The Naivete of Pietism

I think when Carl Trueman described George Whitefield as “celebrity, preacher, saint,” he was saying that there are both concerns and examples to be found in the man. I do not know if he would associate Whitefield with Pietism, as I do, but since I do, and providing Trueman agreed with me, then he would be saying at least two cheers for Pietism. I think that there are good things to seek out in Pietism. I am not against it; I’ve read Spener, Francke, Arnold, and Tersteegen, to mention the most Pietistic Pietists I’ve encountered and enjoyed. I think Whitefield was of that spirit. Two cheers for it all. But not three.

Pietism is at least sincere. There is a lot to be said for sincerity. There are other virtues, but any virtue is better than none and this virtue is superior to, for example, the virtue of punctuality. Sincerity, however, is not the kind of thing which can stand alone. The problem that Pietism has is that it can sometimes be naively sincere, and naïve sincerity can be deceived. It can be self-deceived. When that happens, it is a very poor sincerity indeed. It is not the sincerity that is degrading the Pietism, but it is the naivete. Resolving the naivete is the cure. Resisting, therefore, the sophistication of distinctions, of inquiry, of historical research, all those things which mitigate naivete, is a refusal to relinquish the naivete, as if naivete were sincerity.

Often when someone expresses reservations about Pietism he is met by Pietist reproach. It is a reproach not of reason but of sentiment. Can there be clearer evidence that Pietism is sometimes naïve rather than truly humble? Sentiment has its place, but not as the arbiter of that which is in the realm of demonstrable fact and argument. Things, after all, are not always as we wish them to be. The reaction of humility is to consider whether the reservations are valid. Are there correct premises? Is the argument sound? Humility deals in reality and desires the actual truth, rather than distorting reality by simply projecting arbitrary (as opposed to ordinate) sentiment or by privately selecting what it will consider.

And so I say two cheers for Pietism. Sentiment is important–as long as the inner is corresponding to the outer and not the other way around. I am for sincerity, entire devotion, making explicit the radical nature of the claims of Christ and the real cost of following him. The true costs can only be borne by the radically dedicated heart, one that is being transformed by an agency that is no less than supernatural. I am for a religion in which there is true inwardness, one that ordinately corresponds to a demonstrable outwardness. But Pietism can be unsophisticated, naïve, anti-academic, and in some cases too much affect rather than posses humility. It exhibits something deplorable when it is contemptuous of precise theological formulation, contemptuous of painstaking research, and contemptuous of accurate historical evaluation. No cheers for that.


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