Where Would a Pietist Vision Come From?

Earlier this week I got a nice comment from Jeff Hochstetler, a student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who asked a great question:

Do you think that for a Pietistic vision to be successful, it must be rooted in institutional expressions, as the Anabaptist vision was/is?

Harold S. Bender
Harold S. Bender – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

Jeff had been reading my summer 2011 series on Anabaptist critiques of Pietism. As part of that series, I discussed the 20th century neo-Anabaptist revival among Mennonites, Brethren, and others that was, to a large degree, precipitated and led by Harold Bender of Goshen College (Jeff’s alma mater). Bender’s 1943 speech, “The Anabaptist Vision,” is often seen as a founding moment in that revival; he also helped establish and direct both the Mennonite Historical Library and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, both headquartered at Goshen. In the last post in the series, I had pondered aloud whether a “Pietist vision” could have the same effect in contemporary Christianity, which prompted Jeff’s question. One I’d only started to answer in August, but deserves a second look.

First, however, a couple of caveats:

1. I’m not a disinterested person to be asking. To the extent that I’m actually participating in the field of Pietism studies (as I should always note when making something like this claim, I’m a 20th century European and diplomatic historian dabbling in another field), I try to do so critically, not merely as a cheerleader for Pietism, and apply the same standards for research and analysis as I would in studying any other historical topic. But at the very least, I recognize that I’m a participant-observer: increasingly, I find evangelical Pietism a key part of my own religious identity, and I tend to support moves to emphasize that kind of identity by the Christian institutions with which I’m most closely associated.

Which is why Jeff’s question has more than academic interest for me. I’m not only watching for signs of anything like a “Pietist vision” in the past or present, but I’m at least implicitly promoting one within my own circles of influence.

2. But this post won’t seek to articulate what that vision might look like. (Though I think one could probably discern hints of my own “Pietist vision” by browsing around this blog.) Here I just want to muse about where this vision might come from, then (in a brief coda) to whom it might most appeal.

So… Would such a vision require institutional roots to be successful? I think I’m still happy with some of the answers I gave last summer. But it remains a complex question.

First, I’m not sure that I (or anyone else) could or should articulate a “Pietist vision” with the same cogency as Bender’s “Anabaptist vision.” As I wrote in August:

Even before Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” sought to reframe the importance of that tradition for Mennonites living in 20th century North America, there was some sense of Anabaptist identity (albeit fragmented into different Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Hutterite pieces) that was made concrete by church, community, and family structures. By contrast, Pietists have never been known for formal ecclesial structures, clear leadership, or (least of all) theological unity. Indeed, one of the key themes in our Pietist Impulse book is the challenge that a seemingly straightforward question, “What is Pietism?”, poses for scholars.

Two of our contributors to that book, Kurt Peterson and R.J. Snell, warned of the limits of claiming the existence of one Pietist vision – at least for higher education, the subject of their chapter. They argued:

…it is this great strength of Pietism, the personalization of the university, which is also the source of its great muddle, for its source of objectivity is authentic persons, and persons must be supple to engage in the great variety of tasks required of God’s people. (The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, p. 229)

So a Pietist vision, by definition, would need to be flexible (I love their choice of “supple”), permitting of diversity within unity. (All of which resonates, by the way, with revisionist critiques of Bender’s Anabaptist vision. As I noted in the earlier series, later Mennonite scholars like John Roth have been skeptical that there ever was a “coherent set of core convictions” that historically defined Anabaptists; moreover, he suggested that the few sources of coherence were also linked with tensions within the tradition.)

Philipp Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) – Wikimedia

And if any vision is to be a Pietist one, then I’d suggest it ought to be marked by two characteristics that would render institutions ultimately less important. First, as a movement within the Church, Pietism seems to have a democratizing tendency, ceding control over itself from the powerful and the expert to more anonymous members of the Body of Christ. Though, as Jonathan Strom points out in our Pietist Impulse book, Philipp Spener’s hope for a revitalized “common priesthood” soon gave way to Francke’s growing emphasis on the leadership of a regenerate preacher (a trait Strom finds just as common among the Radical Pietists who broke with Halle), the later Pietist revivals in Sweden, Norway, and Scandinavian immigrant communities in North America were often led from below: e.g., by farmers, sailors, and — most strikingly, given the mores of those societies — women. While I’ll make the case below for some kind of organizational leadership, at least at the inception, a Pietist vision that is articulated chiefly by an elite few from within ecclesial or educational institutions for passive reception by the masses is unlikely to be much of a Pietist vision.

The best defense against this problem rests in a second characteristic of Spener’s Pietism: the collegia pietatis (“pious groups”). As Spener biographer K. James Stein writes, these forerunners of our own small groups or cell groups not only “helped revitalize the spiritual priesthood that Luther had enunciated in the Reformation” (by leveling the relationship between clergy and laity), but “created a renewal expectation” that energized the later work of Halle Pietism and counterbalanced Pietism’s tendencies towards individualism (Philipp Jakob Spener, pp. 91-92). Even if it starts in a university or denomination, a Pietist vision would quickly need to take root among other Christians and then reproduce and renew itself (adding even more complexity, no doubt) as it is shared and lived out by ecclesiolae in ecclesia, mini-communities of Christians within the larger Church (and likely crossing denominational and other organizational lines).

This may look very different from an Anabaptist vision that emerged within church, ethnic, and family structures that already had deep roots, having long served to define the identity of Mennonites and the Brethren as religious minorities with a memory of persecution and a commitment to living in community. Today’s “neo-Pietists” (if that’s a terminological road we want to go down) have few such structures, but on the other hand, they do have access to social media, blogs, and other networks available that were not available to the neo-Anabaptists.

However diffuse such a vision could end up becoming, it still seems necessary for a few institutions to take the lead in expressing a Pietist vision, however minimally defined. I happen to be close to two such institutions that have long drawn on the language and history of Pietism to articulate their identity: the Evangelical Covenant Church (my denomination) and Bethel University (my employer). Both of which, I hasten to add, already have admirable, ambitious missions that are not chiefly about the promotion of neo-Pietism. But that doesn’t mean that one or both can’t also serve as hosts to such a movement, as Goshen did for American Anabaptists in the 20th century, or as the institutions of Halle and Herrnhut did for German Pietists in the 18th century. (Note: two centers. Perhaps we’ll one day be speaking of the rivalry between Chicago and St. Paul Pietism…)

Evangelical Covenant Church logoThough it has registered growth for more than twenty consecutive years at a time when many denominations are shrinking, the Covenant Church remains a small denomination (fewer than 200,000 worshipers). But a denomination that, as Bread for the World president David Beckmann put it, “fights above its weight class” ought not to be discounted on the basis of size alone. In a July 2010 article for Faith & Leadership, John Schmalzbauer considered the “outsized influence” of the Evangelical Covenant Church — which he attributed in part (and accurately, I think) to the denomination’s “embrace of a centrist evangelicalism that does not emphasize cultural warfare.” He also noted the impact in the 20th century of Covenanters like artist Warner Sallman, pastor Paul Rees, and philosopher Paul Holmer — perhaps the most distinguished member produced by my own congregation — plus the continuing influence today of Books & Culture editor John Wilson and longtime ABC News medical editor Timothy Johnson.

The greater challenge facing hypothetical Covenant leadership of a “Pietist vision” movement is that a denomination that holds to only six rather broad affirmations of faith — one of which is the “freedom in Christ” to agree to disagree about any number of theological debates, a typically Pietist notion that goes back to Spener — is bound to have tremendous diversity in the beliefs and backgrounds of its members. (Incidentally, last night I sat in on our church’s “Inquirers’ Class,” a two-hour introduction to the Covenant in general and Salem in particular for those considering membership. Probably a third of our time was spent discussing Pietism and freedom in Christ.) However much denominational leaders in the president’s office in Chicago, on faculty at North Park Seminary, or on staff at Covenant Publications, among others, might seek to recall Covenanters to their roots in Swedish Pietism — recontextualized for an increasingly multicultural church that draws young evangelicals and post-evangelicals who expect their faith communities to be “missional” — it’s hard to tell how much that vision resonates with ordinary Covenant clergy or laity. Let alone what impact it might have beyond its 800+ congregations.

Bethel License PlateAnd while there are faculty like myself at Bethel who have started to make the campus a mini-center for Pietism studies (see: our 2009 research conference and the colloquium we’ll host in April) and who have spoken more and more within the campus community about the university’s roots in Swedish Baptist Pietism, and we benefit from the support of several institutional leaders… Even a small university like Bethel is a complicated organization with diverse constituents who may or may not care about Pietism or agree with the emphases people like me associate with it. And Bethel’s influence over its sponsoring denomination is certainly not as great as it was in the days when no one in the Baptist General Conference had ever dreamed of taking a “missional name” like “Converge Worldwide.” Just here in the Twin Cities, it’s probably more likely that someone will visit a Converge Worldwide church and find it led by a neo-Reformed or neo-Anabaptist senior pastor than a neo-Pietist one (assuming that’s actually a thing).

Goshen played a leading role in the history of the Anabaptist vision as a flagship Mennonite institution. If Bethel were to play such a role in the development of a Pietist vision, it would be as a more broadly evangelical school. But I do think that such a role is not foreign to Bethel. If no longer as what former Bethel president Carl Lundquist called “an educational ministry” of one denomination, Bethel still (as Lundquist put it in his 1961 annual report) “raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.” Neither entirely independent of the Church nor a church itself, Bethel is situated so as to serve the Body of Christ, when necessary, by challenging and reviving it. Perhaps by articulating a vision rooted in its own particular history but more broadly appealing to an evangelical or Protestant population weary of old categories and debates…

And here’s why I think that — however it’s initially expressed — a Pietist vision would find such a wide appeal. As I wrote back in August… just as Harold Bender pitched his Anabaptist vision as an alternative to Mennonites caught between the poles of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy, such a “quest for a ‘third way’ likely resonates with many self-described Pietists today, if, like me, they feel themselves less than fully at home in either mainline or evangelical Protestantism.”

This post has rambled long enough without me beginning to articulate even the contours of what a Pietist vision might look like, but I do suspect that it would appeal most:

  • To those, like the Covenanters described by John Schmalzbauer above, who still find a “centrist evangelicalism” valuable, but are fed up with the culture wars. (Or with the heresy-hunting that can characterize more “confessional” evangelicalism.) Or, similarly…
  • To those who resonate with Roger Olson’s call for a “postconservative evangelicalism” (a variety that he roots, in part, in Pietism — see Reformed and Always Reforming, pp. 47-49).
  • Or to the non-evangelical Protestants who nodded along with Roger’s presentation last year at Luther Seminary on the meaning of Pietism for the mainline.
  • Or to those who were intrigued by the Emergent movement, but — like this writer who guest-posted on Roger’s blog last summer — wondered how it could avoid falling into the same traps as liberal Protestantism.
  • Or to those who, with the Evangelical Covenant Church, affirm the “whole mission of the church” — both the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, and the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors — rather than setting evangelism and formation against the work of compassion and justice.

However a Pietist vision gets articulated and catches on, if it does, I think it’s important to close in this way:

To the extent it’s had any beneficial effect on the Church and the world, Pietism has always been, and must remain, a movement of the Holy Spirit. To quote one more Covenant affirmation:

We believe it is the Holy Spirit who instills in our hearts a desire to turn to Christ, and who assures us that Christ dwells within us. It is the Holy Spirit who enables our obedience to Christ and conforms us to his image, and it is the Spirit in us that enables us to continue Christ’s mission in the world. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to us as individuals and binds us together as Christ’s body.

Whether expressed institutionally or otherwise, the new life of revival comes not by human design or exertion, but by the Spirit that animated the church at Pentecost.


12 thoughts on “Where Would a Pietist Vision Come From?

  1. Timely, Chris. I’ve shared this with the members of a new committee that will be looking into the “branding” of Bethel. This is just the sort of thing I hoped I could bring before them. NOW . . . can you post (soon!) the bare outline of what such a vision might look like? You do offer some clues here, but I’d love to be able to point the committee to your further reflections.

    1. I’m honored, Chris. I do hope it’s a useful discussion-starter for that group. I’ll want to put some further thought into it, but I could probably sketch out a “bare outline.”

  2. Chris, I am on the same branding group and look forward to meeting you. This post is fantastic and why I have always found Bethel a great home. I fit in what you are talking about, and I think many others do as well. As someone who has graduated from both the college & seminary and have had GW as an advisor, I owe so much to Bethel it is really an honor to serve at the school.

    I think your post is really timely and should help shape our discussion today. Thanks!

  3. This such a rich conversation. It is wonderful to be in conversation with someone associated with two institutions that were part of my Minnesota pietist/evangelical upbringing, Bethel and Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, MN. Chris Gehrz is carrying on the Paul Holmer tradition at Salem and Bethel.

    I like the comparison to Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision. I think schools like Bethel will need to think what makes them distinctive within the larger universe of evangelical higher education.

  4. That would be wonderful. Haven’t been to Bethel since 2006 when there was a religion and journalism conference.

  5. Thank you for this post, Dr. Gehrz. As a minister in a tradition (Schwarzenau Brethren->Church of the Brethren) which stakes its roots in both Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and as someone who is looking to find revival in a bitterly divided denomination…I find much here to mine for that work.

    So while you reflect on Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” and how it might resemble and differ from a “Pietist Vision”…I’m sitting here wondering: What does a Anabaptist+Pietist vision entail?

    Thanks again! I also aim to work through the other Anabaptist-posts you linked to…

  6. Professor Gehrz, The question raised by the AMBS student was in fact addressed by some scholars at the 2008 Believers Church Conference in Winnipeg. As you may know, the Believers Church Conference (established by Durnbaugh and J. H. Yoder) has been a guild in which Anabaptism engages Pietism. However, Anabaptism is the favored theological paradigm of most in this circle. A book emerged from the Winnipeg conference which I’m sure is in the AMBS library: New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology, Dueck, Harder & Koop, eds. (Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2010).

    Robert Friedmann, who was H.S. Bender’s valued conversation partner in the composition of “The Anabaptist Vision,” disliked churchly Pietism very much and thus biased an entire generation of Anabaptist scholars against becoming too friendly with Pietism proper. Therefore, even in the eclectic Believers Church Guild, the Anabaptist’s muscular will trumps the Pietist’s heart strangely warmed. Nevertheless, there is a renewed interest in Pietism in the guild.

    Some of us who do theology in the wake of Christendom find analogies of faith in Radical Pietism which don’t make us as anxious about liberalism as most churchly Pietists today seem to be in their theological proposals. Indeed, in the heritage there is a profound spiritual logic which leads from Radical Pietism to Romanticism and thus invites modern and postmodern spiritual seekers into the adventures of post-ecclesial spirituality and theopoetics far beyond the the gods so bound to pulpits and pews.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog and your Pietist Impulse book. We have not met. I have Dale Brown’s old job at Bethany Theological Seminary (Church of the Brethren). We at Bethany are now in partnership with the Earlham School of Religion, a liberal Quaker Seminary. Thanks for your engaging work, Scott Holland

    1. Very good to hear from you, Scott! I appreciate the book recommendation and will be sure to look it up. Perhaps I can talk you into guest posting here at some point…

      1. Sure. You might be interested to know that at a conference gathering this summer for the 300th birthday party of Alexander Mack, Jr. the question of “A Pietist Vision” was raised by several in the Brethren movement, from those in the Grace Church, the Old German Baptist Brethren, the Ashland Brethren and the Church of the Brethren. Dale Stoffer, the dean of Ashland Seminary, is one of several at work on this. The proceedings of this event will be forthcoming in the Spring 2013 issue of Brethren Life & Thought.

        Our Believers Church circle entered into productive conversations with members of your branch of Pietistm via the late Burton Nelson who was active in several of our consultations and conferences.

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