The Pietist as a “Catholic Evangelical”

Pietism as catholic

Here too, let’s be careful with terminology. A 19th century Lutheran who likened the church to an army “like the one that Gustaf II Adolf so triumphantly commanded against the popish retinue in Germany,” C.O. Rosenius was very much a man of his time — one in which Protestants and Roman Catholics still regarded each other as something worse than “separated brethren.”

Still, I’d contend that Rosenian Pietism was catholic (not Catholic), first, for the reason that Reformed philosopher Jamie Smith thinks that he can give a talk on “John Calvin’s Catholic Faith“:

…if the protest of the Reformation means anything, then surely there is a dichotomy, or at least a difference, between being Reformed and being a Roman Catholic. On that, I completely agree. However, I don’t think Rome owns Catholicity. Our “catholic” faith is the historic faith of the church, rooted in the Scriptures, received from the apostles, elucidated and articulated in the creeds and ecumenical councils, reformed in our confessions, with the conviction that the Spirit of God has guided the church through history.

So Rosenius found what we’ve called “the pietist impulse” to be no modern innovation, but a response to a calling as ancient as the Church itself:

Carl Olof Rosenius
Rosenius preaching – Wikimedia

We are firmly convinced that even if everything in the world changes, yes, even as the customs of society change, all the same the Word of God never changes, but what was altogether necessary to be a Christian in the time of the apostles is just as essential now. The same basis and method for salvation; the same source of goodness in the heart, living and producing the right fruits; the same determination to deny one’s self, carry the shame of Christ and flee everything that appears evil; the same mind and aspiration to work with the Master and promote his cause; the same necessity to keep watch and pray – these things that were prescribed for Christians in the first century are also prescribed for Christians in the nineteenth. The forms change, the concepts of doctrine are bound, made clear, and fortified. The order of the world is transformed even in so-called Christian countries. But piety and fear of God do not change. It is the life, the spirit, the fertility that is in all forms, institutions of learning, social regulations, where Christians are known and recognized.

Second, his Pietist is catholic because he does not “belong to any specific church denomination, but instead constitutes one of those limbs that can be found in all Christian churches which belong to the one, holy, universal church.” As one might expect from a Lutheran who worked under a Methodist, Rosenius was able to see past denominational distinctives to sense a prevailing unity of spirit: “This spiritual life is common to all true Christians. And from this we understand how it can be that the forms are so diverse, yet the Spirit is one, that perspectives are in abundance, yet love is in common and everything is united (See I Cor. 12 and Eph. 4).”

While accepting the inevitability of theological differences (“It would not be probable to expect that all Christians, despite being enlightened by the same Spirit, should come to completely the same way of thinking on all spiritual matters here on earth, where we understand and prophesy in part”), Rosenius professed a desire to work with all who loved Christ, since

We love to understand pietism as something, which belongs to the whole world, and not just part of it, as something common and accessible for all confessions, which hold themselves to Christ the head. And this opinion makes our own confession all the more dear to us. For we should certainly fear and tremble, if devotion for this same confession involved some necessity to be prejudiced against all other confessions, or even to suspect their capability to serve as a means to draw their adherents into the one sheep fold.

So Rosenius echoed Philipp Spener’s admonition against needlessly divisive theological argumentation or
“heresy-hunting”:

Rosenius' grave in Stockholm
Rosenius’ grave in Stockholm – Wikimedia

…just as, for example, the various books of the Bible are rather different in their use of language, presentation and so on, the spirit and the purpose are still similar in them all, so too the physical, outward clothing among pietists can be quite different, yet “the Spirit is one” and indivisible. Of this it follows that true pietists will not gladly enter into controversies with one another. They will remind themselves of the charge: “Welcome the one who is weak in faith, without passing judgment;” “for God has welcomed him.” (Rom. 14:1, 3) If God has taken such people, who are weak, sick and defective into the one, true sheepfold, then the sheep of the flock should not be allowed to bite and gnash at one another. A pietist will strive and fight bravely – and ought to fight – against all true spiritual enemies, both to himself and to the church. He ought to strike down all the fortifications and bulwarks of thought, which set themselves up as a hindrance to the knowledge of God. But even though there is much at stake in the fight, he will not waste time or wear out his weapons by fighting with brothers in faith.

Described by historian George Stephenson as having been uniquely “able to differ gracefully with” those who shared his high view of Scripture but not all of his interpretations of it (The Religious Aspects of Swedish Immigration, p. 38), Rosenius here sounds less like the more recent vintage of evangelicals, so prone to internal strife over what he called “doctrines of lesser importance.” Indeed, as he went on, Rosenius seemed to revel in difference: “…since humanity is also a part of this equation, how much diversity there can be, even within this unity!… Though all people have physical features and faces that are similar enough to let us know that we all are human, nevertheless in all the population of the world there are no two faces that are so similar that no difference can be detected (this is not to mention all the endless diversity in lesser visible characteristics of the soul within the family of humanity.) So it is also with the children of God’s Spirit, whose dispositions, abilities, and ways of being are all more or less different.”

Finally, Rosenius is catholic in one other way that makes for a useful contrast with a particular strand in contemporary American evangelicalism: his refusal to confuse the cause of Christ with that of any nation-state, or to treat any allegiance as higher than that of the convert to God. Indeed, this is where he started his definition of a “pietist” in the second part of the article:

Now if you first ask what kind of citizen a pietist is, the answer will be: he does not belong to any country on earth. This is in two respects. In one respect, namely, that he exists in all countries where the Gospel is known and preached; and also in the respect that he is actually a guest and a stranger on earth and is seeking a fatherland, the heavenly one…. all pietists in the world are each other’s countrymen, the subjects of the same King, children of the same Father, though they wander in vastly separate parts of the globe, are raised under different circumstances and speak different languages. They are citizens with the holy ones and the servants of God. And if they too, like the refugees from Madagascar and their Khoisian-speaking brothers, must make use of their Bibles in order to speak to one another; or in lacking this means, like the Scottish soldier and the Danish farmer, who by simply pointing to the word Jesus in the Postilla and then pointing to their hearts and toward heaven can communicate themselves to one another, they can so easily understand that they are fellow subjects in the same kingdom of grace, and that the unity of the Spirit forges together their diversity of external circumstances and ignites a mutual love between them.

Click here for full text of Mark Safstrom’s translation of C.O. Rosenius, “Pietism” (1842), and here for the translation of the second part, “A Pietist.”

Several selections from Rosenius appear in Jim Hawkinson’s ECC reader, Glad Hearts.


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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