Mysticism – Part 5

(May 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 5) 

Pietism & Subjective Christianity

Balance. Is there anything more elusive? Most of us are constantly striving for balance, whether it is with our time, money, diet or relationships. If few of us are ever content that we have found just the right balance in these areas of life, the same can be said for the historical church. God’s people tend to swing from one extreme to another with great regularity, causing considerable tension within the body of Christ. One such tension has been, and still is, between the academic and the experiential, between those who place great emphasis on the theological and those who place the bulk of their emphasis on the subjective. Subjective oriented believers cast the term “dead orthodoxy” at their counterpart. I vividly remember an extremist group marching around the walls of Moody Bible Institute when I was a student there, crying out, “Babylon is falling down.” This same group purposely mispronounced seminary (calling it cemetery) and loved quoting II Corinthians 3:6b, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Doctrinally inclined Christians cast aspersions such as “heterodox” at such people (you have to be doctrinally inclined to cast such aspersions). The proper biblical balance is for theology to result in doxology, and doxology to lead to holy, passionate living for Jesus Christ. Unfortunately it seldom seems to be that easy, and so the tension between theology and experience goes on and balance is hard to find. This is a modern day struggle but it has much historical precedent. One such precedent, which still has major ramifications for us today, has been termed Pietism.

A Little History:

Pietism began as a reaction to the highly intellectualized orthodoxy that had become common in Lutheran and Reformed churches in the decades following the Reformation.

Pietism made its appearance as a distinct historical movement within Protestantism, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, around 1690-1730. Its aim was to stress “practical piety,” as distinct from the polemical dogmatic theology to which the Reformation had initially given a certain priority. Against the intellectualist and abstract understanding of God and of dogmatic truth, pietism set a practical, active piety (Praxis pietatis): good works, daily self-examination for progress in virtues according to objective criteria, daily study of the Bible and practical application of its moral teaching, intense emotionalism in prayer, a clear break with the “world” and worldly practices (dancing, the theatre, non-religious reading); and tendencies towards separatism, with the movement holding private meetings and distinguishing itself from the “official Church.”[1]

While there have been many leaders among the Pietists most recognize the big four as follows:

Johann Arndt (1555-1621). He is considered by modern Historians to be the Father of Pietism. Arndt’s most lasting influence came through his six volume devotional work True Christianity (1606). This was a collection of sermons which relied heavily on the mystics, especially Thomas à Kempis. Arndt was not a classical mystic but he was concerned, especially in book three with how one could find the Kingdom of God within oneself. His answer was found in self-denial as opposed to intellectual pursuit. Arndt, in reaction to what he considered dead-orthodoxy of Lutheranism, preached that the evidence of conversion was not correct doctrine but a changed life.

Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705). Spener wrote his major work Pia Desideria (Pious Desires), subtitled, Heartfelt Desire for God-Pleasing Reform, in 1675. Many Lutherans date the beginning of Pietism with the publication of this book, which became a manual of Pietistic reforms. Spener, taking Arndt one step further, more aggressively combated those who promoted doctrine to the neglect of piety. Spener did not minimize Scripture but there was a subtle, almost indiscernible shift toward experience.

Auguste Hermann Francke (1663-1727) As Spener’s successor Francke continued, and expanded, Spener’s emphasis on a changed life and practical theology. He was known for his kindness and great interest in foreign missions, as well as his ecumenical spirit.

Count Nicolaus Ludwig Von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). In Zinzendorf the teachings of Arndt, Spener and Francke bear their natural fruit. Zinzendorf developed a system he called, “Theology of the Heart” which basically meant that heart-felt religious convictions and experiences were more trustworthy than theological understanding. As a natural outworking of this philosophy Zinzendorf emphasized the ecumenicalism of Francke, teaching that doctrinal difference between believers should be tolerated. Zinzendorf is best known today because of his leadership within the Moravians, a Pietist sect that had profound impact on the life of John Wesley.

What Did Pietism Teach?

While Pietism had its original roots in Lutheranism, historians identify at least three other branches of early Pietism including Reformed, Moravian and Radical.[2] It is therefore difficult to pin down the exact beliefs of the Pietists, but there were some definite common threads that can be traced throughout all of these branches.

Spener offered six proposals for reform in Pia Desderia which became a short summary of pietism:

  • There should be “a more extensive use of the Word of God among us.” The Bible, Spener said, “must be the chief means for reforming something.”
  • Spener called also for a renewal of “the spiritual priesthood,” the priesthood of all believers. Here he cited Luther’s example in urging all Christians to be active in the general work of Christian ministry.
  • He appealed for the reality of Christian practice and argued that Christianity is more than a matter of simple knowledge.
  • Spener then urged restraint and charity in religious controversies. He asked his readers to love and pray for unbelievers and the erring, and to adopt a moderate tone in disputes.
  • Next he called for a reform in the education of ministers. Here he stressed the need for training in piety and devotion as well as in academic subjects.
  • Last he implored ministers to preach edifying sermons, understandable by the people, rather than technical discourses which few were interested in or could understand.[3]

On the surface there seems little to object in Spener’s proposals; but while he had a concern for proper exegesis, and a high regard for the Bible, he and other Pietist were slowly allowing experience and subjectivism to become more authoritative than Scripture. By the time we get to Zinzendorf this exchange had become obvious. Experience, despite what might be officially stated, had in practice become the final arbitrator in the lives of the Moravians. “Zinzendorf stressed the importance of experiencing God,”[4] to the extent of allowing for personal experience to determine the meaning of Scripture and frame Christian living. Based upon the studies of J. E. Hutton, historian of the Moravian movement, Arnold Dallimore writes:

To them the value of the Bible consisted, not in its supposed infallibility, but in its appeal to their hearts…. The Bible was not its supreme authority, but authority lay also in personal experience, and, of course, varied according to the sentiments of the individual. Nor was the Bible a book to which they gave diligent study; they regarded it somewhat as a compilation of texts and mottoes, and they had the curious practice of opening it at random and accepting the first verse their eye lighted upon as the immediate guidance of heaven. They employed it also in the casting of lots and we are told that the Count “carried his lot apparatus in his pocket; he consulted it on all sorts of topics and regarded it as the infallible voice of God. The Moravians give little attention to systematic theology…. The Society’s gatherings were characterized by an extraordinary fervour, but because of the lack of clear doctrinal teaching, its members proved susceptible to varying religious influences.[5]

On the positive side Pietism rejected cold orthodoxy and called believers back to the Scriptures, not just for intellectual knowledge but also for heart-felt change and authentic personal experience. On the negative side Pietism led to subjectivism which ultimately drew Christians away from truth as found in God’s Word. Many church historians, including Mark Noll, believe that Pietism paved the way for the theological liberalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Others, but not all, see a link between unchecked Pietism and the Enlightenment. These are odd outcomes for a movement that attempted to bring the church back to the Scriptures and the proper application of truth. But they are not surprising outcomes given the dominate role that subjectivity ultimately played in the Pietistic movement. Once our lives and churches become untethered from the Scriptures there is no limit where they might land.

Where Did Pietism Go Wrong?

Of course that is a loaded question and presupposes that Pietism did go wrong. Given the fact that Pietism, to some degree, lives on in church related groups as diverse as Amish, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and the Amana Society it is hard to be precise. But, wherever experience and subjectivity reigns supreme over Scripture in the lives and churches of twenty-first century believers there is something wrong. William Nix summarizes our concern well:

Although Pietists adhered to the inspiration of the Bible, they advocated individual feeling as being of primary importance. That may have been an adequate method for avoiding cold orthodoxy of “Protestant scholasticism,” it opened the door for the equally dangerous enemy of “subjective experientialism.” The first generation of Pietists could recall and reflect on its grounding in Scripture while validly advocating the need for individual experience. A second generation would stress the need for individual experience, but often without a proper Biblical or catechetical basis. This would leave a third generation that would question individual experience with no Biblical or doctrinal “standard” to serve as an objective criterion. In turn, their unanswered questions would tend to demand an authority. When Scriptures were neglected, human reason or subjective experience would fill the need as the required “standard.” Thus while not causing other movements Pietism gave impetus to three other movements in the post-Reformation church: deism, skepticism and rationalism.[6]

What Are the Implications for Today?

The great-grandchildren of Pietism live on in modern evangelicalism. On the positive side, much like original Pietists there is a great hunger today for spirituality. People want a spirituality that works in the trenches of life. They want a faith that is relevant, provides answers and draws them closer to God. There is little interest in “dead orthodoxy.” People want to feel something – experience something. George Gallup documents this spiritual hunger in his book, The Next American Spirituality. Unfortunately much of the spirituality that he observes is without biblical foundation leading him to warn, “Contemporary spirituality can resemble a grab bag of random experiences that does little more than promise to make our eyes mist up or our heart warm. We need perspective to separate the junk food from the wholesome, the faddish from the truly transforming.”[7] But perspective is hard to come by due to the massive level of biblical illiteracy, not only in America but among Christians as well. Half, he says, “Of those describing themselves as Christians are unable to name who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Many Americans cannot name the reason for celebrating Easter or what the Ten Commandments are. People think the name of Noah’s wife was Joan, as in Joan of Ark.”[8] Then there is what some have called “the great disconnect.” That is, there is a wide chasm between what Americans in general, and self-proclaimed Christians in particular, claim to believe and how they live. While the general populace claim to have a great interest in spirituality, and Christians claim to be followers of Christ, our societies, homes and churches are inundated with corruption, violence, substance abuse, racism, divorce and materialism. This “cluster of moral and theological shortcomings seemingly throws into question the transforming power of religious beliefs,”[9] Gallup admits, leading him to state, “Just because Americans claim they are more spiritual does not make them so.”[10] That leans into an excellent question, “Is the church really rediscovering its spiritual moorings – or just engaging in retreat from seemingly insoluble problems?”[11]

Well, as Yogi once said, “Prediction is very hard, especially when it’s about the future,” but if the New Testament is any indication, things don’t look all that bright. The negative affect of Pietism, in many circles, is the development of Christians desiring a heart-felt faith who, nevertheless, have become increasingly distanced from the Word. Such spirituality may, as Gallup said, give us misty eyes and warm hearts, but it does not create Christians who know Christ in terms described by the Bible. Paul clearly taught in Ephesians 4:11-16 that if we are to grow to maturity, equipped for the “work of service” it will be as a result of biblical teaching from gifted leaders given to the church for that purpose. Without adequate biblical teaching we will be like children “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (v.14). The perfect spiritual victims for deceitful schemers are those with warm hearts and empty heads. The church is full of folks today who have “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). They have a form of godliness but it is not biblically grounded. They are seeking feelings and experiences but not doctrinal truth. They are content to attend churches that do not expound the Scriptures, just as long as they are emotionally moved by the music or drama.

Such “piety” is changing every facet of Christian and church life. Take worship for example. Monte E. Wilson has noted, “For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual’s experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshiper has become the object of worship.”[12] The cause for this type of worship, Wilson believes, is the loss of devotion to Scriptures. He writes in pejorative terms, “Others—probably the majority in modern American evangelicalism—have utterly neglected any commitment to the content of the Word and have ended with narcissistic ‘worship’ services where everyone drowns in a sea of subjectivism and calls it ‘being bathed in the presence of the Holy Spirit.’ These people come to church exclusively to ‘feel’ God.”[13]

Pietistic leanings, of course, are not limited to worship and the gathered church. Where they are most evident, and most concerning is in the area of “God’s leading.” How does God speak to and lead His people according to Scripture? And how has Pietistic understanding of these things affected the way we interpret both Scripture and our subject feelings? This will be the topic of our next paper.


[1] p. 1.

[2] See Christian History Vol. V. #2, “Pietism, a Much Maligned Movement Re-Examined.” p. 19.

[3] Mark Noll, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary ( P. 2.

[4] Christian History Vol. V. #2 p. 15.

[5] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield (The Banner of Truth Trust: London, 1970), PP. 172-174.

[6] As quoted by F. David Farnell, The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 13#1, “How Views of Inspiration Have Impacted Synoptic Problem Discussions”, p. 46.

[7] George Gallup Jr., The Next American Spirituality (Victor: Colorado Springs, 2000), p. 15.

[8] Ibid., p. 30.

[9] Ibid., p. 32.

[10] Ibid., p. 29.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John H. Armstrong, General Editor, The Compromised Church, “Church-o-Rama or Corporate Worship,” Monte Wilson (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1998 ), p. 67.

[13] Ibid., p. 68.


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