As an ex-Pietist one of the most vicious laws under which I was placed early on in my Christian life was the “quiet time.” I was taught to carry a “verse pack” and to keep a “quiet time” journal. The younger Christians were to use the “9:59 Plan” and the more mature were to use the “29:59 Plan.”
Recently, as I gathered with the student prayer group (I’m not against prayer!) and again today in class, as I tried to explain the rise of monasticism and its appeal, I recounted my early Christian experience with pietism and the law of the quiet time. To have a quiet time, not attendance to the means of grace, was the mark of piety.
Before you complain that I hate prayer or piety, I’m quite in favor of spending time in private prayer. It’s not only salutary it’s necessary. We confess that prayer is so necessary for Christians that “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.” (HC 116). Why, however, are private prayers given priority over public worship? The answer is Pietism. The Pietist knows that the private is more holy and more sanctifying than the public. I don’t think, however, that Reformed Christians know that, do they?
I mentioned the law of the quiet time to illustrate that the monastic cell (which was apparently occupied by no less than John Paul II who mortified his flesh with a belt or a whip or some such) did not die with the medieval church. The pietist wants to take us back to the monastic cell, to ascetic spirituality, to world flight, and, I think, to a sub-biblical spirit/matter dualism. I contrast, I noted, the Protestants understood the contrast to be between the Spirit and our sinful nature. They realized that God had ordained ordinary water, bread, and wine to be set apart for holy use and to operate through those things, through the foolishness of gospel preaching, to achieve his purposes in his people. Contrary to the reigning medieval (and among many contemporary evangelicals) assumption, the human problem is sin not lack of being or lack of divinity. Concupiscence comes after the fall, not because of creation. The human problem is sin, which is a violation of God’s law. In other words, our fundamental problem is forensic (which has spiritual and moral consequences). This why the fundamental solution is legal and not moral (although it has moral and spiritual consequences): justification.
In Reformed spirituality the private devotional life of the Christian flows from the public Word, the public means of grace, i.e., the preaching of the Holy Gospel and the administration of the Holy sacraments (HC 65). The private devotional life is not a law, it is a grace. It is not a metaphorical whip with which to prod Christians to godliness, it is the natural outgrowth of union with Christ. It’s important but it’s secondary to the public preaching of the Word. Proportionally, don’t we have a lot more to say about public piety than about private piety? Why have the pietists gained so much credibility in our circles and why are those of us who advocate the “due use of ordinary means” the bad guys?
On the influence of pietism in Reformed circles, I cannot number how often I’ve read or heard exhortations to sem students and to pastors and others to set aside distinct periods of time to read the Bible “devotionally.” For pastors and divinity students who spend much of their time in the study of the word, such a “law” has important implications. How much time must he spend devoting? Who judges my performance of this law? Further, the implication is sometimes left and sometimes the explicit exhortation is given that one should not study during devotions. This dichotomy between study and prayer seems not only unnatural but unworkable. What happens if I learn something while I’m devoting? Have I sinned? Do I have to start over? Does it count as “devotions?” What happens if I sing while I study or because of my study? Is it not study any longer? Why should I accept the premise that doxology and the intellect are mutually exclusive? Why is it more holy to read three chapters of Scripture than to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest three verses?
I understand that for pastors and divinity students the line between vocation and devotion can become blurry. That’s as it should be. I understand that, practically, It makes the Sabbath more complicated. A plumber ordinarily, barring a work of necessity or mercy, doesn’t plumb on the Sabbath but a minister or divinity student prays and studies God’s Word on the Sabbath, which acts are part of his vocation. Yes, there are ways of reading Scripture without parsing Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic vocabulary) or doing extensive word studies or text criticism. Fine. Students should probably not be reading Hegel or Nietzsche or Kant or any number of things on the Sabbath. I understand.
Nevertheless, we need to challenge the apparently reigning pietist paradigm that to pray is not to study and to study is not to pray. It’s not true. Ecstasy is not piety and piety is not ecstasy. We need to challenge the assumption that the extraordinary is more pious and spiritual than the ordinary. In that assumption I think we may lose our Christology. Despite what you might have seen, Jesus’ face didn’t glow. He was the God-Man but he wasn’t spectacular. That’s why we crucified him.