Thoughts on Pietism
August 5, 2013
Given our look at Finney and Nevin, I have been inspired to write this post on pietism, considering its validity in part but defective on the whole. I will try to keep this as condensed as possible. I will conclude with some observations on the obvious strengths of pietism.
First, we should define pietism for those who may be new to its usage in theological discourse. “Pietism” originally derives from Lutheran soil, associated with the work of Philipp Spener and others who were dissatisfied with the comfort and complacency of Lutheran ministers and their congregants. Spener charged the establishment with “dead orthodoxy,” where confessional integrity is upheld but genuine conversion is neglected — or so it was perceived by the pietists. Spener and his associates pursued holiness and organized small groups for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability. They did not reject the Lutheran confessions, seeking rather to bring life to the form. Moral reform and “authenticity” were their aims, not doctrinal revision. (Of course, their opponents questioned the compatibility of their theology with the confessions.) When we look at John Wesley and his focus on holiness (organizing the “Holy Club” at Oxford for Bible study, prayer, and mutual accountability), his criticism of the comfort and complacency in C of E ministers, and so forth — you see quite clear parallels. And Wesley, like Spener, did not reject the confessions of the established church nor did he seek to disaffiliate. Other pietist movements, however, would separate — including Wesley’s own Methodists soon after his death — and the pietist emphases can be found most clearly in the various “free church” traditions (such as the Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarene, and the many nondenominational churches of today) that have emerged after the Reformation, as well as among the free churches during the Reformation (Anabaptists/Mennonites).
So, with this historical background, we could define pietism in terms of “experience,” “personal holiness,” “authenticity,” and the like.
The Reformed tradition is not in principle opposed to what pietism originally sought to uphold, nor is it extraneous to Reformed theology. That is, Reformed theology and its piety are not defective. It is not as if “dead orthodoxy” is the default position for Protestant confessional praxis, which then requires a sort of Baptist booster shot. Zwingli, Calvin, and Ursinus — to name three of the most important figures in shaping Reformed confessional identity — certainly had an “experience” of the Risen Lord and a deep, heartfelt piety. Their preaching and writings aimed at conversion and edification, based upon a sound knowledge of the Word of God.
Naturally, the danger of dead orthodoxy is a real danger, often encouraged by material comforts and an institutionalized ministerial process that requires little sacrifice. In such settings, the challenge that arises from a Spener or an Edwards or a Wesley is indeed valid, in part, and rightly analogous to the prophets of Israel. As such, they are recalling the church to the living faith of the Reformation itself. The forms of the Church — liturgical, sacramental, confessional — can become a law without grace and thereby a means for self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness.
Yet, form is not opposed to content. The form is the conduit, so to speak, ordained by God and therefore has the priority. Once the content — our experience, our “authenticity” — takes priority, then our idolatrous desires will eventually modify the form and substitute the true God for a God of our own making, subject to our own fancies. This, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of pietist movements and especially the revivals associated with them. While the progenitors of these movements and revivals may not have intended this, and indeed may have firmly upheld the Protestant confessions, they have made the decisive switch by elevating anthropology over theology. Finney is a short step away.
Moreover, God has given the church the means of grace, that is, the means by which he converts and sanctifies his people: the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. These are, properly understood, out of our control. As Barth repeatedly emphasizes in II.1 of the Church Dogmatics, our words are incapable of bearing the divine Word, but God through his grace uses them nonetheless, capacitating them and sanctifying them for his own purpose. Preaching, as with prayer, is most faithful when it trusts God to do this work, to fulfill his promises. Likewise with the sacraments, we trust God to communicate his grace to the elect, to establish and edify, to increase in love and purity. This is precisely why we do not like the sacraments — they are out of our control — and why we do not like doctrinal preaching — it is out of our control. We would rather use our own sure means of excitement and enthusiasm, whether it be the ostentatious preacher or the rousing rock-n-roll praise band.
When I look at the evangelical movement of today, pietism is clearly the dominant mood of the day, supplying the basic assumptions of the average Christian in America and in much of the world. While this does indeed make the “antidote” of a Nevin or Schaff or Barth all the more urgent, it would be enormously shortsighted to not take account of the strengths of pietism.
This can be most persuasively illustrated by the overwhelming presence of former Baptists — and other free church evangelicals — within confessional Protestant churches. Evangelical Presbyterians, like myself, are well aware of how many of our elders and membership is supplied by people who grew-up in a pietist environment, full of revivals, youth camps, missions conferences, and the like. This is where they (including myself) first became Christians or where they first took their faith seriously. Even our “cradle Presbyterians” often have stories of Young Life camps or Inter-Varsity meetings which had a decisive influence. Likewise in academic theology programs, seminaries like Princeton or universities like Edinburgh can well testify to the number of evangelicals with pietist backgrounds doing graduate work in theology, often in the process of shedding their pietism for a Christian faith with more historical depth and doctrinal depth. Would they be there if it were not for their pietist evangelical upbringing? Not likely.
Some of the most severe critics of pietism are, of course, former pietists who came to faith in Christ under pietist auspices! This has always baffled me. If pietism is so terrible, then why is pietism doing so much of the initial work among believers who then become confessional Reformed types…or Anglicans or Lutherans (or Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for that matter)? Surely pietism is doing something right if nearly every self-consciously Calvinist Presbyterian I meet is a former Baptist.
The primary focus of pietism — at its best — is to make Christ alive and present in a believer’s life. We should be grateful wherever this occurs, as it has in so many of our lives. Protestant orthodoxy makes Christ alive and present as well, albeit normally in less “exciting” ways — but in a more enduring way.