The Essence of Pietism

Pietism has appeared in so many forms over the years, from the extreme asceticism of the hermit monks to the ecstatic antinomianism of some segments of the charismatic movement.  The common thread running through all aspects of pietism is the conviction that I have attained to a level of spiritually and communion with God that is not shared by the common run of professing Christians around me.  Such a person tends to feel that his personal piety is the ultimate expression of Christian faith.  He may conform to the outward practices of a church for the sake of avoiding censure or persecution, but he does not feel in any way bound to give account of his faith and life to other Christians.

The label of pietism was first applied to certain members of the Lutheran Church, beginning in the seventeenth century.  These were people with a heartfelt devotion to God, professing to have received forgiveness of sins through a conversion experience that warmed their hearts and led them to a deeper communion with God.  They remained in outward fellowship with the Lutheran Church, attending worship services regularly, receiving communion, and baptizing their babies, but sought fellowship in private gatherings with like-minded people to testify of what God had done for them.

Similar groups existed within the Roman Catholic Church, where they were called Quietists, and in other churches.  They maintained their inward piety along with their outward conformity to the established churches to avoid persecution.  I cannot prove this, but I believe that the motto of being “the quiet in the land” was first used among these groups of pietists.

Throughout Christian history, there has always been a united, visible body of believers who professed much the same faith regarding conversion and a personal relationship with God but who refused to conform to the state enforced form of worship of their day.  The Martyrs’ Mirror, published in 1660, catalogues the persecution of these people from the time of the apostles up to the time of publication.

The reluctance of the pietists to unite with the persecuted church may have saved much physical suffering.  However, the result has been a tendency to interpret the Bible in the light of one’s own experience, rather than subjecting one’s experiences to the light of the Scripture.  This individualistic approach is very evident in the wide variety of pietistic faith in modern times.

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