This is the final part of a 4-part post:
Now at last we come to Pietism itself. There are all sorts of interpretations of where Pietism came from, when it emerged in the 1600s. Some Lutherans at the time felt it was a kind of crypto-Calvinism. Others felt it had on it the taint of Anabaptism. And so forth. But this much is clear: it was a natural development out of the thought and piety of Martin Luther. And so if we want to talk about how Pietism re-introduced the historical Christian “religion of the heart,” we need to remember that as it did so, it drew on this mystical side of Luther. In fact, Philip Spener, the man usually identified as the “father of Pietism,” was, according to Karl Barth, the greatest Luther scholar since Luther. He wasn’t making things up as he went along, creating some brand new form of Christianity. He was a deeply pious Lutheran, who counseled state-church Lutherans to stay in their churches.
Of course, he didn’t want them to just stay in their churches. For many of their churches were, just like their seminaries, “dead.” That is, they were more interested in orthodoxy than in conversion of life. Spener wanted the Lutherans of his day to read their Bibles at home, to get together in small groups, to get out and live Christianly in the marketplace and the town square—to let their love relationships with God make a difference in their lives. Spener’s protégée, August Hermann Francke, took this principle and turned it into a full-blown institution, founding and running a complex in the city of Halle that included a large orphanage, a school, a printing house, job training facilities, and much more. This was a faith not only with a heart, but with hands and feet.
Spener’s famous program of church reform, expressed in the little book Pia Desideria, was addressed to Christians who had become more enamored of scholastic argument than of God himself. In response to this, Spener quoted a 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 in disputing.” Continued the theologian, “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.”
Spener also turned to his theological master, Luther, who said this: “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.” Luther’s books, said Spener, were books of “great spiritual power.” More recent, argumentative theological books seemed “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.”
The problem with scholastic theology, according to Spener in Pia Desideria, was that it distracted the people from biblical theology—that is, a theology that addressed the heart and life. He was reminded of Paul’s words to Timothy, as the apostle warned 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.” [Instead our aim should be] “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” But “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” (that’s I Tim. 1:4-7). This is the “knowledge that puffs up,” from I Cor. 8:1. And this was the prideful stance of the “dead orthodoxy” against which the Pietists fought.
“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 an 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.”
Those things were, to the Pietists, the substance of a religion of the heart.