Pietism and the Bible


By Justin Wishart

The Evangelical church is very diverse in its expression of Christianity. Going from one church to the next, you can experience churches that have a very different "feel" to them. Some years ago I attended a church that had been greatly influenced by Pietism. I was fairly new to studying theology and apologetics, but as I got more proficient, and vocal, about what I was learning, I encountered strong resistance. While my approach wasn't always appropriate and sometimes negative, I was confused by this resistance. Even given some faux pas on my part, surely a pastor could look past this and at least contemplate what I was saying. I eventually came to understand that it wasn't necessarily my approach to the pastoral team that was the problem, but that my approach to Christianity was opposed to theirs. I focused on the "head" while they focused on the "heart," or so I was told. They were a Pietist church, a church which focused on devotion and emotion.

While this church was not directly against theology or apologetics, it was more relegated to the back. Some slogans are common to this movement, such as: "God cares most about your heart," "People don't care about what you know until they know you care," or "Christianity is about relationship, not doctrine." This primary focus on devotion and emotion is a pretty popular movement within the Evangelical church and is the backbone of many charismatic and emergent movements. Pietism is often called non-doctrinal Christianity. It doesn't necessarily deny and attack theology or apologetics, but it does undermine them.

"Christianity...must present itself as the light that makes the facts of human experience, and above all the nature of man himself, to appear for what they really are. Christianity is the source from which both life and light derive for men." —Cornelius Van TilThis idea isn't a new one. Variations of Pietism can be found throughout church history in all areas of the world. However, we shall focus on the distinctive western Evangelical expression. I will outline a few contributing factors which contributed to the rise of Pietism. Many in the church became discouraged and fatigued from attacks outside the church, and tired by the theological fighting within the church. The option chosen was to de-emphasize the intellect, and focus on things which were believed to unite us,like love and joy. Another was the acceptance of a modern anthropology (theology of man). Pietists generally make hard distinctions between intellect, volition, and emotion. They then de-emphasize (or outright disparage) intellect, and emphasize emotion. The "head" is cold and dead, while the "heart" is warm and alive. This all created an Evangelical vision of John Lennon's song "Imagine": where we get rid of the things that divide us, which are typically intellectual things, and we will all be one.

It is easy to see how this position undermines theology and apologetics, since they are generally intellectual things. Why wrangle with theology, or defend Christianity to the world around us? Can't we all just get along? As Evangelicals, we look to Scripture to guide us; so to Scripture we will go. I am not going to defend theology or apologetics directly, but biblically defend the intellect in the Christian life. Does the Bible make such hard distinctions between the intellect and emotions? Should we care about doctrine? Some might find such a Bible study tedious, but every Evangelical should do so at least once. If God has spoken to us, we should discover what He has to say.

Heart vs Head

The first issue which needs to be addressed is this idea that the heart and the head are opposed things. Modernity has designated the head as the domain of propositions and logic and the heart as the domain of emotions and love. Yet, is this what the Bible says? Let's review some key verses. "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5).[1] Here we see clearly that "thoughts" are directly tied with "heart." If Moses (and the Holy Spirit) believed that thoughts only incurred in the head, this verse would make little sense. "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander" (Matthew 15:18-19). Jesus says that it is out of the heart that evil thoughts come, not out of one's head. "But the righteousness based on faith says, 'Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?"' (that is, to bring Christ down)" (Romans 10:6). Here we see a specific proposition being said in one's heart. "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Again, we see the Bible saying that one's thoughts are in the heart.

While this is only a meagre biblical study,[2] it should be clear that the modern dichotomy between head and heart is not found within Scripture. The Bible has a much more deep and complex understanding of the word. It is an understanding that contradicts the head/heart dichotomy, so the dichotomy must be rejected as unbiblical.

The Mind and Christianity

While the head/heart dichotomy might be unbiblical, couldn't the emotional experiences of God still be more important in the Christian life? While I do not have space to argue for the supremacy of the intellect, I will at least argue that the intellect is important.

In the gospel of John, the word logos is regularly employed. Logos is often simply translated as "word," but the meaning is much more focused. It refers to the intellectual, propositional nature of language and understanding. We get our word "logic" from this word. So, when John says, "In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word [logos] was with God, and the Word [logos] was God" (John 1:1), how could one not see the importance of the intellect in the Christian life? If Jesus is the logos, then one's intellect is automatically very important. Paul says that, "Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:24). If Christ is the "wisdom of God," then wisdom, which is an intellectual process, becomes very important. Jesus said, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Knowing the truth is, again, an intellectual activity and Jesus says this is what sets one free. Likewise, Jesus again says, "[t]he words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). Spoken words, and words one hears, all go through an intellectual process. Therefore, the intellect is important as they are directly involved with what is "spirit and life." 1 Corinthians 2 is a very strong chapter on the intellect in the Christian life, and the chapter ends with, "we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). Surely having the "mind of Christ" is something very much intellectual.

Again, this was merely a small sampling of what the Bible says about the intellect. However, it should be enough to show that it is not scriptural to disparage the intellect. The Bible itself is written in an intellectual form. Why would God communicate with us in a manner which requires us to use our minds if our minds are of little worth? Why would He insert many verses showing the importance of the intellect if we are to deny, or minimize, our intellect? It seems that our intellectual life is a very important component in our Christian life.

While very little more can be said on this subject due to space, it should be clear that the Pietists who disparage the intellect do so against the counsel of God. It is one thing to fight against a dry and dusty expression of Christianity. Yet, to do so at the expense of the intellect that God endowed humanity with is to go against the Bible. Once it is understood that the intellect is important for Christians, this will provide an appropriate Christian environment where disciplines such as theology and apologetics can flourish. Yet, Pietism represents a warning that the church should be aware of. Paul instructs Timothy to "[k]eep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching" (1 Timothy 4:16). Intellectual pursuits should be done with the utmost reverence to God's revelation, which reveres God. The church can fall into an intellectual idolatry where the teachings reflect the person(s) doing the teaching, and not God.

[1] Scripture passages are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] According to Bible Hub, the word translated as "heart" occurs 1223 times in the Bible.