Pietist Theology - Revisited and Renewed

by Peter Sandstrom

If focusing on the task of continuing to do theology from a pietist perspective, I want to reflect on a few comments written by David Nyvall in his essay, "Covenant Ideals". It is my intention at this time not to attempt an analysis of what pietist theology is or was, but rather to propose a case for why we might primed and how we could go about it.

The quotes from Nyvall that I've selected to reprint here were chosen not for their ability to together form a complete and concise description of pietism — in fact, they do not even provide a complete and concise description of Nyvall's essay! Rather they are collected here because of their capacity to both recall and provoke a pietist spirit of inquiry.

Early in his essay Nyvall paints a picture of the rather unexpected rise of Paul Peter Waldenström as a folk hero of the increasing pietist cells of the mid-nineteenth century Sweden. He writes:

Waldenström suddenly loomed very high in the opinion and in the imagination of thousands as a symbol of everybody's right to read and think.

In the essay's middle sections Nyvall spends much time in reflection upon the creeds and the pietist efforts to transcend them. Nyvall compares and contrasts the differences between creeds and scripture:

The superiority of expression in the New Testament compared with the judicial language of the creeds reveals a difference of purpose. Confessions are legislations, polemics. They bristle with challenges made to magnify and punish errors. They are war methods. They are the front lines of battle. The New Testament is not avowedly a guide to correct thinking, to proper conduct, though favorable to both. It is a live testimony of faith in Christ for the avowed purpose of winning and keeping souls for him.

After commenting on creeds in general, Nyvall then critiques the Apostles Creed in particular, lamenting especially that which it doesn't touch on, finding it for the most part to be "sadly deficient as to life-interests." He goes on:

It is a cut and dry herbarium compared with the rich flora of the New Testament. As a first aid for memorizing a lesson it. is no doubt valuable, as the following greater creeds are for more advanced learning. As a means of education these and other creeds are indispensable on the condition that they are frequently revised. Textbooks must be kept young. Their rejuvenation is accomplished by bathing often in the fresh spring of the New Testament, by drinking unceasingly not from the dippers but from the well.

In that sma11 phrase, "everyone's right to read and think", Nyvall has borne witness to a point of view that is central to pietism and that provides a point of departure for doing further pietist theology. The words quoted speak of inclusiveness, freedom, text and interpretation. With this language in mind, it is to be recalled that when members of the pietist conventicles referred to themselves as "readers", this name was not to indicate that their relationship with Scripture ended with a reading of the text. To be open to the Word of God meant not only to read but also to reflect upon what was read, to interpret it. to become part of an ongoing hermeneutical process, including yourself and the others around you — to be a pietist was and is to be both a reader and a thinker.

We arc aware of this and can share. it because of those among the readers who read and thought and wrote. The written word of these folk is present in biblical commentaries, devotional literature, sermons, poetry, hymns, theological work, diaries, journals and newspapers. (Though we have had access to some of this prolific output in English, there are volumes of material that remain untranslated and sadly apart horn our discussions). One of our desires in reviving Pietisten is that we may not only reclaim our pietist freedom but that we might become more vigorous in our exercising of that freedom — to read and think and write and to encourage each other to participate more in that theological process.

If freedom is a context for doing pietist theology then more needs to be noted here about what might be proposed as content for that theology. For this I suggest we take Nyvall's hint in his comment on the Apostles Creed: "As a means of education these and other creeds are indispensable on the condition that they are frequently revised. Textbooks must be kept young." What would seem to be at least one appropriate agenda item for pietist theology is the continual revising of the creeds.

"To keep them young" is a call to recognize the present situation and to respond to the questions that emerging history creates and that life in turn poses to theology; the creeds were not intended to answer questions that they were not originally asked. Nyvall in this instance presages Paul Tillich's word that theology must attempt to answer the existential questions put to it by contemporary culture. I interpret Nyvall's and Tillich's use of the terms "life-interests" and "existential questions", respectively, to be very close in meaning.

While engaging in the ongoing work of revising the creeds and reflecting upon the questions of life-interests to theology, the source into which we will continually be dipping is the well of Scripture. It is here we go seeking not for correct data or certain instruction but rather what we have already encountered there: the live testimony of faith. This is the spring from which sources for life and life-interests flow. As a source for doing theology it must be stated here that Pietisten, in critique of Nyvall and some other pietist thinkers, will expect, more than they did, to hear the "live testimony of faith" in the Old Testament as well as the New; the entirety of Scripture is the source that we claim.

In recreating this forum for doing theology and in calling the writings of pietist thinkers of past centuries back into dialogue with us, it is also important to say at the outset that the task of pietist theology as it is expressed in this journal will be to actively engage in discussion with the theologies of the present time, It is thus appropriate that as we have been writing of the Scriptures, creeds and life-interests as content for pietist theology, that we hear a word from current theologian David Tracy, author of Blessed Rage for Order. In his book Tracy proposes that the two main sources for theology are: 1) religious texts, and 2) common human experience and language. I believe this word resonates quite well with pietist theology as we read and think and write. Pietisten wants to promote the meeting of text and experience, of Scripture and language, of Word and life-interest, of creed and question, as we seek to provoke a renewed exercise of the pietist theological task.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom