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The Weekly Hauerwas: Pietism & the Christian Intellectual Tradition

I’ve been reading Stanley Hauerwas for quite a few years and have read most of his many and scattered writings.  And I think it’s about time I start posting a bit more on his theology, as I probably know his work better than any other theologian’s.  So, I’m going to start bringing all seven of my devoted readers a weekly post of some kind on Hauerwas. My copy of his newest book The State of the University finally came yesterday.  It is vintage Hauerwas, with some great gems and always enjoyable theological witticisms.  Here’s one that I particularly liked:

We Methodists are heart people.  Baptists have no hearts at all.  Instead Baptists have the Bible which they use as a club to beat one another into submission.  In this respect I am on the side of the Baptists.  (p. 132)

This quote occurs in the context of Hauerwas’s discussion of the inability of Christian universities to sustain their distinctively Christian character.  He lays the blame for this reality largely at the feet of pietism, and I think he’s absolutely right.

One of the great deficiencies of pietism was the belief that the Christian intellectual tradition could be left behind.  No more did Christians need to quarrel about the two natures of Christ.  Moreover, pietists often had little use for the church.  Christian doctrine as well as an overemphasis on the church from the perspective of pietism only leads to conflict, it not religious wars.  Of course pietism did develop an intellectual tradition.  It is called Protestant liberalism, which means Protestants became advocates of the universalism that the growth of the modern state found so useful.  (p. 132)

Pietism always denigrates the intellectual and the theological in the name of experiential-expressive forms of religious devotion.  Hauerwas is right that pietism has always been useful in modernity to aid in the construction of social-political structures which have their own hidden theological agenda, generally that of the divinization of the state and/or market.  An amorphous attitude of piety can be channeled to serve a variety of political ends.  And thus we have the fervor of the religious right and the passion of the German Christians.  Both are examples of how the enthusiasm of a pietistic faith can be channeled to server the powers that be.  That is why I cannot stomach pietism and think it a detriment to the church.  On this point, Stanley is right on.  


  1. aaron g wrote:

    I think the first quote was taken from a lecture he gave at Baylor, a Baptist university.

    Saturday, July 21, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:


    you can’t think of any redemptive qualities that pietism provides for Christian spirituality? I don’t want to debate, because I can see weaknesses with pietism as well, and I think your points here, in general, are well taken; just curious if you believe that pietism is totally a lost cause?

    Saturday, July 21, 2007 at 10:53 pm | Permalink
  3. adamsteward wrote:

    OOh boy, I’m excited for this series. Which number is on my forehead, 5? I think next week you should go with the quote from the Methodist summer camp.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  4. Derrick wrote:

    Not really either here nor there, but the opinion regarding pietism reminded me of something Moltmann wrote in theology of Hope that seems to parallel Hauerwas’ critique:

    “A Theology which settles faith in the ‘existence’ of the individual, in the sphere of his personal, immediate encounters and decisions, is a theology which from the viewpoint of sociological science stands at the very place to which society has banished the cultus privatus in order to emancipate itself from it. This faith is in the literal sense socially irrelevent, because it stands in the social no-man’s-land of the unburdening of the individual- that is, in a realm which materialist society has already left free to human individuality in any case. The existential decision of faith consequently hardly provokes the counter decision of unbelief any longer, and is consequently not really engaged in a struggle with unbelief at all. What it actually does constantly provoke is its own non-commital character- namely, the now notorious attitude of refusing to take sides in disputes of faith that have long become socially irrelevant, the well known ‘religion void of decision.’ The battle of faith is socially no longer necessary, since for social life it has no longer any binding character. The transcendent point of reference which is constituted by man’s free subjectivity, and in view of which this proclamation addresses him, has already been socially neutralized before it can be made use of in the decision of faith. Hence this theology threatens to become a religious ideology of romanticist subjectivity, a religion within the sphere of the individuality that has been of the individuality that has been relieved of all social obligations. Nor does the appeal of its existential radicality prevent the Christian faith, as thus understood, being brought to social stagnation.” (p.316)

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 2:38 am | Permalink
  5. Yes, some types of Pietism have degenerated into anti-intellectualism. Pietism as a movement started out as a balance to an over emphasis on scholastic confessional theology. It didn’t say that one should become mindless about faith — only that one should also be concerned about matters of the heart and should be acting out faith in the public arena. In Pietism faith is not merely a private experience. Spener was the 17th century voice for holistic Christianity. He even started the University of Halle. Francke started an orphanage and taught hermenutics. He also taught the children in the orphanage he had started Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

    And certainly not all Pietistic intellectuals became theologically liberal.

    Hauerwas is making sweeping generalizations.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 4:22 am | Permalink
  6. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    Good insight by Hauerwas. I’ve been eyeing that book for my thesis this coming year, and I think it’ll have to go on the “to-read” list.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  7. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I would have to agree with Brad . . . while pietism, uncritically engaged, can be blamed for certain anti-intellectualisms within Evangelical America, and abroad, historically this was not so or its intent. I think the strength of pietism is its emphasis upon heart-felt devotion for the Christ of the scriptures. I believe Os Guiness speaks of the “Ghost-Mind” created in part by the pietist project, and I agree that this is an unfortunate fall-out–but not necessarily so.


    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Well, I plan to post more on pietism at some point, so I’ll save some of the argument for later. However, when I mention pietism I’m primarily speaking historically about German pietism in the 17th century which was a reaction against rational theology which definitely gave birth to protestant liberalism (see Schleiermacher – “a pietist of a higher order”).

    I take it for granted that whenever we’re talking about any sort of “movement” we are always speaking in generalizations which will never apply exactly to any given person. However, pietism was far more than a movement stressing “heart-felt devotion”. It definitely had an anti-intellectual component to it, and a strong interiorizing trajectory which made Christian life far more a matter of the individual’s inner feelings and dispositions. These became, for pietism the primary locus for understanding the faith. Certainly different strands of pietism took to different extremes, some more so than others, but the historical trajectory towards interiorization and anti-intellectualism is clearly there.

    The only question I would have for advocates of pietism is, if the prevalent anti-intelletualism in the church today didn’t come from pietism, where did it historically come from?

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby Grow wrote:


    like I said, I don’t disagree with most of what you said . . . and pietism as a reaction to the rationalism of its era indeed went to extreme levels; all my point is, is that heart-felt devotion was a strength of the pietist reaction. I think Multnomah’s heritage is w/o argument rooted in the pietiest trajectory, but there is plenty of “intellectualism” or critical thought done within that context. The interiorization and individualism spawned by pietism, I agree is problematic.

    I think anti-intellectualism, among other factors,within evangelicalism, did, in part stream from aspects of the pietist trajectory.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    “heart-felt devotion was aa strength of the pietist reaction.”

    I can go with that.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  11. “The only question I would have for advocates of pietism is, if the prevalent anti-intelletualism in the church today didn’t come from pietism, where did it historically come from?”

    Pietism definitely gave birth to anti-intellectualism in some places — and liberalism in others. But those were not the only children of the movement.

    Monday, July 23, 2007 at 3:26 am | Permalink
  12. TJ wrote:

    By the way, tomorrow is Hauerwas’ birthday.

    Monday, July 23, 2007 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  13. Paul Dubuc wrote:

    Interesting discussion. Was Bonhoeffer a pietist or an intellectual Christian? I guess I see dangers in the extremes to which either pietism or intellectualism can lead. Head and heart have to balance each other sometimes though it’s a mistake to think they are necessarily opposed to one another. Could pietism have been a reaction to excesses produced by scholasticism? I think the tendency to carry ideas to excesses like anti-intellectualism or hyper-intellectualism can be attributed to our fallen nature and the quest for a level of certainty, intellectual or spiritual, that only God can possess. It’s as old as the forbidden fruit in Eden.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I wouldn’t call Bonhoeffer a pietist, though I’m sure he was influenced by certain streams of German pietism. Though, of course his biggest influence was Karl Barth who was critical of pietism.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  15. Paul Dubuc wrote:

    I wouldn’t call Bonhoeffer a pietist either, but I bring him up because I think he bore the marks of that influence as well as that of others that I wouldn’t call intellectuals. I think that without this influence he might have been a very different man, one that most of us living today would have never heard of. Barth is well known for his great mind, Bonhoeffer even more for his great example.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  16. Chris wrote:

    I thought that Bonhoefer spoke negatively about pietism as non-biblical. Makes sense in light of what is said on the ferer of the German Christians

    Monday, March 10, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  17. Centropian wrote:

    I have read that Bonhoeffer found pietism to be unbiblical and the last desperate attempt to save Christianity. Being brought up an ELCA lutheran I find it interesting that my childhood church’s senior finds Evangelical Catholics to often be sitting on the other side of the room from pietists as church growth are often on the other side from the peace and justice group. He finds the church growth group and pietist group to be more in common and Evangelical Catholics and Peace and justice group to be more in partnerships as well as the later two more supported in seminaries. What does this say about the relationship of pietism and the intellectual tradition? What does this say in relation to Martin Luther’s attitude towards Carlestadt?

    Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink

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