Monday, December 8, 2014

Pietists and Rationalists of a feather. . .

There are many who complain (rightfully so) about the damage done to the faith by pietism.  Pietism was a movement within Lutheranism (though it had ripples well beyond Lutherans, such as Methodism).  It began in the late 17th century -- about the time Lutheran orthodoxy was also in full swing.  The movement had reached its height ini the mid to late 18th century before declining slowly through the 19th century.  Though some would say it had almost vanished by the end of the 20th century, there is no doubt that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's origins were significantly affected by the pietistic movement.

Pietism regarded the prevailing Lutheran orthodoxy of the day as spiritually dead. Origin of the movement is generally connected  to Philip Jakob Spener,* who published Pia Desidera in 1675 detailing his version of the renewal of the moribund (in his estimation) state of Christian faith. Among others who were part of this movement were Christian mystic Jakob Böhme; Johann Arndt, whose work, True Christianity, became the bible for Lutheran pietists; Heinrich Müller, who once characterized the font, the pulpit, the confessional and the altar as "the four dumb idols of the Lutheran Church."

Pietism agitated for a more spiritual, inwardly shaped, and individual faith and church with less emphasis upon doctrinal purity, liturgical worship, and the sacraments.  Many Lutherans still look at their faith through a partial lens of pietism.Some have suggested that Evangelicalism is itself deeply indebted to the groundwork done by the pietistic movement.  Suffice it to say that Lutherans (among others) have spent years trying to undo some of the damage done by the pietistic movement.

Rationalism, on the other hand, was exclusively an appeal to the mind and reason.  Begun about the same time as pietism, this movement was equally as destructive to the faith.  The rationalists saw reason as the ultimate authority in religion, the judge and determiner of revelation and its meaning.  It was a scholastic movement that ended up eroding confidence both in Scripture and in the ability to know just about anything with great confidence and certainty -- especially God.  Connected with the Enlightenment, rationalism was a movement of the head in contrast to pietism and its emphasis of the heart. Rationalism has also been called scholasticism and had an even more profound impact upon philosophy.  Perhaps the ultimate fruit of this movement has been the secular ideal of man's self-improvement through the tools of his reason.

While others may write more eloquently upon both rationalism and pietism, my point is to say that both are birds of a feather, that is, both proceed from the common conviction that the means of grace are insufficient for faith and life. Both movements cut through like acid on the conviction of the faith that Scripture was both reliable and clear, that the liturgy and the means of grace were the centers of faith and life, and that both the feelings of the heart and the reason of the mind were captive to the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

It might seem that the ELCA and other liberal Lutherans have given the nod to rationalism -- convinced of man's ability to self-improve and of the need for the mind to sit in judgment over what is believed, confessed and taught.  On the other hand, Missouri and other Confessional groups still labor on through the lingering effects of their own pietistic roots -- one by and large sympathetic to evangelicalism.  In the end, neither the rationalist nor the pietist understood Confessional Lutheranism and still do not get who we are.  Neither group has much attachment or priority for the sacramental life of the church nor for the idea that God's Word is alive and has the power to deliver its promise to us.  Ultimately, both desire moral improvement -- one by the subjection of the heart to the mind and the other the mind to the heart.  But the faith is more than better behavior.  

Yet that is still the Achilles' heel of Lutheranism -- we look for signs of improvement as proof positive that the stuff of faith is real.  In the end, there is little need of real faith (trust) in either pietism or rationalism.  Yet that is where we find ourselves today.  Lutherans sound like rationalists who like a certain measure of pomp and circumstance or as pietists who tolerate at least the remnant of ceremonial even though their faith is largely shaped by feelings instead of truth.

It it often seems as if we Lutherans are victims of our own history -- unhappy with our Confessions we tend to gravitate to a faith more defined by head or heart than "we believe, confess, and teach."  In any case, either ism leaves us ill at ease with Confessions which claim not to have departed from the catholic faith in doctrine or in practice.  Too many of us insist upon trying to make a Lutheranism that ignores this pivotal identity and create a Lutheranism thoroughly modern and reasonable or thoroughly evangelical and happy.  Luther and his cohort would feel ill at ease in either home.  Fight on, my brothers and sisters.  We struggle for nothing less than the heart and soul of what it means to be Lutheran!

No comments: