03 June 2006

The Heresy Called Pietism

A year ago I published the following in the Zion Trumpet, the parish newsletter of Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit. It relies heavily on chapter 8 in The Freedom of Morality by Christos Yannaras.

We give the name “pietism” to a phenomenon in church life which stresses “personal piety” as distinct from doctrine or the teachings of the church.

With its stress on personal piety, pietism undermines (if not also denies) unity among the body of believers and so also communion in God. For it focuses attention on the individual who is able to “appropriate” (apply to himself) his own salvation. As such, it transfers the place of man’s salvation away from the Church and into the realm of the individual and his moral endeavors.

For pietism, salvation is not primarily the fact of the church—the way Christians live in communion with God and each other. Neither is salvation man’s dynamic, personal participation in the body of the Church’s communion. So man is not saved despite his individual unworthiness. Rather, pietism sees salvation as individual attainment—the way an individual accepts Christ, believes in His saving work, and lives up to moral commitments.

In pietism, then, the Church becomes a place which assures not growth in God. Neither is it a community where one person helps save another. Rather, the Church is the gathering of justified individuals. She is nothing more than the assembly of “regenerated individuals”—a gathering of those individuals who understand themselves to be justified.

With pietism, liturgy is incidental. It exists only to uplift those individuals who find the ceremonies, hymns, and texts “meaningful” and “edifying.” The Eucharist, also, no longer embodies the fact of salvation, but is distorted into an individual event—a means of assimilating Jesus spiritually.

Pietism is a heresy—especially a false teaching about the church. It denies the very truth of the Church. It transfers the event of salvation away from the body of Christ gathered in liturgy to an individual. It divorces piety from the Trinity—that is, from living in community. And by emphasizing individual salvation, it denies that our salvation is to live life in Christ together—in constant communion with all others.

Pietism doesn’t deny the existence or helpfulness of the Church. It simply disconnects the church from salvation, and says that man’s life and salvation can (and sometimes “must”) be lived apart from the church. And so it fuels the false and unchristian notion that a person can take “time off” or “time away from” the church and her liturgy.

The truth, however, is that no salvation comes apart from the church; and no salvation is given elsewhere but in the church; and no salvation can be sustained except in the church. And the truth is that we are saved not as individuals, but to lose our individuality and to live as persons—men and women in loving communion with our God and (because of this) with each other.

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