The “Freedom, Spontaneity, and Fun” of Following Jesus

One problem with trying to serve as the representative of “the Pietist tradition” is that Pietism is not so much an ecclesial or even theological tradition as a religious ethos that leavens other Christian traditions. That includes the Baptist denomination that sponsors my rather pietistic university, the Brethren churches that draw on Pietism and Anabaptism alike, and (arguably) the traditions growing out of the ministry of John Wesley. But Pietism is most closely linked to Lutheranism.

For example, I’m a Pietist who attends an ELCA church and holds primarily to Lutheran theological tenets. I grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church, a pietistic American denomination that broke with the Augustana Lutheran Synod in 1885, yet still affirms the Augsburg Confession, sings Lutheran hymns, celebrates Reformation Sunday, and (in my upbringing, at least) uses Luther’s Small Catechism to catechize its confirmands. The Covenant grew out of a Swedish renewal movement that called itself “evangelical” in the sense of both of its 19th century European senses: it was revivalistic, and it was Lutheran. And, of course, Pietism began in German-speaking Lutheran churches in the 17th century, under the leadership of Lutheran pastors like Philipp Jakob Spener, whose most famous work cites Martin Luther and other Lutheran theologians regularly.

So in several respects, I feel like I have very little to do with this month’s essay save nod along. Not only do most of Mark Ellingsen’s theological emphases feel familiar to me, but he even describes a “Pietist strand” within Lutheranism. In describing it briefly, I think Ellingsen does at least some of my work for me:

Although virtually all Lutherans pledge fidelity to the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions (esp. the 16th-century document The Augsburg Confession), the Pietist strand tends to focus so much more on the spiritual life with a program for following Jesus. This strand is also less focused on the role of the Sacraments and liturgy in Christian nurture, and is more inclined to identify Lutheranism with Protestantism.

I wouldn’t have thought to make that last claim (save to affirm that Pietism has often had a strongly ecumenical bent), but the other two elements of Ellingsen’s description ring true. I’ve already made overly clear in my responses to our Orthodox and Traditional Catholic participants the Pietist wariness of a Christian “formalism” that risks reducing the sacraments and other elements of worship to rote ritual. I pray with Ellingsen that the sacraments and liturgy do “transform us into people who joyfully, spontaneously live as the kind of people God wants the faithful to be.” Pietists maybe just don’t see that result as often as they’d like, and so tend to look beyond the rhythms of Sunday morning to find more “spiritual” ways of following Jesus outside of the large congregation and the institutional church. More on that in my own essay…

What’s more surprising to me is that Ellingsen describes a “Liberal Protestant” strand of Lutheranism as both growing out of pietistic Lutheranism and now forming a “coalition… with the relatively smaller group of remaining Lutheran Pietists” to make up “the Lutheran majority in Americans pews” today. If that seems mystifying to me, it’s probably just my own unfamiliarity with the complicated dynamics of Lutheranism in America. But if Ellingsen is correct, such a “coalition” exists in tension with a different claim that I’ve heard from pietistic Lutherans: that Pietism is treated with hostility, scorn, or indifference by those I’d associate with this “Liberal” wing — and sometimes Ellingsen’s own “Confessional” Lutherans.

For example, the Lutheran poet and hymnodist Gracia Grindal once participated in a roundtable discussion here at Bethel University, debating the “useable past” of Pietism for American denominations. A product of a pietistic tradition descending from the Norwegian revivalist Hans Nielsen Hauge, Grindal complained that “in the current ELCA the liturgical, confessional and now politically engaged Lutherans run almost all of the institutions built by the sweat of our pietistic grandparents’ brows…. If the current leaders of any of these institutions know or even recognize the word Pietist, they would nod and say they have moved beyond it into a different kind of engagement with the world…”

[Grindal’s comments and the rest of that roundtable can be found in the August/November 2012 issue of The Covenant Quarterly.]

While Pietism was for Grindal, me, and our forebears an “authentic biblical Christianity… engaged in relieving suffering, bringing Christ to the world, a devotional life that nurtures and feeds and helps in their daily lives with their families,” it became for most other Lutherans a byword for anti-intellectualism, quietism, or legalism. Grindal thought this unavoidable: “a personal and individual experience simply cannot be passed on to the next generation through doctrine or structure. It tends to go cold. Later generations inherit this living Christianity as a set of rules; it becomes a legalistic way of life that irritates and enrages those who have not had that original experience of the living God.” 

That tendency for Pietism’s notion of “a new life in Christ” to decay into legalism left me more than a little sympathetic to the closing section of Ellingsen’s essay. Luther’s Pietist descendants sometimes forget his insight that we remain at once sinner and saint, set free from the demands of the law by the undeserved, transformative mercy of grace. If they don’t fully embrace the perfectionism that Ellingsen finds hinted at in Spener, Pietists can nonetheless fall into the trap of expecting that the truly “converted” or “regenerate” — not just declared justified, but living out an increasingly Christ-like life — will make known their piety through good works that they’re tempted to measure against the yardstick of Ellingsen’s “guidelines, commands, or discipline.”

The great German Pietist A.H. Francke, for example, published a list of nearly a hundred “rules of life.” Writing the history of the 19th century Swedish revival, the Evangelical Covenant scholar Karl A. Olsson contrasted the followers of Pietisten editor C.O. Rosenius, who “exhorted sinners to ‘come as you are,’” with pietistic “legalists” whose emphasis on contrition and repentance stemmed from the teachings of Lutheran pastor Henrik Schartau.

(With tongue only partly in cheek, Olsson once told a group of Moravian seminarians that a “pietist is a person who deprives himself of the adiaphoric pleasures and begrudges their availability to others. He does not dance frivolously or become bibulous in bars.” For the record, the Pietist writing this response will be attending an Oktoberfest celebration tonight at his Lutheran church. Let the reader decide if this constitutes “bibulous” behavior.)

If Pietists, at their legalistic worst, refuse to “sin bravely” when it comes to Christian practice and experience, they do tend to cherish “freedom, spontaneity, and fun” when it comes to Christian belief. Recentering the Bible as highest authority and decentering creeds and confessions, Pietists may approach the work of theology differently than do our Lutheran cousins whose faith is bound up with the Book of Concord.

As church historian Philip Anderson wrote of the Swedish Lutherans who founded what’s now the Covenant Church, those “Pietists traced their pedigree to the dissenting movements of all ages: the introspection and ecstasy of the mystics; the courage of the left-wing reformers who fought for their believers’ churches and the rights of individual Christian conscience and freedom; the spirituality of the great Puritan divines; the ‘heart religion’ of the Moravians and the Methodists—all trying to resuscitate with the new life of the Spirit the churches which they believed were increasingly comatose.” They stood, concluded Anderson, “in both a ‘catholic’ and a ‘free church’ tradition as seen through the eyes of the Reformation.”