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.

2 replies
  1. David Ford
    David Ford says:

    Ford, Heartfelt Christianity

    Dear Christopher,

    Thank you very much for your perceptive, sensitive response to my posting.  I deeply appreciate your tradition’s great emphasis on heartfelt Christianity – as over against a dry formalism wherein parishioners seem to be content with a Sunday-only, just-going-through-the-motions ritualism that makes little or no impact on the person’s daily life.  The Orthodox, having the greatest richness of ritual in all of Christianity, I suppose are thereby the most vulnerable to falling into such dry formalism.  

    But I would suggest that it’s not the fault of the rituals if Christians don’t have a living, vibrant, heartfelt, personal relationship with Jesus – since all the rituals are intended to convey the divine grace that helps to enliven each believer’s personal walk with Him.  But we all do need to be open to that vivifying grace; we need to desire it and expect it whenever we come to church!  Good preachers will constantly be summoning the faithful to the wells of living water, urging them to partake of them once more, and more deeply each time!

    And if someone might wonder how the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox can remain fresh and life-giving Sunday after Sunday, since its basic shape remains constant (with, as well, constant variation according to which Sunday it is in the Church Year, and which Saints are commemorated on that day!), I would suggest that the Holy Scriptures remain the same day after day, year after year, and yet they remain life-giving!  How often will even a very familiar passage suddenly take on wonderful new meaning when it’s read one more time!  It’s the same with the prayers and hymns of the Liturgy, when we listen to them even with just a little attentiveness.  

    And, of course, the possibilities for spiritual growth that the Holy Eucharist offers are endless, the more we contemplate and become awestruck at the reality of the Lord and Master of the Universe Himself offering us participation/communion in Himself through receiving His very Body and Blood.  And the prayers, written by Saints of the Church, that are usually said before and after Communion are so powerful that they can stir our hearts to renewed and deeper faith in Christ each time we read them.

    Historically, there was a period of time in Constantinople, in the later 11th century, when there was apparently a general kind of spiritual laxity/complacency among many of the faithful, both clergy and laity, reflected in the general feeling that the fervency of faith, the purity of life, the intensity of personal asceticism, the profundity of spiritual experience that the early Christians had was no longer possible.  So at that very time and place, in the heart of the capital city, the Lord raised up a fiery preacher, a writer of intensely heartfelt lengthy poetic prayers, a monastic abbot tremendously dedicated to encouraging the spiritual growth of his monks.  He came to be known as St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), and his Fifty-Eight Hymns of Divine Love continue to this day to inspire believers to grow closer to Jesus. Here’s a sample excerpt, from Hymn 27:

    Let us all from now on seek Him, Who alone is capable of freeing us from our shackles!
    And let us eagerly desire Him, Whose beauty fills all thoughts and every heart
    With wonder, wounds all souls, and wings them towards love.
    It attaches and unites them with God forever.
    Yes, my brothers, run by means of your actions towards Him.
    Yes, my friends, stand up; yes, do not be outstripped. . . .
    Do not say that it is impossible to receive the Divine Spirit;
    Do not say that without Him you can be saved.
    Do not say, therefore, that one can possess Him without knowing it! . . .
    See, friends, how beautiful is the Master!
    Yes, do not darken your mind by gazing downward towards the earth.
    Indeed, do not, through cares about worldly affairs and riches,
    Be in bondage by the desire for glory
    And thus lose it, the light of life eternal!
    Yes, friends, come with me; lift up yourselves with me,
    Not in body, but in mind and soul and heart,
    Crying out in humility to the good Master,
    The God full of mercy, the only Lover of mankind!
    And He will always hear us and always show mercy,
    And He will always reveal Himself and continuously
    Appear and show us clearly His joyous light.

    I would also like to suggest that our relationship with Jesus is meant to be BOTH personal and communal, since we receive the Faith and are nurtured in it in the Church, and yet each one must appropriate that Faith personally.  As St. Augustine said, “A solitary Christian is no Christian”; and as St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (20th century) said, “My brother is my life.”  But of course it’s also true that on Judgment Day we will each stand alone before the Lord.

    I’d also like to suggest that along with Professor Pelikan’s description of Orthodoxy as “the living faith of the dead,” since the dead in Christ are alive with Him (2 Cor. 5:8), we could also say that it’s “the living faith of the living”!

    Thank you again for your reply to my posting. May what I’ve offered here be helpful!

    Yours, in Christ,


  2. Dr. Christopher Gehrz
    Dr. Christopher Gehrz says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share such a generous, patient, and thoughtful response, David! In particular, I appreciated learning more about St. Symeon. Reading that section of your comment reawakened one of my concerns about representing something called “The Pietist Tradition”… While I’ll do my best to fulfill that assignment, I’ll concentrate on movements within Protestantism since the 17th century. But if (as I’ve argued elsewhere) Pietism is better understood as an ethos, impulse, or “set of religious instincts,” then we should expect to see it arise in pre-modern and non-Protestant settings. In any event, thanks for leading us off — both with the fine first essay and then in taking the time to respond to the responses.


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