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.
Pietism 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.