February 25, 2014
Blogging will probably be minimal for the next month or so, because of other commitments. I did happen to read through a short biography of D. L. Moody, the influential preacher in 19th century Chicago. Here is an account of Moody, after hearing a sermon series from a young, untested evangelist from England:
[Moody speaking to his wife:] How do the people like him?
“They like him very much.”
Did you hear him?
Did you like him?
“Yes, very much. He has preached two sermons from John 3:16; and I think you will like him, although he preaches a little different from what you do.”
How is that?
“Well, he tells sinners God loves them.”
Well, said I, he is wrong.
She said: “I think you will agree with him when you hear him, because he backs up everything he says with the Word of God. You think if a man doesn’t preach as you do, he is wrong.”
I went down that night to church, and I noticed everyone brought his Bible. …
He preached a most extraordinary sermon from that verse. He did not divide the text into “secondly” and “thirdly” and “fourthly” — he just took it as a whole, and then went through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to prove that in all ages God loved the world; that He sent prophets and patriarchs and holy men to warn them, and last of all sent His Son. After they murdered Him, He sent the Holy Ghost.
I never knew up to that time that God loves us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out, and I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country. I just drank it in. …
I used to preach that God was behind the sinner with a double-edged sword, ready to hew him down. I have got done with that. I preach now that God is behind the sinner with love and he is running away from the God of love.
[The Life of D. L. Moody, pp. 66-68]
So, there you have it. Moody the proto-Barthian! Of course, other Christians have proclaimed the same truth. Unfortunately, I would say that most Christians today believe that personal faith is the hinge upon which God’s love turns (against Romans 5:8). Also, I appreciate the “far country” language, which Barth uses repeatedly in CD IV.1 (wherein our world is the far country into which the Son enters).
As for Moody’s trenchant Arminianism (which even caused the ire of Darby, an otherwise terrible theologian), I will ignore for now.
August 5, 2013
Given our look at Finney and Nevin, I have been inspired to write this post on pietism, considering its validity in part but defective on the whole. I will try to keep this as condensed as possible. I will conclude with some observations on the obvious strengths of pietism.
First, we should define pietism for those who may be new to its usage in theological discourse. “Pietism” originally derives from Lutheran soil, associated with the work of Philipp Spener and others who were dissatisfied with the comfort and complacency of Lutheran ministers and their congregants. Spener charged the establishment with “dead orthodoxy,” where confessional integrity is upheld but genuine conversion is neglected — or so it was perceived by the pietists. Spener and his associates pursued holiness and organized small groups for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability. They did not reject the Lutheran confessions, seeking rather to bring life to the form. Moral reform and “authenticity” were their aims, not doctrinal revision. (Of course, their opponents questioned the compatibility of their theology with the confessions.) When we look at John Wesley and his focus on holiness (organizing the “Holy Club” at Oxford for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability), his criticism of the comfort and complacency in C of E ministers, and so forth — you see quite clear parallels. And Wesley, like Spener, did not reject the confessions of the established church nor did he seek to disaffiliate. Other pietist movements, however, would separate — including Wesley’s own Methodists soon after his death — and the pietist emphases can be found most clearly in the various “free church” traditions (such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarene, and the many nondenominational churches of today) that have emerged after the Reformation, as well as among the free churches during the Reformation (Anabaptists/Mennonites).
So, with this historical background, we could define pietism in terms of “experience,” “personal holiness,” “authenticity,” and the like.
The Reformed tradition is not in principle opposed to what pietism originally sought to uphold, nor is it extraneous to Reformed theology. That is, Reformed theology and its piety are not defective. It is not as if “dead orthodoxy” is the default position for Protestant confessional praxis, which then requires a sort of Baptist booster shot. Zwingli, Calvin, and Ursinus — to name three of the most important figures in shaping Reformed confessional identity — certainly had an “experience” of the Risen Lord and a deep, heartfelt piety. Their preaching and writings aimed at conversion and edification, based upon a sound knowledge of the Word of God.
Naturally, the danger of dead orthodoxy is a real danger, often encouraged by material comforts and an institutionalized ministerial process that requires little sacrifice. In such settings, the challenge that arises from a Spener or an Edwards or a Wesley is indeed valid, in part, and rightly analogous to the prophets of Israel. As such, they are recalling the church to the living faith of the Reformation itself. The forms of the Church — liturgical, sacramental, confessional — can become a law without grace and thereby a means for self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness.
Yet, form is not opposed to content. The form is the conduit, so to speak, ordained by God and therefore has the priority. Once the content — our experience, our “authenticity” — takes priority, then our idolatrous desires will eventually modify the form and substitute the true God for a God of our own making, subject to our own fancies. This, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of pietist movements and especially the revivals associated with them. While the progenitors of these movements and revivals may not have intended this, and indeed may have firmly upheld the Protestant confessions, they have made the decisive switch by elevating anthropology over theology. Finney is a short step away.
Moreover, God has given the church the means of grace, that is, the means by which he converts and sanctifies his people: the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. These are, properly understood, out of our control. As Barth repeatedly emphasizes in II.1 of the Church Dogmatics, our words are incapable of bearing the divine Word, but God through his grace uses them nonetheless, capacitating them and sanctifying them for his own purpose. Preaching, as with prayer, is most faithful when it trusts God to do this work, to fulfill his promises. Likewise with the sacraments, we trust God to communicate his grace to the elect, to establish and edify, to increase in love and purity. This is precisely why we do not like the sacraments — they are out of our control — and why we do not like doctrinal preaching — it is out of our control. We would rather use our own sure means of excitement and enthusiasm, whether it be the ostentatious preacher or the rousing rock-n-roll praise band.
When I look at the evangelical movement of today, pietism is clearly the dominant mood of the day, supplying the basic assumptions of the average Christian in America and in much of the world. While this does indeed make the “antidote” of a Nevin or Schaff or Barth all the more urgent, it would be enormously shortsighted to not take account of the strengths of pietism.
This can be most persuasively illustrated by the overwhelming presence of former Baptists — and other free church evangelicals — within confessional Protestant churches. Evangelical Presbyterians, like myself, are well aware of how many of our elders and membership is supplied by people who grew-up in a pietist environment, full of revivals, youth camps, missions conferences, and the like. This is where they (including myself) first became Christians or where they first took their faith seriously. Even our “cradle Presbyterians” often have stories of Young Life camps or Inter-Varsity meetings which had a decisive influence. Likewise in academic theology programs, seminaries like Princeton or universities like Edinburgh can well testify to the number of evangelicals with pietist backgrounds doing graduate work in theology, often in the process of shedding their pietism for a Christian faith with more historical depth and doctrinal depth. Would they be there if it were not for their pietist evangelical upbringing? Not likely.
Some of the most severe critics of pietism are, of course, former pietists who came to faith in Christ under pietist auspices! This has always baffled me. If pietism is so terrible, then why is pietism doing so much of the initial work among believers who then become confessional Reformed types…or Anglicans or Lutherans (or Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for that matter)? Surely pietism is doing something right if nearly every self-consciously Calvinist Presbyterian I meet is a former Baptist.
The primary focus of pietism — at its best — is to make Christ alive and present in a believer’s life. We should be grateful wherever this occurs, as it has in so many of our lives. Protestant orthodoxy makes Christ alive and present as well, albeit normally in less “exciting” ways — but in a more enduring way.
August 1, 2013
In the previous post, we looked at Charles Finney’s rejection of Protestant theology — reorienting his theology around the capacity of man to change his own heart, prompted by God’s use of “motives” to entice us to himself. The most strident critic of Finney’s “New Measures,” as they were called, would come from the Reformed theologian, John Williamson Nevin, at the German Reformed seminary in Mercersburg, PA. Alongside the famous church historian, Philip Schaff, Nevin would introduce the riches of continental Reformed theology to the American church, which had been heavily dominated by Puritan thought and revivalist fervor.
Nevin’s theology is characterized by a “high church” emphasis on the catholicity of the Reformation — as an ecclesial, sacramental, catechetical phenomenon. This was in contrast to the individualism (“me and my Bible and my personal Jesus”) that swept America. His most extensive criticism of Finney’s pietism, and revivalism in general, can be found in his essay, The Anxious Bench (1844, 2nd edition). The title refers to the “altar call” method used by Finney. Nevin holds nothing back in his hostility to the New Measures, which he designates as “justification by feeling rather than faith.” Here are some excerpts:
The general system to which the Anxious Bench belongs, it may be remarked again, is unfavorable to deep, thorough and intelligent piety. …A system that leads to such a multitude of spurious conversions, and that makes room so largely for that low, gross, fanatical habit, which has just been described, cannot possibly be associated to any extent with the power of godliness, in its deeper and more earnest forms. The religion which it may produce, so far as it can be counted genuine, will be for the most part of a dwarfish size and sickly complexion. …
They involve little or nothing of what the old divines call heart work. They bring with them no self-knowledge. They fill the Church with lean professors, who show subsequently but little concern to grow in grace, little capacity indeed to understand at all the free, deep, full life of the “new man” in Christ Jesus. Such converts, if they do not altogether “fall from grace,” are apt to continue at least babes in the gospel, as long as they live. …
A low, shallow, pelagianizing theory of religion, runs through it from beginning to end. The fact of sin is acknowledged, but not in its true extent. The idea of a new spiritual creation is admitted, but not in its proper radical and comprehensive form. …The deep import of the declaration, That which is born of the flesh is flesh, is not fully apprehended; and it is vainly imagined accordingly, that the flesh as such may be so stimulated and exalted notwithstanding, as to prove the mother of that spiritual nature. …
Religion involves feeling; but it is not comprehended in this as its principle. Religion is subjective also, fills and rules the individual in whom it appears; but it is not created in any sense by its subject or from its subject.
(John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Ferm, pp. 171-174)
Nevin then continues with his antidote to the Anxious Bench — the “system of the Catechism,” which is his catchall term for the entirety of genuine Reformed doctrine and piety. This antidote includes attending to the institutions ordained by God, namely the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. As he puts it, “Hence where the system of the Catechism prevails, great account is made of the Church, and all reliance placed upon the means of grace comprehended in its constitution, as all sufficient under God for the accomplishment of its own purposes” (178). As for catechetical instruction, the Heidelberg Catechism holds the highest place of honor in the continental stream of Reformed Christianity — and rightly so.
I am actually not quite as anti-revivalist/anti-pietist as Nevin and his colleagues. But, the problems endemic to the revivals, and the theology that attends it, should be a concern for any Reformed evangelical. It is also worth noting that Karl Barth, easily the greatest Reformed theologian of this past century, also held to some similar criticisms of pietism: see his lectures on the Reformed confessions, especially his criticism of the English Puritans, and the study by Eberhard Busch (which is only $1.99 right now!).
For more information on Nevin, there is a biography by D. G. Hart. And there is a new series by Wipf & Stock, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series:
July 31, 2013
Charles Finney is rightly targeted as the most illustrative figure of the American revivalist tradition — at least, in its most crass form. In certain respects, he was a fount for the ills that plague the church of today. His theology is terrible, but he at least knew theology and what he was rejecting, which is something that cannot be said for his current heirs. In fact, he actually wrote a systematic theology. Yet, given his anthropocentric focus, it is inevitable that doctrinal concerns (you know, God) would be sidelined in a short time, and the pietist form of faith is not exactly known for its theological interests.
A good concentration of his thinking can be found in the sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” The title pretty much says it all. Here are some excerpts, illustrating his rejection of Reformation theology:
All holiness, in God, angels, or men, must be voluntary, or it is not holiness. …Holiness is virtue; it is something that is praiseworthy; it cannot therefore be a part of the created substance of body or mind, but must consist in voluntary obedience to the principles of eternal righteousness.
…moral character cannot be a subject of creation, but attaches to voluntary action.
[After discussing Adam’s “voluntary dedication of all his powers” before the Fall, he turns to God’s own holiness:] Indeed the continued holiness of God depends upon the same cause, and flows from the same fountain. His holiness does not consist in the substance of his nature, but in his preference of right.
[On the Fall:] It was not a change in the powers of moral agency themselves, but simply in the use of them; in consecrating their energies to a different end.
[After discussing the necessary “influence” of the Holy Spirit:] The fact is, that the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act. The agent who induces him, is the Spirit of God.
…Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him, just as you would say of a man, who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over.
(Charles G. Finney, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Firm, pp. 158-166. Underlining is mine.)
The underlined portion is my favorite part! Finney then continues to specifically reject the Reformed doctrine of “physical depravity,” as he terms it. In its place, he upholds the “inconceivably great importance” of understanding that “God rightly converts souls by motives.” Interesting stuff. Luther and Calvin would barely recognize this as Christian.