Weimar's Courtyard of the Muses - Theobald von Oer

Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism is full of wonderful moments of insight and careful scrutiny. I can hardly believe that he was only 25 years old when he delivered it as a lecture in 1844, soon after his move to America from Berlin. Even at this early period in his scholarship, his mastery of both history and dogmatics is well on display. This would later find expression in his massive work within patristics and church history, which are consulted to this day.

His admiration for the German theology in which he was trained is balanced by an appropriate caution. He knows the pitfalls well, but he refuses to find refuge in either a subjectivism or objectivism, as he terms them. He is opposed to rationalism but also to its counterpart in sectarianism, his label for a degenerate pietism. Both are rooted in a false subjective freedom: respectively, “theoretic subjectivism” and “practical subjectivism.” And he is equally opposed to a false objectivism, whether of the Roman Catholic (or Oxford Movement) sort or the repristinated Protestant sort. This is most fully developed in part two (p. 125ff). It is easy to see affinities with Karl Barth from the following century.

Thus, it is characteristic to find Schaff both appreciative and critical of Schleiermacher and Hegel, and he has a particular admiration for the mediating theologies of Karl Immanuel Nitzsch and Isaak August Dorner, among others. To give you a taste, Schaff defends the significance of German theology with great energy:

But the proper home of Protestant theology is Germany, and hence we may say that those who refuse to take account of German theology, set themselves in fact against the progress of Protestantism. The land which gave birth to the Reformation stands pledged by that movement itself not to rest till the great work shall have been made complete, when the revelation of God in Christ shall be apprehended in full and the contents of faith shall be reduced to such form as to carry with them also the clearest evidence and most incontrovertible certainty in the way of knowledge. We wish not to depreciate in the least the merits acquired in former times, by the Dutch and the English in particular, in the way of biblical study — critical, exegetical, and antiquarian. The German is always disposed rather to put an undue value on what is foreign, and has long since appropriated the results of these investigations and worked them into the process of his own cultivation. But what is all this beside the gigantic creations of German theology! All its heresies cannot destroy my respect for it. In England and America one learns first to prize it according to its true worth. It must not be forgotten that even the German rationalism, worthy of all reprobation as it is, gives evidence, at least in its better forms, of an extraordinary scientific energy and a deep interest in the investigation of truth, from which we are authorized to draw a favorable conclusion on the opposite side. For only an archangel can become a devil. As England and America would not have been able at all to produce so fearful an enemy of Christianity as David Friedrich Strauss, so must they have been much less able to meet him with a proper refutation; and I shudder at times to think of the desolation his writings must occasion, if they should come to be much read — which may God prevent — in this country. It must be borne in mind also on the other side that there is a species of orthodoxy, by no means rare, which rests upon the foundation of mere convenience or intellectual indolence, or the lowest motive possibly of self-interest, and is consequently no whit better, yea by reason of such hypocrisy in its constitution is even much worse, than open and honest unbelief.

And most interestingly, he continues by comparing the developments in German theology with that of the early church, in her quest for doctrinal clarity amidst false paths exposed by heresies:

If we look into church history, we shall be still less disturbed in our estimate of German theology by the heretical elements that belong to it, since they must appear to us only as negative conditions of a new doctrinal conquest. Thus the full determination and clear, close definition of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the relation of the two natures in Christ, as exhibited to us in the ecumenical councils, were conditioned throughout by a succession of heresies in the direction of these articles. The Pelagian error must serve, in the hand of God, to unfold and establish more profoundly, through Augustine, the doctrine of divine grace and human liberty. At the Reformation also heretical tendencies, Socinianism, Anabaptism, antinomianism, and so on, come into view; as in a period of such vast excitement was to be expected. They wrought with salutary force on the development of orthodox Protestantism, making it necessary for it to understand more clearly its own commission, to discriminate more closely its proper sphere, and to fortify itself against unauthorized consequences and various misapprehensions of its true character.

[The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, pp. 202-203]

If you enjoyed that, you may also be interested in Schaff’s survey of German universities and theologians, published in 1857: Germany: Its Universities, Theology, and Religion.


Image: “Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses” by Theobald von Oer

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.


In the previous post, we looked at Charles Finney’s rejection of Protestant theology — reorienting his theology around the capacity of man to change his own heart, prompted by God’s use of “motives” to entice us to himself. The most strident critic of Finney’s “New Measures,” as they were called, would come from the Reformed theologian, John Williamson Nevin, at the German Reformed seminary in Mercersburg, PA. Alongside the famous church historian, Philip Schaff, Nevin would introduce the riches of continental Reformed theology to the American church, which had been heavily dominated by Puritan thought and revivalist fervor.

Nevin’s theology is characterized by a “high church” emphasis on the catholicity of the Reformation — as an ecclesial, sacramental, catechetical phenomenon. This was in contrast to the individualism (“me and my Bible and my personal Jesus”) that swept America. His most extensive criticism of Finney’s pietism, and revivalism in general, can be found in his essay, The Anxious Bench (1844, 2nd edition). The title refers to the “altar call” method used by Finney. Nevin holds nothing back in his hostility to the New Measures, which he designates as “justification by feeling rather than faith.” Here are some excerpts:

The general system to which the Anxious Bench belongs, it may be remarked again, is unfavorable to deep, thorough and intelligent piety. …A system that leads to such a multitude of spurious conversions, and that makes room so largely for that low, gross, fanatical habit, which has just been described, cannot possibly be associated to any extent with the power of godliness, in its deeper and more earnest forms. The religion which it may produce, so far as it can be counted genuine, will be for the most part of a dwarfish size and sickly complexion. …

They involve little or nothing of what the old divines call heart work. They bring with them no self-knowledge. They fill the Church with lean professors, who show subsequently but little concern to grow in grace, little capacity indeed to understand at all the free, deep, full life of the “new man” in Christ Jesus. Such converts, if they do not altogether “fall from grace,” are apt to continue at least babes in the gospel, as long as they live. …

A low, shallow, pelagianizing theory of religion, runs through it from beginning to end. The fact of sin is acknowledged, but not in its true extent. The idea of a new spiritual creation is admitted, but not in its proper radical and comprehensive form. …The deep import of the declaration, That which is born of the flesh is flesh, is not fully apprehended; and it is vainly imagined accordingly, that the flesh as such may be so stimulated and exalted notwithstanding, as to prove the mother of that spiritual nature. …

Religion involves feeling; but it is not comprehended in this as its principle. Religion is subjective also, fills and rules the individual in whom it appears; but it is not created in any sense by its subject or from its subject.

(John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Ferm, pp. 171-174)

Nevin then continues with his antidote to the Anxious Bench — the “system of the Catechism,” which is his catchall term for the entirety of genuine Reformed doctrine and piety. This antidote includes attending to the institutions ordained by God, namely the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. As he puts it, “Hence where the system of the Catechism prevails, great account is made of the Church, and all reliance placed upon the means of grace comprehended in its constitution, as all sufficient under God for the accomplishment of its own purposes” (178). As for catechetical instruction, the Heidelberg Catechism holds the highest place of honor in the continental stream of Reformed Christianity — and rightly so.

I am actually not quite as anti-revivalist/anti-pietist as Nevin and his colleagues. But, the problems endemic to the revivals, and the theology that attends it, should be a concern for any Reformed evangelical. It is also worth noting that Karl Barth, easily the greatest Reformed theologian of this past century, also held to some similar criticisms of pietism: see his lectures on the Reformed confessions, especially his criticism of the English Puritans, and the study by Eberhard Busch (which is only $1.99 right now!).

For more information on Nevin, there is a biography by D. G. Hart. And there is a new series by Wipf & Stock, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series:

The Mystical Presence by John W. Nevin (W&S, Amazon)

Coena Mystica – the Hodge/Nevin debate on the eucharist (W&S, Amazon)