What place, if any, do Pietists give to doctrine? Do they place any boundaries on what constitutes right belief (orthodoxy)?
Those questions come to my mind at least two or three times a year, generally whenever I’m getting too excited about the prospects for a “Pietist impulse” to again revive Christianity (as it’s done at several points in modern church history) and recognize anew that it, like any movement or tradition, has inherent tensions and pitfalls. One for Pietism: can a movement that reacts against “dead orthodoxy” avoid “living heterodoxy”?
The specific impetus for being reminded of this problem was that I read Tim Suttle’s op-ed in The Christian Post last week, asking “Will Evangelicalism Last?” Noting that Rob Bell’s new book (to be released next week — pre-order here) has already been declared heterodox by Denny Burk, Suttle wonders if evangelicalism has a future as a movement sharing any degree of unity:
One thing seems clear: If evangelicalism continues to be defined primarily by a theological center, it will crumble – especially if guys like Denny Burk get to decide who’s in and who’s out.
This leads Suttle to an important observation about the nature of truth, or Truth:
It’s laudable to care about the truth. Engaging in conversation about sound doctrine is an important part of sticking together. But these days when somebody in our tribe says, “I’m fighting for the truth,” you just know it’s a ruse.
For one thing “Truth” is not rational abstraction – a concept, doctrine, or idea you can write down – especially not one which you conveniently have right and everyone else conveniently has wrong. Truth-as-a-rational-abstraction constitutes a denial of the incarnation (and big chunks of the New Testament). Doctrines and theologies can point to the truth but they are not themselves the Truth. The Truth has been revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. Truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth.
Even if one keeps the truth-as-a-rational-abstraction account of truth, it still should not constitute the evangelical center. Christians are not meant to believe in a rational account of the truth; we are meant to take up our cross and follow the one who is true; the truth as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. But for the truth-police, Christianity has become analyzed instead of lived.
Most importantly, we must recognize that the fight for truth is nearly always a fight for control. Those who passionately defend the truth are often just grasping for power. It’s a game that only those who have never been transformed by the love of God have the stomach for.
On first read, I just found myself nodding along. Which should surprise no one who read my Christian Scholar’s Review article on Pietism and higher education, in which I highlighted the christocentric, personal, and relational understanding of truth central to the educational philosophies of former Bethel president Carl Lundquist (“…the unifying center of the academic program is neither Truth nor the Pursuit of Truth but is Jesus Christ Himself. Ultimately, in our Christian view, Truth and Christ are one, and the important thing about Truth is that it ought to point to Christ”) and his counterpart at North Park College, Karl Olsson (who argued that the central purpose of a Christian college was not training for professions or even “the zest and the joy of intellectual and aesthetic adventure,” but that it point “beyond itself and beyond all created things to the Source of life and truth, who by giving Himself to us sustains within us the hunger for salvation”).
Or who has read my brief essay explaining why I have a fragment of Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” running along the top of my blog:
…while I value historic orthodoxies and appreciate the reinvigoration of American and international Protestantism brought about by mid-20th century “neo-evangelicals” suspicious of theological liberalism, I’m cautiously on board with Roger Olson here in understanding evangelicalism (and Pietism, which Olson treats a key source of his “postconservative evangelicalism”) as a “centered-set” and not a “closed-set” category: “That is, the question is not who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ but who is nearer the center and who is moving away from it. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by its centrifugal center of powerful gravity and not by outlying boundaries that serve as walls or fences” (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 59).
I still incline this way. Like Olson, I see theology as “the church’s third-order speech, which reflects on Scripture [first-order] in light of testimony, praise, and proclamation [second-order] and comes back to testimony, praise, and proclamation with recommendations for correction and supplementation” (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 163), and even Scripture itself is not Truth in the sense that Christ is. As Suttle puts it, “The Bible is the truthful witness to the one who is the way, the truth and the life.” But it is not that One, and He is at the center of belief.
To a point, I’m even fine with the inevitable cacophony that this is bound to produce. I treasure the irenic spirit of the Pietists, their refusal to engage in needless controversy over non-essentials. So when I recently wrote a review of Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s fine introduction to Pietist ethics, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, I was struck by this passage from her chapter on Johanna Eleonora Petersen:
When they spoke of unity, the Pietists were referring to love. Like [Philipp Jakob] Spener, Petersen desired unity in the church. Unfortunately, dispute over doctrine often divided the body, and Petersen was outspokenly critical of this. Doctrine, she believed, was meant to be lived and to bring us more deeply into love of God. The church should be a place of enduring love—where those who believe in the message of the gospel come together to worship God and to be co-participants in Christ, regardless of theological differences.
Indeed, “theological differences,” in Clifton-Soderstrom’s interpretation of Petersen, “ought to be a source for growth, an impetus for transformation, or a reason for renewal” (Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, p. 63).
But… I also know that you don’t have to read too far into Spener to realize that the founder of Pietism adhered to a specific set of doctrines: he might have wanted pastors to preach simply and powerfully rather than to explicate the Book of Concord, but those Lutheran confessions helped define the boundaries of what he deemed right belief. Those boundaries seemed to leave room for Calvinists (and perhaps Anabaptists), but given the way Spener treats the Church of Rome in Pia Desideria, I’m not sure that Catholicism fell within the territory he marked out as constituting “right belief.” (To say nothing of his views of Judaism, conversion of whose adherents was crucial to his eschatology.)
The fact that his opponents called themselves “Orthodox” and the Pietists then derided “dead orthodoxy” does not mean they discarded the very notion of right belief. Clifton-Soderstrom calls the theology of the German Pietists “both orthodox and life-giving” (p. 20). But she also confines her study of Pietist ethics to the “churchly Pietism” of Spener and Francke. Petersen perhaps pushes the boundaries a bit, but not in Clifton-Soderstrom’s retelling, which says almost nothing of the Radical Pietists, whose theological innovations — as much as their separatism — concerned the likes of Spener and Francke.
By taking a narrow approach, she avoids having to deal with the problem that Mark Noll observed in a passage of Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that praised Spener et al. for renewing a calcified Protestantism but observed some dangerous tendencies past its founders:
The intellectual problem of Pietism lay in its excesses. Pietists had rediscovered the truth that Christianity is a life as well as a set of beliefs. The difficulty arose when some Pietists began to view Christian faith as only a life, without a concern for beliefs at all. This led to fascination with practice, deep involvement in spiritual experience, and absorption in the psychological dimensions of the faith. Objective realities of revelation were sometimes totally eclipsed…. Pietists quite properly protested when this objectivity came to be regarded as the sum and substance of the faith. But some overreacted by picturing the experience of the faith as the new totality.
At its extreme, the Pietist emphasis on religious life gave very little attention to self-conscious Christian thought. To be consumed by feeling was to have no time for thinking through the relationship between God and his creation. Once this point had been reached, it soon became difficult to distinguish between those forms of feeling that remained within the Christian orbit and those that had spun off as meteorites with no fixed center. (pp. 48-49)
So I’m looking for readers to help me out:
Can/should Pietists set objective boundaries for right belief? (How? Sola scriptura? Doctrines found in creeds/confessions/affirmations? “Historic orthodoxies” or some other kind of traditional consensus?) Is it sufficient to say that Christ is at the center?