Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Tale of Two Pieties

In his book lamenting the so-called "new measures" employed by nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney (which were characterized by an early version of the "altar call" in which people could come forward to the "anxious bench" after the sermon to receive instruction concerning conversion), John Williamson Nevin wrote:
"The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God's holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord's table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion." (Nevin, The Anxious Bench, quoted in D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist.)
According to Nevin, there are two systems of religion at work in Protestantism: the "system of the bench," and "the system of the catechism." These two systems "involve at the bottom two different theories of religion. The spirit of the Anxious Bench is at war with the spirit of the Catechism.... They cannot flourish and be in vigorous force together." And in case his readers misunderstood his message, Nevin then added, "The Bench is against the Catechism, and the Catechism is against the Bench."

It is hard to believe that there was a time when religion in this country was characterized by the ordinary ministry of the local church, with her worship, liturgy, preaching, and sacraments (and admittedly, this period didn't last long).

What we need to recover today is just such a view of the local church's role in the life of the believing family. Rather than the slick program-driven and desperate attempts at "relevance" (which the world gets to define, by the way), we need a ministry that will simply open the Scriptures and preach Christ crucified from them, and then give the bread and the cup to hungry and thirsty pilgrims.

Anything less than a bold refusal to pander to the whims of the worldly is to sell our birthright, like "that profane man Esau," for a bowl of beans.

But will it work?