1) Regardless of the historical accuracy of our definitions, what we call “pietism” today is different from the piety exhibited in the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage. To the extent that “pietism” conjures the picture of a personal relationship with Christ and an immediate work of the Spirit over against the public means of grace and ministry of the church, it is inimical to Reformed piety.
2) At least in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, “confessionalism” is just as unhelpful a description. I know what it means to be confessional: it’s to affirm that Scripture so clearly reveals “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” that churches can recognize and affirm this faith together across all times and places. But what exactly is a “confessionalist”? Typically, this is a swear-word hurled at those who are simply confessional. However, sometimes it is worn proudly as a label by anti-pietists. If “pietism” sets the inward work of the Spirit over against the external means of grace, “confessionalism”—in some versions, at least—simply reverses the antithesis. This is a dangerous opposition that is foreign to the Reformed confession. And that leads to the third point.
3) For some—on both sides of the debate, “confessionalism” is in danger of becoming identified with extreme views that are opposed to the actual teaching of our confessions. The Belgic Confession treats the marks of the true Christian (faith in Christ, following after righteousness, love of God and neighbor, mortification of the flesh) in the same article as the marks of the true church (Art 29). Although assurance of God’s favor is founded solely on his promise of justification in Christ, “we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86). Personal faith, repentance, and growth in godliness are enjoined in the Westminster Confession (chapters 13-16). There is no hint of the public and corporate means of grace being opposed to one’s personal relationship to Christ. It would be ironic—and tragic—if “confessionalism” became identified with positions that are actually inimical to the confessions themselves. Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin have become flag-bearers for Calvinistic “pietism” and “confessionalism,” respectively. However, in my view, both are somewhat idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition. To move beyond polarization, we need to include more mainstream voices through the ages.
Discuss (and/or repent)…