Irrelevance, Pietism, Confessionalism, and an Election Year

I have recommended this book before, but I have just re-read it, and I’m going to post quotes and comments in an attempt to convince you to read it. D.G. Hart strikes at the heart of the difficulties in American Protestantism, and, from my perspective, the difficulties in the Missouri Synod. (BTW, it’s not very often that you hear positive comments–indeed, an entire positive section!–about the LCMS from someone outside the LCMS.)

The basic point of the book is that the usual conservative/liberal or fundamentalist/progressive divisions of Protestantism in America simply neglect an entire group of churches and people: “confessionalists” Hart calls them. This is why, if you are an informed member of the LCMS or another confessional Lutheran church body, you can’t quite reconcile what you believe with the two categories into which you are forced to fit yourself, either liberal or conservative, fundamentalist or progressive. You’re uncomfortable with the political aspirations and ambitions of both the Religious Right and Jim Wallis. But you don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s because, as Hart narrates, both sociologists and historians of religion have ignored you: the confessionalist. You might be conservative in your politics, or not, but you don’t like how either the Religious Right or the Religious Left do things.

Hart calls the religious activism of both the Right and the Left (the former concerned with making America a “Christian nation,” the latter with the justice of the Kingdom of God come on earth) “pietism,” in recognition that both sides think that Christianity should make better citizens, however they think that citizenship should play out. On the contrary: “Confessional Protestantism invites a different form of analysis, one that asks not whether faith makes good Americans but whether it nurtures good Christians” (183). This is why confessional Protestantism has been largely ignored and why it seems so irrelevant–because it is irrelevant. Hart devotes an entire chapter to the “Irrelevance of Lutheran Liturgy”!

There are questions that Hart leaves mostly unanswered, such as to what degree Christians should be engaged with the culture and the political sphere–but I believe he tackles that issue in his latest book–and he misconstrues (twice) the Lutheran understanding of the “Two Kingdoms” (better: the Two Realms), but it’s hard for something like this to not ring true: “In sum, the application of religion to practical affairs sacralizes things that are common (e.g., exercise, eating, and politics) and trivializes things that are sacred (e.g., creed, sacraments, and pastoral ministry)” (xxi).

It is so easy to recognize the trends in American Lutheranism which Hart identifies, that it requires little more than an “Aha!” For example:

Like its European antecedents, American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals, starting with their heart and seeping into all walks of life (xxiii).

And then this:

Confessionalism is the lost soul of American Protestantism, then, in the sense that pietism, through revivalism, has largely routed it over the course of two and a half centuries. One way to measure this defeat is to ask any American Protestant if the Apostles’ Creed, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the ministry of the local pastor is as important as personal times of prayer and Bible study, meeting with other Christians in small groups, witnessing to non-Christians, or volunteering at the local shelter for the homeless (xxiv).

Ask the question even of a member of what Hart calls the confessional Lutheran party, the LCMS, and you will easily see how deeply pietism has infected Lutheranism.

More from Hart: “…the standard approaches to American protestantism miss what may in fact be a more significant division in United States religion–namely, between believers who distinguish the essence of Christianity from the external practices and observances of it (i.e., pietists) and those who refuse to make such a distinction (i.e., confessionalists)” (xxviii). Whether or not you can get and keep members determines the success of your congregation and pastor, and it is obvious to anyone who can make elementary connections that this fits entirely with the marketplace mentality of the U.S. in general.

The result of religious disestablishment was a free-market approach to questions of faith and the consequences were far-reaching. Churches that had previously been assigned parishioners in a particular locale were now forced to compete for adherents. In other words, the separation of church and state put an end to the welfare state for religious bodies and in turn made churches dependent on the people for support.

Thus: fewer people, less money, smaller congregation=unsuccessful. But how is a congregation supposed to attract new and more people, except by giving them what they want and evoking a definable and observable response (a critical event?)? As Hart quotes Roger Finke, “The religion of the unregulated market is of the people, by the people and for the people” (13).

And how many pastors have experienced this attitude on the part of the people: “Like a vitamin, the institutional church was merely supplemental” (21)? According to the pietist, “Going to church and participating in public worship, to be sure, were fine activities and should not be neglected. But these acts of devotion had no real bearing on one’s personal salvation” (ibid.).

In his discussion of “Old-World Lutherans,” Hart writes, “In sum, confessionalist piety was essentially churchly; participation in the forms and rites of the church, as opposed to the convert’s solitary question to lead an earnest moral life, was the way to be a Christian” (47). It sounds so absurd! The pietist mindset has not only beat out the confessionalist, it has nearly erased every indication that the confessionalist ever existed at all. (In this section, dealing with S.S. Schmucker, I am surprised that Hart does not even mention Charles Krauth, who probably did more than anyone to fight Schmucker’s Americanized Lutheranism.)

Hart also hits another struggle of confessional pastors in the LCMS when he notes that “the churchly ways of confessionalists were becoming harder and harder to distinguish from Catholicism in the eyes of many Americans, thanks to the influence of revivalism[!]” (49). Who, among LCMS lay people, is able to see beyond the forms to the theology underlying the ceremonies? Forget the laity, what pastor can say why the Lutheran ceremony means something other than the Roman?

Anyone recognize a trend in LCMS church plants in these words: “What evangelicals needed was a minimalist creed, a well-oiled machine, some funding, and lots of zeal” (74)? That is because, whether “there were two parties (fundamentalist and liberal) or three (fundamentalist, liberal, and evangelical, all were committed to the pietist vision of making faith relevant to everyday life” (ibid., emphasis added). Faith has to be relevant to everyday life, right? Forget all the irrelevant discussions about, say, the Lord’s Supper. We need to be relevant. Yep, never heard that before.

Hart has an intriguing side-note where he calls the conservative pietists “neo-Protestants” and the conservative confessionalists “paleo-Protestants,” and then writes that “just as political neoconservatives are, as the adage has it, liberals who got mugged by the 1960s, so neo-Protestants were the pietists of the nineteenth century who got mugged in the 1920s by the excesses of trying to make an otherworldly faith relevant” (80).

A few more salient quotes:

[I]nserting religious observances into public spaces hurt religion. “What could be more terrible,” [J.Gresham] Machen wrote, “from the Christian point of view, than the reading of the Lord’s Prayer to non-Christian children, as though they could use it without becoming Christians, as though persons who have never been purchased by the blood of Christ could possibly say to God, ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven’?” (93)

[More from Machen, who sounds very Lutheran at this point:] You cannot expect from a true Christian Church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force…[The Church’s] weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the Church is turning aside from its proper mission (94).

Machen was kicked out of his Presbyterian church, as Hart puts it, after “a series of episodes in which Presbyterian officials denied the existence of liberalism in the church and blamed conservatives like Machen for the controversy in the denomination”! (98 ) Hmm, denial of a problem and blame placed on those who identify the problem…now where have I heard something like that…?

The Dutch Calvinists were also appropriately critical of their Evangelical neighbors: “Instead [of having a love for theory, dogmatic truth, and clarity of principle], ‘everything was judged by its fruits or results,’ thus making American Protestantism ‘more broad than deep.'” (125). Further, Protestant worship was “oriented by an ‘indiscriminate looking for something new'” and “Evangelicalism sacrificed principle (read: doctrine) for application (read: self interest)” (ibid.).

And all of this stems from the revivalism of the American Frontier. Hart quotes James F. White: “in line with the Frontier Tradition, music is half the service….The musical idiom is carefully selected to relate to that homogeneous unit being targeted” (157) [e.g., twenty-somethings, Baby Boomers, “the youth,” etc.]. “Services use a variety of means that are designed to make an impression on would-be converts that elicits a dramatic, emotional, and, it is assumed, heartfelt response. … [The charismatic movement] has made emotional participation an indication of genuine faith. As such, churches under the influence of the charismatic movement have reconfigured worship services to give worshipers an experience of divine encounter. … Attendance, [David Luecke!] asserts, ‘is not the point.’ Instead, the issue is whether worship is ‘spiritually moving'” (ibid.).

Luecke’s book (Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance), Hart suggests, “showed that even the liturgically minded and emotionally staid confessional Lutherans who struggled to produce a hymnal faithful to their theological heritage were not immune from charismatic Protestants whom Martin Luther himself might have accused of having swallowed the Holy Ghost, ‘feathers and all'” (158).

On the other hand, David Truemper (what strange bed-fellows are made!) argued for the traditional Lutheran way: “The fundamental expression of the church’s existence, [Truemper] argued, is ‘the liturgical assembly around gospel and sacrament.’ In other words, ‘our confessional tradition is…at bottom, liturgical.’ The reason was straightforward. Unlike the Church Growth Movement that worships in order to gain converts, confessional Lutherans ‘evangelize in order to gain worshipers'” (159).

What does all this have to do with an election year? Simply this, as Hart puts it:

…where confessionalists have regarded human history as a cosmic drama that awaits consummation according to the will of God, pietists have swung between optimism and despair in assessing the relative proximity of history’s conclusion (172).

Confessionalists, as Hart calls us, understand that everything but Christ and His action is penultimate (at best). Politics, elections, voting: it’s all secondary or tertiary or whatever the fourth equivalent is. Whatever happens in November may be good or bad according to your particular political views, but the difference will be seen between the pietists and the confessionalists post-election. The pietists will, depending on the outcome either threaten to move to Canada or declare that the end of the world is upon us. The confessionalists will, whatever the outcome, continue to do the same old liturgy, distribute the same old sacraments, and preach the same old Word of God that does what He sent it to do: save sinners. Everything else is somewhere between non-essential and irrelevant. And that is why what we do is characterized, in Hart’s excellent phrase, by a “wholesome irrelevance” (144).

Timotheos

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5 thoughts on “Irrelevance, Pietism, Confessionalism, and an Election Year

  1. In sum, the application of religion to practical affairs sacralizes things that are common (e.g., exercise, eating, and politics) and trivializes things that are sacred (e.g., creed, sacraments, and pastoral ministry)”

    That is is an awesome statement.

  2. Very interesting and enlightening. I think I will have to read the book. This discussion really explains a lot about current American culture.

    Also, quaternary comes after tertiary, I believe.

  3. Pingback: They Think They’re Doing Something Different… « Balaam’s Ass

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