“Wholesome Irrelevance”

If you are a traditional, liturgical, confessional Christian, do you ever feel just a little strange being lumped in with Fundamentalists, American evangelicals, and Jerry Falwell? Yeah, me too. So does D.G. Hart. Maybe he is a household name among confessional Presbyterians, but I had never heard of him before I read his The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.

The Introduction begins, “What is wrong with Protestantism in the United States?” Part of the answer, Hart says, is that it is too relevant. In fact, he does not think it a bad thing that creeds/confessions are intolerant. He does not think it bad that some Christians refuse to join together in ecumenical associations. He does not think it bad that LCMS Lutherans have an “irrelevant” liturgy!

What about relevance? The elcA provides a good example of bad relevance to everyday concerns. For that matter, most liberal, mainline denominations are excellent examples. However, the conservatives are just as bad in this regard–see Justice Sunday and Justice Sunday II!

Hart holds that “conservative” and “liberal” are not the two opposing parties in the Christian polis. Instead, they are much more like each other in their concern for activism than is usually realized. Hart argues that instead of those two categories, the categories of “pietist” and “confessionalist” fit much better the reality of American Christianity. In other words, those who think that the goal of the Church is to be the catalyst for people to go out and “live their faith” in every area of life (as opposed to being a place where sins are forgiven!) are the pietists. The confessionalists are those who often are accused of espousing quietism and not “acting on” their faith. Hart says that worship is the one area where the difference really shows:

Indeed, worship is the best indicator of the differences between the pietist and confessionalist ways of getting religion. For the pietist, it is one among many ways for gaining new converts and receiving added motivation for virtuous deeds. For the confessionalist, as the LCMS illustrates, however, it is an end in itself, a time when believers are reminded that the suffering of this life is temporary and encouraged to trust in divine deliverance from such trials in the life to come. As one Lutheran minister [John T. Pless] put it, “For confessional Lutherans, liturgy is not about human activity, but about the real presence of the Lord….The liturgy does not exist to provide edifying entertainment, motivation for sanctified living or therapy for psychological distresses, but the forgiveness of sins.” (p. 162)

There are certainly places where one might disagree with Hart, and I think he has a slight misunderstanding of the Two Kingdoms of Lutheran theology (e.g., he calls them “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of man”; in reality, the Two Kingdoms are both God’s, but one is ruled by Law [the world] and one is ruled by Gospel [the Church]), but the overall point is well-taken, and makes me understand a little better why I feel out of place in the usual characterization of American Protestantism as Fundamentalist/evangelical vs. liberal.

My favorite quote:

But just as important [for understanding why the conservatives (i.e., evangelicals) “are liberal when it comes to historic forms of Christian worship”] is the way that the debate between soul winning and the Social Gospel continues to dominate treatments of American Protestant identity. Lutheran debates about worship reveal the inadequacy of the standard ways of interpreting the recent American Protestant past. They also yield a markedly different side of the culture wars, one in which the pietistic Protestant quest for relevant religion leads to political and social antagonism, and the otherworldliness of confessional Protestant piety results in a wholesome irrelevance. (p. 144)


3 thoughts on ““Wholesome Irrelevance”

  1. Excellent!

    Unfortunately, I can’t point you to a link where you can read it, but at http://www.issuesetc.org you can order a free copy of the Issues Etc. Journal where Rev. Todd Wilkin makes an insightful argument about “Bible-believing liberals.” He points out how the “conservative protestants” are more often merely conservative in a social sense, and extremely liberal (I much prefer pietistic!) in every theological sense.


    …and deadly.

    I’ve been growing ever deeper in my conviction that pietism is the greatest danger to the Gospel in America today. In my mind, argueing with atheists about deism and fighting with school teachers about evolution on a social level(while not evil in itself) is a complete straw man which is used to make the sectarians think they are drawing “conservative” lines in the sand. Meanwhile, the true threat to the spread of the Gospel both at home and abroad is those who think they are Christians, but instead are medieval Roman’s on a “deeds not creeds” stairway to heaven, spreading that religion to the ends of the earth! (albeit without a pope, although Hybels, Olsteen [sic?]and Warren make “mini-papacy” a phrase that comes to my mind.)

    Missions is a very bad thing when the mission is spreading lies and false teaching. Our adversary is wily.

    There is truly no theological difference between “living out your faith” and “faith made active through love” when these statements are placed at the crux of a theological system. Meanwhile, Christ hangs on a cross in the corner of Roman cathedrals (though not in St. Louis!) and the crucifix is completely removed from the sects’ “industrial” worhsips venues. This says something profound about their religious system. Similarly, the “irrevelance” of a Lutheran liturgy is only irrevelant to those who have no fear of God or hell. For those of us who have sinned once or twice, it is not living my faith that I need, but faith (as a gift) making me alive in Christ.

    I’m never going to deny that there are Christians among the plethora of sectarian America. But I’m starting to believe that “protestantism”, as a unit, is not Christian. More and more, I believe confessional Christians will be forced to realize that, as Geirtz writes in “the Hammer of God,” these two ways of “worshiping Jesus” are in fact two different religions all together. As Geirtz says, there is a road that leads from the lesser to the greater (ie, from the Law to the Gospel, from glory to glory, from pietism to confessionalism), and many are on that road. But, as it is attributed to Luther for saying, if Christianity is about following Jesus, then all of us are condemned already, “for who of us has been born of a virgin or walked on water?”

    Many will say to Him on that day, “Lord, Lord,” did we not do great things in your name? And He will say, “Away from me you workers of iniquity. I never knew you.”

    “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

    Kudos to your reading lists Tim.

  2. “if Christianity is about following Jesus, then all of us are condemned already, ‘for who of us has been born of a virgin or walked on water?'”

    Now that’s excellent!


  3. I wanted to add a comment about another fine book by D.G. Hart, called “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.” If you’re a confessional Lutheran, I think the book will help you tease out and make distinctions about modern evangelicalism versus confessional/liturgical Protestantism. Hart’s theory is that there really isn’t any such thing as evangelicalism — it’s basically a “wax nose.”

    I’m excited to get the book by Hart that you’ve read. It sounds very fascinating.

    BTW, this idea that you attribute to Hart, about “relevance” — it made me think about my teenage years in a liberal Protestant denom, the UCC, where the pastor woiuld preach with the Bible in one hand and the daily paper in the other. Then for 25+ years I was involved in evangelicalism, which now has basically gone the same route! Today I’m a very happy and irrelevant confessional Lutheran!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s