Monday, November 5, 2007


which stems from a tendency to deemphasize doctrine and to emphasize the personal spiritual life of believers, grew out of a reaction to what was seen as dead, academic orthodoxy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Lutheran Germany. It became a problem for the church after the publication in 1675 of a tract entitled Pia Desideria, by the renowned Philipp Jacob Spener.

Valentin Ernst Loescher was one of the last of the orthodox theologians. He was born just two years before Spener's tract was published, and thus grew up in a sea of pietistic sentiment and teaching in the German church. By the time he had found his theological voice, Pietism was in full flower. As a result, his very moderate criticism of the movement got him censured by the Powers That Be, in this case the theologicans at the University of Halle. His response to this was to publish a series of newsletters and columns whose aim was to expose the errors of Pietism and restore the proper balance to the church. These have been collected in a volume entitled The Complete Timotheus Verinus, (Northwestern Publishing House) which means the true Timothy.

Loescher's approach to the issues is instructive. Rather than publish a caustic polemic against the Pietists, his approach was above all objective and quietly firm. He first began by describing the classic heresies of Arianism and Crypto-Calvinism, going into great historical detail as a means of sensitizing the reader to the fine little details wherein the devil ever-so-slightly twists the truth. In so doing, one is prepared to investigate the little details--which Loescher quickly emphasizes are much less in error than Arianism--which comprise the Pietist approach to Christianity.

What is interesting about historic Pietism is how familiar it all seems. One begins to realize just how relevant a study of it is to our current situation. I will quote here part of Loescher's evaluation of the little religious evils that creep into our thinking and practice in our churches. Tell me which of them you most identify with:

"Religious evils may be special and affect one or more doc trinal points or religious practices, and thus can be discovered sooner and more easily; such were Arianism, Nestorianism, and Calvinism. Or, they may be general evils, whcih cannot be discovered as quickly and easily, but, if they are not restrained, they result, sooner or later, in the ruin of the church. Of this second general kinds are:
  1. The excessive respect for men and human authority in religious matters, fromwhich part of papism arose.
  2. The unfair and general dominion of reason in matters of faith over and against God's work, which bears the name of naturalism or rationalism.
  3. The unfounded and general dominion of strange spirits and impulses in religious things over and against God's work, which is called fanaticism or enthusiams.
  4. The excessive urging of the striving for peace, even if accomplished with illegal means, which is called synergism.
  5. The disorderly urging of the striving for piety, often perpetrated with pernicious means, which,if intelligent men had had to give it a name even many centuries ago, would have been named pietism."
Next, Loescher writes about the seed of this religious evil. Here is where he gets personal. Now tell me which of THESE you identify with:

"...This seed exists in the following heart malignities, which are a part of original sin, and have their full force and activity in unbelief.
  1. In the contempt and disregard of the arrangement prescribed, or at least advised by God. For example, Naaman despised the sevenfold washing in the Jordan which the man of God had ordered for him (2Ki 5:11, 12). The human heart, according to its sinful birth, is permeated with this desire to know and to want everything better, holier, stronger than God has orderd it, or than it can be...The Holy Spirit calls those infected in that way, those who are free from order [See Thes. 5:14].
  2. In the so-called perfectionism. In this state of mind the man wants to know, have or do perfectly (from the residue of the damnable longing of our first parents,when they wanted to be like God), with fixed standard, restriction, and precaution, what he can only know, have, or do by himself as bungled work. This finally ends in a fanatical independence in everything.
  3. In lavishing the mental powers on one matter, while forgetting and neglecting other matters, on which one oght to lavish as much, if not more, mental powers. E.g., the fruits of the sanctified life are urged so much that we think less of and at last even forget the means and support of our salvation.
  4. In unlimited love for secret, peculiar, and lofty things. This usually degenerates into mysticism and the like evils, or even into the expectation and longing for great things and world transformations. From this, millenialism arises.
  5. In mixing the powers of soul and spirit, i.e., our own moderate inclinations and the divine impulse in us. From this, the so-called rigidism usually arises in earnest minds.
  6. In the excessive freedom which one allows to the power of the imagination, from which finally comes the rule of fantasy, which is the mother of enthusiasm.
  7. In the confusion of the things which ought to be grasped and treated distinctly. This confusion adheres strongly and commonly among men. Such rudeness, if we know and examine ourselves correctly, is in all our hearts,and is the real seed from which the so-called pietism grows, the disorderly and dangerous attitude in the impulse to godliness.
Loescher Pp. 11, 12.

Whew. That's a lot to take in, and a lot to discuss.
The Mother of Enthusiasm, indeed! The impulse to godliness. Who will deliver us from this body of sin? Like Freud's categories, I find a bit of myself in each of them.


Lutheran Lucciola said...

I have heard this talk of Pietism around these blogs, and now I have a better idea of it!

Steven Craig Miller said...

Have you read: "The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism: The Rejection of an Activist Heritage" by Paul P. Kuenning (1988)?

I used to tease my former (Lutheran) pastor, that I was the last of the Lutheran pietists. In part I did this merely because my pastor had a strong aversion to the notion of pietism. While I continue to value my former pastor's sacramental theology, I still feel that at times the pietists had their points. Of course, perhaps I only say this because I don't mind being a closeted pietist in a sacramental church, if the situation was the other way around, I might not like it as much.

Bruce Gee said...

LL: I'll keep blogging away about it as I read more.

SCM: Greetings in Christ! Welcome to this little corner of a corner of a corner (of a corner) of Christendom.

Haven't read it.

Is "closet pietist" a contradiction in terms? What is it that makes you think you are a pietist? Wanting to shout AMEN! in the Divine Service? Feeling the urge to start a lay-led cell group?

There is a distinction to be made between piety and Pietism. In my own personal piety, I make the sign of the cross several times during the DS.

I think when we are talking about living our lives between activism and quietism, there is a constant balancing act going on. And I agree--there was probably something to react against in Lutheran Orthodoxy. The question is: in reacting did the Pietists go too far? I'll have more to say in a later blog post. Stay tuned.

Steven Craig Miller said...

Bruce writes: The question is: in reacting did the Pietists go too far?

Another question to ask is: Even if the Pietists went too far, what did they do right?

In pulling my copy of "Pietists: Selected Writings" off the shelf, I happed to see that Spener (1677) wrote: "It would be desirable if all Christians would try more earnestly to learn the Hebrew and Greek languages ..." Perhaps such an idea wasn't one of their core beliefs, but it is an interesting one. Every Christian should become a specialist in reading and understanding scripture. Unfortunately, today even most pastors don't have a grasp of Greek (let alone Hebrew).

Bruce Gee said...


I'm just going to assume you've studied koine Greek and Hebrew, right?

My oldest son is very fluent with koine Greek, classical Greek, and Latin, but I'd rather he had his Bible memorized in English.

Spener would have had most of the Bible committed to memory. It was not uncommon for classically educated boys to have done this as late as 1920. Both Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir attest to it (Muir also admitting he'd been mnemonically motivated by regular beatings from his father when he fell behind his memory work!).

It is a fair question to ask, "What did the Pietists do right?" I think that they had a lot of correct impulses, but as the history tells it, they were allowed to go too far. This could also be the case for those they opposed, the "dead word" theologians. Read my latest post on this, and consider how many errors there are in Pietism. You see these same things today making inroads into many Lutheran congregations, and (having been a witness to this many times) it just isn't a nice thing to watch. Anti-sacramental sentiments, and prayer as a means of grace are the two that I notice the most.