Wise words on reforming our churches and ourselves: Philipp Jakob Spener’s Pia Desideria, pt. I

[Part II of this article may be found here.]

The Pietists were a powerful reform movement within state-church Lutheranism that began in 17th-century Europe. I sketch some of the basic facts about Pietism in this blog entry and this blog entry. Along with the Puritans, the Pietists were a crucial but today largely forgotten root of modern evangelicalism, recently unearthed and explained by many evangelical scholars–most recently Mark Noll in the early chapters of his The Rise of Evangelicalism.

The Pietists’ founder/leader was Philipp Jakob Spener (1635 – 1705). His most famous book is the Pia Desideria (usually translated “pious wishes,” but more accurately something like “spiritual longings,” if you include in “longings” a sense of an active will to create change).

In the Pia Desideria, Spener put the blame for Europe’s woeful spiritual state–the awful Christian-on-Christian savagery of the Thirty Years War was still fresh in everyone’s minds–squarely on the churches, the preachers, and the seminaries and their professors (oh dear!).

But Spener did not stop with diagnosis, as do so many would-be “prophets” of new modes of church today. He went on to some powerful prescriptions, which he lived out in his own ministry.

Spener also invited critiques of his proposals, and then proceeded to publish them as part of his book! You may suspect this was an exceptional man. You would be right. He was also notable for personal holiness and biblical knowledge, and he knew a gazillion languages.

What follows is an annotated summary of the Pia Desideria that I put together as a fresh-faced grad student in one of my first courses at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, back in 1994. (Be gentle: I was new to graduate study, and while passionate in my questioning, sometimes naive in my analyses.)

The course was “The Pietist Renewal.” It was the sort of small seminar, including around 6 students, that even then were becoming rare as hen’s teeth in seminaries concerned to force students through “core programs” and optimize their bottom lines.

The professor was Dr. Richard Lovelace, whose Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal, though occasionally more allusive than precise in its historiography, is still one of the best surveys of historical and contemporary spirituality I’ve read. And one of my fellow students in the course was Kevin Belmonte, who has now made a career of unearthing, publishing, and interpreting the work and life of the great evangelical politician and opponent of slavery William Wilberforce. Wilberforce and Spener’s Pietists had a great deal in common: both put feet to their faith in world-changing ways.

I hope you who care too much about the church to let her stay the way she is will find this annotated summary useful. Because it is long, I am posting it in two halves. This is the first half:

Philipp Jakob Spener—Pia Desideria

[Title means “Pious Wishes”  NOTE:  in the Reform movement which preceded Spener, and which was more interested in reforming the church from its structures inward, rather than from personal piety outward, two other works were written with this same title.  Spener is very much “in the tradition” here.  In fact, he may perhaps be seen as a PR man for pietist reform, drawing together “kindling” which had been kicking around for some time, but had not yet caught fire in the church.]

A proposal for reform

Response to “things that had again and again distressed me,…as long as by God’s will and grace I have labored in his vineyard.”  And countless others joined in his laments. (31)

Encouraged collegiality, careful counsel between pastors re: these problems (32)

[It encourages me to consider that in my own home town of Halifax, there are now ministers of Pentecostal, Salvation Army, Brethren, Congregationalist, Anglican, and many other denominations gathering biweekly for prayer and mutual encouragement.]

He shows humility in allowing others to criticize the book, and then publishing the criticisms with the book (not all were positive!)

[The mark of a statesman and a moderate man.  His statesmanship and tact in general seems to have alleviated some of the terror this kind of reform proposal held for Orthodox Lutherans.]

Self examination

“Let us…be diligent in investigating ever more deeply our own shortcomings and those of the rest of the church in order that we may learn to know our sicknesses, and then with a fervent invocation of God for the light of his Spirit let us also search for and ponder over the remedies.” (37)

[I would say this willingness to look within for areas needing reform—and apparent honest desire to include himself among those “standing in need”—is the mark of someone who has had a powerful “experience with God,” that has placed ALL human attempts at “churchmanship” in the flaming and often uncomplimentary light of God’s holiness, thus casting long shadows over most of our endeavors.  Because he didn’t ultimately rest on man’s efforts to build a church, but on Jesus’ promise to build a church against which the gates of hell themselves could not stand, Spener was able to look unblinkingly at problems in his own church and his own self.  He was not building on a human foundation, I suggest, but a divine.  Whereas many of his orthodox opponents seem by comparison overconcerned with protecting their own human structures (of doctrine, polity, etc.).  Admittedly I am only getting the Pietists’ side of the story here.…]

his values

At the judgment we will not be judged on learning, favor of men, honors, reputation…but “we shall be asked how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God; with how pure and godly a teaching and how worthy and example we tried to edify our hearers amid the scorn of the world, denial of self, taking up of the cross, and imitation of our savior; with what zeal we opposed not only error but wickedness of life…” (36)

The few, the proud, the remnant

Start by “putting ourselves at the disposal especially of those who are still willing to accept what is done for their edification…[making] provision for these above all others, [that] they may little by little grow to such a measure of godliness that they will be shining examples to others.” (37)

“All of my suggestions are aimed quite exclusively at first helping those who are tractable, at doing all that is needful for their edification.” (37)

[GOAL, that the church Hoi Polloi would follow.  Otherwise, this would be elitism.  But I don’t believe it is.]


And in that endeavor remembering “what is impossible for men remains possible for God.” (37)

“…the fruit in others must be cultivated by us with perseverance.” (38)

I—Conspectus of corrupt conditions in the church

“To all who seek the Lord:  grace, light and salvation from God our heavenly father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 16:3) (39)

Identifies with Jeremiah in 9:1 ‘O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughters of my people.’ (39)

[Interesting. I had this verse up on my wall back home.  Though I applied it more to the lost.  Spener apparently feels he is looking out across a field of considerable carnage wrought by the Enemy within his own church—let alone out there in the world.  And he was obviously not the only one who saw this scene!  Reform begins at home.  Let’s clean up OUR act, and the Jews, RC’s and other lost folk will come in.]

Spener believes recent “calamities, pestilence,” etc. are the result of God’s wrath at an unreformed church—however they see such calamities as a potential blessing in disguise, saving the people from being “driven to deeper despair by uninterrupted external prosperity.” (40)  [Perhaps we need a few calamities today, God forbid!  As he goes on to say…] Persecutions multiplied the church, but lack thereof has led the church to slackness.

He complains of interfering rulers, who meddle in the church to its ruination.  [This according to Stoeffler is the Reforming Pietists’ classic concern with Caesaropapism and Papocaesarism]

change starts at the top

When the leaves are withering, says Spener, the root is at fault—so when the people are undisciplined…no doubt the priests are not holy (Chrysostom) (44)  “We preachers need reformation.” (45)

Among priests, not only scandals, but a lack of understanding and practice of true Christianity [echoes of Arndt] (which consists of more than avoiding manifest vices and living an outwardly moral life)…their lives reflect…a worldly spirit…evident that they have never taken even the first practical principle of Christianity seriously, namely, denial of self. (45)

‘many [priests]…are still stuck fast in the old birth and do not actually possess the true marks of a new birth.’ (46)

Most distressing…is the fact that the lives of many such preachers and the absence in them of the fruits of faith indicate that they are themselves wanting in faith.  What they take to be faith…is by no means that true faith which is awakened through the Word of God, by the illumination, witness, and sealing of the Holy Spirit, but is a human fancy….they are altogether unacquainted with the true heavenly light and the life of faith.‘ (46)

[such as these]…cannot possess the wisdom which is demanded of those who are to teach others with all necessary urgency and to guide them on the way of salvation.  I have no doubt that we would soon have an altogether different church if most of us ministers were of such a sort that we could unblushingly say to our congregations with Paul, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (I Cor 11:1)  On the contrary, we find that not a small number of preachers regard as unimportant what the apostle mentioned to the Ephesians as something long since learned, namely, that ‘in Jesus there is righteous conduct.’ (Eph 4:21).

‘…the teaching of an earnest, inner godliness is so unfamiliar and strange to some people that those who zealously cultivate such godliness can hardly escape being suspected as secret papists, Weigelians, or Quakers.’  [Sounds like the criticisms of those protecting their own bailiwicks of privilege and doctrine—focusing on these externals while ignoring the things of the heart.]

combating an overemphasis on polemic and scholastic niceties

Spener addresses the overemphasis on polemic with words of Gregory of Nazianzus:  ‘we judge who are good and who are evil, not according to their life but according to their doctrinal agreement or disagreement with us.’ and ‘there are some who quarrel about trivial and useless things, rashly and foolishly claim as many adherents as they can find, and then put up a defense as if the faith were at stake; thus this excellent name is weakened by their own strife and contention.’ (49 & 50)

So he quotes a Wittenberg professor who ‘deliver[ed] his oration to all students several times a year–the study of theology should be carried on not by the strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety.’ and another theologian who said ‘We do not hesitate to declare accursed those who hold in low esteem an earnest striving after sincere piety and a careful cultivation of the inner man but think that the apex of theology consists of disputing.  As Bernard says in his twenty-fourth sermon on the Song of Solomon, they give their tongues to God but their souls to the devil.  We know that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life…and these together, not separately.  He is the way on account of his life, and we should imitate this life with earnest zeal…’ (50-51)  [Christ not merely forensic justifier, but holy exemplar.]

And finally, Luther:  ‘Beware!  Satan has the intention of detaining you with unnecessary things…Once he has gained an opening in you of a hand-breadth, he will force in his whole body together with sacks full of useless questions, as he formerly did in the universities by means of philosophy.’ (51)  [Love it!]

He compares the writings of Luther, in which one encounters and experiences ‘great spiritual power, together with wisdom presented with the utmost simplicity,’ with more recent books seeming ‘quite empty in contrast…filled instead with ‘more materials of showy human erudition, artificial posturing, and of presumptuous subtleties in matters in which we should not be wise beyond the Scriptures.’ (51-2)

Chytraeus.  Christian religion consists truly of this, ‘that from his Word we have a right knowledge of the true God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, that we inwardly fear and in true faith love him, that we call upon him and are obedient to him as we bear our crosses and throughout our life, that we sincerely love other people, help them charitably, and in all peril of life and death put our full confidence in the grace secured for us in Christ, and look forward to living eternally with God.’  (all this contrasted with ‘sophistry of useless and impertinent questions.’  And noting ‘the Christian religion does not consist of learning…’ (52-3)  [Here and elsewhere, bordering on anti-intellectualism.  This comes out even more strongly in his discussion of what is necessary for theological students.  He almost tips the boat over on his side in the attempt to balance it.]

Of the books then available, Chytraeus complained that few expounded the Word of God plainly and honestly.  Dinckel agreed, observing, ‘the consequence is that true THEOLOGIA PRACTICA (that is, the teaching of faith, love, and hope) is relegated to a secondary place, and the way is again paved for a THEOLOGIA SPINOSA (that is, a prickly, thorny teaching) which scratches and irritates hearts and souls…’ (53)

He complains about scholastic theology distracting from biblical theology.  ‘How many a Christian minister, when by God’s grace he first enters upon his office, has the experience that many of the things to which he devotes hard work and great pains prove to be useless, that he must begin all over again to reflect on what is more necessary, and that he wishes he had known this before and had been wisely and carefully directed to it.’ (54) and that scholastic theology reminds one of Paul’s words to Timothy, to warn certain persons that they should ‘not occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.  Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions’ (I Tim. 1:4-7).

‘If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit.  He knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.’ (I Tim 6:3-5)

Also Col 2:8:  ‘See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.’ (55)

Such knowledge, which remains without love, ‘puffs up’ (I Cor. 8:1)

‘Both preachers and hearers confine themselves to the notion that the one thing needful is the assertion and retention of pure doctrine, which must not be overthrown by errors, even if it is very much obscured with human perversions.’ (56)

[The sidelong references to the story of Mary and Martha are wonderful and quite appropriate in this context.  Much of what the scholastic/Orthodox types were doing and teaching hardly seems to have been learned at the feet of Jesus, but rather at the feet of a New Tradition (shades of Catholicism!) interested more in busying the mind and copping the latest fashionable teaching than in hearing the words of the Lord.]

Defects in the Common People

‘It is evident on every hand that none of the precepts of Christ is openly observed.’ (57)

‘If we judge by this mark (‘Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth’), how difficult it will be to find even a small number of real and true disciples of Christ among the great mass of nominal Christians!’ (57)

[In other words, Christians looked like everyone else—cultural sell-outs.  The door of heresy was heavily guarded.  The door of worldly apathy and lukewarmness was wide open, and the flies were just swarming in!]

Among the vices he sees practiced by Lutherans:  drunkenness (that is, drinking occasionally to a friend’s health!), lawsuits (because they are rarely conducted within the bounds of Christian love), bad business practices, a lack of charitable giving (giving only grudgingly, to beggars, and ‘out of abundance.’)  [worldly pollutions of Christian practice by no means limited to his day!]

‘How many there are who live such a manifestly unchristian life that they themselves cannot deny that the law is broken at every point, who have no intention of mending their ways in the future, and yet who pretend to be firmly convinced that they will be saved in spite of all this!….They have  fleshly illusion of faith (for godly faith does not exist without the Holy Spirit, nor can such faith continue WHEN DELIBERATE SINS PREVAIL) in place of the faith that saves.’ (64)  He compares Luther, in his preface to the Epistle to the Romans:

‘Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith.  Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error and say, ‘faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.’  This is the reason why, when they hear the gospel, they go ahead and by their own powers fashion an idea in their hearts which says, ‘I believe.’  This they hold for true faith.  But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us.  It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1:13).  It kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men of us in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.  So, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith, and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.  It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises it has already done them and is always at the doing of them, etc.’ (64-5)

[How the predominance of works-less Christians is reconciled with the fact that most of these were Baptized (baptism being a sacrament that is supposed to be a sign and source of true faith), I’m not sure.]

Then there are those who ‘think that all that Christianity requires of them (and that having done this, they have done quite enough in their service o God) is that they be baptized, hear the preaching of God’s Word, confess and receive absolution, and go to the Lord’s Supper, no matter how their hearts are disposed at the time, whether or not there are fruits which follow, provided they at least live in such a way that the civil authorities do not find them liable to punishment.  The illusion of these people is described by John Arndt in his True Christianity. …This, alas, is the false reasoning of many in this day who regard their outward performance as constituting true righteousness. (66)

[This clearly in opposition to the Sermon on the Mount, which considers the exterior religion of the Pharisees insufficient and requires an internal, intentional religion—a purification of the heart.  Gruenler would say this internal purification and preparation is intended to launch us into mission, as bringing the message and reality of the gospel to others.  I believe Spener would go with him on this, believing as he does in the priesthood of the believers.

Therefore, too, Spener is correct in saying that those who hold this far-less-rigorous view (that baptism and a few sermons is all that is required of the Christian) are in fact much MORE works-righteousness oriented (‘regard their outward performance as constituting true righteousness’) than those who in fact seek to be more rigorous in righteousness—yes, probably also in righteous works.  But the greatly-improved and numerically increased works of these more rigorous ones in fact only ISSUE FROM an internal purification, in response to the salvation they have received BY GRACE from Christ.  They seek to comfort others with the comfort they have been comforted with.  They do unto others as has been done unto them BY GRACE.  And so forth.  The sermon on the mount is really a wonderful place to look at this dynamic, and resolve the seeming tension between the necessity of sanctification and justification by faith alone.

Nonetheless, it is easy to see how sentiments of renewals such as these can easily veer off into asceticism, casuistry, and other trappings of works-righteousness.]

Spener resolves the issue with an appeal to the covenant nature of the Christian life.  That ‘from his side a covenant of grace and from your side a covenant of faith and a good conscience’ is required.… ‘It will be in vain that you comfort yourself in your Baptism and in its promise of grace and salvation if for your part you do not also remain in the covenant of faith and a good conscience or, having departed therefrom, return to it with sincere repentance.’ (66)  [Is this ‘Lordship Salvation’?  I don’t know!  But it’s Biblical salvation, I think!]

Hearing the Word is not enough.  “Do you let it penetrate inwardly into your heart and allow the heavenly food to be digested there, so that you get the benefit of its vitality and power, or does it go in one ear and out the other?” (66)

[The Word itself carries no “magic power” that can pierce the impenetrable barrier of deaf ears and blind eyes.  The Holy Spirit is, as modern charismatics are so fond of saying, a gentleman.  If we don’t let Him penetrate, He’ll go elsewhere!  No-one yet was converted, or fed spiritually, against his or her will.  Whatever irresistible grace may mean (and I am a virtual Calvinist illiterate, so I honestly don’t know), I don’t think it implies that those unconcerned with their own spiritual state, and indisposed to seek spiritual help, will automatically receive such help!]

The same, argues Spener, with confession and absolution, and the Lord’s supper.  These acts can be done in an empty, meaningless way that will not touch or help the believer.  There are those who take the Lord’s Supper frequently, ‘but they hardly consider whether their spiritual life may be strengthened thereby, whether they proclaim the Lord’s death with their hearts, lips, and life, whether the Lord works in and rules over them or they have left the old Adam on his throne.’ (67)  [There ain’t no magic spell in Christianity.  Seems there was a lot of superstition in the Church in Spener’s time, though.]

Spener then suggests that the Jews, and other non-Christians, have been greatly hindered in coming to the kingdom by the bad example of such ‘empty Christians,’ who engage in ‘the most harmful offenses, such as impiety, hypocrisy, injustice, frauds, unchastity, and other shameful acts, schisms, hatred, strife, monstrous and cruel wars, and (what is the chief thing) the sad tearing and breaking asunder of the bonds of holy, brotherly love.’ (68)  He refers to these Christians as those ‘who simulate the form of piety but deny the power thereof, and who through an abuse of the longsuffering and goodness of God heap up wrath as a treasure.’ (68-9)

[This kind of person may be mentioned in Scriptures as he who is ashamed of the gospel, of whom God himself will be ashamed.  Certainly those who not only engage in but teach these things may be seen as those “who cause these little ones to stumble,” for whom it is better that a millstone be tied around their necks, and they be thrown in at the deep end.]

Even those papists who despair of the corrupt elements in their own church, looking in at the ‘Evangelical’ (Lutheran) church ‘regard doctrine which does not regulate life as mere pretense and expect to discern the kingdom of God not in words but in power.’ (71)  This does not justify them staying in papism, of course, says Spener, but we can understand their perspective.

‘It was not enough for the Jews to leave their Babylonian exile; they were expected to restore the temple and its beautiful services.  So we, too, ought not to be satisfied with the knowledge that we have gone out of Babel [that is out from under Rome, the papacy] but we ought to take pains to correct the defects which still remain.’ (73)

[Lest in straining to remove the mote from their eye, we disregard the beam…  Even Spener, however, is not willing to see some teachings of the Roman Catholics as “motes.”  A diplomat, he may be.  But still a man of his times, and as capable of vitriol against Rome as the best of ‘em.]

— see part II for the remainder of this annotated summary.

2 responses to “Wise words on reforming our churches and ourselves: Philipp Jakob Spener’s Pia Desideria, pt. I

  1. Pingback: John Piper: “I think I’m a pietistic Calvinist” « The Pietist Schoolman

  2. What is “elitism” anyway? You seem to think that “elitism” is when elites act solely for their own benefit. Others seem to use it to mean any time a certain group assumes that they know better than others. By the latter standard Spener is an elitist–but on the other hand I’m not sure that’s obviously bad. Anyone with any decided views about the nature of the good will be an “elitist” unless their views coincide with those of most people.

    Where I think the Pietists were guilty of “spiritual elitism” was in assuming (in some cases) that these “elites” were the only “real Christians.” Kind of like the way your hero Stanley assumes that only pacifist vegetarians with Texas accents are real Christians (well, in his more generous moods he might drop the accent requirement).

    One can argue that Spener isn’t actually doing that. (But he’s probably doing it just as much as Hauerwas–in fact perhaps Hauerwas is following Pietist methodology in his anti-Pietism!)

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