Tim Tebow & Theological Pietism

For those of you who, like myself, don’t follow football,  Tim Tebow is a quarterback for the Denver Broncos who is drawing a great deal of contempt from football fans because of his overt expressions of his Christian faith.  He has, for example, written “John 3:16” in his eye black, apparently gives thanks on his knees after touchdowns, and so forth.  Much of this contempt comes from a hatred of Christ & Christianity, but while this feature of the story has drawn most of the commentary, it is par for the course in this world.  As they say, it is not news when a dog bites a man, but is news when a man bites a dog.  The ‘man bites dog’ facet that I keep seeing is the contempt Tebow draws from Christians–particularly from my fellow confessional Lutherans, of which I am quite ashamed.

Some Lutherans have merely made an ethical argument that Tebow’s expressions are inappropriate on the football field by using the doctrine of vocation.  In short, we glorify God in our various callings by performing those callings well, not by overt acts of Christian piety.  Accordingly, many claim that pious actions have absolutely no place on the football field because they do not belong to the vocation of football player.  The case for this is extremely weak, in my opinion.  After all, Tebow has many vocations (football player, son, role-model, citizen, missionary, etc), and it is the same Tebow who holds each of them.  There is therefore personal unity between them.  We should not expect an airtight separation between these vocations any more than we should expect one between Christ’s human and divine natures.  Let me put it this way:  If Tebow were playing on his Mom’s birthday and wrote “Mom” beneath his eyes, I doubt any of these people would be complaining that he was letting his vocation of son interfere with his vocation of football player.  Nevertheless, weak as the complaints have been, it’s legitimate to question the appropriateness of certain behavior (so long as we stick around to hear answers).

What truly disappoints me are the many “theological” complaints in comments from Lutherans on Gene Veith’s blog post on the subject.  They complain about Tebow’s alleged belief in a theology of glory because, for example, he doesn’t spend equal time giving thanks for misfortune as for good fortune, or perhaps because he gives thanks for victory rather than the tools for acheiving victory, or other such rubbish.  I give no quotes in order to name no names, but if you peruse the comments over there, you’ll find plenty of examples by the time you’ve gotten through the first two dozen posts or so.

The critique therefore purports to be about his theology, but conspicuously absent from the critique are any references to any confessions he has made.  I’ve see only one short excerpt from an interview where he explains his actions (in the 42nd comment on the thread), but this was only to indicate that it sheds little or no light on the subject.  They critique his beliefs and confession without any reference to his beliefs or confession!  On what then is the critique based?  On his failure to uphold certain behavioral standards.  The given standards, I should note, are either not found in Scripture at all or have never been upheld by any man but Christ Himself.

In short, most of those Lutherans engaging in this critique are self-righteously judging his theology because he has not properly expressed it through deeds required by men.  He is being condemned by these Christians because he publicly gave thanks without first completing the proper theological paperwork.  Make no mistake:  this is rank pietism, plain and simple.  The fact that the Tebow critique is driven by theological rather than moral concerns is irrelevant.  Confessional Lutherans, who vigorously and zealously condemn pietism at every opportunity, should, of all people, be among the first who are on guard against such things.  And yet, here I see too many of them wallowing in their own smug self-righteousness–tearing down a brother to highlight their own theological superiority.  Somehow, they have managed to out-pharisee the pharisees they seek to condemn.

Many secularists are good at self-righteously condemning a man for stumbling in his pursuit of doing good.  Many American Evangelicals have made an art out of self-righteously condemning a man for failing to live up to what they see as their own august level of goodness.  But sadly, it seems to take a Lutheran to self-righteously condemn a man for actually doing something good.


1. The theology of glory centers around God giving out good fortune to those he favors and misfortune to those he does not.  They are typically paired with means of currying favor with God (such as through overt acts of piety).  The theology of the cross, in contrast, notes that to His beloved Son, favored above all others, God gave the cup of suffering and death for the sake of those who hate Him.  In truth, fortune & divine favor are often either completely uncorrelated, or correlated in ways we humans simply do not understand.

2.Pietism is an outgrowth of 17th century Lutheranism which sought to cultivate an inner godliness that flowed out into their works.  While (all other things being equal) this is a noble goal, they ultimately focused on their own works so much that they forgot the Gospel.  The standards by which faith and salvation were discerned became behavioral rubrics invented by the Christians rather than trust in the cross.  What is more, because different people invented different rubrics, churches began breaking down into self-righteous cliques of “real” Christians surrounded by “fake” Christians.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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