The Living Faith of the Dead vs. the Dead Faith of the Living

As people who like to talk about new birth, new life, and the church and world made new, we Pietists set ourselves up to undervalue what’s old. That’s particularly true of Pietism’s Radical wing, which experimented with a dizzying array of innovations in Christian belief, practice, and community in the 18th century. But even those of us who inherit the “churchly” Pietism of Lutheran pastors Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke might rebel against the idea that we participate in a “tradition,” since we’d likely mistake it for what historian Jaroslav Pelikan called traditionalism, the “dead faith of the living.”

““Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” said Jesus, “and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37). But Pietists have inherited their German founders’ concern that “the rivers of living water” flowing from the believer’s heart (v 38) can dry up over time, until all that’s left in a Christian community is the husk of a faith.

That’s how Spener and his followers grieved the state of their own churches in the late 17th century, and a similar ethos runs through later Pietist attempts at church renewal in places like 19th century Scandinavia. The first Pietists were worried about the “dead orthodoxy” of post-Reformation Protestantism, but I suspect they’d have the same concern about (Eastern) Orthodoxy as David Ford described it in our opening essay. As a corrective to my own tradition, I’m grateful for his discussion of the importance of the “liturgical/sacramental life of the Church,” but I have to admit that Pietists would nonetheless worry that the Orthodox way of following Christ — built around “time-honored prayers” and “designated” patterns — risks substituting rote formalism for a more authentic, life-changing piety centered on a personal relationship with Jesus.

(That notion of “personal relationship with Jesus” might, I grant, just be one more example of a problem that Ford noted in his follow-up comment on his essay: the “growing over-emphasis on Jesus’s humanity in Western Christianity…”)

For better and (too often) for worse, spiritual forebears of mine like the Swedish revivalist C.O. Rosenius have hardwired into the Pietist tradition a distinction between “formalists – those who enjoy only the name, the semblance, the shell – and pietists, or those who seek and own the thing itself, the reality, the kernel.” Rosenius would echo Ford’s concern for living in holiness — “rejecting deleterious thoughts and feelings (called logismoi) that disrupt our relationship with Jesus” — but then insist that it’s not the “formalist” but “the pietist… who not only reads, hears and understands holiness, but also owns this in daily experience and evidence.”

But Orthodoxy, as Ford presents it, can instead exemplify the power of tradition as Jaroslav Pelikan defined it: “the living faith of the dead.”

Surely part of what drew that great scholar from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy is the latter’s “remarkable consistency” of millennia-old beliefs and practices, particularly “the majesty and beauty of the communal worship of God.”

I’m even more certain that Pelikan would underline the word “communal.”

In his book Jesus Through the Centuries, Pelikan only addresses Pietism once: as a Protestant example of Christian mysticism, near the end of a chapter that begins with John Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my soul.” Pelikan attributes that hymn’s inspiration to Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, the Pietist-educated founder of the Moravian Church, who liked to describe Jesus as “bridegroom of the soul.” I might add that “bride-mysticism” remained a popular theme for Pietist women like the 19th century Scandinavian hymn writers Lina Sandell and Berte Kanutte Aarflot. (See Gracia Grindal’s chapter in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity — Pickwick, 2011.)

Those Pietists’ emphasis on spiritual union with Christ suggests an intriguing affinity with what Ford calls the Orthodox yearning “to live in ever-closer, direct communion with” Jesus. However, Pelikan mentions Pietism not to underscore its connections to earlier traditions, but as an example of emerging Western “individualism.”

Even in its least mystical forms, Pietism has tended to conceive of “following Jesus” in personal and private terms, rather than as a collective, public experience. We Pietists can learn much from the Orthodox tradition, in which union with Christ is experienced through “vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified.” Furthermore, while Pietists, like many other Protestants, tend to approach the written word of God as if they’re the first to do so — and are sometimes suspicious of giving too much authority to clergy, Ford emphasizes that the Orthodox read the Bible with the words of Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils as guides, under “the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.”

Finally, to the extent that Pietists have emphasized Christian community beyond the conventicle, it has sometimes tended towards insularity and parochialism. That’s particularly true as the Pietist tradition has come to this country, via the experience of immigrant populations whose churches and schools helped to preserve Old World language and culture against the relentless forces of Americanization. Now, I’ve seen firsthand in the Twin Cities how the Orthodox way of following Jesus still helps Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and other immigrants to sustain their cultural distinctiveness. But it’s also clear that those Christians participate in a wider tradition, part of what Dr. Ford calls a “countless people of every social, political, and economic background in every era, in a great number of cultures.”

That’s a way of following Jesus that would surely warm the heart of Rosenius, who claimed that a Pietist “does not belong to any country on earth,” nor “to any specific church denomination, but instead constitutes one of those limbs that can be found in all Christian churches which belong to the one, holy, universal church” — a family tree that no doubt includes Orthodoxy.