Standing against the Tides of Routinization

I open with my appreciation for Christopher Gehrz’s explanation of Pietism, and I love his conceit about a week in the life of a Pietist.

The beauty of Pietism, in my view, is that it functions as a corrective to hyper-ratiocinated religion. Aside from the Pietism evident in the Anabaptist movement, I’m struck by the multiplicity of Pietistic impulses that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Methodism among the Anglicans, Continental Pietism, Scandinavian Pietism (which shaped Mr. Gehrz’s tradition as well as my own), Quietism among Catholics and even Hasidism among Jews. All of these Pietistic expressions emerged in reaction to the arid scholasticism into which the larger traditions had fallen.

Pietism tends to emphasize warm-hearted religion over correct theology. Its worship, especially in the case of the Holiness movement or Hasidim, veers into ecstasy. More important, Pietists found inventive ways to circumvent the existing power structures, and none was more important than the conventicle, an expression of the fact that, as Mr. Gehrz points out, the “Pietist Tradition has no ecclesial shape or institutional structure.”

That, in my view, is both positive and negative. I’ve long argued that institutions—human constructs, after all—are remarkably poor vessels for piety. Institutions seek their own longevity, and it’s very difficult to kill an institution. The Pietist conventicle, or the Methodist prayer meeting, provided a means to circumvent calcified and unresponsive institutions. All well and good. But a kind of sociological inevitability kicks in at some point, and as the faith becomes routinized and institutionalized a new wave of scholasticism takes root—and thereby sets the stage for a new Pietistic revival of some sort.

All of this is complicated by the fact that religious fervor, the kind of spirituality favored by Pietists, is very difficult to sustain over a long period of time. This especially complicates the religious formation of children within Pietism because religious fervor—in my experience, at least—does not translated easily across generations. That’s not to say that children do not appropriate the faith for themselves or on their own terms, but that appropriation is sometimes fraught.

The history of Pietism, in my view, teaches us that the lure of scholasticism and a highly rational theology is very strong. A ratiocinated theology provides regularity and predictability, whereas an emphasis on a warm-hearted piety can lead in all sorts of unpredictable directions. Denominational (institutional) authorities can rein in such impulses, but that leads in turn to another pietistic eruption.

I’ve mentioned this example before, but I’ll invoke it again because it is relevant to this conversation. My denomination of origins, the Evangelical Free Church (cousin denomination to Mr. Gehrz’s Evangelical Covenant Church), emerged out of Scandinavian Pietism and has strong ties to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, the scholastics began their relentless quest to reshape the denomination. As a consequence, a tradition with deep roots in Pietism has become a bastion of Reformed (Calvinist) theology.

Mr. Gehrz’s account suggests that the Evangelical Covenant Church has avoided such a takeover, and for that I applaud him and the denomination’s leadership (and I’d like to learn more about how that was possible).

I’ll conclude with another, more contemporary example: Calvary Chapel and the Jesus movement, which I’ve studied extensively and which bears, at least in its early years, a strong resemblance to Pietism. It began as hip and easy-going, with strong Pentecostal overtones. We can credit (or blame) Calvary Chapel for the ubiquitous “praise music” that has now infected pretty much all of evangelicalism. Even as Calvary Chapel began its tentacular expansion, however, Chuck Smith insisted that it was not a denomination; it was something more akin, he insisted unpersuasively, to a conventicle (though he didn’t use that term).

When Terry Todd and I visited with Smith and quizzed him about the church, he said that anyone speaking in tongues at Calvary Chapel would be ushered out of the auditorium. When we asked whether Calvary Chapel was a denomination, he emphatically denied that it was.

Several years later, I received a phone call from Dan Matthews, rector of Trinity Church in New York City and head of Trinity’s cable channel. The channel offered air time to religious groups, but it insisted that any such group was a denomination. Knowing of my interest in Calvary Chapel, Fr. Matthews was calling to ask if Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

“What did Smith tell you?” I asked, chuckling to myself. Fr. Matthews said that Smith assured him that Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

And so it goes.

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