The Pietist as a “Catholic Evangelical”

On Sunday night this blog received its 50,000th visit. Which both got me feeling profoundly grateful to all of those who take the time to read my digital scribbling, and in a mood to reflect on the blog’s founding.

Hawkinson, Anatomy of the Pilgrim ExperienceThe choice of name, for example. As I wrote in an early post, “The Pietist Schoolman” was the name of an essay by former North Park College history professor Zenos Hawkinson. It seemed appropriate not only because that essay had to do with the relationship of Pietism to learning and education (the subject of my research) but because it seemed like a good way to honor Zenos’ brother Jim, who died a month before I started blogging and who, as much as anyone, had helped those of us in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) to appreciate our roots in Pietism.

Those roots surely extend to the movement in early modern Germany that, for some “strict constructionist” scholars, is the only one that ought to be called “Pietism.” But more importantly, our denomination is rooted in a mid-19th century revival in Sweden whose leaders called themselves “Pietists.”

Perhaps the most significant of those Swedish revivalists was Carl Olof Rosenius, the lay preacher and editor of the periodical Pietisten, whom denominations as diverse as the ECC, the Evangelical Free Church, the Baptist General Conference, and the old Augustana Lutheran Synod could claim as a founding father. In 1842 Rosenius wrote a two-part article in Pietisten explaining the revival’s adoption of the terms “Pietism” (part 1) and “Pietist” (part 2). His article was then translated into English in recent years by Mark Safstrom, the Covenant scholar (and fellow “Pietist schoolman,” if I may) who edits the present-day version of Pietisten. (Here’s part one and part two of his translation.)

So what did Rosenius take “Pietism” and “the Pietist” to mean? At the risk of sounding very un-Swedishly provocative, let me draw interchangeably on both parts of the essay to suggest that his Pietist was a “catholic evangelical.”

Pietism as evangelical

Carl Olof Rosenius
Carl Olof Rosenius (1816-1868) – Wikimedia

Evangelical is a famously problematic term, so let me make clear the senses in which I mean it here. First, as the traditional European term for a Protestant, since Rosenius was, among other things, a Lutheran, shaped by the writings of Martin Luther and the confessions of that tradition despite his disdain for the “formalism” of the state churches like those in Lutheran Scandinavia. But second, as part of that movement of the 17th-19th centuries that sought a revival of Protestantism in northern Europe and the Western Hemisphere. As a founder of the Evangelical National Foundation (1856) and a partner of English-speaking revivalists like Wesleyan missionary George Scott and the members of the Foreign Evangelical Society of America, Rosenius was an evangelical of the type described by historians like W.R. Ward, Mark Noll, and David Bebbington, generally fitting each of the four points of Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral.”

First, Rosenian Pietism was conversionist. While not rejecting Luther’s sola gratia, Rosenius — like Spener and Francke before him — expected grace to work a profound transformation in the “true Christian,” leaving ample evidence of the “new life, awoken and sustained by the Spirit of God, a life constructed both inside as well as in outward expression, which is prescribed by the Word of God.” Though dramatic, conversion was not necessarily instantaneous: “When conversion occurs a person experiences the new birth of the spirit (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). But Paul implies that it is also a continuing and progressive transformation ‘by the renewal’ of one’s mind.” (Romans: A Devotional Commentary, eds. J. Elmer Dahlgren and Royal F. Peterson, p. 167)

The converted he contrasted both with the “ungodly” and those Christians whose Christianity consisted of observing mere forms:

…every place where those who confess Christ have united themselves on this one foundation and formed a visible congregation, there you will find (apart from the completely ungodly crowd, who do not even have any semblance of godliness) both formalists – those who enjoy only the name, the semblance, the shell – and pietists, or those who seek and own the thing itself, the reality, the kernel. These are the very living creation of God’s word, as the apostle says, “born anew, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Pet. 1:23) A pietist is the one, who not only has the name, the semblance and the shell of godliness, but the very thing itself, the reality, the kernel, and is a living product of God’s word. He desires to say that this word has become an exercise for him, and has remodeled his heart and life, so that in his heart he experiences what the word contains and then practices this in work and deed. Thus he is the one who not only reads, hears and understands what healing means, but also in his heart experiences what this means.

(More succinct is the classically pietistic formulation attributed to Rosenius by some of his followers who had emigrated to the United States: “If one has the most beautiful confession in one’s mouth but denies it in one’s life, one has accomplished nothing” — quoted in Eric G. Hawkinson, Images in Covenant Beginnings, p. 93.)

Yet in the judgment of Covenant historian Karl Olsson, Rosenius remained too much of a Lutheran to embrace anything like the Christian perfection espoused by Scott: “…the converted man remained simul justus et peccator (at once justified and sinful) to the end of his days. Even the Christian man lives under God’s wrath. It is only as he flees in faith to the blood and wounds that he is secure” (By One Spirit, p. 48).

So second, Rosenius’ Pietism centered on Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Continuing from the block quotation above, Rosenius described the “pietist” as one who “knows his sins with remorse and fear, and he has genuinely undergone the process of laying aside these sins. In this work of healing he has learned, though ashamed, helpless and inconsolable as he is, to seek the grace and help of the Savior. He is thus also the one who not only hears, reads and understands reconciliation in the blood of Jesus, about faith and grace, but is also truly seeking this or even already owns it in part. He has truly begun to flee to the Savior and dedicate his life to serving him.”

While his successors would debate the exact nature of atonement, it was central to Rosenian Pietism, since it permitted the convert to “approach the throne of grace with courage, strengthened by the blood of reconciliation that is sprinkled on this throne, and which hides from the sight of God the books of the law, as God does not look past this blood.” And though we’ll see that he sought to avoid unnecessary theological conflict, Rosenius saw the reality of sin and the need for atonement as essential doctrines, arguing that “This [spiritual] life cannot exist in some form of religion, some institution of doctrine, where the doctrine of atonement and of righteousness by faith alone are not preached” and excluding from Paul’s benediction (“Grace be to all, who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” – Eph 6:24) those “who reject the doctrine of atonement or do not, through faith, extend this atonement to the salvation of their soul.”

Swedish New Testament, 1778
1778 edition of the Swedish New Testament – Wikimedia

Third, Rosenian Pietism was biblicist. Against those self-described Christians he dismissed as “formalist,” Rosenius scoffed: “These people say one thing, but the Bible says another about the nature, direction and necessity of this new, spiritual life, which distinguishes a true Christian. And we are not among them, who want to nullify the Word of God with human regulations. …to the extent that the concepts of spiritual things are vague, dark or diverge from the eternal truth of the Word, then the spiritual life which depends on this doctrine will also become weak, sickly, unproductive, full of anxiety, both in the inner experience and the outer evidence.” Like earlier Pietists, Rosenius saw personal (and communal) study of Scripture as chief among the indispensable devotional disciplines of the Christian life, those

certain wells of salvation from which they joyfully draw the water of life (Isa. 12:3). And around these wells a pietist can be seen not only making use of the well and thanking God for it, but also it will be evident that he has a spiritual thirst that is satisfied here, without which the wells and the journey to these wells would serve no good. Such is the Bible, for example, which previously was to him unfathomable, dry, tasteless, but now has become a meaningful, precious, holy book of God that is becoming worn with use.

Finally, contrary to the stereotype of Pietists as world-denying quietists, Rosenius advocated what Bebbington would call evangelical activism, including evangelism, missions, charity, and social reform. The ECC’s current language of embracing the “whole mission of the church” resonates with Rosenius’ statement that “A pietist will feel the challenge, as long as there is time, to do good to all (Gal. 6:10). As a human being, he will take part in the distresses of his neighbor. But he will not be content to merely help this person in terms of bodily and temporal needs, he also, as a Christian, will be thinking about the soul and eternity.” Going on to advocate everything from “spreading awakening” through Bible and newspaper publishing to participation in the temperance movement, he wrote, of the Pietist:

The commandment to “go out” (Mk. 16: 15) will resound for him as though it were a command given directly to him; for he knows that this cause must be the cause of each Christian in order for it to become that of Christendom as a whole. For if he were to remain home, peacefully enjoying the rich bounty of God’s house, then he would neglect his duty and passion, to use those means that are at his disposal to “seek the kingdom of God and increase it as much as he can.”

Indeed, Rosenius argued that even as the Pietist joyfully, wholeheartedly takes up spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, and fellowship, such activity

does not forbid him at all from attending to his earthly duties, for it is exactly in these duties that he has the opportunity to praise the Lord before the world. A true pietist shall always seek to attend to his worldly duties even better than ungodly people; though he, as a stranger here, cannot bind his heart to the world, but rather longs to part from it. As the Jews during the Babylonian captivity, though they longed to return home to the holy land, received the command to pray for this foreign city and engage in their activities for the betterment of this city (Jer. 29:7), so these strangers should also advance the Lord’s glory and their neighbor’s good, each and every one as they are called here on earth.

If Rosenius’ Pietist was an evangelical, shaped by the Lutheran tradition and Transatlantic revivalism, he (or she) was also part of a larger, universal church that stretched back and extended forth into time and space.


4 thoughts on “The Pietist as a “Catholic Evangelical”

  1. Chris- Thank you for your review of Rosenian Pietitism. I could not find anything about his perspective that did not ring true for me. Even the way atonement was described sounded good (no mention of penal substitution).

  2. Chris- A lot of people regard Pietism as anathema because it has frequently been carried to extremes. The same can be said of any other movement but still I wonder if we should not use a modifier when discussing Pietism so as to avoid triggering visceral reactions. We could talk about ‘moderate Pietism’, for example.

    1. Thanks, Jim, for the comments. Yes, it’s a loaded term, to be sure. “Moderate” certainly appeals to my instinctive desire to chart middle paths, though you’d then want to be clear which extremes you were trying to avoid.

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