The Well Kept Benefit of Observant Protestantism

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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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23 Responses to The Well Kept Benefit of Observant Protestantism

  1. RubeRad says:

    Protestantism, however, has no such language.

    What would you call a “lapsed episcopalian”?

  2. Zrim says:

    What would you call a “lapsed episcopalian”?

    I call mine “Dad.”

  3. D G Hart says:

    What do you call one part Canadian whiskey, one part ginger ale?

  4. D G Hart says:

    A Canadian Presbyterian.

  5. adam says:

    It seems to me much of what you’d consider bad Experimental Calvinism comes right from the Westminster Standards and in particular the Directory for Public Worship. Heart preparation prior to worship and after, fasting for special blessings, heart this, heart that and etc..

  6. Zrim says:

    Darryl,

    I think that may be what my lapsed Episcy is holding in the icon. No, wait, my sources tell me it’s just a gin and tonic with a Schlitz chaser.

  7. Zrim says:

    Adam,

    When “heart preparation” extends back into Saturday afternoon–not something I easily locate in any churchly formulation, by the way–I get nervous.

    But let me try my hand at some Clintonian thumbnail tests: Do you understand the 1GA as primarily a beneficial thing or disadvantageous?

  8. sean says:

    Interesting how much “church” gets done by accident over against design. I wonder if you could get ruled subversive if you practice as such but never let the pastor know you’re doing it. Or, if you simply let all the “impact” language go in one ear and out the other. I figure if he won’t wear a robe and is forever moving out from behind the pulpit as he pontificates I’m prolly safe.

  9. adam says:

    Hi Zrim,

    – I think the 1GA was a very mixed bag.

    – It seems to me that if you’re going to condemn Experimental Calvinism then you have to include some really good folks like John Owen, Thomas Watson, a’Brakel and Goodwin since they majored in the stuff. I’d like to have those guys on my team.

  10. Zrim says:

    Adam,

    “Condemn” seems a strong word. I’d rather say it has more problems than seem commonly recognized, which could be said, I think, for the 1GA. And I am not sure that to call into question something to which certain giants may have lent approval is the same as an all-out dismissal.

    I mean, sheesh, the lapsed Episcy and I don’t see eye-to-eye on plenty of theological issues, but that doesn’t mean I don’t aspire to be half the man he is one day.

  11. Hey Z,

    Are you acquainted with Sandemanianism?

    What I don’t know is if the term “nominal Christian” existed before they systematized the idea.

    Our church bulletin says “Stand if you’re able” and leaves it at that.

  12. Caroline says:

    You said: 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.

    True piety should not be pitted against observant religion, forms and confessions. You confuse the so-called piety practiced in a lot of evangelical circles with a truer version such as that of John Owen who was not opposed to confessional religion. He is very concerned about “heart” religion too as he says here in The Glory of Christ: (p. 397)

    “Many love to walk in a very careless, unwise profession. So long as they can hold out in the performance of outward duties, they are very regardless of the greatest evangelical privileges, – of those things which are the marrow of divine promises, – all real endeavors of a vital communion with Christ. Such are spiritual peace, refreshing consolations, ineffable joys, and the blessed composure of assurance. Without some taste and experience of these things, profession is heartless, lifeless, useless; and religion itself a dead carcase without an animating soul. The peace which some enjoy is a mere stupidity. They judge not these things to be real which are the substance of Christ’s present reward; and a renunciation whereof would deprive the church of its principal supportments and encouragements in all its sufferings. It is a great evidence of the power of unbelief, when we can satisfy ourselves without an experience in our own hearts of the great things, in this kind of joy, peace, consolation, assurance, that are promised in the Gospel.”

    You said: 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 that’s all there is to the “observant” Christian life? Sounds like the 4 spiritual laws easy believism. Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “Christians a Chosen Generation, a Royal Priesthood” said this:

    “If believers are a chosen generation, let all labor earnestly to make their election sure. If true Christians are chosen of God, this should induce all earnestly to inquire whether they are true Christians.” He cites 2 Peter 1, 5, 6, 7 where all the things we must strive to do to supplement our faith are listed. Owen and Edwards embodied “experimental Calvinism” and I trust it never goes out of practice in all God honoring, confessionally adherent churches.

    Caroline

  13. Bruce S. says:

    Caroline,

    Man I wish those old guys would just say what they mean! It’s so hard otherwise to get it. It sounds to me that Owen contradicts himself when he decries “outward duties” and then says that performing outward duties results in missing out on “vital communion”. Well, ain’t the Lord’s table both an outward duty and vital communion. Or maybe Owen is trying to say that there is something that goes beyond the sacrament and isn’t referring to the table at all.

  14. Zrim says:

    Bruce,

    No, I’ve never heard of “Sandemanianism.” But it sounds an awful lot like old-fashioned rationalism, with which I am quite familiar.

    But as far as I understand him, Hart isn’t singing the praises of nominal religion so much as making the point that true faith in fact needs nominalism to distinguish itself, as well as the idea that true faith has an appropriate expression; for those who would place the accent upon the extrinsic nature of Christianity an observant expression only makes sense. We have the same caveat-pocked directive at our church.

    Caroline,

    It is curious and ironic to me that those who would an “experimental Calvinism” fault confessionalists for the sort of pitting you suggest. It is as if there is something inherently deficient with Calvinism that it needs a qualifier. It’s like always referring to one’s wife as a “smart woman,” as if to be female implies the need to differentiate between smart ones and not-so-smart ones. When it comes to the subjective nature of faith I think Calvinism, like my wife, is just fine and needs no helping hand of condescension.

  15. D G Hart says:

    Adam and Caroline: I am always interested in hearing those defend experimental Calvinism, partly because I find the introspection and quest for greater zeal to be personally so counterproductive to my own devotion. Be that as it may, it does strike me that the icons of experimental Calvinism, such as Owen or Goodwin, also “majored” (Adam’s verb) in public worship, the word read and preached, the sacraments, pastoral care, and church discipline. If all experimental Calvinists were that way I could more than live with them. I could probably enjoy them.

    The problem is that most (my impression) experimental Calvinists today — say 75% — no longer think the formal elements of public worship are important, or as important as having a personal walk with the Lord. One great test of this: how many experimental Calvinists actually believe in keeping the Lord’s Day holy?

    So the question is whether something exists in the DNA of experimental Calvinism that ultimately leads its adherents to down play the outward, external means of Christianity for the internal and experiential. I think it’s hard to deny that there is something like this going on.

    Now throwing out experimental Calvinism with the intensity may be the wrong solution (even if it is the one toward which I tend). But where is the experimental Calvinism that corrects its excesses? I don’t see a self-correcting side to the impulse. All I see is defenses that run to Owen or Goodwin. Fine. But what about today’s experimental Calvinists? Why are they fine with Keller and Piper even when today’s experimental Calvinists would not approach worship, the Lord’s Day, and the means of grace the way an Owen or Edwards would? Could it be that experimental Calvinism is an excuse for ecclesiastical antinomianism — that is, taking lightly grammar, logic, and structure of the Christian ministry?

  16. Zrim says:

    I’ll see Darryl’s Lord’s Day and raise another DNA test: weekly communion. The Sabbath test seems easier to fink since those who would experimental Calvinism faithfully attend even two services (at least, mine do). And “worship as homeroom” seems fairly easily spun into a case for Sabbath observance, even if it fails miserably.

    But suggest that something actually happens in the bread and wine and that its “regular infrequence” makes as much sense as having a sermon once a month, and the room quickly clears (at least, mine does). The irregular use of this means of grace is harder to spin into a case for even a tangential churchly piety. And, when the first of the month finally does roll around, its casting in introspective, self-flagellating and funeral-esque experience instead of glad rejoicing sure doesn’t help it. That’s right, this cold sacerdotalist just said “glad rejoicing.”

  17. Chris M. says:

    ZRIM:
    Fasciniating discussion. I will confess that I am an observant Protestant. My church (a PCA in the Pittsburgh area) was able to make a relatively smooth transition from monthly communion to weekly communion (although we don’t have all the ‘glad rejoicing’ yet). However, the Lord’s Day observance is still a major stumbling block; so we seem to have experienced the problem opposite to your experience. We can do weekly communion and then go home and worship the Steelers and not come back to the evening service. We run about 20% of our membership in te evening. This Sunday (the high holy day known as the Super Bowl) will probably see only 10-15% come back.

  18. Zrim says:

    Chris,

    Another well kept benefit of an older Reformed Protestantism, it seems to me, is that it suffers long the imperfections of sinners. It seems to understand “victory” very differently than an evangelicalism that wants to tick off coveted practices from its list and render failure to those who don’t measure up.

    I once visited a fine little, out-of-the-way PCA in Florida that had an exquisite Reformed liturgy (that included weekly communion) which was contradicted by the visiting revivalist preacher from England; and the fistful of “keep ’em pure” literature I was given didn’t engender much confidence that moralism was kept at bay; and my pre-visit exchange with the regular pastor who said he emphasizes the “practical Christian life” in his preaching over against exegetical and redemptive-historical preaching was a bummer. But as much as all that put a cloud over my head, it won’t keep us from going back in a couple of weeks when we go on our winter break.

    Like Forrest Gump said of shrimping, being Reformed the really old-fashioned way “is tough.”

  19. sean says:

    “I once visited a fine little, out-of-the-way PCA in Florida that had an exquisite Reformed liturgy (that included weekly communion) which was contradicted by the visiting revivalist preacher from England; and the fistful of “keep ‘em pure” literature”

    Look at all that cheatin’ going on. Long suffering?! Jeez I guess. Enough betrayal going on to make Hank Williams croon. Well, If he wasn’t dead and all.

  20. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    I guess it’s a good thing perfection is a Wesleyan ideal and not a Calvinist one. Otherwise, we’d have to sit home and read Hosea.

  21. sean says:

    Perfection?!

    I’d settle for some close approximation, that doesn’t conjure up my rc theology sans the vestments and sacraments.

  22. Caroline says:

    To D.G. Hart:
    Thank you for your helpful comments. I don’t think the problem is experimental Calvinism per se, but the capitulation of many Calvinists, and those of almost every other theological persuasion, to the spirit of the age as it is manifested in the musical expression permeating our culture. Young people, especially, seem addicted to the pop, rock, hip, rap, whatever it is called, music of the culture to an idolatrous degree and this has all now been brought into the worship of the church. Former liturgical forms, prayers, confessions and reverent worship have been set side for the new noisy musical forms copied from the culture. The lyrics may be acceptable but the instrumentation is not. I just found a Desiring God video where Thabiti Anyabwile praises“holy hip hop.” Here it is for those who want to watch: http://www.desiringgod.org/Blog/1596_Holy_Hip_Hop/

    Watching this makes it difficult to refute you when you ask: “could it be that experimental Calvinism is an excuse for ecclesiastical antinomianism?” when this seems a perfect example of it. In certain “experimental” Calvinists there probably is something extra. It may not be in their DNA but in their connections to charismatic Christianity in the musical aspects of it. The high visibility this video will get by being promoted by Desiring God ministries and going all over the world influencing even more people to accept such antinomian nonsense is not going to help further reverential worship of the Lord.

    There is valid experimental Calvinism such as evidenced in an Owen or Edwards, or myriad others. What passes for “experimental” Calvinism today is something entirely different, and I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is.

    Caroline

  23. Zrim says:

    Caroline,

    As far as I understand you, I am not so sure “the answer to Beck is Bach.” Don’t get me wrong, your point is well taken: sophomoric expressions of piety are a problem. But sometimes reverentialism is just as bad as holy hip-hop. The experimental Calvinists in my neck of the woods run the gambit from high to quite low. They used to look down their noses at each other until they figured out the common denominator is human-centeredness. Now all the rage has come to expression in “blended.”

    And I have hard time believing that what we see today just fell out of the sky somewhere around 1971. Everything comes from somewhere and there is nothing new under the sun. And it just seems compromised to say one man’s experimentalism is OK because its seems to descend from one of our own, while another’s is bad because it seems to come from Pentecostalism. I’m with Scott Clark as he raises his hand to Edwards and the 1GA: Edwards seems to have given himself the impossible task of distinguishing between good and bad subjectivism. Isn’t that a lot like deciding if your preference for hamburgers is inferior to mine for hot dogs?

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