The Resurrection, Piety, And Pietism

And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all (Acts 4:31).

Perhaps since the rise of the late-medieval mystics, who desired nothing so much as to be absorbed into the being of God—in contrast with, e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, who was more focused upon Christ and the stations of the cross. Even in his commentary on the Song of Songs, however lurid it might have been, he was less interested in ontology and more in the person of Christ—and certainly since the rise of Pietism (not to be confused with piety) and after the rise of Romanticism there has been a strong impulse among Christians to make Christianity essentially a subjective thing, to be about one’s personal experience more than a claim about something that has objectively happened in history.

The old liberals had it that Christianity is no more than a reflection of human religious experience. Friederich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) re-defined Christianity as the “feeling of divine dependence,” by which he meant to say, Christianity is the quest for the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Schleiermacher was, of course, the child of Pietists. They loved the Lord and his Word but they defined Christianity not first as a claim about history and truth, doctrines taught by our Lord and his apostles, but principally an unmediated (literally, without means) experience of the risen Christ. For the Pietists, doctrine and history were secondary. The early Pietists tended to be personally orthodox but as in the case of Schleiermacher, when confronted with Modernity, the later Pietists collapsed and retreated into personal experience. When he got to university and encountered Enlightenment rationalism, his Pietism left him entirely unequipped to defend his faith. He became a “Modern” Pietist. He gave up historic Christianity, the history of redemption, the doctrines of the Scripture and the church, and re-made Christianity into an explanation of our personal experience. Even Karl Barth (1886–1968), who hated Schleiermacher’s theology, was really only just another Modernist and subjectivist. Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) was right. Barth was never actually “neo-orthodox.” He was always just a “neo-Modernist.” See Van Til’s The New Modernism (1947). At bottom, the “existential encounter with the Word” (through Scripture) was nothing but another form of subjectivism.

This should sound quite familiar to American evangelicals since Schleiermacher’s biography is the history of “evangelicalism” (if there really is such a thing—see D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism). In a remarkably short span of time American evangelicalism morphed from The Fundamentals (1910–15), chief among which were the substitutionary atonement and the bodily resurrection of Christ, the “emergent” and “emerging” movements, quite at home with the radical subjectivism of late modernity. It was never a long walk from “I know he lives, he lives within my heart” to “my truth.”

Luke’s quick brush strokes in Acts 4 present a starkly different picture of what Christianity was in the apostolic period. The great power with which the Apostles were giving testimony to Christ’s resurrection was not a matter of the subjective experience of the audience. Everyone watching and listening could see that the Holy Spirit was performing wonders before their eyes. Just as God the Son, by the Holy Spirit, had performed “signs and wonders” through Moses (Ex 7:3), so too now, after the incarnation, by the Spirit, the ascended and glorified Son was performing signs and wonders through the Apostles to validate their ministry and message (Acts 4:30–31; 5:12–14; 14:4; 15:12). These signs and wonders were objective. Whether those who saw believed, the signs and wonders happened just the same. Those who received them and those through whom the Spirit performed them were subjectively recipients and participants but the acts were objectively real. They were not “my signs and wonders” but “signs and wonders.”

So it was with the message of the apostles. They were not announcing “my resurrection” or the rising of Jesus in their hearts or another other principally subjective experience. They were not calling others to join them in their subjective experience or their renewed appreciation of what Jesus had been saying. They were not announcing a metaphor. They were announcing an objective historical fact that had been empirically verified. The tomb was objectively empty. It was not merely “empty in their hearts” but actually, empirically empty. The women, who arrived first at the tomb, saw that it was empty (Matt 28:1–10). They disciples, who arrives shortly thereafter also saw that it was empty (John 20:1–10).

The tomb was not merely empty but Jesus was alive. The disciples themselves saw Jesus. They spent time with him (Luke 24; John 20:19–21:25). Five hundred people saw the risen Christ and by “saw” I mean that they had an ordinary sense experience of Jesus who had been dead and buried but was now raised from the dead. “Saw” is not a metaphor for a subjective awakening to a deep spiritual truth (though that certainly accompanied and followed their sense experience) but a sense experience of the risen Christ. It was not mass hysteria nor was it some mass psychosis.

Luke summarizes the message of the apostles as the announcement of a fact that had been empirically verified. The apostles were making factual, historical claims about things that really happened outside of our personal, religious experience. The Christian faith begins with objective history and doctrines. It has the greatest importance for our subjective experience but that subjective experience does not create nor does it define objective reality. Whatever our personal, subjective state, however elusive reality may be at times, the objective, historical fact remains: Christ was dead. He was buried. People saw him. They handled his body. When they went to check on the tomb they found it empty and the later saw him alive. They touch his resurrected body. They saw him ascend (Acts 1).

Please do not think that I am attacking piety, i.e., how we relate personally to God, devotion, godliness. I am criticizing Pietism, the attempt to marginalize the objective truths of the faith in favor of the unmediated encounter with the risen Christ. Rather, I am advocating a return to the biblical theology, piety, and practice that we confess in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which piety is built around the divinely ordained means of grace. The Lord used the preaching of the Apostles to bring his elect to new life and true faith and through faith to union with the risen Christ and to a life of communion with him and with his people. One great difference between Reformed piety and Pietism is the Reformed emphasis on the divinely appointed means (media) that the Spirit uses to bring us to new life and to produce in us conformity to Christ. That life of communion leads to a rich personal and corporate piety and devotion but it begins with the objective truths of the faith, which Luke summarized by pointing to the bodily resurrection of Christ. Of course the apostles did more than preach the resurrection. We know that Luke’s own summaries in Acts and the from the New Testament epistles (e.g., Hebrews, which was likely a sermon).

For more on the distinction between piety and Pietism, see the relevant chapters in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

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  1. Dr Clark
    You define Pietism as “the attempt to marginalize the objective truths of the faith in favor of the unmediated encounter with the risen Christ.” in other blog posts of yours and in other blogs where Confessionalism is central, there is a tendency to use Revivalism almost interchangeably with Pietism. Or at least to talk of their effects on the church in a similar register. Do you see a difference between the two and if so can you define revivalism for me in a way that is distinct from Pietism

  2. I question limiting “pietism” to experience-centered, doctrinally latitudinarian theology. Many who had the semi-mystical bent of pietism and strove for the practical Christianity pietism enjoined were also loyal to the Lutheran or Reformed Confessions, depending on whether they were German, Scandinavian, Dutch, or Swiss. Much as I love the Westminster Standards and Three Forms of Unity, I would call myself something of a “pietist”, too. I suspect that there is something of a “pietist” strain that informed some of the 19th century confessionalist movements on the continent. Ole Hallesby, the Norwegian bishop, for instance, was shaped somewhat by the Haugeans (a pietist group) of an earlier age, but also was probably the last confessionalist in the state church of Norway (granted, we’re talking the Lutheran realm here).

    Pietism looks both ways.

    • Peter,

      As a matter of history “were” is the operative verb. Because Pietism, in reaction to nominalism real and perceived, in the (mostly Lutheran) state churches of Europe, prioritized the unmediated, personal, mystical encounter with the risen Christ over the objective, they gave birth to liberalism. Schleiermacher was not unique. There were great lots of Schleiermachers in the 19th century.

      We’re watching the same phenomenon occur in the emerging/emergent movements. The time frame for this evolution has sped up exponentially. It took only a a decade or or so to see them move from something resembling orthodoxy to embracing heterodoxy. Subjectivism is was the route.

      There is a reason why Barnes and Noble sells Merton and not Machen.

  3. I get “pietism” as described in this post having originated with the likes of people like Spener and Franke. taken to the next step by those like Schleiermacher – this drive towards holiness and a subjective, personal experience. But what I still can’t understand is how it originated in that way, but wound up with the 20th/21st Century liberalism that adopted a low view of scripture, an orientation toward a social gospel, and an acceptance of almost anything or everything once frowned upon in modern culture. Exactly how do these “dots” connect?

    • Hi George,

      Schleiermacher is a pivotal figure. Whereas the earlier Pietists still valued historic Christian teaching, Schleiermacher realized that he could have the experience of Pietism without the baggage of the history—thus he could erase the offense to Modernity. Christianity became completely private and personal. It was no longer making any public claims about what was really true.

      Schleiermacher’s theology was mediated to the liberals by a group of German theologians, themselves the children of Pietists. Some of the mediating theologians were more orthodox and some less but they were hugely influential.

      One of our grads, Zachary Purvis, has just published his DPhil thesis on this very topic: Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century German (OUP). Zach is a brilliant young scholar and his work is outstanding.

  4. Can I recommend
    ‘HISTORICAL CRITICISM of the BIBLE – Methodology or Ideology?’ – by Etta Linnemann Translated by Arthur Yarbrough
    The back cover reads (in part)
    ‘The ideas contained in secular humanism, Enlightenment, and German idealism have shaped Western universities and indeed our society. But have they undermined biblical scholarship as well? Eta Linnemann, a former student of Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst Fuchs, asserts that they have.
    The author presents a telling analysis of the relation of scientific method and biblical interpretation within the context of the history of ideas. She offers a radical prescription for recovery.’

  5. Here’s an example in Contemporary “Christian” Music, where knowledge of The Father comes to the individual unmediated. Who needs scripture when the word of God comes via tender whispers from God at night?

    “The popular ‘Good Good Father’ tops Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart, thanks to Chris Tomlin.” (2016)

    First two verses with refrain:

    I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
    But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
    And you tell me that you’re pleased
    And that I’m never alone

    You’re a good good father
    It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
    And I’m loved by you
    It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am

    I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide
    But I know we’re all searching
    For answers only you provide
    ‘Cause you know just what we need
    Before we say a word

    And later comes:
    Oh, it’s love so undeniable
    I, I can hardly speak
    Peace so unexplainable
    I, I can hardly think
    As you call me deeper still
    As you call me deeper still
    As you call me deeper still
    Into love, love, love

    How ironic for an “evangelical” church to have sung this at a service whose sermon was entitled “Sola Scripture”!

  6. The knee jerk response: if you are going to be all touchy feely ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’, then we are going to be all doctrine, Doctrine, DOCTRINE. It’s one thing to recognize that our subjective interpretive understanding of our religious experiences are tainted by sin, another thing to make the claim that there are no subjective experiences that mean any more than a good dream does; sure it makes you smile, but in the end, so what?
    Obviously, sanctification must occur on the emotional experiential level as well as every other, right? The question I have is, are the uber-sanctified those that eschew emotionalism for sedate rationalism, or those who are less afraid to experience the highs and lows of our life in the already/not yet with their emotional switched in the ‘on’ position? Perhaps the answer is’ both’?
    It is frustrating to see how both sides amply contribute to the divide. Here is hoping to a better way.

    • BJ,

      I think it was George Marsden who gave this taxonomy of the Dutch Reformed. Maybe he inherited but there have been said to be three groups: Pies, Docs, and Kuyps. My goal is to do justice to all three impulses, even if I dissent somewhat from each group.

      The Pietists are all about personal religious experience. As I wrote in RRC and tried to express here again, please do not confuse piety with pietism. They are quite distinct. I am entirely in favor of the biblical piety confessed and practiced by the Reformed.

      Doctrine is essential. This is why I keep writing about “theology, piety, and practice.” The Christian life begins with but does not end with doctrine. There is no true faith without true doctrine but true faith issues in piety and practice.

      If Kuyperian may be taken less as a specific agenda and more as a call for Reformed Christians to engage God’s world and to bring the faith to bear, as appropriate, in each of the three spheres (family, church, and state), then yes, I’m all for it.

      To be clear, my goal is not to set doctrine against piety or piety against practice but to keep them all together in their integral unity.

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