A Summary of Crucial Errors of Pietism

Robert E. Fugate, Ph.D.

A brief history of pietism

Pietism was a 17th and 18th century renewal movement, that began in German confessional Lutheranism, emphasizing vital spiritual experience as the heart of Christianity. Its founders were Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705) and his student and successor, August Hermann Francke (1663-1727). The Moravians, led by Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) (godson of Spener and student of Francke), were an offshoot of Pietism. The Moravians, in turn, strongly influenced John Wesley and Methodism. Subsequently, Methodism, Holiness groups, Brethren churches, and Pentecostal and many charismatic churches have been influenced by pietistic thinking.

Pietism’s subjectivism fostered an ecumenism of experience, foreshadowing the Enlightenment. In fact, some of the major figures of the Enlightenment came from pietist backgrounds (e.g., Gotthold E. Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Johann W. Goethe, and Johann G. Fichte).

Historically, pietism also laid the groundwork for nineteenth-century Protestant Liberalism. Friederich Schleiermacher, the father of modern Liberal theology, was educated in pietism by the Moravians. Schleiermacher grounded theology on the “feeling of absolute dependence.”

“The Pietist orientation to religious experience expressed in its emphasis upon regeneration (a biological image) instead of justification (a forensic image) prepared the ground for this development.”[1]

Today, the term “pietism” usually refers to a sentimental, privatized (inward) Christianity, which sees the Christian faith almost exclusively in terms of an individualized, emotional experience.

With regard to the theological beliefs of pietism, pietism is individualistic, man-centered (semi-Pelagian), and emotional. It believes that subjective religious experience is the heart of Christianity. Pietism’s “religion of the heart” devalues the rational[2] and intellectual aspects of Christianity (“the religion of the head”[3]), often becoming mystical (irrational). Truth and doctrine are trivialized.

Pietism has led to a mentality of compartmentalization of spiritual vs. secular among many professing Christians. Among its more orthodox adherents, pietism produces cultural irrelevance and retreatism/escapism (“Meet, eat, retreat,” and “don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.”) When liberalism captured the mainline denominations, and Fundamentalism adopted Dispensationalism and unbiblical pietism, American society and culture began to rot.

Theological errors

1. Pietism fails to come to grips with the Biblical doctrine of creation.

God created everything good, and everything belongs to Him. The earth and all it contains belong to God, not to the devil — even after the fall (Gn 1-2; Ex 8:22; 9:29; 19:5; Lv 25:23 [land]; Dt 10:14; 1 Ch 29:11-12; Job 41:11; Ps 24:1 [the earth and all it contains, including people]; 50:10-12 [animals]; Hg 2:8 [silver and gold]; 1 Cor 10:26, 28).

The entire created order reflects something of God and His glory — even after the fall (Ps 19:1-6; 97:6; Ro 1:20; 2:14-15; 1 Cor 11:7). Everything derives its meaning from God’s all-encompassing plan, and everything exists for the glory of God (Col 1:16; 1 Cor 8:6; Ro 11:36).

2. Pietism depreciates the absolute Lordship of the resurrected Jesus Christ over all things, which was the central message of apostolic preaching.[4]

After His resurrection,
[5] the Lord Jesus Christ is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rv 19:16; cf. 17:14; Ac 17:6-7; Ps 2; 89:27), “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rv 1:5). He possesses all authority both in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18; Eph 1:20-22; Jn 3:35), and He will “subject all things to Himself” (Phil 3:21). “He is Lord of all” (Ac 10:36). Christ now manifests His triumph through His Church (cf. Ac 1:1-2ff; 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 2:6; 3:10), through which He will “fill all things” (Eph 4:10). Jesus Christ is to have the preeminence in all things (Col 1:18; Ps 110:1-2ff). Sadly, pietism truncates the chief confession of the New Testament (“Jesus is Lord”).

3. Pietism is oblivious to the implications of the presence and power of God’s eschatological kingdom in history (the “already”) (Ps 110:1-3; Dn 2:31, 34-35, 44 stone that destroyed the four ancient humanistic empires and then fills the earth; 7:13-14; Mt 13:31-32//Mk 4:30-32 mustard seed; Mt 13:33 leaven; Ac 2:34-36; 1 Cor 15:25; cf. Ac 3:21).

It is also oblivious to the breadth or scope of God’s kingdom:

“The object of the divine rule is the redemption of people and their deliverance from the powers of evil. 1 Corinthians 15:23-28 is definitive.
Christ’s reign means the destruction of all hostile powers, the last of which is death. The kingdom of God is the reign of God in Christ destroying all that is hostile to the divine rule” (Rv 11:15; Mt 4:8 // Lk 4:5; Mt 12:26; Lk 11:18; 2 Cor 4:4).[6]

The scope of his [Christ’s] eschatological rule, the extent of his realm, is nothing less than the entire creation; all things are subject to him (Mt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:27; Heb 2:8). ‘Christ is ‘head over everything for the church’ (Eph 1:22).”[7]

The kingdom of God is as comprehensive as the dominion mandate (Gn 1:26-30),
[8] as the subsequent effects of sin, and as Christ’s redemption.

By failing to embrace the message of Christ’s eschatological kingdom
[9] pietists weaken “the gospel of the kingdom” (i.e., the good news of the governmental rule of God mediated through the Person of His Son, King Jesus).

4. Pietism depreciates the victory Christ has already won in history. Jesus Christ has bound and vanquished Satan and all his demonic hordes (Mt 12:28-29; Col 2:15; Jn 12:31; Heb 2:14-15; 1 Jn 3:8; Rv 1:18), and He is plundering Satan’s kingdom (Lk 11:20-22; Is 53:12; Eph 4:8). Jesus is Lord; Satan and the Antichrist are not Lord. The Lord Jesus Christ manifests and enforces His conquest in history through His body, the Church (Lk 10:17-19; Ac 1:2; Ro 16:20 [cp. Josh 10:24-25]; Rv 12:11; 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 1:20-23 + 2:6).

5. Pietism’s theology is rooted in pagan Greek dualism, which asserts that the material world is evil and spirit is good.

Evil is viewed as
metaphysical, rather than ethical. On this secular philosophical foundation pietists contrast “spiritual” things with “secular” things (contrary to: 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17, 23; 1 Pt 1:15; Zc 14:20). Thus they have perverted Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” into the gospel of Neo-Platonism.

6. Many pietists destroy the unity of Scripture[10] with their depreciation of the Old Testament.[11]

Practical consequences

1. Pietists fail to obey the creation mandate (Gn 1:26-30) — abdicating their God-given stewardship to the devil and his followers. (This promotes cultural lawlessness, not holiness. It produces a church that has lost its preserving influence [Mt 5:13].)

2. Pietists fail to fulfill the great commission (Mt 28:18-20),[12] since they are oblivious to the scope of discipling nations.[13]
Pietists usually avoid involvement in politics.

3. Pietists rob God of glory.

4. Pietists often develop unbiblical standards of holiness and separation[14] from the world (defining “world” in an unbiblical manner[15]), resulting in legalism (if not asceticism).

5. Pietists tend toward moral perfectionism,[16] separating and forming a church within the church.

6. Pietists do not develop a comprehensive worldview, leaving them powerless to confront Satan’s kingdom. (You can’t beat something with nothing.) In so doing they fail to “take every thought captive to make it obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) and to love God with all their mind (Mk 12:30, part of the greatest commandment), “so that in everything He [Jesus Christ] might have the supremacy” (Col 1:18).

7. Pietism produces religious parasites who live off the fruit of those who labored to produce a more Biblical worldview (e.g., civil liberty,[17] medical and technological developments, protection from thugs, etc.).

8. Pietism fosters a feminized church.[18] Most men are repulsed by a religion that is anti-intellectual, feeling-based, and that tells them they are second-class Christians because most of their time and energy are spent in a secular (i.e., non-spiritual) vocation.

9. Pietism is impotent to prevent or to oppose tyranny, as demonstrated by the militaristic Prussian state with its compulsory statist education system.[19] Their retreat from culture and their unwillingness to confront the messianic, all-encompassing state gives tacit approval to it.

10. Because pietism reduced the gospel to soul-saving, it put man at the center of its gospel, thereby becoming humanistic and impotent to oppose the religion of secular humanism.[20] Even worse, “By surrendering entire areas of life to the humanists, pietism has unintentionally contributed to the spread of the humanist malady … a massive betrayal!”[21]

“It is not an accident that Pietism and the Enlightenment arose at the same time. As Christian thinkers retreated from the world and regarded the inner, spiritual realm as the only valid sphere for the faith, so the vacuum which remained was occupied by the new humanists, the men of the Enlightenment.”

Through their abdication, pietists inadvertently glorify Satan’s power and abet Satan’s kingdom! (Is their “gospel of the kingdom,” in effect, the gospel of Satan’s kingdom, which they believe controls the world?)

In light of the theological errors and bad fruit of pietism, it comes as no surprise that Francis Schaeffer described pietism as: “a defective view of Christianity”; “platonic spirituality”; “giving little, or no, importance to the material world”; “it neglected the intellectual dimension of Christianity.”
[23] He adds, “The mistaken pietists thought battles in the area of government were ‘unspiritual’. … [Pietism’s Christianity is] shut up to a removed and isolated spirituality. … Evangelicals were right in their rejection of a poor pietism which shut Christianity up into a very narrow area of spiritual life.”[24]

[The above errors do not mean that we cannot appreciate Biblical aspects of pietism, such as the importance of conversion, a personal relationship with God cultivated through personal prayer and Bible study, holy living, and missions. Neither do such errors mean that God did not use pietism for any good purposes.]


[1] “Pietism,” Encyclopedia of Christianity, eds. Erwin Fahlbusch, et al., 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999-2008), 4:222.

[2] Christianity is rational and logically consistent. Rationality is part of the image of God. Pietists confused rationality with non-Christian philosophical rationalism, which has as its starting point man’s reason unaided by divine revelation.

[3] “An antithesis between head and heart is nowhere found in Scripture” (Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation [Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1986], pp. 92f.

[4] See the numerous quotations of Pss 2 and 110 by Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament.

[5] “In his ascension, however, Jesus entered into a new exercise of His messiahship. This is expounded in Acts 2:24-35. Jesus has been seated at the right hand of God and installed upon the throne of David (2:30). Here Peter under inspiration reinterprets the prophecy of Ps 110:1. The throne of David is no longer in Jerusalem; it is in heaven at the right hand of God. Jesus is even now reigning as messianic king (Messiah)” (George E. Ladd, “Kingdom of God,” in ISBE, rev., 3:29).

[6] George E. Ladd, “Kingdom of God, Heaven,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), p. 658. Note that these Scriptures teach that this reign of the Lord Jesus Christ has already begun in history (as recognized by premillennialist Ladd).

[7] Richard B. Gaffin, “Kingdom of God,” in New Dictionary of Theology, eds., Sinclair B. Ferguson, David E. Wright, and J.I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), p. 369. (Gaffin is an amillennialist.) See also: Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 50, 87-89; Archibald A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1976), pp. 283f.

[8] John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), pp. 249-251, 307.

[9] To this end they twist Christ’s statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). What did Christ mean by this statement?

“Kingdom” (βασιλεία) denotes “the act of ruling, kingship, royal power, royal rule” (BDAG, p. 269; cf. Rudolf Schnackenburg, Gospel According to St. John, 3:249). “The essential meaning is reign rather than realm” (TDNT, 1:582; cf. L-N # 37:64).

“Of” (ἐκ “out of,” “from”) is a “marker denoting origin”; “to denote derivation” (BDAG, p. 296). This is confirmed later in the same verse when Jesus reiterates, “My kingdom is not from here” [ἐντεῦθεν] (BDAG, p. 339, noting that the two expressions “from here” and “from this world” are equivalent). F.F. Bruce translates these two phrases, “My kingship does not proceed from this world. … My kingship proceeds from another source” (Gospel of John, p. 353). Similarly, D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus’ reign does not have its source or origin in this world” (Gospel According to John, p. 594). Jesus is telling Pilate that the origin and authority of his kingly rule are from God (cf. Jn 19:11); they do not come from the world (just as Jesus himself did not come from the world, but “from above,” Jn 8:23 [ἐκ, 4 times], i.e., from God in heaven). Jesus is not saying that his kingdom does not rule over the world. Carson adds, “It is important to see that Jesus’ statement should not be misconstrued as meaning that his kingdom is not active in this world, or has nothing to do with this world. John certainly expects the power of the inbreaking kingdom to affect this world; elsewhere he insists that the world is conquered by those who believe in Jesus (1 Jn 5:4).” R.J. Rushdoony adds, “Our Lord does not deny that His Kingdom is over the world, only that its origin and authority are from this world: the origin is God” (Gospel of John, p. 249).

Jesus uses this language because he “wants to make clear to the Roman who is used to thinking in terms of power politics, that he is not planning a rebellion which would be achieved by ‘worldly’ means, with weapons” (Rudolf Schnackenburg, Gospel According to St. John, 3:249). By his statement, Jesus rejects revolt and revolution as the means of establishing his kingship. He also rejected the Jewish national expectation of a military messiah who would deliver them from Roman military oppression
(instead of first dying on the cross). (Contrast militant Communism and Islam.)

(For the meaning of “world” see note 15.)

[10] One of the clearest ways of demonstrating the unity of Scripture is through covenant theology (see O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980). Yet, God’s covenants refute the Neo-Platonist/pietist matter/world vs. spirit dualism. “Every covenant God makes—with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus—there are these three elements [that were found in the Creation Mandate, Gn 1:26-28]: a divine blessing, a seed, and a land. God blesses his people by giving them descendants to live in a land, subduing that land to bring glory to God” (John M.
Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, p. 250).

[11] “Over the centuries, virtually all heresies have been hostile to the Old Testament, or have decreed that it is now an ended dispensation, or in one way or another have down-graded it in part or in whole. … Down-grading the Old Testament is a way of re-writing the New, because the meaning of the New is destroyed if the Old Testament is set aside in any fashion. As a result, the ‘New Testament Christianity’ of such heretics winds up being no Christianity at all” (Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Gnosticism,” Chalcedon Position Paper # 74 [May 1986]; reprinted in: The Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991], p. 325; and in An Informed Faith: The Position Papers of R.J. Rushdoony, 3 vols. [Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon / Ross House
Books, 2017], 3:681).

[12] Note that the Great Commission literally says “disciple all the nations” (Greek text; Young’s Literal Translation; cf. Matthew Henry’s commentary); it does not say, “Make some disciples out of [ἐκ] every nation.” The latter is Scripture twisting.

[13] Every nation is comprised of various domains or spheres: religion; civil governments and law; family and social welfare; education; economics and business (including science and technology); media; the arts, entertainment, and sports. The great commission, the dominion mandate, and the Christian worldview encompass all these spheres. Cf. Kenneth L. Gentry, The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).

[14] Adherents of the “Christ against culture” view include: monastics, Manichean heretics, Anabaptists, Quakers, Pietists, Watchman Nee, and many rapturists. Their view has been rejected as unbiblical by almost all Christian denominations. The Biblical view is that of Augustine: Christ the transformer of culture, i.e., wherever the Lord Jesus Christ is received and His lordship applied and obeyed, Christ transforms the culture of those Christians. If a significant percentage of people in any geographical area embrace the comprehensive lordship of Jesus Christ, He transforms their whole culture, bringing it in line with the Bible.

[15] BDAG lists eight definitions for κόσμος, with only sub-point b of definition 7 denoting “that which is hostile to God”
(pp. 562f). This is an ethical (not a metaphysical) category describing the mindset and lifestyle of those persons in Satan’s kingdom, living under Satan’s lordship, who oppose God’s will and purpose—in “sharp contrast” to “the things and people who belong to God” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997], p. 1223). This ethical usage of the word “world” does not describe the physical world/universe
(that God created) or the world of humanity (cf. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], p. 836; ISBE, rev., 4:1114; Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (DJG1), eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992], p. 887). (In the Bible, sin is ethical, not metaphysical.) The New Testament has a “positive view of the creation as God’s handiwork and as the sphere of divine activity. … The concentration of the New Testament upon the work of redemption does not exclude the cosmology of the Old Testament but rather presupposes it” (ISBE, rev., 4:1115). “The difference between a ‘spiritual’ and a [ethically] ‘worldly’ way of life … is not between two compartments of life, one religious and one secular, but between life ordered under the rule [kingdom] of God and life in conformity to the human tradition of rebellion against God” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 855).

[16] For a historical recounting and refutation of various forms of perfectionism, see Benjamin B. Warfield’s treatment of perfectionism in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10 vols. (1931; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), vols. 6-7).

[17] Archie P. Jones, “Foreword,” in Benjamin Franklin Morris, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (American Vision, 2009), p. 12.

[18] Rousas J. Rushdoony, Sovereignty (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2007), p. 318.

[19] Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[20] Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Post-Christian Era,” Chalcedon Report # 87 (Nov 1, 1972); reprinted in idem., The Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), p. 825, and in Mark R. Rushdoony, ed., Faith & Action: The Collected Articles of R.J. Rushdoony from the Chalcedon Report, 1965-2004, 3 vols. (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon / Ross House
Books, 2019), 1:446f.

[21] Pierre Courthial, A New Day of Small Beginnings (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2018), p. 276.

[22] Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Faith and Society,” Chalcedon Report # 98 (Oct, 1973); reprinted in idem., The Roots of Reconstruction, pp. 870f, and in Mark R. Rushdoony, ed., Faith & Action: The Collected Articles of R.J. Rushdoony from the Chalcedon Report, 1965-2004, 2:1121.

[23] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981), pp. 18f (= The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, 5 vols. [Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982], 5:424).

[24] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), pp. 102, 119; cf. pp. 98, 103, 33; (= Complete Works, 4:372, 385; cf. pp. 368f [“mistaken pietism”], 373, 318). Cf. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), chapter 18.

ⓒ Robert E. Fugate, 2006

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