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Pietism

February 2006 | by Gary Gilley

Last month we began to look at Pietism – the -seventeenth century reaction against an intellectual and abstract approach to gospel truth that arose in Europe -following the Reformation.

Pietism taught a practical, active piety involving good works; daily self-examination; daily Bible study (with practical application of its moral teaching); emotionalism in prayer; a clear break with worldly practices (dancing, the theatre, non-religious reading); and tendencies towards separatism (the movement held private meetings and distinguished itself from the ‘official church’).

The question that heads this article is, of course, a loaded one – it presupposes that Pietism didgo wrong. Given that Pietism, to some degree, lives on in church-related groups as diverse as Amish, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal and the Amana Society, it is unwise to be dogmatic.

But, wherever experience and subjectivity reign supreme over Scripture in the lives and churches of twenty-first-century believers, there is something wrong.

Experimentalism

William Nix summarises 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 the cold orthodoxy of “Protestant scholasticism” but 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 [but] 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 … Pietism gave impetus to three other movements in the post-Reformation church – deism, scepticism and rationalism’.

Spirituality today

The great-grandchildren of Pietism live on in modern Evangelicalism. On the positive side, there is a great hunger today for spirituality. Just like original Pietists, people today want a spirituality that works in the trenches of life.

They don’t want ‘dead orthodoxy’ but rather desire a faith that is relevant, provides answers and draws them closer to God. -People want to feel something – to experience something.

George Gallup documents this spiritual hunger in his book, The next American spirituality. Unfortunately, much of the spirituality he observes is without biblical foundation.

He warns, ‘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’.

But perspective is hard to come by – due to the abysmal level of biblical literacy, not only among the general public but among Christians as well. Gallup continues, ‘Of those describing themselves as Christians [half] 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’.

Chasm of belief

Then there is what some have called ‘the great disconnect’ – the chasm between what people in general (and self-proclaimed Christians in particular) claim to believe and how they live.

While the general populace claim to be interested in spirituality, and Christians claim to be followers of Christ, our society, homes and churches are inundated with corruption, violence, substance abuse, racism, divorce and materialism.

Gallup admits that this ‘cluster of moral and theological shortcomings seemingly throws into question the transforming power of religious beliefs’. He continues, ‘Just because Americans claim they are more spiritual does not make them so’.

That leads him to ask an excellent question: ‘Is the church really rediscovering its spiritual moorings – or just engaging in retreat from seemingly insoluble problems?’

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.

Distance from the Word

The negative affect of Pietism is the emergence of a generation of Christians who desire a heart-felt faith but have become increasingly distanced from the Word. Such ‘spirituality’ may, as Gallup says, give us misty eyes and warm hearts – but it does not produce Christians who know Christ in the terms described by the Bible.

Ephesians 4:11-16 teaches that if we are to grow to maturity, and be equipped for the ‘work of service’, it will only be as a result of Bible teaching from gifted leaders given to the church for that purpose.

Without adequate Bible 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 folk 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 spiritual truth. They are content to attend churches that do not expound the Scriptures, just as long as they are emotionally moved by the music, drama or ambiance.

Worship

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 worshipper has become the object of worship’.

The root of this type of worship, Wilson believes, is the loss of devotion to Scripture. 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 feelGod’.

Pietistic leanings, of course, are not limited to worship and the gathered church. They are also prominent (and of great concern) in the area of ‘God’s leading’.

How does God speak to and guide his people according to Scripture? And how has a Pietistic understanding of these things affected the way we interpret both Scripture and our subjective feelings? This will be our topic next time.