Pietism, Doctrine, and the Boundaries of Belief

What place, if any, do Pietists give to doctrine? Do they place any boundaries on what constitutes right belief (orthodoxy)?

Those questions come to my mind at least two or three times a year, generally whenever I’m getting too excited about the prospects for a “Pietist impulse” to again revive Christianity (as it’s done at several points in modern church history) and recognize anew that it, like any movement or tradition, has inherent tensions and pitfalls. One for Pietism: can a movement that reacts against “dead orthodoxy” avoid “living heterodoxy”?

Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About GodThe specific impetus for being reminded of this problem was that I read Tim Suttle’s op-ed in The Christian Post last week, asking “Will Evangelicalism Last?” Noting that Rob Bell’s new book (to be released next week — pre-order here) has already been declared heterodox by Denny Burk, Suttle wonders if evangelicalism has a future as a movement sharing any degree of unity:

One thing seems clear: If evangelicalism continues to be defined primarily by a theological center, it will crumble – especially if guys like Denny Burk get to decide who’s in and who’s out.

This leads Suttle to an important observation about the nature of truth, or Truth:

It’s laudable to care about the truth. Engaging in conversation about sound doctrine is an important part of sticking together. But these days when somebody in our tribe says, “I’m fighting for the truth,” you just know it’s a ruse.

For one thing “Truth” is not rational abstraction – a concept, doctrine, or idea you can write down – especially not one which you conveniently have right and everyone else conveniently has wrong. Truth-as-a-rational-abstraction constitutes a denial of the incarnation (and big chunks of the New Testament). Doctrines and theologies can point to the truth but they are not themselves the Truth. The Truth has been revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ. Truth is a person. Jesus is the Truth.

Even if one keeps the truth-as-a-rational-abstraction account of truth, it still should not constitute the evangelical center. Christians are not meant to believe in a rational account of the truth; we are meant to take up our cross and follow the one who is true; the truth as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. But for the truth-police, Christianity has become analyzed instead of lived.

Most importantly, we must recognize that the fight for truth is nearly always a fight for control. Those who passionately defend the truth are often just grasping for power. It’s a game that only those who have never been transformed by the love of God have the stomach for.

On first read, I just found myself nodding along. Which should surprise no one who read my Christian Scholar’s Review article on Pietism and higher education, in which I highlighted the christocentric, personal, and relational understanding of truth central to the educational philosophies of former Bethel president Carl Lundquist (“…the unifying center of the academic program is neither Truth nor the Pursuit of Truth but is Jesus Christ Himself. Ultimately, in our Christian view, Truth and Christ are one, and the important thing about Truth is that it ought to point to Christ”) and his counterpart at North Park College, Karl Olsson (who argued that the central purpose of a Christian college was not training for professions or even “the zest and the joy of intellectual and aesthetic adventure,” but that it point “beyond itself and beyond all created things to the Source of life and truth, who by giving Himself to us sustains within us the hunger for salvation”).

Caravaggio, "Supper at Emmaus" (1601)
Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus” (1601) – Wikimedia

Or who has read my brief essay explaining why I have a fragment of Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” running along the top of my blog:

…while I value historic orthodoxies and appreciate the reinvigoration of American and international Protestantism brought about by mid-20th century “neo-evangelicals” suspicious of theological liberalism, I’m cautiously on board with Roger Olson here in understanding evangelicalism (and Pietism, which Olson treats a key source of his “postconservative evangelicalism”) as a “centered-set” and not a “closed-set” category: “That is, the question is not who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ but who is nearer the center and who is moving away from it. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by its centrifugal center of powerful gravity and not by outlying boundaries that serve as walls or fences” (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 59).

I still incline this way. Like Olson, I see theology as “the church’s third-order speech, which reflects on Scripture [first-order] in light of testimony, praise, and proclamation [second-order] and comes back to testimony, praise, and proclamation with recommendations for correction and supplementation” (Reformed and Always Reforming, p. 163), and even Scripture itself is not Truth in the sense that Christ is. As Suttle puts it, “The Bible is the truthful witness to the one who is the way, the truth and the life.” But it is not that One, and He is at the center of belief.

To a point, I’m even fine with the inevitable cacophony that this is bound to produce. I treasure the irenic spirit of the Pietists, their refusal to engage in needless controversy over non-essentials. So when I recently wrote a review of Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s fine introduction to Pietist ethics, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, I was struck by this passage from her chapter on Johanna Eleonora Petersen:

When they spoke of unity, the Pietists were referring to love. Like [Philipp Jakob] Spener, Petersen desired unity in the church. Unfortunately, dispute over doctrine often divided the body, and Petersen was outspokenly critical of this. Doctrine, she believed, was meant to be lived and to bring us more deeply into love of God. The church should be a place of enduring love—where those who believe in the message of the gospel come together to worship God and to be co-participants in Christ, regardless of theological differences.

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysIndeed, “theological differences,” in Clifton-Soderstrom’s interpretation of Petersen, “ought to be a source for growth, an impetus for transformation, or a reason for renewal” (Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, p. 63).

But… I also know that you don’t have to read too far into Spener to realize that the founder of Pietism adhered to a specific set of doctrines: he might have wanted pastors to preach simply and powerfully rather than to explicate the Book of Concord, but those Lutheran confessions helped define the boundaries of what he deemed right belief. Those boundaries seemed to leave room for Calvinists (and perhaps Anabaptists), but given the way Spener treats the Church of Rome in Pia Desideria, I’m not sure that Catholicism fell within the territory he marked out as constituting “right belief.” (To say nothing of his views of Judaism, conversion of whose adherents was crucial to his eschatology.)

The fact that his opponents called themselves “Orthodox” and the Pietists then derided “dead orthodoxy” does not mean they discarded the very notion of right belief. Clifton-Soderstrom calls the theology of the German Pietists “both orthodox and life-giving” (p. 20). But she also confines her study of Pietist ethics to the “churchly Pietism” of Spener and Francke. Petersen perhaps pushes the boundaries a bit, but not in Clifton-Soderstrom’s retelling, which says almost nothing of the Radical Pietists, whose theological innovations — as much as their separatism — concerned the likes of Spener and Francke.

By taking a narrow approach, she avoids having to deal with the problem that Mark Noll observed in a passage of Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that praised Spener et al. for renewing a calcified Protestantism but observed some dangerous tendencies past its founders:

The intellectual problem of Pietism lay in its excesses. Pietists had rediscovered the truth that Christianity is a life as well as a set of beliefs. The difficulty arose when some Pietists began to view Christian faith as only a life, without a concern for beliefs at all. This led to fascination with practice, deep involvement in spiritual experience, and absorption in the psychological dimensions of the faith. Objective realities of revelation were sometimes totally eclipsed…. Pietists quite properly protested when this objectivity came to be regarded as the sum and substance of the faith. But some overreacted by picturing the experience of the faith as the new totality.

At its extreme, the Pietist emphasis on religious life gave very little attention to self-conscious Christian thought. To be consumed by feeling was to have no time for thinking through the relationship between God and his creation. Once this point had been reached, it soon became difficult to distinguish between those forms of feeling that remained within the Christian orbit and those that had spun off as meteorites with no fixed center. (pp. 48-49)

So I’m looking for readers to help me out:

Can/should Pietists set objective boundaries for right belief? (How? Sola scriptura? Doctrines found in creeds/confessions/affirmations? “Historic orthodoxies” or some other kind of traditional consensus?) Is it sufficient to say that Christ is at the center?

5 thoughts on “Pietism, Doctrine, and the Boundaries of Belief

  1. Surely we have to say which Christ is at the center. That implies some doctrinal shape to Pietism’s Christianity. But true Pietism avoids overly detailed dogmatic systems (a la Hodge’s Systematic Theology) as its center.

  2. Maybe the problem is not having a center, but having a systematic theology. Systematic theology(ies) by definition impose the system on the biblical text, instead of allowing the text to speak simply to us. Some might say that biblical theology is the alternative to systematic theology, but that term is used by everyone so it is not useful.

    At present, Baptists are having a nice internal debate between creeping Calvinism and traditional Baptist theology. Maybe they should have debated the encroachments from the other dominant systematic theology (drifting Dispensationalism). Anyway, I think the positions taken by the traditionalists might have some relevance to the topic we are discussing here.

    Within Lutheranism, you may have noticed that NALC started life with a call for wholehearted commitment to the complete Book of Concord. Free Lutherans (and, interestingly, Moravians) are satisfied with the first 20 or so articles in the Augsburg Confession. Enough is enough, when it comes to doctrine.

  3. I would suggest at the center is a deep concern with the living resurrected Christ, who can be known and confessed, which entails much of the broad swath of a “generous orthodoxy.” To my mind, the resurrection is the fundamental nerve that Pietist spirituality and theology is attempting to tap into. As such, this is something that can be known, and can therefore be thought through in a certain way. I like what was said above by the other folks, because I have always felt that a narrative approach was probably closer to how a Pietist theology would probably be organized, as opposed to a systematic approach (though there were some Pietist systematics produced).

    There is also, however, something different about Pietism and the theological questions that it considers, which is another reason why I don’t think we can simply describe it as the devotionalizing of orthodoxy. The Pietists were pushing for a consideration of new issues (eschatology/chliiasm being a huge one) and for a new consideration of old issues (justification/sanctification; the nature of the church; the nature of the bible; etc.). As such, this isn’t just about temperament.

    I find Noll rather unfortunate in this particular instance, given that his description of “Pietism” there is not so much driven by analysis of Pietists, but of broad cultural generalizations, which issue in Kant and Schleiermacher. These figures are already considered “bad guys” in the “Evangelical world,” thus the analysis is already framed by a somewhat alien criteria for discerning the possibility of a Pietist theology (i.e., Pietism as ultimately the father of that great evangelical bogey man theological liberalism). What has always seemed a bit strange to me in regard to a quote like Noll’s and the implied anti-intellectualism of Pietism, is the fact that Halle became a bastion of Wolffian rationalism within about 2 or so generations after Francke. I think that story–i.e., the intellectualization of Halle and its relationship to Pietism–still needs to be told.

    So, how to answer your question? Perhaps. Perhaps the reality is that orthodoxy is the kind of phenomenon that must produce pietism, and vice versa. Or, perhaps it is sufficient to say that Christ is at the center. There were three traditions that existed during the early modern period: orthodoxy, Pietism, and the Enlightenment. Perhaps they all need each other to be what each needs to be?

    I guess if I had to choose a creed, it would probably be the Apostle’s Creed, which I think is far superior to other affirmations; saying enough, without saying too much.

  4. Can the flaky lit scholar have a go at this one? What if the idea of a “center” or a “core” is the wrong image (or, at the very least, an image that we should acknolwedge comes freighted with a lot of enlightenment and modernist baggage)? Perhaps the problem with the idea of “center” or “core” is that it suggests that there is something fully attainable and intellect-able where there really isn’t: even if we acknowledge that center, say, as “Christ,” or “the resurrection,” there’s no full attainment or knowledge of or communion with that center–that whole, pesky “fall” thing, and its consequences for human understanding, keeps getting in the way. So, perhaps where Christians live is really somewhere between that unattainable center and an unthinkable godlessness, between the fallen world and its redeemed future, between wholeness and dissolution, between the brutal if/then logic of sublunary existence and the because/therefore logic of grace and the fulfillment of a promise. Hugh of St. Victor talks about a human life as being strung, like a guitar string, between those two poles, such that a Christian life is not so much defined by one pole or the other but by what happens when what is strung tightly between them, properly tuned, set against the sounding board of the whole of scripture, and plucked. I always think about the Canterbury Tales in this context, too (ok, I think about the Canterbury Tales in every context–occupational hazard): we never see the pilgrims in the dog-eat-dog commercial metropolis of London, and we never see them make it to the grace and absolution at the shrine of St. Thomas in Canterbury; they’re perpetually in between. The real stories take place within that tension. So perhaps a better metaphor, especially from a pietistic perspective, would be not one of seeking a center or defining a boundary, but rather one that acknowledges that tension and in-between-ness: plucking a string on an instrument or embarking on a pilgrimage through a borderland.

  5. There’s a fascinating transition we see when we study how people form categories in cognitive science. When a person believes that there are as yet undiscovered categories or that categories definitions are still in development, categories are defined in terms of distances from a prototype or exemplar of the category relative to distances to prototypes or exemplars in other categories. So the question of categorization becomes: what are the relationships of a particular instance between and among categories? However, as one comes to believe that there are no longer undiscovered categories AND that the categories are completely stationary, categories are defined in terms of their boundaries. Boundary-based categories are interesting because they no longer require any idea of a center – prototype, exemplar, or anything else.

    Our cognitive limitations predispose us toward boundary-based definitions of categories. They’re easy and they don’t require much thought or imagination. But they come at a cost. They orient us toward minutiae that is only valid if we’ve identified every possible category and the world has stopped moving. And it seems unlikely, at least to me, that theology is finished and we can settle down categorically. This simple intuition is probably the reason that CS Lewis proclaimed, “Further up, further in!” in The Last Battle and why so many Christians stop reading about Narnia after the first book.

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