Whether he has too much time on his hands or is an outlier in the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung deserves kudos for reading books by Reformed confessionalists. Whether more reading will be sufficient to wean DeYoung off pietism is another matter. But he will have to spend more time on the topic if he is going to understand that leavening confessionalism with a dose of pietism will not result in healthy churches and grounded Christians. In the history of Protestanism, pietism has been the solvent rather than the medicine of Reformed churches.
Obviously, I agree with DeYoung when he agrees with me (it is often usually about ME!). So I was glad to read in his post the following reflection based on Lost Soul:
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.
Of course, I agree that confessionalism is good. But it is way more than a tonic. It is the cure for evangelicalism. As chauvinistic as it sounds, the Reformers who established confessional churches were following carefully the teaching of Scripture. For that reason, confessionalism is biblical and to depart from it is to be – well – unbiblical. If confessionalism is simply an option, an item on column A of the Chinese menu of Christian devotions, then it could be a nice side dish to accompany a large helping of evangelicalism, or maybe the sour to add to evangelical piety’s sweet. That is not the way confessionalists look at confessionalism. It is the right way and to depart from confessionalism is just plain wrong.
From this perspective, I wonder if DeYoung notices the way that evangelicalism has tinkered with confessionalism. Confessionalism came first, pietism and revivalism came later, and they were efforts to correct the confessional churches. In which case, if I embrace DeYoung’s effort to combine the best of confessionalism and pietism, I am in the odd situation of accepting that confessionalism has defects that need correction. I don’t see it that way. Of course, I am not going to say that confessionalism was perfect. But I’m not sure of its defects and I don’t recognize the ones that DeYoung thinks are there. And this is where the antagonism between confessionalism and pietism resides. What are the Reformed churches’ defects? Is pietism a remedy?
Consequently, a “but” is hovering near DeYoung’s agreement with Lost Soul:
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.
Again, if you look at the history of Protestantism, it is hard to see how evangelicalism has anywhere retained confessionalism. Wherever revival fires have burned, within a generation a high view of the means of grace, church office, sober and ordered worship, and church teaching has gone the way of smoke. If you look at revivals – you better not look too closely. Notice the shrieks, the fainting, the tears, the laughing, the revivalists’ egos (Whitefield was quite the self-promoter and Ban Franklin profited from that publicity) – they have always been there. These antics led critics to charge revivalism with enthusiasm. Let me be clear: pietism and revivalism are enthusiastic. Edwards tried to give enthusiasm a philosophical gloss. But some philosophers aren’t buying.
But what about the problem of dead orthodoxy? This would appear to be the major defect of confessionalism. According to DeYoung:
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 know DeYoung didn’t mean it this way, but his reference to Calvin and Hope is a bit of a cheap shot against confessionalism. As if the CRC and the RCA are beacons of confessionalism. As if anyone in Reformed circles these days associates these communions with Reformed orthodoxy, dead or alive. I don’t write these words with glee. I was ordained in the CRC during the women’s ordination imbroglio and still have fond memories and good friends among the Dutch-American Reformed. I wish the CRC were not what it is, and that the RCA had retained its seventeenth-century confessionalism, like when its pastors in New Netherland petitioned the colony’s governor to keep out the Lutherans (sorry Lily and John) and the Quakers.
Instead, and unfortunately, the CRC and RCA are examples not of dead orthodoxy but of communions that lost touch with confessionalism. The cure for those students at Calvin and Hope is not revival. John Williamson Nevin’s own account of his encounter with revivalism at Union College should give anyone pause in recommending revival to children of the covenant. The cure for those students is a consistory that doesn’t admit children to full communion until they have made a credible profession of faith – that is, a consistory that looks past the blonde hair and Queen Wilhelmina mints and recognizes these as children of Abraham who need to own their baptism by professing faith in Christ and living a life of repentance.
Plus, does DeYoung really pretend to think that pietistic churches don’t have unconverted in their midst, even those who have walked the aisle? Even Edwards thought the revival hadn’t taken. That’s part of the reason he came out with David Brainerd’s life and journals in 1749. Edwards’ church needed another dose of revival. So revival doesn’t cure. Or if it does cure, how do we know? How do we know that the folks walking down front during the altar call – what hip technique has replaced the altar call – are genuine? Isn’t it possible to fake a conversion experience?
The question, then, is whether revival is the means that God has appointed to save his people. I look in the pastoral epistles, and I look, and I look, and I don’t see it. What I see is Paul telling Timothy to discharge his ministerial duties faithfully in good seasons and bad. The pastor’s work – unlike the itinerant evangelist’s – is long, routine and sometimes boring that doesn’t have the lights, camera, and action of pietism and revivalism. But it may be the way that God actually saves a people for himself. And he has a history of using ordinary means to accomplish invisibly extraordinary ends.
So while DeYoung thinks confessionalists need to keep an eye out for dead orthodoxy, why don’t pietists or their enablers spend much time worried about live frivolity? When it comes to dead or alive, I get it. I’ll take life, thank you (though Paul is sitting on my shoulder telling me it is gain to be with the Lord – while Homer is yelling from the other shoulder – Doh!). But when it comes to orthodoxy and frivolity, it’s also a no-brainer. In which case, why do pietists so identify with life that they sacrifice orthodoxy for triviality, depth for breadth, teaching for feeling, sobriety for earnestness?
Maybe the problem is the way pietists view being alive. I don’t know of too many people these days who are orthodox but don’t believe. I don’t even know of too many in the heyday of orthodoxy, when it had the imprimatur of the state, who were orthodox and dead. Orthodoxy has never been an appealing position – you know, abominate yourself because of sin, look solely to Christ who is now your master and deserves your loyalty and obedience, submit to the oversight of undershepherds God has appointed for your good. Those are not ideas readily advantageous to anyone.
DeYoung does, however, indicate what he means by life. And it sets up a contrast with the kind of piety that confessionalism nurtures (this is not confessionalism against piety but against pietism):
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.
So while DeYoung wants revival, confessionalists want the weekly observance of the means of grace.
DeYoung wants deep affections but confessionalists want sobriety and self-control.
DeYoung wants truth-driven experience and confessionalists want children to grow up and understand what they have memorized in the catechism (the way that children eventually learn the grammar of the language they grow up speaking).
DeYoung wants the best creeds to result in the best deeds while confessionalists want believers to live out their vocations so that plumbers will plumb like every other plumber to the best of their ability.
DeYoung wants the belief in the institutional church but confessionalists ask what’s up with the Gospel Coalition?
DeYoung expects our Christian faith to impact what we do in the world and how we do it while confessionalists believe in the spirituality of the church.
And DeYoung wants dramatic conversion while confessionalists want lifelong mortification and vivification (that is, the original Protestant meaning of conversion).
In sum, confessionalists are content with the Shorter Catechism’s description of the Christian life when it answers the question, “What does God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?”
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.
That is not all that fancy or elaborate a way of putting the Christian life but it has enough work for even the best of Christians. To trust Jesus daily and believe God’s promise that Christ is for me and that God is not faking it in the gospel, to repent daily of sin, and to attend weekly to the means of grace and order my affairs so that my attention is focused on the day of rest – that is a pretty full plate. Why pietists want to pile on is a mystery. It seems down right glutinous.