December 3, 2014

Two Forthcoming Books about Pietism




Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition by Roger E. Olson and Christian T. Collins Winn will be published in January by Eerdmans. The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons edited by Christopher Gehrz will be published in January by InterVarsity Press. See for details.


These two books emerge out of a decades-long project at Bethel University in Minnesota where I taught (1984-1999) and where Christian and Christopher teach (theology and history respectively). The project was and is to reclaim Bethel’s Pietist heritage. Bethel was founded in the 19th century by Swedish immigrants who happened to be Baptist but were also Pietists—Pietists who became Baptists. The Swedish Baptist Conference (later renamed the Baptist General Conference) is a distinctive Baptist tradition in being Pietist first and Baptist second. The movement grew out of a Pietist movement in Scandinavia called the (in Swedish) Lasäre—“Readers”—because they met in small groups to read and discuss the Bible which was illegal in Sweden in the early 19th century (and before). Many of these Scandinavian Pietists emigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century to find religious freedom. In their home countries they were being persecuted. In the U.S. they eventually founded several distinct denominations that became the Evangelical Free Church of America and the Evangelical Covenant Church of America.  But many became Baptists—even before arriving in the U.S. Some of them melted into the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches). That was the case with many Danish Baptists. Others, however, retained their distinctness—especially the Swedes. Bethel and the BGC emerged out of that tradition. During the 20th century, however, the BGC and Bethel lost much of their Pietist heritage as they melted into the larger evangelical movement. Gradually fundamentalists joined as pastors and began to pressure the denomination and university (college and seminary) to conform to American fundamentalism. The Pietists were noted for an “irenic approach” to non-essentials of the Christian faith. For example, they decided not to require premillennialism and agreed to disagree about Calvinism and Arminianism—permitting both to co-exist on an equal basis within their movement. Gradually, however, the non-Pietist fundamentalists who came into the denomination without that irenic spirit began to pressure it and the college and seminary (now a university) to elevate non-essentials to essential status. The motto of many Pietists has been “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity (love).” During my own fifteen years among the Swedish Baptists I felt the increasing pressure from pastors and some constituents to drop the irenic spirit and move with the rest of evangelicalism in a more fundamentalist (or neo-fundamentalist) direction. For example, I had a dear colleague who taught Old Testament who happened to be amillennial in his view of the Kingdom of God and eschatology. Throughout his teaching tenure at Bethel he was harshly attacked by some pastors and constituents who thought premillennialism, if not dispensationalism, was an essential of evangelical faith. When one of my other colleagues published a book containing his view of the future as open even for God (“open theism”) many pastors called for his firing even though that view did not in any way contradict the denomination’s statement of faith (which was nearly identical with the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of core doctrines).


Out of that milieu of controversy came a strong impulse, especially on the part of Bethel faculty, to rediscover, retrieve, and renew the denomination’s and university’s Pietist heritage—and then to tell the whole world about it with a hope of other evangelicals re-embracing the Pietist ingredient in American evangelical Christianity. “Pietism” had become almost a dirty word even among evangelicals; it was being misrepresented and surrounded with misconceptions. (One BGC pastor told me “Pietism is just a mask for doctrinal indifference.”)


Bethel held several conferences with notable scholars of Pietism present and presenting. An earlier book entitled The Pietist Impulse in Christianity came out of those conferences. (I already blogged about it here earlier.) Now these two books emerge from that decades-long project. The book Christian Collins Winn and I authored (above) is independent of the project but inspired by it. The one edited by Christopher Gehrz is a product of the project and contains essays on Pietism and Christian higher education by (mostly) Bethel faculty.


I believe this retrieval and renewal of the Pietist heritage deserves greater notice and comment by evangelical leaders. Hopefully that will come. We will keep pressing for it.


Unfortunately, the reason this project and these books are necessary is the overwhelming suspicion of Christian inwardness and experience among “mainstream” evangelical leaders—especially theologians. Although we believe Carl F. H. Henry and his minions have made great contributions to “the evangelical mind,” we also think they brought about an over-emphasis on the intellect to the neglect of the heart. In other words, we think there is a “scandal of the evangelical heart”—especially in evangelical theology where any mention of experience immediately raises cries of “Schleiermacher!” (Friedrich Schleiermacher was the “father of liberal theology” and claimed to be a “Pietist of a higher order.” What he really said was that he was still a “Herrnhutter of a higher order.” “Herrnhutter” was a term for “Moravian.” Somehow that quote of his, in a letter to his sister meant for his father who had disowned him, has been translated as “Pietist of a higher order.”)


For me, this project is similar to the one I have worked on for twenty-five years—of reclaiming “Arminianism.” Like “Arminianism” “Pietism” has been so distorted and surrounded with so many myths that those of us who claim the label and the heritage it represents struggle to overcome the undeserved stigmas placed on them and us.

I urge you to at least go to and read the descriptions of these two books and the promotional statements for them. Then, I hope you will purchase and read them. If you are not involved in Christian higher education the volume edited by Gehrz may not be for you, but mine and Christian’s will interest all who have any interest in Christian history and especially those with an interest in the “other” side of evangelical history and theology (the one rarely mentioned or explored by the semi-official spokespersons for “mainstream” evangelicalism).

June 19, 2013

Further Thoughts on Pietism and Christian Higher Education: Seven Years Later

Roger E. Olson

            Seven years ago I spoke at Bethel College’s faculty retreat about “Thoughts on the Christ-centered College/University” using Wheaton College’s then president Duane Litfin’s book Conceiving the Christian College. I focused that talk on Chapter 4 of the book that dealt with faith-learning integration.

Propelled to do so by this assignment I re-read that talk. I stand by everything I said there today, seven years later. There and then I focused on recognizing and preserving, even strengthening a pietist vision of Christian higher education. After surveying several models of Christian higher education I reflected on what I regarded as Bethel’s distinctive one that draws on its pietist heritage. And I compared that with the ethos of the seminary where I now teach.


In contrast to Litfin’s “systematic” and “umbrella” paradigms of Christian higher education and Robert Benne’s “atmospheric” one I recommended one based on “conversional piety.” In it, I said, “Christ-centered education begins with the experience of knowing Jesus Christ personally.” I went on to talk about how such a model of Christian higher education values transformation over information without discarding or demeaning information and critical thinking.


From a pietist perspective, the main purpose of Christian higher education is the shaping of Christian character, helping students become “whole and holy persons.” Such transformation requires life-transforming encounters with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without setting aside critical inquiry or generous orthodoxy, it focuses on orthopathy and orthopraxy. The ultimate goal or telos of such Christian higher education is not mere knowledge or skill but character.


That means that Christian higher education is primarily about instilling certain dispositions in persons, dispositions that can be summed up in the word “integrity”—all of life and thought centered consistently around the person of Jesus Christ, his love, his justice, his peace, his care for persons. In two crucial sentences I summed up the ethos of such a Christian higher education community. Commenting on what its vision of Christian character and community forbids and promotes I said that it “forbids duplicity, double standards, revenge, punitive treatment of persons, excessive competition, harassment and apathy.” And I said that it “promotes compassion, honesty, justice, fairness, redemptive treatment of persons, forgiveness, cooperation, respect and dedication.”


I have had the privilege of working and living in two Christian higher education communities that strived, and I trust still strive, to embody this pietist ethos. During my fifteen years at Bethel I observed in amazement how, for the most part and most of the time, the faculty, administration and staff worked together for the common good under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our common experience of him and commitment to his Lordship rubbed off on students as we modeled it before them. A concrete example of that was my co-teaching the required freshman course “Christianity and Western Culture” for nearly fifteen years. The four of us prayed together, collaborated, critiqued ourselves and each other in love, and demonstrated before the freshman how Christian colleagues can work and teach in harmony in spite of very different personalities and intellectual styles.


I’ve been at the seminary where I now teach for almost as long as I was at Bethel—fourteen years. Upon arriving there I recognized a pietist impulse at work in the way the curriculum was designed, the emphasis on spiritual formation, and the person-centered ethos of the community. At the center of everything about the seminary is Jesus Christ and personal experience of his living, transforming presence. Professors as well as students meet once weekly for hour long “covenant group” meetings in which we practice lectio divina and pray for each other and for our community and the world. In my covenant group we sing hymns and tell our stories.

What I’ve been trying to say is that there is a distinctive pietist ethos that shapes Bethel and my seminary and similar Christian communities of higher education. Because it is Christ-centered, it is also person-centered. To use an early pietist phrase, it sees the purpose of existence as “for God’s glory and the neighbor’s good.” Therefore, the purpose of education is to glorify God and form persons in God’s image, that is, to heal and make whole God’s image in them.


I believe this ethos translates in many ways into the character of a pietist-inspired institution of higher education. One way is that such an institution, or better, community, will be a safe place for sincere questioning. One of my last statements in my talk to the Bethel faculty at their retreat in 2006 was “I believe a Christ-centered and Christ-serving college or university is one where community members feel safe entering into conversation with each other about constructing a Christian life and world view that draws on and does justice to all the disciplines without prejudice.” Vital higher education requires critical thinking and inquiry. A pietist community of higher education should be one where people who dare to question “settled answers” intelligently and sincerely, without a spirit of iconoclasm or skepticism for its own sake, are affirmed rather than shamed into silence or pushed away.


One of the pathoses of pietism, of course, is anti-intellectualism. Another is super-spiritual other-worldliness. Yet another is legalism. None of these is necessary to true pietism, but they are all manifestations of what I call pietism “gone to seed”—pietism that has lost its way and allowed certain dangers inherent in its spiritual emphasis to take over and control it. In reaction against these dangers, attempting to cure these pathoses, some react against pietism and throw the baby out with the bathwater—something I continually warn against doing. My argument here is that true pietism is Christ-centered and therefore person-centered and therefore never anti-intellectual, other-worldly or judgmental.


The life of the mind is part of the image of God and exercising it even with critical questioning of settled traditions is part of transformation, growth in the image of God. God is the creator of the world and Christ is Lord of it, so super-spiritual otherworldliness that ignores justice here and now is antithetical to Christ-centered piety. Judgmental legalism is by its very nature crushing to persons; true pietism is grace-filled and compassionate.


Another of pietism’s pathoses, however, is the tension it must negotiate between spirituality and intellectual honesty and excellence. Two things can happen within a pietist ethos. It can lead to anti-intellectualism or it can lead to dualism—a separating between the life of the spirit and the life of the mind so that they are never integrated. The challenge facing a pietist-inspired community of higher education is emphasizing equally and in a non-competitive way both spiritual experience and critical, intellectual inquiry in all aspects and disciplines of the institution. This is part of the ongoing conversation and even debate that makes up the pietist tradition. There is no easy solution; no rules or litmus tests can be given out.


The reason this is a tension that often turns into debate is that true pietism, as opposed to liberal pietism, holds to a cognitive content of Christianity. For true pietism, going back to its roots in Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke and others who founded the movement, Christianity is not only a feeling. It is that, but it cannot be reduced to that. True pietists did not and never have tossed aside Christian orthodoxy or the Bible as authority for faith and practice—even as they held that transforming experience of God is primary for defining true Christianity.


It is simply a misunderstanding of pietism to assume, as some have, that since person-transforming spiritual experience of God is what’s permanent and most important in Christianity there is no firm, definite, non-negotiable cognitive content to Christianity. That would be like assuming that since persons are more important than rules, rules are unnecessary. Communities must have rules, but from a pietist perspective they serve persons, not the other way around. So it is with beliefs, doctrines. They serve persons, not the other way around. But they are necessary. In a pietist perspective, doctrines have a ministerial function, not a magisterial one.


Okay, but that still leaves a question unanswered. What happens in a pietist community, especially one dedicated to critical inquiry, “science” broadly understood, when a person not only questions but denies a settled, non-negotiable doctrine? Sooner or later, every pietist community faces that issue.


Of course, there’s no pietist formula for handling heresy. There’s no pietist rule book that addresses the problem and tells how to approach it. So, we are left to draw on pietist impulses, the pietist ethos, if you will, to discern how best to handle it.


It seems to me that if the person pronouncing the heresy is part of the community, the community itself has to take some responsibility for the failing to nurture him or her in the right way. But it also has to consider the possibility that the heretic is right and the community’s tradition is wrong. Finally, being person-centered, not rule- or doctrine-centered, the community ought to express to itself and the world around it that, even though this is not what the community believes, it values the person enough to keep him or her as a vital member and move on with dissent in its midst.


I am told that during the formative years of the Baptist General Conference, when it was the Swedish Baptist General Conference, it ran into this very issue. One of its leaders denied the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the minutes of a meeting of Swedish Baptist leaders, they gently remonstrated with him. When he persisted they affirmed him as a valued member anyway, prayed that God would help them deal wisely with the disagreement, and went their separate ways without excommunicating him. This story was often told by BGC leaders as an example of pietist “irenicism.” Eventually, however, as the BGC was affected by fundamentalism and then entered into the wider, “generic evangelicalism” of the American evangelical movement, it became something of an embarrassment to some in that denomination. The point is, however, that authentic Christian pietism, as a movement and ethos, always held firmly to the doctrine of the Trinity while at the same time making room for those who had their doubts.


This pietist irenic ethos was put to the test at Bethel in the late 1990s. Some constituents of the college and seminary judged that a professor had expressed heretical opinions and ought to be fired. Great pressure was put on the administration to do just that. The administration organized a “Day of Theological Clarification” which was really a heresy trial. The “jury” was composed of all the tenured professors of theology of the college and seminary. Some who were retired were invited to serve on it. Most of us disagreed with our colleague’s controversial opinion, but we voted unanimously to keep him among us. The same result happened when the denomination took up the issue of what to do with him. I would say the institution and denomination passed the test with flying pietist colors.


Finally, is there a pietist way of knowing, of investigating, of thinking about the phenomena of heaven and earth—the things we study and teach in higher education? I do think pietism affects, colors, influences the ways we go about our investigations, but I don’t believe in a “pietist epistemology” as such. How does it affect, color and influence our ways of studying and thinking about heaven and earth?


I judge that there is real tension between classical foundationalism and pietism. At best the two fit uncomfortably together. Pietism is not an epistemology, but it is a posture—a posture toward reality. So is classical foundationalism. I know I tread on thin ice here, so I’ll tread lightly.


It seems to me that classical foundationalism tends to treat knowledge as objective; perspective is set aside, bracketed out. Only that counts as “knowledge” that can be proven objectively or at least intersubjectively using logic working from indubitable truths of reason or experience. “Faith” is ruled out as irrelevant at best and corrupting of the search for truth at worst.


While classical foundationalism may work well, as an ideal, in the so-called “hard” or “experimental” sciences such as physics, it seems less appropriate in the search for truth in the human sciences. Postmodern thought is showing us that even in the so-called hard or experimental sciences, however, something like faith, at least perspective, is inescapable. Cold, hard rationalism is at best an ideal. There is no “view from nowhere.”


But Christian pietism says there ought not to be a view from nowhere. Not only does such not exist, for the Christian it ought not exist. Kierkegaard’s “passionate inwardness,” faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of all, a transformed perspective on reality that puts God at the center, is part and parcel of the transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit in conversion. Conversional piety is the ongoing process of being transformed in mind as well as in character—to see everything in the light of God as creator and redeemer.


This Christian pietistic perspectivalism plays itself out, I think, in various ways, depending on the discipline. But all have in common “seeing the world as” God’s good creation, loved by God and being redeemed by Jesus Christ who calls us into being created co-creators of a new creation with God through the Holy Spirit. They also have in common love for God’s creation and hope for new creation, for redemption, for the promised liberation of creation from bondage to decay and faith that our efforts, together with God’s grace and power, can make a difference penultimately even if only God can liberate creation fully and ultimately.


Put another way, Christian pietism is a posture that “sees” all disciplines taught in the university as servants of the missio dei—of God’s mission in the world to heal it and draw it to himself.


“Integration of faith and learning,” then, from a pietist perspective, is not so much subordinating every discipline to a rigid, detailed, rationally coherent worldview as regarding every discipline as a servant of the mission of God and therefore dedicated to healing, to making whole, to bringing harmony out of chaos and peace out of strife.


The issue for mathematics, for example, is not what difference Christian doctrine makes for how it’s practiced but what difference Christian faith as participation in the mission of God makes for viewing mathematics’ purpose. Why be a mathematician? A pietist answer is “For God’s glory and the neighbor’s good”—and creation’s healing.


I my own opinion, there are certain theories, ways of seeing reality as, that Christianity rules out. They may not be as obvious in mathematics as in, say, the social sciences, but they are probably somewhere in every disciples as it is practiced by secular theorists. I believe a true pietist Christian cannot embrace social Darwinism—a common alternative view of life’s meaning and purpose that infects both the “right” and the “left” in the modern world.


A pietist Christian will always shine the critical light of faith in God as creator and redeemer on every theory and adopt and adapt only those that fit with the mission of God into his or her practice and teaching of his or her discipline.


Again, it is my contention that pietism is not an epistemology but a posture; it does not require any one theory in any discipline, but it does rule some out. I think it tends to conflict with rationalism and finds certain points of congeniality with postmodernism. I explained what they are in my article “Pietism and Postmodernism: Points of Congeniality” published in Christian Scholar’s Review in 2012.



April 1, 2012

Recently John Piper declared himself a pietistic Reformed person.


As someone who likes to think of myself as a Pietist and even (others will have to judge to what extent this is true) an expert on Pietism, I have been asked by several people what I think of that claim.

First, it’s essential to make a distinction between Pietism as a movement and pietism as an ethos. The ethos can exist where the movement no longer does or never did.

As a movement, Pietism was launched by the ministries of Philip Jakob Spener, August Hermann Francke and their (mostly) Lutheran colleagues in Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It spread to most of Protestant Europe and North America and through Moravian missions to India, Central America and eventually most of the world.

Only remnants of the original Pietist movement still exist–in denominations and organizations that identify themselves with the Pietist movement historically and theologically. For example, The Moravian Church and the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. I would say the Renovare organization is a contemporary revival of Pietism.

The pietist ethos, however, is found in virtually every Protestant denomination and has even filtered into the Catholic Church in many places–especially the U.S.

The ethos is harder to describe than the movement. But, if the ethos is not going to be compatible with anything and everything, it must have some historical roots in and connection with the movement. So I return to the original movement to define the ethos and identify its contemporary presence.

In order to keep this relatively brief, I will tell what I think pietism as an ethos MUST include:

1) Belief that authentic Christianity always involves a decision for Christ and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (“conversional piety”).

2) Belief that conversional piety, within a supernatural frame of reference, is the enduring, permanent essence of Christian life.

3) Personal practice of conversional piety in a life of devotion to Jesus Christ through prayer and Bible reading.

4) An irenic spirit that seeks to follow the motto “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” where “essentials” refers to basic Protestant orthodoxy (Trinity, deity of Christ, atonement, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, etc.)

5) An emphasis on personal holiness that, without legalism, promotes pursuit of Christian perfection (even if that is believed to be impossible before death) through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, does Piper fit that profile? The one historical feature of Pietism and pietist ethos that I’m not sure he embodies is the irenic spirit. I’m sure he thinks he does and I’m sure his followers think he does. I’m not sure he does in the sense I take it to mean.

There is nothing about Reformed theology per se that puts it in conflict with Pietism or the pietist ethos. (Although virtually all the original Pietists were synergists, not monergists.) Certainly a Calvinist can be pietistic.

I define the pietist ethos as necessarily including a broad vision of who can be Christian that emphasizes the center rather than the boundaries. And the center includes basic Protestant Christian doctrines agreed on by virtually all Protestant Christians (excluding those who, like Schleiermacher, succumbed to cultural accommodation to the extent of no longer believing in a supernatural world view).

I am only offering my personal opinion. Certainly Piper and anyone else has a right to claim the pietist ethos as their own. My own study of Pietism, however, leads me to think it’s ethos is not compatible with anything and everything and one thing it is not compatible with is a hyper-orthodoxy that elevates, for example, one theory of the atonement to the status of an essential of Christian belief. (If Piper is not doing that, then I will stand corrected, but that is my impression from his explanation of what he meant by “Farewell Rob Bell” in the CT interview.)

Just to be clear, I am not disagreeing with anything Piper said about himself and piety in that interview. I’m sure he is a very pious person. As an expert on Pietism, however, I have my doubts about whether he embodies that ethos as I understand it.


March 16, 2011

Below you will find an essay entitled “Reclaiming Pietism.”  It is a response to critics of Pietism such as Mark Talbot of Wheaton College (who wrote against Pietism in Modern Reformation).

Your responses are welcome.

Reclaiming Pietism


Roger E. Olson



To the man or woman on the street the term “Pietism” probably evokes a feeling of disdain if not revulsion; it conjures up images of super-spiritual, holier-than-thou religious folks strictly to be avoided.  To the slightly better informed person in the pew it probably produces an only slightly more positive response; it often brings to mind memories of a beloved elderly spinster—the proverbial “church lady”–who disapproved of everything fun in the name of Christ.  To the hopefully better educated person in the pulpit “Pietism” may describe a historical movement of overly emotional preachers who attempted to manipulate their listeners to have spiritual feelings that bypassed the intellect and led many of their followers to disengage from the world and eschew the life of the mind.

These and many other images of the Pietists and of Pietism linger in popular culture and among Christians who arguably have been misled about the Pietist movement and Pietism in general.  I had the advantage of growing up in a family deeply influenced by Pietism where the word itself still meant something positive.  My maternal grandparents were members of the Evangelical Free Church of America and several of my uncles and aunts belonged to either that denomination or its cousin the Evangelical Covenant Church of America.  Other relatives were very devout and pious adherents of the Christian Reformed denomination or the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) or the Salvation Army or some other distant offshoot of Pietism.  Pietism in its true, historical sense permeated my large, extended family’s life.  My stepmother prayed and sang hymns as she cleaned the house; something that made me somewhat reluctant to invite friends home after school.  My grandmother sang us to the dinner table at family reunions with Charles Gabriel’s “All things are ready, come to the feast; come for the table now is spread….”  Every family unit had at least one “promise box” in its kitchen or dining room and evening meals usually began with “family devotions.”

A major focus of at least one course I took in college was the Pietist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries where I learned about the great German post-Reformation Protestant church renewers Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf—the “noble Jesus freak” (1700-176).  And our little denomination regarded itself as a descendent of theirs.  We especially loved Zinzendorf’s “intimacy with Jesus” motif.   After college I attended a seminary of the German Baptist tradition steeped in Pietism and learned more about the movement; for the most part what I learned about it was positive.

So, when I encountered negative attitudes towards Pietism during my doctoral studies I was somewhat perplexed.  I knew secular folks and probably liberal Protestants (to say nothing of Catholics) disdained it, but then I heard my beloved mentor in my doctoral program using “Pietist” and “pietistic” as insults.  He routinely used them to label individual Christians and churches he considered overly emotional, subjective with regard to faith, anti-intellectual and detached from society and its problems.  He was a Barthian Methodist and one of his favorite objects of scorn was First Methodist Church of Houston and its pastor Charles Allen, author of influential devotional books such as God’s Psychiatry.  My mentor called Allen and his congregation “that warm-hearted crowd down on Main Street.”  Later I learned that my mentor had grown up in a fundamentalist offshoot of the Church of the Brethren—a pietist denomination—and that he was in deep reaction against everything about it.

Then I went to Munich to study with Wolfhart Pannenberg and heard him speak disparagingly of Pietism.  Several times I heard him say “There is one thing I am not and that is a Pietist.”  During my tenure teaching theology at Bethel College (now Bethel University), founded by Swedish Pietists, a leading pastor of its controlling denomination said to me “Pietism is just a mask for doctrinal indifference.”  An evangelical philosopher at Wheaton College wrote an article for Modern Reformation magazine entitled “What’s wrong with Pietism?” and accused it of being a negative influence on American religious life insofar as it “cuts itself loose from a doctrinally full and sound faith.”[1] All you have to do to discover this very negative treatment of Pietism is simply “google” the word.  There you will encounter articles such as “How Pietism deceives Christians” which equates Pietism with spiritual elitism and concludes that “Pietism cannot help but take people’s minds off of the gospel.”[2]

All these pejorative treatments of Pietism conflicted with what I had learned of historic Pietism and most of what I experienced of Pietism during my formative years.  On the other hand, many of them touched a sensitive nerve; I had sensed certain tendencies in Pietism that could, if not restrained, lead to these problems.  So I decided to take up the study of Pietism for myself and I read voraciously everything I could get my hands on about its history and theology and spirituality.  One person I encountered in that project was United Church of Christ theologian Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010) who became my primary theological mentor and helped me recover a very positive sense of Pietism while being wary of its dangers.

Almost every book about Pietism opens with a similar disclaimer—that it is one of the most misunderstood and wrongly vilified movements in Christian history.  Typical is Pietism scholar F. Ernest Stoeffler’s comment at the beginning of his magisterial The Rise of Evangelical Pietism that it is “one of the least understood movements in the history of Christianity.”[3] He continues by describing common stereotypes of Pietism and reasons for its rejection by many Christians, to say nothing of secularists.  I agree with the thesis of Covenant theologian Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom that “Pietism has caused trouble.  Nevertheless, its trouble is worth redeeming.”[4] In other words, yes, Pietism has had some deleterious effects in Protestant Christianity and perhaps the wider American society where it has become part of the fabric of popular religion.  However, for the most part, those deleterious effects are based on distortions of true, historical Pietism.  There is, after all, as with most movements, its classical, historical expression and what I call “Pietism gone to seed.”  In spite of its distortions and their harmful consequences, especially in folk religion, I find much good in Pietism and I believe its recovery can greatly aid even mainline churches in their efforts at renewal and mission.

So, by “reclaiming Pietism” I mean rediscovering its true history, reconstructing it in a positive mode by focusing on its distinctive features, correcting misconceptions about it and recommending it for church renewal and mission in this postmodern age.

I hope to accomplish four things in this brief talk.  First, I will attempt to define Pietism and offer what I consider a helpful distinction about the term.  Second, I will go beyond mere definition by describing Pietism’s primary characteristics, features, hallmarks, motifs.  Then, third, I will lay out and correct several of the most common myths and misconceptions about Pietism while admitting that it has inherent weaknesses of which Pietists must beware.  Finally, I will try to lure you back for my second lecture by hinting at some of the benefits of a recovered and restored Pietism for Christian churches.

Defining Pietism is a notoriously challenging task.  It’s a bit like the blind men and the elephant in the ancient Indian parable about different perspectives; everyone who touches Pietism tends to come away with a somewhat different definition.  Pietism scholar Jonathan Strom has thoroughly explored this blooming, buzzing confusion of approaches to defining the concept in his 2002 Church History article “Problems and Promises of Pietism Research.”  There he surveys several influential approaches both broad and narrow. Some scholars limit “Pietism” to the ministries of influential Pietists of the 17th and 18th centuries such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke. For these scholars, Pietism died out with them leaving behind traces throughout European and American Chritianity (and, of course, through them the rest of the world).  Others, however, argue that Pietism is “’nothing more and nothing less’ than the history of Protestantism in the [last] three centuries.”[5]

Here I will simply offer a sampling of influential definitions of Pietism and then outline my own approach to the formidable task of defining it.  According to prominent Pietism scholar Stoeffler, Pietism is simply “experiential Protestantism”[6] that, in its early expression, constituted a “second phase of the Reformation.”[7] For him, it has no “socially perceptible form,”[8] and offers no new doctrines,[9] but is a “new emphasis” among Protestants.[10] Stoeffler prefers to think of Pietism as an “ethos” than a movement even though he recognizes, of course, that it came to special expression in a loosely organized movement in Germany associated with Spener and Francke.[11] For him this ethos and emphasis revolves around a “cornerstone” which is the doctrine and experience of rebirth.[12]

Methodist theologian Ted Campbell views Pietism as one manifestation of a larger phenomenon that he labels “the religion of the heart” that includes Puritans and Catholic mystics.  “Pietism” can be used either as a general label for this religious emphasis on heartfelt experience or as a specific label for the movement inaugurated by Spener and led later by Francke and their followers.  Campbell describes Pietism, in either sense, this way: “Pietism stressed personal religious experience, especially repentance (the experience of one’s own unworthiness before God and of one’s own need for grace) and sanctification (the experience of personal growth in holiness, involving progress towards complete or perfect fulfillment of God’s intention)…”[13]

Historian W. R. Ward acknowledges the inevitable ambiguity of the concept “Pietism” and argues that it can be kept to a minimum by tying it to one person—Spener, for whom “The crux…was the inner spring of spiritual vitality, the New Birth, a doctrine which became a Pietist party badge not because it was peculiar to them but because of the prominence they gave it.  The essence of the matter was how best to realise [sic] the priesthood of all believers.”[14] Thus, for Ward, Pietism was part of a larger “evangelical awakening” in Europe and Great Britain that extended to North America and the term should be used only for the work of Spener and his faithful followers.

Pietist theologian Donald Durnbaugh admits it is a bold person who attempts a definition of Pietism because of its “spacious, trans-territorial and trans-confessional character.”[15] But he goes on to define it historically in terms of “affinity networks” among like-minded experiential Christians all of who looked to the Herzens-Religion of Francke and Moravian leader Zinzendorf.

German historian Hans Schneider has done more than anyone else in recent years to delineate the distinction between two types of Pietists in the 17th and 18th centuries—“churchly” and “radical.”  The former, like Spener and Francke, sought to renew and reform the established churches from within while the latter, like Gottfried Arnold and the Inspirationists (today’s Amana Colonists in Iowa) left the established churches and often sought fellowship with God in small, independent groups of seekers or as individuals.  Whether churchly or radical, however, Schneider says, Pietists evidenced a “shared identity”: “They considered themselves to be children of God, ‘comrades in Christ,’ and addressed one another as brothers and sisters.  As a group,” he argues, “they all spoke the same language.”[16] That common language was about being “awakened” inwardly, spiritually through the Holy Spirit.

Boston University theologian Carter Lindberg acknowledges the existence of a “vast swamp of Pietism studies” that makes any approach to definition difficult.[17] However, he dares to rush in where angels fear to tread and offer a “thumbnail definition”: Pietism, he says, was and is “a Bible-centered movement concerned for holy living that flows from the regenerate heart.”[18]

This is just a sampling of scholarly attempts to define Pietism.  I find none fully satisfying; perhaps Pietism is, like most religious labels, another one of those “essentially contested concepts.”  However, I would not like to leave the matter there.  I define Pietism by first distinguishing between two types—Pietism as a historical religious movement that sprung up in Germany and flourished beyond German borders especially in Scandinavia and North America, and Pietism as a religious ethos, an ideal type of spirituality rooted and grounded in Protestant Christianity extending from historical Pietism with antecedents and consequents.  All Pietism is tied in some way to the ministries of Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf, but they had precursors such as the Protestant mystical writer Johann Arndt (1555-1621) and after they were long gone their spiritual ethos lives on in various expressions.

I prefer to treat Pietism of both types less by definition, which can be too confining and is always incomplete, than by discovering its common features, characteristics, hallmarks.  On these there is greater agreement among scholars than on any definition.  I believe two such features, both particular, distinctive spiritual emphases, tie all the rest together to stand at the center of a religious-spiritual-theological gestalt that is Pietism throughout the ages and today.  They received classic expressions by Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf, but the ethos and its gestalt flourish today where their names are never heard.  Those are the closely related concepts of the inner man and conversional piety.  I’ll come back to them later. First a brief survey of others’ opinions about Pietism’s common characteristics.

Stoeffler lays out four characteristics that together made up the distinctive core or center of Pietism which he regards as a centered rather than a bounded set.  The margins of Pietism may express these idiocyncractically and may place other features beside them, but Stoeffler rightly argues the movement and type must be understood from its center and not from its margins.[19] The first common, core characteristic of Pietism is the belief that “The essence of Christianity is to be found in the personally meaningful relationship of the individual to God.”[20] This is, of course, a summary of statements about true Christianity sprinkled throughout the sermons and writings of Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf and all their followers.  Almost with one voice they condemned mere formal religion of “head knowledge” and argued that the purpose of all preaching should be to lead listeners into “intimate personal connection” with God through the Savior Jesus Christ.  Zinzendorf may have put this somewhat more emphatically and even sentimentally than others, but all Pietists would agree with him that “The believer can converse and walk with the Savior as with an invisible friend.”[21]

The second characteristic is “religious idealism” by which Stoeffler means spiritual anti-complacency or anti-spiritual complacency.[22] Pietism always makes a distinction between merely “nominal” Christianity and “true” Christianity and says the latter involves inward transformation that effects real change in a person’s life.  This Pietist emphasis was well expressed by Francke who declared that “True faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us and bestows upon us the new birth from God, which kills the old Adam, and fashions us into a man who is entirely different in heart, soul, mind, and in all his powers.”[23]

The third characteristic is the necessity of conventicles—small religious groups of true Christian believers exercising the priesthood of all believers through Bible study and prayer.[24]

Stoeffler’s fourth characteristic of Pietism is “biblical emphasis” which is not garden variety biblicism but belief in an “open Bible”—a Scripture illumined to the minds and hearts of ordinary true believers by the Holy Spirit that stands above all the pronouncements of trained theologians and churchmen.[25] Spener brings this distinctively Pietist view of the Bible to expression in his classic Pia Desideria: “[i]t is not enough that we hear the Word with our outward ear, but we must let it penetrate to our heart, so that we may hear the Holy Spirit speak there, that is, with vibrant emotion and comfort feel the sealing of the Spirit and the power of the Word.”[26]

My own study of Pietism, both as a historical movement now gone and as an ethos very much still alive, leads me to affirm two key common features, core characteristics, as essential to its identity.  They are, of course, set like jewels in the setting of Protestantism as their background.  The first I call conversional piety.  All the early Pietist leaders with the possible exception of Spener emphasized the necessity of a definite conversion including repentance and faith with the result of regeneration.  Spener emphasized repentance, faith and regeneration with less clear emphasis on a definite conversion experience.  Francke had his own dramatic conversion experience and concluded from it that “I had to make a beginning anew to become a Christian.”[27] He went on to preach to everyone “Likewise, you must also be newborn by the thunder of the power of God.”[28] Similar testimonies and exhortations can be found in most Pietists even as they disagreed about how emotional this experience should be, how much feeling should accompany it (e.g., tears and sighs) and whether it had to be datable or not.

Out of conversion-regeneration would inevitably arise “progressive amendment of life,” otherwise known as sanctification.  Pietism has been associated with legalism and there is no doubt some truth in that, but the early Pietists all claimed that real morality arises from a transformed, converted heart and is not real if it is imposed and accepted reluctantly.  Stoeffler rightly notes that Zinzendorf, like all Pietists, insisted that the real fountain of right living is not “a set of regulations but a joyful, affective, unutterably satisfying, personal relationship with ‘the Savior’.”[29] For all the Pietists, holy living was extremely important, but it was never to be treated as drudgery or coercion; in order to be “holy” it had to flow naturally from a transformed temperament—what Scottish Puritan preacher Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) called “the expulsive power of a new affection.”[30] For Pietists, the affections, often referred to as the “heart,” guide and direct the will.[31] The heart of a truly converted person wants to serve God with holiness of life and devotion even though perfection is eschatological.

Pietism’s second key common feature, core characteristic, essential to its identity, is the idea of the inner man.  This somewhat strange idea and ideas necessarily associated with it are somewhat difficult to pin down, but it appears in virtually every Pietist tome and sermon in some way.  Spener highlighted it in Pia Desideria: “Our whole Christian religion consists of the inner man or the new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life, and all sermons should be aimed at this.”[32] Of course, this notion of “inner man” is inextricably tied to conversional piety; conversion-regeneration changes the inner man which results in changes in the “outer man” which is one’s empirical “face” seen by the world at large.  According to Spener and all Pietists, the gospel aims at transformation of the inner man; it is not enough for the outer man to confess doctrines correctly or practice charity or engage rightly in sacraments and liturgy.  If the inner man of the person is not transformed by the Word and Spirit, all those activities of the outer man, though performed to perfection, are useless.

In fact, Pietists go further and claim that Christ’s own death on the cross is of no use to the outer man until the inner man is touched by it.  Pietist Philip William Otterbein (1726-1813) famously declared “Christ and his death do us no good unless Christ enters within us, destroying the kingdom of Satan within us, penetrating and renewing our spirit, soul, and body with His light and life.”[33] Otterbein’s exact form of expression may be his alone, but all Pietists going back to Spener would agree.  Francke scholar Gary Sattler argues that for Francke and all Pietists “the starting point and primary concern…is the inner person.”[34] According to him, the “inner person” designates the heart, soul, conscience and mind.[35] I would add that “heart” here means “affections”—what is loved and desired.  The “inner man,” then, is the individual’s virtue-inclinations, what he or she naturally and without external or internal compulsion “leans into.”  It is this dimension of the person preaching appeals to, the Word and Spirit touch, responds with cooperation in repentance and faith (all the Pietists were synergists), is transformed by God in conversion-regeneration, desires and enjoys fellowship with God, lives devoutly and piously, and progressively bends the outer man toward holiness.  Francke compared this with the life of a tree: “Following Christ begins in an interior way and it moves out into the exterior and this can be understood in the similitude of a tree.”[36] In other words, the roots must be healthy for the branches and leaves to flourish.

Other hallmarks, key characteristics and features, core concerns and commitments, might be identified as essential to either historic Pietism or the Pietist ethos or both.  Stoeffler mentioned conventicles, small groups, collegia pietatis as a hallmark.  That would be true especially of the historical movement; whether it is required for a Pietist ethos is debatable.  Certainly there have been Pietists throughout the last couple, three centuries who have not emphasized that.  I consider that more a contribution of the Pietist movement to the church in general than as a necessary feature of the Pietist ethos.  One could also debate eschatology and its relationship with Pietism.  Most scholars point out that Spener and Francke and many of their followers were chiliasts—millennialists of some kind.  Strom considers this one of historical Pietism’s essential features.[37] Without doubt Spener was a kind of postmillennialist; he believed in a coming new day of “better times” for church and society to be inaugurated by God himself with human participation.  His program for reform of church and society was meant to speed things along toward the kingdom of God on earth.  Francke was not as openly postmillennial, but he did practice something critic Richard Gawthrop labels a “promethean spirituality” intended to transform all of society through changing individuals’ lives.[38] Without doubt many radical Pietists engaged in apocalyptic speculations and some even attempted to set the date of Christ’s return.[39] However, I do not consider millennialism or apocalypticism or focus on eschatology any essential part of the Pietist ethos.

I began by mentioning that Pietism has a bad reputation.  Why would it?  Don’t most American Christians believe many of these same things?  Well, at least many do—especially those who called themselves “evangelicals” before the Religious Right hijacked the label.  My argument is that true, historical Pietism and the Pietist ethos played and continue to play a major role in contemporary evangelical faith.  However, not everyone has a positive impression of Pietism and that includes many who proudly wear the label “evangelical.”  Certainly many so-called “mainline” critics have negative impressions of it and not all of them are mere stereotypes derived from ignorance.  Pietism was controversial during its heyday as a movement and it has continued to be controversial.  What I want to do here is clear up some of the most common myths and misconceptions about Pietism that make it controversial while admitting that it has some inherent weaknesses even Pietists should watch out for.

Great controversy and debate surrounded Pietism in its early stages.  Spener was a very cautious promoter of Pietism who quoted Luther often and claimed to agree with everything Luther taught, but he was still accused by his opponents—mostly preachers of the so-called “orthodox party” within the Lutheran state churches—of 283 heretical teachings.[40] He survived the charges and accusations because repeated government investigations acquitted Spener, Francke and other Pietist leaders within the state churches of charges of heresy and corruption.  Nevertheless, Spener had to leave Frankfurt where he served as a kind of district superintendent over many Lutheran parishes and then also Dresden where he was court chaplain.  He ended up in Berlin, protected by the Elector Prince of Prussia Frederick William who eventually embraced Pietism.  His critics made his life a living hell anyway.  The same was true for Francke who was constantly refuting spurious charges and accusations. Like Spener, he was protected by the king.  Zinzendorf was not so lucky; his controversial words and ways caused him to be banished from his homeland of Saxony on more than one occasion.

What were and are the main accusations leveled against Pietism by religious critics?  (I’ll leave aside secular critics here, most of whom consider Pietism simply religious fanaticism.)  Among the more prominent and partly true ones are religious subjectivism and individualism, anti-intellectualism, other-worldly quietism, rejection of the key Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, in other words, semi-Pelagianism, and harsh legalism.  All these can be found sprinkled throughout books against Pietism such as Albrecht Ritschl’s famous three volume History of Pietism where the influential 19th century German Lutheran theologian concluded that Pietism was more akin to medieval, catholic, monastic, mysticism and asceticism than to Protestantism.[41] Karl Barth had a running battle with Pietism even though he admitted its influence on his own theology through Franz Overbeck (1837-1905) and the Blumhardts Johann (1805-1880) and Christoph (1842-1919).[42] According to Barth, Pietism amounts to “religious individualism” and “quietism”—a flight from the world.  He also accused it of semi-Pelagianism meaning that it emphasized too much the human contribution to salvation and devalued the sovereignty of God in salvation.[43]

Here it will only be possible to respond to some of the major charges and accusations against Pietism.  I will focus on claims that it is subjective and anti-intellectual, quietistic and otherworldly and semi-Pelagian or insufficiently Protestant.

What about the claim that Pietism is endemically subjective and anti-intellectual with regard to doctrine and theology?  Defenders of Spener and Francke have shown conclusively that they did not reject the life of the mind; they simply considered much theology speculative and a distraction from the point of Christianity.  Stoeffler rightly notes that “Pietists like Spener [i.e., churchly Pietists] constantly warned their followers against the dangers of subjectivism.”[44] Spener and Francke also insisted on thorough catechesis of children and converts.[45] But the main focus of negative attention has been on Zinzendorf because of his colorful rejections of systematic theology.  He liked often to say that as soon as you have put Christianity into a system you have killed it.  He stood against all rationalistic approaches to Christianity because he believed the transcendence of God inevitably includes mystery and ends in paradox.  But most importantly, he considered systematic theology and rational apologetics alien to the personal nature of faith: “Forcing religion into a fine-spun rational harmony was [for him] no substitute for faith, indeed it made faith harder by creating the impression that belief was a mathematical problem.”[46] In a typical Zinzendorf-ian way the Count appealed to theologians to avoid turning faith into a head trip:

Here one would like for God’s sake to beg all theologians, if they would only listen, not to take such pains constantly to represent our religion as agreeing with reason, as being common sense.  If writings of this kind are assigned as pamphlets, by which people earn a living for themselves, then it may pass.  But as soon as it is taken seriously, as soon as they want to demonstrate to atheists and common deists and people like that that our religion is a wisdom rooted in their heads, a discernment which they can take in their own way, then they are obviously threshing empty straw, according to all instruction of the Scripture.[47]

On the other hand, in spite of this aversion to highly rational, systematized theology, Zinzendorf was himself a student of theology and widely read in philosophy.  Spener and Francke and later Pietists such as the great biblical scholar Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) were avid students of Scripture, including the original languages and commentaries, and taught their parishioners and students to read and study.  Admittedly, for the most part, they had little use for Enlightenment philosophy that was budding during their lifetimes.  With Blaise Pascal they would respond to Descartes with the query “Do you love by reason?”  Still, there is very little evidence that the original Pietists were “fools for Christ’s sake” or promoted ignorance.  In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction.  Pietism scholar James Tanis waxes eloquent about the early Pietists’ “zeal for higher education”[48]

Is there, nevertheless, an inherently anti-intellectual bent in the Pietist ethos?  I think that is entirely possible; many Pietists have abandoned scholarly pursuits referring to seminary as “cemetery” and warning students of theology such as myself “Remember, there is such a thing as an over educated idiot!” (Which is what a Pietist uncle said to me the day before I left to study with Pannenberg in Munich!)  But anti-intellectualism and subjectivism are not necessarily tied only to Pietism; they are part of the very fabric of American society.  I would argue that subjectivism and anti-intellectualism are not proper to Pietism, per se, but are evidences of its decline from the vision of its founders and early leaders.  Theologian Donald Bloesch, mentioned earlier as in many ways my mentor, was anything but subjectivist or anti-intellectual even thought he did wish to preserve the priority of faith over reason in matters of Christian truth.[49] He was widely read in philosophy, theology and biblical studies, a student of culture and a prolific writer of scholarly treatises on theology, ethics and spirituality.  If he was anti-intellectual or subjectivist it would only be because he elevated revelation and faith over a foundationalist approach to theology.

Pietism has often been charged with being quietistic and other-worldly.  How true is that accusation?  Again, I will argue that it is untrue with regard to the Pietist movement while it may have some validity with regard to the Pietist ethos as it came to expression after Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf and their followers.  However, many Pietist leaders after them have evinced strong ethical commitments and have even been active in something akin to the social gospel.

Lutheran Pietism scholar Paul R. Kuenning sets out in The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism to show that true Pietism has never been and is not other-worldly or quietistic.  With regard to the charge of quietism he says

German Lutheran Pietism has often been characterized as quietistic or otherworldly, as fostering a subjective spirituality that retreated into its own world of mystical asceticism or private piety.  The inaccuracy of these descriptions when applied to the classical Lutheran Pietism of the Spener-Francke school becomes apparent through even a cursory examination of its exuberant ethical activism.[50]

Like many other scholars of Pietism, Kuenning runs through a long list of Pietists who have demonstrated social concern including especially Francke, who set out through his Halle Institutions, to transform Prussian society and the world.  Especially Württemberg Pietism as lived out by such leading lights as Bengel, Oettinger and the Blumhardts was socially and politically engaged in very progressive ways.  This has been demonstrated by Pietism scholar Frank D. Macchia in Spirituality and Social Liberation (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1993).  Kuenning concludes that

In summary, German Lutheran Pietism exhibited on all levels a concern for the poor and the oppressed that was advanced for its day and an ethical activism without precedent in the history of Lutheranism.  From a twentieth-century perspective it may well be accused of advocating a band-aid approach to social problems, but there can be little question that it made a solid contribution to an expanding concept of social justice.  It contained the impetus and the biblical-theological rationale for the moral crusades, abolitionists, and Social Gospelers of the nineteenth century.[51]

Kuenning does not leave the matter with assertions like that; his entire book is a close

examination of two particular case studies of Pietist and Revivalist Lutheranism in ante-bellum America.  Lutheran Pietist pastor and leader J. G. Schmucker (1771-1854) was a powerful preacher, revivalist, seminary founder (Gettysburg Seminary) moral reformer and a confessional Lutheran who took a leading role in abolitionism—something for which he paid a high personal price.  During the same ante-bellum period there was a strong anti-slavery German Lutheran synod called the Franckean Synod—after August Hermann Francke.  It was centered in upstate New York and took an uncompromising stand against slavery.  It was also thoroughly revivalistic.  The synod ordained the first black person to Lutheran ministry.[52] Time and space prohibit a lengthy description of either Schmucker or the Franckean Synod; suffice it to say here that they disprove any claim that Pietism is inherently quietistic or other-worldly.

Is it possible, however, that a quietistic and other-worldly tendency lurks within the Pietist ethos?  I consider that a very real possibility.  Like every religious ethos Pietism harbors certain tendencies that, if taken too far, have deleterious effects.  Certainly the Pietists I grew up around were quietistic and other-worldly.  One possible explanation is evangelical Christianity’s turn toward premillennialism and even dispensational apocalypticism in the post-Civil War era under the influences of D. L. Moody and fundamentalism.  It may be that many Pietists got caught up in these, exacerbating a natural tendency of any strongly inward-looking spiritual movement to abandon hope for the world.

Finally, what about the accusation that Pietism is inherently semi-Pelagian and non-Protestant because of a focus on good works and the human contribution to salvation?  Again, I think there may be some truth to this with regard to the Pietist ethos, especially as it has deviated from the intentions of the leaders of the Pietist movement.  Pietism has always emphasized the human person’s participation in his or her salvation, but the original Pietists were careful to preserve the divine initiative and to emphasize that salvation is all of God’s grace and received through faith alone.

Certainly Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf, as well as their followers, placed the emphasis of soteriology on conversion and regeneration, but they never denied objective justification.  According to Brown, “Spener felt that the Johannine and Pauline metaphor of regeneration represented a completion and an enhancement rather than a replacement of the equally biblical metaphor of justification.”[53] Sattler rightly notes that Francke agreed entirely with Luther about salvation being all God’s doing: “Seen theocentrically, all that happens [in salvation] is of God.  Experienced anthropocentrically, there is human effort required and expended in the cleansing of one’s heart.”[54] Otterbein totally rejected any medieval-like system of penitential merit and preached that “It is…certain that we can deserve eternal blessedness neither fully nor in part.  It is certain that everything is by free grace and that we become blessed by grace.”[55] But, like most Pietists, Otterbein also preached that “It is…equally certain that, in spite of all this, diligence in good works, or a pious, godly life, is absolutely necessary.”[56] However, like all early Pietists, he made clear that good works are done by the regenerate out of gratitude and to honor and praise God and not because justification depends on them.[57]

Perhaps no amount of quoting early Pietists will satisfy those who suspect Pietism harbors some hidden emphasis on merit in salvation; Calvinists always think that about Arminians even as Arminians vehemently deny it and affirm that salvation is initiated by God and that God does all the “work” of saving.  However, most of the early and later Pietist theologians have strongly affirmed justification even as they have attempted to recover a Protestant emphasis on devout and holy living.  Once again I point to Bloesch as my example.  He adamantly affirms that salvation is all of God’s grace and that justification and sanctification are distinct moments in the drama of salvation.  However, he sides with the Pietists and says this is something we can learn from them: “While acknowledging the logical priority of justification, they remind us of its inseparable connection with sanctification.  They concur in the judgment of the Reformers that God loves us as we are; but they go on to affirm that God wants us as He is.”[58]

What I suspect really annoys many Protestant critics of Pietism is its stress on decision; to some people strongly allergic to any human participation in the act of salvation this inevitably rings of works righteousness.  And, perhaps this is simply one of those watersheds in theology that cannot be leveled.  Bloesch expresses the classical Pietist commitment well: “Man is not yet saved until he lays hold of this justification in the decision of faith.  God has acted decisively for our salvation, but we must respond to His saving offer even though we can do this only through His Spirit.”[59]

Do many Pietists fall into a kind of implicit works righteousness by over emphasizing human decision to the neglect of divine initiative and empowerment?  I don’t doubt it.  There may be that weakness inherent in Pietism to be guarded against.  However, my own study of the early Pietists and later leading lights of Pietism has led me to conclude they agreed completely with Luther and the other Reformers that salvation is all of God’s grace and that even our first steps toward God are made possible by grace.

What I have attempted to accomplish here is to retrieve Pietism and repair its reputation as much as possible in such a brief presentation.  I have also attempted to be as objective as possible and admit where Pietism has its weaknesses.  It is my studied opinion that, in spite of its inherent negative tendencies, Pietism, rightly understood in terms of its historical foundations and its basic spiritual-theological ethos, has much to contribute to Christianity in this postmodern age.  I will unpack that thesis in more detail in my second presentation.  Here I will just comment on a few such possible, positive contributions.

First, a recovered, restored Pietism, purified of extremes to which it has sometimes been taken, can help infuse life into dried up and dying congregations.  This was, of course, the main goal of the original Pietists, especially those I have focused on as “churchly Pietists” who did not shake the dust off their shoes and abandon the established churches for individualistic spirituality.

I agree with Stoeffler who corrected misconceptions about the Pietist movement as sentimental enthusiasts reveling in emotion for its own sake.  Rather, he avers,

The leading Pietists were sober men who were considerably more concerned about cross bearing and the moral reformation of the person than about pleasurable feeling states, though it is highly questionable whether or not the latter can or should be completely eliminated from a personally meaningful religious faith.  What they endeavored to do was to correct the then current dry-as-dust orthodoxy in favor of the Christianity of the reformers, which was a living, vital, and hence affectively satisfying faith.[60]

Every other scholar of early Pietism that I have read has said much the same about men like Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, Arnold, Tersteegan, Oetinger, Bengel, et al.  Their focus was on church renewal and vitality, not on positive feelings for their own sakes.

Bloesch, the late 20th century evangelical theologian, who was also “mainline” and a Pietist, emphasized experience of the living God that is life and world transforming over a theology of glory that is often the sign of a Pietism gone to seed.  He fought both quietistic mysticism and radical religious enthusiasm while affirming “faith as a living experience as well as decision and trust.”[61] Bloesch spoke often of the Christian life as a drama and a battle that transcends mere ritual or dogma.  “We affirm,” he wrote, “that the life of devotion is the battleground on which our salvation is fought for and continually recovered.”[62]

So what does all this have to do with church renewal and vitality?  What is missing from many congregations is any sense of struggle except struggling to maintain the institution.  Pietism injects a sense of dynamic tension and victory into Christian living; it insists that the primary purpose of Christianity is transformation, not mere information or organization.  Too often mainline pastors and their congregations think that any emphasis on transformative spirituality has to be tied to charismatic phenomena and so they step away from spiritual experience that touches the affections entirely.  But why is it okay to cry at a movie but not in church?  Why is it okay to get excited at a sports event but not during worship or in prayer?  And why do these evidences of life have to be fanatical or weird or frightening?  Pietism is a mostly unexplored vast region of Christian spirituality between dead orthodoxy and ritualism on the one hand, and charismatic-Pentecostalism on the other.

Closely tied to that first proposed contribution of Pietism is a second.  A recovered and restored Pietism, stripped of extremes and filled with rich content as intended by its founders, can appeal to individuals’ desire for spiritual experience.  Too often pastors and congregational leaders are so frightened of fanaticism and religious weirdness that they back away entirely from the whole idea of experiencing God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  But this is to ignore the natural craving to feel something and be changed that lies deep within the human breast.  We are not made to live by doctrines and ceremonies alone; while we are shoving religious experience (except perhaps a quiet Yoga meditation class in the basement) out the door, people are seeking spiritual experience wherever they can find it.  Pietism insists that authentic Christianity will always include an appeal to affections and not only intellect or will.  Pietist scholar Hansgünter Ludewig’s description of Pietist Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) well expresses the longing of most, if not every, human heart: “His quest was less for a gracious God than for the presence of God.  He desired to know by living experience that God is with him.”[63] Many, if not most, people today are, like Tersteegen, less concerned about issues of guilt and justification than about issues of God’s personal presence with and in them.  Pietism points the way toward a non-fanatical, experiential Christianity that brings transformation and assurance through a personal relationship with God that is felt and not only promised.

The third proposed positive contribution of Pietism to a renewed Christianity is a practical expression of faith that springs from inward desire and not fear or manipulation.  The entire emphasis of the Pietists and of the Pietist ethos, at its best, is on holy living and that is not meant to be mere legalism.  Bloesch states boldly that sanctification, a major emphasis of Pietism, is not about outward conformity to a code of conduct, but it is “concerned with the development of a holy personality.”[64] What does this look like in recovered, restored Pietism?  Bloesch makes clear it is not about Puritanical self-righteousness.  It is rather about attaining “a spiritual maturity that mirrors and proclaims the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ.”[65] Like many others who have recently rediscovered true Pietism, Bloesch argues that this transformed, holy personality will not turn inward upon itself in mystical navel gazing.  Rather, “The converted sinner will be primarily concerned about the spiritual lostness of man, but he will also agonize over the injustices that the lost condition of man engenders.”[66]

Pietist theologian Clifton-Soderstrom emphasizes this practical, outward dimension of Pietism that strives for the transformation of society and not just the individual.  According to her, but not only her, “at the heart of Pietist ethics are [sic] a practice-centered ethic that finds its source in the formation of Christian character.”  “In a sense,” she continues, “the external life was about giving everything back to God.  The beauty of their Christian ethic was that they enacted justice, compassion, mercy and evangelism along the way.”[67] She advocates a sense of Pietism as virtue ethics; the point of devotion is to form compassionate character.  She points back to Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf and even radical Pietists such as Johanna Eleonora Peterson (1644-1724) as examples of activist Pietists who sought church and social transformation through activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

Pietism aims at the inward transformation of the affections leading to change of the will resulting in acts of compassion.  Too often our churches try to manipulate congregants into giving and working because there is no inner impulse giving rise gratefully and voluntarily to these practices.  A dose of spiritual experience brought about through repentance and faith in response to powerful preaching of the cross just might result in more kingdom building than all the appeals we make in our newsletters and from our pulpits.  I hesitate to appeal to my own experience in what is supposed to be a scholarly presentation, but I once belonged to a church that refused to beg for money or for volunteers and yet had more than enough of both all the time.  Why?  Because congregants saw with their own eyes lives being transformed by the power of God and heard powerful testimonies of such transformation from society’s castaways.  That church today, though relatively small, is a channel of tangible blessing to thousands of hungry people in its community every year.

Finally, I suggest that a recovered and restored Pietism can help make theology relevant to postmodern young people seeking something other than dry, scholastic, rationalistic systems of dogma or naturalistic theologies accommodated to the now dying Enlightenment culture of anthropocentrism.  I recall vividly the paradoxes of student life at Rice University when I was studying for my Ph.D. in religious studies.  Rice is a bastion of naturalism and scientism; it’s strange that it contains a Religious Studies Department.  The majority of students at Rice are majoring in the so-called hard, physical sciences; that’s what it is known for.  Yet, as I helped teach courses such as “Deity, Mysticism and the Occult” I discovered a lively underground of interest in esoteric religion among the students.  I remember one event especially well.  We hosted a troupe of Sufi mystics—literally whirling dervishes—who arrived in full Sufi regalia on a bus.  They marched into the large banquet-conference hall and stood in a circle around their “Pir” or leader who then directed them in their elaborate dances of mystical rapture until they collapsed on the floor in exhaustion.

What fascinated me were the many students watching this energetic display of mysticism in meditative solidarity with the Sufis.  Many students who I knew to be studying engineering and molecular science and nuclear physics were sitting there in lotus positions, eyes mostly closed, chanting under their breath as the Sufis danced.  I also became aware of groups of students studying and practicing Wicca and Eckankar and Scientology and many other esoteric religions.  For the most part, appeals to rationalistic Christian apologetics put on by fundamentalists were laughed out of court by these daytime scientists and nighttime occultists.

During those days Martin Marty visited the campus and talked about cults and new religions in America.  It was the era of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Krishna Consciousness and even Satanism.  Someone asked Marty how these cults could flourish in the modern age of reason and natural science.  I’ll never forget Marty’s words.  He said “When the naturalistic policemen of modern science beat people over the heads with their secular nightsticks, the people start smuggling the gods in brown paper bags.”

I believe a recovered and restored, that is purified, Pietism can help mainline Christian churches provide that much needed experiential dimension so many people seek in religion without borrowing from Eastern religions or esotericism and without becoming charismatic (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

[1] Mark R. Talbot, “What’s wrong with Pietism?,” Modern Reformation (March, 2002).

[2] Bob DeWay, “How Pietism Deceives Christians: The Errors of Elitist Teachings in the Church” at “Critical Issues Commentary” blog:

[3] F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 1.

[4] Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 10.

[5] Jonathan Strom, “Problems and Promises of Pietism Research,” Church History 71:3 (September, 2002), 549.

[6] Stoeffler, Rise, 8.

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] Ibid., 12-13.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Ted Campbell, The Religion of the Heart: A Study of European Religious Life in the Seventheenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 71.

[14] W. R. Ward, The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 57.

[15] D. F. Durnbaugh, “Communication Networks as One Aspect of Pietist Definition,” Pietism in Germany and North America 1680-1820, eds., Jonathan Strom, Hartmut Lehmann, James Van Horn Melton (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 33, 49.

[16] Hans Schneider, German Radical Pietism, trans., Gerald T. MacDonald (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2007), 185.

[17] Carter Lindberg, “Introduction” in The Pietist Theologians (Blackwell, 2005), 2.

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] Stoeffler, Rise, 12.

[20] Ibid., 13.

[21] Peter Vogt, “Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760)” in Lindberg, The Pietist Theologians, 213.

[22] Stoeffler, Rise, 16.

[23] Quoted in F. Ernest Stoeffler, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 8.

[24] Stoeffler, Rise, 19.  No quote is provided here simply because most of the early Pietists did not comment on this essential idea, but all practiced it.  Spener instituted conventicles during his pastorate in Frankfurt and described their importance in Pia Desideria, 87-90.

[25] Ibid., 20-22.

[26] Philip Jakob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans., Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1964), 117.

[27] Emilie Griffin and Peter C. Erb, eds., The Pietists: Selected Writings (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 44.

[28] Ibid., 59.

[29] Stoeffler, German Pietism, 153.


[31] Gary R. Sattler, Nobler than the Angels, Lower than a Worm: The Pietist View of the Individual in the Writings of Heinrich Müller and August Hermann Francke (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1989), 73.

[32] Spener, Pia Desideria, 116.

[33] Quoted in J. Steven O’Malley, Early German-American Evangelicalism (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), 29.

[34] Sattler, Nobler than the Angels, 41.

[35] Ibid., 43.

[36] August Hermann Francke, “On Christian Perfection” in Pietists: Selected Writings, ed., Peter C. Erb (New York, Ramsey, Toronto: Paulist Press, 1983), 138.

[37] Jonathan Strom, “Introduction,” Pietism in Germany and North America 1680-1820, 2.

[38] Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth Century Prussia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 149.

[39] For example, Pietist leader Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752), a widely acclaimed biblical scholar and member of parliament, set the date of Christ’s return as June 18, 1836!  See Lindberg, The Pietist Theologians, 231.

[40] Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Volume III, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 302.

[41] See for example, Hartmut Lehman, “Pietism in the World of Transatlantic Religious Revivals,” in Pietism in Germany and North America, 14.

[42] See Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth and the Pietists, trans., Daniel Bloesch and Donald Dayton (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[43] These accusations are scattered throughout Busch’s volume but especially pages 29-113.

[44] Stoeffler, Rise, 10.

[45] See Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, 35-36.

[46] Ward, The Protestant Evangelical Awakening, 123.

[47] Nicholas Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf, Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects, translated and edited by George W. Forell (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1973), 78.

[48] James Tanis, “Reformed Pietism in Colonial America” in Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 57, 67.

[49] No doubt some would consider Bloesch’s approach to theology anti-intellectual because of his “fideistic revelationism” as expressed in The Ground of Certainty (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002).  However, he was not anti-intellectual in the sense of eschewing higher education or ignoring the findings of science or encouraging blind faith or ignorance.

[50] Paul P. Kuenning, The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), 13.

[51] Ibid., 16-17.

[52] Ibid, 139.

[53] Brown, Understanding Pietism, 37.

[54] Sattler, Nobler than the Angels, 49.

[55] O’Malley, Early German-American Evangelicalism, 75.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 77.

[58] Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety, 43.

[59] Ibid., 29.

[60] Stoeffler, Rise, 10-11.

[61] Bloesch, Crisis, 158.

[62] Ibid., 16.

[63] Hansgünter Ludewig, “Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769)” in The Pietist Theologians, 193.

[64] Bloesch, Crisis, 85-86.

[65] Ibid., 89.

[66] Ibid., 93.

[67] Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, 16-17.

November 22, 2010

So what do I mean by “reclaiming Pietism?”  To “reclaim” something is to take it back.  In this case I aim to take Pietism back from those who unfairly criticize it.  Like every movement, Pietism has had its faults.  But whether one is talking about the original movement in Europe primarily among Lutherans (Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, et al.) or the later, wider movement influenced by them Pietism does not deserve the its bad reputation.

I still read and hear people who should know better (viz., church historians and theologians) using the terms “Pietism” and “Pietist” as epithets synonymous with religious anti-intellectualism, subjectivism, quietism, legalism and a general holier-than-thou attitude.

In fact, a careful study of historic Pietism shows that leading spokespersons for the movement were and are different from that negative portrayal.  Just to mention two examples from the past.  August Hermann Francke was the most influential Pietist theologian and social reformer of Germany in the 1700s.  He founded numerous charitable institutions and advocated on behalf of the poor.  One of followers was Samuel Schmucker, the most influential Lutheran Pietist pastor and theologian in America before the Civil War (and perhaps ever!).  Schmucker founded the Lutheran seminary at Gettysburg as well as the college there.  He was a proponent of generous orthodoxy, conversion and evangelism and abolition.  Because of his persistence in these matters he was harshly criticized by more conservative (i.e., traditionalist, orthodox Lutherans).  (In his book The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism: The Rejection of an Activist Heritage Paul P. Kuenning argues cogently and convincingly that the main reason for Schmucker’s downfall as a leader of American Lutherans was his passionate commitment to abolition.)  Schmucker cannot be accused of being anti-intellectual or quietist or subjectivist.  An accusation that he was legalistic or had a holier-then-thou attitude can only be made to stick with regard to abolition.  He abhorred slavery as a great sin.

Numerous other, similar examples can be given.  For example, the 19th century German Pietist Christoph Blumhardt was a faith healer, exorcist, revivalist and social reformer, socialist and member of the Wurttemberg parliament. 

Anyone who studies the history of Pietism knows how ignorant many of its critics are.  They embarrass themselves when they slam the whole movement because of the excesses of a few and because of the reality of what I call “Pietism gone to seed.”  It’s a situation analogous to Arminianism.  Many who think they are Arminian are really semi-Pelagian and that has caused critics of Arminianism to smear all Arminians as that.  The truth is that, historically speaking, true, classical Arminianism was never semi-Pelagian (as I have demonstrated in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities).  So it is that there is a phenomenon of Pietism gone to seed in American religious life.  But it is not true, historic Pietism.  Where are the true, historic Pietists today?  I have mentioned some in earlier posts in this thread.  But one who recently died was theologian Donald G. Bloesch.

There really isn’t a distinct Pietist movement anymore.  Like most good movements, it filtered into the maintream leaving traces all over the place.  My own seminary is one with its emphasis on spiritual formation and requirement that all faculty and students participate in “covenant groups” for prayer and Bible reading.  Certain denominations especially hold traces of historic Pietism–the Evangelical Free Church of America, the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, the Baptist General Conference (now WorldConverge), the North American Baptist Convention, various Brethren churches that are offshoots of the Church of the Brethren, etc.  Unfortunately, some of these are losing their Pietist flavor as they are being invaded by a fundamentalist spirit brought in by pastors who did not grow up in them and know little about their Pietist heritage.  (An exception is the Covenant church which requires ministers to study for one year at its seminary–North Park in Chicago.  I judge that a very wise move.)  Pietism and fundamentalist are very different approaches to Christian faith.  The former encourages a broad and irenic approach to doctrine whereas the latter emphasizes a narrow and harsh approach.

So why the unfair and sometimes vitriolic attacks on Pietism by critics (both liberal and conservative)?  One reason is simple ignorance.  People who should know better have simply not taken the time to study Pietism.  They have only read others like themselves who have bought into the vicious calumnies against the movement.  I have to say that, in my experience, anyway, many conservative Reformed evangelicals are guilty of this (as they are with regard to Arminianism).

Another cause, I believe, is fear of subjectivism.  Some conservative evangelicals are overly nervous about anything that is not dogmatic.  Pietists have tended not to specialize in systematic theology and have often been content with a generous, broad doctrinal statement that refuses to take strong stands on secondary issues such as predestination.  Some conservative evangelicals (and others such as some in the Lutheran Church-Missiouri Synod) view Pietism as on a slippery slope down into doctrinal indifference.  They should read Donald Bloesch!  I know some who do and love him but don’t recognize him as a Pietist.  (It’s the same phenomenon as some Calvinists who consider Wesley a “confused Calvinist” just because he doesn’t fit their stereotype of an Arminian!)

Another cause, I suspect, is resentment toward Pietism’s insistence that “true Christianity” is not synonymous with church membership or even participation in the sacraments.  Pietists have always argued that God has no grandchildren and a person cannot simply grow up Christian.  Every person has to have a conversion experience and then have a growing personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  So-called mainline and liberal Christians are angry at Pietism for this alleged insult. 

I want evangelicals of the Pietist tradition or with Pietist sympathies and leanings to take back the good name of Pietism; reclaim it and restore its good reputation.  But that will take some study on their part.  I hope to contribute to this by writing a book on the subject of Pietism and myths and realities about it.

November 19, 2010

Here I want to talk briefly about types of Pietism.  Like every movement, Pietism had and has no boundaries.  I’ve already described some of its common features that form the movement’s center.  (In an earlier post about evangelicalism I talked about bounded set versus centered set categories and argued that movements cannot have boundaries.)

From its earliest days Pietism was divided into two camps–the “church Pietists” and the “radical Pietists.”  The former, like Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf viewed their Pietism as a reform movement within the church (in their cases the state churches of Germany).  Even Zinzendorf brought the Moravians within the Evangelical Church of Germany (Lutheran) as a sub-group.  These early Pietist leaders believed in baptismal regeneration but averred that most (if not all) baptized persons fall away from grace and need a conversion that is more than mere confirmation.  Francke insisted that such conversion must be emotional and (for most people) datable.  He called it Busskampf–the struggle of repentance.  These early church Pietists were persecuted by many leaders of the state churches, but they did their best to stay within those anyway.  They emphasized doctrinal orthodoxy and liturgy but…

One thing that held and holds all Pietists together (that I have only hinted at before) is their belief that doctrine, although important, is secondary to what I call conversional piety–the personal relationship with Jesus Christ that begins with conversion (which is initiated by prevenient grace–a term they used independently of Arminians) and continues with a life of Jesus-and-cross centered devotion and holy living enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Their critics among the orthodox Protestants of their time insisted that doctrine and sacraments are more important than personal experience and accused even the church Pietists of “enthusiasm” (their word for fanaticism).

The radical Pietists by-and-large left the churches and either developed individual semi-mystical lives of personal piety apart form any formal church structure or formed small groups and networks of such groups as alternatives to the historical churches (which were often if not always associated with the state in some way).  One such radical, separatist Pietist of the early Pietist movement was Gottfried Arnold (1666-1704) who floated in and out of the state churches and finally landed quite firmly in a kind of individualistic “seeker” mode.  But he traveled around Europe speaking to radical Pietist groups (most cities of any size had such) and criticizing historical churches and calling for a radical renewal of pure New Testament Christianity.  He was influenced by the Protestant mystic Jakob Boehme. 

One thing to remember is that during this time period in Europe (roughly the 1670s through the mid-1700s) most countries on the continent did not allow any churches to exist outside the state churches.  Pietists who met in conventicles without benefit of state-paid clergy were often arrested and imprisoned.  So, the radicals found it difficult to form alternative churches.  Some of them eventually did but had to flee to Britain or America under persecution or connect up with some officially tolerated dissenter group such as the Mennonites.

I think there was a third category of Pietists that inhabited a middle space between church Pietism and radical Pietism.  These were Pietists who wanted to leave the state churches and form independent believer churches (free churches) and radical Pietists who were uncomfortable with separatism and individualism and wanted to form such independent churches.  Eventually they found each other and did form free churches but suffered so much persecution they had to hide or run (usually to America).

One such group (middle between church Pietism and radical Pietism) were the Lasere of Sweden during the early and mid-1800s.  Influenced by writings from Germany (Arndt, Spener, Francke, et al.) and coming under influence from German Baptists they were members of the Swedish Lutheran Church (every citizen had to be) that met in homes (and later rented spaces) for prayer and Bible reading (thus their name which means roughly “readers”)  without benefit of clergy.  Many of them were imprisoned.  Some of them formed underground free churches.  Most of them eventually fled to America and there started Swedish Baptist churches and the Evangelical Free and Covenant churches.

Scandinavian and German Baptist Pietists in America were first under the umbrella of the old Northern Baptist Convention.  Eventually many of them separated to found their own denominations such as the North American Baptist Convention (German) and the Baptist General Conference (Swedish).  Others stayed within the Northern Baptist Convention while struggling to maintain their ethnic and cultural identities.  Eventually all of those were absorbed and lost their original Pietism and German and Scandinavian ways.  However, scattered across the landscapes of the northern plains (e.g., South Dakota) one still occasionally sees a Danish Baptist church  (for example) that is pretty much independent of any denomination.  These have tended to dwindle and die out.

One thing that is interesting about this history is that these German and Scandinavian Baptist groups were until recently Pietists first and Baptists second.  (I say “until recently” because they have been joined by non-Pietists and have struggled to hold onto their Pietist flavor which includes a disinclination to fight over secondary doctrines such as eschatology, creationism, inerrancy and forordination.)  American fundamentalism eventually made its way into these Pietist churches and changed their character to some extent so that they have struggled with inner tensions over inerrancy (for example).

All Pietism is “heart Christianity.”  Original, paleo-Pietism generally held onto orthodox doctrine.  (There were exceptions among the radicals.)  But some Pietists of the late 1700s and early 1800s drifted off into liberalism under the influence of the  Enlightenment and Romantic movements.  The most notable example was Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of modern theology.”  Schleiermacher was raised in a Pietist home and attended Pietist schools and the University of Halle (founded by Pietists but during his time increasingly influenced by Enlightenment thinking).  Schleiermacher called himself a “Pietist [really ‘Herrnhutter’ or Moravian] of a higher order.”  Most later liberal Protestants shed Schleiermacher’s Pietism along with orthodoxy.  But there has always remained a strain of liberalized Pietism within Protestant so-called mainline churches.  Those within this strain are recognizable insofar as they emphasize inner experience of God (however generic) over social activism.  Unfortunately for them (and all of us) they sucked in other, often heretical, mystical and experiential impulses such as Eastern meditation and esoteric Christianity (Swedenborg, Theosophy, Steiner’s Anthroposophy, etc.).  Others among them have drawn heavily on Eastern Orthdodoxy (the Jesus Prayer) and Roman Catholicism (contemplative, centering prayer).  These would be foreign to original Pietism.

An excellent example of the difference (between original Pietist spirituality) and these foreign experiential impulses is given in Donald Bloesch’s excellent book The Struggle of Prayer (1988).  There he contrasts “prophetic prayer” (which he considers biblical) with contemplative, “wordless” prayer (which he considers basically Catholic). 

Many critics of Pietism have latched onto these deviations from historic Pietism and used them to smear all Pietism as subjectivist, mystical, wide open to non-Protestant and liberal influences.  I, for one, do not consider Schleiermacher and his followers real Pietists.  I like to define theological terms as much as possible by their original meanings.  I do not recognize any real continuity between modern, liberal Protestant subjectivism and experientialism (“finding God within yourself” without true conversion or any belief in the supernatural power of God) and historical Pietism.  Schleiermacher’s “God-consciousness” bore little to no resemblance to Pietist conversional piety.  His was a religious a priori of which Christian God-consciousness was simply the Christian variety.  The original Pietists turned over in their graves when the adult Schleiermacher called himself a Pietist.

All this is very relevant to today because one can still see the rift between Pietism and Protestant scholastic orthodoxy within the evangelical movement especially in America.  Real Pietists are orthodox and even fundamentalists can be and usually are pious.  The difference, giving rise to tension, lies in emphasis.  Evangelical Pietists such as Stanley J. Grenz was, emphasize conversional piety over doctrine while evangelicals in the Old Princeton School tradition and fundamentalists emphasize doctrine.  Evangelical leaders in the second party are becoming increasingly vocal and even strident in their criticisms of the first party and of Pietism in general.  I object that they are not talking about real Pietism; they are drawing on Schleiermacher’s false Pietism and using that to smear their fellow Pietist evangelicals as subjectivists.  As one evangelical critic of Pietist told me “Pietism is nothing more than a mask for doctrinal indifference.”  If we are talking about real, historic Pietism that is simply false.  He was talking about (among others) Robert Schuller.  I ask how that man and his conservative evangelical friends would like it if Pietists used as the paradigm for their doctrinal focus Carl McIntire?  I know he wouldn’t like that.

I want to recover and reclaim true, historic Pietism–as embodied among us recently by Donald G. Bloesch–my model of a true Pietist theologian (who was also a writer of devotional books and hymn writer) and also by Stan Grenz and Richard Foster (and Foster’s Renovare movement).  To Pietism’s evangelical critics I say–please go back and read original Pietist sources such as those you will find in the anthology The Spirituality of the German Awakening (a volume in the series The Classics of Western Spirituality).

November 17, 2010

No adequate definition of a religious movement can be only one paragraph.  I tried that with Pietism in a previous post and some rightly objected.  However, I stand by it as a minor definition that, of course, needs fleshing out.

One person rightly noted that my definition of Pietism could apply to most American Christianity!  I responded that I agree which just shows how widespread Pietism is.  It came across the Atlantic, too deep root in American soil, and flourished here.  In some ways it is THE grassroots religion, the “folk religion” (to use a sociologists’ category without any intention of value judgment) of America.

Here is how Phyllis Tickle puts it: “to meet the Pietists is to come home to what spawned not only many of us as religious believers, but almost all of us as citizens of contemporary America.” (Foreword to The Pietists [HarperSanFrancisco, 2007], p. ix)

Tickle rightly argues that the initial movement called Pietism was relatively restricted geographically and historically.  I lasted only about 50 to 100 years depending on how one categorizes its formulators.  Most scholars date the beginning of Pietism as a particular movement (before it simply melted into the mainstream of Protestantism especially in America) to 1666 or 1675–two important dates in the life and ministry of Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) who is generally credited with being the founder of the Pietist movement.  1666 was the year he began his conventicles/collegia pietatis/covenant groups in his Frankfurt, Germany Lutheran congregation.  These were for lay study of Scripture and prayer and did not absolutely require the presence of clergy.  (Spener himself preferred that a clergyperson be present if possible and the laws of his part of Germany seemed to mandate that.  It was then against the law in much of Europe to study the Bible in groups without the benefit of clergy which is why many Pietists left Germany and Scandinavia and emigrated to America.)

1675 was the publication year of Spener’s groundbreaking books Pia Desideria and Allgemeine Gottesgelehrtheit (loosly translated General Theology or General Teachings about God).  These, especially Pia Desideria, launched the Pietist movement beyond Frankfurt.  But Pia Desideria was written simply as an introduction and commentary on an earlier work by Protestant mystic Johann Arndt entitled True Christianity.  Some consider that book the real founding document of Pietism.

Spender’s pupil August Hermann Francke developed Pietism organizationally by founding the so-called Halle Institutions–a university, a religious academy, an orphanage, a missions agency, a publishing house, a hospital, etc.  Francke also emphasized (even more than Spener) the absolute necessity of a “born again experience” (which he called Busskampf) for authentic Christian faith and life.  Other early Pietist leaders included the Moravian leader Nicholas Ludwig, Count von Zinzendorf, Gerhard Tersteegan, Gottfried Arnold and Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen.

What did these early Pietist leaders have in common that made their movement distinct?  There are a few things everyone agrees on: 1) an emphasis on experience of God over a merely sacramental spirituality or orthodoxy, 2) promotion of lay involvement in small groups for Scripture reading and spiritual formation, 3) an emphasis on personal piety and holiness alongside justification (so, regeneration and sanctification which they believed were neglected by the orthodox state churches of their time).  There are some other “hallmarks” of early Pietism that are a bit more controversial; perhaps not every Pietist leader emphasized these in the same way or to the same extent, but they came to be associated with the Pietist movement and not only by its enemies: 1) emphasis on an “open Bible”–Scripture to be read and interpreted by all Christians (something largely forbidden by the elite of the state churches), 2) belief in and promotion of emotional experiences of God that are life-transforming, 3) Jesus-centered conversional piety (the state churches did not talk as much about Jesus as a personal friend), 4) eschatological fervor (many of the Pietists became premillennialists which was rare and considered heterodox if not heretical by “orthodox” leaders of the state churches. 

The above mentioned Pietist leaders traveled around Europe and Great Britain creating networks of Pietist congregations and conventicles some of which evolved into separate denominations–often persecuted by the state churches in Europe.  The Church of the Brethren (German Baptist Brethren) began as a Pietist network that rejected infant baptism.  Many, certainly not all, Pietists became Baptists of some sort.  Most of those emigrated to America to find freedom of worship.

One has to distinguish between “types” of early Pietism.  (Later Pietism fragmented into numerous types but that’s a subject for a later post.)  Some early Pietists found kindred spirit with the Spiritualists and Inspirationists of the Radical Reformation such as Caspar Schwenkfeld (who also inspired the Quakers in England).  These “radical Pietists” tended to reject formal church life and emphasis individual spirituality often blending into that aspects of esotericism drawn from (for example) Protestant mystic Jakob Boehme.  Other Pietists were somewhat appalled by these radical, separatist Pietists and considered them their movement’s lunatic fringe.  Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf, for example, tried to persuade them to come back into the “church Pietism” fold that practiced sacraments and had ordained ministers and liturgical worship.  So two categories of early Pietism that are generally distinguished by scholars are “church Pietism” and “radical Pietism.”  But all scholars agree the overlap between them was significant.

I argue for a third type of Pietism in the early formation and development of the movement that is probably most influential on American Christianity–evangelical sectarian Pietism.  By “evangelical” I mean dedicated to missions and evangelism (inspired by the Moravians and Wesley) and by “sectarian” not part of any state church or even informally established denomination with culture-shaping power (to borrow on Ernst Troeltsch’s typology of “church-type” and “sect-type” denominations).  Among these are many Pietist Baptist groups (most of them rooted in German and Scandinavian Pietism) and the so-called “Free Churches” that are not Baptist per se–The Evangelical Free Church of America, the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, various small Brethren Churches, etc.  Although many of these denominations began in Europe they were transported to America where they really “took off.”  Even though they early rejected the role of culture-shaping denominations (such as the Episcopal Church) their influence has been great in American religious life.

To be continued….

Browse Our Archives