Thursday’s Podcast: What’s Pietism?

This morning’s new episode of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast finds Mark Pattie and me talking about a question that’s foundational to the book we’re going to be writing this year:

What is Pietism?

And, almost as importantly, what is it not? Anti-intellectualism, legalism, quietism… though the seeds of such pathologies are present in the Pietist “instincts” that we focus on. Given what I wrote last week about defining evangelicalism, I like that so much of our conversation about defining Pietism quickly turned to the theme of living with tensions…

I’ve got a bit more to say about this over at The Christian Humanistwhere you’ll also find links to some other attempts to define Pietism.

Memorial plaque for Phillip Spener
Memorial plaque erected in Frankfurt on the 275th anniversary of the death of Philipp Jakob Spener – Creative Commons (Flacus)

Here let me just emphasize — in case the very idea of spending fifty minutes talking about a definition is making your eyes glaze over — that the book Mark and I are writing is not meant to be a scholarly text. While it’s going to be published by IVP Academic, that has more to do with my profession as a professor than the style of the book. Or its content: while I’m a history professor, this book is not going to be a history of Pietism. That book has been written, many times.

Mark and I will certainly draw inspiration from previous Pietists; after all, our book is modeled on Philipp Spener’s Pia Desideria (1675). But we’re interested in what Pietism has to say here and now, how it offers practical help and hope for Christians in the early 21st century.

As always, you can share your comments, suggestions, and questions in multiple ways:

  1. Leave a comment here.
  2. Leave a comment our Christian Humanist show page.
  3. Leave a comment at the podcast’s Facebook page.

Next week: we’ll share listener responses to our definition, and share our stories of encountering Pietism.

(One correction… In the episode I alluded to a book co-written by sociologist Michael Emerson, who is now the provost of North Park University — not Bethel University, where he taught early in his career.)


6 thoughts on “Thursday’s Podcast: What’s Pietism?

  1. I still don’t think there’s any better approach to defining a movement and ethos (a distinction I make with regard to both “evangelicalism” and “Pietism”) than historical prototypes–persons, documents and organizations. All attempt to define “Pietism ” without reference to historical prototypes such as Spener and Francke fall flat or go off in strange directions. So, “Pietism,” I would say, is the spiritual-theological ethos (Stan Grenz called it “conversional piety”) rediscovered and promoted by Spener and Francke and, in his own distinctive way, by Zinzendorf. Of course it has had many permutations over the centuries since. But I once had a sustained debate with an Eastern Orthodox priest-theologian who insisted on treating “Pietism” as Protestant esotericism–something foreign to the origins of the movement. To be sure some pietists drifted off into esotericism under the influence of Jakob Boehme, but the concept gets stretched too far and too thin and then becomes infinitely fexible eventually identified with something weird and even completely unchristian (in some cases)–unless we keep it pinned to the original prototypes of the movement. Anything that strays too far from Pia Desideria, for example, just shouldn’t be called Pietism.

    1. I don’t disagree, Roger. Indeed, our entire book is meant to be a 21st century version of Pia Desideria – each chapter will jump off from an antecedent in Spener’s book. And Francke and Zinzendorf have already come up. But we also want to broaden the story — much like you and Christian did in Reclaiming Pietism — to draw on later prototypes. For example, next week we’ll talk more about key Pietists in the histories of the Covenant Church and Bethel University. (And take up one evangelical’s suggestion — not kindly meant — that Pope Francis is a kind of Catholic pietist.)

  2. I certainly endorse that strategy. My one and only point is that contemporary Pietism and pietists should at least roughly “fit” with the historical prototypes. My Eastern Orthodox interlocutor, for example, argued that theosophists are pietists. I rejected that based on prototype theory. He tended to view all spiritual inwardness, mysticism, as “Pietism”–especially if it is, in his eyes, Western rather than Eastern Orthodox. The irony is, of course, that theosophy arose from the esoteric teachings (imaginings?) of a Russian named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky–not at all “Western.”

  3. You have resurrected “pietism” for me—already! I had consigned the term to the anti-intellectual, Pharisaical side of Christianity based on the fundamentalism of my youth and the many evangelical examples around me today. But by working through that sense, I feel I’ve begun (again) to recognize faith is also a way of knowing—something I knew years ago but then faltered. I love that you see pietism as moving toward an irenic community, where (as Sam put it), we keep asking the question rather than assuming we know the answer. This is central to my walk with Christ these days, because I keep finding the old answers are inadequate and/or wrong.

    You’ve got just the right conversation partners here. I love the historical footings you provide. I love the congregational viewpoint. I love Sam asking the “So what?” questions.

    I’m eager for more.

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