Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Liberalism and Evangelicalism: Two Sides of the Same Pietist Coin?

As I highlighted below, D.G. Hart's plea for a reconfiguring of the common two-party division of American Protestants (abandoning the liberal/evangelical division in favor of a pietist/confessionalist one) hinges upon his contention that the agreement between pietists and confessionalists on doctrines such as the authority of Scripture is overshadowed by their disagreement over just about everything else.

What is "pietism"? Hart traces its origin in this country to the revivals of the Great Awakening (1735-1742), and writes:
"The sort of religion heralded by the revivals of the First Great Awakening is chiefly responsible for the triumph of a utilitar-ian view of faith. The itinerant evangelists of these revivals, as well as their successors, transformed Christianity from a churchly and routine affair into one that was intense and personal.... American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures, and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrast, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one that transformed individuals, starting with their heart and seeping into all walks of life." (D.G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, xxiii).
What makes Hart's argument especially striking is the fact that he places both liberals and evangelicals in the pietist camp. As he and others have pointed out, both parties tend to pit doctrine against practice (hence Rick Warren's call for a "reformation of deeds not creeds"), head against heart, institutional against primitive Christianity, and Paul against Jesus.

What are we to make of all this? Is pietism inconsistent with confessional Christianity? Is there as great a similarity between liberals and evangelicals as Hart argues for? And how ought Reformed believers to conduct themselves toward our evangelical friends across the aisle?