The Pietist Impulse: Modernity

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverAs we’ve already heard from Roger Olson, Pietism is often caricatured as being anti-intellectual, and Pietists as being so concerned to avoid head-centered “dead orthodoxy” that they substitute heart-centered emotional subjectivism. In part three of our series previewing chapters in our new book, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, we find that tension, but more importantly, we find that the “Pietist impulse” remained strong even as the Enlightenment ushered in “modernity.”

We’ll soon encounter two very familiar figures from that period in intellectual history, but first Eric Carlsson introduces us to Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791), a Lutheran theologian and professor at the Friedrichs-Universität in Halle during the Enlightenment. Described by some scholars as the most important Protestant theologian of the time, and undoubtedly a key figure in the origins of liberal theology and the historical-critical method, Carlsson notes that the role of Pietism in Semler’s life and thought is less well known. Raised in Saalfeld, a regional center of Herrnhut Pietism, Semler spent his formative years pressured by his father to cultivate rigorous devotional practices, but never reported an experience of “new birth.” and came to the Pietist bastion of Halle already starting to resent what he saw as Pietist legalism and anti-intellectualism. In his earliest major work, Semler rejected Francke’s belief that “in a student of theology one seeks first and foremost to see that his heart is righteous before God”; on the contrary, he argued, devotion was not the end of learning (and secular learning was not the enemy of faith), and regeneration did not give special insight into the truths of Scripture. But despite his attempts to distance himself and his university from their Pietist roots, Carlsson illustrates how Semler continued to work within the framework he had absorbed from Pietism.

Tenzan Eaghll finds a similar pattern in the life of the more famous Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), also raised in an atmosphere of Herrnhut Pietism but whose interactions with modern thought took him away from the faith of his parents. (Eaghll draws from letters from Schleiermacher to his father, as well as autobiographical sections in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers and other works.) Many scholars quote Schleiermacher’s self-characterization as a “Moravian [or Pietist] of a higher order”; few, Eaghll points out, seek to understand how Pietism influenced him. To be sure, Eaghll concludes that “By arguing that Christianity must ultimately rid itself of Christ, Schleiermacher had moved beyond Pietism,” but Romanticism or other movements did not wholly take its place. Eaghll finds the influence (or, at least, the parallel concerns) of the “Pietist impulse” impossible to ignore. For example, consider a comparison between On Religion (reading all of the speeches, not just the first two) and the Pia Desideria of Philipp Jakob Spener:

Similar to Spener, Schleiermacher addressed an audience whom he feared had misinterpreted religion and ignored the transformational character of religious experience. He challenged established forms of Christianity in favor of a heartfelt experience, and stressed the role of community in religious experience. Moreover, like Spener, Schleiermacher critiqued the historical development of the church and sought to renew or “authenticate” religious expression.

Søren Kierkgaard
Søren Kierkegaard

In the final chapter in this section, Kyle Roberts moves us further into the 19th century and north to the kingdom of Denmark, where he finds different aspects of the “Pietist impulse” leading two Danish Lutherans in divergent directions. First, a pastor-writer named Nicolai Gruntvig (1783-1872), who criticized the hermeneutics of liberal biblical scholars (read his evaluation of H.N. Clausen, then go back to Carlsson’s chapter and imagine what Gruntvig would say to Semler) while simultaneously emphasizing the “living word” spoken through the creeds and sacraments of the (national, state) church above the written word of Scripture. This earned Gruntvig the critical attention of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), raised by a pietistic father, who disdained the Danish Church’s “conflation of Christianity with nationalist culture” and held the “conviction that the Bible is normative for the Christian life and the Church” (emphasis added for contrast with Gruntvig).

Despite their differences, Roberts finds that both reflect the “Pietist impulse”—something missed by students of both men:

[Gruntvig’s] activist attempts at renewal and his promotion of increased freedom within the bounds of the State Church resonate with the tradition of ecclesial Pietism. In Kierkegaard’s case, reverberations of Pietism are readily evident in his Christocentrism, his emphasis on subjective appropriation of Christian truth, and his devotional attitude toward the Bible.

Of particular note to American Christians today, Roberts suggests that “the Pietist impulse manifest in Kierkegaard offers theology and Church practice a grammar for mission in the context of a waning Christendom…. As the sun of Christendom sets on the horizon, the Church has been gifted the chance to dismantle its long-held conflation of nationalism and Christianity. The Pietist impulse in Kierkegaard provides the possibility for a radical critique of our own contemporary Christendom and a provocative way forward in a context in which difference and plurality can no longer be avoided—and perhaps should be embraced.”

Up next: “Wesley the Pietist.”

<<Read the previous entry in the series


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