Anti-Scholasticism, Revival(ism), Pietism, Or The Reformed Theology, Piety, And Practice?

Or Why I Wrote Recovering The Reformed Confession

Recovering the Reformed ConfessionIn recent weeks there has been a remarkable confluence of articles that, in their own way, are right on time. Let us start chronologically. In November John Frame reviewed James Dolezal’s excellent book, All That Is In God. In the course of his review, Frame criticized Reformed scholasticism in the very way that Charles Augustus Briggs (1841–1913) did, in the same way that the Barthians have since the 1930s, and in the way that some Amyraldians and others have since the 1960s and 70s. Re-stating those criticisms might be well and good had there been no response, no re-assessment, or no revisionist scholarship but, of course, there has developed a considerable body of literature re-assessing the phenomenon of Protestant Scholasticism generally and Reformed scholasticism and orthodoxy more specifically. The revision and re-assessment of Lutheran orthodoxy (and Protestant orthodoxy more generally) began in 1957 with the publication of Robert Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture: A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957). In the 1970s he surveyed Lutheran orthodoxy more broadly in The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1970–72). The revision of the received story about Reformed theology might be said to have begun in 1972 with the publication of Jill Raitt’s dissertation on Theodore Beza’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, The Eucharistic Theology of Theodore Beza: Development of the Reformed Doctrine (Chambersburg, Pa: American Academy of Religion, 1972). Bob Godfrey’s 1974 Stanford PhD dissertation on the Synod of Dort advanced the discussion and remains a valuable resource for understanding the dynamics within early Reformed orthodoxy. The tide began to turn, however, in 1978 when Richard Muller began what was, for many years, a one-man assault on the received story about Reformed scholasticism and orthodoxy, that it was a departure from the “genius” and “spirit” and even theology of the Reformation, that it marked a turn back to medieval “rationalism” and spiritually stultifying movement that more or less wrecked the Reformed churches and paved the way for the ascendancy of liberalism. The reader should start with his Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1986) but he has been summarizing his research for more than two decades years in the series, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, presently available only through He has also summarized his work in, e.g., After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and most recently in Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (2017). About 20 years into Muller’s project Carl Trueman and I published, Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (1999) which included essays from Muller, David Steinmetz, David Bagchi, Godfrey among others  calling attention to the state of the art. Since, that time, however (itself now almost 20 years old) a virtual industry has developed applying the methods pioneered by Heiko Oberman (1930–2001) and his student David Steinmetz (1936–2015) to the study of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Thus, in light of this impressive body of research and given the time that one has had to read and digest it, Frame’s repetition of the old caricatures of Reformed scholasticism is astonishing to say the least. Nevertheless, he is not alone. Muller’s work is often cited but my experience is that writers are more likely to cite his work than actually to read it. ‘Tis a pity.

As one who studies, writes on, and teaches courses on the sources of the Reformed tradition, I am impressed again how important it is not only to keep up with the literature in those fields but also how much more important it is to read sources. One of the greatest faults of the older approach to Reformed scholasticism, as represented by Frame’s review of Dolezal, is that it cannot be squared with the sources read in any reasonably historical way. In our survey of Reformed scholasticism/orthodoxy I begin with an orientation in which I merely quote from the older secondary literature and outline the way Reformed scholasticism came to be viewed in the 19th and 20th centuries, prior to 1972. Then I more or less send them off to read the sources and then we gather together to discuss them. In the 20 years (or so) that I have been doing this the students consistently report that what they find in the sources is not what the older secondary literature described. What they typically find is a tradition that was remarkably coherent and consistent. This is not to say that there was no diversity within Reformed orthodoxy—there was—but it is to claim that there was a coherent theology, piety, and practice that emerged from the various quarters of the Reformed world, which came to expression ecclesiastically in the Reformed confessions. My students report that they find writers who loved the Lord, who loved his Word, who trusted his Word implicitly, who sought above all to follow the Word, who placed that Word above human reason and religious experience, who received the ecumenical faith as summarized in the ancient Christian creeds, who loved his church, who loved the lost, and who sought to articulate the Reformed faith in a way that was appropriate to the audience (e.g., unbelievers, the academy, or the church) to which they were writing at the moment. Most of my students find that when we are willing to abandon our assumptions about what must (a priori) have been the case and consider the growing body of primary sources now available in English, the older story simply does not stand up to scrutiny. To this end I have been editing a series of English translations of primary sources in the series Classic Reformed Theology published by Reformation Heritage Books. So far we have published Caspar Olevianus, William Ames, and Johannes Cocceius. We hope to publish a first-ever English translation of J. H. Heidegger later this year. We have multiple volumes waiting to be edited and published. In the last few years alone multiple translations have been published, including Beza on the Supper and Junius on what I called in RRC the categorical distinction in theology.

The reality is, however, that most evangelicals who identify with aspects of Reformed theology and the Reformed themselves have not yet read the sources nor the modern academic literature on the development of Reformed theology. This reality was one of the motivations behind Recovering the Reformed Confession. My intent was to help those within the Reformed world (particularly NAPARC) and those whom my friend Brad Isbell calls the “Presby-curious” to find a pathway into (or back into) the riches of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Since this is 2018 and the 10th anniversary of its publication and in light of the recent articles re-stating the older view and articles in recent days advocating renewed appreciation for revival (or revivalism) and pietism, two issues with which RRC was much engaged, this seems a good time to look at those these movements and to contrast them again with the Reformed confession.

In the last few days two different authors have published articles seeking to invite evangelical and Reformed readers first to a “revival” model of piety and practice and then to Pietism. These two movements are closely related historically and so I will address them together in this response. Before I proceed, let me make clear that I am not contesting the relationship between revival(ism) and Pietism to modernevangelicalism. I am completely disinterested in a political contest over turf or control of evangelicalism. I agree with Mike Horton. I wish evangelicals and the rest of us could think of evangelicalism—to the extent there really is such a thing. See D. G. Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism—as a village green rather than a piece of contested territory. My intent in these essays is not to contest for territory. It is to discourage those who identify the Reformed theology and those who actually subscribe the Reformed confession from pursuing these alternatives to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The first of these two alternatives is revival, which some (as I discuss in the book) want to distinguish sometimes from revivalism. I doubt that distinction works as an explanation of history and, as I showed in the book, even the proponents of the distinction agree with that. When push comes to shove, a bad revival (e.g., the 2nd Great Awakening) is better than no revival.  So I have been signalling the blurriness of the line between revival and revivalism by using revival(ism). I agree with the author that revival(ism) is a mark of evangelicalism but I want to distinguish sharply between the original evangelicals, i.e., the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches and evangelicalism as it came to be formed by Pietism and revival(ism). These are two distinct things.

Strangely, the author thinks that the great revivalists are being left behind.

Thus, while many appreciate Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the First Great Awakening, they almost invariably write off later American revivals as hotbeds of human activism, heresy, cults of personality, and emotional extravagance. Better to leave all that in the dustbin and get on with the mission of preaching the gospel and building the church. Right?

I should very much like to see the evidence of such marginalization. Amandus Polanus (1561–1610) is not anyone’s “homeboy” but apparently, judging by what I see, Jonathan Edwards is. Indeed Edwards is a principal influence upon the so-called New Calvinism and the Young, Restless, and Reformed movements. That hardly seems like marginalization. I and others have been trying to persuade the Reformed to recognize that the 18th and 19th century revivals are not as distinct (the first supposedly a good revival and the second supposedly a bad revival) as we have been told nor were they a natural outgrowth of the classical Reformed theology, piety, and practice. I am surprised to find that the author thinks that some are hearing this message. That is encouraging but I doubt that he is right. In truth, the Reformed do not confess a theology, piety, and practice of revival(ism). I am certain that the magisterial Protestants would have been horrified by both the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings and I do not think that most of the orthodox of the 17th century would have been entirely comfortable either with the rhetoric of the 1st Great Awakening nor with the practice and the associated phenomena.

I am grateful for the essay advocating a renewal of revival theology and practice because it puts the issues squarely before us. The author writes, “I advance the opposite thesis: Revivals embody the true flourishing of Protestantism precisely because they intensify and expand on central Protestant themes.” This claim is fundamentally false. The only place in the 16th century where anything like Northampton happened was among the Anabaptists and the magisterial, confessional Protestants all denounced it as fanaticism. The seventeenth-century Reformed were, as far as I can tell (yes, I am aware of the passages in Owen to which some are appealing for support. I doubt very much that those passages are being understood correctly) the orthodox had no sympathies for the doctrines and practices that would become essential to the 1st Great Awakening.

As I noted in the book and as I have noted here, there are serious questions not only about Edwards’ orthodoxy on the doctrine of God (Charles Hodge called him a “Pantheist”) but also on the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church (J. H. Alsted): the doctrine of justification. Scholars of Edwards have known this for many decades since Thomas A. Schafer’s seminal 1951 essay in Church History, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith” in which he concluded, “it is not, therefore, by the doctrine of imputed righteousness that Edwards prefers to safeguard human dependence and divine glory; rather it is by the doctrine of ‘infused grace’” (62–63). Since Schafer, other writers (e.g., W. Robert Godfrey) have also criticized Edwards’ doctrine of justification.

The author’s account of the three great interests of the Reformation (preaching, conversion, and missions) is anachronistic. These are marks of 18th and 19th century “evangelicalism” but these are not (as he characterizes them) the way the Reformed and Lutherans spoke about themselves. The Belgic Confession (1561) identifies three marks of the true church, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline (art. 29). These are Reformation-era marks. We may not read eighteenth- and nineteenth-century categories and concerns back into the 16th and 17th centuries.

In RRC I characterized revival(ism) and Pietism as two aspects of the QIRE: the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. Fundamentally, this is the desire to have an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. This is the irreducible core of modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice. It is not the theology nor was it the practice of the Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries. They certainly wanted believers to have a vital religious experience but their confession and practice focused on God’s grace in salvation and the consequent fruits of the Spirit as they flow from God’s grace to his redeemed people. Experience is fleeting. It is not the ground of assurance nor is to be sought as a good in itself. What is to be sought is Christ. Our confidence is in work for us and his promises to us.

As our second author notes, these are not the key tenets of Pietism. The essay comes in the form of a review and he helpfully lists Spener’s six principles of Pietism:

  1. a pronounced Bible-centeredness
  2. an activistic approach to the priesthood of all believers
  3. a Christianity that creates an integrated and holistic way of life
  4. an irenic posture that prioritizes Christian unity
  5. an approach to Christian formation rooted in following Jesus
  6. the proclamation of the good news in words and deeds

The list is as important for what it does not mention as for what it does: the means of grace, the visible church, and confessional boundaries. Neither does it stipulate exactly what the gospel is. For the confessional Reformed and Lutherans the gospel is preached and we live in it and out of it but we do not “live it.” The 6th point is ambiguous on this. The core of the Pietist movement is an unmediated encounter with the risen Christ, typically in small groups (conventicles) separated from the visible church, which produces religious and social activity. Encounter and activity are the essential nouns of Pietism.

Pietism sought to transcend church and sacraments. In that sense, it was a true predecessor of the revival movements in the 18th and 19th centuries and of modern evangelicalism but it was a reaction, in part, to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation as much as to the state churches of Europe. The early Pietists were mostly orthodox but the confession of the churches did not animate them. Experience and action animated them. The confessionalists argued about the doctrines of Christ, salvation, worship, and the Lord’s Supper but these questions did not animate the Pietists as much as the transcendent, supra-historical experience of the risen Christ.

The succeeding generations of Pietists realized that theological orthodoxy and orthopraxy were immaterial to their project and not long after that they realized that the history of redemption was irrelevant to their faith. These children and grandchildren of the Pietists were the great liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. So, our author’s list of contempoary Pietsts is instructive: “Like many authors before them—including Donald Dayton, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Kenneth Collins, Randall Balmer, Jim Wallis, and Roger Olson, among others—Gehrz and Pattie commend the Wesleyan/Holiness/Anabaptist/Pietist trajectory of evangelical identity: what the authors call the Pietist ethos.” What unites them? Encounter and activism or the QIRE.

Again, I am glad to see this summary and invitation to Pietism because it highlights the differences between the theology, piety, and practice of Pietism with that of the Reformed churches. Like our two authors, please consider this a warm invitation to consider the Reformed confession on its own terms and not as modified or moderated by modern evangelicals (e.g. as in the “New Calvinism” or in the YRR movement). As I argued in the book, if you will give it a try, on its own terms, you will find in the Reformed confession much of what you say that you want: a truly and deeply biblical theology, a genuine connection with the history of the church, an ordered worship (when we follow our stated rule of worship), a Christ-centered faith, a warm, personal, genuine piety, a high (but not sacerdotal) view of the sacraments, and a real community of believers seeking to live out the faith coram Deo, before the face of God in Christ.

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  1. Dr Clark, I appreciate you taking the time to do this. I grew up in the Moravian Church, which is highly pietistic. Pietism is very damaging to people on a spiritual and emotional level. Very few of the people I grew up in the Moravian Church (people my age) are still professing Christians. The vast majority ended up apostatizing. Most of the ones who still profess faith all left for other denominations. All of the ones who still profess faith and stayed have heretical views of at least one major doctrine.

  2. I agree. I guess you could day that I belong to the “the “presby-curious” crowd and RCC and other publications have been very helpful. Along these lines and in keeping with a critique of, “…articles in recent days advocating renewed appreciation for revival (or revivalism) and pietism…,” I would appreciate an assessment of how worship styles that have emerged over the past 20-25 years or so (and seem to have intensified during the past decade) have helped to shape this revival/pietism movement. I have a fairly dim view of some of the over-the-top, rock and roll* inspired, and in many cases down right raucous conduct in contemporary “worship” nowadays. It would be interesting and helpful to know how these sources entered into mainstream protestant churches. Thanks again for all of your hard work.

    *I wonder how many advocates of rock-and-roll style instrumentation and rhythms in worship are invoking a genre, the very name and definition of which implies sexual intercourse.

  3. I read Dr. Dolezal’s books, watched his lectures, and listened to his interviews on podcasts in regard to his doctrine on the simplicity of God. He was even kind enough to send me a copy of his dissertation when I contacted him. Wonderful man. I have also read/watched/listened to Dr. Oliphint on the same subject. I think Dr. Oliphint’s explantion/warning regarding the influence of Aquanas’ metaphysic in Dolezal’s doctine of divine simplicity is right on. Wouldn’t you agree?

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