Friday, May 25, 2018

Piety and Pietism. . .

Lutherans, especially Missouri Synod Lutherans, are rightfully suspicious of things pietistic.  Pietism did no small damage to the faith over the years - at least the more aggressive forms.  Yet there is no denying that pietism is thoroughly intertwined in Lutheranism and Lutheran history. did not begin as a challenge to Lutheran orthodoxy so much as a complaint against the poverty of Christian life and values of the people who claimed an inward faith.  Those who complained believed that Christianity was not or should not be so much a doctrinal system as a guide for practical Christian living (morality).  Perhaps the leading voice was Johannes Arndt (1555–1621), whose devotional writings were extremely popular in the 17th century, especially his major work, The Four Books of True Christianity (1605–09).  It was a guide to the meditative and devotional life proposed as an alternative to a reasoned and intellectual systems of doctrines.  So Arndt was deemed the father of Pietism, although its roots in mysticism cannot be denied.

When Frankfurt pastor Philipp Jakob Spener published his book Pious Desires, he called for a  fundamental reform of theological education in which he stressed the religion of the heart of the religion of the head.  He urged “small churches within the larger church” to provide a venue for prayer, Bible reading, moral scrutiny, and works of charity. Certainly Spener did not intend upon  leaving Lutheranism but he was aggrieved by what he considered the ignorance of the clergy and the church’s lack of spiritual vitality.

Spener’s notions were institutionalized in Halle by August Hermann Francke, who established the Frankesche Stiftungen (“Francke Foundations”) schools, an orphanage, a printing press, and similar establishments -- some of which are still in existence today, i. e. Halle Foundations.  Like the birth of Methodism, the goal was to put into practice more sanctified living, practical education, and social ministry.

This was part of the move by Frederick William to unite Reformed and Lutheran churches of Prussia in 1817.  Frederick William was a devout individual who was convinced that there were no substantive theological differences separated the two churches. From insisting upon an identical liturgy, the Frederick William IV to declare in 1852 that the administrative union of Lutherans and Reformed.  Opponents of the push to union emigrated the US beginning in 1839 and eventually  established the conservative Lutheran synods of Missouri and Buffalo.

Now Martin Luther’s own spiritual and theological development was touched by mystical tradition. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he first was introduced to the mystics and he himself acknowledged the work of Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and, especially, John Tauler.  However, when you look back at Lutheran and Reformed churches in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth churches, it is not always to easy to mark the clear lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists” that we desire to make today.

Today it is tempting to judge piety as an outgrowth of pietism and to heap upon an earnest desire for a Biblical and sacramental piety the charge of pietism.  It is a false change.  The righteousness of God that becomes ours through the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit is most certainly the righteousness of faith. It is our salvation and no one should confuse this piety with lofty emotions, or a holy attitude, or even a feeling of trust.  However, faith does transform us “in heart and spirit and mind and powers” (FC SD IV) and there is something clearly amiss when we condemn this faithful work of the Spirit with the striving of the individual to produce in himself a righteousness not of Christ but of himself alone.

The piety that we live out in our daily lives involves good works that give evidence to this internal faith.  Good works flow naturally from faith, outward piety expresses the inward piety.   Lutherans have always affirmed that “it is God’s will, order, and command that believers should walk in good works,” that the works to be done are “those that God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word,” and that these works are done “when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed by the Holy Spirit” (FC SD IV).  Lutherans have never devalued external marks of this piety -- only the coerced works legislated upon the individual (such as fasting by law on one day as opposed to desire of the individual to fast).  Outward acts of piety such as fasting are not at all discouraged but only do we refuse to legislate the Christian life by rules to require such.  Yet it is tempting for some to insist that these are dangerous.  What is more dangerous, however, is an atmosphere in which piety is discouraged, in which the traditions of old become strange and foreign, when faith becomes merely a matter of the mind, and when good works are not the subject of preaching and teaching.

The Formula of Concord goes on to state: For many create for themselves a dead faith or delusion that lacks repentance and good works. They act as though there could be true faith in a heart at the same time as the wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin [Romans 6:1-2]. This is impossible. Or, they act as though a person could have and keep true faith, righteousness, and salvation even though he is and remains a corrupt and unfruitful tree, from which no good fruit comes at all. In fact, they say this even though a person persists in sins against conscience or purposely engages again in these sins. All of this is incorrect and false.  And by these words, we Lutherans have rightfully echo the manifold calls of St. Paul to manifest the marks of the faith in daily life, to live worthy of the Gospel, to imitate him as he imitates Christ, and to walk in the way.  To suggest that Christian freedom makes these things indifferent is to ignore the teaching of St. Paul and indeed of our Lord Himself to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and bear the cross.  Repentance, good works, and a rich piety are never means to earn the love of God but they are certainly the fruits of the love of God and the power of the Spirit at work in our lives.  They do not distance us from the Word and the Sacraments but call us closer to their grace.  Pietism wrongfully confused and distracted us from this but it is just as wrong to confuse piety with pietism.

Take a cue from Luther (Thank, Praise, Serve, and Obey) and check out William Weedon's new book on just this subject.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

Excellent exposition on pietism vs piety.

Carl Vehse said...

Spener is noted in at least one Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary.

Anonymous said...

This is not a snarky but a sincere question. Where precisely do the Pietists condemn any orthodox Lutheran teachings? My understanding of Arndt, Spener, etc. is that they wanted to encourage piety through small group bible study, devotions, and prayer (Sunday School?) and works of charity in addition to Lutheran orthodoxy. They protested an intellectual assent to orthodoxy and at the same time not being an active disciple of Christ in addition to that. Which sounds just like what we are defining as "piety," which is a good thing, in this article.

The only pejorative I've heard about Pietists is that reception of the sacrament plummeted during this period, but given that Bach attended the sacrament maybe three times a year in ultra-orthodox Leipzig during the same timeframe, this charge seems unsubstantiated. It's not like they were proto-Methodists trying to achieve Christian perfection and waiting on the movement of the Spirit apart from the word of God.

Joanne said...

Bo Giertz' description in his novel, "Hammer of God," of pious revivalists in 19th century Sweden is informative. They sound so much like the American sectarians that we encounter every day. Pastor Weedon does a good job of distinguishing common Christian piety (Godly habits) from the revival movement called Pietism. He maintains that the Small Catechism is our guiding structure for inculcating these types of habits. I might suggest that the Pietists would be very unsatisfied with the idea of piety being habitual. They were/are adamant about mindfulness in religion.

James Kellerman said...


The Pietists did disparage orthodox Lutheran doctrine. Spener did so much more indirectly, but Francke and the later Pietists more openly. Read the Timotheus Verinus by Valentin Loescher for all the details.

You are mistaken about communion among the orthodox Lutherans. The medieval church practiced an infrequent communion--3 times a year for the most pious--but Lutherans communed much more frequently. I don't know specifically how often Bach communed--and as organist it may have been difficult for him to do so--but after Bach died and the Pietists took over, communion in Leipzig plummeted. I don't have the exact figure at hand, but it was something like a factor of 25 or higher. So there was a huge difference between the orthodox and Pietists.

Joanne said...

Both in England and in Germany, when the Reformation began to encourage more frequent use of confession/communion, we have accounts of the country folk bitterly complaining about it. Because they fasted before taking communion, this caused too much fasting in their minds. Sometimes we imagine that because the Sacrament of the Altar was offered every Sunday (and many holy days) that everybody went as often as it was offered (like we would now). We forget how time consuming confession was. The liturgy (the service) was offered every Sunday and you would attend it and observe.

Formerly, you were required to participate only at Easter by prior fasting (all of Lent), confession with your particular father-confessor, and actually filing up to the altar to take the consecrated elements. Imagine, changing that requirement from yearly to weekly. Like I said, there were complaints.

Mostly, the service was just an act of a watchful attendance. Then, even though the choir still sang the bulk of the liturgy, much still in Latin, the Reformation clergy were pushing for more congregational singing. As in, the choir would sing the Credo in Latin and directly afterward the congregation would sing in German Luther's hymn that is a paraphrase of the creed.

Two items more. Interestingly, Bach the organ expert, never held the post of organist while at Leipzig. St. Thomas always had a full-time organist while Bach was there. And, the confession/communion data we have from the archives at St. Thomas clearly indicate that Bach went to confession about 4 times a year, and we thought that was also the measure of his attendance at the altar. It is possible though that he often went to the altar without going to confession. We find that Bach often went to the Thursday vesper service where the sacrament was also offered every week. That would make sense of his crazy-busy schedule on Sunday mornings and how he could have been attending the altar more often without creating a sure record of it.

I'm parroting most of this from Stiller's book, "Liturgical Life at Leipzig."