The Enduring Influence of Pia Desideria (George Demetrion)

Demetrion, In Quest of a Vital Protestant CenterToday I’m happy to share a guest post by George Demetriona review essay on Philipp Jakob Spener’s 1675 work, Pia Desideria, originally written while George was auditing my colleague Glen Scorgie’s Pietism course at Bethel Seminary San Diego. The author of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, George found much to appreciate in Pia Desideria — especially Spener’s call for a true “priesthood of all believers.”

Conceived as a preface to a collection of sermons by the influential Lutheran mystic Johann Arndt, Spener’s Pia Desideria took on a life of its own in its critique of the many problems facing the post-Reformation Protestant world and its recommendations for radical reform of “[t]he wretched conditions” that marked the late seventeenth-century state of churchly affairs. In the first section of the book, Spener aimed his critique against the perceived corruptions of the civil authorities, the clergy, and the laity. In the last section, Spener sought to set both the clergy and the laity apart for vital ministry on the foundations of an internalized orthodox-centered piety in a movement sometimes characterized as the “second Reformation.” [1]

A Corrupt State of Affairs

The intensification of religious and political tensions stemming from the Thirty Years War evoked a “crisis of piety” throughout the central European landscape. Spener pointed to the persistence of “caeasaropapism,” particularly in the Protestant territories. The power grab among the political elite parading as an “apparent zeal for religion” based on “a factious spirit,” had the residual impact of blunting a substantive quest for an authentic piety among the vast majority of the clergy and the laity. For Spener, the true Christian prince was in short supply in the post-Westphalian political culture.

Spener focused his aim against an overemphasis on arcane points of doctrine among the clergy that attempted to define religious righteousness with mastery of theological argumentation. He viewed this impetus as a “worldly spirit,” one most subtle, in an utter disregard of the “denial of the self.” Spener contended that this neglect of “the practice of piety” evoked a sense of worldly pride within the clergy rather than the genuine holiness needed to shepherd a congregation to its authentic calling.

Lack of true discipleship “among the great mass of nominal Christians” inevitably followed. Drunkenness, disregard of neighbor, lawsuits, and an underlying censorious spirit were among the primary sins of the flesh of the largely uninstructed person in the pew. While exposed to the hearing of Scripture through the preached Word and sometimes through direct Bible reading, seldom was found in the typical church member an approach to Scripture that allowed the living Word to penetrate deeply into the heart and soul.

A Vision of Radical Reform: A Most Immodest Proposal

Spener presented six proposals intended to bring the church to the glorious state of affairs to which it is called as the true Bride of Christ. He subdivided these proposals into two categories: the reform of the laity and that of the clergy.

In the first category, Spener pointed to a renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, in which faith, as expressed in daily acts of service and sacrifice, exhibited love in action. This was “the real mark” of discipleship. In the embrace of a “more extensive use of the Word of God” in instilling true spirituality, Spener also called on faithful Christians to assume a charitable spirit the midst of advocating for the truth of God’s revelation in Christ among unbelievers and heretics.

In the second category, Spener insisted on accepting only those candidates for ministerial training who demonstrated persuasive evidence of a heart formed rightly by the spirit of God. The corresponding call was for the professors to “pay attention to the life as well as the studies of the students” in the central task of forming prospective ministers to become true servants of the living God. In arguing against the use of arcane allusions that only the learned would understand, Spener encouraged the aspiring and settled clergy to deliver edifying sermons by focusing on the formation of the inner person’s relationship with God in order to “lay the right foundation in the heart.”


Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705)

Pia Desideria had a powerful influence on the expansion of pietism across European and American evangelicalism from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. It is a text that can be appropriated with much edification within contemporary evangelical religious culture, however different the context than in Spener’s era.

Spener’s call for the widespread utilization of Scripture has been pervasive. Of somewhat less influence has been that of a distinctively devout reading of the Word, even among evangelical communities; even less realized has been any radical application within the realm of daily living and Christian ethics. The emphasis Spener placed on the priesthood of all believers has seldom been appropriated in a manner that radically breaks down an enduring clergy/laity divide that has persisted from the sixteenth century to the present era. Nonetheless, such a mandate remains a central plank for any widespread application of Christian pietism in the church and in the inner lives of those seeking to faithfully walk the Christian pathway in grappling with the tensions of living in the world, while remaining separated from its many worldly allures (John 17:14-16).

The first four proposals largely focused on the spiritual formation of the laity. Spener’s emphasis on the faith formation of the clergy is also a major strength. Such attentiveness remains as important in our day as it was in his. More was (and is) needed in the training and ongoing nurturance of the clergy than the emphasis Spener placed on heart piety. Substantial work in biblical hermeneutics, theology, church and congregational development also deserves much attentiveness in our era, as it did in his. Nonetheless, given the importance of the ordained ministry in the shaping of the faith formation of the laity, Spener’s emphasis on the inner sanctuary of what we refer to today as the seminary student and the regular clergy remains central in the current era.

Particular weaknesses pertain to the pietistic genre itself, including whether the contrast between true and false Christianity is as starkly definitive as it comes across in Pia Desideria. There are shades of complexity that can be easily missed in any polar construct of the pious and impious that accompanies much of the Protestant devotional literature. Another caution is need for greater awareness that specific people, church groups, and denominations exhibit different charisms in the body of Christ. While pietism is a primary gift of the evangelical community, other communities are gifted in other areas, as exhibited throughout the historical and contemporary embodiment of the body of Christ. A final concern is whether the inner experience of the renovated heart in Pia Desideria is “elevated” to such a degree that “doctrine” and the life of the mind within the body of Christ is placed in “a secondary position.” [2]

Contemporary Relevance of Pia Desideria

The nurturance of the personal relationship to Christ of individual believers and the impact of such pietism on the body of Christ has been a focal point of concentration since the earliest New Testament writings. Sifted through this vantage point, there is nothing novel in Pia Desideria or in the explicitly pietistic literature itself, except for their focus on the core Protestant fundamentals [3] and the influence of such texts on new generations of Christians impacted by various revitalization movements. Whatever else may be said, Pia Desideria unleashed a movement within the history of Protestant religious culture that has reverberated throughout the centuries into the current era, particularly among contemporary evangelicals. The core message of Spener’s influential treatise has been internalized in the spiritual Protestant classics of Andrew Murray, Charles Spurgeon, and C.S. Lewis, as well as the contemporary derivative writings of Dallas Willard and J. I. Packer. It is to the great credit of Spener’s classic that contemporary Christians can appropriate his central ideas through these and other authors without ever having encountered Pia Desideria.

There is nothing new in the tension between the gospel revelation of God in Christ reconciling the world (2 Cor 5:19) and the allure of the “world,” based on “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). A noteworthy difference related to the modern period is the particular manifestations of these temptations unleashed with the formation of the modern state, as alluded to in Spener’s text, and intensified in the past one hundred years in the virtual eradication of any formal notion of God in virtually all aspects of U.S. and European public life. The particular “defects” of the civil authorities, clergy, and the laity that Spener identified in his era are, in important respects, different than those we now encounter. Nonetheless, the underlying force of “the world” (i.e., overt secular power and its underlying cultural influence) challenging the church’s core values — in no small measure, through the temptation of internal corruption — is as pervasive in our period as in Spener’s, if not more so. [4]

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia Desideria
Title page from a 1676 edition of Pia Desideria

I view all of Spener’s six practices as relevant for contemporary evangelical communities. Because it remains more in the realm of promise than the others, I highlight Spener’s focus on the priesthood of all believers for special mention here. With exceptions duly acknowledged, such an expansion of the ministry of all believers has not been realized in the half-millennium since the Reformation, with little looming on the horizon signifying any substantial change to the contrary.

The tension between what is commonly characterized as religious and secular reality among the contemporary laity in the realms of work, family, entertainment, and politics, to identify a few primary sectors, is pervasive. Devotional Bible and small group topical study, spirit-filled worship services, mission projects, and other church-centered activities often have a sustaining impact in helping to fortify an increasingly firm Christian identity among the laity and in providing modest opportunities to engage the culture from the basis of a strong faith stance. Yet such practices remain insufficient if any approximation of the Reformation ideal of the ministry of all believers, through the priesthood of all vocational callings, is to take imaginative hold in contemporary evangelical communities of believers.

As intimated in Pia Desideria, such a vision of the priesthood of all believers is not a new concept; rather, it is central, especially to Lutheran spirituality, from Luther down to the twentieth century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both in his direct challenge to the reign of Adolf Hitler and in his call for Christian “deputyship” in the primary secular realms as well as the church. [5]

However difficult, an intentional embrace of such a vision has the dual advantage of linking contemporary Protestant congregations to their Reformation roots and of providing a creative resource for living out the faith within the totality of life, in the various realms in which Christians engage and are engaged by their culture. Moving forward will require many small steps in which any realization can be but partial. The plunge, itself, would signal a radical embrace of the Protestant vision of the priesthood of all believers, in which even partial realizations would require pietistic and theological sensibilities of the most discerning sort.

Read more from George at the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ.


1 Roger E. Olson and Christian T. Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), p. 8

2 F. E. Stoeffler, ed., Pietists: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 6.

3 Timothy George, “The Reformation Traditions,” in Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals, ed. James Groggin and Kyle Strobel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), pp. 247-71; Fred Sanders, “Reading Spiritual Classics as Evangelical Protestants,” in idem, pp. 149-66.

4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007).

5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1955), pp. 220-24; George Demetrion, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 240-46.

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