A College Student Reflects on Pietism (Jesse Phenow)

While you hear much about Pietism here at Bethel University, most of what’s said comes from faculty and administrators. So it’s been interesting to encounter students exploring that tradition as well. Last spring I had the pleasure of talking about Pietism with Jesse Phenow (’14), a Communications Studies major, while he was taking a course on post-Reformation and contemporary theology. Jesse was kind enough to let me post the personal reflection section of his well-researched paper on Pietism. He found himself particularly taken with German Pietist leaders Phillip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke, and how they proposed practical steps for ecclesial and social reform, shunned unnecessary conflict, and emphasized the Christian virtues of love and hope.

In my study of Pietism, not only have I been able to research and learn more about the history and theology of the Pietism movement, but I also have been able to learn much about myself and, especially, my own theological beliefs. The past year of my life has provided me with an opportunity for spiritual growth like never before. I found that my initial childhood beliefs needed to be broken down in order to rebuild a faith of my own. In this challenge, I have learned of my internal desire for a faith breathed through social action.

My initial reaction to hearing about Pietism was that of pleasant surprise; to me it seemed as though I was not alone in my desire for a faith laced in social action. But in my research, I have found the Pietist movement to be so much more than just that. While Pietism does provide a large motif of social action, it is also based on the themes of personal piety, love, and devotion. The more I have researched the more I have enjoyed the differing bits and pieces of Pietism.

My research led me to the book, Pia Desideria, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This book by Philip Jacob Spener has inspired me in my desire for a constant reform of the modern church. The beauty of Pia Desideria lies within the author’s humility and understanding. Spener realizes the importance of reform but wants to achieve these goals in a humble and respectful way,

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

I gladly acknowledge my limitations. I am not so presumptuous or conceited as to suppose that I have special insight, beyond other ministers of God, into ways of remedying the common malady. On the contrary. I daily discover faults in myself. I therefore desire from the bottom of my heart that (as some have already done) more talented men, furnished with more light, understanding and experience, would take up this matter, ponder it in the fear of the Lord, present to the whole Evangelical church whatever they may find it necessary to suggest, and also be mindful of ways and means, by God’s grace, of putting into effective use such salutary suggestions as may have been discovered. Otherwise all deliberation would be nothing. (Spener, Pia Desideria, p. 85)

Let me for a moment break down the passage above. Spener is not stupid, he knows that he is human and is as susceptible to sin as any other human — just as broken as anybody else. Everyone experiences this brokenness, but as Christians, from this brokenness should come a desire to make oneself and the others around them (for lack of a better term) less broken. But in this paragraph, Spener humbly wishes that someone else besides him would answer the call of leadership. Humility is incredibly important in good leadership, especially if you want things to get done. Spener obviously wants reform in the church and instead of only complaining and getting angry, he provides discontent along with a list of tangible ways to reform.

The most amazing thing about his proposals for reform is that they are indeed tangible and realistic. Too often in our world today people are willing to hand out criticism with absolutely no realistic plan to fix the problem, if a plan at all. I believe that there is something to be learned from Spener here on this idea of reform. On taking a closer look at the actual proposals for reform in Pia Desideria, I have found some things that can be applied to my vision for reformation in the modern church. I totally agree with what Spener has to say in his first proposal about scripture as well as small groups and believe that it can translate to the modern church today. In part of this first proposal, Spener is basically saying to pastors, “Hey, do a better job of helping your congregation understand the Bible! Why don’t you try setting up some small groups that will allow people to learn together as well as growing in kinship?” To me the ideas in this proposal are things that we should continue to focus on in our everyday lives. In regard to getting a better understanding and reading more of their Bible, one can never “arrive.”

While I enjoy and agree with what most of what Spener has to say in Pia Desideria, I absolutely fall in love and am inspired by his third proposal. This proposal embodies my feelings of faith through love and social action. “Indeed, love is the whole life of the man who has faith and who through his faith is saved, and his fulfillment of the laws of God consists of love” (p. 96). Here, Spener is calling the church into the act of love. He believes that it is not sufficient to only have knowledge of faith; one had to live out one’s faith through the practice of love.

These ideas directly echo my feelings about love and kinship. I think that Christianity has lost hold of the importance of acting out faith through love, especially to those who need it. Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” I would like to use this verse as well as ideas from Spener’s third proposal to touch on the ever pressing gay debate. Imagine with me for a second if Galatians 5:6 read, “For in Christ Jesus neither straight or gay has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” If Christians believe this to be true, then why do we continue to demonize and persecute the gay community? Is this love? No, it is not.

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

My interpretation of Francke’s theology of bringing “heaven to earth through love” also speaks to a need for change of the modern Christian mindset. In my study of Pietism I have become infatuated with the heart of Francke. “Anyone who has read about August Hermann Francke knows that he lived and breathed the kind of hope that pursued heaven on earth” (Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism, p. 72). I want to embody this kind of hope in my own personal life. This part of Pietism has inspired me to be someone who cares deeply about the attack against the hells of this corrupt world. Too often modern Christianity is so interpersonally focused on salvation that it misses the importance of social action. I believe that personal salvation and social action should walk hand in hand. We as individual Christians need to better embrace the idea of faith through love.

At his blog Chris Gehrz, a professor at Bethel University, shared this quotation from [North Park Seminary professor and former dean] Jay Phelan:

I had reason again this week to be thankful that I am a Pietist. For reasons buried deeply within Vatican paranoia the Roman Catholic Church decided to take aim on that most dangerous group of ecclesiastical miscreants and malcontents: American nuns. The nuns were evidently spending too much time caring for the poor (which Rome acknowledged was admirable) and not enough time working against abortion and gay marriage.  I will leave it to Rome and the nuns to settle their differences, but I was struck once again by breath-taking power assumed by the Imperial Church.

I use this quotation not to bash Catholicism but to show my agreement with Pietist Jay Phelan. The modern Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, has seemingly lost its drive for social action. I believe that [Phelan’s colleague] Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom also raises a great point when she writes:

Often, evangelical discussions of hope turn into doctrinal formulations or other-worldly speculations disconnected from our lives in the here and now. There are Christians who spend more energy calculating the exact day and time of the rapture of looking for signs of Revelation 20 on people’s wrists than they spend on calculating how much of their income they could live without or how they might decrease their daily refuse. (Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, p. 73)

I believe that there is a problem with this. I have found Pietism to be an effort to fight against these ideas with tangible ways of reform and it is for that reason that I have become interested and influenced by the Pietism movement. This interest in me has sparked a new kind of critical thinking in the area of my faith. For this reason I hope to continue in my research of the Pietist movement in order to further define my own personal theology.

4 thoughts on “A College Student Reflects on Pietism (Jesse Phenow)

  1. Excellent work Jesse! I really enjoyed your thoughtful analysis of some of the key components of Spener’s reform program and I am especially heartened to find that you resonate with key figures in Pietism. It has been interesting, in my time at Bethel I have had several students write on Spener, Zinzendorf, and Francke, and all to great effect not only in regards to their scholarship, but especially in how these and other Pietists might inform their faith and their faith communities! Great work and thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Jesse, I also did work on Pietism, as shown in the Baptist Pietist Clarion June 2007 edition, “A Seminarian reflects on Pietism” http://cas.bethel.edu/dept/history/Baptist_Pietist_Clarion_Issues/BPC_June_2007.pdf

    Wasn’t the 3rd proposal to deal with controversy with love? That seems the heart of Christian Social Ethics and was why I proposed for Bethel Sem. to change its required courses from 3 systematic theology and 1 social ethics to 2 systematic theology and 2 social ethics classes…. (A las, my peers were complacent…)

    I also push for changes in election rules that favor the proliferation of LTPs, local third parties who specialize in contesting “more local” elections and vote strategically together in “less local” elections. See my blog, “A New Kind of Third Party”. This is a political form of pietism, in my opinion, inasmuch as it doesn’t presume political solidarity among Christ-followers, but rather the need for locations for political activism apart from the ongoing struggle for the control of the state.


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