So just what is Pietism? Is it the fount of all heresy within Protestantism due to it’s overemphasis on individual connection with God rather than sound doctrine? Some Protestant theologians and historians certainly think so. Is it a spirituality type that produces Christians who are “so heavenly minded they are no earthly good.” Once more, some Protestant theologians and historians certainly think so. Are such characterizations really accurate?
In my judgement, they are not.
Indeed, if my study of Church History over the last five years has taught me anything it is that Pietism is often deeply misunderstood. Despite how important this movement is to the development of Protestantism, many Christians have little knowledge or understanding of it. Thus, it has often become the punching bag of heresy-hunters.
So once again, what is Pietism? I would suggest that this term can be understood in two distinct but intimately interrelated ways. First, Pietism is a historical movement that was born during the early 1600s. Beginning in the Netherlands and flourishing in Germany, the movement emphasized Bible study in private and in small groups, personal connection to God, a life of holiness, charity amongst Christians of different denominations, church renewal, and social concern for the poor.
Second, Pietism is a distinct ethos that lives on in Christianity to this day. While Pietism as a discernible historical movement has probably run its course, its ethos very much continues. Christians who embrace the Pietist ethos will value many of the same things that the Pietists of old did. Some prominent Christian theologians who I think are good representations of the Pietist ethos would be Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson, and Donald Bloesch. Billy Graham displayed many Pietist tendencies, though I doubt he ever called himself a Pietist. I think the founder of my denomination A.B. Simpson displayed some Pietist tendencies (this is not surprising as he voraciously read and appreciated many Pietist authors).
Now some scholars would argue that my definition of Pietism as a historical movement is too narrow. Indeed, scholars such as Justin A. Davis and F. Ernest Stoeffler (perhaps the most important 20th century historian of Pietism) use Pietism as an umbrella term that covers a whole host of European church renewal movements in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. These scholars would see Jansenism, Quietism, Puritanism, Quakerism, and many smaller renewal movements as various “species” of Pietism. However, I wonder if using the term “Pietism” in this way is somewhat artificial and stretches the term to its very breaking point. However, I will grant that many of these movements display at least some aspects of the Pietist ethos (and perhaps that is what these scholars are really trying to say).
Thus, the story of Pietism that I will tell will primarily focus on Pietism as it developed in the Netherlands and Germany and how it eventually became a worldwide movement. I will also look at how its ethos continues to this day. God Bless!