Pies, Docs, Kuyps, And Confessionalists

The first time I heard the expression, “Pies, Docs, and Kuyps” was during a seminary lecture by Derke Bergsma. He was relating what had already become a fairly standard sociological taxonomy in the Reformed world. There are three kinds of Reformed folk: Pietists, Doctrinalists, and Kuyperians.  George Marsden published this taxonomy in his introduction to Reformed Theology in America (1997).

Pietism (not to be confused with piety) values the immediate encounter with the risen Christ and personal religious experience above everything else. A Pietist may have an active or contemplative piety. He may be orthodox in his confession but orthodoxy is not essential to Pietism. Religious experience is of the essence of Pietism. The practice of the faith is more important than doctrine but not as important as religious experience. History is interesting to him insofar as it illumines and fuels religious experience. Pietism has been perhaps the dominant movement in American evangelicalism (or a major part of the dominant spirit) since the First Great Awakening in the early 18th century. It was fueled by the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century and by the ongoing tradition of revivalism in American religion since. The neo-Pentecostalism of the Cane Ridge (1800) Topeka and Asuza Street revivals (1906–07) the immigrant Pietists, who came to the USA from Germany and the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century, contributed mightily to the transformation of American Christianity into the Pietist model. If you are an American evangelical, you are almost certainly a Pietist or the child of a Pietist. For more on this movement see the relevant chapters in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

A Doctrinalist values orthodox doctrine above all else. Think of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Above all else, the Doctrinalist wants to distill the essential theological truths of a biblical passage. Like the Pietist, he is not very interested in history (when doctrine developed, where it developed, how it developed, and why). History interests him insofar as it clarifies doctrine. He loves Scripture but (sees it less as the history of redemption and more as a source of doctrine). He values piety but not as much as doctrinal truth. In the USA, a Doctrinalist may well be a refugee from Pietism. His interest in philosophy is stronger than his interest in history and practice.

In this taxonomy, a Kuyperian is shorthand for the Transformationalist approach to relating Christ and culture. He is chiefly interested in the creation of a distinctly Christian worldview toward the end of a cultural engagement and influence. The name of the category is a reference to the great, indefatigable, and  inimitable Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), a Reformed minister, theologian, and scholar who founded a Reformed denomination (Gereformeerde Kerken), a university (The Free University of Amsterdam), edited and wrote for two newspapers, helped to found a political party (Anti-Revolutionary Party), served as member of Parliament, and served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–05).  Kuyperians are interested in piety (but not typically Pietism) and doctrine but what (in this scheme) really animates a Kuyperian is the problem of Christ and culture and the vision of engaging and transforming culture under the influence of the Christian faith.

Obviously in such a taxonomy there caricatures are going to emerge but no one is meant to think of a caricature as a photograph or a careful portrait. A caricature captures and exaggerates certain obvious features. So it is with this very quick sketch. There is another problem with this taxonomy, it lacks a category or two. Where does the “redemptive-historical” theologian (e.g., Geerhardus Vos) fit? The Redemptive-Historical theologian and preacher has been an important figure in Dutch-Reformed theology and church life since at least the 1640s, when Johannes Cocceius began writing.

Perhaps it was in his book The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2004) or somewhere else but D. G. Hart has long argued (persuasively) to my mind that this taxonomy is incomplete because it omits a vital category that might even replace some (if not all) of the others: Confessionalist. His model, of course, was J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), the Princeton New Testament professor, who left Princeton and the mainstream Northern Presbyterians (now the PCUSA) to found Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). Machen was denominated a “fundamentalist” in the 1920s but he wore that label somewhat uncomfortably. Fundamentalist had a somewhat different sense then than it does now. Strictly, it referred to those who stood for the “fundamentals of the faith,” e.g., the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, there were those within fundamentalism who embodied the ethos that we think of as “fundamentalist” today—narrow-minded, setting up marks of orthodoxy not confessed in the ecumenical creeds or Reformed confessions.

The confessionalist is not a Pietist but he confesses and seeks to practice a vibrant, warm, Christian piety. His piety may not satisfy the Pietist because it does not begin with the quiet time and the immediate encounter with the risen Christ. Rather, it starts with the objective, the visible church and what he confesses to be the “due use of ordinary means” of grace: the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. The confessionalist is not a revivalist. He was the object of scorn during the First and Second Great Awakenings. Unless he is refugee from Pentecostalism, that phenomenon is foreign to him. Prayer is an essential Christian practice, a means of grace (Westminster Standards), and the chief part of thankfulness (Heidelberg Catechism) but in it he does not expect to hear new, private revelations from the Spirit.

He loves the truth of the Christian faith but he values it as it comes to us from the Word of God as confessed by the churches. This connects him to the history of the church. He recognizes that the Christian understanding of Scripture developed over time, that history matters. He recognizes that doctrine is essential to the Christian faith but also that the faith cannot be reduced to doctrine. The Confessionalist wants to engage the world but recognizes that what binds Reformed Christians together is not an agreed cultural agenda or even an eschatology (a vision of the future) but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. Thus, sometimes the interests of the Confessionalist with those of the Kuyperian (e.g., Machen’s defense of private Christian schools) and sometimes it may diverge (e.g., Machen’s libertarianism). He recognizes that the church’s confession of the Word has clear implications for the way the faith is lived both on the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) but also Monday through Saturday.

The Reformed confession is holistic: it is a theology (doctrine), a piety (a way of relating to God), and practice (a way of living out the Christian faith in the visible church and in daily life).

My impression has long been that the point of the taxonomy was to say, in effect, we should understand each other and see that we need each other. That is true enough but if we consider the Confessionalist perhaps he offers another way that captures the best parts of each model without the baggage attached to them?  Confessionalism is a way we can appreciate each other’s interests, pray and worship together, and live out the faith together, in peace, with the liberty offered under the umbrella of an agreed understanding of the Word.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. My first reaction as I began reading the descriptions of the taxonomy: “Yet another set of categories where I don’t fit.” Then I kept reading. Whew!

  2. Excellent, as usual. Thank you. There is a distinctly confessional, means of grace piety, thanks be to God. We expect God to work to feed our faith where He promises to, via Word & Sacraments (Heidelberg 65).

  3. Very helpful. The distinction between doctrinalist & confessionalist is new to me. To the casual observer they would seem one and the same. Would be helpful if you could expand on this:

    “Like the Pietist, he is not very interested in history (when doctrine developed, where it developed, how it developed, and why). History interests him insofar as it clarifies doctrine. He loves Scripture but (sees it less as the history of redemption and more as a source of doctrine). He values piety but not as much as doctrinal truth…His interest in philosophy is stronger than his interest in history and practice.”

    Tim Keller wrote along the same themes as this post back in 2010. You can read here: http://barkerproductions.net/what_pca.pdf

    The Marsden taxonomy is from, “Introduction: Reformed
    and American,” in Reformed Theology in America
    [ed. David F. Wells; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997]

    • Hi,

      Thanks for this. I heard it from Derke in the mid-80s George must have been saying it at Calvin for some years prior.

      The chief characteristic of the doctrinalist is that he values doctrine above all else. It tends to be reductionist. E.g., a doctrinalist preacher will reduce a given text of Scripture to its doctrinal points, neglecting, perhaps the redemptive-historical context and its consequences for piety and practice. The confessionalist has a more holistic understanding of faith, piety, and practice. The difference is embedded in the very subtitle: theology, piety and practice. Doctrine yes, but doctrine that flows into piety and practice.

  4. I suppose I won’t feel insulted if given any of the pies, docs, or Kuyps labels. From what I know of these movements, there’s something attractive and God-honoring in all of them. There are also things that are not so pleasant. I’ve seen ugly sanctimoniousness among the pies and docs; and while I am all for cultural transformation, I weep that a lot Kuyper’s heirs seem to have drifted into liberalism. I also wonder if the Kuyperians might’ve sown some of the seed that grew into the Federal Vision.

    Having been accused of being a pietist by some, and being descended from Jews on one side and Lutherans on the other, I am also curious about what might’ve been in the air back in the 18th century. A little after Pietism springs up in the Lutheran countries, Hasidism (also stressing emotional religion and mysticism) sprang up among the Jews in Galicia and the Ukraine.

  5. hasidism grew in galacia where most jews were very poor, they reacted vs the super intellectuality of the rabbis from vilna the jewish harvard/princeton of that time. the uneducated felt they could not approach heaven thru study. they were also looking for hope after terrible progroms from ukranian/cossacks making war on the polish kingdom.
    i m a former officer of 10 presbyterian and have encountered all 4 types of reformed people

  6. This was very enlightening, thank you. The outcome of my experiences, study, and prayer have directed me strongly to Reformed theology. From there as a starting point I did not realize there were classifications as noted in your article. This opens up more avenues for my study time. By the time I finished reading it seems the Confessionalist ‘label’ provides the balance I’ve sought. I’ll be obtaining the books you mentioned. God bless.

Comments are closed.