Part 6: Reformation to Now. Lesson 4 of 7.
Lesson 37. Pietism

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will learn balance by seeing how going to an extreme causes the other extreme to emerge.

1.Modern era. The term “modern era” refers to the centuries starting after the time of Luther and continuing up to the present day.  This time period included the age of reason and the rise of modern science.  People rejected the Greek philosophers as a basis for truth and placed their faith in reason.  Understanding the “modern era” enables us to understand the time periods before and after it by seeing how they contrast with it.  In the time before the modern era, people were satisfied that truth could be found through authorities, whether it be the ancient Greek philosophers or the church.  Those who today call themselves “postmodern” have concluded that we cannot know how to find truth: they feel that neither authority, nor reason, nor science can provide truth.  Postmodern views explain literature and human actions in terms of power, or feeling, or individual preference, but not in terms of truth.  The following paragraphs will describe events during the rise of the modern era.

2.Age of Orthodoxy. In the generation after Luther, the new denominations that had formed during the Protestant Reformation wrote detailed descriptions of their beliefs, so this period in the church is known as the “Age of Orthodoxy.” (Orthodoxy means “correctness,” and the documents produced were called “confessions.”).  Here are the dates of the major documents:

Year Group Name of document
1530 Lutherans Augsburg Confession
1580 Lutherans Book of Concord
1527 Anabaptists Schleitheim confession
1677 Baptists Second London Confession
1560 Presbyterians Scots Confession
1647 Presbyterians Westminster Confession
1563 Church of England Thirty-Nine Articles
1563 Reformed Heidelberg Catechism
1619 Reformed Canons of Council of Dort


Most of these documents used logic and systematic reason to demonstrate that their views were correct and that the other groups’ views were wrong.

3.Denominations. The concept of denominations arose after 30 years of war came to an end in 1648.  None of the church groups had been able to defeat the other.  They were now finally ready to call each other Christian, and realize that the differences between them would not go away.

4.Age of Reason. Outside the church, the “Age of Reason,” also called the “Enlightenment,” began during the 1600’s.  Enlightenment philosophers believed that human reason, not authority, was able to discover truth.  Some of these philosophers believed in God, but felt that reason, not the Bible, provided the way to explain God.  To put it another way, they believed that revelation does not add anything important that could not be discovered by reason.  Thus, in their view, the work of Christ and the supernatural influence of God is not necessary for religion.  For example, in 1695  an English philosopher¹ wrote the book “The Reasonableness of Christianity.”  Notice how different this view is from the scholastics of the 12th century.  The scholastics used reason to explain revelation; some enlightenment philosophers felt that reason made revelation unnecessary.  In England, those who explained God in this way, as someone who set the universe in motion but then let it run by natural laws, were called “Deists.”  A deist did not accept the fact that people needed a savior, and therefore did not accept the Bible teaching that Jesus is God. Today, there are not any groups that call themselves “deists,” since this group disappeared when people began to discover the limits of reason.  However, there are still people who say they believe in God, but who do not believe that Jesus is God who died as a sacrifice for our sins.

Q  Do you know people who try to explain God through their reason, not through the Bible?

5.Rationalism. Enlightenment views affected the churches.  Preaching was increasingly devoted to showing that truths about God could be found through human reason, and less emphasis was placed on the Bible.  This emphasis on reason led to a reaction in the 1700’s.  In the arts, the movement away from reason and toward emotion is called the “romantic movement,”and it continued into the 1800’s.  In the German Lutheran church, some felt that the emphasis on reason had led to a “dead orthodoxy” (that is, the words may have been correct but they were not shared in a way that would affect daily life).  In reaction, these Christians stressed religious feelings and personal devotion in a movement called “Pietism.”  Pietism is very important to understand because of the great influence it had on other movements.

6.Pietism. Around 1675 Pietism began to grow when a German Lutheran Pastor²  published a book advocating a more heart-felt devotion and spiritual earnestness.  He invited people to his home to discuss the sermon he had preached that day.  Pietism developed into a movement that emphasized small group meetings and personal prayer.  They felt a true Christian would be known by his heart-felt devotion, not merely by correct doctrine.  As time went by, some even taught that someone was not a true Christian unless he could point to a time that he consciously placed faith in Christ, and continued a life of regular devotional activities.  This of course was in conflict with the view that someone became a Christian at baptism, and maintained the Christian life through Holy Communion, and that the person may or may not have a religious experience.   These two views are still in conflict today.  Those who emphasize religious experience look down on those who emphasize church ceremonies, labeling it “sacramentalism.”  Those who take the more objective view, that God makes a person a Christian without the need for an experience, look down on the other side and call them “subjective” and “judgmental.”

Q  Do you know people who say that “feeling” God’s presence shows you are a real Christian?

Q  Do you know people who say that you must be able to explain your personal experience of conversion in order to prove you are a real Christian?

7.Influence. The Pietists did many things to help society, such as opening schools and orphanages. Pietism influenced the ceremony in which children who had been baptized as infants were received into the church as adults; this ceremony is called “confirmation.”  Confirmation has a long history with many different emphases.  Here is the background, followed by the Pietist contribution:

8.Confirmation. Here is the background of confirmation.  It is found in some of the churches that practice infant baptism.  In Acts 2:38, Peter said that with baptism the people would receive forgiveness and the gift of the  Holy Spirit.    As the baptism ceremony became more formal, the “Holy Spirit” part was done with a special prayer and the laying on of hands.  By 247 water baptism and laying on hands for the Holy Spirit were seen as two separate events that could be done at two different times.  Soon the baptism was done by the local priest, but the laying on of hands for the Holy Spirit was done only by the bishop, and often when the child was older.  Since some of the priests were uneducated, this was seen as a way to make sure that everything was completed properly.  Since 441, the word “confirmation” has been used for this ceremony that takes place sometime after infant baptism.  (The Eastern Orthodox church did not separate the two parts.  Baptism and a ceremony for the Holy Spirit are still done together at infant baptism, and the baby then can receive holy communion immediately).  In the Roman Catholic Church, this event gradually came to be regarded as a sacrament.  (A sacrament is defined as a ritual instituted by Christ that gives grace to the participant.)

9.Reformers. All the reformers agreed that confirmation should not be called a sacrament, since it is not found in the Bible, was not commanded by Christ, and thus does not give grace.  Most of the churches that follow Calvin do not use this ceremony.  The Church of England and Lutherans do use it.  They emphasize a period of instruction before the ceremony: often two years.  Some see it as a promise to be loyal to the church.  Some see it as an opportunity for the children to assert that they personally believe in the faith that they had been committed to when they were baptized as infants.

10.Personal acceptance. The pietists added the idea that a child raised in the church should publicly affirm when he is a teen-ager,  that he has made a “personal acceptance of Christ.“   Some today continue the Pietist idea that the child should personally receive Christ as savior at this time.  Others reject this pietist idea, because it is not consistent with the belief that the child already received Christ at baptism.

11.First Missionaries. Pietists were among the first of those who followed Reformation teachings to go overseas as missionaries. In 1706 two German Pietists arrived in India.  The followers of John Hus who still survived came from their homeland (Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic) to Germany and made contact with the Pietist Lutherans, accepting Luther’s theology and the Augsburg Confession.  They formed a community in Germany and sent out many missionaries.  Starting in 1732, these “Moravians” sent people to South America, Africa, and Greenland,  and established a settlement in Pennsylvania in the United States, bringing both the Pietist emphasis on heartfelt experience and Luther’s emphasis on grace.

12.Pietism today. There are still a few people in Germany today who call themselves Pietists.  In areas where they think the local church is not filled with life, they form small groups and even establish Bible schools and send out missionaries.  But aside from that, even though there is not a movement today called Pietism, the ideas of Pietism still continue in the other movements it has influenced, as described below:

13.Wesley. Before the Pietist movement faded away in the 1700’s, it had influenced John Wesley,  whose followers spread it to English speaking countries.  Wesley was a member of the Church of England.  As a university student he was straining to lead a holy life, and so he formed a small group of his friends to hold each other accountable.  In 1738 Wesley received assurance of salvation as he was visiting a Moravian gathering in London.  They were reading from Luther’s works about justification by faith. As Wesley heard that righteousness cannot be gained through the “works of the law,” but rather, that righteousness is gained through faith in Christ, he was moved by this concept, and found assurance of faith.  He saw clearly that his zeal for holy living had not given him assurance of belonging to God, but he found this assurance through faith in Jesus.  He wrote, “my heart was strangely warmed.”

14.Methodists. Wesley devoted the rest of his life to preaching to the poor in England.  Since the poor miners and other laborers were not accustomed to going to church, he preached to them in the open air.  They were at a low cultural level and had destructive habits such as drinking too much and neglecting their families.  After they confessed faith in Christ, he put them into groups to pray together, study together, and remind each other to grow in holy living.  He designated people to visit the groups on a regular basis.  His followers were called “Methodists” because of these systematic methods. His brother Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, many are still sung around the world to this day.  The moral level of England became higher.  Some historians think that this rise of Christianity in England prevented the English people from going through the chaos and tragedies that happened in France around 1789 when the French changed their government from King to Legislature through “the French Revolution.” The overall rise in interest in heart-felt Christianity is called ”evangelicalism,” and today’s conservative Christians continue this influence.  The Church of England did not agree with Wesley’s methods.  The bishops did not like the idea that Wesley was preaching outside of their control.  Wesley did not leave the church,  but as you read in chapter 3, his followers in America did establish an independent church, called the Methodist church, and after Wesley’s death his followers in England did the same.  The structure of the Methodist church is that there are superintendents, who assign preachers to churches, typically for a three-year period.  In America these superintendents are called bishops, though they do not claim to have apostolic succession like the bishops in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Q  Do you know people who like to meet in small groups to pray and read the Bible?

Q  Do you know people who explain Jesus to those who are overlooked by others?

15.Influence. Wesley’s view of grace was explained in chapter 29, point 8.  John Wesley and the Methodist church taught that God gives grace to all to prepare them to choose, and this grace is sufficient for anyone to be able to come to trust Christ for salvation.  Thus Wesley agreed that grace is needed, but also emphasized man’s ability to choose faith and goodness based on that grace.  The idea that you are free to make a decision to accept Christ comes from Wesley’s influence.  (A more Calvinist explanation would be “You are not free to accept: God predestined you to accept.”  A more Lutheran view would be “You are not free to accept: the Holy Spirit does this miracle in you when you hear the gospel.”)

16.Sacraments. Methodists do make use of infant baptism.  In the document which summarizes their beliefs, called the “25 articles,” they call it a “sign of regeneration.” (the 25 articles are the same as the Church of England’s 39 articles, except without the articles about bishops).   Wesley’s beliefs about communion were part way between Luther and Calvin.  He did not want to say “this is my body,” but he also felt that communion was more than a symbol.  The 25 articles call it “a sign by which God works in us, bringing life and strengthening faith.”  Wesley’s approaches showed the influence of Pietism.  He emphasized a conscious commitment to Christ and growth in holy living.  From his Calvinist background in the Church of England, he adopted the Arminian position about free will.  He taught that God could bring anyone to faith in Christ.  Wesley borrowed ideas from both Luther and Calvin.  In his theology, Wesley tried to include and balance four things: Bible, tradition, experience, and reason.

17.Revivals. These ideas were spread in America during two revivals called the “Great Awakenings” (one before the American Revolution and one after), and continue today in the conservative Christian movement called “evangelicalism.”  As more and more Americans accepted the evangelical view, Deism died out.  The Lutheran churches have tried to strike a balance between the doctrinal thoroughness of the “Age of Orthodoxy” and the heart-felt faith of the Pietists, while trying to avoid the Pietist extreme of looking to outward behavior standards as a proof of true faith.

18.Finney. An example of an evangelist with an Arminian theology is Charles Finney.  In 1824 Finney began traveling from place to place leading revival meetings.  While the traditional Calvinists believed they should wait until God decided to bring revival, in 1835 Finney wrote that revivals can be promoted through techniques that he called “new measures.”  These were meant to influence someone’s emotions so that they would say a “sinners prayer,” asking God to forgive their sins and inviting Christ to be their savior.  These measures included having very long meetings, sometimes several days, and calling people to the front to pray or to wait for an experience.  Finney popularized the term “making a decision” for Christ.  Finney thus is the source for many ideas that are in common use today.  The evangelist Billy Graham, who often urges people to make a decision for Christ, wrote “when someone comes to faith, we know it is because the Holy Spirit has worked in his life.”  There are other people who do not accept using the term “decision” that Finney gave us. They want to make sure that the new Christian is not bothered by doubts about whether he was sincere enough when he made the decision.  Since it is the Holy Spirit who will draw people to become Christians using the gospel message, they will accept the person’s confession of faith and request for baptism as the indication that the person has become a believer.

Footnotes. 1) John Locke  2) Spener

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