Critiquing Mysticism and Pietism: Six Points (Bavinck)

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity In his first volume of Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck spent quite some time discussing mysticism and pietism.  At the end of the section on mysticism and pietism, Bavinck wrote the following critique.  (For the record, I wish he would’ve expanded a bit on these points since they are helpful.)

However justified mysticism and Pietism were in their objection to rationalism and dead orthodoxy, both of which locate the seat of faith in the intellect, they are themselves also one-sided. Here are six points of critique:

1. Mysticism and Pietism put the seat of faith in feeling and thus do not embrace the fullness of our humanity. That which most affects and arouses feelings gets the emphasis.

2. This results in a denial of the faith’s objectivity—that is, the Word, the letter, the sacraments, the church, and even doctrine (e.g., satisfaction).

3. Another consequence is the formation of a pernicious group (club) mentality. The converted separate themselves, live apart, and leave family and world to fend for themselves. They are salt not within but alongside the world.

4. The covenant idea is lost altogether. The converted and the unconverted each live their own lives totally detached from one another. Mutual contact takes place only mechanically and not organically. The unconverted are left to their own devices.

5. This also has adverse results for the converted. Religion is limited to being busy with the things of God (reading, praying). Daily work becomes a matter of necessity alone rather than a holy calling. Sunday stays disconnected from the rest of the week; faith is not tested in the world. Christians become passive, quietistic.

6. By constantly attending to self-contemplation, people make their experience the norm for everyone else, and unhealthy, unscriptural elements enter. Simplicity and the childlike character of faith give way to sentimentality. Experience guides the exegesis of Scripture and even becomes the source of knowledge, materially as well as formally.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol. 1, page 309.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pietism, Subjectivism, and Christian Worship (Clark)

The pietist movement and subjectivism are two things – among others – that have corroded, watered down, and weakened Christian worship in our day.  When all the emphasis is on the self, feelings, experiences, and emotions, you know you’re in the realm of pietism and subjectivism.

In this type of worship, the objective truths of Scripture – sin and salvation – are only alluded to (if at all) and the enraptured feelings of the inner self are front and center.  Rather than asking what God wants us to do in worship, many simply do what makes them feel a religious “high.”  Unfortunately this is even prevalent in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches which historically have placed the objective truths front and center. I like what Scott Clark said about this topic.

“Perhaps the most outstanding example…of the subjective turn in Reformed piety is in public worship.  It would not be hard to find a Reformed congregation today in which the Sunday (or Saturday night) liturgy begins with twenty-five minutes of Scripture songs sung consecutively, each song blending into the next, perhaps augmented by a Power Point or video presentation.  In this increasingly popular liturgy, the singing is followed by a dramatic presentation which, in turn, is followed by congregational announcements, most of which focus on the various cell-group programs.  Increasingly, the sermon is a brief, colorfully illustrated, emotionally touching collection of anecdotes, in which the hearer is not so much directed to the law and the gospel, but, in one way or another, to one’s self.”

“Anxious to intensify the religious experience of parishioners or to make the church accessible to the nonchurched, many Reformed congregations have turned to new measures, to drama, dance lessons, and even a service arranged thematically by the name of the local professional sports franchise.  Such practices are rather more indebted to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival practices than they are to Geneva, Heidelberg, or Westminster Abbey.  Such practices are also symptoms of the synthesis of Reformed worship with the emerging modern culture in which, as Philip Rieff noted, hospital and theater replace the church” (p. 73).

 R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).

(This is a re-post from October, 2011.)

Shane lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Avoiding False Spirituality/Spiritualities

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesThere are many popular quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities in existence today.  The “Christian” bestsellers typically include books about spirituality without a clear explanation of or belief in the gospel.  Some popular “Christian” authors deny key aspects of the historic faith and others talk about being spiritual without much dependence on Scripture.  You can find bestselling books about someone supposedly going to heaven and you can read a book that puts words in Jesus’ mouth.  Most of the time, these spiritualities are quite man centered, focused on internal feelings and emotions.

These things have happened before in history.  For just one example, after the Reformation there were radical reforming groups such as the Anabaptists – some of whom rejected the written Word of God only to focus on the inner voice/word/light (called “mysticism”).  Around 1700, Dutch Reformed pastor Wilhelmus a Brakel even addressed this pietism/quietism/mysticism in his systematic theology, since Quakers, Pietists, and other such sects had come on the scene.  The chapter is called, “A Warning Exhortation Against Pietists, Quietists, and all Who in a Similar Manner have Deviated to a Natural and Spiritless Religion under the Guise of Spirituality.”  In this chapter, Brakel gives 6 propositions to help Christians stand firm in biblical spirituality and avoid quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities.  Here’s an edited summary:

1) A Christian must have great love for the truth; all splendid pretense void of love for the truth is deceit.  The truth is the way of salvation as revealed by God in his Word (John 17:17, Eph. 1:13).  There is no other way unto salvation but one.  Christ’s church has this truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is the means whereby God draws sinners out of darkness (James 1:18, 1 Pet. 1:23).  God’s truth in Scripture is what true faith rests upon and what our life must be regulated by.  We are obligated to stand on this truth and uphold it – we must never trifle with the truth.

2) A Christian must have great love and esteem for the church (Ps. 27:4, 122:1-2).  The church is the congregation of the living God (Rom. 9:26), his people whom he loves.  Who would not have the highest esteem for the church which as God and the Lord Jesus as King?  How can one claim to love God and love the church – his children – an not have esteem for her? (1 John 5:1).  If you do not love the brothers, you certainly do not love God – regardless of what you may say.

3) The Holy Scriptures are the only rule for doctrine and life.  In the Word all saving truth is comprehended, upon which the church is built, and which God has given to the church for the purpose of spreading and preserving the truth.  This the Pietists either reject or minimize.  The Word is everything to the church.  There is no church without the Word and there is no Word without the church.  He who wishes to live godly and desires to be saved must regulate his intellect, will, affections, words, deeds, and entire religion according to this Word.

4) Regeneration is the originating cause of true spiritual life, and of all spiritual thoughts and deeds (Luke 6:45, Rom. 8:5). A person can appear to be very religious and spiritual, which even shows up in the writings of pagans, but if a person is not regenerated by God, this religion and spirituality is nothing but darkness and pollution, and not worthy of being called spiritual.  Regeneration is not separating yourself from the world; it is not ‘sinking away in God;’ it is not losing sight of yourself.  Rather, it is a complete change of man wrought by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  It is being brought from death to life and involves the whole man.

5) A Christian continually avails himself of faith.  True religion means going to Christ, receiving him and entrusting yourself entirely to him.  Faith in Christ is a daily exercise, a daily reality.  It is not as if one can believe a few times, and then move along.  Rather, one exercises faith as long as he lives.  Although true faith waxes and wanes, it constantly trusts in Jesus.

6) All of man’s felicity, here and hereafter, consists in communion with and the beholding of God.  God savingly reveals himself to his reconciled children who presently believe in him, and thus not to the world – not to unconverted and natural men (Mt. 11:27, John 6:46, 2 Cor. 4:6, etc).  Many unconverted engage themselves in beholding God by means of their natural light.  They speak about divine meditations, doing so with expressions which are lofty as their imaginations can devise.  But we must follow the advice of the apostle: Believe not every spirit, but test the spirits… (1 John 4:1).  To follow one’s own spirit and ideas, as if they were from the Holy Spirit, is to run to one’s own destruction.  Therefore it behooves all Christians to live in the presence of God, avail themselves to his will found in the Word, and to heed the Spirit speaking in the Word.

We need these propositions today as much as God’s people did in 1700!  Remember, not every spirituality and religious thought is biblical and Christian.  Brakel’s six propositions, which are based on the Word, will help us steer clear of false spiritualities and religions and help keep our feet firmly planted in the historic Christian faith.

You can read the entire chapter in volume 2 of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems

One Of The Great Mistakes Of Pietism

Product Details These are great words from a great book by Louis Berkhof: Assurance of Faith.

“It was one of the great mistakes of the Pietism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that, in seeking the assurance of faith, or of salvation, it divorced itself too much from the Word of God.  The basis of assurance was sought, not in the objective promises of the gospel, but in the subjective experiences of believers.  The knowledge of the experiences that were made the touch-stone of faith, was not not gathered from the Word of God, but was obtained by an inductive study of the subjective states and affections of believers.”

“In many cases these were not even put to the test of Scripture, so that the true was not always distinguished from the counterfeit.  Moreover, there were unwarranted generalizations.  Individual experiences and experiences of a very dubious character were often made normative, were set forth as the necessary marks of true faith.  The result was that they who were concerned about the welfare of their soul turned attention to themselves rather than to the Word of God, and spent their life in morbid introspection.”

“It is no wonder this method did not promote the assurance of faith that fills the heart with heavenly joy, but rather engendered doubt and uncertainty and caused the soul to grope about in a labyrinth of anxious questionings, without and Ariadne-thread (string) to lead it out.  This method of seeking assurance by looking within rather than by looking without, to Jesus Christ as he is presented in Scripture, and by making the experiences of others, especially of those who are regarded as ‘oaks of righteousness’ normative, has not yet been abandoned entirely in our circles.  Yet it [this method] is a most disappointing one.”

“If we would have the assurance of faith, the first great requisite is that we make a diligent study of the Bible, and more particularly of the glorious promises of forgiveness and salvation.  After all it is only in the Word of God and in the living Christ, as he is mirrored in the Word, that we find the objective basis for the assurance of grace and perseverance to the end.  The free promises of God are the foundation of our faith, and it is only on the strength of these that we place our trust in Christ as our Savor.  These promises are absolutely reliable and have their confirmation in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).  These promises are not only sure, but also unconditional, i.e. they are not conditioned by any work of man.”

Well said.  If you don’t have all the feelings, emotions, and spiritual experiences of other Christians, don’t despair.  Feelings, emotions, and spiritual experiences didn’t die on the cross for us; they cannot save us – Jesus did, he can and does.  If you truly trust in him you are saved, even if you don’t always feel it.  In other words, solid assurance has to do with an empty tomb, not an emotional fervor. 

shane lems

Lutheran Pietism vs Lutheran Orthodoxy

This is a repost from January, 2008.

A LCMS pastor and dear friend of mine recently gave me Bo Giertz’s Hammer of God to read as a sort of “fun” read.  It was not only fun, it was outstanding.  This book is fiction but it is based on historical and theological happenings in 19th century Sweden.  This book could be Walther’s lectures on the Law and Gospel set in narrative/story form.  Here’s a blurb from a dialogue between an old codgy Lutheran orthodox pastor and a young warm Lutheran pietist minister named Fridfeldt.

“So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that.  What do you believe in?”  Fridfeldt stared dumbfounded at his superior.  Was he jesting with him?  “But sir, I am simply saying that I am a believer.”

“Yes, I hear that my boy, but what is it that you believe in?”  Fridfeldt was almost speechless.  “But don’t you know, sir, what it means to believe?”

“That is a word which can stand for things that differ greatly, my boy.  I ask only what it is that you believe in.”

“In Jesus, of course,” answered Fridfeldt, raising his voice. “I mean–I mean that I have given Him my heart.”  The older man’s voice became suddenly as solemn as the grave.  “Do you consider that something to give him?”  By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears.  “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”

“You are right, my boy.  And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved.  You see, my boy…it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give Him one’s heart and commit oneself to Him, and that He now accepts one into His little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on Him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is the chief.  One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to Him.  The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap.  A fine birthday gift, indeed!  But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him.  That is how it is….  And now you must understand that these two ways of believing are like two different religions, they have nothing whatever to do with each other.”

Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God trans. Clifford Ansgar Nelson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1960), 147-8.

shane lems

sunnyside wa