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.”
As 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…”
But 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.)