The Well Kept Benefit of Observant Protestantism

If Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith is downright scandalous when it comes to how modern Protestants conceive of both the nature of and relationship between church and state, his Recovering Mother Kirk is perfectly (and deliciously) delinquent when it comes to how a truer Presbyterian godliness is both expressed and nurtured.

In the course of making his broader case for a churchly expression of Reformed piety in which, by way of contrast, “some proponents of the Reformed faith under the influence of evangelicalism are caught off guard” by the suggestion that in question and answer 85 the Shorter Catechism’s prescription to escape God’s wrath and curse includes not only faith and repentance but also a diligent use of the means of grace, Hart brings to bear just how triumphant the pragmatic architects of heart religion really are:

“They have so emphasized either conversion or doctrine that they have abstracted the Christian religion from the Christian practices that mark the body of Christ.”

He then begins to explore how the “virtue of nominal Christianity” is essential to the making of an observant Protestantism:

“In conversations about specific Roman Catholics or Jews, it is common to hear them described as either observant or nonobservant. In both cases, the line between observance and nonobservance is easy to spot because the person either does or does not practice the ceremonies and religious routines that constitute the commonality of faith. Protestantism, however, has no such language. Instead, discussions along these lines about Protestants usually employ the words genuine, nominal, authentic, or dead…Since the rise of pietism in the seventeenth century and the Anglo-American revivals of the following century, the goal among God-fearing Protestants has been to eliminate observant Protestantism.”

From the more obscure notion that what constitutes proper Sabbath observance can be guided by the principle of “whatever is conducive to worship” (i.e. be worshipful), to the rather ubiquitous idea even in Reformed circles of the Sabbath-as-recharge, to the clearly under-tutored practice of physically fasting in order to get the full effect of the sacraments, it seems there is quite a lot stacked up against the conception of an observant Protestantism. I recall some years back listening to a very prominent and popular Reformed figure describe worship and my own instinctual hesitation. Quite absent his description was any mind toward getting worship correct but rather the soul’s preparation before (extended all the way back to Saturday afternoon, in fact), its intense and undivided attention during and just as earnestly sustained reflection after worship. The fulcrum in all of this, to my mind, is an emphasis on the inward effect on the worshiper instead of seeing to it, first, that the stated worship of God is correct and, second, that such worship is faithfully attended.

Some in the Calvinist tradition have even coined the lingo of an “experimental Calvinism,” as if the stuff of intellect and affect or love and duty were indeed mutually exclusive and in need of a helping hand if ever to meet again. (Closer readers of the Outhouse know that I don’t have any particular ideological ax to grind, but this must be what consistent ideological conservatives feel like as neo-cons prance about with all their faith-based initiatives. Experimental Calvinism is to Calvinism what “compassionate conservatism” is to conservatism.)

But, while admittedly zealous for the edification of the saints, the best of the Reformed tradition has never seemed to be so worldly about just how that edification is effected. Such strategies seem to be more consistent with the doings of pietism. If something like Sabbath-as-recharge is any measure, it would seem that the general victory of pietism to greater or lesser degrees is what keeps even confessional Protestants from seeing the benefits of a nominal Christianity that only an observant Protestantism can yield.

Jesus said that tares and wheat must be allowed to abide with each other and without any human interference. Where an observant Protestantism would seeks to be so faithful, pietism will have none of it. Instead of being content for the dividing lines between belief and unbelief to peacefully co-exist—a peace only to be disturbed when unbelief rears its own head in doctrinal or moral apostasy—pietism desires to up the ante and erase the lines. Of course, the problem for pietism is that, just as a tradition of anti-traditionalism becomes its own tradition, what inevitably follows in pietism is exactly what it seeks to circumvent in an observant religion. Feigning true piety is not bypassed by making up new practices, however seemingly sincere in nature. Just as many that can faithfully but unbelievingly attend God’s stated worship may also bluff heart religion. A child, for example, can just as easily parrot his parents’ inward religiosity as he can hypocritically utter the Creed. In point of fact, it may be more dangerous to defraud heart religion as it seems the only alternative a doubting soul might have is blatant rebellion. An observant religion is kind and long-suffereing enough to let doubt inhabit its sanctuary. After all, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt but sight; and Calvin remarked that we all go to our deaths with an unbeliever abiding within yet. If that is true, much as it might think so, pietism has absolutely nothing on the staid wisdom of an observant religion.

The question becomes which template is the right one to act as the fulcrum between belief and unbelief? Is it experientialism or confessionalism? It might be helpful to consider what Jesus said about how he planned to build his church. He didn’t ask Peter how often he nurtured Jesus in his heart; he asked him who he said Jesus was. He didn’t ask Peter how well he’d groomed his inner life; he asked Peter for his confession of faith. And when Peter answered correctly this was to be the basis for the church. Even so, that same Peter would go on to deny Jesus and even get it wrong with Paul as to just how circumcision figured into justification by faith. An observant Christianity doesn’t fool itself in light of this by inventing another way in order to shield itself from such an apparently troubling contradiction. It actually endures doubt as a necessary part of true faith and lives with the paradox. This gives new meaning to not snuffing out a smoldering wick (or maybe not so new).

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18 Responses to The Well Kept Benefit of Observant Protestantism

  1. sean says:

    Ah, peace. Now, if we work hard enough at our vocations maybe we’ll be content with such a piety. Maybe we won’t have enough energy to worry with much more. What better salve for a “burnt-over” culture.

  2. Mike Brown says:

    It actually endures doubt as a necessary part of true faith and lives with the paradox. This gives new meaning to not snuffing out a smoldering wick (or maybe not so new).

    Nice Zrim.

    And contra our RC friends over at DRD, I find this a whole lot more comforting than the other alternative: running into the arms of Rome. Confessionalism is the only way to avoid both the QIRE and the QIRC.

  3. Zrim says:


    Yes, there is a place for bustling and hustling, it just isn’t in the church. Scripture has a phrase for that: willing and running.


    Yes, comfort in discomfort is counter-intuitive. But counter-intuition is pouring off the pages of Scripture. The gospel truly and absolutely transcends and and all traditions of men. Amazing.

  4. Timothy M says:

    Wow, truly a piety that is unlike what is trouncing about as ‘Reformed’ today (or anything in Evangelicalism for that matter). Zrim, great post.

    Would you say that the faith vs. sight would be equal (or parallel, analogous, etc.) to Luther’s theology of the cross vs. theology of glory?

    It seems those not willing to live in paradox with the invisible/visible church (or in paradox with culture for that matter) fall into some form of theology of glory/sight where sincerity (or how devoted they are) becomes the calling card, hence pietism.

  5. Zrim says:


    Absolutely, good point. The theology of the cross is remarkably appropriate here. Try suggesting to most of us that doubt is a mark of true faith, to “get comfy” with our inner unbeliever and I think we’ll get a taste of just how triumphant the theology of glory really is.

  6. Chris says:

    Kind of off-topic, but I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of certainty (of the theology of glory), either. I used to think confessionalism was tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, taking for granted one’s tradition and so on. But then I realized while it certainly could be that, for a great many of folks it was a perfectly good response to the contingency and relativity of this life between the ages. They were persuaded of its plausibility.

    I flirted with it, especially when being reeled into orthodox belief by the Lutheran church about a decade ago. But it didn’t stick, mainly because it still seemed to me that confessionalists (despite what I just said above and what you’ve written in the post as a confessionalist, Zrim) suffered under a “pretense of certitude.” Peter Berger pretty well sums it up for me here (especially in the last question).

    No doubt I may have been a “neo-orthodox fanatic” (to use Berger’s phrase) back in those days, which could easily lead one to retort that I never truly grappled with confessonalism.

    All this aside, I’m definitely seeing the well kept benefit of observant Protestantism. Hell, I just might be the nominal, observant Protestant that you’re benefiting from.

  7. Zrim says:


    More than likely yes. I benefit from those who, like Calvin, can actually ante up to their doubt and inner unbeliever; extra chips go to those who can see that and raise the stakes to include they are always more sinful than not this side of glorification. I get skeptical and tempted to call the bluff of those who imply otherwise. Like the other Jonathan Edwards sang, “he’s got cards he ain’t showing.”

    Your comment is not OT at all, I don’t think. It’s spot on. I know we confessional Calvinists have a reputation for know-it-all’s, but I think part of the real genius of Calvinism is its implications of just the opposite. After all, mystery is good.

  8. Chris says:

    Once again I was reminded of this post, Zrim, when I read this.

    Man, how the heck did you get in my head?

  9. John Bugay says:

    Zrim, I’m catching up on emails and I found this story in CT:

    I like the idea of holding up confessional churches as an example, to do the very thing this article talks about, “Minding a Malleable Movement.”

  10. Zrim says:


    I liked that piece.

    I like being in other people’s heads. I get so bored in mine.


    I couldn’t pick up the link.

  11. Confessional mom says:

    “Calvin remarked that we all go to our deaths with an unbeliever abiding within yet.”

    Where can I find this remark from Calvin. My son, a college freshman, is struggling with doubt and I have tried to show him that doubt is a natural part of being an unglorified Christian. I have counciled him to feed the beliver within him and not the unbeliver by continuing to attend a Christ-centered, law and gospel preaching church.

  12. Zrim says:


    I knew someone would eventually call me on that reference. I’ll have to find it and report back to you when I do. It’s one of those quotes that so dazzled and charmed me I neglected to write its reference down on the back of my hand. Stay tuned.

  13. David R. says:

    Calvin has a good discussion of this phenomenon (though without the exact quote) in Institutes 3.2.17 and following. For example:

    “When we say that faith must be certain and secure, we certainly speak not of an assurance which is never affected by doubt, nor a security which anxiety never assails; we rather maintain that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own distrust, and are thus far from thinking that their consciences possess a placid quiet, uninterrupted by perturbation.”

  14. Lori says:

    Confessional Mom:
    This is from Alvin Plantinga “Christian Philosophy at the end of the 20th Century”

    “It is the part of Calvinism to hold that Christians are not complete; they are in process. John Calvin, himself no mean Calvinist, points out that believers are constantly beset by doubts, disquietude, spiritual difficulty and turmoil; “it never goes so well with us,” he says, “that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith” (Institutes III, ii, 18, p.564 ) . It never goes that well with us, and it often goes a good deal worse. There is an unbeliever within the breast of every Christian; in the believing mind, says Calvin, “certainty is mixed with doubt”. (No doubt the proportions differ for different peo ple and for the same person at different times.)”

  15. Zrim says:

    Lori, thanks. I think that has to be it.

  16. Confessional mom says:

    Thanks, Doug and Lori! I had heard the quote several times and like Zrim had been dazzled and charmed by it but never sought out the reference until now.

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