Confessionalism and Pietism: A False Dichotomy?

William B. Evans

The recent spate of blog posts on various sites in response to Ligon Duncan's "Bavinck vs. Nevin" post here on the Ref21 blog suggests that this is a discussion whose time has come.  I can't help but note, however, that some have sought to spin this as a debate between "confessionalists" and "pietists" (see, e.g., here).  Such an interpretive grid may obscure rather than illuminate the issues at stake, and it manifestly leads to some rather strange identifications.   


For example, John W. Nevin is an odd representative of "confessionalism."  To be sure, Nevin had a robust conception of church tradition but his distinctive theology was more an exercise in the critical appropriation of early church incarnational and Reformation sacramental themes. He did champion the Apostles' Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism over against the Westminster Standards, but largely because he was serving the German Reformed Church and he bought into the view that the German Reformed Church was distinctively Melancthonian rather than Calvinistic with respect to divine sovereignty.  And there are other problems involved in portraying Nevin as a confessionalist, not least his insistence that Christianity is primarily a life rather than doctrine.  In short, Nevin was really not a Reformed "confessionalist" in the sense that term is being used in this discussion. 


Moving to the so-called "pietist" side, Bavinck had a deep regard for the Reformed Confessions, especially the Three Forms of Unity, and he had a carefully articulated understanding of the relationship between Scripture and confession, and of the role of confessions in the church.  Moreover, I cannot think of a more redoubtable "confessionalist" in the contemporary conservative Reformed context than Ligon Duncan. This is, after all, the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. So, we are faced with a conversation here involving alleged "confessionalists" who don't appear to be very "confessional" and alleged "pietists" who do!  


Perhaps the real issue here is not between "pietists" and "confessionalists" but rather between what I have termed different "models of piety."  Following in the path of Nevin's well-known distinction between the "system of the catechism" and the "system of the anxious bench," I have suggested here that there have been two such competing models of piety--one stressing Christian nurture and the other conversionism--at work in the American Protestant experience since its beginning.  I also argued that a distinction needs to be made between these models of piety and confessional theology: "A model of piety, then, is a particular approach to relating to God, a style of being a Christian. Although these models involve theological content, they are much more than abstract ideas--they are ways of being Christian."   In fact, whether one emphasizes nurture or conversion may not tell much at all about one's view of the authority and role of confessions.  


In short, the problem is not so much that some take doctrine seriously while others take the Christian life seriously, though examples of such reductionisms can certainly be found.  Rather, the deeper issue is that there are decided disagreements over what the Christian life looks like.  This, it seems to me, is an important discussion worth having!


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