What does it mean when a denomination or theological tradition is described to be "pietistic"?

The definitions of Merriam-Webster for "pietistic" mean:

  1. of or relating to Pietism
  2. a : of or relating to religious devotion or devout persons b : marked by overly sentimental or emotional devotion to religion : RELIGIOSE

I do not think the second definition is the one that is used when someone describes a theological tradition as pietistic, because that one seems to connote general piety or being a very pious person. I think the first definition is close, because it merely uses the adjectival form of Pietism.

I have also done some reading in The A to Z of Lutheranism, looking for the entry on Pietism, and it characterizes Pietism as:

ecumenical, emotional, lay-focused, and interested in institutions only if they are voluntary associations focus on the regeneration or conversion of the believer, and on living, active, heartfelt faith opposition toward [Lutheran] Orthodoxy for its overattention to the will and the intellect, seeing it as encouraging a barren and arid assent rather than living faith Later, Pietism opposed its own child, Enlightenment rationalism, for its overattention to reason, seeing it as setting skepticism above faith.

I am aware that Pietism has greatly influenced other Christian denominations, but I am still not sure what it means essentially for a Christian denomination to be described as pietistic.

Do all the definitions sum up to some sort of anti-intellectualism or something more?

closed as off-topic by ScotM, FumbleFingers, Edwin Ashworth, Misti, tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 16:29

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    @DoubleU, you have convinced me of your sincerity. I will help you. First, when people disagree about religion and politics, the tendency malign and label opponents obfuscates the discussion. Second, defining anything as historically influential and humanistically positive as pietism as anti-anything is irrational. Third, as salt is not anti-pepper; and swallowing is not anti-chewing; so piety is not anti-intellectual. Fourth, Philipp Spencer, Pietisms founder, earned his Masters degree by age 18. Pia Desideria contained 6 proposals, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philipp_Spener – ScotM Feb 19 '15 at 6:11
  • Add Philipp Spencer's six proposals to the research of your question and then we can parley. – ScotM Feb 19 '15 at 6:14
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    The main difference between the new Pietistic Lutheran school and the orthodox Lutherans arose from the Pietists' conception of Christianity as chiefly consisting in a change of heart and consequent holiness of life. Orthodox Lutherans rejected this viewpoint as a gross simplification, stressing the need for the church and for sound theological underpinnings. from Wikipedia, "pietism" – user98990 Feb 19 '15 at 8:29

Pietism was a word of derision applied to a movement of Lutheran clergy and laity, who insisted that the Lutheran Church must apply its faith in Jesus Christ practically in real life with spiritual discipline and loving acts of kindness:

1690s, from German Pietismus, originally applied in derision to the movement to revive personal piety in the Lutheran Church, begun in Frankfurt c.1670 by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705).

See piety

early 14c. (late 12c. as a surname), "mercy, tenderness, pity,"

from Old French piete "piety, faith; pity, compassion" (12c.),

from Latin pietatem (nominative pietas) "dutiful conduct, sense of duty; religiousness, piety; loyalty, patriotism; faithfulness to natural ties," in Late Latin "gentleness, kindness, pity;"

from pius "kind" (see pious). Meaning "piousness" attested in English from c.1600.

Also see pity (n.).

early 13c., from Old French pite, pitet "pity, mercy, compassion, care, tenderness; pitiful state, wretched condition" (11c., Modern French pitié),

from Latin pietatem (nominative pietas) "piety, loyalty, duty" (see piety).

Replaced Old English mildheortness, literally "mild-heartness," itself a loan-translation of Latin misericordia.

English pity and piety were not fully distinguished until 17c. Transferred sense of "grounds or cause for pity" is from late 14c.

As in so many other controversial countercultural movements, the derogatory term was co-opted by Pietists to motivate adherents toward their transformational goals:

In Pia Desideria, Spener made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the Church:

  1. to more thoroughly acquaint believers with scripture by means of private readings and study groups in addition to preaching
  2. to increase the involvement of laity in all functions of the church
  3. to emphasize that believers put into practice their faith and knowledge of God
  4. to approach religious discussions with humility and love, avoiding controversy whenever possible
  5. to ensure that pastors are both well-educated and pious
  6. to focus preaching on developing faith in ordinary believers

A self-defined pietistic denomination of Christianity would not acquiesce to the disparaging misrepresentations of its opponents, but would vigorously pursue its goals to balance robust intellectual disciplines with effective practical behavior.

The Oxford English dictionary faithfully describes both the pietist and anti-pietist connotations of pietism:



1.0 Pious sentiment, especially of an exaggerated or affected nature.

1.1 (usually Pietism) A 17th-century movement for the revival of piety in the Lutheran Church.

Considering the goals of Pietism, the consistent, self-defined pietist would be neither hostile nor unreasonable, so the definition of anti-intellectual doesn't seem to apply:


Hostile or indifferent to culture and intellectual reasoning:

In the flexible art of Jujutsu, it does seem quite plausible to describe an under-informed critic of these kind reasonable people as pseudo-intellectual:


  1. a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship.

  2. a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status.


  1. of, relating to, or characterized by fraudulent intellectuality; unscholarly:





  • The "well-educated and pious" part certainly rings a bell. I remember reading A History of Lutheranism about pietism, and it mentions that, still not really getting it. Perhaps, the Orthodoxy maintains well-educated, but not necessarily pious, while Pietism advocates maintain education and personal piety? – Double U Feb 19 '15 at 13:32
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    The Rev. Dr. Gritsch was a devout and noble Lutheran, who understood and appreciated the tenets of Pietism. I suggest you arrange to migrate this question to christianity.stackexchange.com in order to expand the discussion and your understanding of the positive impact that Pietism had on Lutheranism, Christianity, Europe and the world. – ScotM Feb 19 '15 at 14:07
  • Thanks. I am going to think about formulating on-topic questions that may be suitable on that SE. – Double U Feb 19 '15 at 14:40

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