What's Wrong with Pietism?

Mark R. Talbot
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 2002

When Paul, Silas, and Timothy first wrote to the church in Thessalonica, they said they knew that God had saved the Thessalonians because "our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction" (1 Thess. 1:5). The authenticity of the Thessalonians' faith was evident in their imitation of their teachers' lives and in their joyfulness in welcoming the gospel message even as they suffered severely for it.

Pietism's insistence that true Christian faith manifests itself in changed lives is obviously correct. Dead orthodoxy makes even less contact with spiritual realities than the devils' shuddering belief (see James 2:19).

Yet pietism's general traits have regularly led to spiritual dead-ends. For instance, its experientialism can lead Christians to agonize over whether their inward experience of God warrants their believing they are saved rather than helping them simply to rest on Scripture's promise that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (see Rom. 10:13). Its biblicalism, combined with its individualism, can encourage its followers to approach the scriptures in naive, undisciplined, and even dangerous ways (see 2 Pet. 3:16). Its perfectionism tempts sinful human beings, who are already too prone to try to earn God's favor, to substitute legalism and moralism for the true righteousness of God that must be imputed to us as a gift (see Rom. 3:21-30). And its tendency to see only coldness and sterility in established church forms and practices often causes those caught in its circles to neglect the biblically-authorized ecclesiastically-mediated means of grace; namely, the regular gathering of God's people for preaching, teaching, and public Scripture reading (see Heb. 10: 24-25; 1 Tim. 4:13) and for obedient participation in the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion (see Matt. 28:19-20; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 11:23-26).

To be sure, these are dangers for pietism but dangers that are not equally present in all of its expressions. As David W. Brown notes in the New Dictionary of Theology, Spener and Francke acknowledged that Luther's doctrinal reformation had been absolutely necessary even as they stressed that an individual's saving acceptance of it would inevitably be accompanied by a reformation of life. They saw themselves as historically Lutheran in insisting that faith must become active in love. And their emphasis on spiritual experience was meant to be an appropriation of, rather than a substitution for, biblical revelation. "In general," Brown claims, "Spener and Francke attempted to walk the middle way between dogmatic rigidity and emotional warmth, between faith and works, between justification and sanctification, and between forsaking the fallen world and affirming it through love of neighbour, enemies and God's good creation."

Yet if this accurately assesses early German pietism, then perhaps it also suggests why pietism often goes wrong. For New Testament Christianity does not attempt to find some via media between doctrinal accuracy and emotional warmth-it trusts that God will send his Spirit to warm the hearts of those he has chosen as his Word is faithfully and fully proclaimed (see 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 1:19-22). It does not seek a balance between faith and works, for it recognizes that all truly good works arise only from saving faith (see Eph. 2:8-10 with John 6:25-29). And it does not pit sanctification against justification because it sees our growth in godliness as what God accomplishes within us once the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us has made us fit for adoption into God's family and for being indwelt by his sanctifying Spirit (see Rom. 5:1-5; Gal. 4:3-7; Eph. 1:13-14).

Much of contemporary American Christianity is more the outworking of pietistic tendencies than it is of this kind of New Testament faith which the Reformers recovered. We see this in the kind of Pentecostal and charismatic emotionalism that cuts itself loose from a doctrinally full and sound faith. We see it in popular evangelicalism's contempt for systematic theology and in its neglect of the great, life-orienting creeds and catechisms-all on the assumption that earnest believers should read little more than their Bibles if they are to get an unbiased and truly biblical "take" on Christian faith. We see it in the subjectivism and anti-traditionalism of many seeker-sensitive services that trim the gospel to fit individuals' felt needs. Above all, we see it in the democratization of the American church where the forms of American church life are regulated primarily by what "works" in attracting crowds rather than by careful ecclesiastically-based theological thinking that safeguards "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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