Wilhelmus À Brakel On Pietism

Some years ago there was a sizeable movement among the Lutherans in Germany toward religiosity. Of some we believe that it was in truth, but with the majority it was but an illusion. This counterfeit religiosity has in some places also affected those of Reformed persuasion. People of the world, due to observing that many of them turned to a godly lifestyle, called them Pietists, thinking to offend them in this way. Instead, they, being ungodly, actually condemned themselves in doing so, and placed a crown upon the head of the truly godly whom they intended to offend—for to be a Pietist means to be a godly person.

In desiring to warn everyone against the Pietists and to give some direction in this respect, we do not have the truly godly in mind at all. Far, far be this from me! May the Lord bless them and give them more light to see the Lutheran error and to turn away from it. Rather, I have in view those who stimulate various fictitious notions and errors, such as mystics, Quietists, heretics, fanatics, David-Jorists, Boehmists, Quakers, and all such individuals who in our day are known as Pietists.

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) | The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 vols. transl. Bartel Elshout (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 2.642‐43 (HT: Sung Yeo).


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  1. I would like to know exactly what it was in Pietistm that Brakel found objectionable. For those here who are not into exclusive Psalmody, do you really want to condemn Gerhard Tersteegen, or the authors of any number of late 17th- and early 18th century hymns as a heretical? Do we wish to condemn the impulse that reanimated missions in Protestant circles (my own wife was born in a Buddhist-Daoist-folk religion family)? And, is Pietism’s call to take seriously a life of discipleship something other than a serious nod in the direction of the Epistle of James?

    My introduction to “pietism” was when my much younger self got called a “pietist” (with a sneer) after I started taking Jesus Christ seriously and reading the Bible for myself. I had been raised in a very modernist family that saw the Bible as a hofge-podge of Middle Eastern fables; the Gospels as definitely no earlier than about 250 A.D.; Jesus still safely moldering in some Palestinian grave; and Calvinism as worse than Marxism. I later read some of the Niebuhr brothers’ works, in which “pietists” are apparently some sort of defective, and guess that those near and dear to me may have learned such usage there.

    Granted, I cannot accept the whole of the belief systems of the Swedish Covenant Church, Evangelical Free Church, various Methodists, or Lutheran Brethren (I’m predestinarian, like covenant theology, and even an occasional glass of beer or wine). But when they talk about trusting the shed blood of Christ for salvation, I can’t help but say “Amen”. Perhaps Pietism did have something to do with the rise of things like the Holiness-Pentecostal movement, which has emphases that make me cringe. But the little I know of continental Pietism reminds me of the “experimental godliness” found in the earlier British Puritans, including some of the godly ministers who gave us the Westminster Standards (nothing against the Heidelberg Catechism; it’s just that I got most of my discipling from Presbyterians).

    Maybe it’s an attitude that takes culture and politics as things which the godly should shun that is wrong? OK. Is it an attitude that seems to say I can be holier than God himself, to say nothing of you. Yes, that bothers me. But as I examine how I was effectually called and concerns that I believe the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Scriptures, has laid on my heart, I can’t help but notice that a lot of them have been called “pietist”.

  2. I think you want to distinguish between ‘piety’ and ‘pietism’. No good Reformed Christian has anything against Piety (Note RSC’s book RRC has a subtitle “Our Theology, Piety, and Practice”.)

    Pietism, however, is when piety is made the core of religion, the ground of God’s approval, rather than Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Pietism is usually some form of moralism, setting up extra-bibilical standards as necessary for holiness, like no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no movies, no cards, etc.

  3. Something that has always bothered me about the excessive labeling as “pietist,” not wrongly applied in every case where (as RubeRad said) drinking, dancing, etc. are overtly condemned, is where protestant Christian churches fail to admonish the members for failing to “yield to [each other] with…respect” in a manner that demonstrates “salt” and “light” to the rest of culture. When this does take place it is often criticized as placing emphasis on “cultural transformation,” something we are not explicitly called to do and which is rightly condemned within confessional Reformed circles.

    Instead, I am referring to members of the same congregation who fight over a parking place in the church lot, who park on the grass in a public area next to the lot so they don’t have to walk any further than necessary, who walk two and three abreast down the sidewalk leading away from the church so that other people coming from the previous service are forced off onto the grass, etc. This kind of behavior is little different from that of the general public in large metropolitan areas where people constantly cut each other off on the streets and roads, take their half out of the middle of sidewalks, cut in front of others in check-out lines, etc.

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