Two Great Tastes That Could Go Great Together


It isn’t altogether surprising that Kevin DeYoung has concluded that confessionalism and pietism need each other.  One could see that coming from two or more posts away. It rather appeals to the democratic-egalitarian-American way of doing not only culture but cult, so perhaps it coincides with the Gospel Coalition way of pushing back against egalitarianism with complementarianism instead of elitism. Why is everything always about sex?

But in light of proposal to bring together two systems that are fundamentally opposed to one another, I’d like to re-post a suggestion that perhaps it better to consider combining two other great tastes that go way better together: doctrinalism and confessionalism.

During this year’s PCA General Assembly Tim Keller (and Ligon Duncan) held a seminar on why he thinks the denomination should strive to stay together and resist any tendency to split apart. He invoked Marsden’s classic typology of American Reformed and Presbyterian which classifies the tradition into the triad of doctrinalists, pietist and culturalists. The doctrinalist, best embodied by the Princetonian likes of Machen and Hodge, holds that “The Christian religion is based upon a body of truth, a body of doctrine, which will remain true beyond the end of time.” The pietist, perhaps best embodied by the likes of Jonathon Edwards, seeks to cultivate the interior religious life and experience of the individual believer and is much more open to revivalism. The culturalist outlook owes much to the work of Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper who, upon his address at the opening of the Free University famously stated that, “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Thus was born, or at least given voice, the so-called Reformed world-and-life view.

Keller’s main point was that all three strains need each other in order to survive. The doctrinalist needs the pietist to make sure he doesn’t fall into “dead orthodoxy,” and the pietist needs the dotrinalist to make sure he doesn’t veer off into heterodoxy. And they both need the culturalist so neither becomes irrelevant.

But as some have pointed out, whatever else might be said about it, the whole taxonomy itself seems to forget that not everyone locates himself neatly in any one of these categories. Some of us understand our religious expression to be more ecclesiastical in nature. As Hart suggests in Recovering Mother Kirk:

As accurate as this typology of the contemporary Reformed world in North Americamay be, its strangeness is also glaring to anyone at all familiar with the ministry and work of John Calvin, who did so much to define the Reformed tradition. What this description lacks is one of the chief features of church reform that Calvin spearheaded. In addition to clarifying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the French Reformer believed that the Protestant Reformation would not amount to much without the reform of worship. In fact, Calvin placed worship ahead of justification in his list of things that, as he put it, encompassed “the whole substance of Christianity”: “first, the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and second of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” (The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 4) If worship was so important to Calvin and the Reformed wing of the Reformation, why are contemporary expressions of the Reformed tradition not known for their interest in worship? In other words, why aren’t there at least four groups of the Reformed—the doctrinalists, the culturalists, the pietists, and the liturgicalists? (RMK, 12).

Meanwhile, Jonathon Bonomo has recently given us a helpful sketch of a little known yet highly important debate between two figures in the American Reformed and Presbyterian landscape. In Incarnation and Sacrament: The Eucharistic Controversy between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin, Bonomo traces out the details of what set each man against the other with regard to both Christology and sacramentology. His main concern seems to be to give Nevin a fairer and more sympathetic hearing than history, or Hodge, seems to have done. What is interesting here is that Hodge may be said to represent the doctrinalist wing of Reformed-dom and Nevin, it may be said, the ecclesiastical. Nevin was Hodge’s student who later became the subject of Hodge’s intense scrutiny, to the point even of suggesting that Nevin’s teaching was in opposition to Protestant orthodoxy. It could be that at least part of the reason that the liturgicalist tradition never got off the ground owes to this theological rumble. As Bonomo points out, the liturgical may have “won the historical battle,” but the doctrinalist “won the theological war.” And to the extent that the latter, amongst other seemingly less-than-charitable conclusions, cast Nevin as simply a re-formulation of Schleiermacher, a pox on the liturgical house may have been sealed. Writes Bonomo:

The great American born theologian John Williamson Nevin, it seems, was just not American enough for his ideas to have gained a fair hearing in a country so enamored with the ideals of common sense. And on top of being too German, Nevin’s theology was too historically oriented, too sacramental, and in general too “churchly” to have had much hope for survival in “the land of the free.” (I & S, 126)

Indeed, Keller would have it that the doctrinalist and the pietist and the culturalist all need each other, to the relative exclusion of the liturgicalist, but let’s throw him into the mix in order to help make the point. How can one be all four when they seem to be at odds with each other? The pietist guffaws at the liturgical’s extrinsic notion that Word and sacrament worship is the principle good work of the individual believer and corporate church, saying instead it’s an intrinsic matter of personal holiness and grooming the inward life. And the liturgical is opposed to the culturalist’s idea that all of life is worship, as well as the naïveté resident within notions of transformationism. And if the Hodge/Nevin debate is any measure, it would appear that the doctrinalist and the liturgical are at loggerheads. But could it be that despite the enmity between the one doctrinalist and the one liturgical that they actually have more in common with each other than either has with the other two? Bonomo cites B.A Gerrish who observes that, “Hodge was a predestinarian Calvinist, Nevin was a sacramental Calvinist, and their debate may make one wonder if it is possible to be both at once.” (Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, 170).

Contra Keller, the only pair conceivably working together in the present era like peanut butter and chocolate would be the doctrinalist and the liturgical. The others seem to be three great tastes that don’t really go so great together, especially the pietist and the liturgical. Nevin versus Finney and Hart versus Keller seem as obvious asGenevaversusRome, but Nevin versus Hodge might be a fight worth turning into a tag-team combination. As Bonomo concludes:

Yet, Calvin himself was both at once. So for those who wish to hold on to their Calvinist heritage fully—both in terms of its doctrine of the divine decrees as well as Calvin’s robust sacramental theology—the situation is not hopeless. From such a perspective, it might be held that both Hodge and Nevin erred equally in that they allowed one of these important elements of traditional Calvinist theology to drown out the other. And it might also be held, from such a perspective, that it is of utmost importance for Reformed Christians of the present day to listen attentively to the concerns of both Charles Hodge and John Nevin, so that we do not end up unwittingly covering over important elements of the very historic tradition to which we confess to adhere. From this standpoint, in fact, it might even be argued that the theological schools of Princetonand Mercersburg needed each other in the nineteenth century, and that they continue to need each other today. (I & S, 127)

This entry was posted in Confessionalism, Ecclesiology, High church calvinism, Reformed Confessionalism, Reformed piety, Revivalism, under-confessionalism. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Two Great Tastes That Could Go Great Together

  1. Rob H says:


    I’m a little low on my definitions, so I looked each up first to make sure I know what we’re talking about here. First impression of this read was the proposal that two (three) (four) should really not be an issue operating all at once.

    And my impression still stands. I don’t see why they can’t run together. Agreed that a focus on just one will swing the pendulum wide. Even Doctrinal and Liturgical focused will drive toward a cold fish that only Gollum would be interested in.

    Could you say the conflict is usually just because of the unbalance. Not just a single person but entire crowds will “group-think” their way into a single element and so become convinced that, say piety, is king. They isolate and then we get a denominational rift. Much is lost in breadth of content in worship and “take-home” Christianity.

    Each of these, Liturgy, Doctrine, Piety and Relevance fit together. It’s like a well-designed team, each bringing operative principles to the table. Maybe call it Structure, Content, Application, Comprehensibility? Just making up synonyms here, but makes sense to me. Start isolating portions and you get all the results we have in modern Churchianity.

    Just my barely educated thoughts.

  2. Zrim says:

    Rob, I don’t see a way for the culturalists and the 2kers to coincide, anymore than the confessionalists and pietsists to coincide. The culturalists want the church to politically speak and the 2kers want her to be politically silent. Maybe it’s the sound of one hand clapping kind of thing, but I don’t see how speech and silence can happen at once. I can see how silence says volumes though.

  3. Rob H says:

    Maybe my understanding of the terminology isn’t right? In what way can’t a pietist and confessionalist coexist? Not being sarcastic here.

    Wouldn’t a regard for the Word’s dealings with morality and spiritual discipline be able to operate along with commitment to the creeds and confessions? Or am I totally off base?

    Is all this trouble because we’re looking at extreme and isolated versions of these terms? Being too black-and-white in perspective? I haven’t read enough on this stuff, so maybe my comments aren’t really in keeping with your meaning.

    Based on experience, the middle-road of keeping tension between doctrinal & practical issues is hard but the best game around. Not saying at all that one person must embody multiple characteristics (piety, confession, liturgy) because that wouldn’t work. We all tend to specialize. Which is why the body is so diverse. Eh?

  4. Zrim says:

    Rob, as I see it, the system of the catechism (i.e. confessionalism) and the system of the bench (i.e. revivalism) cannot co-exist because their opposition lies in how each conceives theological reality. The former is outward facing, the latter inward; the former is concerned with what happens outside the sinner, the latter within. I understand the via media impulse to “take what’s good in confessionalism and what’s good in pietism” but this assumes that confesionalism has no sense of personal piety whatever, which is false. It does have this, but it is derived differently and thus has a different character.

    I suppose to be fair the same could be said of pietism, that it does indeed have a sense of the institutional. But at the same time its sense of the church is derived differently and thus has a character that is fundamentally different than confessionalism’s. From my own experience in it, the church is more like a club of like-minded individuals. They have a democratic and egalitarian idea of authority and membersip. Instead of meeting with the living Lord in reverence and awe to receive his Word and sacraments, it has a “worship as homeroom” notion, where showing up is optional and when one does it’s to get the latest updates and marching orders for the coming week. Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church. I could go on, but the point is that confessionalism and pietism both do personal piety and church differently and in ways that significantly diverge from one another.

  5. Rob H says:

    Well, I can’t really argue with you on it. I think I can see where you’re coming from. I don’t have the background to relate to it, having just recently come out of the piety/culturality camp. I can see how I may end up focused on what I am guessing are the Reformed traits and and become convinced of their superiority (or correctness). Still learning all this stuff though. Thanks for taking time to get it down more into my language. Reading on this stuff is a bit above my head.

  6. John Yeazel says:

    You forgot to mention that Luther combined the doctrinal and liturgical (although his doctrine and sacramentology was as bit different than Calvin’s) as his main emphasis too. So again, the debate is made more complex when putting those differences in the formula. Also, let’s not forget the Anglican, Episcopalian and Catholic creedalists and liturgisists. It gives me an exedrin headache and I wonder if we will ever figure it all out this side of the not yet. I guess you take the good and the bad in whatever tradition you find yourself involved in and then work things out as best you can with your pastor as the first priority and then with those in the Church at large who you learn to respect in whatever tradition they are in. Good thoughtful piece of writing and the links were good too. I enjoyed the debate you and Darryl had with Barbara over at the Gospel Coalition site. I have run into a lot of people like her in my years of experience in various Church traditions. She has obviously had a lot of moving religious experience which gives the illusion of transformation and makes someone think they are more transformed in their character than they really might be her life. This trumps the emphasis on doctrine and liturgy and makes it difficult for those to trust in the ordinary means of grace. They are constantly on the make for further and further means to transform themselves. That does seem to be a natural response to the grace which has been granted us- especially as one who has gone through a divorce like she has. I admire her passion for Christ and would probably feel less sanctified than herself if around her. But you do run into dangerous ground when your emphasis is spiritual experience rather than doctrine and liturgy. It takes awhile to really believe that- I have found that numerous Romans 7 failures makes me trust doctrine and liturgy more than my spiritual experience. And I have not been long on confessional and liturgy experience. It was difficult to find a Church that was really practicing doctrine, liturgy and discipline effectively.

  7. John Yeazel says:

    I also find it difficult to base my sanctification on how well I am conforming myself and obeying the law of God. This is a main difference between Calvinists and Lutherans. Paul seems to emphasize the fruit of the spirit rather than the law God as a means and measure of how we are doing. I guess an argument could be made that the fruit of the spirit and the requirements of the Law are basically the same thing. But this is what I have always found to be confusing. Lutherans that I have talked with believe that faith alone is all that is required of us. There are many scriptural passages that would make one doubt this. And that makes me very uneasy about my progress in the Christian life.

  8. Bruce Settergren says:

    You just had to know that eventually Mr. DeYoung would get around to this, his bottom line:

    “But I also believe those in the confessional tradition can easily lose the vibrancy, sincerity, warmth, and personal piety that have marked experiential Christianity at its best . . . .”

    If “holier than thou” weren’t bad enough, now I’ve got to face up to those “more vibrant than thou”, “more sincere than thou”, “warmer than thou” and naturally, “more personally pious than thou”.

  9. Zrim says:

    And I do wonder, for all the effort to walk the via media, what is it that those in the pietist tradition easily lose that has marked confessional Christianity at its best?

    Even so, the issue that remains for me isn’t the fact that hypocrisy abides believing sinners (and that confesssionalism needs a shot of pietism a day to keep the hypocrisy away), rather the question is which form of Christian expression is the biblical one: experiential or creedal? I think Reformation Christianity answers unequivically the latter. After all, the biblical category is faith, not experience.

  10. Pooka says:

    A wonderful Reuben lent me Darryl Hart’s “A Secular Faith.” so I’m off to read more on this so I can hopefully get squared away.

  11. Zrim says:

    What you really need for the confessional/evangelical taxonomy is “Lost Soul of American Protestantism.”

  12. RubeRad says:

    Which is not to say that Secular Faith is not a good primer for W2K, though.

  13. Pingback: Two Great Tastes that DO Go Great Together | The Confessional Outhouse

  14. Pingback: Pietist, doctrinalists and cultural-transformationist

  15. DJ says:

    zrim – you write “…this assumes that confesionalism has no sense of personal piety whatever, which is false. It does have this, but it is derived differently and thus has a different character.”

    Can you help me understand what you mean by this? This has been my biggest stumbling block since delving deeper into the confessional pool. It, at times, can seem
    that personal holiness is missing. I think this is simply due to emphasis being placed elsewhere? but regardless it does me good to hear what you said above. Just please help me understand it being “derived differently”. I know you said that it is primarily looking outside of us. At the means of grace? at the objectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice? Any and all help would be appreciated!

  16. Zrim says:

    DJ, if it helps that was also my impression when transitioning out of broad evangelicalism to Reformed confessionalism lo those many years ago. It seems like it’s missing because not all the evangelicalism has been shaken off yet (sorry for the crude expression, but since I am in recovery I think I am entitled).

    What I mean by a personal piety being derived differently is simply that Reformed piety isn’t derived from inward experience. Rather it is, as you suggest, a piety derived extrinsicially. And like I suggested, this seems to make for a piety that is just different from the one seen in evangelicalism, which is largely pietistic. “Personal holiness” is evangie vocabulary and generally means something psycho-therapeutic and/or moralistic; the Reformed equivalent is personal obedience and intends something to do with justified but still imperfect creatures working out their sanctification with little perceivable success. And it has more to do with God’s law than with all the jots and tittles of quirky evangelical religiosity (though I have found plenty of Reformed come up with their own quirkiness).

  17. DJ says:

    ZRIM – regarding your 8-25 reply (thanks!), the discussion over at old life on union and justification has me thinking about these issues again. It seems that some reformed think you can, with your new nature, keep the law by the power of the Spirit and grow in holiness that way (new nature based mortification and vilification). There are others (and I would classify Horton in this group – and probably you!) that would say that we grow in holiness based off of the imputed righteousness we have from Christ (gospel) and only secondarily also from our new nature (gospel based mortification and vilification). Seems like one (the former) ignores the gospel in the pressing sanctification and the other bases everything off of it. Do you think I’m seeing things the right way?

  18. Zrim says:

    DJ, I’m not sure if this will answer your question, but I don’t think justification-priority precludes the work of the Spirit at all. I think it assumes it, even as it emphasizes the work of Christ—which is actually the role of the third Person, to cast our attention away from himself and onto the second Person. If his role is to diminish himself then I don’t see how focusing on our new nature is warranted. At the same time, when it comes to keeping the law, I am quite intrigued by Stellman’s propositions.

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