Jay Phelan on Pietism and Evangelical Unity

It sounds like I wasn’t the only Pietist to take issue with David Gushee’s call for an evangelical “divorce,” between its conservative and progressive camps. Here’s North Park Seminary professor Jay Phelan in the current issue of The Covenant Companion:

Jay PhelanAs I read his blog I found myself agreeing with a good deal of Gushee’s analysis—and rejecting entirely his conclusion. He is recommending that we Protestants do what we have always done when confronted with theological conflict: divide. Nothing more undermines the Christian gospel than our inability to get along. Nothing calls the unifying power of the Spirit into question more than our refusal to pray with others who love Jesus if they look at politics or theology or morality differently than we do. Our tens of thousands of squabbling Protestant and evangelical denominations are a scandal and a sorrow. Whenever we say we cannot stay together we put lie to our “ministry of reconciliation.” And reconciliation has to mean more than “I win, you lose.” That is not reconciliation but a hostile takeover! I read Gushee with despair, then anger. We must not permit ourselves to take this well-worn and tragic route. It may be a relief, but in the end it is disastrous.

That pretty much summarized my own reaction (which you can read here). Like me, Phelan drew on Pietism’s historic commitment to the unity of the Body of Christ:

Within the Pietist tradition we have resources to face this looming divorce and perhaps to effect a marital reconciliation. Pietism arose at a time of fierce conflict and division within the church of Jesus Christ. The Reformation in Europe had shattered the unity of the church and produced a variety of theological streams. Lutheran churches grew in Germany and Scandinavia. Reformed churches emerged in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Anabaptists represented the radical wing of the Reformation and were persecuted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Anathemas flew, and by the early part of the seventeenth century a hugely destructive war broke out that ravaged Europe for thirty years. The causes of this war were certainly more than religious, but religion was still a significant factor.

Phelan pointed to Philipp Spener’s call for Christians to avoid “needless controversy,” but he also drew on our shared history in the pietistic Swedish revival of the 19th century that gave birth to the Evangelical Covenant Church and its Baptist and Evangelical Free cousins. Phelan was especially struck by an 1859 essay by C.O. Rosenius, “The Diversity of God’s Children,” part of Mark Safstrom’s excellent new reader on Swedish Pietism.

(I’ve previously written at some length about Rosenius, including his ecumenical instincts. And Mark will no doubt have something to say about that Swedish leader during his session at our December 2016 colloquium at Bethel. Meanwhile, here he is recently giving a talk on Rosenius and the Bible that may be pertinent to Phelan’s argument: “The Church that Reads Together, Stays Together.”)

Said Rosenius (with emphasis from Phelan):

Since we have a tendency to either lean to one side or the other, then it is quite healthy for us to keep company with brothers who have the opposite opinion from us. It is healthy to listen to both Paul and James, though it can cause us to be conflicted within ourselves. Besides, it is the duty and wisdom of every Christian, as far as it is possible, to seek to unify and keep together this band of siblings, which is so often tempted to break apart. Surely these people are our siblings in grace, even if they have different tastes than we do in many cases.

Phelan continues, “whenever someone leaves or is driven out we have failed. We have acknowledged that we are not up to the ministry of reconciliation; we cannot bear the pain of difference; we cannot tolerate our convictions being challenged.” An evangelical divorce, he concludes, “is not only a failure of nerve, but a failure to live out of the gospel.”

If you agree with the Companion headline for Phelan’s column (“Why we need a pietistic revival more than ever”), then let me humbly suggest that you listen to season two of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast, in which Covenant pastor Mark Pattie and I have been thinking aloud through a book that we’re writing for InterVarsity Press — Hope for Better Times: Pietism and the Future of Christianity. It should be out next year. (Our episode on Christian unity is summarized here.)

And if you’re ready to ditch “evangelical,” maybe you should just try “Pietist”


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