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Pietism: Key to Renewal in the Lutheran Church?

December 9th, 2010
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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

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  1. Greg Smith
    December 9th, 2010 at 11:27 | #1

    A little disclaimer to begin with: I was not raised in a religious home. I came to faith as a young adult and this did not occur in the Lutheran tradition. However, as I examined the Scriptures I found myself agreeing most with the interpretations of my Lutheran friends. I love Lutheran theology and hold it to be the most Biblical of all theological traditions. This led me eventually to a Lutheran seminary which claims to be in Spener’s pietistic tradition. Once I left the seminary, my fellowship has been outside of the Lutheran tradition again but I have a deep appreciation for it. The issue you raise has always been near and dear to my heart as I try to rightly understand Lutheranism. But I am still an outsider looking in.

    In your post you refer to the “alleged frigidity and formality of Lutheran orthodoxy” as if this were an unfounded accusation. But I wonder if pietism would have ever emerged if this were not the actual case. In my limited reading, it seems as if most, not all, of Lutheranism had descended into mere intellectual consent that the Confessions were correct. There was little holiness in the church. If the gospel had truly penetrated hearts, it would have changed them.

    You also state that the “central themes of pietism are unable to sustain the liturgical life envisioned in the Book of Concord.” This may be true but could it not also be acknowledged that mere intellectual assent to the Confessions has been unable to sustain a truly gospel-centered holiness in the life of the average Lutheran. I have attended LCMS churches where the pastor announced the absolution to a congregation that has just verbally confessed the Apostles’ Creed. I fear for the souls of these dear people as they leave the service thinking that they have been absolved of their sins but go right back to their openly sinful living with not the slightest indication of any repentance. In such cases, how can we say the gospel has had any effect? This reminds me of a post you had several years ago. You posted an image of a tshirt that said “Weak on Sanctification” then followed with an excellent post that this is not true Lutheranism. Amen!

    I would agree that current “restoration” movements are drawing on “the frontier tradition” in actuality and trying to justify it by an appeal to the pietistic tradition theologically. But I wonder if it is possible to bring about “a proper union between the objective and the subjective” without abandoning either. One of the things that has always trouble me is the difficulty of finding a good exposition of the doctrine of sanctification from the Lutheran perspective. It seems as if every study I have ever read begins with the importance of not misunderstanding the distinction between justification and sanctification. It then quickly reverts to a treatise on justification and never returns to sanctification. I would appreciate anything you could point me to as a good Lutheran exposition on this topic.

    Also, I am wondering what you think of Johann Arndt’s work, True Christianity, and how it relates to this discussion.

  2. Clint Hoff
    December 9th, 2010 at 12:21 | #2

    Great stuff. How do I get my hands on this book (article?)

  3. Clint Hoff
    December 9th, 2010 at 13:45 | #3
  4. Guillaume
    December 9th, 2010 at 19:10 | #4

    The corrective to pietism is Lutherans believing and practicing what Lutherans claim they believe and practice.

  5. Jonathan Trost
    December 10th, 2010 at 08:32 | #5

    I read the article, and found it interesting, too. However, did not that same Lutheran pietism create much of the impetus in this country, at least, for many of the Lutheran (and Evangelical Synod) hospitals, orphanages, homes for the “feeble -minded and epileptics”, inner mission societies in major cities, etc? None of it was in any way, I believe, a manifestation of any Pelegian or semi-Pelegian heresy. Was it not, rather, a response to the 2 great commandments.

    I believe the mega-church, praise song and praise band, “decision for Christ”, casual “worship” phenomena flow much more from a corrution of Calvinist thought than from the pietism of Spener or Franke.

  6. December 10th, 2010 at 09:29 | #6


    Coming from the charismatic and revivalistic traditions outlined in this article, I initially struggled a great deal with the Lutheran doctrine on sanctification… and about the critique of pietism. It seemed to me like Lutherans never get out of justification and that the pietist criticism of dead, intellectual Lutheran orthodoxy had been accurate regarding sanctification.

    It took me a great deal of time and thinking before I realized that I had been looking for the doctrine in the wrong place and had expected to to be something that it isn’t. In truth I had never really understood what I was looking for to begin with. First of all, much of what Lutherans have to say about what other church traditions call “sanctification” is tied up in the doctrines of “vocation” and “repentance” because it is through vocations that a Christian lives out his faith and through repentance under the cross that we are cleansed of unrighteousness (and not merely through an increase in better behavior). Second, the Bible does not teach a dispensational view of the relationship between justification and sanctification like many Americans Christians believe and teach where the Christian (usually a decision theology guy) says something like, “okay, now I have been justified once and for all so let’s get to the task of becoming more holy because my life is now about sanctification,” as if such a thing is totally divorced from regeneration, repentance, forgiveness, truth in sound doctrine, and the work of the Holy Spirit through means and is rooted in the subjective experience of the individual rather than the objective and alien work of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

    Third, I was under the impression that, as a new Lutheran, I could never seem to escape Justification–which was true–and I often wondered when I would get on to this sanctification stuff. Looking back now, I realize that I couldn’t tell what was sanctification and what was justification because both of these doctrines look like the cross. Both are actually works and gifts of God in us and through us. Both are indivisibly tied to the means of grace. Both are defined in terms of a “now and not yet” kind of reality. Both are unmerrited gift by grace. Both are still mired and obscured by human sinfulness. What pietism sought to do was to place such an emphasis on the importance of external evidences of sanctification that they moved the focus of the life of the church (and by extension the spiritual growth of the individual) away from the divine service and towards other things that may have been good and useful in themselves, but were not to be the focus of the church or the source of true spiritual growth: Word and Sacrament.

    In the end, pietism seeks to fix a problem that is only seen when looking through legalistic lenses: “the people in the church is not acting holy enough in external things”. The Biblical response to this overstatement of the obvious is “Of course they aren’t! They are miserable sinners! The church has always been full of sinners and will remain that way this side of glory.” And we look to Christ, who does not give pietist instructions akin to subjective moralism or enthusiasm, but says “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:32]

    Have you read all of these books yet? I recommended them as they relate to the topic and your questons:

    “The Quest for Holiness” by Adolf Koberle
    “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
    “The Hammer of God” by Bo Giertz
    “The Spirituality of the Cross” by Geene Edward Vieth, Jr
    “Luther on Vocation” by Gustaf Wingren
    “God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in all of Life” by Gene Edward Veith, Jr
    “Sanctification: Christ in Action” by Harold Sinkbeil
    “Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification” by Oswald Bayer
    “Sacred Meditations” by Johann Gerhard*
    “Timotheus Verinus” by Valentine Ernst Loescher**

    *This is a devotional work, but it serves two useful pruposes for this topic. 1. Gerhard teaches some very insigthful things regarding Sanctification in many of the topics, and 2. he demonstrates sufficiently through his language that he stands as an example that a traditional orthodox Lutheran can be as vibrant, holy-minded, and emotionally pious as pietism demands without all of the innovations or new measures that pietism says are required.

    **A wooden, but masterful description of the specifics of pietism and an orthodox response to it… it is NOT light reading.

  7. Jeff K
    December 10th, 2010 at 12:54 | #7

    In the book, “The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History,” Spener’s Pietism movement is credited with the following:
    * Starting the notion of small group Bible studies in homes;
    * Taking the priesthood of all believers seriously so that the laity should take on some of the leadership in ministry (such as in the small group studies);
    * Encouraging pastors to give sermons that applied Scripture to life. Sermons should “inspire and inform, be understandable and uplifting,”
    * And, of course, encouraging a life of personal holiness for both pastors and laity.

    “In the churches that adopted his teaching, family life improved, the moral standards were raised, and people learned that Christianity meant more than simply agreeing with a catechism. Small-group meetings encouraged a family feeling within the congregation, and the Bible came alive to believers.”

    While the publisher of this book (Revell) may have a bias toward Pietism, I’d say that any of the above results would be the fondest wish of any orthodox Lutheran pastor.

    In the struggle between objectivism and subjectivism in religion, the pendulum no doubt swings both ways. In Spener’s day, the pendulum probably had swung too far in objectivism’s direction, necessitating his correction. In our day, of course, subjectivism reigns supreme, which is why many hungry souls are looking for solid, objective Truth.

    Both isms are important: like the two wings of an airplane, neither one is more important than the other. Ideally, each should uplift and sustain the other.

    • December 10th, 2010 at 13:03 | #8

      Jeff, your points prove why Pietism was/is harmful for the Church. Laity have no “leadership in the ministry” we have called and ordained ministers for that. They exercise their vocations of being priest not within the church or doing “churchy” things, but by living out their callings in their daily lives.

      With all due respect, you evidently do not have a very thorough understanding of Lutheran Orthodoxy where all the good thing you mention were well in place.

      Pietism virtually destroyed Lutheranism and will continue to destroy it, not help it.

  8. December 10th, 2010 at 14:21 | #9

    The ugly truth about pietism (and to an even greater extent revivalism, charismatic practice, and purpose-drivenism) is that the “new measures” that they apply to make the church a more pure expression of Christianity are not uniquely Christian and the metrics used to measure “success” are not uniquely Christian either (happier families, more zelous members, practical life application, etc). This would be okay if it was held as a mere human invention, but the proponents of these “isms” believe their strategies are divinely inspired, aproved of, bring down the Holy Spirit, and build faith. Moreover, pietists look at anything that does not look like their practice as “dead” or “without the spirit”… like a young couple looking at a couple who has been married 50 years and assuming that their love is dead because they don’t make a big show of it.

    The two oppose each other. Lutheranism (and Scripture) says that God only reveals Himself in those places where He has promised to be, His hidden counsel is unknowable, and the human heart and human reason are flawed, finite, and full of iniquity. Lutheran orthodoxy directs Christians to the sure and clear declaration of the Word preached and the sacraments rightly administered. In contrast, Pietism teaches Christians to despise the established order that Christ Himself instituted in favor of the traditions of men, winds of doctrine, and the wandering off into myth. Pietism (and all enthusiasm really) believes that the shrine of the human heart is a source of divine truth, that God speaks in imagined places where He has not promised, and that He uses human emotion and notions to impart wisdom, and deliver subjective directives and visions to His children that do not need to be measured against the authority of Scripture.

    These two cannot cooperate. It is fire and ice. One will destroy the other and they do not cooexist… and Scripture sharply condemns the false prophecy of enthusiasm [Jeremiah 23:15-40, 1 John 4:1-6, Acts 17:11-12]. We worship God in spirit and truth… and BOTH of those are gifts that are given in Word and Sacrament (not constructs of own emotions, hearts, bright ideas, or internal efforts.)

  9. Jeff K
    December 11th, 2010 at 13:39 | #10

    If Lutheran Orthodoxy already had all the good things that some credit Pietism for bringing about, then why is Pietism regarded as an innovation, especially Spener’s Pietism? From the quotes you included by Spener, he seemed to be solidly orthodox regarding the centrality of Word and Sacrament. He’s no “Inner Light” Pietist. @ptmccain

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