Why I Have Concerns With Pietism

Picture From: The Pietist Schoolman
Note: Originally posted September 11, 2012

I have spent most of my life in a certain strain of Pietism.  With that stated, I can personally appreciate the historical fervor of Pietism when it comes to studying the Bible and walking in the shadow of the cross (i.e., the Churchly Pietists).  Like C.F.W. Walther, I believe that I will always be impacted by a Pietistic ethos in my personal life and ministry.  However, lately, I have been becoming very concerned with certain aspects of Pietism and have been moving away from it quite dramatically.  Now, you may think that I, like so many others, am reacting to some of the external restrictions that often go with certain strains of Pietism.  "Don't drink, go to movies, etc..."  Well, I've never been drunk and don't plan on doing this anytime in the future - even though I love a good Cabernet Sauvignon - and frankly, I rarely watch television anymore.  So, my concerns are not with some of the external restrictions that often accompany certain strains of Pietism.  My concerns are theological.  My concerns are with what Pietism's theological legacy does to the church's interpretive lens of the Bible.  Permit me to explain a bit more.   
In the late 1600s, after the devastation and moral bankruptcy of the European landscape caused by the 30-year war, a movement came forth called Pietism[1].  Pietism was a movement that was a reaction to many of the weaknesses in the church life of the time.  According to Gunner Salmonson,
“The pietistic movement was a spiritual renewal movement.  It can be characterized by the following: 1) Emphasis on the New Birth, an inward renewal of the individual of being dead to sin and alive to Christ; 2) Living close to God in daily life with a stand against worldly living; 3) Fellowship and Bible Study groups often led by lay people 4) Emphasis on Sanctification 5) Social reform emphasis; 6) Mission vision; 7) An attempt to return to Luther’s teachings which the church had strayed from, namely the priesthood of believers, a life of repentance, a personal faith and witnessing.”[2]
At first glance, it looks as if Pietism was a simple reaction or refocus on priorities, therefore, why should we be so concerned with it?  Is Pietism merely a shift in material principle? According to Bengt Hagglund, the impact of Pietism was not merely a shift in priorities but changes that brought about a new theological position for Christendom.[3]  Hagglund states that Jakob Spener, the Father of Pietism, brought a new conception of the “inner transformation as the essential basic aspect of faith and expanded the concept of justification to include the inner new creation as well.”[4]  Thus, there was a mingling of Justification and Sanctification.  The biggest shift of Pietism came about when “Pietism made religious experience more important than Christian doctrine and stressed sanctification more than justification.”[5]  
In other words, religious experience was then embraced (along with the doctrines of the Word) as a legitimate source of knowledge for the Christian’s epistemological framework.[6]  As a result, Pietism, “began to change the emphasis from what Christ has done for us to what Christ does in us. They emphasized holy living rather than the forgiveness of sins.” [7]
The crux of the problem is that the shift of Pietism (i.e. from Justification toward Sanctification) brought a completely different set of presuppositional ideas that affected Biblical interpretation.  These presuppositional shifts are posted below:

Confessional Lutheran Emphasis
Lutheran Pietism Emphasis
Emphasis on Justification 
(i.e., The Work Of Christ For Us)
Emphasis on Sanctification
(i.e., The Work Of Christ In Us [8])
Emphasis on the Sacraments
as the mark of the church
Emphasis on the changed life
as the mark of the church [9] 
Passive Righteousness 
(i.e., Stative faith;
the subject receives righteousness)
Active Righteousness [10] 
(i.e., Active faith; the subject performs, instigates, or grasps righteousness)
Emphasis on the 2nd Use of the Law 
(i.e., the Law to convict sin, therefore, sin is accentuated as an internal problem… a condition)
Emphasis on 3rd Use of the Law [11] 
(i.e., the Law as a guide for Holy living, therefore, sin is accentuated as an external problem… actions.  This focus has historically led to a loss or diminished view of original sin.)

As tabled above, the new Pietistic presuppositions/emphasis were different from Confessional Lutheranism that existed before it.[12] The emphasis shift not only impacted the life of the church but detrimentally had a profound impact on Biblical interpretation.
According to John Brenner, the Pietistic emphasis shift of the 17th and 18th centuries still impacts our Biblical interpretation today for, “much of evangelical literature today puts an emphasis on sanctification rather than justification, on what we are to do rather than on what Christ has done for us.”[13] Over 60 years ago, E.H. Wendland stated the fact that “modern Protestantism today is saturated with a theology that is basically pietistic.”[14]
In summary, we should never be concerned with piety.  Piety is good.  Pietism, though, along with its presuppositional/emphasis shifts, is something that we should be concerned with due to its influence upon the church’s exegesis. 

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[1] According to Bengt Hagglund on pages 325-326 of his book, “History of Theology” (Concordia Publishing, 1968), he states that the founder and beginning of the Pietistic movement came forth from Jakob Spener and the publishing of his book titled, “Pia desideria” in 1675.  On pages 87-118 of Spener’s “Pia desidera” (Introduction and translation by Theodore G. Tappert, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), he suggests the following to the Church:  1) Thought should be given to more extensive use of the Word of God. 2) Attention should be given to the establishment and diligent exercise of the universal priesthood of believers. 3) Christian faith must be put into action. For it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice. 4) We must beware of how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies. 5) In the schools and universities, attention must be given to the moral development and moral training of future pastors. 6) Ministerial students should be taught to preach sermons aimed at the heart and directed toward the life of their hearers.
[2] Gunner Salmonson, Lessons for Life ~ Book B (Faith and Fellowship Press, 1998), 74.
[3] Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology (Concordia Publishing, 1968), 325.
[4] Hagglund, 328.
[5] John M. Brennar in the Forward of Valentin Ernst Loescher’s book The Complete Timotheus Verinus (Northwestern Publishing, 2006) , v.
[6] According to Markus Matthias on page 109 of, “The Pietist Theologians,” (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) he states that August Hermann Francke, “…raised personal knowledge of conversion to the criterion for a theologian, this was not simply like the persistent demand of earlier theologians that there be a correspondence of godly teaching and a holy life, but rather it concerned the capability to be able to make declarations about God from one’s own experience and hence with one’s own attestation.”
[7]John Brenner, Pietism: Past and Present  ~ Essay delivered at WELS Michigan District Southeastern Pastor/Teacher/Delegate Conference on January 23, 1989 and WELS Michigan District Northern Pastoral Conference on April 3, 1989
[8] As Already Stated by Brenner.
[9] John Brenner in his essay on page 8 states, “they changed the marks of the church from the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments to right living. In other words, the Church isn’t necessarily where the gospel is proclaimed, but where people are living correctly.”  Furthermore, according to Valentin Loescher on page 63-ff in his book “The Complete Temotheus Verinus” (Northwestern Publishing, 1998) expounds on the Pietistic contempt for the means of grace.  Therefore, the means of grace as God’s action and deliver of gifts to us were diminished and the emphasis of right living essentially steered the church away from descent theology and inevitably established ascent theology.
[10] According to Hagglund on page 328, Pietism places a strong emphasis on the sanctified life as a testimony of true faith.  This led to what Loescher defines as double justification (pg. 113-114).  There became a double grasping of justification.  The first justification was one of embracing Christ and the second justification was one where struggling, diligent life of piety was required so as to validate ones justification.  Thus righteousness was no longer passive or received but perceived as active; needing to be acquired and confirmed.
[11] According to Brenner’s essay on page 5, “When Pietism shifted the emphasis from the law as mirror (to show us our sins) to the third use of the law (as a rule or guide), legalism resulted. For the pietists the main purpose of the law was to give a set of legal requirements for Christian living.  They tried to use the law to motivate Christian living. This is an improper use of the law and a characteristic of Reformed rather than Lutheran theology.”  This shift in understanding the Law also led to a diminishing of the doctrine of original sin.  Brenner on page 6 states, “Pietism failed to recognize the total depravity of human nature and lost sight of the fact that a Christian is at the same time both a saint and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator). They therefore had an unrealistic optimism for sanctification that bordered on perfectionism.”
[12] Hagglund, 327.
[13] Brenner, v.
[14] E.H. Wendland, “Present Day Pietism,” Theologische Quartalachrift, Vol 49, #1, January 1952, p. 22-23.