[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: Continue reading →