Following Jesus: The Pietist Tradition

“Unlike every other participant in this year-long conversation,” I wrote early in my lead essay this month for Following Jesus, “the Pietist Tradition has no ecclesial shape or institutional structure. And the number of Christians worldwide who identify as Pietist is vanishingly small.” But what Roger Olson calls the Pietist ethos shows up in virtually every other tradition in the conversation — as became clear from many of the responses that went up this week.

To introduce my Christian tradition, I chose to imagine following one Pietist as she spent her week: first in corporate worship, then in personal and small group devotions, and finally as she made her faith active in love of others. It was an approach that was as much about psychology as theology; while it wasn’t quite autobiographical, I did lean on the Swedish-American strand of Pietism that I’ve known in the Covenant Church and at Bethel University.

I’ll write a concluding response to my conversation partners at the end of the month, but here I’ll just share a couple of excerpts from my lead essay, then parts of four responses.

March’s Tradition: “A Week in the Life of a Pietist

“…if we’re to recognize [the Pietist] ethos this Sunday morning, we first need to keep in mind what Pietist forefather Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) wrote in the pivotal passage of the original movement’s founding text, Pia Desideria: ‘It is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.’ So while our Pietist might repeat the words of a creed or nod along with the theology presented from the pulpit, she has come to church this Sunday primarily to experience God through practice, not just to have her belief in God reaffirmed.

To put too fine a point on it: she is here to meet Jesus, not just to think about the idea of Christ.

So even if she frets that she is participating in a version of Christianity prone to anti-intellectualism, she might admit that the most important part of the service is a simple hymn. Perhaps one by Lina Sandell, the greatest poet of the Swedish revival. Tears well up as our Pietist sings softly of a God who resembles both the heavenly father who gathers his children close to his chest and the mother hen who spreads gentle, holy wings around her chicks, a God who makes mercies known ‘day by day, and with each passing moment….”

“…The very existence of the small group underscores that, for Pietists, no single person and no single understanding of Scripture has the authority of the Bible itself, whose interpretation requires multiple perspectives, lest old error maintain itself against the correction of new insights.

Of course, that doesn’t happen if the small group simply clusters like minds together. But if our Pietist’s version of the collegia is anything like Spener’s original, it spans the theological and political divisions of its time. It serves as an enduring witness to the original Pietist desire that Christians cease their ‘angry polemics’ and ‘needless controversy’ and restore something of the unity that Jesus prayed for and Paul exhorted.”

– Chris Gehrz

Selected Responses

“This background [of sharing testimonies in the Baptist tradition], filtered through Brother Gehrz’s essay, helps me clarify why I find coldhearted, coldblooded, doctrinaire, politicized, and sometimes amoral Christian folks — so visible in our context and this moment — to be so completely befuddling. You see, I was taught that being a Christian was a matter of the heart, of the Spirit, and the spirit, of the LIFE. And that a healthy Christian community could only be sustained when this expectation of true heart-religion, lived religion, was expected of everyone. Being a Christian is certainly about more than affirming orthodoxy, voting for the right party, and owning the libs. How did so many so badly lose their way?”

– David Gushee, “It is the Pietism That Brings Faith Alive” (The Baptist Tradition)

“I was deeply appreciative that hymns were featured prominently in the reflection. As a child, I often sang hymns to myself when I played alone. My mother’s lullaby to me when I was very young was ‘Blessed Assurance.’ My own favorite hymn is ‘Jesus Lover of My Soul,’ written by Charles Wesley in 1738 not long after his conversion. I sang this as a lullaby to my own daughters when they were small, and to my grandchildren as I have opportunity. I regret that this hymn is not a congregational favorite, so I don’t often get to sing it in worship. Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God.”

– Sarah Lancaster, “The Almost Pietist” (The Wesleyan Tradition)

“I think, from an Orthodox perspective, there’s so much to be affirmed in the Pietist’s heart-cry, as I understand it, for deeply meaningful, ongoing, living experience with the Living God, abiding in deep personal communion with Him…. To add to what you’ve said, may I suggest that the modern-day Pietist whom you winsomely describe could perhaps be strengthened and enriched in her faith-walk with Christ if she were a little less hesitant and/or skeptical about the importance of sound doctrine/teaching about Him. She may not realize the possibility of sound, trustworthy doctrine about Him being a source of even deeper communion with Him—and indeed, with the Father and the Holy Spirit as well.”

– David Ford, “Growth in Christ through the Nicene Creed, and the Icons” (The Orthodox Tradition)

“Despite the helpful resources that the Pietist life offers when determining what it means to follow Jesus, I did finish Dr. Gehrz’s reflection with one question: how does the Pietist suggest we deal with and pursue collective action to create systemic change? I can clearly see that Pietists support collective action to solve social ills – how else would [August Hermann] Francke have been able to create schools, an orphanage, and a publishing house to aid his community if not for the help of others? But each of these efforts appears to try and address the symptom of the ill and not the cause. An orphanage can take care of children who are poor, but it does not necessarily alter the societal conditions that create poor children and the need for orphanages in the first place. A publishing house can provide affordable resources, but it does not appear to decrease the ever-increasing cost of goods that widen the gulf between the wealthy and everyone else.”

– Farris Blount III, “Following Jesus to Faithful Action” (The Black Church Tradition)

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