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Lutheran Pietism

(Most have heard of the occasional “Promise Keepers” gatherings around the nation. Wanting to offer our readers an assessment of the movement from the perspective of orthodox Lutheranism, we asked Pastor Gregory Jackson to give one. He has consented to do so, and we thank him. This is the first of four articles. — Ed.)

Since 1990 the massive growth of the Promise Keepers, a unionistic laymen’s group, has attracted a lot of attention. Started by a football coach, Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers has swept across the nation and caused great concern in Lutheran congregations. Laymen actively and aggressively recruit other men to join them in mass religious rallies and in small prayer groups. I know, because I was asked several times by a non-Lutheran businessman when we were living in St. Louis.

Promise Keepers has its origin in a religious movement known as Pietism, which began in 1675. Pietism has had a major influence on Lutheranism by undermining the doctrine of justification by faith (receiving Christ’s righteousness, God’s promise) and replacing it with a righteousness based upon human works (keeping promises). Adolph Hoenecke, the great Wisconsin Synod theologian, wrote: “At first glance the total difference seems absolutely paltry, but in truth the dangerous direction of Pietism is made apparent: life over doctrine, sanctification over justification, and piety not as a consequence but declared as a stipulation of enlightenment, leading to a kind of synergism and Pelagianism. (1)

Consequently, Pietism continues to bewitch many Lutherans by covering lupine false doctrine with the fleece of piety. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Mt. 7:15).

Philip Spener, a Lutheran, began Pietism by publishing a small work in 1675 known as Pious Wishes. Spener found Reformed theology appealing and rejected baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in holy communion. Like the other Philip, Melanchthon, Spener sought an external unity between Lutherans and non-Lutherans by masking doctrinal differences.

By setting aside the source of piety, orthodox doctrine, and seeking visible results in the Christian faith, Spener created a pharisaic system which undermined all denominations, not just the Lutherans. Promises Keepers will finish the work Spener began, with the best of intentions and the worst of all possible results.

Spener set up collegia pietatis (cell groups of piety) in people’s homes, to encourage prayer and Bible Study. The meetings were lay led and caused enormous conflict, but they spread everywhere as a church within the church. Spener and his disciple, August Francke, also set up charitable institutions in Halle, Germany, which became a holy city for Pietism, supported both by the Reformed and the Lutherans.

Halle’s influence was global, training 6,000 pastors and impressing people with the visible results of unionism and Pietism. American Protestantism is almost exclusively derived from Halle, whether it be the radical homosexual activism of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the forbidding of women wearing any make-up in certain fundamentalist sects.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was trained at Halle and became the founder of the first and most liberal Lutheran body in America, the General Synod. The General Synod promoted revivals (because they worked!), used grape juice for communion during and after the Temperance Movement, and had a lax attitude toward Lutheran doctrine, worship, and the Book of Concord. The liberal Muhlenberg tradition in the Eastern US is a major component of ELCA today, along with the Scandinavian Pietism of the Midwest.

Spener’s influence entered Methodism through his god-son Nicholas Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian Brethren. John Wesley was deeply affected by the Moravians. The hysterics of the Methodist revival spread across America, emphasizing salvation based upon an emotional experience of conversion rather than the objective truth of the Word of God.

Methodism grew tired of banning movies, dancing, lipstick, and any alcohol, even communion wine, so they turned their attention to the liberal form of Pietism, political activism, the Social Gospel Movement. The social reforms of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (Social Security, child labor laws, protection of unions) were the stated agenda items of the Social Gospel Movement and the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches).

When Methodist Pietism turned liberal, the conservatives broke off and started their own denominations, which still banned lipstick and dancing. Still, conversion was based upon an emotional experience, so Pentecostalism grew from the old-fashioned Methodists who needed visible proof of God’s invisible work.

The main recruiting forum for all Pentecostals is the lay-led prayer or Bible Study group, where sincere people are taught they must speak in tongues to be sure they are “baptized by the Holy Spirit.” For them, the Promise Keepers cell group is fertile ground.

–Pastor Gregory L. Jackson

1. Evangelische-Lutherische Dogmatik, 4 vols., ed., Walter and Otto

Hoenecke, Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1912, III, p.