Perhaps the Mother and Child Reunion is Only a Couple Clarifications Away
To paraphrase the 1972 Paul Simon hit:
Now I would not give you false hope,
on these great and mournful [Lenten] days.
But the mother [Lutheran] and child [Pietist] re-u-ni-on
is just a couple of [theological] clarifications away.
Can we grant that Lutheranism is the mother of Pietism? This relationship is readily apparent when historians like Christopher Gehrz has in his paper considered the roles of Philip Spener and August H. Francke in the development of the Pietist movement. Next month, I’ll proceed to remind us all that Wesley had his life-changing Aldersgate Experience while reading Martin Luther.
As for the reunions of mother and child, haven’t they transpired in a lot of ways? Such reunions are incarnate in your Lutheran affiliation, Chris, in Harold’s early Christian nurture, and even in my pilgrimage from Haugean Norwegian Pietism to Evangelical Catholic Lutheran while in my heart and private devotional life never really leaving that Pietist legacy. And these experiences are by no means atypical. You and Roger Olson have both said this. We both know how these links have been historically institutionalized in Lutheran denominations with a Pietist profile. In America, one thinks of the Church and the Lutheran Brethren and the former Franckean Synod of our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America legacy. And in Europe several Lutheran Free Churches and even at least one German Landeskirche are or have been decidedly Pietist in theological profile. Of course I do not need to tell you, though perhaps other readers would find it interesting, about the Lutheran roots of the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Evangelical Free Church.
Yes, the mother and child kinship of Lutheranism and Pietism is a reality. But as Simon sings, I would not give us false hope. Reunion is badly needed, but it won’t come easy. We have had centuries of bad blood and schism between Pietism and Lutheran Orthodox Confessional theology. We know the Lutheran denominations (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) which want no part of the “Pietist corruption” of Lutheranism. And then, as you have probably noticed, classical Lutheran Pietism is a dying breed in our denomination. It does not seem to have much of a voice in denominational headquarters’ personnel or programming, and in my own lifetime I have seen it diminishing in the denomination’s theological profile, to the point of no longer having a real voice. With recent retirements, I do not know of a single Pietist serving on the faculty in any seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, do you?
Of course the Pietist legacy is still around. Even denominational headquarters are proud and still support a lot of our numerous social-service agencies, most with Pietist origins (E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in North America, pp.197-199). (Lutherans are said to have more of such agencies in America than any other Protestant denominational family.). And even denominational leaders know and from time-to-time (when not caught up in the latest “must-do” management or social-media program) urge more small-group Bible studies. What will it take to get a more vibrant trust of Pietism in American Lutheranism? What will it take for Pietists to overcome a sense that Lutheran Confessionalism is a barrier to its agenda? It’s just a couple of theological clarifications (in dialogue with your paper, Chris, away).
You start out by defining Pietism in terms of practice, with a slight critique aimed at just knowing the Church’s theology. My first Lutheran Confessional reaction to that comment is to raise the question of who is practicing the faith. The concern is whether you are advocating the autonomous practice of faith. What of grace and the Holy Spirit (The Small Catechism, II.III. 6)? If you and Pietism would systemically make it clearer that all practice is by God’s grace, driven by the Holy Spirit, that practice of the faith is not an autonomous choice, then a lot of Lutheran Confessional (and maybe Reformed Confessional) suspicions would go away.
Next question (call for clarification): Though perhaps there have been Dogmatic Orthodox theologians who have reduced the Christianity to doctrine, I do not know of a single theologian of our denomination who does that. For most of us who are Confessional, doctrine and theology are the grammar and etiquette of faith. They teach you how to speak and behave properly. It is like Martin Luther said: When you have your doctrine clear and pure, you will also live a holy life (The Small Catechism, III.1.5). Can a Pietist live with that understanding of Confessional fidelity? Spener could, as he spoke of the pure doctrine he and his colleagues maintained (Pia Desideria, p.51). Mother and child always have been united it seems, and just not always noticed it. But if you have too much stress on practice and not enough on doctrine, then the winds of change can easily get you moving towards secularized practices, and I fear that in too much mainline Lutheranism an insufficient lack of understanding what they believed has led them to follow the practice of Liberal Theology.
Professor Gehrz also says that the Pietist actually wants to meet Jesus, not just think about the idea of Christ. This can be a problem with some versions of Lutheranism and Protestantism which teach Forensic Justification (the belief that God merely declares us righteous). Such a manner of teaching justification and our encounter with God largely prevailed in Lutheran Orthodox Theology against which Pietism first reacted and was the version of Luther Wesley read (Luther’s Works, Vol.25, pp.31,37). But when we recognize that Luther understood justification in terms of union with Christ (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, p.351; The Smalcald Articles, III.13.1), and as American Lutheranism more and more embraces this notion that in faith we are intimately united with Christ, then it should be in interests of Pietism to embrace Lutheranism and even embrace this Mystical concept more than many of its practitioners historically have. Indeed, a Pietism caught up in the joy of intimacy with Christ will not need so many directives, exercises, and guidelines (Third Use of the Law) and can instead freely respond to the love of God like a happily married couple can spontaneously revel in their love
without too many guidelines. That’s the real freedom which Professor Gehrz says he wants in his closing comments. But too often the directives and guidelines of Pietism have led to rule-bound Christianity and guilt-trips, at least in my expereince. In that connection, I am pleased to note, Christopher, that you did not say anything about striving for perfection like Spener (Pia Desideria, p.81) or most Methodists and Holiness Christians, as that could be a deal-breaker for the reunion from the Lutheran side with our commitment to simul iustus et peccator (Luther’s Works, Vol.25, pp.258,332).
Lutherans also believe that they meet Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, as well as all the faithful in the historic liturgy (The Augsburg Confession, X). And since Chris concedes that at least some Pietists believe this, the question becomes why Pietism has historically tended to be associated with less fidelity to liturgical worship and Sacramental life. Why be judgmental of the dangers of “going through the motions.?”
Professor Gehrz also characterizes Pietism as believing in a God Who speaks through Scriptures. This belief and commitment to regular Bible study is precisely in line with Lutheran thinking, as Luther himself embraced a story-telling hermeneutic, not only unlike the Black church’s conviction that we can find ourselves among God and Christ in the Biblical accounts (Weimar Ausgabe, Vol.10I/1, p.130). These three traditions are natural coalition partners in trying to foster revival in an American Christianity struggling to reverse the growth of the Nones (Religiously Unaffiliated) and the ever-growing Biblical illiteracy in our churches. We’ve got a living Bible, not just a book of doctrine.
This coalition is a natural on two other agendas that Professor Gehrz sees as characterizing Pietism. He notes how Swedish and Norwegian Pietists were counter-cultural, breaking the established laws which were unjust. Of course the Black church is our model for that kind of way of following Jesus, and it’s certainly part of the Anabaptist heritage. Thus Pietists and Lutherans have got some allies. Though the Lutheran Church has not lived it out historically very well, its Theology of the Cross with its affirmation that God is seen through suffering and the Cross, that God destroys of the wisdom of the world (Heidelberg Disputation, 20), clearly creates a counter-cultural ethos which opens the doors to endorsing the sort of counter-cultural Christianity practiced in Pietist circles (practicing spirituality, praying, and Bible reading when it is not fashionable). Don’t we have some clear grounds for a mother and child reunion? And this is a reunion which could help the Lutheran church and other mainline denominations to get the revival we need in trying to stem our membership erosion.
Professor Gehrz highlights a point I have already made about how Pietist faith sparks social action. This is a part of its heritage I love. But although I agree that conversion to Christ motivates our social engagement, again I want to ask if a Pietist can concede the Lutheran belief that it is best if you seek to rely on reason and the natural law in formulating social policy (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XV; Romans 2:14-15), for then you are less dogmatic about the “purity” and non-negotiability of the social positions you take. I submit that my hero H. N. Hague did that, relied on reason and common sense, in setting up his paper-mills and sketching other strategies for the Norwegian economy (The Apostle of Norway, Ch.XLI). A Pietism open to this sort of social ethic can cut through a lot of misconceptions about its realism and the role it might play as an ally in and for Lutherans coping with the realities of modern-day life. Working in tandem, Pietism and Confessional Lutheranism (and others of its theological and liturgical stripe) might be able to marshal the clout and media interest to turn things around among all who would follow Jesus, to get the kind of attention American Christianity might need to kindle a revival. Let’s get to work on the clarifications it will take to build this mother-child coalition.
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