The Pietist Impulse: Germans

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverIn the first preview of chapters from our new book, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, I made much of our volume’s affinity for expansive definitions of the “Pietist impulse,” by implication rejecting the “strict constructionist” take that Pietism properly construed was a certain segment of German Lutheranism in the early modern period. So it’s only fair that we continue the series with five essays on the German Pietists of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

While names like Spener and Francke get their fair share of mentions in the pages of our book, it may be surprising that they are at least equaled in this section by Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714). If you don’t know much about Arnold, turn to the middle of it and read Jim Smith‘s brief piece introducing the man and his famous Nonpartisan Church History (1699-1700), followed by the introduction to that book, as translated here by Laurie Verseput and Jim.

Gottfried ArnoldSeeking (in Jim’s words) to “let historical sources/voices speak for themselves, heard without the bias or polemic of a given religious party” (hence “Nonpartisan”), Arnold found himself admiring individuals and groups (including Anabaptists) that the Constantinian/magisterial churches had often condemned as “heretics” (leading to what Arnold decried as “obscured and misrepresented church history”). Controversial as his work proved to be, it is striking to note how Arnold maintained the irenic spirit so often associated with Pietism:

…I have not allowed myself to demean the virtues of those who would normally be described as enemies. I have always wished from the heart that love would set a sweet harmony and peace to my disposition during this work, so that all emotions would be kept in the best possible balance and all the requisites of a just, true history may be provided.

At the beginning of this section, Douglas Shantz notes that Arnold published his history in the midst of yet another Pietist vs. Orthodox debate within Lutheranism: this one over alchemy, that quest “to explore and profit from nature’s secrets” that was very much “part of the mainstream intellectual and commercial landscape of early modern Europe.” Arnold “devoted many more pages in his church history to David Joris, Jakob Böhme, Paracelsus, and the Rosicrucians, all skilled in the occult arts, than to Luther, Melanchthon and the German Theology,” who embarrassed Orthodox critics but fit Arnold’s belief that “the real history of Christianity was to be found among the marginalized and persecuted, and in the personal piety of the reborn.”

That said, most present-day self-styled Pietists reading this section are probably not thrilled to find their heroes so enamored of a pre-modern science like alchemy. But Shantz picks up on earlier work by Hermann Geyer and W.R. Ward in arguing that the themes of “new birth” and “new life” that so dominated the Pietist religious imagination derived in part from alchemy and theosophy: “The spiritual alchemy of the Pietists expressed a profound yearning for inner, spiritual transformation, for the new man.”

In a different way, Jonathan Strom offers a nuanced challenge to one element of Pietist self-identity, that it restored the emphasis on laypeople implicit in Luther’s notion of a “priesthood of all believers” (or, as Strom prefers to call it, the “common priesthood”), which had given way to a “strongly clerical” Lutheranism by the early 17th century. Strom agrees that “It was Philipp Jakob Spener in the 1675 Pia Desideria who gave the common priesthood the greatest prominence in the seventeenth century, and his interpretation of it became a centerpiece in his attempts to revitalize Christianity.” (Notably including the “unequivocal inclusion of women in the ‘offices’ of the spiritual priesthood.”) But Spener took “pains not to diminish the authority of the office of ministry” and this early emphasis on the common priesthood seems to have receded quickly among churchly Pietists (e.g., under Francke, who was more concerned with the quality of clergy, since he attached much importance to their role in bringing about conversion). Even more surprisingly, the Radical Pietists were far from egalitarian, instead stressing a “Melchizedek priesthood.”

Child praying
Licensed by Creative Commons (bigbirdz)

The section then closes with two intriguing tales from the less well traveled corners of the Pietist world. First, Eric Swensson recounts the remarkable 1707 revival in Silesia that began during Christmastide, when (according to a 1708 report) “children, male and female, 4 to 14 years in age, with an unusual devotion for their age, assemble[d] themselves in a certain place to pray together with childlike devotion daily.” These Kinderbeten (“praying children”) soon drew crowds as large as 4,000, creating still more fuel for debate between Orthodox skeptics and Pietists (churchly and Radical) who “both saw the revival as a work of God and attempted to place it within the broader framework of salvation history….” Second, Timothy Salo introduces us to Joachim Lange (1670-1744) and gives “evidence of his important role as the primary Pietist theologian and apologist of Halle.” Paying particular attention to Lange’s debate with the Orthodox critic Valentin Ernst Löscher, a struggle between self-proclaimed “guardians of a true spiritual dynamic” within Lutheranism, Salo reminds us that for all the German Pietists’ interest in the the power of prayer and other devotional practices to renew the church, they did not simply cede theology to their critics.

Indeed, our next post will examine Pietist influences on European intellectual life in the 18th-19th centuries, with figures as diverse as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Søren Kierkegaard responding to the “Pietist impulse.”

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