Theological Pietism Part 2: What Is Theological Pietism?

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

So what do I mean by “theological pietism?” Well, the adjective modifies the noun, so let’s begin with ‘pietism.’

To put it briefly, pietism was a practice that grew out of 17th century Lutheranism. Pietists sought to cultivate an inner godliness that flowed out into their works. While (all other things being equal) godliness is next to cleanliness and therefore worth pursuing, they ultimately focused on their own works so much that they all but forgot the Gospel. As Rod Rosenblat likes to put it, they put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. They turned from their responsibility to the whole counsel of God in order to focus on those parts which they thought they could engineer to produce piety and morality. Their preaching of the Law tried to focus on Third Use (teaching us to behave) to the exclusion of First and Second (curbing our outward sinfulness and showing us our utterly sinful nature) except inasmuch as those two uses taught us how to behave. As a result, they preached only a subset of God’s word and bolstered it with their own inventions. The standards by which faith and salvation were discerned thus became behavioral rubrics invented by the pietists rather than trust in the Cross. Assurance of salvation was undermined, and because different people invented different rubrics, churches began breaking down into self-righteous cliques of “real” Christians surrounded by “fake” Christians or “strong” Christians surrounded by “weak” Christians.

So what then is theological pietism? While traditional pietism has a moralistic bent, theological pietism has a doctrinal one. Theological pietists seek to cultivate a proper understanding of sound doctrine that flows out into our teachings. While this too is a worthwhile goal (indeed, moreso than mere moral improvement), they also turn away from their responsibility to the whole counsel of God in order to focus on those parts which they can engineer to produce a proper doctrinal understanding that excludes moralism and self-righteousness. To their credit, this precludes forgetting the Gospel the way pietists did.  However, it still bears a deep flaw:  While pietists tried to turn God’s Law into a machine that cranked out third use and only third use, theological pietists try to tune it towards second use and only second use. Though diametrically opposed in their motivations, pietism and theological pietism end up having the same effect on preaching: it only involves a subset of God’s Word, and is bolstered by human invention.

Ironically, theological pietism’s attempt to exclude self-righteous legalism results in the same kind of schismatic rubrics as its older cousin.  These unofficial “rules” are then used to determine just how Christian different people are based on their behavior–not on a scale of moral correctness but on one of theological correctness.  Now let me be clear: theological correctness is much closer to the mark of Christianity than moral correctness.  After all, though we are saved by faith in Christ rather than proper theology, a person’s theology does describe what exactly they have faith in. Likewise, determining a person’s beliefs by their actions as much as by their words is Biblical common sense.  However, neither of these two disclaimers negate the fact that such theological judgment can be and routinely is carried out very very badly–especially when it is based more on human rules than on the Word of God.

I wrote about one example of this back when Tim Tebow was getting a lot of press for his overt gestures of praise when he succeeded on the football field. I saw many Lutherans condemning the man, ostensibly for his alleged bad theology—a theology of glory in which God’s work is seen primarily in worldly success. Curiously enough, however, none of his theological statements were ever brought up. The only case made against him was based on his failure to abide by either 100% man-made rules (e.g., he should only be giving thanks for his small measure of God-given skill, not for actually using it and succeeding, which God cares nothing about) or by his failure to abide by rules that are (mostly) derived from Scripture but that condemn literally all Christians along with Mr. Tebow and therefore cannot be used to discern theological correctness (e.g., he should give just as much thanks for his failures as his successes).  Do we need a show of hands to determine how many of us have been just as overtly thankful when we’ve lost a job as when we’ve gained one?  Do we need to be reminded to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn rather than scold them for being inconsistently thankful?

I saw the same thing upon the death of Thomas Kinkade. Artistic merits aside, the painter was routinely denounced for producing artwork depicting a world without the Fall (supposedly another sure sign of a theology of glory.) And yet, this rule is likewise man-made. The Bible does, after all, speak of lions laying down with lambs and other such images of a world without sin—the world which all of us are instructed to look forward to.  And yet, Kinkade’s artistic focus on this kind of imagery was being used as an excuse for the worst kind of armchair psychoanalysis in which all his many personal problems were laid at the feet of strain brought on by acute self-righteousness.

I’ve even seen Lutherans denounce the practice of New Year’s resolutions because “they attempt to do by human power under the Law what can be done only by the Holy Spirit under the Gospel.” Now, this is absurd, for it is entirely possible for people to lose weight, read more books, or even give up vices like drunkenness apart from the Holy Spirit and the Gospel (unless every AA member now receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit simply because they acknowledge a vague higher power). A New Year’s resolution may or may not be a help to such endeavors for every individual, but the point is that there is absolutely no adequate reason to assume that the purpose of a New Year’s resolution is making ourselves holy before God. A man who wants to be healthy, sober, or an avid reader because those things are good and uses a common ceremony representing a fresh start as a small aid in this endeavor is not automatically participating in works-righteousness.

As unfortunate and ridiculous as such incidents are, however, they remain only the shallow disapproval of men. The real dangers of theological pietism only become apparent when it makes its way into preaching and theology. The three uses of the Law, after all, belong to the Holy Spirit. Preachers don’t get to choose whether He curbs our behavior, shows us our sin, and/or provides us with guidance when He tells us, for example, to be chaste. Trying to do so only results in a stilted and incomplete proclamation of God’s Word—regardless of whether the intended bent is theological or moral.

Stay tuned for Part 3:  Theological Pietism in the Pulpit

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to Theological Pietism Part 2: What Is Theological Pietism?

  1. Pingback: The Forgotten Use of the Law | The 96th Thesis

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