Sneak Peeks of Our Pietism Book: The Common Priesthood for the Common Good

One of the distinctive features of how we’re writing about Pietism and the future of Christianity is that Mark and I have sought out feedback from potential readers long before the book is sent off to InterVarsity Press. (As with my previous Pietism project, I’d like to think of this book as letting people listen in on a small group conversation that’s already been happening.) Earlier this year, we solicited questions and comments from listeners to the second season of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast, in which Mark and I thought aloud about the book and each of its chapters.

Now that we’re nearing the finish line, I’d like to share some excerpts from the rough drafts of a few chapters, giving you all a chance to respond before we submit the manuscript at the end of October.

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

We’re structuring the book around the same outline as that of Philipp Jakob Spener’s Pia Desideria, the 1675 booklet that launched the movement whose ethos we’re trying to evoke for the 21st century. So after two introductory chapters summarizing what’s wrong with Christianity today and why we should nonetheless continue to “hope for better times,” we’ll then develop our versions of each of Spener’s six proposals that, if enacted, would bring about renewal of the church and the world.

For our first sneak preview, I’ll share an excerpt from my rewrite of Spener’s second proposal, for

the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood… Peter was not addressing preachers alone when he wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” [1 Pet 2:9].

What Pietism scholar Jonathan Strom prefers we call “the common priesthood” was an old idea of Martin Luther’s that Spener tried to revive amid the 17th century’s “crisis of piety.” In a 1677 pamphlet, he described the church as having a priesthood shared by “All Christians without distinction (1 Pet. 2:9), old and young, male and female, bond and free (Gal. 3:28).” (“In Christ,” he reiterated, “the difference between man and woman, in regard to what is spiritual, is abolished.”) Such priesthood entailed three offices, which my draft summarizes as follows:

First, priests are called to sacrifice “themselves with all that they are, so that they may no longer desire to serve themselves, but him who has bought and redeemed them….” Second, to be a priest is to pray for and bless others. Finally (and he had the most to say about this), priests should “let the Word of God dwell richly among them (Col. 3:16),” reading Scripture prayerfully and obediently, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s one reason that the centerpiece of his strategy for church renewal was to revive another idea of Luther’s and found small group Bible studies (ecclesiolae in ecclesia — “little churches within the church”).

But what’s really struck me about the common priesthood is that Pietists believe it has implications for both the church and the world that it serves. To make that connection, I plan to start with a sermon Mark preached last May, on Isaiah 6:1-8:

Stained glass of Isaiah receiving a vision from God
Stained glass from a Lutheran church in South Carolina – Creative Commons (Cadetgray)

At least in this life, few of us in the common priesthood experience a divine encounter as dramatic as Isaiah’s. But Mark observed that whatever awe does strike us when we come into God’s presence, it fundamentally changes what it means for us to join that prophet in saying “Here I am; send me!”:

When we come before God, we find that everything else begins to fall into place. When we worship God as God, when we ultimately come before the awesome nature of God, then we begin to realize what’s important in our lives and in our world…. [This awe] affects us so that we go our into the world, different than we were before, ready to live out, not just our purpose, not just seeking happiness for ourselves where we’re the center of our universe, but going out to serve God and his purposes in this world, because we’re not fearful.

“Going out” is the key phrase here. While Western Christians often understand holiness, prayer, and Bible study to be private and solitary, to serve in the common priesthood is also public and social.

For as much as we can individually approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22), we priests are called to make that faith active, to “provoke one another to love and good deeds…” (10:24). (If you want to stick with “priesthood of all believers,” maybe meditate a bit here on the relationship between “believe” and “belove.”) “Let mutual love continue,” concluded that epistle’s author.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. (Heb 13:1-4)

If we sacrifice, it is not only for personal holiness, but the good of others. If we pray, it is not only for ourselves, but others (even our enemies). And while we can dwell in the Word in the solitude of our own devotional time, we must remember that God inspired Scripture “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

“It is,” Spener concluded, Christians’ “greatest joy to be occupied with their God and his Word (Ps. 119:102f).” But members of the common priesthood “still live in the world… and are also placed by God in certain positions for the general good….” Or, as we tend to call it in our time, the common good.

Read the next post in this series of previews>>

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