Union with Christ for Experimental Calvinists

According to a pseudonymous author, 1978 was the year Reformed theology changed:

Reformed theology has changed. And there seems to be no going back. It was in the year 1978 that a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of Reformed theology began with the publication of a small book. The changes were not only systematic, but also systemic—affecting all aspects of it. Yet, interestingly, the changes were initially imperceptible until several years later.

Dr. Richard Gaffin, of Westminster Theological Seminary published his first book, The Centrality of the Resurrection, which would later be renamed and mass published under the title Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology. It was in this fine exegetical work that Dr. Gaffin unpacked the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s salvation vocabulary. Words like justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. would be understood differently in light his research. Dr. Gaffin was building upon historical Reformed theology as well as critiquing it. To do this he was deeply influenced by the work of various theologians across denominational distinctions, and in particular he was shaped by Reformed thinkers such as Herman Ridderbos and John Murray. But in the end, Dr. Gaffin would put together the exegetical conclusions in a way that had never been done before.

A recovery of union with Christ could have led to a higher view of the sacraments, the way it did for John Williamson Nevin, who also stressed union with Christ:

Most people are taught in Reformed churches and seminaries, to think linearly about salvation (e.g. Justification leads to Sanctification which leads to Glorification). A person is first justified (i.e. saved, forgiven) and then comes sanctification (i.e. growth, maturity), and then comes glorification (i.e. dying and rising from the dead at the resurrection). Other words may be added to this order of salvation (e.g. regeneration, adoption, etc.) but the historical way of looking at these words fits them in an unbreakable, linear, “golden” chain. This is called the ordo salutis (Latin term: “order of salvation”). It’s the Reformed way of explaining the application of salvation to a person from beginning to end. Once a person is justified, the other benefits follow in due course. If a person is “truly” justified, the rest will follow.

This is one reason why Reformed theology has always struggled to “fit” the sacraments into any meaningful place in its systematic theology. If the golden chain of salvation can’t break, then it’s difficult to see how baptism is really all that important or why the Lord’s Supper is necessary. While Reformed theology held to the Lord’s Supper as a “means of grace” it was rare to find a Reformed church practice weekly communion or place it on par with preaching. The sacraments were aids to faith–crutches if you will–but not really necessary in the life and practice of Reformed churches considering the logical consequences of the “golden chain.” If you focus on the linear progression of the ordo salutis, the unbreakable chain of salvation, starting with predestination and ending with glorification then, the sacraments have little need in such a theological system, logically and practically speaking.

But that isn’t where Dr. Gaffin wanted union to go:

But if soteriology is eschatology, then doesn’t soteriology also include the restoration and renewal of personal relationships in a new community? If that’s the case, then isn’t soteriology also ecclesiology? This conclusion, in particular, the “New Gaffin” in his By Faith would attempt to avoid in order distance himself from the sacramental and ecclesiological implications. While many scholars and theologians were coming to this particular conclusion, Dr. Gaffin was distancing himself away from the conclusion that soteriology is ecclesiology.

But despite his attempts to ward off the conclusions, there were clear biblical arguments that couldn’t be avoided by many. Baptism engrafts into Jesus Christ. As Dr. Gaffin had originally said, “…if ‘washing’ on which ‘regeneration’ is directly dependent in Titus 3:5, refers to baptism, then what Romans 6:3ff…teaches concerning baptism as a sign and seal of incorporation with the resurrected Christ, and so the implications of that incorporation, will have to be brought to bear here.” The implications were clear to many: All the benefits of salvation are given in baptism because baptism engrafts into Christ. Soteriology didn’t simply have “implications” on ecclesiology; it is ecclesiology. To be baptized into the Christian church is to be baptized into Jesus Christ.

In which case, how revolutionary was the recovery of union with Christ? Did its advocates simply tinker with the ordo salutis or did they seek to apply union to ecclesiology, liturgy and the sacraments? From this seat, it looks like union had a narrow application, chiefly to a discussion of the application of redemption that comes up in questions 29 through 38 in the Shorter Catechism. For union to apply to questions 88 through 97, unionists would need the Federal Visionaries.

See Tim Give Away the Covenant

If you are in the business of baptizing children, catechizing those same kids, encouraging parents to nurture their children, and if on top of all that you believe that God uses families (at least in a significant way) to build his church, I’m not sure how you can write this:

In China, Africa, and many other places in the world, Christianity is growing rapidly as those societies are modernizing. Then, as people come to Europe and the United States from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they plant new churches or strengthen other ones that are growing and reaching those cities. Why? Because, while religion that’s inherited will decline in the modern age, religion that’s chosen will not. The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25; Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Why would a Presbyterian minister write this since he has subscribed teachings like these?

2. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness. (Confession of Faith, 24)

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Confession of Faith, 25)

Just because you believe that infant baptism, catechesis, and covenant nurture is the way God ordained to advance the kingdom of grace does not mean you don’t evangelize or do missions. But don’t you at least have to tip the cap to the tradition in which you minister? Aren’t you as a Presbyterian supposed to believe in covenant children who, like Isaac, grew up never having known a day that you did not trust Jesus?

But if you read Richard Lovelace more than John Williamson Nevin — who is a lot hipper and accessible to urbanists than Hodge or Warfield — I guess you forget what happens to covenant children who try to convert:

I had come to college, a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, never doubting but that I was in some way a Christian, though it had not come with me yet (unfortunately) to what is called a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on me indirectly by this unchurchly system, was that all this must pass for nothing, and that I must learn to look upon myself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God, before I could come to be in either in the right way. Such, especially, was the instruction I came under, when a ‘revival of religion,’ as it was called, made its appearance among us, and brought all to a practical point. . . .

It was based throughout on the principle, that regeneration and conversion lay outside of the Church, had nothing to do with baptism and Christian education, required rather a looking away from all this as more a bar than a help to the process, and were to be sought only in the way of magical illapse or stroke from the Spirit of God;. . . An intense subjectivity, in one word — which is something always impotent and poor — took the place of a proper contemplation of the grand and glorious objectivities of the Christian life, in which all the true power of the Gospel at last lies. My own ‘experience’ in this way, at the time here under consideration, was not wholesome, but very morbid rather and weak.

Alas, where was mother, the Church, at the very time I most needed her fostering arms? Where was she, I mean, with her true sacramental sympathy and care? How much better it had been for me, if I had only been properly drawn forth from myself by some right soul-communication with the mysteries of the old Christian Creed. (My Own Life, 1870)

This Day in Calvinist History — Nothing Happened because Calvin Was Not (yet) a Calvinist

Since July 10 is the birthday of John Calvin, can we say that Calvinism was born on this day in French history? Or, since Calvin did not align with the Protestant cause until his mid-20s, is the day of Calvin’s natural birth insignificant compared to the day of his spiritual re-birth? And that raises more questions — not addressed for some time here — about conversion and the way that Calvinists differ on the necessity and importance of a dramatic experience to mark the beginning of Christian life. The experimental Calvinists generally following Edwards take one side, the ordinary Calvinists who can’t remember a day when Calvinists questioned conversionism, look to folks like John Williamson Nevin for help in reconceiving the start of spiritual life.

To the rescue comes Henry M. Lewis, a long-time contributor to the Nicotine Theological Journal, who wrote the following (which is an excerpt from his October 2000 piece, “The Unconverted Calvin”) about Calvin’s own account of his spiritual development. First, Calvin’s account from the preface to Commentary on the Psalms:

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel. . . . What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years — for I was so strongly devoted to the superstitions of the papacy that nothing less could draw me from such depths of mire. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner, a raw recruit.

Now Lewis:

Bouwsma interprets this passage as nothing more than “a shift and quickening of his interests,” certainly nothing incompatible with the evangelical humanism that many university students at Paris espoused, simply a willingness to be more teachable. In other words, there was no decisive break in Calvin with his former life until he ran afoul of Roman church authorities. But becoming a Protestant, something that was gradual and progressive, hardly qualifies as “going forward” at the time of an altar call or experiencing a unique and immediate sense of God’s presence somewhere in the woods outside Paris. Protestantism was a reformation, not a revival. Evidence of its transformation came in the form of changes in doctrine, liturgy and church polity, not in hearts strangely or normally warmed.

AS BOUWSMA ALSO OBSERVES, Calvin was not enthusiastic about conversion as a precise event in his discussions of Christian piety. He “always emphasized the gradualness rather than the suddenness of conversion and the difficulty of making progress in the Christian life.” In a statement that many contemporary Presbyterians would deem nonsensical, Calvin wrote that “we are converted little by little to God, and by stages.” In his commentary on Acts, Calvin was even reluctant to attach much significance to Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. “We now have Paul tamed,” he wrote, “but not yet a disciple of Christ.”

CONSEQUENTLY, BOUWSMA attributes more to family circumstances and educational influences than to the movement of the Spirit in explaining Calvin’s move into the Protestant fold in 1535. The death of Calvin’s mother and his subsequent exclusion from his father’s household, according to Bouwsma, imparted a sense of homelessness that would later befit a French exile in Geneva. Then at Paris Calvin learned the three languages — Latin, Greek and Hebrew — that were so much a part of the Christian reform movement spearheaded by Erasmus. Bouwsma concludes that whatever conversion Calvin experienced it was not a radical break with his past but rather the fruit of personal, spiritual and intellectual seeds sown earlier in his life.

Whatever the merits of Bouwsma’s historical scholarship, his point about Calvin’s conversion or, better, evolution should not come as a shock to those who claim to follow in the French Reformer’s spiritual footsteps. That it does amaze is testimony to the way that pietistic influences have eaten away Presbyterian and Reformed brain cells. Once upon a time the Calvinistic branch of Protestantism was not so gullible when it came to the gushes of emotion that are supposed to count for the work of the Spirit among revivalistically inclined Protestants. For most Presbyterians, affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God. But these more formal and objective measures of Christian zeal began to look bland once the converts of the revivals of the First Great Awakening began to tell about the ways in which they had been slain by the Holy Ghost (as if they had, to borrow Luther’s phrase, swallowed him, “feathers and all”). At that point, the great and ongoing struggle between dying to sin and living to righteousness was reduced to a moment, a crisis, a specific time when the convert experienced Gawdah. And ever since the eighteenth century when Presbyterians began to look for signs of grace where no one had looked before, they not only started to insist on the kind of conversion narratives that make Calvin look like a non-evangelical, but they also introduced an element into their religious sensibility that would prove to be destructive of Reformed piety and worship. They began to insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights that their theology could not deliver. (This explains, by the way, the great disparity between the biblical and theological disciplines in Reformed theological education and the area of study misnamed as practical theology. Prospective pastors learn for two-thirds of their classes that it is God who saves his people and then are told that to be successful in the ministry they need to be enthusiastic, warm and caring. Go figure.)

THE REVIVALIST IMPULSE IN American Protestantism has played itself out in such a way that many conservative Presbyterians and Reformed fail to remember that God executes his decrees through the works of creation and providence. Revivalism is good at affirming God’s creative power, that is, his ability to create ex nihilo, such as when he breaths new life into a heart of stone. But it stumbles over God’s providential power in ordering things through secondary causes. For this reason, revivalist Protestantism demands that John Calvin had to undergo a conversion, a dramatic change of life, in order to demonstrate God’s work in his life. A person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention. But if God superintends all things in the lives of his saints, even down to the hairs on their heads, then it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long. It may begin a particular moment, though the movement of the Spirit being fairly invisible is hard to detect. But it may also come in fits and starts that depend on such secondary causes as family, school and especially church. It may even be something that is inherited, such as in the case of Isaac, the model covenant child who grew up never having known otherwise than that he was a child of God. Indeed, the damage that revivalist Protestantism does to a proper understanding of baptism and any notion of covenantal religion is huge, to put it mildly, but that’s a subject for another time.

IN THE END, TWO THINGS ARE pretty clear. One is that Calvin’s understanding of conversion was wrapped up with his conception of the Christian life and the ministry of the church. Take away his understanding of conversion as a life long slow process of dying to self and living to Christ, and you have a hard time holding on to his image of the church as mother, whose nurture is necessary to the Christian throughout his whole life. Immediate, one-time-fix conversions, in other words, leave little room for the means of grace in the word preached and the sacraments administered. This is why the Christian life for those who experience the crisis-styled conversions is usually little more than Bible reading (i.e. the search for daily guidance), seeking other converts (i.e., witnessing) and spiritual retreats where batteries get recharged. Conversion of the quick variety lacks an understanding of the sin that still pervades the believing heart and the need of that heart for forgiveness week-in and week-out.

THE SECOND THING THAT IS clear is that the prevailing conception of conversion in American Presbyterian and evangelical circles is a novelty in the history of Western Christianity, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. The idea of an immediate encounter with God through a crisis experience began in the North American British colonies in the eighteenth century and has been the norm for most Protestants ever since. If contemporary Presbyterians and Reformed are ever going to recover some of the depths of Calvin’s theology, worship and piety, they will have to get over their crush on the First Great Awakening. Awakenings may change individuals. But what is often missed is that they also change churches. And that’s because revivals feature a form of Christianity in which the church, her clergy, creeds, and worship are peripheral. Many conservative Reformed and Presbyterians in the United States might be willing to do the American thing and minimize the importance of office and liturgy. The hope at least is that if they can see revivalism as an intrinsic threat to their theology, they might reconsider the parts of their confessions and catechisms that talk about conversion in the right manner.

Postscript: move along, nothing happening here.

In Christ on Paxil

Christian (or biblical) counseling is a topic that deserves more attention at places like Old Life that are lean sap and well-stocked seeking discernment. It strikes me that biblical counseling is another example of worldview, pietistic thinking that requires a biblical answer for each and every human problem. It also appears to suffer from a pietistic piety that runs roughshod over the regular ministry of pastors and elders who are ordained for the purpose of providing counsel, instruction, and exhortation — and they don’t even charge a fee for it.

Another part of the challenge of Christian counseling is the attempt to turn a human woe into a spiritual opportunity. I don’t mean to drive too great a wedge between the human and the spiritual sides of human existence, but since we do go to non-Christian physicians for help with ulcers and tumors, why do we need to go to Christian counselors for help with psychological problems or even broken relationships? What would be so awful if a person trained in certain areas of human existence wound up having a fund of knowledge about problems that Christians share with non-Christians? Are these problems the result of sin and the fall? Of course. Isn’t cancer or appendicitis also the result of sin and the fall? Of course. So why only go to Christians for help with the non-material parts of human misery? Why, I remember a time not too long ago when Christians thought treating depression with drugs was sinful. It is as if regeneration has powers that extend well beyond forgiveness, or as if sanctification leads to well-adjusted believers who will out perform non-believers in most areas of life — including happiness and well-adjustedness.

The Christian Curmudgeon reminded me of the dilemmas surrounding Christian counseling with his own reflections on depression. He writes:

Cowper’s depressions began when he was young. At his best, he was probably holding it at bay. He had at least four major depressive episodes in his life. On occasion he intended, though he failed, to end his own life. He died in despair, believing himself reprobate. His last poem, The Castaway, expresses his hopelessness with regard not just to this world but the world to come.

John Newton, with whom Cowper lived for a season and with whom he collaborated in the production of a book of hymns, testified that he did not doubt Cowper’s salvation. More recently, John Piper has given a similar assessment.

Despite the tragic course and sad end of his life, his hymns are given an important place in evangelical Christian hymnody. Six are included Trinity Hymnal. Just yesterday I sang with God’s people Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet. Moreover, he is an object of sympathy, even of admiration, because of his affliction. He is sometimes held before depressed Christians, if not as an encouragement (how could a man with his end encourage) at least as a fellow sufferer.

Contrast that with Nevin. Several years ago, I wrote a review of a fine modern biography of this German Reformed theologian. It was not published by the media outlet to which it was initially submitted. (Happily it was published in Modern Reformation.) One of the reasons I was given for the review not being used was that it was not desired to call attention to him. And one of the reasons for not doing so was that he had been suicidal.

What? We sing despairing, suicidal Cowper but we suppress Nevin? I wonder why? Well, Nevin was not a poet, and he did not have a friend like John Newton. But, I think there is more. Cowper was a friend of Calvinist experientialism and Nevin was not. Nevin wrote The Anxious Bench while Cowper wrote O, For a Closer Walk with God.

Of course, the Curmudgeon’s point has less to do with Christian counseling than with experimental Calvinism. But he does point to another facet of the echo chamber affect that afflicts evangelicalism and its Reformed friends. And this affliction extends to Christian counseling. Even when we know that pastors and elders are supposed to be delivering pastoral oversight, which includes counseling of a basic kind, and even though we gladly receive the care of non-Christian specialists when it comes to a variety of human ailments, we generally refuse to subject Christian counseling to tough questions. The reason is that their models of human flourishing appear to point to a form of Christian piety that fits the conversionist ideal of a spiritual reorientation that radically changes a person’s entire being — from psychological make-up and worldview to plumbing.

Why Does Mahaney Get More Slack Than Nevin?

The answer appears to be that if you I have spoken at conferences with C.J., shared a meal with him after one of those sessions, or sung Sovereign Grace Music songs on stage with him, then it is possible to stand in the gap with C.J. in the current difficulty that SGM is experiencing. But if you have not done any of those relationship-building things with J.W., then it is not possible to give Nevin the benefit of the doubt.

This is another way of saying that personal knowledge and friendship appear to be significant elements in the reactions from famous evangelical Reformed figures to the news about C. J. Mahaney and the difficulties besetting SGM. Al Mohler has issued a statement of full confidence in Mahaney and so Ligon Duncan has recently issued a statement over at Reformation 21 which includes this:

It is clear that far from a scandalous cover up, our brothers at Sovereign Grace are taking these matters with utter seriousness and are endeavoring to walk in Gospel repentance and humility and fidelity. C.J. knows of my complete love and respect for him. And my brethren at Sovereign Grace know of my support and prayers for them. . . . I want to emphasize that we fully respect the process that SGM is taking to review the entire situation and that we have no intention whatsoever of joining in the adjudicating of this case in the realm of the internet – a practice as ugly as it is unbiblical.

Here’s the problem. For schlubs like me, who have had no personal interaction with Mahaney, the only information I have to go on are those formal statements that describe SGM’s work. And when I go to the website of SGM I discover that Sovereign Grace churches are weak on the sacraments, have no presbyterian polity, and also include statements friendly to charismatic views of the Holy Spirit. These official teachings and practices have nothing to do (as far as any of us know) with the current difficulties at SGM. C.J. may be guilty or innocent no matter what SGM teaches and does.

But those formal statements would be enough for me not to have personal knowledge of C.J., at least the kind that comes from parachurch conferences, networks, and alliances. All serious Reformed church members and officers, of course, may and do participate with non-Reformed in a host of voluntary organizations. You cannot exist in civil society and not participate with Baptists, Mormons, or Roman Catholics at the Parent Teachers Association, or at the committee for expanding the local library, or on the Chamber of Commerce. You might even participate with non-Reformed in religious endeavors like a college or a magazine.

But if an association or organization calls itself a ministry, I am not sure how such cooperation can exist. The reason has to do with the word “ministry” itself. It invariably goes with “the word” as in minister the word of God (except for the neo-Calvinist/evangelical clutter of “every member ministry”). And when we talk about ministry in this way, we are in the ballpark of ordination, ecclesiology, sacraments, worship, and doctrine. Ministry as such should be confessional. Cross-confessional ministries undermine confessionalism. (And if an organization has the word “gospel” in its name and does not call itself a ministry then it should cease its activities because ministering the gospel is of the essence of ministry.)

So again, I am in a dilemma regarding the current situation at SGM. I have a knowledge of C.J. that only comes from formal statements that would prevent me from entering into ministry relationships with him. And not having those ministry relationships I have no personal knowledge that he is a worthwhile friend and colleague. At the same time, I have friends and acquaintances who are assuring me that everything is basically okay with C.J. and this advice stems from personal knowledge that is grounded in a cross-confessional ministry. Reassurances about C.J. would not be coming from evangelical Reformed types if those Reformed and Baptist figures were as particular in their understanding of ministry as anyone who takes seriously the visible church should be.

Of course, it is commendable for people to stand by their friends and I commend Duncan and Mohler for not doing the self-righteous thing of throwing Mahaney under the bus simply at the accusation of misconduct. Innocent until proven guilty works in both kingdoms.

But if friendship is really a function of fellowship and such fellowship is misbegotten on confessional grounds, then standing by one’s friend may really be a form of standing by a fellow minister while having no ecclesiastical basis or status for doing so.

So I remain ignorant of C.J.’s personal charms because I remain separate from Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Nevin: Why Revivals Aren't the Answer

This is an account of Nevin’s experience as an undergraduate at Union College. It shows what happens to children of the covenant, away at college, when confronted with the modern revival system. And this was only 1819. Yikes!

Being of what is called Scotch-Irish extraction, I was by birth and blood also, a Presbyterian; and as my parents were both conscientious and exemplary professors of religion, I was, as a matter of course, carefully brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, according to the Presbyterian faith as it then stood. I say with purpose as it then stood; for I cannot help seeing and feeling, that as a very material change has come upon since, and this in a way not without serious interest for my own religious life.

What I mean, will appear at once, when I state, that the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion, as it had belonged properly to all the national branches of the Reformed Church in Europe from the beginning. In this respect the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland and Scotland were of one mind; and this mind still ruled, at the time to which I now refer, the Presbyterianism of this country. True, there was no use here of the rite of confirmation in admitting catechumens to full communion with the Church; but there was, what was considered to be substantially the same thing, in the way they were solemnly received by the church session. The system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children, in the sens of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Inst 4.1.4), where, speaking of her title, Mother, he says: “There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end” . . . .

We had no religion in college, so far at least as morning and evening prayers went; and we were required, on Sundays, to attend the different churches in town. But there was no real church life, as such, in the institution itself. . . . . All this involved, of course — although, alas, I knew it not then — a very serious falling away from the educational and churchly scheme of religion, in which I had been previously born and bred. It was my very first contact with the genius of New-England Puritanism, in its character of contradiction to the old Reformed faith, as I had been baptized into it, in its Presbyterian form. . . . It is hardly necessary to say, that circumstanced as I then was, I had no power to withstand the shock. It brought to pass, what amounted for me, to a complete breaking up of all my previous Christian life. For I had come to college, a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, never doubting but that I was in some way a Christian, though it had not come with me yet (unfortunately) to what is called a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on me indirectly by this unchurchly system, was that all this must pass for nothing, and that I must learn to look upon myself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God, before I could come to be in either in the right way. Such, especially, was the instruction I came under, when a ‘revival of religion,’ as it was called, made its appearance among us, and brought all to a practical point. . . . For I, along with others, came into their hands in anxious meetings, and underwent the torture of their mechanical counsel and talk. One after another, however, the anxious obtained ‘hope;’ each new case, as it were stimulating another; and finally, among the last, I struggled into something of the sort myself, a feeble trembling sense of comfort — which my spiritual advisers, then, had no difficulty in accepting as all that the case required. In this way I was converted, and brought into the Church — as if I had been altogether out of it before — about the close of the seventeenth year of my age. My conversion was not fully up to my own idea, at the time, of what such a change should be; but it was as earnest and thorough, no doubt, as that of any of my fellow-converts. . . . It was based throughout on the principle, that regeneration and conversion lay outside of the Church, had nothing to do with baptism and Christian education, required rather a looking away from all this as more a bar than a help to the process, and were to be sought only in the way of magical illapse or stroke from the Spirit of God;. . . An intense subjectivity, in one word — which is something always impotent and poor — took the place of a proper contemplation of the grand and glorious objectivities of the Christian life, in which all the true power of the Gospel at last lies. My own ‘experience’ in this way, at the time here under consideration, was not wholesome, but very morbid rather and weak.

Alas, where was mother, the Church, at the very time I most needed her fostering arms? Where was she, I mean, with her true sacramental sympathy and care? How much better it had been for me, if I had only been properly drawn forth from myself by some right soul-communication with the mysteries of the old Christian Creed. (My Own Life, 1870)

Having His Confession and Feeling It Too

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.

Ya thnk?

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.


Over at Ref21, Ligon Duncan supplies a drive-by quote from Herman Bavinck that the Mississippi pastor directs against John Williamson Nevin. Here is the the Bavinck quote:

In a comparatively sound church life, it is possible to assume that as a rule the children of the covenant will be born again in their youth and come to faith and conversion ‘in stages and gracefully.’ But when the world penetrates the church and many people grow up and live for years without showing any fruits worthy of faith and repentance, then the serious-minded feel called to warn against trusting one’s childhood regeneration and one’s historical faith in Christian doctrine and to insist on true conversion of the hearts, and experiential knowledge of the truths of salvation. Against a dead orthodoxy, Pietism and Methodism, with their conventicles and revivals, always have a right to exist. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:583)

Then comes this pithy postscript:

And, yes, I know I’m being provocative with the title. But Nevin is not the answer to what ails us.

The post has no links, and as is Ref21’s wont, no place for comments (no peace, no justice!).

So I wonder what made Duncan think of Nevin in connection with Bavinck. Was the Dutch theologian writing against his American counterpart directly? The quotation doesn’t suggest so. Or did David Strain, from whom Duncan obtained the Bavinck quotation, have a recent reading session with the Mercersburg Theology? (I actually follow David’s blog and have not seen activity there in some time. Of course, the Internet is not the only way for David and Ligon to communicate since they both minister in the PCA in Mississippi.)

But even more mysterious is what Ligon means by Nevin not being the answer. The only folks in conservative Presbyterian circles who advocate Nevin regularly are the Federal Visionaries. I know I myself may be charged with such an accusation, but the record is pretty clear that my prescriptions for our communions run more toward Machen than Nevin (as much as I respect the latter’s critique of revivalism).

Still, the funny thing is that the Federal Visionaries’ efforts to blur the lines between faith and faithfulness are very similar to those of the Methodists and Pietists whom Bavinck commends against a dead orthodoxy. After all, the point of turning faith into faithfulness is to get people to take seriously not just the sacraments but all those endeavors to create Christendom and establish the rule of Christ and God’s law. Federal Vision may be wrong orthodoxy but it is hardly dead. In which case, their recommendation of Nevin is a way to obtain exactly what Bavinck wants — “fruits worthy of faith and repentance,” that is, lots of godliness of a experimental Calvinist kind but rooted in the church (where pastors wear clerical collars of odd pastel hues). Federal Vision is no faith for slouches.

At the same time, Bavinck may want to consider Nevin’s critique of revivalism because sometimes children of the covenant are already showing fruits that don’t measure up to the enthusiasts’ standards or their constant laments about dead orthodoxy. As I read Nevin, the point of Christian devotion is not to stick out like a sore thumb but to wear one’s faith organically, or quietly, peacefully (or in Presbyterian parlance, decently and in order). The reason is that calling attention to one’s devotion can readily destroy devotion with selfishness and pride. Even more pressing for Bavinck and recommenders like Duncan is to consider the oxymoronic assertion that a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert. Convert from what? Pious ways?

As I say, Huh?!?