Piety vs. Pietism

by Russell P. Dawn


It’s strange that what was once a term of honor has become an insult. In mainstream America, “pious” has come to mean stuffy and self-righteous. It can mean that in Lutheran circles, too, but with us there tends to be even more of an edge to it. For one Lutheran to label another one “pious” often implies that the other is not genuinely Lutheran. He or she has not embraced Christian freedom, the freedom that comes when the shackles of the Law fall from our wrists because of the Good News of salvation in Christ by grace alone through faith alone. The term is often used interchangeably with “pietistic.”

The problem is, pious and pietistic are not the same thing. Indeed, all Lutherans both are and ought to be pious.

But what is piety?

Piety, that is, being pious, can be thought of in two ways. The first is inward piety, piety in the soul. Another term for it is righteousness. Every Christian in the history of the Church, from Adam and Eve down to you and me, is pious in this sense. We cannot strive for this piety; we cannot earn it; we don’t even naturally want it.

This is the righteousness of God that becomes ours through the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the righteousness of faith. It is our salvation. We should never confuse this piety with lofty emotions, or a holy attitude, or even a feeling of trust. It doesn’t reside in our brains or experiences, although faith does transform us “in heart and spirit and mind and powers” (FC SD IV). It is God’s inexplicable gift to wicked sinners. It is in this sense that Lutherans are pious.

The second way to think of piety is outward, or piety that we live out. Another term for it is good works. “Aha!” says the Lutheran. “You said good works. Those are for Catholics and Methodists and revivalist preachers. Good works don’t apply to us because we’re already saved!” Well, in a way, Yes, but mainly No No No! I say Yes because good works don’t make us good or righteous or Christian. They don’t save us or anyone else. But emphatically I say No, because good works flow naturally from faith, outward piety from inward piety. The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord says that “it is God’s will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works,” that the works to be done are “those that God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word,” and that these works are done “when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (FC SD IV).

The Formula then goes on to warn against the anti-good works attitude:

For many create for themselves a dead faith or delusion that lacks repentance and good works. They act as though there could be true faith in a heart at the same time as the wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin [Romans 6:1-2]. This is impossible. Or, they act as though a person could have and keep true faith, righteousness, and salvation even though he is and remains a corrupt and unfruitful tree, from which no good fruit comes at all. In fact, they say this even though a person persists in sins against conscience or purposely engages again in these sins. All of this is incorrect and false.

Thus, a scornful attitude toward piety is not more Christian or more Lutheran than piety itself. In fact, it isn’t Christian or Lutheran at all.

Are we to continue in sin that grace can abound? By no means! (Rom. 6.1). Rather, we let love be genuine, abhorring what is evil, holding fast to what is good, loving one another and outdoing one another in showing honor (Rom. 12.9-10). It is in this sense that Lutherans ought to be pious.

One might wonder, then, why so many Lutherans shun the idea of piety. The answer may be partly because of the sins against which the Formula of Concord warned, but it is also partly because of confusion with the word “Pietism.”

So what, then, is Pietism?

Pietism is a belief system, a theology, with roots in a 17th-century German movement and far-reaching consequences across the centuries and around the globe. It is not the same thing as the Christian life of piety, although Pietists past and present tend to equate the two.

In the first half of the 17th century, armies from all over Europe marched and fought in the kingdoms of Germany as the Thirty Years’ War raged. By the time the war ended officially with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Germany was blood-soaked, exhausted and impoverished. It was also deeply in doubt that the theological differences which had at least partly driven the war could be resolved, or even really mattered. At the same time, scientific discovery was showing great promise, which led some people even more deeply into religious doubt. In this broad malaise, Christian piety suffered.

Knowing that this was the world into which Pietism was birthed should make the movement a bit easier to understand. Faith without works is indeed dead, and dead faith was widespread in Germany’s churches in the late 17th century. In response to this, various Pietist movements arose around that time, some of them Lutheran, others Reformed. But the most influential strands go back to Philipp Jakob Spener, a Lutheran theologian. He sought to revive the faith of a morbid church, and his intentions were good, even laudable. But harm tends to result from good intentions when those intentions aren’t accompanied by sound biblical teaching. Let’s explore where Spener and Pietism went wrong.

Spener called for Christian laity to meet together apart from Divine Service in order to mutually encourage piety. Such groups were the forerunners of modern in-home Bible study groups. But the fact that earnest people were meeting privately for admonition and encouragement isn’t what caused the movement to stray from biblical principles. The root of the error, as Bengt Hägglund describes in his History of Theology, is epistemological. Epistemology is the study of how we know things. It’s a strange word for something that all of us do. Even children are epistemologists when they demand, “How do you know?” or when they sing, “for the Bible tells me so.” Spener’s epistemology was that experience is the basis of all certainty, so he emphasized the importance of the individual Christian’s experience of renewal or new birth. Rather than focusing on the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection for us, and the objective and Spirit-filled Word that brings this objective truth to people in need of Good News, Spener turned the Christian’s focus inward toward a subjective experience of inner transformation.

In the following generation, Pietism began to move beyond Spener’s modest but crucial departure from historic Lutheranism. Led by August Hermann Francke, the Pietists of the German city of Halle believed that any true Christian could point back in his or her life to an inner struggle with sin that culminated in a crisis and ultimately a decision to start a new, Christ-centered life. It is after that experience and that decision that one would receive faith and forgiveness. Also, these Pietists did not see the new life as a life of Christian freedom, but of Christian legalism. They saw the Law as even more strict for Christians than for non-Christians. They viewed natural desires and pleasures as sinful whether or not they were contrary to God’s law.

In the town of Herrnhut, east of Halle, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf took the emphasis on experience in a different direction. His United Brethren or Moravian church emphasized the experience of intimate relationship with Christ, especially an emotional solidarity with Christ in His suffering on the cross.

All of these should seem eerily familiar in our modern American context. The need for a conversion experience and a “decision for Christ,” the focus on experience and intimacy — all are widespread in Christianity today. Indeed, we can find them even within our Lutheran churches and schools, turning eyes that belong on the cross inward toward ourselves.

In a nutshell, then, Pietism is simply an oversized and out-of-place emphasis on works. It is a confusion of Law and Gospel in which a human work (a decision or emotion), rather than the cross of Christ alone, brings the assurance of salvation. Pietism also plays right into our fallen nature by appearing to focus on Christ (a decision for Christ and sympathy with Christ), while actually focusing on the sinner’s personal experience. But our experience, decisions and emotions are ultimately unreliable. They cannot save us.

God alone saves. Redeemed by Christ, we thank God for giving us His righteousness, and we respond willingly by putting to death the deeds of the flesh. Freely, and only freely, do we embrace a life of genuine piety, while remaining always on our guard against Pietism, lest law replace the Gospel and the cross be emptied of its power.

Dr. Russell P. Dawn is associate professor of history and political thought and director of the pre-law program at Concordia University Irvine.

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