Editor’s Introduction -- By: John H. Armstrong
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Among students of Reformation theology no subject seems to create more controversial dialogue than that of the role and development of Pietism. If you want to “throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons” then take a strong side in this debate and stand back. There will be a lot of heat. Sometimes a ray of light even breaks through in the discussion. But why this conflict?
Some are strongly convinced that Pietism caused, or at least allowed, the rise of German rationalism. They argue that the bitter fruit of liberal theology arose from the pietistic garden. Still others are convinced that Pietism was essentially a revival of medieval monastic and mystical piety. This connection, it is often argued, came about because of the influence of Puritanism, not only in England but also in Holland and eventually in America. It is often argued that this bad fruit came as a result of revivals, with their very direct emphasis upon the new birth and personal experience.
Historically, at least in Lutheran countries, Pietism represented a significant revival of desire for an experiential theology, a theology that allowed for a deeper experience of Christ’s love and for the felt presence and power of the Holy Spirit. It is argued, by opponents, that this emphasis detached doctrine from life. This, it is explained, became the emphasis on what we now call “heart knowledge, not head knowledge.”1
But what exactly is Pietism? Sometimes even the definitions are controversial. They certainly are widely debated. One historian defines Pietism as:
A movement among Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which emphasized the necessity for
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good works and a holy life. It began in Germany shortly after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) when the churches had become entangled in confessional rigidity, and the time is often called the Age of Orthodoxy or the period of Protestant Scholasticism. The ideas of the Reformers had become so systematized and schematized that there was little comfort to be found in them (italics mine).2
Modern historian David Bebbington is correct to note that:
Pietism has been one of the least understood movements in the history of Christianity. The word comes from pietas (piety, devotion, religiousness), the Latin rendition of the Greek eusebeia and the Hebrew hasid (kind, benevolent, pious, good). Appearing over a dozen times in the New Testament, eusebeia has been translated as...
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