Traveling Thru Here

April 13, 2011

What is it?: Defining Pietism.

Filed under: Uncategorized — j.hansen @ 11:40 PM

I was recently asked by Mr. O. (names have been changed to protect the innocent) to explain what pietism is. Here is my first bite at that apple.

Mr. O., I’m no theologian/pastor type, but I’ll give it a try. My understanding is that pietism is a theological view point that can be boiled down to making growth in good works the most important thing of the Christian life, rather than growth in right doctrine. It is a wrong emphasis on good works, not necessarily an outright denial of correct doctrine. Pietism is present where the emphasis on good works effectively (though not necessarily intentially) eclipses the importance of growth in right doctrine.

Yet, confessionalism and pietism are not binary categories — there is a continuum from pure pietism to pure confessionalism. I understand pietism is by contrast with confessionalism. This might be illustrated best in the context of, say, a church membership interview where an elder asks for “your testimony.”

The pietist elder wants to hear something about how God changed the person’s life, how he was moved “by the Spirit” at one summer camp and decided to respond to the alter call and how he really wanted to stop sinning after that. The confessionalist would be happy to simply hear “Jesus the Messiah came to save his people and died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead on the third day.” For the confessionalist, knowing nothing more about the person, that profession would be sufficient grounds to regard the person as a Christian.

The pietist wants to know how often you look at porn on the internet, how often you read your Bible and pray, whether you remained pure until marriage, whether you drink often, etc. The pietist likes questions like WWJD? The confessionalist likes the question what did Jesus do?

Pietists consider “dead orthodoxy” a problem. Confessionalists consider “dead orthodoxy” a contradiction in terms. The confessionalist would not say that good works are not important, but rather the most important thing is what Christ did, not what you will do or are doing. Pietists appeal in their hearts to subjective experiences and their own good works as a way to comfort themselves (ourselves) since faith alone is so fantastically incredible.


  1. Joseph, speaking as a confessionalist, there actually is a civil way around the piestist request for a testimony without sounding arrogant. Simply explain that one doesn’t have a testimony but rather a history. Those are two entirely different categories. And don’t you think an elder has the right and duty to know more about a propsective member than a purely objective confession, as in one’s life is intimately tied to one’s doctrine. And providing a history will cover all that.

    I mean, were I a confessionalist elder I wouldn’t care about what the pietsist cares for, a grooming of the interior life coupled with keeping the external life “clean of worldliness.” But I would want to know if that claim to internal belief matched up with your external life. Three hours a day on the spiritual couch with Jesus and abstinence from substance use and worldly amusement be damned…I’d want to know if those three kids you have in tow are all from the same woman you are presently married to, and that they are either baptized or soon will be.

    Comment by Zrim — April 14, 2011 @ 11:15 AM

  2. Zrim, I agree with everything you said. And yes, an elder does have a duty to dig a bit to determine if the profession you assert matches up what you are doing.

    Comment by j.hansen — April 14, 2011 @ 11:47 AM

  3. Joseph, I appreciate your taking the time to answer my question. If I understand you correctly you are concerned about people who focus almost exclusively on their personal experiences and the lifestyle (good works) that they live. They do not spend much energy or time thinking about what Christ has done for them, rather they are interested in what Christ has done in them and what they are doing for Christ. They gauge their relationship with God primarily from their faithfulness. In contrast, you would advocate that a person focus on what Christ has done for them. Out of that focus, renewed daily, the person would have a confidence towards God. Knowing their relationship with God is grounded in Christ’s righteousness, such a person would delight in communion with God and with loving his neighbor. He would also be free to see the guilt of his failures without a sense of condemnation. He would come to God in confession of sins of commission and omission because he knows that his standing with God is not on his present performance, but on the finished and perfect performance of Christ. Thus, he lives confidently before God because of what Christ has done and responds in faith, reverence, hope and love. The truth (doctrine) of Christ’s saving work grounds his confidence and fuels both his sincere efforts to obey and his sincere sorrow for his failures. Is this description of the pietist on the one hand and the Calvinist on the other substantially correct? Regards, Jim O.

    Comment by J. O'Brien — April 14, 2011 @ 6:40 PM

  4. Jim, yes except I would change the term “Calvinist” in your last sentence to “confessionalist.”

    Comment by j.hansen — April 14, 2011 @ 8:23 PM

  5. Jim, Darryl Hart made this comment (over here) that I thought would be helpful to add since it did not come out in my own description of pietism above:

    It’s not simply that pietists aren’t doctrinal enough. It’s that their piety undermines the church, worship, and polity by making all the markers and trappings of piety (small groups, revivals, earnestness, activism) as good as the ordained means of word, sacrament, and discipline.

    Such “markers and trappings,” can easily crowd out the ordained means. There are only so many hours in a day.

    Comment by j.hansen — April 14, 2011 @ 10:41 PM

    • Joseph, what I called ‘Calvinist’ and you called, ‘confessionalist’ is basic Puritanism. It is the piety that flows from the Reformed understanding of the Gospel. Both the doctrine and the piety are explicitly taught in the Standards.

      Darryl is after something else I believe. I’ve been reading a little bit of his blog today. He’s clearly concerned with three things, at least. First, the undermining of the Church and its ministry by parachurch groups. Second, an emphasis on emotion in worship and daily Christian experience. Third, an exaggerated emphasis, in his view, of Christian activism. I’ll have to ponder just how related his concerns are to the pietism and confessionalism (Calvinism) that you and I have been discussing. But let me say that the discussion on Nick Batzig’s FB page began over Helm’s criticism of Edwards. In addition to what I wrote there yesterday I think that Professor Helm made a category mistake when he turned his discussion of Edwards on the affections into a discussion of emotions. I wonder if Darryl is making the same mistake. Affections are not equivalent to emotions in Edwards or Puritanism in general. You can have true affections but express them emotionally in quiet ways. Some people’s emotions will have them swinging from the chandeliers, while others will enjoy a quiet serenity, while their affections may be very much the same. It’s a great mistake to think Edwards was talking about the emotions in The Religious Affections. Well, it’s late. I hope you awake tomorrow refreshed from sleep while continuing to rest in Christ. Regards, Jim O.

      Comment by J. O'Brien — April 15, 2011 @ 12:07 AM

      • Jim, thank you for your comment. The term “Calvinist” generally does not refer to the full body of Christian doctrine espoused by John Calvin (or the puritans). Perhaps “Calvinist” ought to have a richer meaning, but in modern conservative Christian parlance most often it is used refer strictly to Reformed soteriology alone (excluding so many other important parts of Calvin & puritan thought). Thus, in that sense, someone like C.J. Mahaney is a “Calvinist,” though certainly not a puritan and by extension, therefore, not a “confessionalist” in the way you use the term.

        Comment by j.hansen — April 15, 2011 @ 8:50 PM

  6. Very helpful, thanks. I’ve often said that communication is the hardest thing in the world. Understanding what someone else or what a group of people think a word means (both denotation and connotation) is the crux of the issue. I’ll keep these distinctions and definitions in mind.

    Comment by J. O'Brien — April 17, 2011 @ 9:16 AM

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