Lutheran Pietism


In this lecture we’re looking at Lutheran Pietism, and the major shift in theology and in Church life. That began in the 17th century, and that affected so much of the subsequent Protestant heritage. And when we look at Pietism one of the things we have to understand, is that this is really the missing link for a lot of folks, as they look at the shift from the early Protestant days, with its emphasis on justification by Faith and the Confessional standards, towards something that begins to look increasingly evangelical. In fact as most people, when they first come to this period of Pietism tend to find, the church during these movements, begins to look more and more like the modern church. Emphasis on emotional Quietism, a pietistic understanding of the devotional life, the experience of sanctification, as being the primary focus of the Christian life. Now a few things need to be pointed out here, before we get going. Just to kind of frame the conversation, so that people are aware of all the differences that happen here. And how they are received and how they change things from the early protestant reformation. First and foremost, it needs to be pointed out that while this lecture is entitled Lutheran Pietism, Lutherans themselves, both during the rise of Pietism, and ever since have more or less rejected Pietism. Not in principle, first and foremost, but for the way that it developed, and the changes that it wrought in the emphasis on the lutheran gospel. So, when I say Lutheran Pietism here, I don’t mean that this is embraced by lutherans, but rather that this comes out of the Lutheran reformation period. It comes out of Germany, and those involved initially, were themselves lutheran. But again, traditional lutherans feel that this is a betrayal of the lutheran message. And I think, as we walk through these developments, you’ll begin to see why, the changes here are pretty significant. We can list a few things about Pietism in general, and give them some shape and some nuance at a sort of a macro level. Pietists, essentially, come from the position that they are unhappy and dissatisfied with where protestantism had arrived by roughly the mid 17th century. There are a number factors here. First and foremost, there is an increased exhaustion with the fights between catholics, and internally, between different protestant faiths. In particular, lutheran and calvinistic scholastics really spent a lot of time slogging it out in print. If you were to attend a lutheran training center, to be trained to be a pastor, something like a seminary in this day and age, a great deal of the attention, dogmatically, would have been to distance and to articulate the differences between the lutheran message, on things like the sacraments or on the law and against the counterpart positions of calvinism and the reformed faith. However, increasingly, in the 17th century, and this is true at Anglicanism, and in other movements as well, there always arise some who begin to say: “Guys can we stop fighting so much? Defining who we are not is not the same as defining who we are”, they might say. Now, that’s a bit of an unfair characteristic, but one of the things that we have to appreciate is, that there is again an exhaustion to the fighting. Even if the fighting between calvinists and Lutherans has not come to bloody war, still the constant harangue of us against them turn some off during the 17th century. So, that’s when you begin to see a movement away from doctrine, and a movement in favor of the heart. We might say the other thing, the other macro category that happens during the pietistic movement, is you see a great deal of disillusionment with the idea that, simply believing the Gospel is sufficient for the Christian life. Of course, we looked at Luther by now pretty extensively, and the constant articulation amongst Luther and later lutheranism with us believe that our attempt to save ourselves to affect our own, either justification or sanctification or failed quests that Christians always attempt to do this they may attempt to either do everything by works or more pernicious, they try to get in by faith and stay in by works. Luther of course was rapidly opposed to this. He did not want to see this taught or believed in the Christian life. Luther also believed, and this is important, that it’s not easy to always remind oneself of the importance of the Gospel, that christ has done the work and therefore our works after justification, after our conversion, must not be seen as an attempt by us to make God happy. But must be seen in the light of justification and the work of Christ. Luther like to say, and later confessional lutheranism like to say, that sanctification happens spontaneously. It is not something we work on. It’s something that happens through the constant hearing of the Gospel. Among pietists though there is a pretty significant reaction against this position. Now most of these folks are good enough Lutheran’s that they don’t try to say that you simply do works in order to save oneself. Rather they go in through an alternative entry point. Pietists begin to argue that it’s not works per se, action per se, that saves us, or that models our sanctification. Rather they begin to focus on the emotional life, and that’s really where the name comes from. Pietism in this day and age, it is something like the word we use today for emotions. Highest desires, is we might say, in the 21st century. Pious emotions, strong feelings about the Gospel, these kinds of things. So, in other words, in Pietism there is injected a really renewed robust call of the separation of head and heart. Now I always say, the separation of head and heart that occurs in church history from time to time is a false distinction. It does not come naturally from the scriptures. There is a distinction between what we know and what we feel or believe, sure. But I always remind people the Bible is just as quick to say: You believe this you have a heartfelt emotional pull towards this? Why then do you not understand? Why do you not have some increased deeper thinking on the Gospel or on Christ? This is what Paul means when he chastises people for being still on the milk and not moving to the meat. He says you’re loving christ, you are part of the faith? Why have you not allowed yourself to develop a real deeper understanding of who Christ is, of the scriptures would say? And of course the Bible does talk about people who know in their head, but do not know in their heart. You might say that the biblical witness tends to be a distinction in which both our head and our heart are fallen and lazy, in which we believe sometimes that we know things and therefore that’s equivalent to believing it or feeling it and vice-versa. That feeling it is all that matters, and what we know about our feelings is somehow going to destroy our emotions. Well, over time in certain phases of the Church’s history, there always arises this pretty artificial distinction between head and heart, and what tends to happen is different folks pick one side or the other married life. and they claim that this one thing, either more knowledge, or more passion is the only thing that the Christian life is all about. Both, I want to say, or false distinctions, both rest on an unbiblical understanding of who we are. I think a great analogy on this is the married life. Imagine someone who wakes up on their honeymoon and rolls over to the spouse and says: Honey, I’m glad we’re married. I’m glad we have this wonderful new relationship. But I’m feeling very passionate right now. This is the honeymoon phase the euphoric phase. But hey, let’s spend the rest of our lives not learning anything else about each other. Let’s just spend our lives enjoying the passion. Well, you do that. You’re not gonna be in for a very good married life. Let’s just say. he same is true the other way. Honey, I don’t really want to talk about our emotions. Let’s just talk about the facts. Could you submit to me a memo of all the things that you want and all the ideas that you have? Let’s take the emotional life out of it. If you can imagine, a relationship has to always be built, both in the married life, and in the Christian life, on a heartfelt emotional connection on a real passion for the one you love, in this case God, but also, because you love them, there is always this commitment to learn more things that they love, they appreciate and the things that make you understand them better. So, I always say theological education, even deep study of all kinds of things like Patristic, for example, are a part and parcel to the relationship that we have in God. Head and heart are always united. They are not separated biblically. Both are prone to error, both are prone to growing cold. nd so, therefore, the proper balance, you might say, is always to focus on both. Focus on one you lose both. Focus on both at the same time and you have a real relationship. Well, in Pietism you do see again this distinction. They began to say that confessional approval of certain doctrines is really somewhat cold head knowledge. Just simple facts about who Christ is and what he had done. Now that really is a slanderous way of understanding Luther’s Gospel. Luther always talked about how our hearts are not the focus of the Gospel. That rather, there is an assent or a mental understanding, a real knowledgeable hearing of the Gospel and saying: I am fallen I know this but I hear this Gospel, and I trust it. So, it’s no wonder then that so many of the Lutherans from Luther’s day on began to talk about the objective understanding of what Christ has done for us. Now let’s not just say that everyone after luther did it very well. Certainly there were probably dry arid boring conversations about the Gospel that seemed to parse all kinds of subtle distinctions in a way that wasn’t as passionate, maybe as luther himself might have been. Well, what Pietism does in reaction to this is, it begins to see not the problem as being the people themselves as themselves having grown cold. But rather, its doctrine itself that begins to be problematic. Doctrine doesn’t save, everyone knows this. But what they begin to say, is that even the process of describing the doctrines of say, sanctification and justification, the doctrines of the Bible, become themselves the problem, and so, what we see happening here with Pietism is one of the more common historical problems when you see a movement away from another movement. And that is the problem of the Pendulum Swing. I always remind people the answer to one extreme is hardly ever the opposite extreme. But with Pietism you do begin to see this type of Pendulum swing. You go forward in one direction, and if the allegation is true that Lutherans in the 17th century have gone to far towards abstract doctrine and have gotten away from the real existential emotional side of what these doctrines entail for the Christian life. If that allegation is true. Well, the answer is to find a balance, the actual Lutheran balance of both. Pietism though moves to the other extreme. You might say, they begin to focus on feelings and pious desires increasingly to the exclusion of any doctrinal understanding of the Gospel itself. The reason why this is problematic, is you can never get away from doctrine. As we’ll see here even those who are pietists begin to articulate a doctrine of justification that isn’t better. It’s just simply unconsidered. They begin to say things that frankly, if they had read their luther better, would make them realize that they are no longer Lutheran. So when we look at Pietism, there’s a couple of moves that they make. If that’s the couple of big broad strokes, a couple of specific moves within Pietism really mark it as an entire movement unto itself by the end. First and foremost, as we’ve already mentioned. They have a separation of head in heart. Secondly, because of that distinction, they began to stress that what mark someone is a Christian is not their confession of the faith. It’s not their articulation of what they believe. Think of the apostles creed or the Nicene creed, these articulations, these grammars of what we believe. And there’s all kinds of them. But what ends up happening in Pietism is they say the confessional letter is Dead. The focus on that as what we believe is no longer important. What is important is the emotional life, to the extent that we can focus on that we need no longer focus on the confessional standards as being the things that mark and set us apart. Third, Pietism tends to be relatively anti-institutional when it comes to the church. As we’ll see here, it is Pietism that becomes, the, you might say, the founder of the small group church within a church movement that is so frankly common in most church life today, at least in the Western World. The idea becomes that the corporate assembly of the people of God is itself fine. It’s okay, but it is not where church happens. Church, the pietists say, happens in our small groups. And there’s a relative denigration of the corporate worship on Sabbath. And there’s a relative denigration of the pastor as being the leader and the articulator of the Gospel for God’s people. Suddenly, it becomes lay involvement, lay leadership that matters more, if not supremely more, than that of the pastor’s for personal Bible study. Now this is a wonderful thing. This is a thing that frankly could not have happened before. People often like to chide the middle-ages and even the 16th century, for its corporate focus and its pastoral focus on leadership in terms of preaching and biblical study. Well, you have to understand the context prior to the Gutenberg press, which is not the first printing press, but rather it’s a revolution, and how printing occurs. Gutenberg managed to figure out a way not to make each page as a single, somewhat welded piece of wood or metal. Rather he came up with a bracket within which he could put letters and so he could move these letters around. Essentially creating a new template for each new page of a book at lightning speed. Imagine if you would, carving out or creating a unique template for each page of each book. Essentially, that’s where the older model of printing was focused. As a result, in the Middle Ages the cost of a Bible was roughly the cost of buying a house. They simply were that expensive. That, by the way, is the reason why Bibles were often chained up, either in churches or in monasteries. They didn’t chain it up because people didn’t want it, and they wanted to keep it away from people. They chained it up because it was so expensive and people would steal the sucker and run off with it. People wanted to read their Bibles. Well, with Gutenberg on and particularly, when you get on into the 17th century the cost of printing is now dramatically lower. Now people are beginning to increase in literacy, because they have increased access to these things, and so, what Pietism begins to do is it capitalizes on the fact that so many people can read and so many people can own personal Bibles now. It’s not as widespread as it is today, certainly not after the technological revolution of computers and these things, where we can have electronic versions of the Bible on all of our gadgets at almost exact same time. To say nothing of the variety of different translations that we can have at our fingertips without much trouble, but you have a relative increase in literacy and access to the Bible. That’s when Pietism begins to stress personal bible study, either individually, but more importantly, at the small group level. Lastly, Pietism brings with it a different hermeneutic. The older hermeneutic, you might say, from Protestantism, was that the word of God is inerrant, which is not itself a unique doctrine of course. Catholics believe the same thing about scripture, but it is also clear, and therefore, Protestants emphasized that the interpretation of Scripture is relatively straightforward, and that we don’t need the church or the papacy to define or to codify certain doctrines for us. Well, often the move for protestants was to look at the scriptures and say, what is God teaching us here? Not merely intellectually, but there was an emphasis on knowing what this text means. You don’t bring yourself to the text to put in a more 21st century caste, rather the text teaches you something, it shakes you, it startles you. Pietists bring a new hermeneutic to the text. In their small groups. In their personal Bible studies the emphasis always always, always is: You read a text and you ask. How did that make you feel? In some ways, you might say the pietists bring a more subjective personal experience to texts. They focus less on what the text means objectively and they focus more on themselves as the existential person who needs to describe what he or she feels when they read the scriptures. Now, no one in protestantism would deny that we have to be honest about our own personal subjective emotional responses to Scripture. The issue here is that Pietism believes on a Hermeneutical level that this is either the principal way, the primary way, or it’s the only way to read Scripture. Trying to pull doctrine out of it, trying to pull teachings trying, to wrestle with Scripture in any way that is conceived to be intellectual is considered to be irrelevant for the Christian life, and at times, is considered to be detrimental to the Christian life. Okay, with that long introduction as to the overall ethos of Pietism, and we had to do all that because Pietism carries on for a little over a century and in fact, it carries a lot beyond. But we’re gonna go right now through exactly how Pietism arises in the context of Lutheran Germany. Eirst and foremost, there are what we today call Forerunners to Pietism. There’s a couple of them. The forerunners by and large focus and draw from a generic mystical application of the Christian life. There was a famous mystic in the german world known as Johann Tauler, a man who focused more on the existential subjective experience of the Christian life. Again, he’s medieval. So he’s more of a mystical person from a monastic tradition. This Tauler had a long-standing emphasis and an influence on a number of folks. He actually, influenced Luther a little bit. His understanding of how the Gospel and how the Christian life meets us existentially is certainly not a bad thing. The problem of course, with all this type of mysticism, is that it could easily descend into pure mysticism, where the personal life becomes all that matters. In a manner of speaking, a number of these forerunners make subtle shifts at first, and eventually they become quite significant shifts away from again doctrine or confessional standards, any articulation of what we know to be true, towards a more mystical personal feeling emphasis, as to how the Christian life ought to be lived. The main Forerunner for the pietistic movement is a man by the name of Johann Arndt. Arndt actually lived in the latter half of the 16th century. He died in 1621. Carrying him on into the 17th century. Arndt was a traditional Lutheran, trained in traditional dogma in theology, and he became a pastor. Arndt though was influenced by this Tauler mystical tradition there in the German lands, in drawing from that or it began to focus on feelings and experience as the emphasis, and as the focus of the Christian Life. A lot of this came from the fact that Arndt, having attempted to apply his training in dogma and in confessional standards, when he became a pastor, he actually became disillusioned. It would not be an overstatement to say that Arndt disillusioned himself by his own preaching, and if you’re a pastor, and you disillusion yourself, you got some problems. So Arndt sets off on a quest to rediscover and reground himself on something that is more passionate than the confessional standards had left him with, and so in 1606, Arndt published a book called “True Christianity”. Now whenever you see a book like this, I always tell people, look always for adjectives and adverbs as an indication as to where the book is going. A book called True Christianity, obviously implies that there is a false Christianity afoot there in the German regions. So what Arndt is holding out is that he has rediscovered true Christianity, the real Heartbeat of it. Well, Arndt and others, as the forerunners of this pietistic movement, as it will eventually come to be known, again introduces a shift into folks, where they begin to really focus and they double down on what it means to be emotionally tied in and invested in the Christian Life. We fast forward a generation, and we come to the man who is at least by the majority of scholars considered to be the father of the pietistic movement? Philip Jacob Spencer. Spencer lives and writes and does his ministry in the latter half of the 17th century. He actually dies in 1705, just into the 18th century. Spencer was actually influenced by Arndt and read True Christianity, as well as other books like this. And it sets Spencer off on a bit of a vagabond life, where he travels here and there, learning from all different types of Protestantism. He actually travels for a while to Geneva, believe it or not, which in his day and age, given the hostility between Reformed and Lutheran confessions, gives you a little bit of a sense that Spencer is looking beyond the Lutheran fold for some answers. He is impressed by the outward piety, at least, that he experiences in Geneva. He also travels for a while and spends some time with the Waldensians, which is a group there in the Swiss regions. You might say that Spencer begins to move more frankly towards an Anabaptist direction in terms of internal piety and sanctification, as the goal of the Christian life. It’s very hard, I’m going to say right now, if you actually look at what spencer says, to understand him at this point as being Lutheran. Now Spencer does not leave the Lutheran fold. He remains Lutheran to the day that he dies. Increasingly though he comes under fire by the establishment within the Lutheran world. But I think there’s good reasons at least when you look at what Spencer says, to understand why there was concern. Spencer published a book known today in English as Pious Desires or Pia Desideria in its original. Spencer essentially takes the core of what Arndt and others had argued about the Christian life, and he puts it together in this book. And in fact, Pious Desires is the book from which we get the name Pietism. It is just simply that important. Well Spencer lays out something of a program, you might say, as to how the Christian life ought to be lived, and importantly, how the Lutheran church could be refounded with a commitment to pious desires. Again, the diagnosis here is always that the confessional standard of the Lutheran Church is insufficient for a Christian life, that mere preaching of Law and Gospel is problematic, and that there has to be something that generates or cultivates, as the book title suggests, pious desires. There are three things within Spencer’s work that we can note and these become almost the emphasis of Pietism from Spencer’s day, as it refracts through a lot of different denominations, and it reaches all the way into the modern world with evangelicalism. These three things tend to come from Pious Desires, and they really inculcate this new sense of a new direction that again shapes so much of the subsequent history of protestantism. First and Foremost, Spencer argues, as I said at the beginning, in terms of the macro understanding of Pietism. It’s Spencer who stresses that there is a church within a church. The corporate meeting, the Sunday Sabbath worship of the church is insufficient to ground the people of God. There must be, he argues, small groups. Those small groups must be lay led. They must be passionate. They must allow the people to have a voice. You might say that what is happening here is a somewhat piecemeal democratization of the church. Now notice that Spencer dies in 1705. It’s the 18th century of course, that does give us the democratic age, the Republican age of the desire amongst all kinds of European countries, and even the New wWrld to stress the participation of lay folk, of the common person in the life of whether it’s the political world or in this case the church. Spencer really is almost signaling what’s going to happen over the next century, where it’s not pastor lead, pastor driven, pastor shepherd. But rather, we have to get the lay folk brought in passionate in leading the church for us. This is a hallmark of Spencerian pietism: Small group ministry and personal Bible study. De-emphasis on church as a whole collectively coming together. Secondly, Spencer frankly quite clearly moves from justification by faith alone, to becoming more or less, justification by faith and piety. This is actually a direct quote from Pious Desires. Spencer writes that quote: “No one will be justified other than those intent on sanctification”. Now you can just kind of hear Luther spinning in his grave at this quote. One of his Lutheran pastors in a little over a century is asserting the very thing that Luther lived the entirety of his life to deny. Spencer here has essentially confused the categories. Now again, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again here. Protestants believe in sanctification, but they don’t believe sanctification is the ground of our justification. Sanctification is not the thing you look at and say: Well, if I’m being sanctified then I’m justified. Rather, it’s the emphasis on justification as a work that we did not accomplish and therefore, our sanctification as something we are not accomplishing on our own as adopted sons and daughters of the King. The Spirit is at work in us because we have been justified. herefore to say as Spencer says here that “no one will be justified other than those intent on sanctification”, is very much the thing that luther denied to the day that he died. Every lutheran confession denies this. There is no talk of justification as being either grounded or at least an extension of our sanctification. Luther puts these two categories, you might say, as far as east is from West. Not because he doesn’t believe that sanctification is important, but because he knows, as Spencer here demonstrates, that as soon as you mingle the two together, essentially, what you end up with is that what appears to be medieval Catholicism, only instead of merit and penance and these types of things. What Spencer is arguing is that you have to be emotionally sanctified. If you are not feeling these pious desires, well, then you have to doubt whether or not you were actually justified. Notice again, how subtle that problem is. It’s not enough to simply to say that justification has an effect. Rather, it’s making sure that we understand how that effect is understood. And the New Testament talks incessantly about this, it talks about sanctification for example as fruit. Well, fruit itself is a product of the roots and the branches being healthy and secure, and in fact Luther is principally concerned about this subtle slide. Not to works righteousness, but to the equation of our justification with something we do, we feel, or we experience. As Pietism develops, then you’re going to see there is this radical belief in a conversionism. Those who are not converted, who have not had some crisis prodigal son’s moment, because of this pietistic influence, they begin to doubt whether or not they have actually come to Christ at all. If the emotional life is the grounds of our justification, well, if you have not had a radical emotional experience, and by a radical experience I mean literally an almost quaking rapid coming of Christ upon us, that is overwhelmingly emotional. If you can’t describe the punxsy or a moment when that happened in your life, then there becomes this increased doubt, as to whether or not you were actually a Christian. Pietism, in other words, tends to stress that we are almost [this is a bit of a caricature, but it’s certainly nearly true] that we are justified by our emotions, which is just another code word for justification by faith and works. Thirdly and lastly. Spencer argues that seminary training, theological training, needs to de-emphasize Bible and doctrine. All these subjects that are traditional and frankly focused on seminary education, because they are the things that are the hardest to grasp at times. Instead, Spencer argues, let’s get rid of that stuff. Or, let’s at least de-emphasize it, and he said, let’s focus on practical spiritual formation only. Or, at least, overwhelmingly so. So, notice again this pendulum swing pretty harshly towards piety, particularly in the sense that it is anti-doctrine and anti-confession, has now not only crowded out our understanding of justification through Christ alone. But it is now de-emphasized, both Bible and doctrine, as anything worth studying or as any real significant part of training for pastoral ministry. It ought not be a rocket science to see how this is going to affect things over the centuries. You have seminarians and seminary teachers and administrators over the centuries saying. Let’s get rid of this Bible stuff. How is studying the bible really going to help us? Of all things. Or how is studying the faith that is handed down and really learning how to be careful with our words when we’re describing our theology confessionally Let’s get rid of that, or let’s de-emphasize that and let’s focus on spiritual practical ministry. The problem here, in other words, is not in the privileges or the care or concern for spiritual formation or practical ministry. It’s that it is used to elbow out any serious exploration of the Bible or of our confession. It becomes an either/or rather than a both/and. In the end, Spenser was not kicked out of the Lutheran church for his understanding of Pietism. He is the father of it though, but as time wears on, eventually there becomes a full separation, in particular in a man of the name of Hermann Francke and others. And Francke becomes the man who says. You know what, let’s just move away from being Lutheran and let’s move towards being something else. And so the importance of Pietism is not merely an internal Lutheran fight because here’s what happens. Pietism, once it breaks free and once becomes two feet on its own separated from the Lutheran church, it begins to influence heavily two of the most important denominational and theological trajectories from the 18th Century on. Namely, the Moravians, which we’ll look at in a later lecture, and through the Moravians Pietism reaches out and dramatically influences the life and the theology of Wesley, and its Wesleyanism that becomes the dominant theological trajectory throughout most of the Americas in the 18th century. And so, you have this mixture of a pietistic Lutheran experience of Quietism and emotional passion that begins to exert an influence beyond itself that will eventually become one of the foundational principles of modern Wesleyan spirituality, and by extension, all the way down until the modern evangelical movement.

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