Theological Pietism Part 1: A Lesson from History

As the name of this blog implies, I believe reformation is a continuing task in the Church. As a Lutheran, this is obvious when I look at the Church as a whole, for from the Lutheran perspective, most Christians depart from Christ’s teaching in some manner or another. However, reformation is a continuing task within my own confession as well for a variety of reasons—after all, the inventiveness of sinful man seems boundless. I’d therefore like to celebrate this Reformation Day by addressing one such issue. I’ve selected this one from among the many specifically because I have not seen it addressed elsewhere to my satisfaction. For this same reason, I’m going to take my time and address the subject across multiple posts/days, beginning with an historical analogy. Historians will no doubt find it oversimplified (and no doubt it is), but I believe it accurately illustrates a perennial human failing:

In the 4th century, a great controversy was caused in the Eastern church by an Alexandrian pastor named Arius. He was found to be teaching that Jesus Christ was not God so much as he was “God.” You see, Arius taught that the Son was a creature—a mere creation of the Father—not God Himself. And though Arius and his followers were content to assign Jesus the label of “God ” on various pretexts (such as his adoption by the Father or his primacy as the first thing the Father ever created), they were quite clear that there was a time when the Son was not, and they would not confess that Christ is “one substance with the Father” as true Christians still do to this day.

This should have been a local controversy. His false teachings were discovered by the Egyptian bishops, Arius was deposed by them, and that should have been that. However, after these events, Arius fled to a bishop named Eusebius in Nicomedia (Turkey before the arrival of the Turks), and was welcomed by him. From there, Arianism was allowed to spread to become a massive controversy that engulfed the entire Eastern Church and which resulted in and persisted for decades even after the Council of Nicea. Why was Arius welcomed? Didn’t Eusebius know that he was teaching that Christ was not God? Not so much. Arius was, after all, quite willing to call Jesus “God,” and Eusebius was far more interested in the fact that Arius strongly opposed the last great heresy: Sabellianism.

Sabellius was a modalist; he falsely taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were simply different masks (or modes) under which humanity encountered God. For Sabellius, God was not three distinct persons; the same Person simply had three different temporary appearances during different periods of history. Arius’ own teaching was, ironically, intended to combat this false teaching in the Church. For while Sabellius removed any real distinction between the Father and the Son, Arius emphasized that distinction to such an extent that it became an essential division. So Arius was embraced as a zealous defender of sound doctrine. And if his rhetoric was a little extreme on the distinction between the Father and the Son, well, that just went to show how zealously anti-Sabellian he really was. The error of the Eusebians wasn’t that they really believed Arianism (though some of them might have); it was that they were entirely willing to sound like they did. Unlike Arius, the error of the Eusebians was primarily one of practice rather than doctrine.

There is a lesson to be learned from history. It is a perennial human failing to avoid one error so strenuously that one falls headlong into an opposite error. And this is hardly the only time such a thing happened in Church history. Sabellianism itself was an overreaction to Marcionism which separated the Son and the Father by turning the Father into a villain who tortured mankind by imprisoning them in this material world and the Son into the one who would free us from evil matter. Eutychianism, which collapsed the two natures of Christ (100% God & 100% Man) into some kind of human/divine hybrid was a reaction to Nestorianism, which, for all intents and purposes, separated Christ’s two natures into two different people.

Opposing false doctrine is a perpetual obligation of the Church. Christ warned us time and again against false teachers and so instructed us to teach everything that He taught. There is the temptation, however, to perceive this perpetual obligation as a series of humps to get over rather than the typical state of the Church as it weathers assaults by the Devil and the world. When we succumb to this temptation, we focus all of our attention on the last great error so that we can finally get back to ‘normal.’ And so, rather than doing what Paul instructed and teaching the whole counsel of God, we pick and choose those parts of God’s word which most strongly oppose the error of the day while sidelining those parts which might be perceived as supporting that error. The great irony is that this neglect of Paul’s instruction gives birth to new and/or different errors even as it opposed the errors of which we are more aware. It means taking parts of God’s Word for granted, and, as we all know, things taken for granted quickly turn into things forgotten.

I bring this up because I believe that many confessional Lutherans are currently drifting into this failing even as they steadfastly oppose error.

One of the great errors of our day is a modern form of moralistic works-righteousness that manifests itself differently as it emerges in different sub-cultures in the Christian world. In liberal churches, Christianity is perceived as a means of social transformation by which injustice and oppression can be eliminated from human society. One is considered to be more Christian as one becomes more civic-minded. In conservative evangelicalism, the individual is given focus and Christianity is seen as a means of personal transformation by which sin can be excluded and virtues instilled. One is considered to be more Christian as one becomes more moral. Then there is the so-called emergent church (which is increasingly turning into a redux of theological liberalism.) They see Christianity as a means of cohesion within a community and one is considered to be more Christian by how well one welcomes and gets along with others. Finally, among many of the poorly catechized youth, the typical belief is often described as “moralistic therapeutic deism” according to which God is a distant ideal that makes us behave in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. There are many other examples, but these few should serve to illustrate this almost ubiquitous failure to teach what accords with sound doctrine and to focus on what we do to the exclusion of what Christ has done for us.

These errors are all rightly opposed, for Christ sets us free from the accusations and demands of the Law and our works have no place in our justification.  We do not need to be cleaned up; we need to die and be raised up.  We are not more Christian by being good people (whatever the specific rubric); we are more Christian by receiving God’s grace in Word and Sacrament.

But how do we practice our opposition? Earlier this year, there was a big discussion about sanctification going on in Lutheran circles as many pastors and laypeople become cognizant of a certain stiltedness in our rhetoric. We are, to be frank, quick to condemn any kind of ethical instruction, suspicious of any imperatives, and wary whenever the subject of sanctification is broached—particularly if mention is made of an expected change in behavior as we do better over time.

Ultimately, though, our doctrine of sanctification is not really what the discussion is about—our confessions say what they say concerning sanctification, and that’s that. When pressed, most people on all sides of the discussion ultimately agree on this. However, this does not mean there is no object of discussion. As the example of Eusebius shows us, there are errors of practice as well as errors of doctrine, and we Lutherans must ask ourselves not only what teachings we believe in our hearts but what teachings actually make it through our lips to be delivered to others. What do we sound like?  Why do we have to be pressed to deliver the whole story?

I contend that the true topic of the ongoing discussion is a practical error that is creeping into Confessional Lutheranism through the way we oppose the doctrinal errors of our day—a way that 1) neglects Biblical teachings that could be easily misconstrued as teaching moralistic works-righteousness and 2) creates non-Biblical rules that reinforce this neglect.

I have chosen to refer to this practical error as theological pietism.

Stay tuned for Part 2:  What is Theological Pietism?

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to Theological Pietism Part 1: A Lesson from History

  1. Pingback: Probably Because You Aren’t Preaching It | The 96th Thesis

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