Historical Reactions to Dogmatism and Christian Intolerance: The Pietists
After today, this Christian history “series” of sorts will be over … and on Monday I’ll be back to writing stuff that’s more engaging. I know some of you enjoy history and some of you don’t. Personally, I’d rather read church history than eat gourmet pizza and hot wings.
Especially for us younger types, who have/are using new forms of media and tech, and confronting new phenomena like globalization, we like to think we’re entering a new world, trekking where “no man has gone before.”
History is full of people confronting similar challenges wrapped in different paper, contexts and languages. And if we can’t learn from em we’ll pay the stupid tax. I’ve paid that tax before and will pay it again, but with a history book at my side, I feel pretty thrifty.
Yesterday I looked at one historical reaction (the Quakers) to the intolerance and dogmatism of the church. Today, I want to look at another approach: The Pietists.
Strictly speaking, Pietism deals mainly with the Germans, Philip Spener (1635 – 1705) and Spener’s follower, August Hermann Francke. Yet, even though these two are credited with starting Pietism, Justo Gonzolaz argues that both Zinzendorf and the Moravians, as well as John Wesley share in the spiritual heritage of the Pietists.
Spener came from a wealthy German Lutheran family (many Christian movements seem to come from money), attended the top Protestant universities and, after he earned his doctorate in theology, became a pastor. At the time, the pastors were financially supported by the state and were considered arms of the government. This bred a sense of complacency in the clergy who felt their main responsibilities were to preach and administer the sacraments. Spener’s conscience told him that his tasks as a pastor went far beyond this, as he believed he was to foster the “personal faith of his parishioners” (Gonzalez; 259). Thus, he started study groups that he called “colleges of piety.”
In his book Pia desideria Spener builds on Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers. He suggests that the division between clergy and laity is an unnecessary division and that all Christians should have a common responsibility. This trajectory that Spener was moving in also helped him encourage other pastors to lessen their academic tone – as preaching was not a means for them to show their doctrinal knowledge — and rather call their parishioners to obedience to God. He essentially suggested that personal transformation trumps dogmatic information, for the lack of growth in a believer is to be feared moreso than the potential for doctrinal error.
Luther had focused on justification, while Spener was focusing on sanctification.
Francke, Spener’s ardent follower, had a similar background as Spener in that he was from a wealthy background and highly educated … Francke was a Prof. at the University of Halle, which he eventually directed to become a training center for missionaries.
While the emphasis on the need for “personal faith” of all believers still pervades the evangelical church today, the “most significant contribution of Pietism to the story of Christianity was the birth of Protestant missions” (262). At that time, some within Protestantism believed that the commandment of preaching to the nations was only for the Apostles and not for their church. The Pietists disagreed.
The missionary trajectory that began in the Pietists was eventually grasped by the Pietist, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was Spener’s godson. After his education, Zinzendorf served in the court of Dresden which is where he met a group of pietist exiles from Moravia that would change his life.
Zinzendorf and the Moravian exiles mutually stoked each other’s desire for world missions. Gonzolaz writes that “within a period of twenty years a movement that had begun with two hundred (Moravian) refugees had more missionaries overseas than had been sent out by all Protestant churches since the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier” (263).
Not only were the Moravians the beginning of the Protestant mission movement, they were also the main impetus in the conversion of John Wesley. Again, most of this came out of the reaction of a group of people against the dogmatism and intolerance within the church.