I’m a Pietist

Over the past months of transition, challenge, and uncertainty, I’ve learned something about myself:

I’m a Pietist.

It may seem like an obvious statement from someone who wrote a book called The Pietist Option and keeps a blog called The Pietist Schoolman. But I’m seeing even more clearly than before just how central Pietism is to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

I may work for a Baptist university, but I’m a Pietist.

I may write for Evangelical platforms, but I’m a Pietist.

I may attend a Lutheran church, but I’m a Pietist.

I hope that some of my commitment to Pietism rubs off on that Baptist university, those Evangelical platforms, and that Lutheran church in some ways — even as I hope that those traditions rub off on me in other ways. But mostly, I hope that Pietism continues to be at the heart of the denomination where I learned what it meant to be a Pietist.

For it was from the people of the Evangelical Covenant Church, past and present, that I learned…

…that Pietists cherish the Bible as “an altar where we meet the living God.” The Covenant taught me that Pietists going back to Philipp Jakob Spener recovered “the living nature of the word of God” as “the ‘powerful means’ to the creation of new life through the Holy Spirit” — not just “information, or law, or rules” but “power to effect change in the life of the hearer through the Holy Spirit.” Pietism taught me that God works through the Bible — the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct — to perfect churches, bringing living faith out of dead orthodoxy.

Through the Covenant, I learned that Pietists believe in the necessity of the new birth — sudden or gradual — as the beginning of the new life offered to us in Christ. From the Covenant, I learned that “God’s purposes entail the transformation of persons” — but also “the transformation of God’s world into a place of truth, justice, and peace.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in 1967, what Jesus told Nicodemus has implications for individuals, but not just individuals: persons, including me, and nations, including mine, must be born again. And churches too.

For the Covenant also taught me that Pietists believe that “God makes all things new and calls God’s followers to share this mission.” I learned to see that mission as a whole: “evangelism and Christian formation, as well as the benevolent ministries of compassion and justice in the face of suffering and oppression… proclamation and compassion, personal witness and social justice, service and stewardship in all areas of life.” I learned to hold together aspects of the mission that other Christians would pit against each other; I learned that we should not be forced to choose which things are being made new.

And I learned that Pietists recognize this whole mission as belonging to “the whole church, the spiritual priesthood of all believers—women and men, young and old, laity and clergy” — believers from every other binary that human society could construct… and God would make “one in Christ.” I learned that the church is an extraordinary community of ordinary people “who confess faith in Jesus Christ, commit themselves to each other, and submit to no authority other than Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church.” I learned that the church “is not simply a human institution or organization, but a people whom God has called. Emphasis does not fall on buildings or hierarchical structures, but upon a grace-filled fellowship and active participation, through the Holy Spirit, in the life and mission of Christ.”

While I never was part of a particularly charismatic Covenant congregation, I nonetheless learned that Pietists depend on the Holy Spirit, the person of the Trinity who “continues the creative work of the Father and the redeeming work of the Son within the life of the church.” I learned that the Spirit animates everything else I described above, blowing where it chooses to transform persons, churches, and the world in ways that defy reason, tradition, and convention.

Most of all, I learned that the Spirit “draws together those who are far off and estranged, causing them to be made one in Christ.” I learned that unity is at heart of our mission and life together as Christians.

So I also learned from the Covenant that Pietists are committed to Christian freedom: freedom from sin and legalism and freedom to liberate others… but only as we practice freedom with each other. I learned that Pietists offer “one another theological and personal freedom where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God.”

I knew from other experiences of other traditions that some Christians think that “such freedom is no freedom at all.” But while others might want “the marching orders clear and an unimpeachable source of authority to bear the whole burden of responsibility,” Pietists would not shirk the hard work of living together in a still-maturing freedom.

So while those who temporarily head the institutional structure of the Covenant might believe that talking about Pietism distracts us from “the true issues at hand,” I hope that the believers whose enduring fellowship constitutes the Covenant will continue to be “missional Pietists.” I hope that they will refuse to set their pietistic affirmations against each other, as if the church could somehow add anything to the power and authority of the Bible by coercing uniformity from a diverse group of Bible-readers who know that “God’s word is sovereign over every human interpretation of it—including its own.”

Whether I continue to live apart from this fellowship or someday rejoin it, I pray that the Covenant will continue to teach new generations of Christians what it means to say, “I’m a Pietist.”

With gratitude for Pietist teachers like C.O. Rosenius and P. P. Waldenström; Maria Nilsdotter and David Nyvall; Lina Sandell and Glen Wiberg; Karl Olsson and Jean Lambert; Jim Hawkinson, Don Frisk, and the other original authors of the Covenant Affirmations document that I’ve quoted throughout this post; Jay Phelan, Phil Anderson, and the others who updated it in 2005; and Jay and the other founders of the new Covenant Collective group, who have recently refreshed my hope that Pietism lives among today’s Mission Friends, whatever particular form their mission covenant takes.

UPDATE: To learn more about the history and theology of Pietism, I’ve suggested a few resources in a follow-up post.