Pietism: What is it?

Pietism: What is it? January 4, 2012

I was once speaking to an audience of students and professors when a respondent suggested something I had said was “pietistic.” I reacted viscerally to it because for the respondent “pietism” was a slur and evoked such things as individualism, legalism, experientialism, lack of sound theology, and anti-intellectualism, while that respondent thought he was an example of biblical theology and genuine Reformation theology.

It is so easy to stigmatize a group in the way a term is used. Pietism is one of those terms being used by some as a way of calling into question the sufficiency of one’s Christian orientation.

Is Pietism a completion of the Reformation or a distraction? Where do we find Pietism today?

Which all raises the question of what pietism is…

… but before I get there two more ideas. I teach at North Park University, NPU is connected to the Evangelical Covenant Church, the ECC is overtly connected to the Pietism of European Christianity and many draw much of their faith orientation from the likes of Philip Jakob Spener, whose famous 1675 book Pia Desideria (Pious Desires/Wishes) really did set the table for Pietism. The second point I’d make is this: I didn’t appreciate being called a Pietist in part because my orientation is Anabaptism and not so much Pietism. Do they overlap? Of course, in a number of ways, but they are not the same. Not that I have anything against Pietism and in fact I embrace Pietism (as sketched below), so let me outline how Spener more or less sketched what Pietism was:

1. A commitment to the Word of God. (He proposed more attention to small groups!)
2. Spiritual priesthood: all Christians are priests and not just ministers. (He did not equate this with qualification for public ministries as on Sunday morning.)

3. Knowledge of the Christian faith is not enough; practice of the Christian faith is what matters. Love is the real mark.
4. Learn how to conduct ourselves better in public controversies, and here he was talking about theological debates among clergy and Christians in Germany among the Lutherans. He hoped for greater cooperation among Christians. So there is an ecumenical dimension to Pietism.
5. Converted and pious ministers — a necessity.
6. Teachers are to teach toward genuine conversion.

In its essence, Pietism is a Scripturally-sound convertive piety that seeks to reform the church beyond what the Reformation’s successors offered. In other words, Pietism (like Anabaptism) sought to complete the Reformation, and it is combined features of Lutheranism and Calvinism. It’s beginning point is right here: Genuine conversion as a work of God in the inner person leading to a kind of life that reflects that conversion in all ways.

Roger Olson, in his essay called “Pietism: Myths and Realities” (in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, ed. by C.T. Collins Winn et al), sees a progression from an inner conversion into a devotional life marked by personal relationship with Christ and a commitment to holiness, prayer, devotional reading of the Bible, the cross as saving and as symbol for the Christian life, and evangelism. It is set over against baptismal regeneration, sacramentalism, creedalism, liturgical worship drained of feeling and emotion and the reduction of evangelism to social work. (See Olson, p. 7.)

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  • Paul W

    I’ve not really thought of myself as very pious though I sometimes wish I had more piety.

    Years ago when I had an interest in reading various things by John Calvin it appeared that piety (pietas)was quite the important concept for him. At its core piety (for Calvin)was a gift from God and consisted of a deep love for him as Father which was also tethered to a profound reverence toward him as Lord. It was understood as stemimg from an awareness that all of lifes blessings are from God and could be contrasted with a relationship oriented toward avoiding God’s judgment out of some type of fear.

    I have no idea when pietism became a bad word in the Calvinistic circles. Curious. Anyhow, for better or worse, my connotations for the word piety came from Calvin.

    I think of piety as being found in “a person’s disposition” regarding how they perceive the positive things that enter into their life combined with a serious albeit loving sense of gratitude toward God for them.

  • Brian Scarborough

    Great post. I remember when I fell in among Calvinists in college and they put the “pietists” who did not listen to them. This pushed me to study a bit about the Pietists and found some interesting things. First, I found that Pietism was, and is, a very good thing. Second, I found that these Calvinists were actually pietists themselves without recognizing it.

  • JohnM

    My first thought was Pietism sounds so much like Evangelicalism that we can say the former is found everywhere the later exists. I guess my question would be, other than time and place of origin, what distinguishes the two from each other?

    Also, is there a third choice besides completion of the Reformation, or distraction? Maybe a separate movement and a different expression? If I’m understanding though, the Pietists did not seed themselves that way. On the other hand could Pietism only ever have come out of the Protestant Reformation?

  • TSG

    It would be myopic to not recognize Spener’s six points being expounded today[(1) Viola (2)Lucado (3)Williard (4) Newbiggin (5)Peterson (6)Olson] as just examples of many. Rothbard sees progressivism as a deist form of pietism.
    Dr. McKnight observes pietism “..seeks to reform the church..” Most definitions observe it as a means to restore the life of the church. I’m with Bonhoffer here in the sense that this is a religious impulse.
    There are thousands of commenters on the Huff Post religious portal who yearn for the day when religion will be a thing of the past, and suppose we will all be better off without it. Just as there are thousands who believe the life of the church isn’t what it should be. Chesterton, in describing “the five deaths of the faith” observes they insensibly, even unconsciously, will in their own silent anticipation fulfill the relative terms of that astounding prophecy.

  • Scot, Could you delineate further differences and similarities between Pietist and Anabaptist thought? I’m reading Barth who is rather anti-Pietist, but you get the idea his definition is different than many Reformed are using today.

  • Greg Fullerton


    Thanks for your thoughts on Pietism. I grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church and am a pastor within it. From within this denominational family, as you say, the ‘Pietist’ label is a badge of honor.

    I remember the surprise I felt in an ecumenical Clinical Pastoral Education group when I discovered that for some ‘Pietist’ was one of the worst slams you could paste on someone. It was one of my very few (minor) personal experiences of prejudice. It reminds me to guard against a tendency to paste the label of ‘fundementalist’ on others.

    If you have time would you spell out a little the features you see from Lutheranism and Calvinism that combined into Peitism?

    And Thanks for your blog. I read it almost daily. Whenever you mention a book I think I might want someday to read I immediatly put it on my Amazon wishlist. I got some good Christmas gifts recently from that list. Your blog is a resource in my life and ministry that I am very grateful for, Thank You.

  • scotmcknight

    profanefaith, I’m working toward a paper on just that question… so it will have to wait. Sorry.

  • scotmcknight


    Spener, of course, was Lutheran, but there influences in Spener from Reformed circles so some have argued that Pietism combines Lutheranism with Calvinism, yet most seem to think that simple idea is far too simplistic. The theology of Spener was Lutheran; to the degree Luther and Calvin overlapped in their theologies of grace and justification and Scripture, of course, there is an overlap among Pietists. But I see Pietism as a renewal movement (someone said renewal instead of reformed above; that’s a better word) within Lutheran circles primarily.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you for your post Scot. I also wonder what your questioner was after. I have grown up in the (Dutch)Calvinist tradition of the RCA and CRC. Although I do not hear the term “Pietist” often, when it is used, it is usually a term of derision. It seems to be used to suggest that someone is not engaging in rational theology, but rather overly simple interpretation.

    I like your connection of it with more thoroghly reforming the church.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • scotmcknight

    Randy — you nailed it. It was a put down.

  • Jason Barnhart


    As you know, the Brethren Church (based in Ashland, Ohio) of which I’m a part has as its genesis the blending of Anabaptist and Pietist theologies in the early 1700s. Your sketch of Pietism above was much appreciated.

    Hauerwas and others often speak against Pietism in their writings which leaves me with the question, “About what form of Pietism are your speaking?” It is clear that he and others are objecting to a American privatization of religion which is a distorted Pietism, that upon closer review really isn’t that pietist. For example, the early Pietists would never have believed that faith was so personal it was almost entirely private.

    The early Brethren found many places of agreement between Anabaptism and Pietism. The centrality of the Word (but before that a centrality of Christ, the Living Word), a commitment to a priesthood of all believers, and, most importantly, a recognition that faith must manifest itself in a life shaped by belief, not merely belief alone.

    I think people who want to throw around the word need to do a little history checking. We’ve used the term loosely even in this conversation because there were several historic branches of the Pietist movement; most notably there were Classical, or Church, Pietists and Radical Pietists. Though these two groups shared similar core beliefs their methodologies were quite different (especially in regards to the established churches of the day).

    The distortion of the two continues to add confusion to the current scene of American Christianity. Maybe the real issue is the adjective I used just before the word “Christianity.” There is much to unpack there!

    Thanks, Scot, for reminding all of us about the historic beauty of Pietism.

  • Tom

    I grew up in an evangelical Lutheran Church that had Norwegian Pietist roots. They were big on Hauge and Hallesby. I was taught that Baptism did regenerate but that we needed to confirm that regeneration as we grew in our knowledge. Baptismal regeneration was to be reconfirmed each day as we were to die to self and live for Christ. It was a daily committment and a daily walk. They pushed hard on having a personnal relationship with Jesus but that our Baptism was the beginning of that relationship. I never saw an issue with baptismal regeneration until I left the Lutheran Church. I am now a member of an Evangelical Covenant Church and I just don’t talk about this aspect much. I have even had people tell me that they could never accept someone that believes in Baptisimal regeneration.

  • Joe Canner

    Of the six points given, it seems that most of them would be acceptable to Reformed folks today. The exception would be #4, which doesn’t seem to be of much interest to many Evangelicals (Reformed or otherwise).

  • DT

    I think Pietism has become synonymous with Pharaiseeism these days.

  • Charles B. Johnson


    Thank you for your investment in the continued effort to both bolster and cross examine faithful in their commitment to Christ.

    I am currently a seminarian at NPTS and hope to translate my training into service in a pastorate while seeking ordination with the ECC in the coming years. Because of this, your post has struck a chord in me.

    I have been questioning what it really means to hold to a pietistic tradition in our current age of multiculturalism particularly here in the U.S. I am challenged personally and professionally in my theology as I consider what private/corporate expressions, as well as, public ministry practices I may be wise to maintain and discover, and those I may want to fall away. And so I wonder, what does my piety say to a world of Christians that seems to think piety is aloof and detached from our current status as Christians in the world?

    I am also curious what you may think about the ECC’s current position. As it moves to live out its value of reflecting a greater kaleidoscopic representation of the Kingdom, how does the desire to hold onto a pietistic (pro-European) tradition challenge the denomination’s desire to evolve beyond its scandinavian roots?

    One another note. After having graduated from a interdenominational bible college in Bemidji, Minnesota, I hear from former classmates and professors who express disappointment over the fact I do not have classes with you. I share their disappointment.

    Keep up your faithful work and this informational and thought provoking blog.



  • While Pietism has formed the core of groups such as the Evangelical Covenant Church, Moravians, Lutheran Brethren, Methodists — the impulse is strong within many groups. There are some very Pietistic Lutherans. (The ALC, which was folded into the ELCA, was strongly Pietistic in orientation.) A few of the streams into the UCC were Pietistic. The Church of the Brethren is a confluence of Pietism and Anabaptism.

    There are two reasons why Pietism gets misunderstood. The first is that it is a renewal or life movement rather than a doctrinal movement. It’s not saying that doctrine is bad — or unimportant but that it should not be in the driver’s seat. The car should be driven in a relational manner. That idea is troubling to those who have a rigid doctrinal system that they believe should drive everything.

    Secondly, because it is not a tight system requiring uniformity in all matters, there are people within Pietism who have at times driven off in pretty weird directions — mysticism, extreme individualism or extreme focus on experience — to the degree that it pushes aside sound doctrinal input.

    As I see it, though, you want to have a Pietist driving the car or it will never go anywhere significant. But you also need to have someone with a doctrinal orientation riding shotgun — and reading the map. They may annoy each other occasionally but the map reader is necessary or the driver can end up going in circles.

    In 1 Timothy 4:16 the apostle tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine. The church needs both the doctrinal and pietistic impulses. We’re the healthiest when we have been able to integrate both. Spener was calling the church to reintegrate both impulses. Those who caught the vision from him ended up doing some pretty amazing things — evangelizing the world, developing the notion of public education, caring for orphans and refugees…

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    Journalism in this era lends itself to a great deal of piety. I’ve fallen prey to it many times…

  • Percival

    It was only recently that I ever heard of Pietist being a negative term for anyone, but then again I grew up Methodist. Being pious never sounded like much fun, but Pietism as a historical movement seemed very positive, and still does.

    It seems to me that before Pietism arose in Europe Protestantism was largely about state churches, doctrinal disputes, and anti-this and anti-that. I very much see it as a completion or even a correction of the Reformation.

  • Mark Brown

    Ahhh, you must have run into one of our “confessionals”.

    It is interesting that the “legalist” epithet really has shifted. Where the pietist of yore was concerned about holy living to the point of occasionally sounding like a pharisee, today it is probably your name-caller who is sitting on the chair of Moses knowing everything about some dusty book and little about how it is lived. But then I am probably a raging pietist.

    Good to know we can still rightly recognize the body wherever we go to be able to know which epithet to use.

  • Fascinating food for thought. I’ve never used the term in any positive way. I think that I have always equated it with being a pharisee. Imagine my surprise when I discovered for the first time in my twenties–after having grown up in the church–that “pharisee” was not simply a negative term to describe a person who was “holier than thou,” but was actually the name for one who followed a (still practicing!) form of Judaism. I feel like I’m reliving that moment with piety. Discovering that it was not meant to be a slur, and doesn’t have to be … #4 on the list is fascinating as well.

  • paul pierson

    I once heard the great Otto Piper, NT prof. at Princeton, say that Pietism was a completion of the protestant Reformation. And it was Pietism that began the Protestant missionary movement,the Pietists, Ziegenbalg and Plutshau went to India in 1706, where schools were started for girls as well as boys,there were other social ministries, along with evangelism. Pietism began schools for the poor in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark.Some of them still exist. The early Pietists were much more focused on outreach to the poor than contemporary Protestants.

  • My observation of typical usage has been that someone who is pietistic is rigid and/or imitative of spiritual practice that is no longer authentic or resonant for people today. When someone is said to be pious, it usually conveys a comfortable habit of personal devotion that flows from and nurtures and vibrant spiritual life. That’s not a rule, of course, but I think I’ve noticed that distinction. So I think of pietistic as somewhere between lifeless and rigid (or phony), but pious is supple and genuine.

  • I don’t know if Pietism was a completion of the Reformation or not, but I do think it was a correction to the Lutheran (doctrinaire) Orthodoxy of the 17th century and the vapid moralism of the Anglican Church in the 18th century.

    Let me honor one of my old professors, K. James Stein, who 25 years ago wrote a really good biography of Spener: Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch (Covenant Press, 1986). I’m sure there is more recent stuff, but this book is a thorough and interesting read.

  • Russ

    One other essential element of pietism is that the emphasis on renewed life over doctrinal particularity leads to an ecumenical emphasis. In the First Great Awakening, someone like Whitefield could preach among (pietistic) Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, because the emphasis on authentic conversion was seem as more important than doctrinal divisions (while being blocked from some Anglican pulpits). Evangelicalism is of course an outgrowth of this emphasis.

    As a put down, I think “pietism” tends to be either an accusation of moralism, or criticism of a dualistic mentality, emphasizing personal piety to the expense of social and cultural involvement (both would be characteristic of fundamentalism).

  • I think I agree with DT #14 that Pietism is the new word for Phariseeism today.

  • Brandon H

    Pietism + Puritanism = Evangelicalism

  • Carl Franzon

    Didn’t realize that pietist was ever a derogatory term. But that I suppose comes from being a lifelong Covenanter.

  • Scot,

    You recognize at the outset what this fellow was saying to you. I doubt he was saying that you are an ideal embodiment of Jakob Spener. So, you’d do well to recognize also that both uses are valid (however confusing). There are the Pietists and then there’s modern pietism. In other words, Spener has little to do with American Evangelicalism.

    It’s like “fundamentalist.” There’s the pejorative sense—that knuckleheaded movement that arose out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early-to-mid 20th century; and then there’s the historic use of the word, most notably aimed at the Princetonians (which doesn’t carry all the legalistic baggage the former usage does).

  • Hi Scot,

    Thanks for this helpful introduction to Pietism! I would add that there is a movement that combines both Anabaptist and Pietist ideologies outright. This group, of course, is the Brethren in Christ. They are Anabaptists Christians who, when confronted by Pietism, chose to embrace it!