Setting Course — Excerpt from Chapter 6

Our (Canadian/American Reformed) History

Revivalistic pietism was not only an American phenomenon.  In fact, pietism began in Europe, specifically in Germany.  The revivalistic side of things doesn’t really seem to have caught on the continent, but you do find it in Great Britain.  In fact, Whitefield was British.  But what did pietism look like in Europe?

In the time of the Reformation and the century following, confessional Protestantism placed a lot of emphasis on the doctrine of justification – what God does for the believer outside of the believer, declaring the believer righteous because of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Though it is often attributed to Martin Luther, it was J. H. Alsted, a Reformed theologian, who first said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  However, beginning in the seventeenth century, voices were heard that placed more emphasis on sanctification – what goes on in the believer’s life and the believer’s obedience to God.  Pietism stressed the holiness of the Christian and godly living.  Of course, the Bible teaches that we are to be holy as God is holy, that without holiness no one will see the Lord, that if we love Christ we will keep his commandments, that faith without works is dead, and that we are to live godly lives in Christ Jesus.  Those are biblical truths we should all affirm.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that a Christian life is inconsequential, irrelevant or unimportant.  This is about where the emphasis falls in our churches and in our general view of the Christian faith.  In pietism the emphasis fell on the Christian life.  The gospel was sometimes taken for granted and the focus was on holy living.  An obedient life became the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.

Philipp Jacob Spener was one of the pioneers of pietism in Europe.  He founded the University of Halle, a college devoted to training Christians for obedient lives, as well as providing instruction in academic areas.  When he established this college, there was a fear that this emphasis on being inward looking and focusing on man’s efforts would result in a far-reaching subjectivity and even anti-intellectualism.  Doctrine would be made out to be irrelevant and the slogan of “deeds and not creeds” would triumph.  These concerns were well-founded.  The children of the first pietists were leaders in the attack on the Christian faith that took place during the Enlightenment.  Men like Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Soren Kierkegaard undermined the very foundations of the faith.  As Michael Horton noted, “The war would come from the prayer closet, not the classroom, and it would be led by those who insisted that they were pious Christians, not vicious atheists.” (Made in America, 108).  There is a trajectory in history from pietism to activism to unbelief.

There have been waves of pietism in European church history.  One particular wave took place in the nineteenth century.  In the early 1800s, a pietistic movement took place in Geneva, Switzerland.  This movement was Calvinistic in its orientation.  It placed emphasis on personal faith and regeneration, but was not concerned with the state of the church.  This movement was known as the Reveil.  Though it originated in Switzerland, it soon spread to other European countries.  For instance, it spread to Germany and there focused mainly on alleviating social misery, addressing poverty and injustice.

It also spread to the Netherlands.  People were reacting against the rationalism and materialism of the late Enlightenment period – not realizing that the very rationalism they were reacting against had itself grown out of earlier pietistic movements!  Many of the followers of the Reveil in the Netherlands were upper class folks who were concerned for social justice.  Rather than becoming a movement to reform the Reformed Church, which was desperately adrift, it settled on being a movement which stimulated people to social and political action.  As such, it did a lot of good for the Dutch poor and Dutch society in general, but it did little to recover the gospel in Dutch churches.

As I just mentioned, the situation in the Dutch churches was ugly.  Though it’s hard to imagine, men would become ministers in the Reformed churches without ever having studied or read the Canons of Dort.  There are accounts of men administering the Lord’s Supper and joking about it, making a mockery of it.  Even the name of John Calvin was virtually unheard of, to say nothing of the true gospel of Christ.  Those were dark days.

In the 1820s and 1830s, a reformatory movement took place in the Dutch Reformed Church.  We know this as the Secession or Afscheiding and it’s typically associated with the year it began, 1834.  The Secession was a movement to re-establish confessional orthodoxy in the Netherlands.  It was led by men like Hendrik de Cock and H.P. Scholte.  Through various means, ministers like de Cock were introduced to the gospel for the first time and they believed it and it transformed them and their ministry and led to massive changes in the ecclesiastical landscape of the Netherlands.

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The above is an excerpt from chapter 6 of Setting Course:  Sermons and Essays Shaping the Vision of a Local ChurchYou can order the book here.  Until August 15, you can get 15% off by using the code MYBOOK305.  All proceeds go in support of the building fund of the Providence CanRC.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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