10 November 2014

Pietism, Higher Criticism and the Prussian Union of 1817

Over the years I have encountered numerous Missouri Synod Lutherans who continually rail against Pietism. I mean they really have very strong feelings about it. I was reminded of this recently when I listened to podcast dealing with the Prussian Union of 1817.


This act of state sought to unite the Reformed and Lutheran bodies into a common Evangelical Union. Not a few people were upset about it but ultimately most of the congregations capitulated. This was a little more state interference than they were used to, but in the end the state proved the winner.

A little over a thousand immigrants left and came to America. They had reached their limit. Rationalism and state interference was leading to grief and a few episodes of minor persecution. They wanted to go someplace where they could maintain their confessional theology.

Lutherans and Calvinists have historically not gotten along very well. A lot of the German Reformed were more of a High Church stripe, quite unlike the British varieties of Calvinism. They really didn't have too many problems meshing with German Lutheranism but the Lutherans were and are usually unwilling to have much to do with the Reformed. The British schools of Reformed theology generally have a very hard time coexisting with Lutheranism in any form.

Pietism is blamed for the watering down of Christian doctrine that led to the general acceptance of the Union but I'm not alone in questioning this narrative.

Pietism was far from perfect and is not above criticism and yet in many ways it was an attempt to breathe vitality into what has been rightly called the Dead Orthodoxy of the state churches.

Later in the century Kierkegaard stunned his fellow Danes by asserting that Christianity basically didn't exist in Denmark. This sounded ludicrous. Everyone was a Christian, a member of the state Lutheran Church. Exactly, replied Kierkegaard. The state church was dead. Christianity was non-existent. It was the culture and little more.

The confessional doctrines of the Reformation meant little if anything to most people and the Enlightenment was eroding the beliefs of many more. Scholasticism created an academic milieu which both led to and accommodated the Enlightenment. Pietism was the reaction against all of this.

Am I blaming Scholasticism? Yes, in part. The theological project of the Reformation picked up where the Renaissance had left off and yet also in many ways re-embraced the already formed Scholastic frameworks from the Medieval period. This is disputed of course but those who speak the loudest on this point have a lot at stake. They're heavily invested in their denominational narratives and such an admission would destroy the integrity of their story.

Interestingly for a long time the historical discontinuity was emphasized and yet in recent years as Protestantism has become deeply entrenched in the Culture Wars it has moved Romeward and has a renewed appreciation for the concept of continuity and historical catholicity. In fact to many Protestants today, the Dark Ages don't look so dark. The label has always been problematic and has to be understood rightly, but until recently no Protestants looked at it as a time to be longed for. And rightly so I would add.

Pietism also plays a part in the watering down of German Protestantism, but I don't think it's as linear as the Scholastic angle. Pietism did indeed de-emphasize doctrine and placed greater import on feelings and the subjective.

Some have tried to argue this led to liberal theology... a theology that could divorce itself from confessional orthodoxy and yet maintain vitality in its subjective experiential religion.

That's way too simplistic of an interpretation. For some the de-emphasis on doctrine meant that they would have been perhaps less concerned with the doctrinal shifts at work within the state church framework. They attended this church but their real 'life' was in the realm of private devotion and in the inner circle of people that Pietism often fostered.

The liberal theology fed by the Enlightenment and Higher Criticism was a top-down movement. The academics that put together the philosophical and systemic basis for the recasting of theology were not driven by religious feelings and sentimentality. They were motivated by rationalism, a scientific approach to the text of Scripture and not a few were attempting to revise Church and Doctrinal history in light of Hegelian and other philosophical systems. It was deliberately an intellectual movement, the polar opposite of what motivated Pietism.

You might say that Pietism while in no way trying to move the church in a 'liberal' direction unwittingly may have helped to create some of the grass roots conditions that would allow liberalism to later gain a foothold... or grow without a great deal of opposition.

And yet Theological Liberalism was a top-down academic movement motivated by very different concerns. To simply blame Pietism is incorrect.

Both of these factors were at work in the early 19th century. The Hohenzollerns were mainly motivated by politics and an insatiable desire to create a unified state. This is basic to the Prussian project and undergirds the whole Prussian system and the rather bureaucratic and militant way it approached society. Unity and order was necessary for strength which was necessary due to Prussia's precarious geopolitical position.

This doesn't excuse it, but helps to understand it.

Pietism was also at work in America and especially out on the frontier where not a few of the Germans settled. Pietism in other contexts did not immediately open the door to Liberalism. Pietism in the Methodist context created a vibrant Free Church tradition. The denominational lines blurred on the frontier and as Americans moved west they often attended what was available. Thus many Scots-Irish descendants abandoned Presbyterianism for Baptist and Methodist churches. German settlers were also affected and some of these tensions still exist in American Lutheran circles.

Over and against Pietism the conservative Lutherans especially those of the Missouri-Synod argued for a theology and piety rooted in Word and Sacrament.

Perhaps that's fine, but the Pietists argued that very system of Word and Sacrament had become dead. It had no vitality, no unction. It was dead orthodoxy that wasn't producing any fruit. It was a barren form without substance, resulting in part from faith being defined merely in intellectual terms.  

Pietism arose long before Higher Criticism and Theological Liberalism entered the scene. State-sponsored culturally normative Confessional Lutheranism was to them a spiritually dead entity.

The Pietists sought solutions outside of the intellectual realm. If there's a criticism it could perhaps be that theirs was a lazy response to the increasingly intellectual vigour flowing from academia... the source of the rationalistic theology which bred Dead Orthodoxy.

They should have put up an intellectual fight but at the same time Continental Protestantism was still mired in the curse of State Christianity. Disputation could lead to trouble. It had political consequences.

This perfectly exhibits the double cancer of Statist Christianity. It creates divided allegiances and fosters worldliness and compromise. Even confessional conservatives operating within that framework are plagued by these problems.

Liberalism was and is a problem. Both the Pietists and the Confessionalists agreed on this point.

Pietism can be and often is a problem. It rests too heavily on emotion as evidence of spirituality and as a means to verify the workings of the Spirit. It falls into legalism and becomes self-absorbed.

Pietism was a bad response to the conditions created by State Christianity. It was a misguided but well intentioned attempt to counter the Church's ratification of cultural normativity and yet largely failed to do so.

State Christianity is the disease that allowed theological liberalism to flourish and even encouraged it and as a consequence forced Christians into bad responses.

It is the disease that rotted the Church from within so that when cultural normativity demanded the embrace of Nazism, for the most part it was happy to comply. They had a long history of doing what they were told and thinking in terms of the state as the manifestation of and protector of the Kingdom of God.

I don't accept the Missouri-Synod narrative regarding Pietism and yet I do applaud them for rejecting the 1817 Union. It is unfortunate that it took them almost three centuries to finally wake up to the problem that was always inherent in the Magisterial Reformation. The Pietists at this point might suggest the Missouri-Synod gained some vitality in the American context. Others would say the LCMS still has yet to find it.

From my perspective the theological and intellectual ramifications of the Lutheran formulation of Sola Fide have indeed fostered a spirit of antinomianism and a lack of spiritual vitality. I am generalizing of course. I've known some vibrant Lutherans but I must say their specific interpretation of 'faith alone' has all but eliminated the call and mandate of sanctification and the transformation of the Christian life. Transformation here is meant in its proper sense as it refers to the lives of individuals who have been and continue to be regenerated.

Pietism and all attempts at retreat and removal are a problem. This is our impossible situation, our terrible tension. We have to live as exiles within the social context. We have to live as Second-Class citizens who are content to lose and be at the bottom. We can't embrace flight and retreat as a normative paradigm. There are times in order to survive the Church might have to retreat to the mountains, forests and wild places of the Earth. But normally we're supposed to be in the culture as martyr-witnesses, suffering and facing hatred and rejection and yet always bearing testimony to the truth.

We're not political contenders. We're not after power. We don't think of our cultural activities in terms of Holy Vocation. Then we would cease to be exiles. Then we would be placing our eschatological hope in this present age.

We can't live in ignorance though. We of all people need to be aware of what is happening. This is how we maintain our separation even while we live among the Babylonians as it were. Cognizance is necessary in order to maintain antithesis. Through self-examination, reformation, constant review, and the analysis of cultural influences we can know how to think, respond and act vis-à-vis the events which surround us.

This will sound like Pietism to a conservative Lutheran, but it's not.

And it will sound like intellectualism and worldly mindedness to a Pietist. But it's not.

Both the Retreatist and Constantinian/Culture War paths are to be rejected. The right path is actually far more difficult and requires a great deal of energy and humility.

And only then can we rightly understand the past, present and future and how we are to live and think in this fallen world.