Monday, January 31, 2005

Thoughts on pietism from Eric Phillips

Since Eric Phillips doesn't appear to have a blog, I am posting an interesting set of comments he made over at Bunnie Diehl's blog on the topic of pietism. Check the thread out here.

I'm glad to see my post was useful to people. Writing it was useful to me, actually. It's nice when that happens.
In answer to your questions, Bugs, you aren't automatically a Pietist just because you're Baptist; Pietism infects Christians of every denomination. In fact, the formal "Pietist" movement, historically speaking, was a sect that grew out of the Lutheran Church--which is one big reason Lutherans talk about it so much, and are so wary of it.
However, there are some formal errors in Baptist (and broadly "Evangelical") theology that encourage Pietism, and there are worship practices common in many Baptistic/Evangelical churches that do the same thing. The amount will vary from church to church, and the degree to which it affects someone's understanding of the faith will vary from believer to believer, but Pietism is "in the water" in standard Baptistic/Evangelical theology and practice.
I'll offer one example of a theological error that encourages Pietism, and one example of a worship practice that does.
Baptistic theology denies that Baptism is a saving washing that cleanses us from sin by implanting us into Christ. It says instead that Baptism is an outward sign, a symbolic drama, that testifies to the invisible washing and saving Christ has already done as soon as the believer accepted Him. This makes the believer look for assurance of salvation not to the visible, objective moment when God accepted him (his Baptism), but rather to the invisible, subjective moment when he accepted God--or did he? The Lutheran can say, "Yes, I know I am Christ's. He baptized me." The Baptist or contemporary Evangelical generally says, "Yes, I know I am Christ's. I believe." Or "Yes, I know; I asked Him into my heart." The Lutheran's surety comes from outside himself, from an objective fact. The Baptist's surety comes from something he himself is doing in the present or has done in the past. This leaves the Baptist open to doubts that he doesn't REALLY believe, or doesn't believe ENOUGH, or didn't REALLY understand it, or REALLY mean it, when he asked Jesus into his heart. He is left with the feeling that his degree of surety depends on the quality of his faith--i.e., on how much, how deeply, how sincerely he loves and accepts God, rather than on the objectively verifiable, simple fact that God loves and accepts him. See how that plugs into the definition of Pietism.
And here's an example of a contemporary Evangelical worship practice that plays into the hands of Pietism: the "Once more, with feelin'!" school of praise-song singing. Some Evanglical churches handle this much better than others do, but before I became Lutheran, it was a very common experience for me to find myself singing the same short praise chorus 4 or 5 times in a row. What is the purpose of this? It's so you can really get into it, really feel it, really emote it. The idea is that the emotions have to be engaged, and you have to be focused like a laser, for it really to count as worship. Hence the admonitions I used to hate from worship leaders: "Sing it like you mean it!" "Smile!" And the perplexing worship-leader statement after a praise time, "The Lord was pleased with your worship today." Why didn't he say that last week? Was the Lord not pleased last week? What evidence does he have that the Lord was more pleased this week? Did we sing louder? Did he pick up a more enraptured vibe from us as we launched into "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" for the fourth time? Is God really more pleased with energetic, impassioned, emotion-laden singing than he is with plain old singing? If so, I'm never going to please him as much as so-and-so, who gets excited about everything so easily.
I remember a campfire with Bible College kids that got hijacked by a group of students who started the group singing praise songs, and then lectured the rest of us about not being excited enough while singing. "You can jump up and down at a basketball game, but you can't get excited about the Lord of the Universe?!" At the time, my retort was, "Some people show awe and devotion differently than other people." And that's true, but it didn't contest the Pietistic assumptions of those particular Worship-Nazis--namely that God is more pleased with us the more we strain to feel excited, awe-struck love for Him, and that He might not accept our worship if we aren't really exerting ourselves when we offer it.
Lutheran theology gives such a good answer to this. It says that worship is actually a passive activity: that we can't please God by any straining of our own will or lungs, or any depth of our own emotion, but only by receiving His forgiveness and His holiness in simple faith. When He tells us He forgives us, and we believe He does, that is worship. When He offers His body and blood to us for the strengthening of our souls, and we receive it, that is worship. When we sing about His goodness to us, what makes it worship is that we are recalling and believing--and hence receiving--all His goodness to us, not that we are gratifying Him with our excitement or thanks or devotion. We feel gratitude, sure, and that's a wonderful and holy experience, but we don't pay Him back with the coin of gratitude. We don't pay Him back at all. The only thing in us that pleases Him is Christ's own righteousness, so the only way we can please Him is to receive that righteousness into ourselves. And even our receiving is actually a gift from Him, not a contribution of our own.
The important thing here is to focus all our attention on God's love for us, and resist the temptation to focus on our love for God, which is always a poor, tawdry thing and not worthy of our attention. That part will take care of itself. "We love Him because He first loved us." "He who has been forgiven much, loves much." We just need to realize how much we have been forgiven... over and over again. When we focus on our love for God, whether in a search for assurance of salvation, or in an attempt to project a vibrant pro-God emotion in worship, we're facing the wrong direction spiritually.


Bob Waters said...

Eric really *should* have a blog. Thanks to both of you!

Anonymous said...

I've been following that discussion. It's very good and the topic is one I'm well aquainted with!


Anonymous said...


If you will set up a blog for yourself, I promise to check it out(you have to let everyone know about it though!). I appreciate your comments, they're usually very enlightening.


Mark Buse said...

Amen and Amen.