A New Book about “The Second Greatest Lutheran Theologian”

According to church historian Carter Lindberg, that’s how German Lutherans in the early 18th century thought of Philipp Jakob Spener: second only to Martin Luther himself. Born this day in 1635, Spener is less remembered nowadays, but played a prominent role in renewing early modern Protestantism, as a popular preacher and writer and the founding father of the Pietist movement. (Pietism scholars like Dale Brown and Martin Schmidt have tended to echo Lindberg’s “second to Luther” assessment of Spener.)

But unless you’ve read Theodore Tappert’s 1964 translation of Spener’s most famous book, Pia Desideria, it’s unlikely you’ve seen any of Spener’s writings in English. Hence the need for From Head to Heart, a new sampler of Spener translations edited by K. James Stein, previously the author of the best Spener biography in English.

(Like the earlier book, the new compendium is published by Covenant Press, the publishing arm of the American denomination most prone to cite its connections to Pietism. Pia Desideria was the model for The Pietist Option, my 2017 book with Covenant pastor Mark Pattie. Stein himself grew up within a now-defunct denomination with its own Pietist roots: the United Brethren.)

Stein makes especially extensive use of Spener’s catechism, Einfältige Erklärung, alongside short publications and unpublished letters and sermons. Regrettably, he doesn’t integrate English translations that were already available. While anyone who’s going to read the new book has likely read Tappert’s version of Pia Desideria, it’s still unfortunate that we can’t see selections from Spener’s most influential work put in direct conversation with less familiar work. (We’re also missing “The Spiritual Priesthood” and everything from the Spener section in Peter Erb’s collection of Pietist writings.)

The excerpts are collected under sixteen different topics. Especially in the first half of the book, you’d have to read closely to understand why Spener was anything more than a typical 17th century German example of Lutheran and Nicene orthodoxy. Even when his theological writing is ordinary, though, what comes through is Spener’s irenic spirit, intellectual nuance, and pastoral concern. For example, Spener is staunchly trinitarian, but also cautions that the triune nature of God “remains a mystery and cannot be grasped perfectly by us,” with nature able to supply only limited illustrations “of these mysteries” (91). He affirms the just war tradition without much hesitation, but also advises warriors to consider “whether they also manage to please God in such a state, since it is not enough to have a legitimate calling, but one must live in it according to the rule of God… they should pray that [God] will govern them with his Holy Spirit so that they, confronted with so many provocations to sin, might be able to control themselves by his grace” (193-95).

Where we start to see real daylight between Spener and his Lutheran critics — and so where we can start to understand why Spener could inspire a distinct movement of renewal — is in the chapters on “Religious Knowledge and Authority” (ch. 2) and “The New Life in Christ” (ch. 9).

In the former, Spener pays lip service to the Augsburg Confession and other “symbolical books” of Lutheranism, but also emphasizes that “such authority is not divine, but churchly. It is not the foundation of faith in the presence of God” (33). Creeds and confessions so stand far below the Scriptures, which we should read “as a book that is not dead but is living truth” (27). Moreover, “prayer must do as much as the reading itself, so that God will want to open the Scripture and an understanding of it to us” (25), and here’s where we also find Spener’s concern that Christians “who have a true zeal to serve God and seek to grow in their faith” might want to gather as “little groups in our congregations” — since they “can expect little or no special help from general consultations and from high places” (31).

K. James Stein receiving a lifetime service award in 2014 from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he taught for the better part of five decades

Then what it might mean for Pietists to “grow in their faith” is the subject of “The New Life in Christ,” the longest chapter in the compendium apart from the one that follows it (in which a long list of subtopics falls under the broad heading of “Ethical Issues”). That shouldn’t surprise us. Spener “criticized the church,” explains Stein, “not for lacking good theology, but for failing, in many instances, to manifest its doctrine in faithful discipleship” (131). In his catechism, for example, Spener contrasted “a historical, dead faith” with the living faith of “earnest piety and good works [made possible] because the Holy Spirit who effects the light of faith in people’s hearts also immediately produces everything good therein and changes the entire person” (140). “You must not think of faith as an outward confession or even the knowledge of divine doctrine,” Spener advised one correspondent,

for these indeed befit the devil and all those whom you even consider hypocrites…. But faith is the strong confidence in God that is illuminated and sealed by the Holy Spirit through the word in a heart that loves God inwardly and prefers his will to everything else in the world.

From Head to Heart, p. 141

Just $16 from CovBooks, From Head to Heart makes an affordable addition to the library of anyone who’s drawn to the history of Pietism — and an important spiritual resource for anyone looking to live out the “Pietist option” today.