After Pietism

Tim Keller contends that in the first half of the 20th Century American evangelicalism went pietistic, and by that he means “ignore culture and put all stress on conversions and on the spiritual growth of individuals” (184, in Center Church).  Two quick points before we move on:

First, he’s right: far too many of evangelicals withdrew from culture and were largely indifferent to society and culture, and their focus was personal salvation and transformation. Second, I’m not sure Keller’s read the spectrum of pietism because classic Pietism, that which grew out of the German Lutheran church through the voices of Spener and Francke, was not the kind of pietism he is describing. We might be better off describing the 1900s to 1950s the era of separatist fundamentalism than Pietism. Nonetheless, the big picture’s accurate: separationism ruled the day, and along with that an obscurantism and anti-intellectualism. Carl Henry put paid to separationism. How to engage?

Through the 20th Century scholars sought to clarify the relationship of church and culture/society/state. Keller contends the Kuyperian model has carried the day for evangelicals, and he’s right there… it has become the dominant model. Two shifts can be seen: the Religious Right and the Seeker Church movement, one focusing on transformation through political process while the second is through relevance and personal conversion. These two, in turn, were met by the emerging movement.

Which of the four models below is your approach? What do you think are the top factors in your consideration? 

Which leads Keller to a substantive chapter on “cultural responses of the church” and this amounts to a mini-text on the church and culture. A Kuyperian kind of “Christ and Culture” made famous by H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. (A book read for a generation by Wheaton students.) Keller finds four models, and he says more than this — about a way forward — but that’s for another post:

Transformationist, Relevance, Counterculturalist, and Two Kingdoms.

1. Transformationist: Christians pursue their vocations with a Christian worldview and thereby changing/influencing or transforming culture. Operate as Christians; do so in interaction with non-Christians. There is great diversity here in both theory and in how to engage. This model values work as vocation and see the problem in secularism and the naked public square.

But there are problems and Keller points these out: too cognitive in its view of worldview (JKA Smith pushes against this); an underappreciation for the church/local church at times; tend toward triumphalist and self-righteous overconfidence; too much stock in politics as the way to change culture; and naivete about power.

2. Relevance: Christianity is fundamentally compatible with culture because God is at work redemptively in culture and the historical process. This is classical Protestant liberalism and he sees it in liberation theology. They tend to be optimistic about culture and humans; focus on the common good; avoid “worldview” language; focus on being relevant; little distinction between church and culture. He pokes at Robert Schuller (a too-easy and unimportant example), Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, McLaren and Tony Jones, Darrel Guder, liberationists.

Problems: they are quickly dated; culture gets authority over Scripture; focus too much on art and service and justice; distinctiveness of church gets blurred.

3. Counterculturalist: the church is a contrast society. “the kingdom is manifest primarily as a church community in opposition to the kingdom of this world” (205). These folks tend not to see God at work redemptively through cultural movements; avoid the quest for relevance; criticizes the Religious Right, liberal mainliners and megachurches; focus is not on changing culture. He sees Hauerwas, Hays, Willimon, Yoder, Millbank, Claiborne.

Problems: too pessimistic about cultural change; tends to demonize capitalism; does not contextualize enough; downplays justification and substitutionary atonement; weaker on evangelism. Yes, some, no, not as often as he suggests, who’s not?

4. Two Kingdoms. The least known model, as it is Lutheran. God rules all in two ways: common kingdom and redemptive kingdom. They value vocation by looking for distinctively Christian approaches; no distinct Christian civilization; not out to heal culture; not transformationist in orientation; secular powers are what God has designed so a more accepting approach toward state and culture and society as the realm in which God does those sorts of things;  there one finds common grace. There is a spectrum here as well.

Problems: too much weight on common grace; not recognizing that much good comes through Christian approaches; too easily slides into living on a religiously neutral basis; social quietism; too great of a hierarchy of laity and clergy.

Keller has two major thoughts on how to get beyond the four models and beyond pietism:

First, determine how redeemable, transformable, alterable culture is on the basis of how fallen one sees humans. Here is leaning on Carson, which he does quite often in this book.

Second, again from Carson, he believes in keeping the major themes of the salvation/soterian story at work all the time: creation, fall, redemption/restoration.

This means each of the four models has something to offer; each has weaknesses and it leads him to see four central postures at the heart of all of them:

1. From Two Kingdoms we learn of Humble excellence
2. From Relevance we learn of the Common good
3. From the counterculturalist we learn the Church as counter-culture
4. And from the transformationalist we learn of our Distinctive worldview

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ordinary Radical

    Interesting 4 tribes talked about here. I would say I fall in the “counterculturalist” category, as I align with guys like Hauerwas and Claiborne. However, I see a little of myself in the “relevance” category as well. I would propose that is because many of us in the counterculturalist category do seek to be relevant. We would try to captive non-Christians by our acceptance and love, through grassroots expressions of faith (i.e. house church) – and usually would focus on those who don’t want to step foot in a traditional church. Therefore, I think there can be some significant overlap in these two categories. Make sense?

  • John

    I found this quote in an internet search on “conversation” and “the Gospel” last night.

    “The Gospel lives in conversation with culture,
    and if the Church holds back from the culture, the Gospel itself falls silent. [ !!! ]
    Therefore, we must be fearless in crossing the threshold of the communication and information revolution now taking place.”

    Pope John Paul II

  • Phil Miller

    If I have to choose a category, I’d say that the Transformationalist and Countercultural ones fit my understanding of the Christian life best. Isn’t that another way of saying we’re in the world but not of it in a way? I also don’t think I agree with putting Brian McLaren in Tony Jones in the same “Relevance” category as Hybels and Warren. It seems to me that McLaren definitely sees himself as advocating for something more like transformation, especially in his newer books.

  • Jesse Reese

    Ordinary Radical, I think you’re using “Relevance” differently than Keller. Keller, by basically defining “Relevance” in terms of liberal Protestantism and liberationism, is defining it as (to oversimplify) the understanding that history and culture are already moving in the right direction and the church simply presents a theological rationale for what culture is already doing. Most of his examples don’t fit because, like many conservatives who talk about liberal Protestantism, he only vaguely understands what he’s talking about (Warren doesn’t fit, McLaren and Tony Jones are highly contentious examples). A better (but extreme) example of “Relevance” is bishop John Shelby Spong, who has denied virtually every theological and moral tenet of historic Christianity on the grounds that history and culture are against them, and proposes that we need to shape a new theology that reflects the culture and period of history that we live in.

  • Jesse Reese

    Oh, and to show my cards, I would say that I have kind of defaulted to “Transformational,” but I tend to have attitudes reflective of “Countercultural” and could see myself moving that way.

  • John

    Quoting Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Way to Justice: How my mind has changed”
    Christian Century, December 1, 2009 – unfortunately now only available to subscribers.
    http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-12/way-justice

    “…When it came to the life of the Christian in scholarship, the vision was encapsulated in the Augustinian-Anselmian formula, “Faith seeking understanding.” Not faith added to understanding, but faith seeking understanding. What Augustine and Anselm meant by the formula is that the Christian scholar is called to transmute what he already accepts on faith into something that he now knows and no longer merely believes.

    “What our teachers meant … was that the Christian scholar is called to participate in the academic discipline of, say, psychology in such a way that
    she sees through the eyes of faith
    the reality that the psychologist studies. This does not mean that everything there looks different to her from how it looks to those who are not Christian. Enough that some things look different.

    “This is a far cry from the habit, common among Christian academics, of developing theologies of this and of that—a theology of psychology, for example, or of aesthetics. A theology of aesthetics is about aesthetics; it is meta-aesthetics. That’s different from looking at aesthetic reality through the eyes of faith……”

  • Julie

    This makes it sound as if Keller is becoming one of those Christians who draws the circle of correctness around himself and explains why others are on the outside. I hope that’s not the case.

  • Rich Arnold

    It’s late afternoon on a Friday and my brain is done, so commenting intelligently (I hope) on the four models is out of the question. But, Keller’s take on Pietism sounds like others I have read recently, which have convinced me that some or many do not understand it. Scot, I think you correctly assessed Keller on this point. The 1900-1950′s disengagement from culture was a fundamentalistic reaction to secular modernism and theological liberalism. Anything than smelled remotely like what was cooking in those two camps was rejected and the opposite was embraced – all too often without good reasoning and with only surface-deep biblical exegesis, all out of fear of falling away. There was overlap in the emphasis on personal faith and response between the Fundamentalism of that era and classic Pietism, but that point of overlap was not catalyst for separation from culture.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Looks like a great chapter, historical misreadings aside. I remember reading “Christ and Culture” a few years back and seeing the way Niebuhr found biblical material linked to all 5 models thinking to myself, “So, at some point they’re all biblical?” I think the key is finding at what points you have to engage the culture in what way.

    Also, on McLaren, I’m not sure I see him as a “Transformation” style guy except in the sense of “transforming” historic orthodoxy into 1920s liberalism as Dr. McKnight called attention to in his review “A New Kind of Christianity” a few years ago.

  • http://www.danjbrennan.com/ Dan Brennan

    Haven’t read his book yet but good catch Scot on Spener and Francke. I thought I had the culture Christian thing all figured out years ago reading Niebuhr. In the words of Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Now, I think there are strengths and weaknesses in all the approaches.


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