather than its words) in the instruction of children, and also of adults if one can have these in attendance. A preacher should not grow weary of this. In fact, if he has opportunity, he would do well to tell the people again and again in his sermons what they once learned, and he should not be ashamed of so doing." (Pietists Selected Writings, 47)

Certainly, some later pietists went off the rails. But I quote from Pia Desideria lest we too casually dismiss everything in the pietist tradition, thinking it equivalent to the worst excesses of evangelicalism. Spener was responding to real deficiencies in the German church. We should be thankful for things he wanted to change, and that his proposed changes allowed that some things should stay the same.


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38 thoughts on “Can Pietism and Confessionalism Be Friends? (Part 2 of 3)”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “But for all this, he [the father of pietism, Philipp Jakob Spener] does not set this new “pietism” opposite the older “confessionalism.” … We should be thankful for things he wanted to change, and that his proposed changes allowed that some things should stay the same.”

    I’m also thankful that Spener did not set up a false antithesis between pietism and confessionalism like some folks have.

  2. John Thomson says:

    I observe in older translations the word ‘godliness’ (so translated in most modern translations) is translated as piety.

    Equally the word ungodliness is translated ‘impiety’and used of unbelievers. The assumption of Scripture being all believers will be pious or godly in life.

  3. Reg Schofield says:

    The danger is that some can see piety as the badge of their faith and not Christ and the same can be said of those who hold to such a strong form of confessionalism.They look to the form of their confession or actions and not solely to the Savior. Trying to hold them in balance can be a tricky thing indeed.

  4. Daryl Little says:

    Reg,

    I wonder if you haven’t hit on a good reason to keep confessionalism and piety in balance.
    We tend to look upon our “form of choice” as our badge of Christianity, whoever we are. Perhaps holding to (apparently) competing form in balance could help us avoid looking somewhere other than to Christ for our assurance.

    Of course, once we found the right balance, no doubt we’d find away to use that balance as our assurance.

    We people…we’re a mess.

    Thank God for the cross.

  5. Kenny Taylor says:

    Keep it coming, Kevin. We need more information and insight on these two isms, and how the local church should present them. (Coming from a church that has a strong commitment to neither)

  6. Kenny Taylor says:

    … present them to its members, that is.

  7. dghart says:

    Kevin, the issue between confessionalism and pietism (including Puritan practical divinity) is the visible church, as I understand the history of Protestantism. Are pietists willing to say, as the Westminster Confession does, that the visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation?

    Or are pietists willing to be content with word, sacraments, and discipline as marks of the visible church?

    In my experience, pietists see the kingdom of God outside the church, see salvation taking place outside the visible church, and add to the marks of the church that the Reformers enumerated.

    The Gospel Coalition is a great example of pietism.

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Rev. DeYoung, part 1: “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.”

    Darryl Hart: “The Gospel Coalition is a great example of pietism.”

  9. Kenny Taylor says:

    For Dr. Hart, I appreciate your contribution and would love some clarity on this — in what sense do pietists see “salvation taking place outside the visible church”… are you referring to conversions which come from parachurch ministries and itinerant evangelists?

    If so, I’m curious – what is the confessional view of such conversions? Are they deemed illegitimate? thanks

  10. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    in what sense do pietists see “salvation taking place outside the visible church”… are you referring to conversions which come from parachurch ministries and itinerant evangelists?

    Good question. Isn’t The Gospel Coalition a parachurch ministry?

  11. dghart says:

    Kenny (if I may), my understanding is that anyone who trusts in Christ must join a church that faithfully ministers the word. In my own case, I believe Reformed churches minister the word most faithfully. But belonging to the church is important — even essential, “no ordinary possibility” of it without church membership.

    American Protestantism since the revivals of the first pretty good Awakening have not held this view of membership. I know of Presbyterian churches even where membership is optional. In my own experience as a Baptist growing up, the most important thing was for a person to have a “relationship” with Jesus. I don’t know how many times I heard Billy Graham say that church membership didn’t matter.

    Now, church membership is not the only matter, but it does matter. And for the Reformers down to at least the Westminster Divines being a Christian and not belonging to the church was an impossibility.

    By implication this does indict the work of parachurch institutions, which the Gospel Coalition is. And what make GC even more odd, is that it claims to do the work of the church as a parachurch organization. GC’s mission statement (“Gospel for All of Life”) reads:

    “Our desire is to serve the church we love by inviting all of our brothers and sisters to join us in an effort to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel of Christ so that we truly speak and live for him in a way that clearly communicates to our age. We intend to do this through the ordinary means of his grace: prayer, the ministry of the Word, baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the fellowship of the saints. We yearn to work with all who, in addition to embracing the confession and vision set out here, seek the lordship of Christ over the whole of life with unabashed hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform individuals, communities, and cultures. You will find attached both our Confessional Statement and our Theological Vision for Ministry—a vision rooted in the Scriptures and centered on the gospel.”

    Not even the National Association of Evangelicals claims to “do” word and sacrament. (BTW, how are Tim Keller and Mark Dever going to decide on whether or not to baptize an infant?)

  12. Matt Foreman says:

    Dr. Hart, I am not a part of the Gospel Coalition, but I believe you are misreading the intention of that paragraph…perhaps not surprisingly.

  13. Matt Foreman, the paragraph Dr. Hart cites means that the GC intends “to renew the contemporary church” through “the ministry of the Word, baptism and the Lord’s supper, and the fellowship of the saints.” Perhaps that is not what the GC *means,* but then, it should change that paragraph so that it actually says what it means.

  14. Kenny Taylor says:

    Thanks Dr. Hart. I think you make some excellent points regarding church membership and its necessity. We seem to have similar backgrounds, and indeed it is sad to hear of those who once felt secure in their “personal relationship with Christ” fading away, due (in part) to the fact that they were never officially embedded in God’s covenant community.

    And I share your perplexity regarding the practice of the sacraments in the Coalition. Not sure what that’s supposed to look like. Anyone on the board of directors who could clarify this?

    To the original point, then, perhaps it would be fair to say that “salvation can take place outside the church (via parachurch evangelism, for instance), but the convert cannot remain outside the church.” Subsequent membership is necessarily entailed. (Ordinarily)

    Enjoyed your interview with Mark Dever and I’m sure I’d benefit from reading your book (Lost Soul). Also looking forward to more from Kevin and others on this subject!

  15. Lily says:

    Pastor DeYoung,

    I understand why the early pietist’s work looks innocuous, but there are good reasons why it was rejected by the LCMS Church and other Lutheran churches. A small dose of arsenic is still dangerous to our health and small amounts over time are lethal. If you choose to not listen to Dr. Hart, I would ask that you communicate with some Lutherans who understand the dangers of pietism before you make a final decision to accept what you believe is harmless. Dr. Gene Veith of the Cranach Institute is a good and considerate man and one in whom I believe you would find a worthy friend. Here is a recent link to one of his blog posts:

    http://www.geneveith.com/2011/04/12/evangelicalism-and-pietism

  16. Wow, Kevin! Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater… “Spener was responding to real deficiencies in the German church…” Maybe! But maybe the deficiencies were not exactly where Spener (or some modern day Pietists) saw them! Any maybe because of that, his countermeasures were no exactly helpful either! Today, most emphatically, the orthodoxy that Spener was facing, does not exist ANYWHERE that I can see! What we are up against is Pietism having gone rampant! What has killed the church in Germany, relegated it to utter meaningless, is not the so called “dead orthodoxy” of the 17th century Lutherans and Reformed, but the 300+ years of pietistic garbage that has left the church without a backbone.
    Also, a Spener quote where he happens to say something nice about the catechism doesn’t quite make him a confessionalist. There simply is no real mix between confessionalism and pietism – it’s a category mistake, a confusion of “principia”… like Single Malt and Welch’s Grape Juice.

  17. danny daley says:

    Lily and Sebastian,
    I’m not sure you understand Pietism at its roots well, nor the state of the German church at the times of Spener’s writings. Early Pietism is blamed for many abuses in the past 300 years, but these are not things Spener or Francke would have been ok with. I believe DeYoung to be finding a very worthwhile balance here. Have you actually read Spener? His book is in line with the teachings of Luther, whom he quotes often in his work. Spener was simply calling for the same things that Scripture calls for in the book of James. Is this dangerous? I hope not. I’m not saying Pietism was perfect, but it was a solid movement introduced by godly men that may have lost its way in certain offshoots, but was rooted in Scripture. By the way, this de-emphasis of doctrine is not fair of Spener. He believe doctrine mattered greatly, but that it was useless if it did not produce fruit in the believer, which is explicitly stated in Scripture a number of times. German protestants in his time were studying the Bible, but not living it, contrary to its commands, and he simply sought to reform that.

  18. danny daley says:

    Excuse me, I don’t mean to say that doctrine itself is useless, of course it isn’t, but the intense study of it without application; this is what Spener considered futile. Again, this is all over Scripture.

  19. Lily says:

    Danny,

    While I appreciate your courtesy, your appraisal is missing the mark. I am Lutheran and well-versed in our church history with pietism and why it was condemned by our church. The men you are naming were Lutherans – so I am especially familiar with them. I would urge you to read more regarding why pietism should be forsaken by Christians. Pax.

  20. Zrim says:

    Danny, what does it mean to “live the Bible”? I think what you might be trying to get at is something about hypocrisy, which I appreciate. But I don’t think confessionalism wants to aid and abet hypocrisy. I think it wants to say that there has to be room made for sinners to fail. Maybe that sounds redundant to you, and not a little disturbing, but what pietism seems uncomfortable with is the fact that to be sinful means to fail and by hypocritical more often than we might be at ease with. And that’s what is so disturbing to the confessionalist (sorry to use a category some seem too above the fray to use or even call themselves) mind–the idea that we’re not allowed to be frail and prone to failure, save perhaps some ceremonial-nobody’s-perfect-tip-of-the-hat to what it means to be a sinner. Confessionalism actually seems to take sin much more seriously and realistically.

  21. Kenny Taylor says:

    Zrim – I don’t want to speak for Danny, but it doesn’t seem to me that his point is that Confessionalism wants to “aid and abet hypocrisy” … rather, he simply seems to be stating that many German protestants had an interest in theology which hadn’t truly pierced their heart. I’d venture to say Spener’s concern wasn’t for those like Paul in Rom 7, but for those like the Pharisees.

    I may be wrong – I’m not in any way an authority on German church history – just wanted to say a word on behalf of brother Danny, since it seems to me he’s being wrongly accused.

    That said, speak for yourself if you like, Danny! :)

  22. danny daley says:

    Kenny, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you brother. The Pietists were not only ok with failure, Spener goes out of his way in his book on multiple occasions to admit his own failures and say that his solutions, such as emphasis on exposition, the priesthood of all believers, and well functioning small groups, were just ideas, and that he was open to be wrong and have someone present better ideas to help the church. He was much more balanced, as is Mr. DeYoung, than people seem to want to give him credit for being. Personally, I still blame the fact that so many people want to call him and other pietists out without having read their material. Spener believed he was sinful, and that he needed to repent, but he also believed deeply in regeneration and sanctification and that we had a call to live life the way that the Scriptures call us to live. He effectively quotes dozens of passages to godly living, while still knowing full well perfection isn’t possible in this life, and states as much.

    Lilly, with all due respect, I have done what you recommend. I have read spener and Francke, the founders of pietism, in their own words, as well as multiple church historians both for and against the movement, and even written a lengthy paper on the subject. The main thing I found was that most of the historians against the movement either saw Pietism as “later-radical” Pietism and wrongly lumped the entire movement in with these extreme forms, (which is like saying all baptist are bad because of westboro baptist church) or that they took the founding members out of context in extreme ways. You being a Lutheran doesn’t necessarily give you more of an inside track, as I am united with these men in Christ, which is far more powerful than denominational distinction. Some of the results of Pietism have had harms, like those in the extreme tent revivals and some of the more harmful elements of American Christianity today, but it has also inspired Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, Baxter, and a slew of other great thinkers (although some of them I know have been equally or more influenced by Puritanism). Also, if you compare Spener and Luther, their thoughts are very close. Much of what Spener taught he got strait from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans.

  23. Lily says:

    Danny,

    Re: I have done what you recommend. I have read spener and Francke, the founders of pietism, in their own words, as well as multiple church historians both for and against the movement, and even written a lengthy paper on the subject.

    Apparently you missed the Lutheran critiques of pietism by the Lutheran theologians: Franz-Pieper, C.F. Walther, Hermann Sasse, John Pless, and other such men.

    Re: The main thing I found was that most of the historians against the movement either saw Pietism as “later-radical” Pietism and wrongly lumped the entire movement in with these extreme forms, (which is like saying all baptist are bad because of westboro baptist church) or that they took the founding members out of context in extreme ways.

    It true that early pietism seems rather innocuous, but it’s similar to talking about being a little bit pregnant. There is no such thing.

    Re: You being a Lutheran doesn’t necessarily give you more of an inside track, as I am united with these men in Christ, which is far more powerful than denominational distinction.

    That’s on par with telling me you know my spouse or children better than I do. I’m sorry, but you do not have a clue what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess. If you did, you would not speak this way and would understand why pietism is not tolerated by our churches.

    Re: Also, if you compare Spener and Luther, their thoughts are very close. Much of what Spener taught he got strait from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans.

    This shows faulty research on the part of your resources. Spener selectively pulled from Luther’s early work not his mature work. That was one of the problems with Spener.

    Re: Some of the results of Pietism have had harms, like those in the extreme tent revivals and some of the more harmful elements of American Christianity today, but it has also inspired Edwards, Wesley, Whitefield, Baxter, and a slew of other great thinkers (although some of them I know have been equally or more influenced by Puritanism).

    Have you considered the fact that none of these men are Lutherans?

  24. Kenny Taylor says:

    Lily, I appreciate your commitment to Lutheranism, but I do wonder, do you view yourself as united with other believers who would identify themselves as pietists?

  25. Zrim says:

    Kenny, thanks. But, first, I suppose this idea that someone knows whether the study of theology has “truly pierced someone’s heart” is what can be disconerting. It sounds fairly judgmental. Second, that said, there is such a thing as hypocrisy, but confessionalism is suspect that the remedy for it is heart religion. The remedy is actually the gospel preached and trust in the Spirit to make it effectual, full stop. Is diving inward really the way to meet human sin, or is it to point sinners away from themselves and to the God outside them?

    Danny, thanks. But my point wasn’t about Spener et. al. admitting they weren’t perfect and being subject to error. My point was about a system that doesn’t seem to allow people to be sinful. What would Spener say when he doesn’t groom his inward affections well? Does he still have forgiveness or does he need to do better? My experience with pietism is the latter answer. But Protestantism was about the moral-legal divide between God and man, not the subjective dissociation.

  26. Kenny Taylor says:

    You make a good point, Zrim, that evaluating others’ “spiritual status” (my words, not yours) borders on judgmentalism. It is always wise to “remove the log” from our own eye first, no doubt.

    Nevertheless, we see “judgments” being passed on lots of people who were professing believers. Certainly Jesus judged the Pharisees that way. Paul, the Corinthians… Romans 2 also comes to mind… James, as well. In each case, “outward” religion (which I would understand to include “profession of faith”) is condemned. I suppose one might object that we can’t evaluate another person with equal authority to the Holy Scripture, but a high view of office heads that direction, it seems to me.

    Regarding “heart religion,” I come from the perspective of the folks with CCEF, out of Westminster Seminary, that worshipping God whole-heartedly means confronting idols/sin within. In that sense, we do attempt to help others dive inward, BUT WITH THE GOSPEL AND RELIANCE ON THE SPIRIT. I really don’t think you and I would disagree on that issue – the point isn’t to conjure up greater feelings of zeal, or “work a little harder to feel good about yourself,” etc… it’s to look outward to Christ after seeing sin within.

    But repentance and faith in the Lord won’t occur unless a person has their eyes opened to see their sin. And God often uses us jars of clay as His means of revelation, to help one another to that end.

  27. Lily says:

    Kenny Taylor,

    Re: do you view yourself as united with other believers who would identify themselves as pietists?

    Why do you ask and which kind of union are you referring to?

  28. Kenny Taylor says:

    Lily – I ask because you say “Pietism is not tolerated by our churches.” I mean, it’s one thing to say “I humbly (but strongly) disagree with them” … but it’s quite another to say “I do not tolerate them.”

    Basically, I’m just wondering if you think pietists are not true Christians. If they are, then surely you would recognize that you are united with them by the blood of our Lord. And as Kevin asks in the title of this blog entry, “Can Pietism and Confessionalism be friends?”

    I guess I’m left wondering about how to apply Jesus’ statement “By this all men will know you are My disciples – by your love for one another.” Are we at peace with one another or aren’t we? I agree there are lots of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (false converts, whatever you want to call them)… but maybe we should seek greater togetherness in the Gospel. No, not maybe.

  29. Lily says:

    Kenny Taylor,

    Please reread what I said. You have taken something institutional and made it personal. All of sudden church has been changed to I and pietism has been changed to pietist. Would you like to make it personal that the Word/Faith movement is not tolerated in our churches either? Would that mean we would automatically believe that a person in that movement is necessarily not a Christian – hardly. Would that mean we would not accept an orthodox confession of faith in Christ at face value – hardly. Would that mean we would not treat people from those churches with love – hardly.

    Perhaps, the misunderstanding comes from not being catechized into a church that adheres to a confession? As you well know, there are many different church bodies and we do not all believe, teach, and confess the same things (whether there is a formal confession or not). That doesn’t mean that the different churches and/or their members do not treat each other well or with respect. It doesn’t mean that everyone is best friends either – no one can do that simply because of numbers and geography.

    Our confessions explain what we believe, teach, and confess. They regulate our worship and we are united in what is believed, taught, and confessed. Confessions are to protect us from false teachers/teachings and false practices and unite us as one in Christ in our church. Our prospective members go through several months of classes before they become members. Do people know us by our love for one another – definitely. Like all churches, we take care of our sick, elderly, and poor among us and reach out to our neighbors around us. We aren’t into global indiscriminate love – no one is able to do that – again, simply because of numbers and geography.

  30. Kenny Taylor says:

    Lily, you’re right – I did personalize it, but that’s just because the institutional position often plays out that way. I am curious exactly what it means for pietism to not be tolerated by your churches… What does it mean for one “ism” (Lutheranism) to not tolerate another “ism” (pietism)? Probably you simply mean any teachings/practices “pietistic in nature” will be rebuked by the rightful authorities. In any case, I’m glad to know you would love and respect believers outside of your denomination with different convictions on these things. (Though you might review some of your remarks to Danny above)

    Actually, I really like confessions of faith for the reasons you list. And I think the local church display of loving one another is critical – there is certainly no question about that. I think the real challenge for many of us, though, comes from loving believers who have significant doctrinal differences on 2nd and 3rd level issues.

    I sense it would take too long to untangle any more of the issues related to our little discussion here, but I appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

  31. Lily says:

    Kenny Taylor – you are right. There is no way I can give you a crash course on ecclesiology, soteriology, the creeds, heresies, and other such dogma in a comment box. But a good orthodox Reformational pastor will teach you if you have the patience for the slow process of growth in the grace and mercy of God for us in Christ. May you be blessed with such a man and such patience. Pax.

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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.

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