Pietism as Instincts, or It’s More Than Old Churches in Rural Iowa

At the end of June I had the chance to spend a few days at Rathbun Lake in southern Iowa, joining my wife’s extended family for a reunion. Of course, even on vacation I couldn’t escape my research. In a part of Iowa most famous in religious history for being part of the Mormon Trail, I turned up more than a few artifacts of the Pietist ethos in America:

Now, only two of these churches are in use, and I’m not sure that many congregants at either would self-identify as Pietist. So why should I think that Pietism can be anything more than a historic movement that left interesting artifacts in its wake but has no active role to play in 21st century America?

Why did I spend most of yesterday working on a proposal for a book — a sort of Pia Desideria for our time — arguing that Pietism has a vibrant future in this country?

I look forward to answering that question in much greater detail in the coming months. And to hearing your thoughts on it! (Assuming we get that book contract, my co-author and I plan to dedicate the second season of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast to thinking aloud about its contents and inviting early feedback from listeners.)

But today, let me start with a kind of pre-answer: I can even begin to think that there’s a Pietist future for American Christianity because of how I would define Pietism.

Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming PietismIn our recent book on Pietism and higher education, we followed the lead of Roger Olson and treated Pietism as both a movement and an ethos. Movement: the original Pietists who formed a party within German Protestantism after the Thirty Years War advocating for church renewal — they were known as “Pietists” at the time, built up institutions like those in Halle, and faded with the death of their leaders. Ethos: “The Pietist movement was energized by a spiritual ethos that outlived it and can be seen in many sectors of contemporary Christianity…. This ethos transcends denominations and even traditions; it ‘pops up’ in all kinds of Christian movements, organizations, and individuals” (Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism, pp. 8, 9).

Of course, once we’re into ethos then we’re really going to struggle to articulate a definition that doesn’t feel impossibly squishy. Some point to shared practices (personal devotions, small groups, evangelism, charitable work) or shared emphases (conversion, right feeling and action over right belief, ecumenism, a greater role for the laity). In their recent book on the Pietist ethos, Roger and Christian Collins Winn define it as “the distinctive set of emphases in this ‘ecumenical expression of a religion of the heart’ — what it shares in common not widely emphasized in the same way everywhere” (p. 9).

I don’t disagree with any of these approaches, but as I think about how we might frame Pietism for a 21st century audience, I’ve been playing with is something a bit different.

Pietists share certain instincts

(This is very early thinking: feel free to critique, knowing that it’s tentative and provisional.)

These aren’t even settled beliefs, just impulses or inclinations. Presented with a new situation, for example, a Pietist would probably think or feel one or more of the following, even if they couldn’t explain their response.

John Stott
And no, I have no idea what Stott thought of Pietism, but I think he shared at least a couple of these instincts…

Prepositions, not propositions. John Stott structured one of his books (Life in Christ) around a set of prepositions, each pointing to a certain aspect of Jesus Christ: through (our mediator), on (foundation), in (life-giver), under (Lord), with (secret), unto (goal), for (lover), like (model). I’ve always liked that approach and think it should resonate well with anyone (knowingly or unknowingly) animated by the Pietist ethos. It’s not to say that intellectual propositions about the nature of God are irrelevant — Christians don’t live under any Lord or seek to be like any model. But they feel both necessary and insufficient; prior to any attempt to make theological sense of God, we experience life in, with, through, under, and for Him. (And we might never make sense of that experience, but the Bible seems to assume that — and move on. I can’t recall his name off hand, but one Wheaton professor, back in the days of Arthur Holmes, once asked where he could find propositions about God in the Psalms.)

Christianity is both more and less than we think. Of course, this is a play on the first instinct: Pietists who live in, with, through, under, and for Christ probably feel his presence before or even more than they think about the idea of him. But here I can add a couple of not unrelated instincts.

• First, Pietists expect more (new birth, new life) from following Christ than, say, their Lutheran cousins who fully expect saints to remain sinners, or those Christians who would equate the spread of Christianity with the accumulation of worldly power, wealth, or status.

• Second, Pietists would tend to view simplicity as a virtue: their list of essential doctrines is fairly short; their antipathy to convoluted, overly institutional church governance fairly strong.

Hope for better times. Probably honored more in the breach than the observance, but if Pietists are anything like Philipp Spener, they fully expect “better times” for the church and the world. Even when the recent and distant past suggest more dismal patterns to continue forward in time, Pietists understand that the historical event is Resurrection, and it disrupts all patterns and leaves us actively expecting that God will continue to break into the world in unexpected ways, bringing new life where otherwise there is death.

We’re better together than apart. Again following Spener, Pietists would shy away from “needless controversy.” They are instinctively ecumenical, tending to agree with the 19th century Swedish revivalist C. O. Rosenius that the “spiritual life” they seek “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.” Like Rosenius, they would “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.”

Of course, these instincts aren’t infallible. Following them without testing such impulsive responses against Scripture or subjecting them to careful thought can lead 21st century Pietists as far astray as it did those of earlier centuries. And I’m not sure that they always form a seamless whole.

But if you resonate strongly with at least two or three them, I think chances are good that you might one day come to the realization that once hit my friend Sara in the middle of recording a podcast: “I’m a Pietist!”


5 thoughts on “Pietism as Instincts, or It’s More Than Old Churches in Rural Iowa

  1. Good, thought-provoking post. This blog is the only place I’ve heard of the “Pietism” thread within Christianity, and so this post helped unpack for me what Pietism is (which appears to be a very difficult thing to do!)

    In any case, I just wanted to ask for clarification. You write: “Pietists expect more (new birth, new life) from following Christ than, say, their Lutheran cousins who fully expect saints to remain sinners.” Does this mean that those who lean towards the Pietist tradition believe in the perfection of the saints on this earth, that they will, pre-heaven, be without sin? Or are you simply saying that those who have Pietist leanings place a rather stronger emphasis on the increasing sanctification, even though that process will not be completed during this lifetime?

    1. Ah, I was afraid someone would push back on that line. 🙂 There’s no doubt a spectrum of Pietist optimism here — and your question points to the problem of how far to stretch “Pietism” — to include Wesley and some of his theological descendants? I’m more in line with your second option — unable to shake my Lutheran ancestors’ suspicion of perfection, but also cognizant that the early Luther thought faith was a living, active, powerful thing that has the potential (by God’s grace) to transform us in this life.

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