Tim Keller on Reformed “Pietism”

The first birthday of this blog is coming up on Wednesday, which means that I’ve spent the weekend thinking back over the past twelve months, and observing some common themes. One, starting early in the history of the blog and popping up periodically ever since, has been the challenge of defining Pietism. In our Pietist Impulse book, my co-editors and I opted for a rather broadly defined “impulse” that stirred not only in the hearts of late 17th/early 18th century German pastors and theologians, but of 19th century Danish philosophers, Swedish politicians, Polish doctors, and West African non-Christians. And Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I shouldn’t be surprised when I encounter other people using Pietism — or, more commonly, “pietism” — in contexts other than those I know well. That’s been a theme-within-a-theme this year, as I’ve blogged about three Reformed Christians using (lowercase-p) pietism or pietistic to describe themselves (pastor John Piper), Richard Nixon (theologian Lew Smedes), or the cloistered upbringing of certain Emergent Christians (philosopher Jamie Smith). While I appreciate Smith and Piper making some effort to explain exactly what they mean in utilizing the terminology, “pietist” as they employ it remains somewhat mysterious precisely because it is, in Smith’s description, “a shorthand term” drawn from “some insider Reformed jargon.”

Tim KellerAs the year ends, then, I’m enormously grateful to Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Tim Keller for his 2010 paper “What’s So Great About the PCA?” — and to my colleague Chris Armstrong for bringing it to his blog’s readers’ attention this weekend. Keller (already worthy of much admiration for his creative, energetic work with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and for scholarly-pastoral books like The Reason for God and Generous Justice) leans heavily (and appropriately so) on historian George Marsden to trace the development of a “pietist impulse” within the history of American Presbyterianism into a pietist branch that he thinks is now the largest of three within the PCA — the other two being the “doctrinalists” and “culturalists.”

Definitions of those two will follow shortly — first, here’s how Keller defines the “pietist impulse” within Presbyterianism:

The pietist impulse puts the emphasis on the individual and the experiential. Pietists do ministry through church courts, but they are also supportive of ministry through para‐church ministries. Pietists stress core doctrines over secondary ones, and feel more like part of the broader evangelical movement than do doctrinalists. This branch, like the doctrinalists, are generally suspicious of an emphasis on social justice and cultural engagement. While the doctrinalists fear cultural accommodation, the pietists are more afraid that it will detract from the pietists’ main concern—evangelism, mission, and church growth.

From what I know of Keller, I would have associated him with the other two branches — doctrinalist (which “puts the emphasis on the corporate and the objective” and places “more stress on uniformity of faith and practice than on freedom and diversity”) and culturalist (or reformist, which also values theological reasoning and community, but is much more open to “social adaptation” and reform). And he is not uncritical of the pietist impulse within the PCA: “very pragmatic and results‐oriented… it is resistant to enter into processes of discipline or theological debate, even when that is what is required…. also tends to give too much credence to pastors who grow their churches large…. often blind to how accommodated they are to capitalism and popular culture…”

PCA LogoBut he does not spare the doctrinalists (better at defending the faith than propagating it, and prone to self-righteous legalism) and culturalists (too cozy with modernism and not always aware of their own cultural captivity). And, more importantly, he appreciates and praises all three, particularly emphasizing the pietists’ championing of evangelism and revival, their commitment to freedom within presbyterian church government, and their desire to avoid unnecessary division over doctrines not at the “core” of Reformed belief.

While Keller insists that this “pietism” (like its rival-partner branches within the PCA) is steadfastly Reformed (indeed, his main point — in a paper delivered at the PCA General Assembly two years ago — is to argue that all three branches share the same trunk and roots: “Because we are brethren, we need each other”), this pietism is at least somewhat recognizable to someone whose understanding of the term has been shaped by academic study and personal experience of pietisms that grew out of non-Reformed soils. And where Reformed writers like Smedes and Smith describe a pietism markedly different from the one I know, Keller’s paper helps me know where they’re coming from. (Less so Piper, who doesn’t come from any Reformed denominational tradition but is a Baptist who embraced Reformed theology.)

2 thoughts on “Tim Keller on Reformed “Pietism”

  1. Chris: An interesting entry. Let me offer a few meandering thoughts.

    Piper as a a “pietistic Calvinist” or “pietistic Reformed theologian” (his wording) is interesting. The difficulty with words such as evangelical, pietism, and reformed is that they are not specific enough terms from which to make a tight argument. From “The Baptist Pietist Clarion” comes the Pietist phrase “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In everything charity.” This would not be the clearest match with Piper. From the same publication (Vol. 5, No. 1) Armstrong references Spener’s understanding of Pietism to include the orthdoxy of: a) personal relationship with God, b) the need of and spiritual power we have for purposes of sanctification, c) “foundational status of the Bible in faith and practice–over against the orthodox Protestant’s near-exclusive focus on systematics” (pietism is neither systematically doctrinal nor creedal), and d) the church should not be inextricably tethered to its “cultural and theological ‘ruts'” as it seeks to “better live and spread the gospel.” I would think a, b, and c would apply well to Piper. Less so for d (I’m thinking, example, the Intercultural Development Inventory–http://www.idiinventory.com/). And maybe I lack information on this. I’m more comfortable saying that BBC is tethered to its culture–inclusive of professional middle class, suburban, politically conservative, white, and a kind of skepticism or suspicion of others. This is not unique to BBC, just my take.

    Reformed is also a slippery term. This would necessarily start with doctrine, but also include worldview. Piper is reformed in most of his theology, but not when it comes to baptism or Covenantal Theology (I think), for example. This alone would prevent him from being a pastor at Reformed, Christian Reformed and (all the varieties of) Presbyterian churches. Of equal importance, is that of worldview. Piper’s worldview is more separatist (his formative years, birth through Wheaton College would have been fundamentalist in orientation, and vestiges are still there). Historically, is is clear that Piper has not demonstrated a neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian worldview. Furthermore, there is little (if any???) role and reference given to the Westminster Confession and Catechism, the Belgic Confession, Cannons of Dordt, Heidelberg Catechism, Nicene Creed, The Apostle’s Creed.

    I regret that so many Bethel-related persons’ notion of Calvinism and/or Reformed thinking and practice come (nearly) solely from Piper–one data point, and not one having a great deal of overlap with the Calvinism of the Reformed Church, Christian Reformed Church and Presbyterian Church in America and USA, as witnessed from, say, 1950 – 2000.

    I, as do you, would not think of Tim Keller as a piestist. His comment “doctrinalists fear cultural accommodation, the pietists are more afraid that it will detract from the pietists’ main concern—evangelism, mission, and church growth” would make me think he leans doctrinal, because he seems to argue for cultural engagement, and this not simply as an individual without a community of practitioners and scholars. I also like his “three impulses” comments, and printed a copy of the article.

    Calvin College’s marketing pieces often come with “Minds in the making.” this makes sense for a neo-Calvinist/Kuyperian school. Interestingly, Calvin’s motto is “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” How ironic. Not having read much of James KA Smith I take a risk here, but Smith does emphasize the relational aspect of piestism. And I like what he writes. He brings the heart back into the picture.

    Bethel’s motto on its seal is “Faith, hope and love.” Its mission and vision statements are quite “reformed” in expression and say nothing of the heart or pietism, per se! How ironic!

    Scorgie writes an article in The Baptist Pietist Clarion titled “Religion of the Heart: The Enduring Value of Pietism” (Vol. 11, No. 1). Replace the word “Heart” with “Mind” and “Pietism” with “Calvinism” and you have a title for a counterpart article 🙂


  2. While fellowshiping in an ALliance Church (wife’s ethnic links) at present, I have always felt most at home with Reformed theology and treasure olfer association with the PCA and Christian Reformed. However, I also wonder what the issue is with pietism? It seems that if any confessionalist Protestant gets serious about practice, the label “pietist” gets stuck on him. And, ah, yes, Calvin’s Cor meam tibi offero Domine, Prompte et sincere–sounds pretty pietist to me!

    While I do not think we should ever lose sight of Christ for us, the forensic character of justification, and the glory of the divine decrees, all these things are bound up with our pilgrimage of sanctification as well. I pray God would make me more pious!

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