A Sidebar on Confessionalism versus Pietism

The exchanges between, among other, Messr Duncan, Hart, DeYoung and Evans (all theologians, not a firm of accountants) have been very interesting.  I do not want to contribute directly to the exchange but would offer a sidebar comment to the effect that the categories are somewhat anachronistic and hard to apply to the sixteenth/seventeenth century context, making the `who are the true heirs of the Reformed faith?' a somewhat complex question.  After all, which is the normative Rutherford: the author of Lex Rex or of the Letters?  Or is it both?  Certainly, it seems clear that modern binary distinctions are somewhat difficult to apply in a straightforward manner to the framers of the Westminster Standards.

In analysing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, better categories to use are those of intellectualism and voluntarism.  The Reformed Orthodox were not so concerned with pietist/confessionalist questions -- I doubt they even had the concepts in any well-formed fashion.  Rather the discussion tended to be whether theology was contemplative or practical, a matter primarily of the intellect or of the will.  This would appear to have a certain analogy to the current debates about doctrine versus experience or objective versus subjective.

The debate is rooted in medieval discussions.  Thomas addresses the question near the start of the Summa Theologiae 1a.1.4 and concludes that theology is mixed but overwhelmingly contemplative or intellectual.  Scotus begged to differ.  The difference can be seen in the different kinds of theology and practice which, say, the Dominicans (Thomists) and the Jesuits (voluntarists) exhibit.

The Reformed inherited the same prolegomenal question and there was a spectrum of opinion on the subject.  William Twisse, very influenced by Scotus, was a voluntarist; John Owen moved in a more Thomistic, intellectualist direction from the early 1650s.    Neither were seen as beyond the Pale.

There are a number of key things to bear in mind.  First, the Reformed faith at this time allowed a variety of emphases to exist.  All were agreed that theology was both practical and speculative/contemplative, though they often differed on exactly where to place the major accent.  Second, the obvious fact that the background to the origins of the Reformed faith was late medieval theology and not Old School-New School American nineteenth century struggles means that we need to have great care in how we attempt to find precedents for the contemporary battles on these matters in the past.  As every heretic has his text, so every party has its historical precedent.  Third, perhaps a return to the early modern categories and discussion might at least provide some clarity and inject some caveats into the modern debate, even if it does not solve the disagreements in their entirety.