What It Means to Say “I’m a Pietist” in 2016

For five years as of last week, I’ve been keeping a blog called The Pietist Schoolman. Ever since John’s kind introduction mentioned it, I suspect that a fair number of you have been asking yourselves, “What kind of schoolman?” So before I get too far into my run here at The Anxious Bench, I thought I ought to explain what I mean by “Pietist” — and why I associate myself with a term that tends to inspire blank looks, or antipathy.

Just know that I’ll probably never write a less historical post in my tenure at this history blog. For I’m not going to try to recap the early modern church renewal movement in the German-speaking lands that gave us the term “Pietism.” That story is complicated enough that it would take far more than the word count of this post to do it anything like justice. (You can find some suggested readings here if you’d like to learn more.)

Spener 275th memorial plaque
Memorial plaque in Frankfurt am Main celebrating the 275th birthday of Pietist founder Philipp Spener – CC BY-SA 2.5 (Flacus)

And in any case, when I say that I’m a Pietist, I can’t possibly mean it in anything like the way that John does when he identifies as a Presbyterian or my in-laws do as Lutherans. Several American denominations can be connected back to German Pietism — none claiming this heritage so vocally as my own, the Evangelical Covenant Church — but here in the 21st century there is no Pietist movement tracing a centuries-long theological, organizational, or other kind of line back to Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Francke, or their more radical counterparts.

But if nothing like a global communion of churches, denominations, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions, Pietism nonetheless endures. “The Pietist movement,” observe theologians Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn, “was energized by a spiritual ethos that outlived it and can be seen in many sectors of contemporary Christianity…. This ethos transcends denominations and even traditions; it ‘pops up’ in all kinds of Christian movements, organizations, and individuals” (Reclaiming Pietism, pp. 8, 9).

(As John noted earlier this month, Roger has made the same movement/ethos distinction in assessing the state of evangelicalism in America.)

For example, Roger and Christian locate such an ethos in 19th century revivals and 20th century theology. Separately, Roger has also proposed that Pietism is a cousin to Pentecostalism. Scholars like Peter Heltzel and Valerie Cooper have suggested affinity with Pietism in African American Christianity. Responding to one representative of that phenomenon (Efrem Smith, who will be the keynote speaker at an event on Pietism I’m helping to organize for later this year), even John Piper has called himself a “pietistic Calvinist.”

Actually, I don’t think the notion of Pietism-as-ethos is all that unfamiliar to most readers… but they’re more likely to understand it as a synonym for rather dangerous tendencies within Christianity.

Perhaps most popular is the equating of Pietism with overly emotional quietism, too heavenly-minded to be earthly good. That critique can be heard with Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Reformed accents. (A personal favorite here: Lewis Smedes once blamed Pietism for Watergate!) And it’s not just Protestants; in a homily earlier this year, Pope Francis warned against confusing “piety with a pietism which is just a superficial emotion… Piety should not be confused with the feelings some have for pets while remaining indifferent to the suffering of others.”

Gehrz (ed.), The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationEven advocates of Pietism have had to admit its pitfalls. For example, Karl Olsson, who did much to promote Pietism as the official historian of the Covenant Church and president of its college and seminary, spent much of his life wrestling with the dour legalism embedded in that heritage. (His office had a lithograph inscribed, “A Pietist disturbs the joy in a tavern.”) In my own research, I’ve seen again and again that Pietism can inspire both anti-intellectualism and a distinctive vision for Christian colleges.

But such tensions are hardly unique to Pietism. And we probably shouldn’t be surprised that a religion as paradoxical as Christianity produces variations whose strengths can quickly become weaknesses.

“It is much easier to use an honorable word as a dishonorable handle,” wrote Olsson in response to one Lutheran polemic against Pietism. Nonetheless, I’m in the middle of writing a book with Covenant pastor Mark Pattie that seeks to recover that “honorable word”: Mark and I will argue that the Pietist ethos can help renew Christianity here in the 21st century, as the Pietist movement did in the 17th.

That book won’t be out until the middle of next year, but you can hear us think through the project in the second season of my podcast. We discussed our definition of Pietism in the second of those twelve episodes, but here let me sum it up in terms of three distinctive emphases.

Living faith

What Christians believe about God matters. But belief is not enough. So instead of propositions, Mark and I suggest that Pietism emphasizes prepositions. Before we attempt to make theological sense of God and long after intellectual certainty runs into mystery and paradox, we experience life in, with, through, under, and for God. Christians who forget this, who crave too intensely the certainty of fixed intellectual propositions, risk substituting “dead orthodoxy” for the “living, creative, active, powerful” faith that the early Luther yearned for. Instead, Pietists tend to follow Philipp Spener in concluding that “that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.”

Hope for better times

Whether or not this phrase of Spener’s remains our book’s title will be up to the marketers at InterVarsity Press, but “hope for better times” gives direction to that living faith made active in love. Regarding the Resurrection as history’s hinge, Pietists exhort Christians to live, as Christoph Blumhardt once preached, “in Jesus Christ’s future.” Believing that there is hope for changed persons, we tend to appeal to the New Testament’s most audacious metaphors and speak of “new birth” and “new life.” But we also believe that God works through new persons to bring into being a new church and a new world.

An irenic spirit

Covenant Affirmations

An aversion to “needless controversy” and “angry disputation” shaped Spener’s approach to church renewal, and his ecumenical bent (seen even more clearly in the work of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf) remains central to the ethos that survives the German Pietist movement. At Bethel we talk about this in terms of a prevailing “irenic spirit,” but I think the best way I can explain it is, again, to refer to my denomination. All the Covenant Church requires for membership in its congregations is that one “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to follow him as Lord” and accept the Bible “as the word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.” Past that, the denomination has just six core affirmations, the last of which is that we give each other freedom to disagree on other matters, knowing that the unity of the Church is inseparable from its witness and mission.

Again, none of these instincts are infallible. I try not to follow them recklessly, and especially value how studying and teaching other Christian traditions has helped me temper the worst impulses of the Pietist ethos.

But for better and worse, Pietist describes me better than any other term.

And at a time when pressures from within and without the church tempt Christians to live in fear rather than hope, to focus more on guarding the boundaries of faith than making it active out of a love that can reconcile every estrangement, I suspect that Pietism can again help to renew individuals, churches, and the world.

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