Addressing Pietism and ‘The Thing’

calvinA busy few weeks attending the British New Testament Conference and researching at Tyndale House has kept me away from World Without End. But, my mind has been turning over the things that I’ve posted on previously: the influence of pietistic dualism (the strict separation of natural and supernatural) in the Church. Whilst away I had a stimulating conversation about the influence of Pietism in Welsh evangelicalism. Just yesterday, I read an interview with the first Jesuit head of the Catholic Church – a Pope who celebrates the particular mysticism of the Society of Jesus. Closer to home, there is the mystical dualism of the traditional local Catholicism and the evident strong strain of pietistic mysticism (with its attendant dualism) in Scottish Presbyterianism, especially in the Highlands and Islands. In a previous post, I noted Bavinck’s view that this kind of pietism was incapable of the Reformation of the church. The Reformation project at its very heart sought to fundamentally connect the natural and supernatural.

Conventionally, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is seen exclusively as a reformation of the church. In fact, however, it was much more than that; it was a radically new way of conceiving Christianity itself. Rome’s world-and-life view was dualistic; her disjunction between the natural and supernatural was a quantitative one. By returning to the New Testament, the Reformers replaced this with a truly theistic worldview that made the distinction a qualitative one. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, 235.

The Reformers’ healthy, biblical view of Christianity (a ‘Worldly Christianity’) was rooted in the place they afforded to the doctrine of creation. It was good ol’ Jean Calvin who took this furthest…

In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements Creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves Creation intact, as in Luther, much less a radically new creation as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures. Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity. 238

But, this great principle of the Reformation – of the goodness of creation, of God’s purpose to affirm and renew all things in Christ – did not take root. By the time of the Westminster Confession, this aspect of Reformation thought is waning. In Bavinck’s words, ‘the Reformation retreated into itself’. The dualistic outlook remained.

I’ve become convinced that it is Pietism that is at the root of some of the common problems found in traditional Highland Presbyterianism. Congregations which have retreated from the world, which are unable to either mobilise or contextualise their mission, which show little concern for social justice, and which have a negative view of language and culture – these congregations can be identified, but why are they like this? They have ‘the thing’, that intangible, nebulous affliction discerned through its symptoms. To my mind, ‘the thing’ is rooted in Pietism and must be addressed by a truly Reformed, Worldly Christianity. Mere ‘Evangelicalism’ cannot be the answer, because Pietism is alive and well in that school of thought as well. If we want a focus for the on-going task of Reformation in Scotland, then the all-embracing, most-wholeheartedly biblical, creation-affirming principles of Calvin’s Reformed thought are what we must grasp and apply.

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