The Pietist Impulse: Definitions

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverThis week I’m launching a new series previewing the chapters in our newly released book, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity. Where better to start than with the deceptively simple question, “What is Pietism?”

As we point out rather obviously in our editors’ introduction, that question “is not easily answered” (xxi). Some scholars prefer a “strict constructionist” approach that confines Pietism studies to a certain period in the history of German Lutheranism. On the other hand, Hartmut Lehmann and W.R. Ward argue for understanding Pietism as part of a wave of evangelical revival running from the 17th century to (at least in Lehmann’s reading) the present day. Given the geographic, national, confessional, and chronological diversity on display in this volume (not to mention our title), it’s clear we’re more than leaning to one side of the debate.

We also, it should be noted, treat Pietism very much as a living tradition rather than a page already turned in modern/church history, and even state our hope “that the essays in this volume will inspire the needed intellectual and devotional ressourcement that our times demand” (xxii). The conference that inspired this volume drew many pastors and lay leaders, not just scholars; I pray our reading audience will be similarly diverse in composition.

Given our rather expansive view of Pietism and our inclination to treat its past as usable, let’s start by noting the problem with that approach, as laid out by the sympathetic Mennonite historian John Roth (in an essay I quoted on this blog last week):

…if one is intent on demonstrating ‘Pietist influence,’ a quote from a bona fide Pietist can be found to prove virtually any point one happens to be making. Thus, historians are liable to cite something from Zinzendorf if they wish to depict Pietists as emotional enthusiasts but then turn to Bengel or Jung-Stilling when demonstrating the Pietist emphasis on apocolypticism [sic] and millennial speculation; or to Francke when speaking of Pietist loyalty to the state or interest in education; or to Lavater in arguing for Pietism as a source of early German patriotism; or to the younger Moser when describing Pietists as advocates of religious toleration. Individually, none of the sources are misinterpreted, but it is hardly plausible that together they all add up to a coherent unified whole that can be called Pietism or that such a concept can be analytically useful. (“Pietism and the Anabaptist Soul,” p. 22)

In short, “Pietism,” if too broadly defined, risks becoming whatever any particular author needs it to be.

Now, in treating his own tradition’s history, Roth prefers not to define Anabaptism by a set of doctrinal boundaries, rather focusing on shared “questions” and “concerns.” I think we’re moving along similar lines in this whole volume, but it’s probably well that we start with two chapters that take up the question of definition in some detail.

Roger OlsonFirst, historical theologian Roger Olson (adapting an approach he’s already used to great effect with Arminian theology) surveys six “Myths and Realities” of Pietism:

  1. “…critics claim that Pietism is so heavenly-minded it is no earthly good.” Readers of my series on Anabaptist critiques of Pietism will recognize this notion, which equates Pietism with Quietism and caricatures Pietists as preferring inner experience to external social action. Referring to the work of K. James Stein, Gary Sattler, Harry Yeide, and Frank Macchia, Olson demonstrates how Pietists (in Halle and—especially—Württemberg) sought social reform, maybe even world transformation.
  2. “What about the claim that Pietism fosters emotional subjectivism and an antagonistic attitude toward the life of the mind?” Here Olson makes a point that will recur: yes, some Pietists were anti-intellectual [or insert other heresy/dangerous tendency]; no, that doesn’t characterize the majority of Pietists (and certainly not Spener or Francke, or even—on the subject of the objective authority of Scripture—Zinzendorf, for all his suspicion of overly intellectual faith).
  3. “…that Pietism encourages neglect of doctrine…” This myth strikes Olson as particularly unfair, mistaking for Latitudinarianism the Pietists’ laudable attempts to promote irenic conversation rather than heresy-hunting and to distinguish between “primary and secondary matters of dogma” rather than engage in theological hair-splitting over adiaphora.

Because of space constraints, the final three myths are treated more quickly: that pietistic individualism damages Christian community (see again my series on Anabaptist critiques…); that pietistic legalism effectively denies justification by grace alone through faith alone; and that pietistic perfectionism (we’ll talk about Wesley in a week or two) “promotes self-righteousness or despair.” In seeking to dismantle these and the preceding three myths, Olson offers a kind of apophatic definition: explaining what Pietism is by proving what it is not.

A.H. Francke
August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) - Wikimedia

In the following chapter, Peter James Yoder shows how early 18th century Pietists took part in the definitional debate themselves. He focuses on August Hermann Francke’s 1702 account translated in English as Pietas Hallensis, and that book’s preface by translator Anton Wilhelm Böhme. Böhme (not to be confused with the earlier Christian mystic Jakob Böhme, who will show up in our next post) provided his English readers a “Short History” of Pietism that reflects how second-generation Pietists thought of themselves—or, at least, how they wanted others to think of them.

Böhme expressed his concern that “some have endeavored of late to render Odious by the new-invented Name of Pietism” the worthy activities of Francke and other Lutheran reformers. (“Pietist” originated as a favored pejorative for certain “Orthodox” Lutherans critical of Spener and his successors.) Unlike more recent scholars, “Böhme construed Pietism very narrowly as a movement originating with Spener and continuing in the work of Halle” (23; e.g., he diminishes the influence of Arndt), while simultaneously presenting it as nothing less than a renewal of the Reformation.

Yoder finds Böhme’s attempt at defining Pietism as illustrative of the debate I started with above: those (like us) who argue for a more expansive definition must recognize that this does not accord with the self-identity of the German Pietists, while the strict constructionists “are hard pressed to recognize the common features of experientialism that were occurring in this period of Christian diversification” (24).

Yoder proposes that we draw on George Lakoff’s “prototype theory” as a “mediating method,” since it explains “category construction” as “evidencing prototypical members” while also containing unexpectedly “fluid boundaries.” As an example of how this works, Yoder closes by considering how Nicolaus von Zinzendorf both praised Spener and Francke and “used the name ‘Pietist’ in a derogatory manner” (25).

In our next post, we focus on those first generations of German Pietists.

Read the next entry in the series>>


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