Protestantism’s Lost Soul PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 24 December 2010 13:39

D. G. Hart’s 2002 book, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism vividly clarifies the differences between evangelical and Confessional Protestantism. In part the book is a manifesto for historians of American religion. Hart argues that historians of American Protestantism have operated with a simplistic binary contrast of evangelical/conservative v. liberal/progressive. At best, historians refine this binary scheme by distinguishing between fundamentalism, that literalistic, vulgar, and anti-intellectual brand of Christianity, and evangelicalism, which gave fundamentalism a decent haircut, a suit and tie, and a diploma from a prestigious university, and thus made fundamentalism tolerable, if not quite welcome, in polite society.

This model is flawed, first, because it obscures the inner continuity between evangelical and liberal. To Hart, the key problem is the American Protestant obsession with relevance. He states his argument provocatively in the opening pages: “the Protestant-inspired notion that faith produces compassion, virtue, and harmony . . . is what is wrong with American Protestantism” (p. xvii). This is a “fundamentally utilitarian view of belief,” and he claims that the pragmatic effort to make Christianity a means for improvement of private and public morals has led American churches to abandon “large pieces of their Christian heritage” (xviii). Hart suggests that both evangelical pietism and liberalism are guilty of this utilitarian abandonment of the faith. Seeking to gain the world, or at least America, both liberals and evangelicals lose their souls.

A binary of liberal/evangelical is flawed, secondly, because it ignores an important swath in the fabric of American religious life, that is, orthodox Protestant traditions that have resisted both the evangelicalism and liberalism. Hart labels this a “Confessional” tradition in American Protestantism, and describes these as “churchly or liturgical Protestant traditions” that include “Lutheranism, the Reformed churches, Presbyterianism, and Anglicanism” (p. xxiii).

With the introduction of “Confessionalism” as a third church type, Hart’s book moves from description to prescription. The Confessional tradition is the lost soul of American Protestantism, lost not only to historians who bundle it together with evangelicalism under the heading of “conservative Christianity,” but lost as well to American Christianity, which has abandoned the wisdom embodied in these Confessional churches. If liberals and evangelicals have lost their soul by pursuing relevance, they can regain their soul by embracing the studied irrelevance of Confessional Protestantism.

For Hart, Confessionalism’s strength lies partly in its recognition of a strict separation of holy and profane.  The church’s business is the salvation of souls, not the improvement of human life in time or the shaping of the public square, and the church attends to this business by pastoral care through word and sacrament. As this sacred/secular divide focus the church’s attention on its spiritual ministry, it simultaneously frees Christians to participate fully in a pluralistic public world. In Hart’s view, J. Gresham Machen’s view that the church is spiritual rather than political or temporal gives the church freedom to maintain its intolerant insistence that it has the truth, while at the same time avoiding the despotism of public intolerance. When Machen intervened in public debate, as he did in opposition to public schools as well as to prayer and Bible reading in public schools, he did so not for religious but for political reasons (p. 93). A Confessionalist like Machen had no interest in making faith relevant to public life, and as a result he could engage in public debate without trivializing or defiling the holy faith.

In addition to its clarity and the pungent, sometimes pugnacious vigor of Hart’s prose, his book has a number of substantive merits. He is surely correct that Confessional Protestantism forms a distinct thread of American Christianity, and also correct that this third party has been as invisible to American church historians as the Constitution Party has been in American politics. He is also quite right, in my judgment, to admire a number of the features of Confessional Protestantism, right to admire especially those features that run against the grain of American culture. Confessional Protestantism insists, for example, on the irreducible necessity and value of ecclesial forms – governmental, liturgical, and confessional forms as well as patterns of pastoral care and community life. For pietist evangelicalism, forms matter much less, if at all (p. 37). As a result, evangelical Christians often speak of their relationship with God as if it were an instance of what British sociologist Anthony Giddens has called a “pure relationship.”

Along similar lines, Hart endorses Machen’s arguments in favor of intolerant creeds (pp. 88-98), and he sings the praises of Reformed sectarianism (ch. 5). I would qualify my support for both of these, but Hart is correct to argue that Confessional Protestantism has weapons of resistance that non-confessional evangelicalism lacks. A church whose ministers adhere to the Westminster Confession has ballast that prevents it being blown by winds of doctrine that is lacking in a Bible Church with no creed but Christ. A church with liturgical forms rooted in Scripture and sanctified by tradition can fight off pressure to conform to the liturgies of popular culture – the liturgical forms embodied in pop music, Power Point, the demand for casualness and informality. Insofar as sectarianism means standing against worldliness, the church cannot do without sectarianism.

Despite these strengths, the book has significant weaknesses, some of which are historical. For a church historian, Hart displays a surprisingly ahistorical view of the Confessional tradition of Presbyterianism and the Reformed churches. He admits obliquely that “the downside of confessions is that they may be wrong” (p. 107), and recognizes that the Confessional churches offer constitutional avenues for reforming their confession. But neither he nor the Confessionalists whose views he summarizes recognize the import of the fact that the Westminster Confession, for instance, is a historically particular document, forged in specific historical and cultural circumstances, shaped by the intellectual categories dominant in that day. Machen argued, in Hart’s summary, that “if a church allowed a variety of interpretations of the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith . . . it would be in exactly the same position ‘as to have no confession at all’” (p. 105).

The Westminster Confession came from an Assembly whose members differed on various doctrines, an Assembly that strove at various points to produce formulas flexible enough to embrace those differences while fixed enough to be meaningful. Further, the fact that Westminster comes at the end of a century and more of Calvinist Confession writing raises questions about any univocal reading of the Confession. When Westminster formulates Reformed doctrine with different emphases and nuances than earlier Confessions, does that indicate a repudiation of earlier confessions or is it a contextually specific response to debates within the English church? More generally, non-Confessional evangelicals suspect, with some justice, that the Reformation’s “sola Scriptura” gets swallowed up by traditionalism in Confessional churches.

My more important disagreements with Hart are theological, though these too are partly historical. Hart’s addition of “Confessionalism” to the spectrum of American Protestantism enriches the historian’s palate but does not capture the full range of options. This is most obvious in Hart’s inclusion of orthodox Anglicanism among the “Confessional” traditions. Few Anglicans think themselves “Confessionalists,” but neither can we classify Anglicanism as a form of evangelicalism.

Even within the Reformed world, there are figures that sit uneasily in Hart’s scheme. Though John Williamson Nevin defended confessions and catechisms against liberal attacks, neither he nor the Mercersburg theology is accurately captured by the label “Confessionalist.” Charles Hodge would certainly not have regarded Nevin as a Confessionalist. Hart sometimes describes “Confessional” Protestantism as “churchly,” but there are different ways of being churchly, and churchly churches are not necessarily identified primarily by their confessional commitments. Once we include Anglicanism and Mercersburg on the spectrum of American Protestantism, Hart’s inclusion of all conservative anti-revivalist Protestants under the heading of “Confessional” begins to smell a bit like Presbyterian imperialism.

Finally, and most fundamentally, if Confessional churches are as committed to the sacred/secular divide as Hart suggests, they represent more problem than solution. Scripture commands us to pray for rulers and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2). That is, Scripture requires us to bring the “secular” political world into the “sacred” heart of the liturgy. If we believe that God answers prayer, then Paul’s command is inherently transformationalist, a biblical demand that punctures any solid wall of separation between sacred and secular.  A Protestantism rooted in a sacred/secular divide is a Protestantism whose soul is still lost.

Share the goodness
Reddit!! Mixx! Free and Open Source Software News Google! Live! Facebook! StumbleUpon! TwitThis
ltsang (Registered) 2010-12-30 15:44:51

»Few Anglicans think themselves “Confessionalists,” but neither can we classify Anglicanism as a form of evangelicalism.«

Would the former requirement of subscription to the BCP, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Ordinal be sufficient for classical Anglicanism to be regarded as a sort of confessionalist Protestantism? These requirements have since been dropped, of course, or severely attenuated, but most opponents of subscription seem to have been either liberals or Romanist wannabes (or they argued, like Newman, that the Thirty-Nine Articles could legitimately be given a Tridentine reading).

»Though John Williamson Nevin defended confessions and catechisms against liberal attacks, neither he nor the Mercersburg theology is accurately captured by the label “Confessionalist.” Charles Hodge would certainly not have regarded Nevin as a Confessionalist.«

How would you characterize Mercersburg instead?
Andrew Lohr (Registered) 2011-01-19 11:49:04

Some fundamentalists have focused on souls and avoided politics--so that's not unique to confessionalism--and some "confessional" denominations have gone liberal--so whatever its strength it's no guarantee.
Only registered users can write comments!
Last Updated on Friday, 24 December 2010 13:50