Oxford gives these definitions for pietism: 1 a a pious sentiment. b an exaggerated or affected piety. 2 (esp. as Pietism) a movement for the revival of piety in the Lutheran Church in the 17th c.
Perhaps the best dictionary definition of what a pietist is is this one that I translated from le Petit Robert, the most popular French dictionary: Member of a Lutheran sect that put more emphasis on the necessity of personal piety and religious feelings than on strict doctrinal orthodoxy.
The same dictionary gives this definition of Quietism, a similar phenomenon within the Roman Catholic Church: Mystical doctrine in which Christian perfection consists of a continuous state of quietness and union with God, where the soul becomes indifferent to works and even its own salvation.
To make my meaning clear, piety that deepens one’s relationship with God is a good thing. Pietism as a movement is not. There were earlier individuals that one might label as pietists, but as an identifiable movement it began in the Lutheran Church in the 17th century. These pietists were disappointed in the lack of spiritual life in the Lutheran Church and sought a meaningful relationship with God. They continued to attend the Lutheran services and take part in the sacraments, but also met privately to share their experiences and the vitality of their newfound faith. Heartwarming experiences were highly valued among them and taken as evidence of a living relationship with God.
So far so good. Up to this point a Pietist and an Anabaptist would seem much the same. The difference was that the Anabaptist believed that the Holy Spirit expected obedience. Obedience meant self-denial, bearing the cross, avoiding compromise, seeking baptism and communion with true believers and a fearless confession of Christ, even when it meant almost certain death. The Anabaptist would not hide the light of God’s truth under a bushel to avoid persecution.
Pietism, the capital P kind, has pervaded much of modern Christianity, even among those of us who claim to be spiritual descendants of the martyrs. I am not intending to criticize or blame anyone. No one opened the door wide and invited it in, it just seeped in under the door when we were looking elsewhere. Neither do I pretend to see all the ramifications of the danger of Pietism. But I do want to point out some of the things that I do see.