From the Archives: Pietism and its Formidable Critics

Pietism has had its severe critics right from its beginnings and continuously through its history. 

Sometimes the attacks have been based on caricature and misunderstanding and other times based on substantive theological and doctrinal issues. 

In addition to the scorn of the world, Pietism has drawn the ire of church leaders, evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants alike.

The first of the major critics was Valentin Ernst Löscher, a Lutheran theologian and champion of Reformation orthodoxy. Part of the Establishment, Löscher, and his following feared the Pietists as political opponents who could seize power by cultivating the good will of the secular authorities. Löscher, called Pietism a sickness, a stranger denunciation even than designating it a heresy. In his mind, Pietists evidenced an unhealthy individualism, a reckless enthusiasm, and an overly romanticist form of religious experience. While Joachim Lange had coined the word “pietism” as a positive term, Löscher, lumped together as “Pietists” all those whose theology he did not like.

Erberhard Ludwig, Duke of Württemberg from 1693 to l733, issued an edict regarding the Pietist movement of his day. It orders “how to oppose strongly the so called Pietist nuisance (Pietisterey) which ever and again swarms in and around the country, as well as other dangerous errors, and how everyone is to be earnestly held to the diligent hearing of God’s Word and the use of the holy sacraments in public church services, and bow to live according to the wholesomely constituted regulations of court sanctioned church order, as well as the symbolic books of our Evangelical Church, which are carefully observed by teachers and bearers, while obstinate persons are to be regarded as subject to warning and serious correction.” These rather stringent regulations were greatly modified in the direction of toleration by the Pietisten—Reskript of 1743.

A second round of criticism occurred in the writing of Albrecht Ritschl, a German historian and theologian in the nineteenth century. In a major historical study, Ritschl wrongly associated Pietism with the mystics of the Middle Ages who reduced Christianity to a type of monastic life. He thought Pietists lacked any sort of social concern, confining their faith to conventicles or private, spirituality elite groups. Ernst Troeltsch, the noted historian of religions, followed Ritschl as a critic of the Pietists.

The critics of the twentieth century are no less adamant. Leading theologians such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr, have all found fault with Pietistic stresses upon emotionalism and individualism and the seeming lack of profound theological discussion or systematic doctrinal concern. Barth, in particular, was especially critical of many of the great hymns of Protestantism for being “overly pietistic.” Among modern evangelicals, there are those like Richard Foster who lament the “heresy of Pietism. ”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #10 in 1986]

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