Can Pietism Be Liturgical?

Usually, historian D.G. Hart spends his weekends subtweeting Pope Francis, so I guess I’m honored to have been the subject of this tweet on Saturday:

I know he’s not actually seeking an answer, but it’s not an unfair question. After all, here’s how I’m starting my post tomorrow at The Anxious Bench, on the Christian idea of “the good death”:

Even in the evangelical, Pietist, and Baptist circles in which I move, Lent has become ubiquitous. Protestants whose parents and grandparents found the liturgical calendar extra-biblical, if not heretical, now embrace (often quite publicly) a season of disciplined, penitential reflection on death and sin.

I said as much to an Anglican colleague after the Ash Wednesday service that prompted the post to which Hart linked: that I couldn’t imagine our “Swedish Baptist Pietist” employer having celebrated Lent, let alone incorporated the imposition of ashes into Chapel, for most of its history.

I suspect that’s due less to the Pietist than Bethel’s Baptist heritage, which tended toward a nuda, not sola, scriptura understanding of the Bible’s status — in which traditions are suspect whether contradicted by Scripture or merely left unmentioned by it.

And that underscores that Pietism is an ethos that leavens a variety of other religious movements. In the Brethren churches, for example, the intersecting influences of Anabaptism and Pietism eliminated some traditional practices — but added other rituals, like trine baptism, footwashing, and love feasts.

Brown, Christ Washing Peter's Feet
1851 painting of Jesus washing Peter’s feet – Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies

In my own case, I came to know Pietism as an influence on Scandinavian Lutheranism. So while I didn’t grow up in high church settings, the liturgical calendar and liturgical practices weren’t foreign. It’s no wonder that I wound up joining an avowedly pietistic Covenant congregation that, its emeritus pastor once told me, was “too warm for the Lutherans and too high for the Baptists.”

In the broadest sense, Hart isn’t wrong that Pietists have been suspicious of “formal liturgical practices.” But the key word in that phrase is the first adjective, not the second. In my own tradition, for example, the Swedish lay preacher and journalist C.O. Rosenius defined “Pietists” by contrast to “Formalists”:

…every place where those who confess Christ have united themselves on this one foundation and formed a visible congregation, there you will find… both formalists – those who enjoy only the name, the semblance, the shell – and pietists, or those who seek and own the thing itself, the reality, the kernel.

And I’ve often quoted Baptist historian Virgil Olson’s maxim that the Pietist ethos tends to reemerge in response to any type of “superficial Christianity whether it be found in rotting formalism, a thinned-out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof [2 Tim 3:5].”

So if liturgy is practiced with nothing but “the form of piety” — as by those, said Rosenius, who are “Christians only on the outside, who like Pharisees observe the outer regulations with great detail, without being driven to them by Christ’s love” — then yes, Pietists are going to be wary of it. And I don’t doubt that they’ve often erred on the side of this caution.

Carl Olof Rosenius
C. O. Rosenius preaching at Bethlehem Church in Stockholm – Wikimedia

But it’s also entirely possible to practice, say, the imposition of ashes, or to read a corporate confession of faith (as we also did last Wednesday), in a pietistic, non-formal way — such that the external action both assists and evinces inner transformation. For example, another of Rosenius’ marks of the Pietist was that “he knows his sins with remorse and fear, and he has genuinely undergone the process of laying aside these sins.” I don’t think it’s beyond the limits of the Pietist imagination to see that Lenten disciplines can assist us in knowing and laying aside our sins.

Or such practices can become rote. But the potential pitfall doesn’t require a perpetual proscription.

After all, the founders of the Pietist movement were not concerned about secondary liturgical practices becoming too formal; the German Pietists had in mind the core worship practices of most any Christian community. While people like Philipp Spener believed that the pulpit, lectern, altar, and font had become “dumb idols” in the hands of post-Reformation state churches, that didn’t mean that Pietists then rejected preaching, Bible reading, Communion, and baptism out of hand. Instead, they sought to renew those practices — e.g., with Spener proposing different ways of reading through the Bible (both on Sunday mornings and during the week) and a homiletical focus on bringing about conversion.