Alec Ryrie on “The Pietist Adventure”

Next month I’ll be teaching a four-week adult Sunday School at Elim Church in Minneapolis, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. (If you can’t make it in June, I’ll be doing a six-week version of that topic starting late September at Calvary Church in Roseville, MN.) Now, I teach Luther et al. for a couple weeks every fall, spring, and summer for Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course, but it’s actually been eight or nine years since I last taught our department’s 300-level course on The Reformations. So I’m in the middle of refreshing my knowledge with some more recent works.

Ryrie, ProtestantsThe one I’m reading right now is more a synthesis of existing scholarship, but it situates the Reformation at the start of a much longer, more global history. Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World is British historian Alec Ryrie’s sprawling survey of “one of the most creative and disruptive movements in human history.” An energetic, entertaining rollercoaster of a read, Protestants starts with Luther (“the Reformation’s indispensable firestarter”) but ranges as far as South Africa and Korea to help readers understand Christians who have both “faced down tyrants, demanded political participation, advocated tolerance, and valued the individual” and “insisted on God-given inequality, valorized state power, persecuted dissenters, and placed the community above its members.

Along the way, Ryrie checks in with my own branch of Protestantism, one that started with a German Lutheran pastor in the 1670s but soon reached far beyond his homeland and his goals:

As [Philipp] Spener had been at pains to insist, Pietism was nothing new. It was a rekindling of the love affair with God that had been Protestantism’s beating heart since Luther and that had run through its veins ever since. Its recipe was disarmingly simple: believers supporting one another in pursuing holiness, with or without ministers to help them. And it was proving that it could take the Protestant Gospel to places quite beyond [Lutheran] Orthodoxy’s reach. The price was a loss of control. Once French peasant girls, Silesian children, Swedish prisoners of war, Estonian farmers, or Welsh shepherds took responsibility for their own religious lives, there was no knowing what they might do. (Protestants, p. 167)

Drawing heavily on the work of W.R. Ward, Ryrie tells a concise but thrilling story of “the Pietist adventure,” one focused on Spener — but also encompassing everyone from his Puritan antecedents (“who, stymied in their ambitions to reform the church’s structures, had often transposed their political ambitions into a spiritual key”) to a startling array of more radical revivals. (None more startling than what happened on the Estonian island of Oesel, where a Pietist minister started a revival whose “[c]onverts fell insensate and had visions of heaven and hell” and led to the rise of a messianic figure named Tallima Papp, who “claimed to be a prophet greater than Christ, might have practiced ritual nudity, and forbade his followers to plant or harvest, because Christ’s imminent return made it unnecessary.”)

With an eye to such excesses, Ryrie is not completely unsympathetic to Spener’s critics: “If Orthodoxy had not policed itself so firmly, who knows into what mystical-sectarian welter seventeenth-century Protestantism might have collapsed or how far milk-and-water deism would have advanced?”

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

For that matter, Spener’s Pia Desideria was mostly “a bland assembly of platitudes from irreproachable Lutheran worthies. To modern readers, it seems as controversial as a preacher being against sin. No revolutionary manifesto has ever been more reassuring.” But Ryrie understands that “Spener’s case has obvious moral force” in a time when “the spirit of the Protestant Gospel [could] be obscured by arid dogmatic precision.” And his description of Pietism “rekindling” Protestantism as a “love affair with God” hearkens back to this evocative analysis of Protestantism’s founder:

Luther was not a systematic theologian, trading in logical definitions or philosophical consistency. The systematizers who followed in his wake picked out two key principles in his thought: sola fide and sola scriptura, “faith alone” and “Scripture alone.” But this risks missing the point. Luther’s theology was not a doctrine; it was a love affair. Consuming love for God has been part of Christian experience since the beginning, but Luther’s passion had a reckless extravagance that set it apart, and which has echoed down Protestantism’s history. He pursued his love for God with blithe disregard for the bounds set by church and tradition. It was an intense, desolating, intoxicating passion, sparked by his life-upending glimpse of God’s incomprehensible, terrible, beautiful love for him. Like any lover, he found it incredible that his beloved should love him, unworthy as he was. And yet he discovered over the long years of prayer and study that God loved him wildly, irresponsibly, and beyond all reason. God, in Christ, had laid down his life for him. This was not, as the medievals’ subtle theology had taught, a transaction, or a process by which believers had to do whatever was in their power to pursue holiness. It was a sheer gift. All that mattered was accepting it. (p. 20)

Anyway, if your summer reading list has room for 500-page popular histories and you’d like to understand the Reformation and offshoots like Pietism as part of a larger, longer story, check out Protestants.