Following Jesus is “More Than ‘Jesus and Me'”

I’ll come to my real topic in a moment, but permit me to start with an observation about how our conversation has carried us from the end of 2021 into the beginning of 2022. For I found it fascinating to read Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s reflection just a month after Randall Balmer’s. Neither man was born into his tradition, but instead came to Reformed Protestantism and Anglicanism, respectively, by way of leaving evangelicalism. Both appreciated the ecumenical impulses in their new religious homes, but it was striking to see the differences in how they narrate their journeys out of evangelical Christianity and into older traditions. Balmer was drawn by worship; Granberg-Michaelson only mentions worship in the troubling context of Calvinist participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Balmer emphasizes the Anglican “deemphasis of theology,” while Granberg-Michaelson starts with doctrinal confessions and then reflects on theological categories like covenant, sovereignty, and sin.

So while I said last month that it may seem surprising that I would resonate so strongly with the story of someone’s trip along the Canterbury Trail, it may be even more surprising that a Pietist nodded along so often with a version of following Jesus that deemphasizes personal religious experience and takes very seriously the intellectual side of belief.

In part, that’s because I simply appreciate the irenic, open-minded, and self-critical tone of Granberg-Michaelson’s essay, which defies the most common stereotypes of what it means to be “Reformed” in American Christianity. He was neither “raised as a ‘child of the covenant’” in an ethnic enclave sometimes marked by “exclusivity and corporate self-righteousness,” nor does he identify with a particularly combative strain of conservative Protestantism.

Until recently, my own experience was almost exclusively of the latter variety of Calvinists: not the “frozen chosen,” but the “young, restless, and Reformed.” Having been raised in a Swedish-American family and church only a little less insular than any historically Dutch community in western Michigan or northwestern Iowa, I didn’t even encounter Reformed Christianity until graduate school, when I inadvertently stumbled into the praise band for a church pastored by a Jonathan Edwards scholar who featured prominently in Collin Hansen’s book about “the New Calvinists.” Then I came to Bethel not long after former Bethel professor John Piper had leveled heresy charges at a member of the same faculty, Greg Boyd. One of Boyd’s staunchest defenders was history and political science professor G.W. Carlson, who founded a journal called The Baptist Pietist Clarion as part of his campaign to defend Bethel’s distinctively irenic heritage against the threat of what he called “authoritarian Calvinism.”

Having been introduced to Pietism in that way, I’m afraid that I initially tended to see the Reformed tradition as the antithesis of my own. (It didn’t help that I soon realized that, in certain Reformed settings, “pietism” functioned as a synonym for legalism or anti-intellectualism.) But Granberg-Michaelson’s reflection reminded me how far I’ve come in learning to appreciate the strengths of the Reformed tradition — even as his assessment of its pitfalls reminded me of some reasons for my older wariness.

Most powerful for me was his wrestling with how Reformed Protestants understand sin. Even as I join Granberg-Michaelson in rejecting any idea of human depravity that eradicates God’s image in us, I appreciate how “the Reformed tradition refuses to see the world through naïve, superficial lens, and confronts the empirical evidence of its harsh realities.” That does mean that we need to be honest about our personal iniquity. But the history of Pietism illustrates how that focus can go awry. Not only can the kind of agonizing process of repentance (Bußkampf) that A.H. Francke modeled for Pietists obscure the joy and delight that’s more central to, say, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf’s understanding of conversion, but Pietism’s typical emphasis on personal sin can blind us to our participation in injustice at the level of systems and structures. “We are born into the web of everyone else’s sinful choices,” explains Reformed theologian Suzanne McDonald, “and our own inclination away from God means that we will inevitably contribute to that web.”

(One particularly prominent example of that theme from the past year: Reformed historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s bestselling book, Jesus and John Wayne, which tracks the development of “militant masculinity” within white evangelicalism since World War II.)

So I’m particularly glad that Granberg-Michaelson emphasized an example of Reformed confessionalism written during the struggle against the apartheid system of South Africa. When I talk about the Reformed understanding of human sinfulness in our first-year church history survey at Bethel, I always start with the Heidelberg Catechism, then move to this excerpt from the Belhar Confession:

We believe… that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world… We believe that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

But the reading we actually assign students that week comes from my favorite writing by John Calvin: a passage from The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life that illustrates Granberg-Michaelson’s claim that “The Reformed tradition stresses that all in the world is intended to be redeemed and brought under God’s sovereignty.” “We belong to God,” begins the Geneva reformer (as paraphrased by one of my Dutch Calvinist predecessors on our faculty), “let all the parts of our life strive toward him as our only appropriate goal.” He then shares advice for how Christians might best use the good gifts of God: with moderation, when it comes to the “earthly blessings” that he made “for our benefit, and not for our harm”; and faithfulness, when it comes to discerning our vocation and living it out in the world. “If we follow our divine calling,” Calvin concludes, “we shall receive this special comfort: there is no job so simple, dull, or dirty that God does not consider it truly respectable and highly important!”

That’s such a useful corrective to the impulses within Pietism that helped inspire an evangelical culture that brought Granberg-Michaelson up to believe “that we were saved from the world, both eternally and through daily measures to resist its contaminating influences.” And for all my own attempts to describe distinctly Pietist models of Christian higher education, I recognize how much my career benefits from the influence of Reformed understandings of Christian scholarship. Indeed, I’m sure that evangelical colleges like Bethel have the robust intellectual life and commitment to cultural engagement that that they do precisely because the Reformed understanding of our role in God’s redemption and restoration of a fallen creation has so often served “an invitation to creative engagement between faith and culture, art, politics, science, economics, etc.”

Pietists would still insist that if following Jesus is “more than ‘Jesus and me,’” it’s never less than that relationship. So I’d like to have read more reflection on personal piety within the Reformed tradition. Nevertheless, I’m sure Granberg-Michaelson is right that “faith can’t remain individualized… It involves God and the world.”