I am increasingly convinced that Pietism has something important to say to the church today. Philip Jacob Spener (1640-1705) was a German Lutheran minister who called the church to a more heartfelt commitment to Christ. He offered six proposals to correct conditions in the church. These are found in his book Pia Desideria (Heartfelt Desires for a God-pleasing Improvement of the True Protestant Church). These proposals offer a glimpse into the Pietistic agenda. The proposals are:
- A more extensive use of the Scriptures
- Exercise of a spiritual priesthood
- A more intentional emphasis on orthopraxy, right practices
- Transforming the way religious controversies are conducted
- Reforming theological education
- Reforming preaching so that it edifies and promotes godly living
Pietism is the often overlooked influence on American Evangelicalism. It is actually one of two paradigms of evangelical self-description: the “Puritan-Presbyterian Paradigm” and the “Pietist-Pentecostal Paradigm (Donald Dayton). Stan Grenz noted that pietism’s convertive piety has been “the lifeblood of evangelicalism throughout its history and has formed its central contribution to the cause of renewal in the church of Jesus Christ” (see Chris Gehrz, A Pietist with a PhD https://pietistschoolman.com/2017/06/27/a-pietist-with-a-ph-d/).
The Pietistic movement that swept through Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries gave birth to my tribe–The Evangelical Covenant Church. Here is a good way to understand Pietism: “Pietism sought to view piety as the convergence of faith believed (assensus) and the “believing” faith in the life of a Christian. The convergence of these two factors yields a life that has congruence of faith and practice.” (John Weborg, Pietism a Question of Meaning and Vocation The Covenant Quarterly 41 (August 1983): 59-71.)
Here is my exposition on the first of Spener’s proposals:
Pietism’s Proposals for the Renewal of the Church–#1 A more extensive use of Scripture
From my earliest days, I learned about the importance of the Bible. I would sing: “The B I B L E, Yes that’s the book for me….” I was given my first Bible when I graduated from 6th Grade Sunday School. I “earned” a beautiful Bible when I was Confirmed–signed by my pastor with the verse 2 Tim 2:15–“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (It was a King James Bible.)
I was taught to reverence my Bible. Don’t put it on the ground. Take care of it. It is the Word of God. I still have both of these Bibles, and shelves more.
I know we don’t worship the book. The Word of God is more than leather and paper. But we need to heed Spener’s proposal: followers of Jesus should be people of the Book. The Word should be a burning fire in our bones (Jer. 20:9). Spener reminds us that it is not enough to hear the Word preached in a sermon on Sundays. (He will talk more about this in a later proposal.)
The Word needs to become a part of our lives on a regular basis:
It should be read regularly in the home
It should be read privately
It should be read in small groups–Conventicles as they were called by the Pietists.
We don’t worship the book–But the Word and the Spirit working together brings transformation to our lives and to the local church. How might our lives be different if we sat under the Word, not dissecting it, not analyzing it, but sat under it and let it speak?
In an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles talked about her connection to the ancient Hebrew texts: “I didn’t write the book and the wisdom that flows from this text comes from the same source as the excruciating pain that flows from it. And I feel now that that’s part of being in a relationship with a tradition that’s thousands of years old. And what’s so powerful to me about this is, because I’ve cried so many tears over texts like this, I feel like my tears are now part of the mix of the conversation of Jews who, for the past 2,000 years, have used these texts as their, really, as their sustenance.”
I listen to her words and I examine myself–Do I love the Word the way she does? Text and tears mingled together. Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105–burned into my mind in the KJV!) Do I really believe this? I remember in my earliest days of being a Christian how I would spend hours pouring over my Bible, and how that isn’t as true anymore. I remember, sadly, how sometimes as a pastor I opened up the Word simply because I had to prepare for another Bible study, sermon, wedding, or funeral.
My denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church makes this affirmation: We affirm the centrality of the word of God. We believe the Bible is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. The dynamic, transforming power of the word of God directs the church and the life of each Christian.
The Word directs and transforms our lives. The Word directs and transforms the church. This is an ongoing dynamic in our lives. It is Word and Spirit in concert. David Nyvall, an early leader in the Evangelical Covenant uses a nautical image to show how Word and Spirit interact:
On a well-equipped ship there is an anchor as well as sails. They both serve the welfare of the sailor, the anchor insuring his conservation, his safety, the sail provided for his progress, including his goal, his home. The anchor does not mean rest, and the sails do not mean unrest….I would hate to sail without an anchor, and certainly I cannot sail with the anchor alone. Sails and anchor are one in purpose, largely. Sails make the anchor very much needed, and the anchor makes the sails very much wanted.
My tribe, the Evangelical Covenant Church, has always had as its watchword–“Where is it Written?” As a denomination we always go back to the text seeking to understand what the Bible says and what that means for us today. It is a living Word.
The other watchword of my tribe is “I am a companion of all who fear thee.” We are united in Christ under the Word, and in freedom. The Covenant has always also valued freedom in Christ (United in Christ, we offer freedom to one another to differ on issues of belief or practice where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God. We in the Covenant Church seek to focus on what unites us as followers of Christ, rather than on what divides us.)
When my tribe seeks to discern it future, the two watchwords must always be held together, in tension: Where is it Written? and I am a Companion of All who Fear Thee! It is Anchor and Sail.
A more extensive use of Scripture–in our preaching, in our homes, in private devotions, in smaller groups. The author of Hebrews writes: What God has said isn’t only alive and active! It is sharper than any double-edged sword. His word can cut through our spirits and souls and through our joints and marrow, until it discovers the desires and thoughts of our hearts (Heb 4:12 CEB).
May this be so in my life, our lives, and in the church.
You can read more about pietism on my blog: churchthenandnow.com. Look under the Category: Pietism Today.