Pietism, Resurrection, and the Virtue of Hope

Unless you limit its definition to that relatively small group of German Lutherans inspired by Philipp Jakob Spener and then led by August Hermann Francke in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Pietism is a tremendously diverse movement within Christianity — spanning centuries, oceans, languages, and confessions. So what do Pietists have in common?

I asked this once of my colleague Christian Collins Winn, a specialist on the Pietist circle led by Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son Christoph, who’s working on an introduction to Pietism right now. Rather than starting where I expected — with conversion and regeneration, the rejection of “dead orthodoxy,” the irenic spirit, or “faith made active in love” — Christian simply said, “Resurrection.”

Grünewald, Resurrection
Matthias Grünewald, “Resurrection,” from the Isenheim Altarpiece

It’s hardly unique to this one branch of the Christian family tree, but I think there’s a case to be made (far more effectively by Christian than me — look for his book, and read what he’s already published on the Blumhardts) that the Resurrection is absolutely central to Pietism.

First, I can’t think of a better illustration of the limitations of a Christianity centered on intellectual assent. I believe in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and think that apologetics in this vein are necessary. But in the end, Christ crucified is “foolishness” to those who accept faith only as it is bordered by human wisdom, those like the “Greeks” of 1 Corinthians 1 or the Athenian philosophers who scoffed at Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus. Belief in the risen Lord, as the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor 15:20, NRSV) and the announcement that Christ is indeed victor over death itself, convicts the heart to a degree beyond what the head can achieve.

Second, it’s hard to imagine core Pietist concepts like “new life” for the convert or “better times for the church” growing out of any soil other than that of resurrection. But because they do, Pietists then should be unafraid to live as people of hope. I wouldn’t force a choice over or against faith or love, but I do think that Pietists do as well as any Christian group at remembering that hope is part of Paul’s famous triad of virtues. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom sums it up well in her recent overview of Pietist ethics:

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysWhile Pietism emphasized spirituality and mysticism and Spener took a chiliastic approach to the end times, Pietist hope is a lost treasure in the church’s history. The hope of the Pietists inspired a resuscitation of personal faith and widespread renewal in the church. The Pietists practiced hope as the virtue that enabled them to look backward and forward, up and down. Hope needs history for guidance, and it needs the future for vitality. Hope is the temporal virtue that frames—backward and forward, up and down—the life of the church in the here and now. It looks up to the angels and down to the worms. It combines the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. It brings together faith and love. How should we hope? We hope by attending to earthly life in a manner worthy of the gospel. We hope by rebuilding the earthly with an eye to the New Jerusalem. (Angels, Worms, and Bogeys, p. 73)

So as we enter Easter weekend and look ahead — but not too quickly… first the Last Supper and the Cross — to the Empty Tomb, I thought I’d share some of my favorite Pietist reflections on resurrection, new life, and hope:

August Hermann Francke

The image of God is awakened in resurrection from the dead into its full clarity (in which complete blessedness consists) and is to be followed by complete satisfaction. The faithful have yet to know that God will bless them richly in this life, that he will give them to drink joy as if from the stream, from which they can understand how great a good is to be awaited in the future life, where they will be completely satisfied if the image of God is awakened in them. Are the first fruits as lovely and pleasant as the whole harvest will be glorious? In this life a foretaste of eternal life is promised by God the Lord to his people. In the next life, however, they will not have a near taste but all fullness, all richness, all satisfaction, and all completion. Here it must be exchanged with the Cross, suffering, and tribulation; there it will be had without change, without variation, without vexation, and without distaste. Thus one will taste in all eternity the sweetness and joy and will not surfeit of these, but the more he has of them the more will he be satisfied.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt
Christoph Blumhardt
Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919) – Christoph-Blumhardt-Haus

We must become filled with zeal, with joy and gratitude, gladly enduring anything, however hard, in order to be free of death and of this life in the midst of death. Then the powers of resurrection come closer to us; then Christ really becomes the risen one, and a new life comes into being. Not the kind of life we have been seeking until now, trying to be a little better than other people, thinking that it is a new life if we steal a little less or walk around a little more decently than before or wear a more respectable coat, or if we exchange a criminal’s cap for something more acceptable. All this is supposed to be a new life? Bah! It is not at all a question of being better than you were before. The new life means that forces for life can now be seen within you, that something of God and of heaven, something holy, can grow in you. It means we can actually see that it is no longer the sinful desires that have power, but that there is something of Christ’s resurrection, something of his life that has power through the Spirit and that leads you toward wholeness.

Then two from leading Pietists within my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church:

Karl Olsson

Those of us who confess Christ as Lord believe that in him in a special way history has become hope. Because of the character of God as revealed in Jesus, we have hope that both history and what lies beyond it will be stamped by the character of God. Hence even when we mourn about our own mortality or the frailty of the institutions and societies of which we are a part, we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.

Glen Wiberg

E.B. White, a fine essayist, writes of watching his wife Katharine planning the planting of bulbs in her garden in the last autumn of her life. He wrote: “…There was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance…the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

What a provocative phrase: “plotting the resurrection”! Katharine was a member of the resurrection conspiracy, the company of those who plant seeds of hope, seeds of tomorrow under dark skies of uncertainty and impending death; people going about their living and dying until, no one knows how, when, or where, the tender shoots of life appear, and a small piece of creation is healed. That’s who we are as God’s Easter people—those oblivious to the ending of our own days, calmly plotting the resurrection.

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