Reborn in Order to Renew
It is customary to speak of the material principle and the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. The material principle answers the question, “How are sinful human beings saved or justified before a holy God?” The answer: on the basis of Christ’s death alone, made possible by grace alone and received by distraught sinners by faith alone. This is the content of the gospel, the “material” of Christian life and thought as preached by Luther and Calvin.
The formal principle has to do with authority. On what basis can one know that God is gracious, that He freely wants to have mercy on people? The answer: on the basis of scripture alone.
Sweeping changes took place in the church following such theological reformations. There was no need for indulgences and purgatory. The teaching authority of the Pope was replaced by the authority of scripture alone. The mass was shorn of any notion of a redeeming sacrifice. It was now celebrated as a thanksgiving for a redeeming sacrifice completed. The words of institution, “This is my body… This is my blood” were more proclamation than consecration. The list could go on. The material of the faith and the formal character of authority underwent identical changes. They were simplified and made single: one redemption, namely by grace alone; one authority, namely scripture alone.
The twin principles of the Reformation figured highly in Pietism but not without change and development. The language of salvation changed from its forensic, legal character to a more biological and organic type of expression. No Pietist would deny or disregard the gospel of the justification of a sinner by the free grace of God. But a Pietist would express reservation as to the sufficiency of the language of justification to encompass the scope of God’s saving activity.
For one thing, it has a more formal than relational character to it. For another, it is more external than internal as regards its effects on people. It is the formal and external character that Johann Arndt, the “grandfather” of Pietism, came to recognize as a potential threat to the religious life. Arndt had noted that Luther’s preaching of the free grace of God, founded on Jesus’ complete sacrifice for sin and received in faith, had released people from fear. People had feared that their good works were not sufficient or done in the proper spirit leaving God displeased with them. People also feared long stints in purgatory and the power of the church over them and their eternal destiny.
In Arndt’s True Christianity, he lamented the opposite situation in his day. There was no fear of God at all. The people of the Lutheran lands had been baptized. catechized and communed. In all of this, the formal and external word of justification had freed them from the bondage of sin. What had happened was that the religious and the personal, experiential dimensions of justification by grace through faith were missing. What was missing was awe before a holy God —the God before whom Luther fell down as dead, and at the same time, a profound and mysterious gratitude for a grace that freely reached out to the alienated and to the wicked offering justification before God, self, and others. What Arndt saw as the perversion of justification we would call presumption. When the grace and mercy of a person are taken for granted, they are insulted and made fools of, or so it seems. Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace.” The Pietists wanted to restore the religious and the personal/experiential dimensions to the relation between God and persons. If this could be done they reasoned, then a delicate, not a distressing fear would return to religious life. This fear is the fear of presuming on God’s grace or of taking God for granted. If that happens the link between grace and gratitude is severed.
So how did the Pietists speak of the material principle? Shifting from legal to biological language, from an external to an internal work of God, the Pietists such as Spener began to stress the “new birth,” or the work of God within the person, recreating the person from the inside out (John 3:1–15 and 1 Peter 1). Physical birth is a radically passive act. So is spiritual birth. Just as in physical birth, one being born again (spiritually) neither conceives nor births himself/herself. The chief actor is God. Three stages encompass this work: 1) faith is kindled and issues in new birth, but new birth does not create faith, thus perserving the radical character of God’s initiative; 2) such persons are justified and adopted into God’s family; 3) the “new person” is made complete in the process of sanctification by means of which one’s entire life is brought more and more into the likeness or imitation of Christ.
This summary of Spener’s thought can be virtually duplicated in Reformed Pietism. D. Coornhert (1522–1590), a precursor of Reformed Pietism, had written of the new birth as the mortification of evil in persons and the vivification of God’s good life in repentent people. Willem Teellinck (1579–1629) continued the theme of regeneration, speaking of Christ as the “new maker.” In 1693 J.H. Reitz published his History of the Re-Born, a book of sketches of those who had been remade by God’s regenerative power. Among the Lutheran and Reformed Pietists, a newer way of formulating God’s work was emerging. God was not only good enough to justify persons, he was also powerful enough to change them. Note the language: “new-maker,” vivification or resurrection power, regeneration and recreation. Francke brought this to a succinct expression in a 1697 sermon on rebirth: “This (i.e., the doctrine of rebirth) is the very ground upon which Christianity stands.” This understanding of the work of God made it possible for Pietists to speak, not only of growth in knowledge but also growth in grace. Clearly, the growth language opens the way to speak, not only of a progressive sanctification but of a perfecting of the saints. The material principle had now acquired a decidedly human as well as a divine dimension. It now even became customary to raise the issue of the righteousness of Christ being imparted to believers and not just imputed to them. People were not only justified, they were changed.
But what of the formal principle, that of the authority of scripture among the Pietists? Following the Reformation, formal questions about the nature of the Bible were raised. What gave it its authority? Increasingly, the doctrine of verbal inspiration became the primary way of establishing the Bible’s authority. The words of the authors of scripture, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, coincided with the words of God. What scripture said, God said. The scripture then became more closely related to the theological system, serving as proof-texts for statements of doctrine.
During the period of orthodoxy, around 1580, the relation between scripture and system became even more tightly formed because of the theological conflicts among Protestant groups, each trying to demonstrate that it was the true church. The scriptures became the instrument of strife as Lutheran and Reformed people each tried to show the more scriptural alignment of their confessions. Unwittingly and unintentionally the scriptures became more serviceable to polemics than to serving the spiritual needs of the people in the pew. The people starved.
The Pietists could and did speak of verbal inspiration. But what they did was to reopen the question of the purpose of scripture: was the result of scripture a proof-text, or a provision of spiritual food able to strengthen and serve the growth of faith, hope, and love in and among believers? Of course, the distinction I have made is too neat. But it serves to show that when Pietists opened again the issue of the function of scripture, they took a road other than that of scripture as proof-text.
The word of God was something to be done as well as taught and believed. For Pietists, in addition to lexicons, dictionaries, and commentaries, obedience to the Word was part of the way one brought a text to understanding.
When Francke spoke of the inspiration of scripture he took account of the affections and reason, of intuition and intellect. The Holy Spirit “kindled sacred affections” in the writers, making it “absurd to suppose that, in penning the Scriptures, they viewed themselves as machines; or that they wrote without any feelings or perception, what we read with so great a degree of both.” Thus the same Holy Spirit who inspires the affections and reason must also illumine those who read. Why? In order to understand what the apostles wrote, one must not only love what they loved but as they loved. The affections participate in the achievement of clear understanding. Interestingly enough, Spener cited Luther to this same effect: one needs to invest oneself with the apostle’s mind in order to understand him. What this comes to is the Pietistic contention that in order to understand the scripture from the inside out, one must be reborn. Such an understanding required new affections and a renewed mind.
Since one’s affection and intuition lead one on to do the will of God, to experiment with ways to fulfill God’s will, the Pietists spoke of obedience as a way to make God’s word clear. Three questions were asked of a text in Bible study groups: 1) What does it teach? 2) What does it command? 3) What promise or hope is given? Note how those questions empower and enlighted the virtues of faith, love, and hope. This very notion of “doing the word” was informed by the metaphor of metabolism. When food is eaten, the digestive chemicals break down the food so that it can be distributed to and absorbed by, the body tissues. The tissues are built up and kept at full strength. Building on the metabolic process, Francke says, “Remember that you may know no truth in Scripture for which you will not have to give an account (1 Timothy 6:14), of whether you have transformed it into life as one transforms food and drink into flesh and blood.”
If in Orthodoxy doctrine was tested by scripture, in Pietism life was tested. The formal authority of the Reformation was brought into direct relation to one’s behavior, thought, and affection. For this reason, it is often said that the Pietists wanted to complete the Reformation. What started as a reformation of doctrine needed to be completed in a reformation of life.
How then was theology to be practiced? For a focus of this practice, Spener set his eyes on the church. He lamented an essentially negative Christianity. By that he meant that there was an outward conformity to standards ecclesiastical and political. Initiatives of love were missing. Example: class distinctions fostered the custom of changing the water between the baptism of the children of the peasants and the nobility. Conforming to custom was a compromise of the sacrament, yet the service was orthodox and no law or custom was upset. As for the polemics among Christians, who had the courage to ask if doctrine was the only concern when looking for true Christianity? He further lamented a view of the sacraments meets that placed one’s trust in the sheer fact of one’s baptism without raising the question as to whether one had truly remained in the convenantal relation of baptism. Then there were the persistent problems of drunkenness, of lawsuits, and of pastors who gave no care to their people but who only functioned in formal and ritualized ways.
The material principle gave Spener a clue as to possible ways for renewal. As justification and new birth had served as models for understanding the redemption of persons, a model was needed for the renewal and regeneration of the church. When the Pietists made the “new birth” the operative model for God’s redeeming work, they derived from it the notion of renewal from the inside out. What starts small, develops. Applying this model to the church situation, Spener sought a way to renew the church from the inside out. In his thinking, one could begin in a small way and with a few people and watch the “practice of theology” bear fruit.
What emerged was the conventicle, a small group of people who met to discuss the Sunday sermon and to make application to their lives. There was an opportunity to discuss scripture, using the three questions mentioned previously. Naturally, such a gathering was not complete without prayer. This gathering acquired the technical name of ecclesiola in ecclesia, the little church in the big church. What Spener counted on was that this gathering of the reborn ones could engender new life in the entire parish. In this view he differed from the Anabaptists who tended to think that the only true church was the little band of the faithful (the ecclesiola). For Spener, the little church had instrumental value. It was the material principle, the work of redemption, at work in the congregation.
What of the formal principle, the principle of authority to embark on such an active pattern of renewal? Spener’s favorite phrase was that God had promised “better times for the church.”
The Pietists believed that the promises were to be acted upon, not just waited upon. God’s promise was organically related to the church and to the church’s obedience to His word and will. Luther had spoken of faith as a “busy, active, mighty thing.” Together with Luther, the Pietists put Galatians 5:6 into operative terms: “…faith that is active in love.” Francke spoke of “risk-taking faith,” not just believing faith. Hence Spener, if ever so modestly, gave faith an operative mode, acting on God’s promise for better times for the church. What were the occasions Spener proposed through which faith could experiment, bringing God’s promise and the human situation into organic relation?
First, a greater use should be made of the Bible than just the pericope texts assigned to the Sundays of the Church Year. The conventicle provided an additional setting for increased awareness of the Bible. In the context of the conventicle, Spener averred that pastors have a singular opportunity to both learn to know and be known by their parishoners. The setting was ideal. All were under the authority of the same Word of God and under the illumination of the same Holy Spirit. He spoke of this as “bonding.” Take a moment to reflect on the revolutionary character of this proposal in a highly stratified society. No doubt this very setting made possible the change in address to the clergy from “Herr Pastor” to just “Pastor” or the even more familial “brother” and “sister.”
The concern for knowledge of scripture made itself evident in other ways. Pietists were leaders in the science of textual criticism, with Johann Bengel of Wuerttemberg sometimes being called its “father.” In the Preface to his Gnomon (i.e. Pointer), a commentary on the New Testament, he recorded his scientific principles of textual study. During his time (1687–1752) he is credited with having established the finest Greek text of the New Testament available. Bengel’s concern for the printed text was matched by Francke. At the University of Halle one could study the biblical languages for a four to six year period. It is little wonder that this linguistic training proved its worth in the work of missionaries which Halle sent out, for they were expert in making the scripture available in the language of the people they served. On the homefront, a more extensive use of the scripture was facilitated by the printing efforts carried on at Halle. Between 1717 and 1723 over a half million writings were distributed throughout Germany, including 100,000 New Testaments and 80,000 complete Bibles. Publications had reached Siberia and became part of a revival among Swedish prisoners of war captured by Peter the Great. Upon repatriation, these Swedes brought new life to the Swedish religious scene.
Second, Spener proposed a more extensive use of the spiritual priesthood. By their baptism all Christians had been consecrated kings and priests. What was missing was the exercise of this office. Spener’s treatment of this subject is interesting. In an exposition of Luther’s catechism, one of the places he treated this doctrine was in a peculiar spot, namely in relation to the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” My interpretation of this arrangement is this. Priestly work is a life-giving work. One kills by failing to nourish hope, by killing incentive when one remains impersonal and detached, or by conducting oneself in an intimidating manner. The exercise of the spiritual priesthood is carried out faithfully when one speaks encouraging or admonitory words to another. A priest breaks a guilty silence. A priest waits in silence with another when it is appropriate. In this way they are Christ to each other and speak God’s word.
There are other spinoffs from this doctrine. In the conventicle, women and men could speak, a source of no little criticism for Spener. Where this prevailed, baptism, the source of the priesthood of all believers, was given its proper authority. Since all were priests of God, something needed to be done to help people develop their gifts. The Pietists pioneered in vocational education and moved toward classroom instruction in the German language, not Latin. In this way the Pietists sought to help Christians develop their sense of vocation as a calling from God. If all Christians took this seriously think of how the church’s ministry is both diversified and multiplied. A preacher-centered church is not a part of the Pietist vision.
Third, it was not enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consisted in practice. But for Pietists, even practice needed a spiritual dimension. A favorite means for discerning a proper quality of service was to use the designations “hireling” and “shepherd” from John 10. A hireling was not only a blatant thief. Hirelings could also be subtle. At the orphanage in Halle, childcare workers were called hirelings if their work was merely professionally competent and not personally involved. Such detachment was incapable of engendering new dispositions in the children. When love is tested, the worker does not get testy. Only when love is questioned and one’s commitment tried does steadfast love come through. Steadfast love was what the orphans knew nothing about. So the wisdom of Spener was vindicated, namely that if Christians were not priests to each other they might have been each other’s murderer. Hirelings could not have been sources of regeneration but they could have gradually moved others in their care to a fatal resignation or to despair.
The practice of love was corporate as well as personal. At Halle for example, the industries and shops of the city were pressured to take orphans as apprentices in the various trades. The guilds of these various crafts objected strenuously, which might have been one of the first examples of an affirmative action program, started by Pietists no less! The proportion of this issue is striking in its magnitude, considering that in the space of three years the number of orphans cared for at Francke’s orphanage had grown to 100. Within the institution, the personhood of each child was enhanced in every way. Contrary to accepted procedures, each orphan was given a bed, a practice that was ridiculed as extravagant. But not to Pietists. Only hirelings fostered the impersonal. The practice of love, personally and institutionally, was the most humanizing endeavor of all.
Fourth, renewal of the church and community called for care in the exercise of religious disputes. Interestingly enough, Spener linked this proposal to the matter of conversion. As I read Spener, the erring and the people with whom Christians have disputes were won for the gospel more by demeanor than by argument. Such persons were neighbors and brothers by the right of creation. Think of the world view in those words! Whatever is done, good or ill, is done to a family member. Cold argumentation is an act of depersonalization; it hardens rather than regenerates.
The last two of Spener’s proposals concern pastoral training and the nature of preaching. Relying on biological and organic metaphors, he referred to the seminary as a nursery (not the infant variety, but the horticultural type). What he wanted was a setting for education as much as the content of it. The setting was important because that was where the spirit was either killed or given wings, to cite Gregory of Nazianzus. Student life and the demeanor of faculty are part of the setting, the “soil” of the nursery. In order to cultivate the “seedling,” the professor was for practical purposes a spiritual director as well as a teacher. Spiritual exercises were to be taught as much as content of courses. Students were to accompany professors on pastoral visitation. In a way, what was emerging there is what we call praxis. Education is by doing and then by reflecting on the meaning and significance of what has been done. Furthermore, the student was allowed to experience himself (sic) in the process of ministering, a crucial element that the Clinical Pastoral Education movement has made into a cornerstone of educational philosophy. Thus as Pietists looked at it, a student not only knows theology but has begun to learn how to know the self. Much of pastoral care has to do with exercising that art and teaching it to others.
The theory was that the preacher required as much preparation as the sermon, because the sermon was directed to the inner person, with the goal in mind to awaken love and fear for God and service to one’s neighbor. The preacher (his demeanor as well as his skill) was to the congregation what the professor was to the theological student. Both school and church were nurseries, places conducive to spiritual growth and vitality. The pastor therefore had two ministries: planter of the seed by preaching, and cultivator of the seed by priestly demeanor. And so all Christians have two ministries: planting and cultivating.
Reborn in order to renew. Pietism passed that vocation on to every Christian.
John Weborg, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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