A Brief Assessment of Pietism and Its Influence on Christian Spirituality: Its Strength & Its Danger

Evangelicalism owes much of her tradition to the Pietistic Movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  According to David Bebbington, four characteristics regularly appear in evangelical statements about the kernel of Christianity—namely, the Bible, the cross, conversionism, and activism.[1]  One may find the first and the last of these four elements well rooted in Pietism.  In 1675, Philipp Jakob Spener of Germany published his Pia Desideria (“Pious Wishes” or “The Piety We Desire”), which says despite much church activity, there were few in Germany who “really understand and practice true Christianity (which consists of more than avoiding manifest vices and living an outwardly moral life).[2] To counter the religious situation of his time, Spener proposed six remedies:  (1) There must be a return to the Scriptures.  (2) Laypeople must take an active role in religious life.  In doing so, the difference between laity and clergy has become less significant.  (3) Godliness means more than orthodoxy alone.  Christians must put their love into practice.  (4) Heart-felt love for unbelievers and heretics should replace harsh controversies.  (5) Ministerial positions need to be reserved for “true Christians” instead of people who are eager for power.  (6) Students training for ministry must practice godliness and not merely regurgitating the theories of spiritual life. 

Philipp Jakob Spener

The Strength of Pietism

Till this day, we can see the influence of Pietism still embedded deeply in our expression of faith.  Bible study and daily devotion form the markings of a devoted evangelical.  Expository preaching remains the standard of a good sermon.  Zealous laities, who are eager to serve, fill the church.  Out from this eagerness of up and doing—the corollary outworking of believing—comes dedicated servants who devote their lives in serving the Lord through serving others.  In some communities, believers assume leadership positions like prayer meeting leaders or Sunday school teachers.  In other communities, such calling may extend to service in the larger society from evangelism to emancipation.  One can argue that great missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, and social reformers as William Wilberforce could trace their driving passion from the Pietistic Movement. 

Pietism arose at a time when orthodoxy and a moral life alone accounted for the sufficient expression of Christian faith.  Spener, and his greatest follower August Hermann Francke, brought into Christianity a relevance to the daily lives of those who live outside the academic arena.  To them, Pietism was a breath of fresh air.  Their religious faith was no longer limited to theological debate.  For the first time, laities were taught the “joy” of Christian life.  Even more, the emphasis of laity ministries implied their contribution to the church.  At the same time, those who opposed Spener at his time warned that the Pietists would eventually undermine sound theology and stable church order.  While Pietism was needed at the time, I must contend that the warning was also right.  By nature, Pietistic Movement has the potential of running the wrong direction of anti-intellectualism.  Zeal without knowledge can create as much harm as good.  Like other movements, the followers often shifted the momentum to where the founders might not have originally intended.  Today, this force is influencing evangelicalism as an undercurrent that sometimes undermines intellectualism that naturally over-emphasizes supernaturalism.  The result is a subtle form of authoritarianism that haunts the church.  I shall appeal to Karl Barth in terms of analysis.

Karl Barth

The Danger of Pietism

            According to Barth, Pietism is the evidence of how the eighteenth century attempted to make Christianity a more individual and a more inward matter.[3] He explains that the process of individualization as man recognizing himself as a being “who is at least similar, at least related to the ultimate reality of God”, and that this recognition renders “the enthronement of man” over the world.  This “man”, in turn, feels that he is given authority over all things outside God.  Individualization also means making inward of what is external and objective to man.  In so doing, “the objectivity of the matter is then robbed—eaten up and digested—made into something within man.”  Another way to express this idea is that man feels that he is from God; ultimately he is given authority over all things, and he does this by internalizing external matters.  Barth explains this idea in terms of concepts of authority, divine command, and sacrament

            First, the Pietist does not deny the concept of authority.  He does, however, replace all alien external authority “in favor of the inner, personal authority of the man whose ultimate foundation as an individual is in himself, an authority close to and indeed related to the authority of God.” It means he recognizes the authority of the word of Scriptures—but the word must be experienced in a personal way, therefore the authority will be interpreted also in a personal way.  Coupled with this idea is the concept of divine command


…the divine command is not the prescription of a general rule which then has to be interpreted and applied in particular cases.  The command, rather, tells man what special thing is required of him by God on a particular occasion.  Nothing needs to be interpreted; all that is necessary is either obedience or disobedience.  The individualist treats the command as a general rule which he as to interpret…In this way he internalizes even the law.  God’s property becomes his own.[4]


     The third idea is the concept of sacrament.  Christians understand sacrament as a ‘visible sign of invisible grace’, which is sometimes referred to as the concept of mystery.  But, the concept of mystery is too far-fetched for the Pietist.  In the attempt of dominating the exterior, he interiorizes even the mystery.  Individualism means that man discovers the mystery with himself:  he has become the visible sign of the invisible grace! 


He discovers that he is capable not only of understanding and willing, but also of feeling, experiencing and undergoing.  He now translates and transforms the Christian mystery into a mystery in this sense, an accessible, not incomprehensible but comprehensible mystery.  In this sense, now he himself can become the sacrament.  Thus Pietism, in particular, is inconceivable without the undercurrent of mysticism, enthusiasm, ecstasy, inspiration and occasionally of theosophy and occultism of every kind.[5]   


Evangelicalism has been known for its version of spirituality in pursuing “a personal relationship with God.” When coupled with the domination mindset of Pietism, a new form of individualism is born.  In his private spiritual journey, the personal encounter with God becomes the single most powerful experience of the Christian that it dominates over any other external accountability.  Even when he recognizes the authority of the Scriptures, that too must come under the judgment (or interpretation) of his personal experience.  In this way, the Pietist falls into the danger of monopolizing his relationship with God, and eventually becomes the modern-day prophet.  I believe this is what Barth means when he says all that remains is either “obedience or disobedience.” When this happens to a laity, he will be the pastor’s nightmare.  Whatever the pastor teaches belongs to some second-class truth, for God speaks only to the prophet directly.  On the other hand, when the Pietist is the pastor, he would often develop the “Moses Syndrome.” In other words, he would see anyone who disagrees with him as the stiff-neck Israelites.  Thus, an attitude of spiritual arrogance rules over the man. 


            By nature, Pietism easily leans towards anti-intellectualism.  The corollary religious experience would then become supernaturalism.  Quoting from Barth again, Pietism “is inconceivable without the undercurrent of mysticism, enthusiasm, ecstasy, inspiration and occasionally of theosophy and occultism of every kind” (see previous quotation).  How God speaks to the individual in dreams, in prayers, or mystical ways forms the overarching faith experience.  At this level, there is much commonality with Charismaticism and Quietism.  While the forms of expression might differ greatly, both the Charismatic and the Quietist pursue a supernatural experience with God.  The former is known for beliefs in “spiritual baptism” and “word of wisdom”[6].  These experiences are personal in nature and authoritative in expression.  The spiritual baptism ultimately confirms the salvation of the individual by the visible work of the invisible Spirit.  No creed or doctrine may deny the salvific position because God “has spoken.” With regard to the word of wisdom, one can argue that the Charismatic theologically trumps the position of the Holy Bible adored by the Evangelicals.  If they are right, then inspiration and revelation of the Spirit continue this day on individuals.  Men can now challenge the authority of the traditional message of the Scriptures through interpretation.  Quietism, following the tradition of Miguel de Molinos and Madame Guyon, may sometimes lead to a similar end.  This Catholic tradition emphasizes passivity before God.  Contemplation is the main tool quietists use to achieve such state.  Because the goal of contemplation is passivity, it follows that whatever comes out of the contemplation comes from God.  The danger clearly is subjectivity.  Madame Guyon demonstrated such danger when she carried the teachings of Molinos to more radical directions by saying that sometimes one must offer God a “true sacrifice” by committing sins one truly despises.[7] However, Quietism rarely brought doctrinal issues in the church.  In fact, Quietists often demonstrate spiritual models of humility admired by many.  On the other hand, I observed that problems may arise when the Pietist turns to Quietism. 

            The Pietist-turned-Quietist sometimes lost the distinct nature of humility found in traditional Quietism.  To the Pietist, Quietism becomes a tool—a channel, a means—for him to further achieve the authority in his individualization.  Through contemplation, he has now come before God, caught up to the third heaven and hearing inexpressible things (2 Cor 12:1-4).  In the end, he alone holds the key to the “tent of meeting”. 



            Like any movements in history, Pietism has its strength and weakness.  At the time of its birth, there was a genuine need.  We should view it as a God-given gift to remedy the problems in the church at the time.  On the other hand, we must also contend that we live in a fallen world that even the remedy is a two-blade sword.  While we owe much of our identity as Evangelicals to the Pietistic Movement, we must also have honest reflections and continue to move forward.  We should not condemn ourselves with our shortcomings but see that as our Father’s reminding us of our reality that we truly need Jesus our Lord. 


(This essay comes out of my observation that there is much authoritarianism running in the church today.  While some blame the phenomenon to fallen human nature and power struggle, I try to give my assessment from a theological viewpoint.  My theology professor in the seminary often urged his students to think historically and theologically.  I believe it was one of the greatest gifts I have received from him.)


[1] David W. Bebbington.  The Dominance of Evangelicalism. 

[2] Mark A. Noll.  The Rise of Evangelicalism, p. 61. 

[3] Karl Barth.  Protestant Theology in the 19th Century.

[4] Ibid, p.105.  I must contend that this is a scary but a very realistic assessment of where Pietism can lead to.   

[5] Ibid, p.107.

[6] The “word of wisdom” is one of several charismata that became prominent in the third wave of the Charismatic Movement.  The Pentecostal understands it as the Holy Spirit providing a word of revelation to the Christian community at times of need.  See entry in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. 

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity, Vol.2, p. 170. 


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