Spener's Proposals, Part III

by Peter Sandstrom

In 1675, Philip Jacob Spener wrote that "the people must have impressed upon them and must accustom themselves to believing that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice." It was the third of his six proposals for reform of the church, which comprised the main body of his work, The Pia Desideria. This third proposal was in some significant ways a summation of the first two: I) That "thought should be given to a more extensive use of the word of God among us," and 2) That there should be "the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood." (See the past two issues of Pietisten for a discussion of the first two proposals).

In the sixteen long centuries of the church's existence, Spener was certainly not the first to call for a renewed priority of the practice of Christian life. Yet the situation of the Lutheran Church in Germany in the late seventeenth century was such that this proposal came across not merely as a tired old refrain, but also as a timely word that struck a responsive chord in thousands of Spener's readers. Spener's audience, at the time he wrote and preached, was a community still reeling from the horrors of the Thirty-Years War. This devastation of Europe had some of its roots in the theological and ecclesiastical differences between the Protestant and Catholic churches. Now, after two successive generations of armies, marching under church flags, had laid waste to the Continent, nearly knocking it back to the Dark Ages, Spener and his contemporaries seemed to be witnessing a response from the churches that encouraged even more debate that centered on the differences in church doctrines. Spener found himself just shaking his head at all this and finally saying, "Enough!" In the Thirty-Years War, he had seen one of the outcomes of the "knowledge of the Christian faith by itself," and it had been a nightmare.

This is reminiscent of some of the themes raised in Jean Lambert's sermon, "Worshiping the One God After Kristallnacht," in our last issue. At least one of the questions to arise out of the church's relation to the Holocaust is: Does the Christian faith have anything at all to do with how we live? Spener spoke to a similar question in different words when he wrote, concerning the practice of spiritual priesthood (as quoted in the last issue), "Nobody thinks that this has anything to do with him."

Spener was doing what a few other Christians had done from time to time, that is to attempt to bridge the ancient division between the Jewish emphasis upon life and practice and the Christian Church's emphasis upon belief and doctrine. Ever since Rome sundered the Jewish-Christian community of faith by destroying Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and then by co-opting Christianity by making it the official religion in the fourth century, the Church had succumbed to a deep influence by Greek philosophy and its categories. Thereafter, correct belief would tend to be more important than correct practice. Without its larger Jewish family and Jewish heritage to critique it, this strong emphasis upon right thinking would be much less frequently challenged and balanced. When those relatively rare moments of challenge would occur, they would tend to come from the monastic orders and their renewals of the priorities of practice, lifestyle, and community. It is, then, no accident that pietists such as Arndt and Spener were drawn, as Luther had been, to those very Christian mystics who founded and/or sustained the life of the monastic movements. It was Spener's contention that the Reformation had, for the most part, been distilled down to merely a matter of right thinking and correct theology. As much as he valued those qualities and processes, he felt that the priority of life and practice had been cast aside. In calling for a reconsideration of practice, of spiritual priesthood, Spener was taking the Epistle of James (straw and all) and throwing it right back into his beloved Luther's face.

For Spener, the life of practiced faith is best expressed by love:

Our dear Savior repeatedly enjoined love as the real mark of his disciples (John 13:34-35, 15:12, I John 3:10, 18, 4:7-8, 11-13, 21). In his old age, dear John (according to the testimony of Jerome in his letter to the Galations) was accustomed to say hardly anything more to his disciples than "Children, love one another!" Hi s disciples and auditors finally became so annoyed at this endless repetition that they asked him why he was always saying the same thing to them. He replied, "Because it is the Lord's command, and it suffices if it is done." Indeed love is the whole life of the man who has faith and who through his faith is saved, and his fulfillment of the laws of God consists of love.

If we can therefore awaken a fervent love among our Christians, first toward one another and then toward all men (for these two, brotherly affection and general love, must supplement each other according to II Peter 1:7), and put this love into practice, practically all that we desire will be accomplished. For all the commandments are summed up in love (Romans 13:9). Accordingly, the people are not only to be told this incessantly, and they are not only to have the excellence of neighborly love and, on the other hand, the great danger and harm in the opposing self-love pictured impressively before their eyes (which is done well in the spiritually minded Johan Arndt's True Christianity, IV, ii, 22 et seq), but they must also practice love. [I remind the reader at this point that Spener is writing the Pia Desideria as an introduction to a collection of Arndt's sermons. PS]

The pietism evoked by Spener's proposals is personal, yet not private, "General love" must supplement personal love and concern between individuals. Pietism is not privatism, This is witnessed to in the practice of the pietist conventicles, which were served by the original Pietisten in nineteenth century Sweden. The establishment of benevolent work, such as children's homes for the poor and/or homeless of the county parish and the widespread development of active mission societies, made it abundantly clear that the practice of the spiritual priesthood extended far beyond the kitchen table of the conventicle. It is this emphasis upon practice that helps make pietism a "life movement."

In the centuries since the publication of the Pia Desideria, there have been many different responses to the call to love one's neighbor and to practice this living out of the law. Both main stream churches and evangelical denominations have developed missionary efforts and worked on sharing love in their communities and nations. Some churches have successfully promoted a sense of Christian faith that is personal. However, it is rare that one finds instances in which a personal sense of faith has promoted the regular gathering of Christians around the texts of Scripture and has encouraged the daily practice of spiritual priesthood, in extending love to individuals, to the parish, and to the neighborhoods of the world. This is what~ draws me back season after season, like a bird scanning the landscape for a home, to the roots of pietism with its writings and resources: even in its earliest documents, pietism has held out for a model that brings together personal faith, Biblical text, and practice, insisting as well, that it can be done in a way that keeps the boundaries wide and the conversation open.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom