Back in another galaxy, when I was kicking around in the Evangelical Bible church circles of my initial conversion, the old-timers used to talk a lot about “having doctrine.” I came to conclude that this was a residual archetype which was leftover from the Modernist controversies of the early 20th Century; they were absentmindedly talking about the Liberal who at least had the chutzpa to overtly deny the historicity of Christianity. The operative term here is “about.” They talked about doctrine but never really served it up. It was like going to a restaurant night after night and having the wait staff tell you all about the delicacies they had in store but leave your plate cold empty. The doctrine of doctrine was their way of quelling that bothersome voice telling them that their overwhelming backdrop of experiential, pietistic revivalism signaled their duplicitous and thorough-going non-doctrinalness. The problem was really no longer that phantom the Liberal they shadow boxed so much as themselves.
In making his case for what he calls “Observant Protestantism,” DG Hart opens his Afterword in Recovering Mother Kirk with an anecdote. He was giving a lecture at a Presbyterian church. A man kept inquiring, “But are Presbyterians evangelical”?
If true Presbyterianism is marked by a more observant and churchly piety of creed and confession, liturgical public worship led by ordained clergy in word and sacrament and catechesis for covenant children, then Evangelicalism engenders notions of a piety that sees these things as obstacles to true faith and emphasizes a much less “tied-down” expression marked by Bible-toting, tee shirts and bracelets, entertainment and therapeutic sub-culture, and a glint in the eye about the inward experience with the risen Christ. What one has to do with the other seems fairly antithetical. The question itself, inasmuch as it seems to imply a desire to be counted amongst the rank and file of Big Tent revivalism, betrays that the Evangelical victory, if not fully secured, has seriously obscured how even Presbyterians understand themselves. If that is true, and I think it certainly is, what does the effort to maintain doctrine look like in what is supposed to be a more principled Reformation tradition than revivalist, Bible church Fundamentalism?
The phenomenon of the “doctrine of doctrine” becomes especially acute in Reformed and Presbyterian circles that betray just how much they too have succumbed to the Evangelical victory of experiential heart-religion. When the context is one in which most are, figuratively speaking, desperately waving their hands wanting to finally be both acknowledged and confirmed as card-carrying pietists, the rabid calls for theological purity (witness the Federal Vision controversy) look more and more like the doctrine of doctrine. I tend to get that funny feeling again that my plate is clearing before my eyes. Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way a champion of the Federal Vision, etc., etc. and so forth and so on. But the charges they make to those of us perplexed and troubled by their efforts as being mere doctrinaire’s stings a bit. They are ostensibly correct; while it is for all the wrong reasons, they do seem to have unwittingly backed into a point. When we are really a bunch of pietistists in business suits instead of gowns who like to talk, more or less, in terms close to a “personal relationship with the risen Christ in our hearts and lives,” we ought to be more consistent and shed the doctrinal exactitude. When we don’t, it comes off as being not a little disingenuous. In other words, there seems a serious disconnect between our orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Such a reality casts doubts about both the short- and long-range credibility of shouting down something like the FV in the courts of the Church on theological grounds when the praxis of those who do so is more akin to those who have little use for it. And, voila!, a doctrine of doctrine.
Of course, it is no answer to shed doctrinal exactitude in this Confessionalist’s mind. I say we maintain the exactitude and adopt a piety more in sync with such an effort. Calls to a Reformed theology, piety and practice need all those elements. A praxis such as one engendered in something like Observant (Reformed) Protestantism is more in line with those who have a high view of doctrinal exactitude. Put down Dallas Willard’s “Spiritual Disciplines” and pick up the “Book of Common Prayer”; replace the insipid, moralistic “keep ‘em pure” rings on our daughter’s fingers with a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism in their back pockets, as it were.
Then I’d feel better about my night out at the Confessional Presbyterian eatery.