Spener's Proposals, Part II

by Peter Sandstrom

Philip Jacob Spener's second proposal for reform of the church is "the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood." Spener writes that it is time to take Luther up on his idea of the spiritual priesthood and apply it earnestly in the life of the congregation. "Spiritual priesthood" may have an odd ring to it for American protestant ears in the twentieth century and perhaps for the ears of many Catholics as well. Part of our difficulty is that we have some very ambitious ideas about what constitutes spirituality as well as what a spiritual priesthood involves. Although the Roman Priest and the Lutheran "Herr Pastor" from European history provide us with some images of the priesthood, they are inextricably tied to a strong class distinction (and the bitterly divisive feelings that the hierarchy provoked) that it can be extremely difficult to separate out what was vocation for the priest from what were the status and privileges of the priestly class, or as Spener would jibe, "the spiritual estate."

Though the meanings of spirituality and priesthood can certainly be explored apart from Spener, attention will be focused here on those practices that Spener himself considers to be spiritual priestly activity. A compiled list includes: studying the Word of God, prayer, thanksgiving, edification, good works, alms, teaching, admonishment, giving comfort, chastisement, exhorting, converting, and being concerned about salvation. Undergirding all of these is Spener's insistence that these first be carried out in the home. Along with this it is also noticed that the process of educating is pervasive and essential in most of the activities listed. I think it is fair to say that, for Spener, a primary role of the Christian spiritual priest is what I would call the "householder-teacher." "Parent-teacher" might also be used here but it is expected that spiritual instruction be given to members of the extended family and to servants and hired hands within the house as well, to whom the role of parenting does not apply. The image of householder can apply to homes where no children are present and also tends to include the role of being a neighbor, with which Spener is also concerned. Householder is also a more inclusive term than "head of the house," which, in popular usage, has meant husband or father; householder indicates that adult or those adults who share the responsibility for their home.

In calling for a renewed vitality of the spiritual priesthood in the household, Spener refers to the Apostle Peter's words, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful words of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (I Peter 2:9). This reference to a spiritual priesthood was fundamentally a Jewish perspective and was clearly spoken by Peter to the ethnic Jewish-Christian community. What this realization requires of us is that any concept of the spiritual priesthood that we take from this text be seen as rooted in larger Jewish experience and interpretive heritage. This being so, we can take Philip Jacob Spener's call for the role of the spiritual priest to be primarily that of the household-teacher - an idea that not only goes back to the Jewish-Christian community of the pre-70AD era, but indeed goes even further back in origin to the experience of the people of Israel during and after the Exodus and to the Mosaic model for household education that arose from it.

This model is witnessed to in Exodus 12:24-27, in which instructions for the household observance of Passover are given:

You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and your sons forever. And when you come to the land which the Lord your God has given you, as he promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, "What do you mean by this service?" you shall say, "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.

The acting out of the spiritual priesthood by the Christian householder-teacher should also provoke the curiosity and questions (and perhaps protestations) of his/her children and the other members of the household. The inquiries, "Why are we reading the scriptures?", "Why are we giving thanks?", "Why are we giving alms?" or the basic "Do we have to do THIS again?", all serve the activity of the priesthood in the household and all have their spiritual origins in the questions of Hebrew children to their parents some three thousand years ago.

That the role of the spiritual priest should have a primary origin and continuing purpose in the humbleness of the single household, and with the small number of people who dwell within it, is affirmed by the word and spirit of the pericope text for this issue of Pietisten, Luke 12:32-34. As we read it in Waldenström's translation and commentary, re-translated for us by Tommy Carlson: "Fear not little flock, for it is the father's pleasure to give you the kingdom." Waldenström takes pains to point out for us that it is the smallness of the group which is being highlighted here. "Little flock," smallness and weakness, "little band," THIS is the place and time of the "congregation" of God's people. I believe Spener would concur with Waldenström's emphasis upon the smallness of the flock and I would propose that it is within the "small band" of the household, served and instructed by its spiritual priest, the householder-teacher, that the Kingdom comes and where the Treasure is found.

Spener's roll call of spiritual-priestly activities is quite a list and presents an enormous amount of work within even one household. It seems evident that if this kind of effort and instruction is expected for all the households of the parish, then there is no way the congregation's paster can do this alone. The Pia Desideria's call for the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood is first a matter of practicality and logistics: the priestly work of a church simply cannot be done by one person. Not even a full-scale pastoral staff, including half a dozen different ministerial job-descriptions, can accomplish the work require of all the householder-teachers in the congregation. On the other hand, Spener does not expect that every householder in the parish is going to take seriously the call to be a spiritual priest. He does seem to feel, though, that if "several" members would intentionally work on their role as priests that, together with the pastor, they could make significant reform in the life of the church. If these are the same "several" that are gathering together in conventicle to study the scriptures as described in Spener's first proposal, then there is a double-edged force for the growth of Christian congregational life.

This latest point concerning conventicle reminds us that, besides acting as spiritual priest to those within their homes, the householder-teachers are to be priests to each other. The mutual instruction that takes place around the scriptures in conventicle ought to continue among those same folks in their daily lives as neighbors. Spener would also like to sm that process include the admonishing of each other, including the pastor, in a spirit of supportive criticism, or as Spener would express it, "fraternal admonition." The teaching, thanksgiving, studying, and concern for salvation by the householder-teacher should take place not only within the household but also between and among the households themselves! Spener's proposal goes beyond congregational and church reform to become a new way of looking at neighborhoods, at community. Though he does not say so explicitly (perhaps he was too humble to realize it), Spener's proposals for the reform of the CONGREGATION and of the NEIGHBORHOOD, taken together, implicitly result in a reform of the idea of the PARISH.

Up to this point, I have barely mentioned the issue which may most frequently come to mind when the spiritual priesthood is thought of: the relationship between clergy and laity. I have done this intentionally. My reasons for doing so include the realization that, although Spener indeed spends a significant amount of time on that subject, his primary critique in this second proposal is not of the clergy but of the laity, and his model for an extensive change of practices is intended not primarily for the pastor but for the householder-teacher. Even on the matter of practices, Spener barely spends any time on that particular practice that tends to be a volatile bone of contention between clergy and laity: the administering of the sacraments. When it comes to renewal of the spiritual priesthood, the sacraments are not nearly as important to Spener as are the practices listed above in this article: studying scripture, praying, teaching, giving alms, and so forth.

Having made clear, I hope, that Spener's emphasis in the spiritual priesthood is on changing how the laity practice their faith, especially in the home, it is now time to see what Spener says in this second proposal concerning the clergy, their practices, and their relationship to the laity. Though he spends little time doing it, Spener pulls no punches in regard to the question of the authority of clergy to administer the sacraments: it is not theirs alone! The laity also have the authority to administer them. Looking to Luther, especially to his treatise to the Bohemians, Spener sees "how splendidly it is demonstrated that all spiritual functions are open to all Christians without exception." That is the bottom line for Spener. He continues: "Although the regular and public performance of them is entrusted to ministers appointed for this purpose, the functions may be performed by others in case of emergency. Especially should those things which are unrelated to public acts be done continually at home and in everyday life."

For Spener there is no distinction between clergy and laity that is absolute; he even uses the phrases "so-called laity" and "so-called spiritual estate." Where he does distinguish between them is in regard to what he calls "public" and "private" functions. He does not consider lay people to be called by the congregation to perform the public functions of the church which represent the congregation in the community, such as administering the sacraments or preaching in the public worship; this is what the congregation has called the pastor to do. Again, however, this is only a functional division and not one of spirituality or authority: it is the congregation that has called the pastor, not the other way around. Even as a functional distinction this is not absolute. As was pointed out before, Spener believes the lay person, the householder-teacher, to have authority to administer sacraments in any emergency situation. More important to Spener and vastly more far-reaching is his insistence that the householder-teacher has not only the authority but the obligation to practice all spiritual-priestly functions in the private sphere, which means in the homes and in the neighborhood.

However, this message did not reach many of the people in the church of Spener's day. He writes both of his hope and his complaint: "If this is first pointed out to the people, they will take better care of themselves and apply themselves to whatever pertains to their own edification and that of their fellow men. On the other hand, all complacence and sloth derives from the fact that this teaching is not known and practiced. NO BODY THINKS THAT THI S HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH HIM." Spener believed that the clergy, both before and after the Reformation, had kept this information from the laity because they felt threatened. The point of his second proposal is this: that the real threat to the clergy is the denial of the spiritual priesthood. Without it, the householder-teachers become lazy and irresponsible and then the spiritual-priestly work of the church — that the clergy will never be able to do by themselves — is not done in the many households and neighborhoods of the congregation. Spener's call in this proposal goes out to all the laity in the hope that they will think that the spiritual priesthood has something to do with them and that it will take root in the lives of their households.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom