Sunday, December 10, 2006

Observant Protestantism

The pietist/confessionalist taxonomy has been the occasion of considerable debate and disagreement here (for a concise explanation and defense of this paradigm for classifying American Protestants, see D.G. Hart's comments after the thread below [his is #52 in case you're counting]).

Confessionalism, rather than focusing narrowly on the use of confessions per se, is actually just code for "churchly Protestantism." A confessionalist, then, is a Protestant whose faith is not divorced from its corporate, liturgical practice (be it in an Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Reformed church).

This gives rise to an interesting linguistic phenomenon which Hart alludes to elsewhere: Why is it that Jews and Roman Catholics are usually described as observant or non-observant while Protestants are classified either as true, genuine Christians or formal, dead ones?

This type of nomenclature betrays the latent pietism of much of evangelical Protestantism, for rites and practices like baptism, church membership, corporate worship, and communion are all dismissed as incidental, if not inimical, to "true Christianity."

"The fact that American Protestants do not use the nomenclature of observance," writes Hart, "demonstrates just how complete the triumph of evangelicalism has been" (Recovering Mother Kirk, 247).

But if being Reformed is more than just a state of mind but actually involves participating in certain corporate, religious ceremonies, then perhaps formal, observant, churchly Christianity isn't the bane of Protestantism after all.

And if you think about it, confessionalism's insistence that the Christian faith not be divorced from its ritualistic practice means that the pietist's distinction between creed and deed is not only not a temptation for us, it's not even an option.