The Gospel Coalition Review of The Pietist Option

Now, that may seem like an unlikely title. But honestly, I’m delighted that The Gospel Coalition published a fairly lengthy review of The Pietist Option, by Union University dean Nathan Finn.

Now, I would fully expect a TGC review of our book to raise serious concerns, as when Finn blames our “Pietist ethos” for introducing

Nathan A. Finn
A church historian and historical theologian, Finn is dean of Union’s School of Theology & Missions, and professor of Christian Thought and Tradition — Union University

into evangelicalism a fuzziness toward (and sometimes outright rejection of) biblical inerrancy, an openness to inclusivism and sometimes universalism, an egalitarian view of gender roles, an openness toward progressive views of gender identity and human sexuality, a rejection of penal substitutionary atonement, and Open Theism.

This raises the question of whether the Pietist Option at least implicitly opens the door to tired dichotomies—between the “red letters” and “black letters” of Scripture, between Jesus and Paul, between the kernel of the gospel and the husk of doctrine—that have fueled theological revisionism and moral declension among so many contemporary evangelicals.

Well, maybe. I’m not a universalist, and my Pietist forebears were going to the ends of the earth to make disciples of Jesus Christ at a time when some Calvinists were debating the continued relevance of the Great Commission. But I do hold to an egalitarian view of gender roles — not because of any fuzziness, but out of a clarity that comes from fresh engagement with Scripture. (Not that this is unique to Pietists: in her current Anxious Bench series, Finn’s fellow Baptist Beth Allison Barr is arguing that complementarians have fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s epistles.)

But even if it’s all too easy to believe that doctrine must be a matter indifferent to Christians who value “lived faith” over “dead orthodoxy,” Finn can credibly identify our book as reflecting one of two basic “trajectories” in historic evangelicalism:

One trajectory might be called the Reformed/Baptist/Dispensational wing, and it tends to emphasize the importance of maintaining doctrinal fidelity, to prioritize evangelism as central to Christian mission, and often lands on the political spectrum somewhere between the center and the right.

The other trajectory might be called Wesleyan/Holiness/Anabaptist/Pietist wing, and it tends to emphasize the center (Jesus’s teachings) more than doctrinal boundaries, to advocate for a view of Christian mission that synthesizes evangelism and justice, and often lands on the political spectrum somewhere between the center and the left. As with all such discussions, many evangelicals don’t fit neatly into either trajectory. But observers agree the two wings are there, often lying just behind many of evangelicalism’s family debates.

Even though Finn identifies more with the Reformed trajectory (I think you’d find plenty of Baptists on both wings), I appreciate that he gives our book a fair hearing. He summarized the “option” accurately, found our tone winsome, and even “nodded a fair amount as I considered the authors’ call to a more radical discipleship and holistic mission.” While he celebrates the Puritans and other “renewal movements that cultivated many of the same instincts as the Pietists, but in ways more deeply rooted in a robust doctrinal vision,” Finn nonetheless encourages Gospel Coalition readers “to learn more about Pietist movements. When we aren’t at our healthiest, we can drift into the sort of spiritual lethargy that first inspired men like Spener, Francke, and Zinzendorf.”

(By the same token, I’ve noted before that two Gospel Coalition favorites — Tim Keller and John Piper — have each written positively about aspects of what they define as “pietism.”)

You can’t ask much more from a reviewer than to be fair-minded and thoughtful, appreciative when they agree and critical when they don’t. So thanks to Nathan Finn for the review, and to TGC for publishing it.