Confessionalism and the History of American Presbyterianism

Did the pietists help the liberals marginalize the confessionalists?

These are my reflections on an essay by Darryl G. Hart in The Practical Calvinist entitled “J. Gresham Machen: Confessionalism and the History of American Presbyterianism.”

One particular point of interest in Hart’s essay is his reassessment of the lines by which Presbyterians divided during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the 1920’s.  He admits that the standard historical observation is that the modernist-liberals in the Presbyterian church won control of denominational politics and Princeton Seminary because the fundamentalists and evangelicals divided against themselves instead of uniting their efforts to counter the modernists.  But Hart argues that a better historical understanding of the history of American Presbyterianism is discovered by dividing the sides along pietist and confessional loyalties.  He notes that the liberals and evangelicals were able to unite against the fundamentalists precisely because of their shared values.  In other words, “they wanted to lead the same kind of Christian lives” (p. 366).

Hart does offer some intriguing insights for an alternative interpretation of what happened during the controversy.  But his thesis fails to convince me for several reasons.  First, history since 1920 has shown that evangelicals and liberals did not share the same piety.  Within 30 years, their visions of Christian piety rapidly diverged, evidenced by evangelicals withdrawing fellowship from the mainline denominations to establish new denominations, seminaries, and parachurch organizations that rivaled the old counterparts.  Second, the culture wars of the 20th century erupted mostly along conservative/liberal lines in society and evangelical-fundamentalist/liberal lines in the church, while pietists and (in a certain sense) confessionalists stand on both sides of the division.  And third, Hart seems to propose that corporate worship was only valued by the confessionalists, whereas the pietists in both the conservative and liberal camps devalued worship in favor of living Christian values.  But this assertion cannot explain the 20th century ecumenical liturgical worship movement which was spearheaded by those who Hart identifies as the pietistic liberals.  I agree that the pietist/confessionalist distinction may be profitable for seeing another perspective on the history of American Presbyterianism, but I am not convinced that history after the 1920’s cannot be explained by the dynamics of this distinction alone.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Church History, Ecclesiology and Sacraments, Pastoral & Theological, Seminary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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