Another Downside Of Pietism: Christ’s Bodily Resurrection Is Marginalized

Pietism was a historical movement with precursors well before the Reformation but which arose after the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. As I wrote in Recovering the Reformed Confession,

Pietism is not to be confused with piety, which describes the Christian life and worship; pietism describes a retreat into the subjective experience of God. According to one writer, pietism, whether Lutheran or Reformed, is a critique of orthodoxy. Even in its mildest forms, at its heart, pietism flows from dissatisfaction with objective religion, with the classical Reformed and Lutheran Word and sacrament piety, from dissatisfaction with the ordinary. Pietism seeks “the life and liveliness of faith” rather than the “truth of faith.” (C. John Weborg, “Pietism: Theology in Service of Living toward God,” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, eds. Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 161.)

Paul Tillich wrote that the “subjectivity of Pietism, or the doctrine of the ‘inner light’ in Quakerism and the other ecstatic movements, has the character of immediacy or autonomy against the authority of the church. To put it more sharply, modern rational autonomy is a child of the mystical autonomy of the doctrine of the inner light” (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 286.).

More from Recovering: “Dale W. Brown, who writes from a perspective sympathetic to pietism, identifies five central motifs: 1) a turn to the practical; 2) a primitivist reading of Scripture, which is described as Biblicism; 3) an emphasis on sanctification and ethics; 4) an emphasis on religious experience; 5) acts of mercy” (Dale W. Brown, Understanding Pietism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 27–28).

In all its forms then, for pietism, one’s experience of the divine presence is ultimately more important than what one believes or knows or where one attends church or how often one receives the Lord’s Supper. However orthodox a particular pietist might be, if one has to choose between orthodoxy and experience, the pietist chooses experience. Even in defending pietism against the charge that it is overly subjectivist and a revival of late medieval mysticism, F. E. Stoeffler conceded that pietism, “had no one system of theology, no one integrating doctrine, no particular type of polity, no one liturgy, no geographical homogeneity.” Certainly several of these claims cannot be made of confessional Reformed theology. We have a theology, an integrating doctrine (covenant theology), a polity, and a form of worship (See D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 20–24; F. E. Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 13).

Two other things to add about the effect of Pietism. If it does not care much about the Lord’s Supper (either to observe it or as to who communes) neither does it necessarily have a vital interest in the facts of the history of salvation. This tendency is plainly evident in two great figures in the history of Pietism, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918). Both were raised in the Pietist tradition and both abandoned historic Christianity. Schleiermacher said that when he adopted an Enlightenment-inspired critical posture toward the Scriptures and the faith that he had become a “mature” Pietist. He utterly re-defined Christianity from A to Z so that the history of God’s saving acts and revelation became irrelevant. He reduced Christianity to “the feeling of divine dependence.” It is the quest for the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience not faith in Jesus as God the Son incarnate, crucified, dead, buried, raised, and ascended. Schleiermacher set the agenda for Modernist or Liberal theology through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rauschenbusch was the child of Pietist Lutherans who had become General Baptists upon moving to the USA from Germany. Like Schleiermacher before him, when Rauschenbusch encountered Modernist criticism of historic Christianity, he too abandoned the historic faith and the Christ of history in favor of the Christ of personal experience. In his case, he redefined the  Christian message as a “social gospel” of cultural, economic, and social improvement rather than salvation from the wrath to come and righteousness before a holy God.

Pietism is most relevant to understanding the nature of American evangelical Christianity because, since the 18th century, it has been deeply infused with Pietism. Through the course of the 19th century there was a divorce between Pietism and historic, confessional Protestantism. Some of the Pietists became revivalists and some became liberals. Both groups regarded the confessionalists as “dead orthodox.” The liberals though the orthodox dead because they were not doing enough for society. The revivalists regarded them as dead because they lacked the sufficient quality and quantity of religious experience (QIRE).

Pietists we shall always have with us but with a cost. We are facing a resurgence of the social gospel in our time. We should also expect a resurgence of critical, modernist liberalism. Cue Rob Bell. Chuck Queen, who evidently writes about Bell sympathetically, lists him with modern theological liberals who are calling for a “new reformation:”

This new reformation will involve both deconstruction and reconstruction, and both processes must happen simultaneously. There are reformers doing this work — the late Marcus Borg was committed to this, and now engaged are reformers like Rohr, Brian McLaren, John Philip Newell, Rob Bell, Bro. David Stendl-Rast, John Shelby Spong and many others lesser known. From a historical perspective this process is just beginning and will take a long time.

Today’s “emergent” (or “emerging” or neo-Pietist) is too easily tomorrow’s old-fashioned liberal. Blue spotlights and torn jeans do not change anything of substance.

A recent episode of the (Lutheran) Issues Etc broadcast featured Chris Rosebrough (of “Fighting for the Faith”), who auditioned a number of recent Easter sermons and found them wanting. He began with a clip from a minister in the UK, who apparently identifies as an evangelical but who announced that Thomas did not actually see or touch Jesus’ physical body but rather had a subjective experience of him. That, folks, is classic liberalism. It is also the heresy of docetism, the doctrine that Jesus only appeared to be a man. See 1 John. It is where Pietism has often taken its followers. The great liberals were mostly the children and grandchildren of Pietists.

Confessional Reformed Christians certainly want to have a rich personal religious experience but it must be grounded in the truth of things that actually were. If the Red Sea or the resurrection were mere metaphors for our religious experience then “we of all people are most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).  I understand that it is tempting to think that we can do in our time (e.g., the social gospel or “mature” Pietism) and what others did not in theirs, i.e., preserve the gospel but history warns us that such thinking is hubris and the outcome is miserable.

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  1. It is absolutely no surprise that almost all of the denominations that have historically been Pietists have succumbed to theological liberalism. I grew up in the Moravian Church. Behind closed doors, a significant portion of the pastors I know in that denomination are universalists. They are not very open about that because they want to keep their jobs. A decent number of them do not believe Jesus actually rose from the dead either. Pietism is really bad stuff. A significant portion of the kids I grew up with in that denomination either left for churches with solid theology or stayed and ended up falling away or having significant life challenges (their lives are a wreck). My heart breaks for people who are in Pietistic churches or who have pastors who believe in it. It is damaging and damning theology. People tend to underestimate the tragic effects of this theology. I appreciate you speaking up so frequently about this topic.

  2. I suppose when I read your articles on Pietism I grow a little confused. What of personal devotions? Even though the Pietists are Biblicists who prefer personal devotions let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? Where do devotions come in then?

    • Trent,

      Did you miss the part where I said that we’re not talking about PIETY (e.g., attending worship, prayer, Bible study) but about PIETISM, the QIRE.

      Certainly Christians ought to attend to the due use of ordinary means.

      Take a look at RRC, linked above, where I discuss the distinction between PIETY and PIETISM at length as well as the due use of ordinary means.

  3. It’s worth noting that the 19th century German scholar Julius Wellhausen, best known for popularizing the Documentary Hypothesis, also came from a pietistic Lutheran background. It explains his antipathy what he thought of as the “P” source, with its interest in ritual and law, which for him was a downgrade from the prophetic emphasis on ethics and “the Spirit”. For him the downward path through P led not to the New Testament and Christianity but to Judaism and Catholicism.

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