Pietism: Key to Renewal in the Lutheran Church?
Some have advocated pietism as a slice of the Lutheran heritage which holds promise for the renewal of mission, congregational life, and worship. they argue that pietism is the “other story” of worship among Lutherans, a story that he claims has been ignored by the “restorationists” who have written liturgical histories and prepared the hymnals. According to some, pietism is part of a tradition that is finding expression in congregations which have abandoned or radically altered traditional Lutheran liturgical forms and hymnody.
The alternative worship movement which has become so attractive to many within American Lutheranism draws more deeply on revivalism or the “frontier tradition” of worship as James White calls it and Pentecostalism via the charismatic movement than it does on classical pietism. One could only wish that contemporary praise hymns had the theological and spiritual depth of hymns such as Johann Schroeder’s “One Thing’s Needful; Lord this Treasure” (277 LW) which Wilhelm Nelle called “the most blessed hymn of the entire circle of Halle Pietists.” When we compare the changes in liturgical texts and structures introduced by pietism with those brought about by the advocates of so-called alternative worship, we might be tempted to conclude that the innovations of pietism were rather minor. For the most part, pietism did not produce new liturgical orders. What pietism did introduce was a shift away from the centrality of the divine service in the life of the church. This shift was necessitated by a prior shift from justification to sanctification, from the objective reality of the means of grace to the subjective experience of the believer, from beneficium to sacrificium, from the Office of the Holy Ministry to the priesthood of believers. This is the crucial shift which prepares the way for later developments in pietism’s offspring, revivalism and Pentecostalism, which, in turn have exercised a destructive influence in the liturgical life of North American Lutheranism. The central themes of pietism are unable to sustain the liturgical life envisioned in the Book of Concord.
If we are to understand the influence of pietism on the liturgy in contemporary Lutheranism, it is essential that we see that pietism was more than a renewal movement. It was a theological movement. Bengt Haegglund writes “The Pietist movement, which penetrated Lutheran territory in the latter part of the 17th century and contributed to the diminution or the internal transformation of the orthodox Lutheran tradition, was not simply a reaction against certain weaknesses in the church life of the time; it was rather a new theological position, which was based on a new concept of reality and which bore within itself the seeds of the modern point of view.”
Most of the standard treatments of pietism see pietism as a necessary corrective to the alleged frigidity and formality of Lutheran orthodoxy, Pietism is said to have recaptured the vitality of Luther’s evangelical insight. Examples of the living piety of orthodoxy as embodied in Johann Gerhard’s devotional writings or the hymnody of Philip Nicolai and Paul Gerhardt are overlooked or else they are classified as a germinal form of pietism. Pietism’s reliance on a selected slice of the early Luther to the exclusion of his later sacramental writings is overlooked. Whatever deficiencies there may have been in the church life of Lutheran orthodoxy, it cannot be claimed that pietism is a return to Luther. Pietism was seeking something new. Jeremiah Ohl summarizes the outcome of pietism’s search as it relates to worship: “…in a word, what Pietism set out to do finally resulted not in bringing about again a proper union between the objective and the subjective, but in the overthrow of the former and the triumph of the latter. The sacramental and the sacrificial were divorced, and the sacrificial alone remained. Public worship ceased to be a celebration of redemption, and became only an act of edification” (Ohl, 70-71). Pietism succeeded in introducing a new theology of worship grounded not in the delivery of the fruits of Christ’s redeeming work but rather in the edification of the saint.
In his programmatic work, Pia Desideria, Spener does not set forth a plan for liturgical innovation yet we observe a shift away from objective understanding of the divine service in Luther and Lutheran orthodoxy. Spener begins not with the Lord’s gifts but with the Lord’s people and what he sees is lamentable: clergy whose lives do not conform to their teaching, contentiousness among the theologians, worldliness and drunkenness on the part of the common people. When Spener finally comes to discuss the efficacy of the Word of God and the place of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution, he focuses not the character of these gifts but on their right use. Spener gives assurances that he has not departed from the orthodox Lutheran understanding of the power of God’s Word: “We also gladly acknowledge the power of the Word of God when it is preached, since it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Rom. 1:16). We are bound diligently to hear the Word of God not only because we are commanded to do so but because it is the divine hand which offers and presents grace to the believer, whom the Word itself awakens through the Holy Spirit.” Likewise he affirms baptismal regeneration and the sacramental presence of Christ’s body and blood: “Nor do I know how to praise Baptism and its power highly enough. I believe that it is the real ‘washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit’ (Tit. 3:5), or as Luther says in the Catechism, ‘it effects forgiveness of sins, delivers from death, and grants (not merely promises) eternal salvation. Not less gladly do I acknowledge the glorious power in the sacramental , oral, and not merely spiritual eating and drinking of the body and blood of the Lord in the Holy Supper. On this account I heartily reject the position of the Reformed when they deny that we receive such a pledge of salvation in, with, and under the bread and the wine, when they weaken its power, and when they see in it no more than exists outside the holy sacrament in spiritual eating and drinking.”
- excerpt from John Pless, ‘Liturgy & Pietism: Then and Now’ HT: Gnesio