Evangelicalism and Pietism versus Confessionalism

British historian David Bebbington famously provided his four-point sociological taxonomy of evangelicalism in 1989. While the edges and applications have been debated on and off, the framework of the Bebbington Quadraleteral still proves useful. Evangelicalism is characterized by,

  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages).
  • Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
  • Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.
  • Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.

Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen similarly provided a five-point definition in his introduction to the 2007 Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology. Larsen was less interested in Bebbington’s broad characterization and more focused on historic explanation and sharper definition, but there is significant overlap. An evangelical is someone who is,

  1. An orthodox Protestant,
  2. Who stands in the tradition of the global Christian networks arising from the eighteenth-century revival movements associated with John Wesley and George Whitefield;
  3. Who has a preeminent place for the Bible in her or his Christian life as the divinely inspired, final authority in matters of faith and practice;
  4. Who stresses reconciliation with God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross;
  5. And who stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual to bring about conversion and an ongoing life of fellowship with God and service to God and others, including the duty of all believers to participate in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all people.

Larsen’s key contribution is the second point: that evangelicalism owes its origins to the revivals of the First Great Awakening in Britain and America. Evangelicalism is an ethos and culture more than doctrine or practice, and the other characteristics in both Bebbington’s and Larson’s owe their historic origin to the revival movement. That is not to say that evangelicalism is inherently Wesleyan or Methodist, but that the non-Methodist, evangelical traditions owe their culture, ethos, and priorities to these 18th century revival movements. Methodistic revival is the shape of evangelical culture.

Donald Bloesch in his 1977 Evangelical Revival lays out a similar list for pietism, which stresses,

  • Conversion experience.
  • Bible only for spirituality [typically meditated upon in private or small groups].
  • Moral earnestness.
  • Social consciousness.

Pietism has its origins in 17th century Lutheranism, especially in Scandinavia. There are significant overlaps between pietism and evangelicalism, with the two traditions mingling over the centuries. The two share a stress on the individual’s internal, private experience of God. “Personal relationship.” If Methodistic revival provides the shape for evangelical churches, even non-Methodist bodies, pietistic values are often the practice of that form.

I thought it would be helpful to provide a similar list that lays out the distinguishing character of confessional Christianity, with its particular stresses and defining features. These are,

  1. Church oriented, grounded in the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed traditions arising from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th-17th centuries.
  2. Church forms matter and are central for spiritual life, especially liturgical and doctrinal formulations, along with polity.
  3. Spiritual practice orbits the public worship of the church, with emphasis on preaching, the sacraments, and prayer.
  4. Ordinary life in the world is good and welcome.

What separates evangelicalism and pietism on the one hand from confessionalism on the other is internal versus external. Confessionalism stresses what God has done and is doing publicly through his church, which is how the life and soul of the Christian is affected. The institutional church is not incidental or expendable for the Christian, but divinely established with graces and gifts, outside of which there is normally no possibility of salvation.