Pietism Colloquium Recap: Scot McKnight

Last Friday Bethel hosted its inaugural Colloquium on Pietism Studies, a one-day gathering that I hope to see become a biennial or triennial event. (It came three years after we hosted an international research conference on “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity.”) Thanks to our generous and supportive deans (Deb Harless and Barrett Fisher, in particular) the whole thing was free and open to the public, and we got a great turn-out, with an enjoyable mix of faculty, students, alumni, pastors, and others, representing Baptist, Covenant, E-Free, Lutheran, Moravian, and Anabaptist churches, among others.

I was busy with coordinator duties, but did take some notes on each session and will provide recaps today and tomorrow. (See also this post by Devin Manzullo-Thomas, one of our roundtable participants, and this one by our keynote speaker…)

More Scot McKnight at Bethel
Scot speaking at our colloquium on Friday, April 20, 2012 (apologies for the poor quality - the Eastlund Room is a nice space, but somewhat dark)

Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson professor of religious studies at North Park University, best-selling author, and prolific/popular blogger, began our colloquium with the keynote address. Our audience soon discovered him to be an enjoyable but challenging speaker: erudite, funny, blunt, and engaging.

I hope I didn’t embarrass or insult Scot in introducing him, when I noted that one of our goals — at this event, as at the 2009 conference — was to have a mix of speakers: some experts in the field of Pietism studies, and then some from outside the field who had expertise in other areas, but who shared similar concerns to those of Pietists and might enjoy the chance to engage with the Pietist tradition. (See Emilie Griffin and Shirley Mullen’s chapters in our Pietist Impulse book for earlier examples.) In Scot’s case, we got someone with a deep love for Christ, knowledge of Scripture, care for the church, and dedication to discipleship, spiritual formation, and education — all hallmarks of the Pietist impulse. And, to boot, Scot identifies with the Anabaptist tradition, one that was only sparingly represented in 2009.

So he made for an ideal keynote speaker as he presented his talk: “Pietism, Anabaptism, and Conversion: Paradigms for the Contemporary Church.” Hopefully the full talk (or a revised version) will appear in print somewhere before too long, but to whet appetites for that publication, let me highlight a few central ideas:

Scot started by lamenting the decline of American evangelicalism: “More leave through its back doors than stay… Many enter by decision, but few stay as disciples.” He attributed this in part to the rise of tribalism and the collapse of the transdenominational coalition that had marked neo-evangelicalism at its origins. But more, to a “superficial theological orientation,” in particular with regards to fellowship, discipleship, and the nature of the church (ecclesiology).

He called on evangelicals to take a lesson in church history: to recover their original roots as a “movement towards authenticity” following a “protest impulse” that led in two directions: revival (Pietism) and reform (Anabaptism).

First, Anabaptism — and here Scot started with the audacious claim (it will seem to many, I think) that “whether it knows it or not, populist evangelicalism owes more to Anabaptism than to any other protest movement….” Why? Anabaptists “went the way of the Cross” for the sake of Scripture alone, local church autonomy, adult baptism, separation from the state, and the purity and authenticity of Christian witness. While he traced no direct connection between 16th century Anabaptists and later Evangelicals, he believed that Anabaptist emphases had been “filtered” through other movements (including Pietism) but then “cuffed… by revivalism’s gospel.” (More on that to come)

Scot focused most of this section of the talk on the man he regards as the first major Anabaptist theologian: Balthasar Hubmaier. While Hubmaier inherited Lutheran and Reformed emphases on sin, grace, and faith (Scot insisted that Anabaptist = Protestant), he articulated what Scot sees as the distinctive emphases of Anabaptism:

  • Not just sola but nuda scriptura (quoting J.H. Yoder’s translation of a Hubmaier axiom: “The truth is unkillable”).
  • The Lord’s Supper and baptism — properly understood and practiced — and discipline as the “marks of the true church” (indeed, Scot read Hubmaier as prizing the holiness of the community above the two ordinances, which could be “vain” absent holiness).
  • And a life of obedient discipleship, marked by “profound confession of one’s inner conversion, baptism, and surrender to the discipline of the congregation.”
  • One final note: as Scot noted, Hubmaier was not a pacifist, and Scot did not present pacifism as a necessary feature of Anabaptism.

Scot McKnight at Bethel

Then to Pietism… Scot rejected any attempt to limit Pietism to mere spirituality, subjective experience, social Gospel, or anti-intellectualism (while he acknowledged that Pietists would only value theology that transforms lives). Instead, Pietism for Scot took two forms, both seeking “inner renewal toward greater biblical authenticity”: one the 17th/18th century movement in German Lutheranism; the other a “disposition” (or “impulse,” as we’d put it) that remains vital in Christianity.

Scot’s historical sketch of Pietism as movement stressed Johann Arndt (as a kind of forebear) and Philipp Jakob Spener (as founder). Its key themes included:

  1. Inner renewal: Meaning both conversion and outward change of life. While Arndt and Spener’s soteriology was Protestant, it was “Spirit-driven” and emphasized sanctification rather than justification. (Here Scot added an important sidebar claim: the Second Great Awakening took this “this sincere and profoundly important core of Pietism… to new levels of superficiality,” then 20th century evangelicalism “stripped it bare” and focused on head-counting, along the way losing Arndt’s emphases on repentance, holiness, and love.)
  2. Ecclesial and social renewal: Here Scot saw a break between the churchly Spener and both Arndt  and the Anabaptists. While Arndt was obsessed with individual regeneration, Spener hoped to “awaken German Lutheran churches from their slumber” — not to break away and start over (as the Anabaptists did), but to reform preaching and education, temper controversies, and encourage small group devotional practices that would renew the church at the local level. And more than the Anabaptists (with their strict separation from “the world”), Spener saw a natural connection between renewing the church and renewing society.
  3. The Bible: Pietists maintained the Reformation’s “centralization of the authority of Scripture” and inherited the Lutheran catechism and hermeneutic that “offered strict resistance to nuda scriptura” — but did much more than others to put the Bible in the hands of individual Christians (not to be read alone but in conventicles).
  4. Love: Finally, Scot touched on Pietist ethics (at a couple of points during the colloquium, his North Park colleague Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s book on this subject, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, came up for positive mention). Contending that, in the Pietist understanding, “new birth creates people who become loving,” Scot was impressed by Pietist efforts in education and on behalf of the poor. Add in the fact that Pietists and Moravians were the first Protestant missionaries, and Scot could conclude that “early Pietists both deprofessionalized the church and remissionized the church.”

In conclusion, Scot argued that evangelicalism needs to overcome its “amazing capacity to ignore the theology of some its sources” and learn from the Pietist and Anabaptist movements (and embrace their “dispositions” as they continue to express themselves). From the former, Scot would encourage evangelicals to give “full play” to Pietism’s doctrine of regeneration (new birth, new life), understanding that Pietism did not understand conversion solely in the sense of initial decision but in terms of discipleship (“whole life conversion”). (It didn’t come up, but I wonder what he thought of Christianity Today last week publishing an article arguing for a “sea change” in that direction...)

And from the Anabaptists, evangelicals (whom Scot accused of valuing freedom too much and fellowship too little) could draw strength from a “robust ecclesiology” (rather than simply clustering around charismatic preachers) and learn how to do both discipleship and accountability.

After the talk ended, Scot was nice enough to chat with a group of Bethel youth ministry students who had just read The King Jesus Gospel. Then he spent about 40 minutes in Q&A with our participants. One of the main themes of that conversation was the problem of evangelicals embracing a “therapeutic” gospel — here I would refer you to Scot’s post, from earlier in the week, on this subject as it comes out in T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back.

Thanks to Scot for getting us off to a great start! More to come tomorrow on our afternoon sessions: historian Jon Sensbach telling the story of an 18th century Afro-Moravian preacher named Rebecca Protten; and a roundtable discussion of Pietism in the past and present of five denominations.

Read the next entry in the series>>

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