Thoughts on Pietism

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.


  1. Humans are both thinking and feeling creatures, and in some of the most famous conversions (Luther’s tower and Augustine’s garden) both are involved. But the grounds for each were in Christ. He is that new Breath to enter our spiritual lungs.

    I think there is a second, more problematic danger in what you presented. You’ve pointed out both the possibility of ‘dead orthodoxy’ and piestism, but the solution isn’t to jam them both together. Putting together two crooked houses does not make a sound one.

    It doesn’t need to be like Sovereign Grace where they try to do both. They’re overtheologizing simple common sense of what is apart of being a human (thinking & feeling).

    Then again, I’m no friend of liturgical extravagance (either rock-band or Tridentine mass) and dynamic preaching (ala Spurgeon’s handbook) nor am I sympathetic to needle point doctrinal specificity found in some of the larger creeds. The early church met in houses, brought forth the simple sacraments of bread, wine and water, and read/exposited from/on scripture. Paul was not in the business of showmanship; tough noogies for the Corinthians who found him a lackluster preacher.

    I was raised nominally, so I don’t understand the camps,rallies etc. intuitively. However, I’ve always been a skeptic of emotional fervor.

    Thanks for the post!


    • I am most definitely not jamming them together. That is why I began by stating that Reformed theology/piety has within itself the resources and means for producing the sort of genuine, living faith that pietism wants to uphold — and therefore does not invariably reduce to dead orthodoxy. Thus, the solution to dead orthodoxy is not pietism but orthodoxy (i.e., God in Word and Sacrament)! At the same time, we should not be surprised if a pietist meeting or evangelist may awake someone from his or her “dead orthodoxy.” In other words, God can use a defective means, like pietism, to do good.

      And Sovereign Grace is basically Baptist and pietist, not Reformed. I’m not really impressed by Baptists who take one part of Reformed theology (soteriology) and leave the rest (ecclesiology, sacraments, catholicity) — and often enough their soteriology is lopsided and too experiential.

      • The Sovereign Grace comment is that they’re an example of trying to join two crooked houses. They go real heavy on cerebral doctrinal orthodoxy (in their own way) and also about the emotional pietism.

        Also, why lump Anabaptists as a form of Pietism? I’m assuming you’re using the broad end of that term encompassing everyone from the violent Muntzer to the peaceable Menno Simons (the latter even renounced the former). However, I’d hardly say Zwingli’s old friends Blaurock and Grebel were pietists.


      • I agree with you about SG — I just wanted to clarify that their version of orthodoxy is not truly Protestant (in the confessional, catholic, magisterial sense that I’ve been using).

        I can partly concede on the Anabaptist point — I actually hesitated to draw that connection. But, there is enough similarity in regard to disparaging tradition, creeds, sacraments, and so forth (some of which Zwingli is guilty as well) in favor of a biblicism…yes, I know that’s a pejorative term, but I think it applies. And, I know they have a “high” view of the sacraments, in their estimation. Also, there is quite a lot of similarity between Anabaptists and the sort of communities that Spener and Wesley organized (intent on moral transformation, close communal ties, etc).

        I’ll freely admit to some bias on this point: I probably have too low a view of Anabaptist theology (and I am definitely not very fond of Yoder, but I don’t know if he is representative of current Anabaptist thought or not). I am friendly and sympathetic toward state churches, if that gives you a clue of where I’m coming from! This is where Peter Leithart and myself are on the same page, and also where I have some differences with Barth (though Barth also said that state churches have a positive ministry to perform and shouldn’t be abolished, all the while he criticized infant baptism for its corruption by state churches!). But, I am malleable in my regard for Anabaptists and these issues, so don’t be surprised if I change my mind in five years.

    • If you can recall those connections, you can share. I own but haven’t read Metaxas’ biography yet. From what I recall — of what I’ve learned elsewhere about Bonhoeffer — he had a very positive experience at a black church in NYC, which would be a good example of his ability to appreciate an element of pietism. Meanwhile, he also had some sharp criticisms of the American church — as “Protestantism without Reformation.” Here is the quote:

      Glad you liked the post.

      • The last thing I would want to do is hijack this thread on Pietism. So for now I think I’ll hold off, given the criticisms, which to some degree does hold weight. Even if the discounting of Metaxas’ work smaks of elitism. I liked the journey through Metaxas’ biographical work, a genre that seems to be overlooked by critics. The book itself is a biography rather than a theological exposition of Bonheoffer’s theology.

      • Yeah, Travis is a bit of an elitist. 🙂

        For what its worth, I really enjoyed Metaxas’ biography of Wilberforce, Amazing Grace. He knows how to capture a narrative very well, and — in terms of his bio of Bonhoeffer — I think I’m theologically-informed enough to know where he may be somewhat off target. So, I do plan to read it.

  2. To begin, a random comment on the Metaxas book: it’s shite. Read some of the reviews listed here:

    Now, Kevin, you mention Barth. 🙂

    Barth certainly has some pietist in him, and there’s a lot of good study going on dealing with Barth’s theological influences and pietism (I think especially of Christian Collins-Winn). Of course, Barth’s father and grandfather were pastors in a Reformed pietist circle.

    As Barth himself goes, I tend to think that his pietism is refracted through Schleiermacher’s pietism “of a higher order.” And Schleiermacher is, of course, the paramount example of a joining of pietism and Reformed theology. Perhaps it is a positive appropriation of Schleiermacher that would help evangelicalism these days (God knows they have plenty of similarities with him already these days…).

    That said, and to spin off another random thought-direction, I don’t know if it is fitting to characterize a “movement” as pietist since pietism is first-and-foremost a “course-correction” within confessional boundaries. Evangelicals qua evangelicals have no such clearly defined theological boundaries…

    • Good points, Travis. The Blumhardt connection, it seems, would also be a factor in whatever pietism is to be found in Barth. His ecclesiology and view of the sacraments could also be considered pietist to an extent. At the same time, we have his genetic tracing of pietism to liberalism, which appears in various excursus throughout the CD and in his lectures on the Reformed confessions while at Göttingen. This, of course, is also fundamental to his criticism of Schleiermacher — which is not to minimize the positive influence that Schleiermacher had on Barth. Obviously, it’s tricky to parse the ways in which Barth both adopted and rejected pietist emphases. This is the case, I believe, because Barth feared both the idolatry of pietism’s anthropology and the idolatry of orthodoxy’s ecclesiology. He rejected both, which means that he accepted both…in part!

      I’ll be sure to check-out Collins Winn’s work. Also, I’ll take due notice of the Metaxas reviews, some of which I’ve seen before.

      As far as “movement” terminology is concerned, I think pietism becomes a movement over time, as it moves from being a “course correction within confessional boundaries” to a species appropriated by evangelicalism’s disparate happenings. Of course, this is because I am using and defining “pietism” in this broader sense, which I grant is not the original sense (in which case, you are correct).

  3. One further quibble. You admit that you are using the term “pietist” a bit loosely, but isn’t there a sense in which “liberalism” and “pietism” are at least kissing cousins? It seems to me that they are motivated by similar impulses at least. Perhaps it is best to think about there being two different schools within pietism, or perhaps of liberalism as the theologicaly consistent working-out of pietist impulses.

    • Yes, I definitely think liberalism and pietism are “kissing cousins,” which is precisely why I am wary about both and for similar reasons (basically the reasons articulated by Barth). Once again, Barth doesn’t entirely reject pietism, nor does he entirely reject liberalism — and also for similar reasons related to his fear of orthodoxy’s ecclesial idolatry. Nonetheless, the more pronounced rejection in Barth’s theology is of pietism/liberalism’s common anthropological starting point (or accommodation at least).

      To be clear, I would not collapse pietism and liberalism together, because I think the motivations for each are different — but that would take another long post to describe!

    • And, by the way, Michael Horton has done some great work tracing the genetic heritage from pietism to liberalism — in a way similar to Barth’s own reading of the history. Obviously, Horton and Barth have different responses, and Barth discerns the nemesis of natural theology in both pietism and liberalism, whereas Horton would want to retain natural theology to some extent.

  4. I consider myself a bona fide Pietist so I guess I should say something. I did serve as a minister with the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) which is pretty much a direct descendent of Spener so I think I can legitimately claim to be a Pietist. We certainly trace our spiritual roots back to Spener and Francke. The “Covenant” (as we call ourselves) certainly consider ourselves Pietist (with a capital “P” and proud of it!) We even say it out loud and say it out proud “Yes, we are Pietists! (And we love Jesus)” “Covenant” in our context doesn’t have any Reformed or Calvinistic connotations, rather it is the translation of a Swedish word for fellowship.

    I must confess I don’t recognize many of the descriptions of pietists as applicable to the Covenant or to true pietism. Legalism, manipulative preaching, and such are certainly not representative of the pietists I know. The Covenant has a strong emphasis on missions, but also on the inner spiritual life. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture (alas, we are subject to the same temptations as all others). However, as a whole the denomination has an irenic and welcoming spirit.

    We certainly have our share of folks with Ph.d’s nowadays, just like most everyone else. We’re certainly not anti-intellectual. But there just aren’t angry Covenanters out there with angry blogs with their claws sharpened and ready to shred folks on who may not exactly agree with their “322 posts on imputation and current threats to justification” (to quote Internet Monk).

    We feel really comfortable with “Jesus our teacher, example, friend and simply sufficient savior” (to quote i-Monk a second time).

    So I guess my point is I don’t see legalism, manipulative evangelism, anti-intellectualism as at all representative of true pietism. I would never think of Finney as a pietist.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Mike. As you may know, I was in the EFCA which has a similar history to the ECC — pietists breaking away from the state Lutheran church of Sweden (and also Norway in the case of EFCA). Our church had solid preaching, intellectual interests, and so forth — no gimmicks in trying to build the church. But, the influence of dispensationalism and revivalism had crept into the EFCA throughout the 20th century, a fact bemoaned by my pastors and also why the “premillenial” clause remained in our statement of faith after much dispute.

      It may be that the pietism of the continent needs to be better distinguished from the pietism of native Anglo-American churches (Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Nazarene, nondenom, etc.) — but I’m not sure. Most pietist movements on the continent were dissolved back into the state church or just evolved into a bland liberalism — unlike America where many became distinct denominations with a continued history that can be traced. Anyway, it all seems to be a very mixed bag. You can find plenty of folks from these backgrounds without the errors or excesses delineated in this post, but I am focused on broader trend lines.

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