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Pietism

Ask any historian about Pietism and they will tell you that it was a diverse seventeenth- and eighteenth-century movement that started in Germany as a response to the scholasticism and intellectualism of Lutheran Orthodoxy and was both influenced by and influenced in turn religious movements in England and the

Netherlands. In order to see how truly influential Pietism has been, however, we need only offer a brief account of what the Pietists generally thought faith and the life of faith to be. Faith is an experiential, personal and practical affair, a matter of the heart. It involves a specific moment of conversion, of going through a crisis. These conversion stories often involve an initial period of youthful vanity and debauchery and then being reborn. Yet being reborn is only the start of a new life characterized by holiness and godly living. This new life is best encouraged by daily personal devotions and Scripture reading, and by meeting in small, unofficial groups in which to pray, practice spiritual exercises and discuss Scripture together. While belief in certain doctrines is good and salutary, all the head knowledge in the world does not matter unless one also feels and trusts in God’s mercy in Jesus Christ with one’s whole heart. The simple church of the New Testament is an ideal and model to which contemporary believers and churches should always try to return. It is a testament to the influence and attraction of Pietism that most of these ideas and practices sound familiar.

The honour of being the founder of Pietism typically goes to the Lutheran pastor Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705), who published his short booklet Pia desideria (‘Pious Longings’) in 1675. Pia desideria was a call for reform, or as the subtitle of the book aptly puts it, ‘A Heartfelt Desire for a God-Pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Proposals Looking toward this End’.[1] In the first part of the work, Spener deals with the corruptions and defects he sees within the civil authorities, the clergy and among lay Christians. In the second part, Spener argues that better conditions within the church are indeed possible. Here Spener points to the example of the early church, which ‘was in such a blessed state that as a rule Christians could be identified by their godly life, which distinguished them from other people’.[2] The early Christians examined and tested the lives of their members, held high standards for one another and exhibited a fervent love among themselves. The Holy Spirit was able to bestow such gifts on the early Christians and is no less able to sanctify believers now.

We meet Spener’s ‘several simple proposals’ in the third part, where he details six practical recommendations for reform. These include a greater use of Scripture in preaching, private reading and in smaller meetings, and increased participation among laypeople, following Luther’s priesthood of all believers. Believers should be taught that Christianity is not simply a matter of knowledge, but of practice, most especially love. Religious debates among different groups should be conducted in love and holiness, which seems a sensible recommendation after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Ministers should receive better training and ministry schools should be filled with the Holy Spirit rather than being places of worldliness filled with ambition, carousing and brawling. Spener says, ‘Study without piety is worthless,’[3] and so both professors and students should strive for growth in holiness, and that students should admonish and encourage each other in brotherly love. Sermons should keep in view ordinary Christians and their edification, for ‘[o]ur whole

Christian religion consists of the inner man or new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life, and all sermons should be aimed at this’.[4]

Another notable figure in the history of Pietism was the count Nikolas Ludwig von Zizendorf (1700-1760). In 1722, Zizendorf offered some land to wandering religious groups who had been persecuted by religious authorities in Moravia and Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). These Moravians set up a village called ‘Herrnhut’, which became a kind of asylum for religious groups unwelcome in their respective established churches for one reason or another. As these groups held different beliefs, the practicalities of living together meant that some doctrinal tolerance was necessary. The general gist of the community’s guidelines can be seen in the first three points of a document called ‘Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut’. The first is that a work of God has built Herrnhut, and it is not to be a city but an establishment for the ‘Brethren’.[5] The second is that the old inhabitants of the village ‘must remain in a constant bond of love with all children of God belonging to different religious persuasions’.[6] The community’s members are not to judge each other’s beliefs or argue about them, but only follow ‘the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity, and grace’.[6] Some of this ‘pure evangelical doctrine’ is spelled out in the third guideline. Herrnhuters are to confess that their ‘awakening and salvation’ belong solely to Christ, that they could not stand for even one moment to be without the mercy of God in Christ and that without Christ nothing is of value before God. It also notes that one is not a genuine brother or sister of Herrnhut unless one daily proves that it is his or her full intent to be free from sin; to seek more holiness each day; to grow in the Lord’s likeness; to be free of vanity, spiritual idolatry and self-will; and to walk as Jesus did, bearing shame and reproach.

As with many other Pietists, Zizendorf himself emphasized the importance of conversion and rebirth, the imitation of Christ and the joy and assurance which accompany faith, and was suspicious of theological systems. Some of the other distinctive traits of Pietism can also be seen in his reinterpretation of the contrast between fides implicata and fides explicata. For Zizendorf, fides implicata no longer means believing in the general teaching of the church, but an ‘affective believing with the heart’, which is hidden from others. This inner faith moves from distress over one’s sin and present misery to a bold trust and love of the Saviour. It is not reason or logical proofs which can lead to this type of conversion. Instead, implicit faith is

the faith which is God’s work in the heart in the middle of our stillness, where we and he have to do with each other alone, where nothing comes between us and him - no man, no book, no knowledge, no learning, not even the most necessary truths - but only the distress, the sinner’s shame, and the faithfulness of the shepherd.[8]

Fides explicata is the upwelling and pouring out of faith to others. The believer ‘in his inmost person’ knows the mercy and majesty of the Saviour, who is he and what he has done, and is then able to express outwardly what are the reasons of his heart. This outward expression, both in words and in love, is so confident, convincing and beautiful that it can edify the spiritual lives of all who witness it.

  • [1] Philipp Jacob Spener, Pia desideria, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1964), p. 29.
  • [2] Spener, Pia Desideria, pp. 81-82.
  • [3] Spener, Pia Desideria, p. 104.
  • [4] Spener, Pia Desideria, p. 116.
  • [5] ‘Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut’, in Peter C. Erb (ed.), The Pietists: Selected Writings(New York: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 325-330 (325).
  • [6] ‘Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut,’ p. 325.
  • [7] ‘Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut,’ p. 325.
  • [8] Zizendorf, Count Nicolaus, ‘Concerning Saving Faith’, in Peter C. Erb (ed.), The Pietists: SelectedWritings (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 304-310 (308).
 
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