Pietism and confessionalism

by Shawn Barnett

In the first issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion, the explicit purpose of which is to defend the pietist heritage of the Baptist General Conference (aka Converge Worldwide), the late G. William Carlson provided a theological manifesto for the project entitled “What is Pietism?: ‘In Essentials Unity, in Non-essentials Diversity, In Everything Charity.’” This motto, printed on the masthead of every issue of the Clarion, can be summed up in a word: irenicism (from the Greek word for peace). This irenicism is expressed in a de-emphasis of doctrinal differences. Carlson mentions other hallmarks of pietism which he attributes to Philipp Jakob Spener’s program outlined in Pia Desideria: emphasis upon a personal conversion experience and living faith, holy living as the result of preaching, corporate and private Bible study, and education as cultivation of the soul. However, it is irenicism manifested in the tolerance of widely varying theological differences—Calvinism, Arminianism, various views of the atonement and the millennium, etc.—that Carlson views as pietism’s chief contribution to Swedish Baptists.

The foil to this irenic pietism is confessionalism, specifically as politically enforced according to the cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, his religion) principle of the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which was maintained in essence by the Peace of Westphalia (1648) by expanding the list of those confessions permitted in the Holy Roman Empire to three: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. The term “confession” rather than “church” or “denomination” refers to confessional documents as standards and norms for the expression of doctrine. In Protestant territories, city councils, dukes and kings enforced church orders which bound preachers within their respective territories to a set of documents which made positive statements on a number of doctrines (election, the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, etc.) and explicitly rejected other doctrinal formulations. Although the relationship to an ecclesial hierarchy was still more definitive for the Roman Catholic Church, the delineation of doctrine in the Council of Trent may be viewed as a confessionalization of that church in response to the Reformation. Carlson does not use the term “confessionalism,” but he does appeal to the historical context of the 17th century and sets pietism forth as an alternative: “the pietists rejected state coercion of religious belief and an overemphasis on details of doctrine by theologians and church leaders.” Pietism is here viewed as a reaction to confessionalism, a reaction which in the case of the Swedish Baptists and Mission Friends (Covenanters and Evangelical Free) expressed itself in non(anti?)-confessionalism, an explicit rejection of any confessional subscription.

The motto of the Clarion has an old history and has served as the motto for a number of groups, including the Moravians, who represent a specific direction within pietism. However, it would be an oversimplification of pietism as an historical phenomenon to suggest that the sort of irenicism advocated by the Swedish Baptists is universal or inherent in pietism. A counterexample to Carlson’s thesis that pietists exemplified irenicism by opposing state coercion is provided by Benjamin Marschke’s essay “Mish-Mash with the Enemy: Identity, Politics, Power, and the Threat of Forced Conversion in Frederick William I’s Prussia.” Marschke details how the king of Prussia attempted to effect a confessional union between the Lutherans and the Reformed and was opposed by Halle Pietists. Although the Halle Pietists ostensibly supported the Prussian monarch, they worked to sabotage the top-down effort toward confessional flexibility and ecumenical irenicism. Here the roles are reversed; the political powers want to enforce tolerance and the pietists defend, although subtly, confessional rigidity. The 19th century provides countless examples of confessionalism as the object rather than the means of state persecution.

Any appeal to Spener in view of his advocacy of irenicism is also not without some irony. Admittedly, many examples of Spener’s tolerance could be provided. One such instance of tolerance is evident in Spener’s correspondence with the radical pietist Johann Wilhelm Petersen in which Spener agreed not to openly attack Petersen’s universalism (cf. Douglas Schantz’ Introduction to German Pietism), a doctrine not many Swedish Pietists would have embraced. Yet, Spener is a complex character. He is often portrayed as a “churchly” and “Lutheran” pietist, but the extent of his confessional commitment, especially in his later years, is often overlooked. In fact, Spener himself polemicized against Calvinists from the pulpit and once stated that he would rather take the Sacrament from the hands of layman than from a Reformed clergyman. In a work defending his confessional commitment entitled Sincere Agreement with the Augsburg Confession, Spener wrote: “Since Christianity has been divided into numerous parties on account of false doctrine which has crept in, I can call none other brothers than those who confess themselves to the Lutheran Church.” In another place, he writes: “As concerns external brotherhood which is founded upon the fellowship of the faith or religion that one believes, all Lutherans are my brothers since they confess and adhere to one faith. But not one of the Reformed, as long as he remains such, is my brother, because he professes himself to another religion, in fact to such a religion in which I believe to have recognized dangerous errors” (Theologische Bedenken). While Spener knew that his mild form of millennialism, his “hope for better times,” was a departure from Lutheran Orthodoxy, he still contended that it was not rejected by Article XVII of the Augsburg Confession which states explicitly “[our churches] condemn also others who are now spreading certain Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed.” According to Spener, this was a condemnation of a crass form of millennialism and not his milder chiliasm. Clearly, Spener saw his pietist program as one that operated within the doctrinal bounds of the Lutheran Confessions and he saw the Confessions function as defining and delimiting church fellowship.

Photo of Shawn Barnett

Theologically pietism is a winding stream with many tributaries that fans out into a wide delta. The influences range from Lutheran Orthodoxy to late medieval Catholic mysticism and the spiritual alchemy of Jakob Böhme and Paraclesus. The influence and heritage of pietism up to the present is just as varied. The ways in which this heritage was reappropriated in the 19th century provides some often surprisingly stark contrasts. Norwegian immigrants to North America in late 19th century used a catechism by the Pietist Erik Pontoppidan and a prayer book by Nils Laache who was influenced strongly by Rosenius. Nevertheless, many of these Norwegians came under the influence of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod known for its emphasis upon doctrinal purity and strongly advocated the theology of the Formula of Concord even though the Church of Norway had never required its ministers to subscribe thereto. The Missouri Synod itself had roots in pietism which—despite an increasing aversion to Spener and even to the much beloved proto-pietist Johann Arndt—continued to be shaped by its pietist heritage. In Sweden, the pietist heritage was variously appropriated by P.P. Waldenström, Swedish Baptists, and Henric Schartau and his followers in western Sweden. The latter has been woefully ignored by English-language scholarship and represents a major lacuna in our understanding of the relationship between orthodoxy and pietism in the 19th century. The relationship between pietism, awakening, and confessionalism remains a field ripe for historical research and perhaps even personal discovery. Furthermore, the interplay and even aversion between confessionalism and pietism may serve as a useful perspective for evaluating our heritage and its prospects for survival in the 21st century. It is hard to imagine a church body with a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions ever rebranding itself to sound like a corporate consultant firm. Can pietism survive the influence of corporate capitalist marketing strategies, can it absorb them, or will it morph into something entirely different? Perhaps doctrinal precision may not only safeguard the fides quae creditur (the faith which is believed), but also the fides qua creditur (the faith with which one believes, the living and active faith which is the hallmark of pietism).