The Pietist Option:
Hope for the Renewal of Christianity
Christopher Gehrz and
Mark Pattie III
Reviewed by David Swanson
Find a brief summary of the Pietist Option here:
What is the Pietist Option?
When, in 1675, Philipp Jakob Spener wrote Pia Desideria (Pious Desires), the German theologian and pastor was responding to the tumultuous circumstances of his age. The Thirty Years’ War was nearly thirty years past, yet the memories of the millions of casualties as well as the war’s religious roots were still fresh and the spiritual questions it raised remained relevant. Lutheran theology had developed intricate doctrines since the Protestant Reformation, less than two hundred years earlier. This scholastic theology relished minute points of nuance and, borrowing the same philosophical tools that Luther had disdained, was built upon elaborate systems of doctrine that were more at home in the universities than the churches. Although Spener’s small book was a reaction to his circumstances, in time it proved to be a signpost toward the future for those searching for a personal, vital faith in the midst of a changing world.
The section of Spener’s Pia Desideria that pointed the way came in the form of six proposals for the renewal of the church: there should be serious biblical engagement by laypeople; the priesthood of all believers should be strongly emphasized; loving service should be prioritized over theological knowledge; truth should be worked out in repentance and holiness rather than public arguments; clergy should be confirmed to be “true Christians” and so theological education should be “nurseries of the church” and “workshops of the Holy Spirit”; and, the preaching ministry should edify and equip the faithful rather than elevate the minister’s reputation for rhetorical skill or theological knowledge. Today, when Pietism is applied to a person or movement it is often meant pejoratively, a synonym for quietists who aim to remove themselves from the world as much as possible for the sake of pure faith. Yet Spener’s proposals are a reminder that the experiences and assumptions many of us take for granted within our Christian traditions have their roots not in spiritual separatism but in the practical desire for the church to live faithfully, no matter the hostile circumstances, employing all of its members to put, in Spener’s words, “love into practice.”
In The Pietist Option, historian Christopher Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie III claim that Pietism over time has proven to be an ethos that runs through the origins of Protestant missions, the Great Awakening, John Wesley’s Methodism, and the global explosion of Pentecostal Christianity. Though writing from within historically pietistic institutions – Bethel University and the Evangelical Covenant Church – they want their readers to see Spener’s legacy as transcending such organizations so as to see that, after hundreds of years and regular mischaracterization, it remains an option for a faithful response to the circumstances of our own tumultuous days.
So is Pietism an option? It depends on a reader’s assumptions about the nature of Christianity. Gehrz and Pattie believe Pietism can be summarized in four instincts; how comfortable one is with each of these will likely determine how viable this option actually is. In short, the authors claim that Pietism is: less about what we know about God than how we relate to God; concerned with the unity of the church as expressed through relationships with others; less interested in long lists of doctrine than about a personally transformative relationship with Jesus; and, oriented toward a hopeful future rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It is hard to imagine many Christians disputing any of these instincts, but there are plenty who would find it impossible to end the list with these four. For them, Pietism may offer a few spiritual resources but cannot be the option the authors want it to be.
But for others, like myself, who share Gehrz and Pattie’s four Pietist instincts, the rest of the book proves to be, like Spener’s original, a useful signpost into an uncertain future. Following Spener, they devote a chapter each to six proposals “for the renewal of individuals and – through them – the church and the world.”
The early Pietists would likely recognize much of the authors’ vision. There is plenty about the Bible here, as well as emphases on an empowered, spiritually-transformed laity. One of their proposals, about the church’s irenic spirit, illustrates how the authors imagine renewal working its way through individuals and congregations. As was the case for Spener and his contemporaries, today we cannot help but acknowledge how deep our divides run, through culture and church. Next-door neighbors cannot agree on the basic facts of our shared history much less about the partisan disputes that rage incessantly. As many pastors came to discover during the presidential election, those disputes and misunderstandings run straight through our congregations. Despite this discouraging state of affairs, the authors believe that the irenic spirit of Pietism is available to us today.
There’s is not a proposal for uniformity. Rather, the authors ask us to recognize the inherent biases through which we each interpret the world. Would we not be more whole people, more loving Christians if we were in relationship with those whose biases differ from our own? Might such unity make clear to us our own previously invisible prejudices? Such an irenic spirit becomes our unexpected witness to Jesus within a fractured world.
What makes Gehrz and Pattie’s proposal uniquely pietistic is their belief that unity is the work of spiritual formation. It is not simply the result of right belief but something that Christians choose over the course of generations. Worship, they suggest, could be the starting point. Rather than retreat to worship styles that suit our preference, we can choose to sing songs that represent the wider tradition to which we belong. As we hear one another sing – a challenge when congregational worship sounds more like a concert – we are oriented toward one another, a posture that continues as we come to the Lord’s Supper together. Our children can also be discipled in this irenic spirit as they are raised in the faith alongside their elders, rather than always being segregated by age. Listening in as adults disagree in love and learning to engage their own questions and doubts is a way to pursue the church’s unity over the course of generations. None of this is inevitable, but it is an option.
The Pietist Option ends up being a rather modest proposal. There is no call here for a strategic retreat from the world; neither will the reader find any grand vision for remaking society. Instead, the authors suggest that the same pietistic ethos that shaped much of global Christianity remains viable today. They believe it is possible for us to remain in our churches and communities while choosing to live our faith in reinvigorated ways that will lead to personal, ecclesial, and even societal transformation.
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville community. He writes regularly at davidswanson.wordpress.com.