A few years ago, Issues ETC. host Todd Wilken wrote a great piece for the Issues ETC. Journal called “Playing The Pharisee Card”. Here’s the start to that article, which I think is one of Pastor Wilken’s finest:
“I have been called a Pharisee more times than I can remember. It goes with the territory. I host a conservative Christian radio talk show. I publicly defend the teachings and practices of the historic Church. I also publicly point out false teaching and practices in the Church today. For these reasons alone, some believe that I deserve to be called a Pharisee.
But I’m not alone. Today, the label “Pharisee” is applied to many Christians just like me—perhaps you’re one of them. We are Christians who cherish God’s Word, the Church’s historic Creeds, confessions and practices. …”
Check it out – it’s a great short article. All this said, I’ll admit I’ve actually never been called a Pharisee (that I know of, that is). I have, however, been called something else: a Pietist. Years ago, when that first happened to me, I told a Lutheran pastor I was resistant to the label and he said, “You are a Pietist. It’s a good thing – don’t worry”.
Well, I was not satisfied with that. Everything I learned about what Pietism was just seemed a) too vague and b) not able to be applied to me at all (for example, I admit I am perpetually puzzled over this seemingly tongue-in-cheek list at a popular Lutheran website, that declares “No Pietests allowed” – what is said there has never deterred me!).
In any case, it was with great interest that I recently ran across this description of Pietism, from Concordia seminary professor Ronald Feuerhahn (from his short essay “Confusions in Law & Gospel”):
“[In Pietism] there was a shift away from the forensic image of justification to a biological image of regeneration, to organic terms implying growth and development. There was a pronounced use of the language of “rebirth,” “new man,” “inner man,” “illumination,” “edification,” and “union of Christ with the soul,” common to Spener and to the older mystics” *
….I found that to be an interesting way of identifying Pietism – but ultimately an unsatisfying one. When it comes to our salvation in Christ, I do think that the legal motif is the primary language that Scripture uses (and that, for pastoral purposes, it may very well be important to not bring “regeneration” language into the picture at all in this or that circumstance) – even if, as I have stated elsewhere, Confessional Lutherans cannot live in an “imputation-only world”. That said, one could get the impression from this quotation that any time persons might feel it is necessary to talk about what the other motifs (like the very biblical biological images of growth) have to teach us – perhaps because of a lack of proper emphasis or neglect – we are dealing with Pietism.
Obviously, that would be going too far.
So one searches on for a good definition of Pietism. Unfortunately, the often helpful Lutheran Cyclopedia, available for free on the LC-MS website, falls down badly here:
17th–18th c. movement in Ger. Protestantism; it regarded prevailing orthodoxy as spiritually unproductive. Origin of the movement is gen. traced to P. J. Spener,* who urged pastors to become curates, theol. students educated, nobility true administrators, and the commonalty to avoid secular amusements. Others Pietists in Ger. included A. H. Francke,* G. Arnold,* J. J. Rambach,* J. J. Schütz,* E. G. Woltersdorf,* L. v. Zinzendorf.* Others affected by Pietism include H. M. Mühlenberg* and J. Wesley.* See also Baumgarten, Siegmund Jakob; Lutheran Theology After 1580, 6, 7. PJS **
So where to look for guidance on this issue? One of the most helpful descriptions I have found of Pietism is from Valentin Ernst Loscher, a 17th century Orthodox theologian (noted for his personal piety). I came across this quotation in a book on prayer a few years back from late LC-MS President Al Barry (another man, I note, recognized for his personal piety):
[Pietism] It is an evil in the church that arises in the context of the pursuit of piety. That is, it is a searching, striving, and demanding of piety that is ill-conceived and established in a sinful way. It creates an antithesis between (1) piety and its pursuit and (2) revealed truth and its pursuit. Moreover, it causes truth to be dependent on piety. Pietism completely absorbs truth into itself and so it nullifies the truth. By all this the church of Christ is thrown into confusion and a raft of other unholy things find their way into it. The evil of Pietism is among us as long as the pursuit of piety stirs up and sustains a conflict and sets up an antithesis between itself and even one important point of religion. It is among us as long as a person believes and teaches that piety must be pursued more strenuously than orthodoxy and given preferential treatment. Furthermore, it can come to the point that the truth and form of theology (namely the Word of God), the office of preacher, justification, matrimony, the church, and other matters are all put into a dependent relationship to piety, in which case the evil shows itself more forcefully and more clearly. Finally, it can come to the point where people think that wherever piety is not found in the form and to the degree hoped for, then no Word of God, no activity of the Holy Spirit, no light of grace, no office of teaching, no matrimony, no church can exist. Then Pietism has fully matured and come out into the open.
….[the pietists] scorned pure doctrine, orthodoxy, and the means used to preserve pure doctrine. They scoffed at church ordinances and usages, and slandered and nullified sermons, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching ministry. They dared abstain from the public worship, as well as from the use of the Lord’s Supper along with fellow Christians, since they regard these fellow Christians, a, for the most part, unregenerate and unholy. They have the audacity to maintain that they alone, as true disciples and followers of Christ, are holy and pious, and hence they despise all others. Since they insolently judge the Lutheran Church ceremonies and assemblies to be an accursed Babel, they are not ashamed to instigate private worship and special secret conventicles. By means of all this they sufficiently uncover their corrupt mind and ways. Without the necessary distinctions they confuse the spiritual priesthood with the public ministry, the use with the abuse of adiaphora, the ministry with the person and God’s order with man’s disorder: they reject the one with the other, the gold with the dross… They despised and slandered the public worship services the assemblies in the churches and regular preachers. Instead, they endeavored to include everything in their private assemblies.”
More on Loscher from current LC-MS President Matthew Harrison:
What V.E. Loescher once described as the malum pietisticum at the height of eighteenth-century Pietism is with us yet to day. Pietism is as old as man. It turns the heart away from the concrete and extra nos word and means God has established for our salvation, to inner lights, experiences, feelings, and convictions. More amenable to such things, prayer meetings and home Bible study displace the divine delivery of gifts on the Lord’s day with its ancient and gospel-oriented liturgical progression. Instead, they create their own solar system, relegating the divine service to an orbital position, and with it also the means of grace and the office divinely mandated to deliver them. Loescher noted these marks of Pietism: “pious-appearing [doctrinal] indifference,” “devaluation of the means of grace,” and of necessity, “the debilitation of the office of the ministry.”
(Logia, Lutheran Missions, 1998 issue, Vol. VII, Number 3, p.3) – from here.
I appreciate what both Loscher and Harrison have to say here. Their evaluation seems appropriately specific and helpful. Therefore, quotes like these further convince me that when I hear “Pietist” or “pietistic”, my first impression is rightly “straw man”.
*Here is a helpful review of Feuerhahn’s article, which is in the David Scaer festschrift.
**References from the article: A. Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus (Bonn, 1880–86); J. G. Walch, Historische und theologische Einleitung in die Religions-Streitigkeiten (Jena, 1730–39); J. T. McNeil, Modern Christian Movements (Philadelphia, 1954).