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


This is the second part of an annotated summary of Pietist founder Philipp Jakob Spener’s diagnoses and prescription for church reform, the Pia Desideria. The first part may be found here.

PART II—The possibility of better conditions in the church

“In order for the Jews to be converted, the true church must be in a holier state than now if its holy life is to be a means for that conversion, or at least the impediments to such conversion…are to be removed.” (77)

“it is incumbent on all of us to see to it that as much as possible is done, on the one hand, to convert the Jews and weaken the spiritual power of the papacy and, on the other hand, to reform our church.” (78)

[Quoting Erasmus Sarcerius—more than a hundred years before Spener:]  “Is it not a pity that we blind and callous Germans should with our dissolute and disorderly life have driven out real and true religion?  There is no stopping it.  Nobody thinks of bettering himself.” (79)  “Now, as we are concerned about real and true religion, so we also give thought to ways and means of maintaining it.  I have no counsel to offer.  If I knew what to suggest, nobody would pay any heed.…perhaps…on account of our sins and transgressions our dear religion will be lost through God’s disfavor.…” (79)]

[He responds to the objection that men are imperfect, that’s just the way things are]:  “First, we are not forbidden to seek perfection, but we are urged on toward it.…Second, I cheerfully concede that here in this life we shall not manage that [achieving perfection], for the farther a godly Christian advances, the more he will see that he lacks, and so he will never be farther removed from the illusion of perfection than when he tries hardest to reach it.” (80)

He then quotes many verses of Paul urging us to perfection.  “What we mean is that the church should be free of manifest offenses, that nobody who is afflicted with such failings should be allowed to remain in the church without fitting reproof and ultimately exclusion, and that the true members of the church should be richly filled with many fruits of their faith.” (80)

“Histories of the church testify that the early Christian church was in such a blessed state that as a rule Christians could be identified by their godly life, which distinguished them from other people.” (80-1)  He supports this from Tertullian, Eusebius, Ignatius, Justin, Tatius, Origen: “The name of Jesus can produce a marvelous meekness of spirit and complete change of character, and a humanity and goodness and gentleness in those individuals who do not feign themselves to be Christians for the sake of their livelihood or the supply of any mortal wants but who have honestly accepted the doctrine concerning God and Christ and the judgment to come. [Against Celsus I. ixiii] (83)

“On this account the early Christians were careful to examine and test the life of those who made application, and such persons were not admitted to the church until there was reason to believe that they would lead a life worthy of the calling to which they were called. (Eph 4:1)” (83)

“Moreover it [the early church] recognized as brethren only those who lived according to its standards.  Justin declared, “Let those who are not found to live as Christ taught be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with their lips the precepts of Christ.” (83)

“If anyone wishes to read about such things, about the remarkable virtues of the early Christians and some ancient witnesses to them, I hardly know anything better to recommend than the Christeis of my distinguished teacher, the sainted Dr. John Conrad Dannhauer, or the Antiquitates Ecclesiae (where such virtues are diligently recorded century by century) of my very valued friend Dr. Balthasar Bebel…” (84)

The condition of the early Christian church puts our hot-and-cold condition to shame.  At the same time it demonstrates that what we are seeking is not impossible, as many imagine.  Hence it is our own fault that we are so far from deserving similar praise.  It is the same Holy Spirit who is bestowed on us by God who once effected all things in the early Christians, and he is neither less able nor less active today to accomplish the work of sanctification in us.  If this does not happen, the sole reason must be that we do not allow, but rather hinder, the Holy Spirit’s work.” (84-5)

[One wonders, since every reformer seems to go back to the early church for their ideal picture, and since our extrabiblical data on that church is so scanty, how much of what we find exemplary is “filled in” by our own imaginations—our desire to find the “perfect Christian” back there in history (knowing that there are precious few around today).

I know, the argument is that the Holy Spirit endued for witness, combined with the purifying fire of persecution, propelled early Christians out of their old, fleshly ways of life like a cannon.  But surely they were human like us!  (Weren’t a few ministers tippling from the sacramental wine even back then?)  Far from being encouraging, this kind of early-church archetyping may be depressing for Christians today, who may feel that “things [and even people!] were different back then,” and throw up their hands in despair at their own condition.

Far more encouraging, I think, is the theme in redemptive history of people screwing up (Exhibit A: the disciples) and nonetheless being reformed, purified, and led forth by “He who began a good work in us,” and is capable of finishing it!  By holding up early Christians, or even Christ, as an example to be imitated, mayn’t we tread dangerously close to some of those ascetic demands which can so depress Christians in search of True Christianity in their own lives?]

III—proposals to correct conditions in the church

more extensive use of the Word of God

“Thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us.  [As a means to sanctification:]  We know that by nature we have no good in us.  If there is to be any good in us, it must be brought about by God.  To this end the Word of God is the powerful means…” (87)

In this respect, teaching is not enough.  Since “all Scripture is profitable,” and over the course of a year’s preaching only a small proportion of all Scripture used, and then not even explained as to context, a more thorough use is necessary.  Also, ‘the people have little opportunity…to become as practiced in [the Scriptures they do hear] as edification requires.  Furthermore, Bible reading at home, in solitary, “does not accomplish enough for most people.” (88)

So he suggests the following:

1.  That every father keep a Bible handy and read from it every day (or have someone else read if he can’t).

2.  The books of the Bible should be read consecutively, one after another, at specified times in the public service, without further comment (except possibly to add brief summaries).  This for the benefit of the illiterate and those who do not own a copy of the Bible.

3.  “Home meetings,” in which “others [besides the Preacher] who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing so in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife. This might…be done by having several ministers…meet together or by having several members of a congregation who have a fair knowledge of God or desire to increase their knowledge meet under the leadership of a minister, take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.  Anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and seek further explanation.…those…who have made more progress should be allowed the freedom to state how they understand each passage.” (89)

“Everything should be arranged with an eye to the glory of God, to the spiritual growth of the participants, and therefore also to their limitations.  Any threat of meddlesomeness, quarrelsomeness, self-seeking, or something else of this sort should be guarded against and tactfully cut off especially by the preachers who retain leadership in these meetings.” (90)

[Very well as long as the preacher is present, or in his place, one of those rare individuals who can function tactfully in this role, but far too many small groups are disrupted by the loudmouths, who remain uncontrolled by the nominal group leader(s).  This is perhaps one of the biggest problems with the “congregationalist” approach…  A primary FUNCTION of a recognized leader, by which he serves the people, is this function of locating deference and respect in a single leader, who then by his very presence tones down the flow of garbage from “self-appointed experts.”  Leaderless groups, or groups in which leadership is “toned down” will always suffer from this kind of conversational anarchy.  We see these Lutherans as having been paranoid that something weird would happen in these meetings.  The “paranoid” ones perhaps had more on the ball than we individualist Americans are willing to admit.]

[Results]  A bond of confidence would be established between preachers and people.  People given opportunity to exercise their diligence with respect to the Word of God and modestly ask their questions and get answers.  In a short time they would experience personal growth and would also become capable of giving better religious instruction to their children and servants at home. (90)

All of this modeled on (or perhaps justified by) ‘the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings” of I Corinthians 14:26-40. (89)  Also fulfilling Col 3:16:  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and spiritual songs.”  In fact, such songs may be used in the proposed meetings for the praise of God and the inspiration of the participants.” (91)

The word of God is the principal means of reform, as “the seed from which all that is good in us must grow.” (91)  In Spener’s view, this emphasis is almost a completion of the reformation—or at least an extension of what was begun there in making the Bible available in German to the common man. (92)

The establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood

“…all Christians are made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts.” (92)  “…all spiritual functions are open to all Christians without exception.” (93)  Because of the papacy’s vesting of all these spiritual functions in the clergy alone, “…the so-called laity has been made slothful in those things that ought to concern it; a terrible ignorance has resulted, and from this, in turn, a disorderly life.” (93)

“No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood.  In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it ought is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood.” (94)

Impress the people that it is not enough to have knowledge of the christian faith, for christianity consists rather of practice.

“If we can therefore awaken a fervent love among our Christians, first toward one another and then toward all men…and put this love into practice, practically all that we desire will be accomplished.  For all the commandments are summed up in love.” (96)

NOTE the internal, purified nature of such acts:

“They must become accustomed not to lose sight of any opportunity in which they can render their neighbor a service of love, and yet while performing it they must diligently search their hearts to discover whether they are acting in true love or out of other motives.” (96)

“In fact, they should diligently seek opportunities to do good to their enemies in order that such self-control may hurt the old Adam…” (96)

“…for the sake of Christian growth in general, it may be useful if those who have earnestly resolved to walk in the way of the Lord would enter into a confidential relationship with their confessor or some other judicious and enlightened Christian and would regularly report to him how they live, what opportunities they have had to practice Christian love, and how they have employed or neglected them.” (97)  [Prayer partners, accountability groups, spiritual guides…]

“If there appears to be doubt whether or not one is obligated to do this or that out of love for one’s neighbor, it is always better to incline toward doing it rather than leaving it undone.” (97)

We must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics

Yes, we need to strengthen ourselves and our fellow believers in the faith, and protect them and us from seduction of evil doctrine…BUT we have a duty towards the heretical teacher as well, “to pray earnestly that the good God may enlighten them with the same light with which he blessed us, may lead them to the truth…” (etc.) (97)

WE must also take pains not to offend them, and we should seek to edify them and warn them (if we have the necessary gifts to do this).

We need to practice ‘heartfelt love toward all unbelievers and heretics’ even while opposing their teachings (99)

‘If there is any prospect of a union’ of Christian confessions, the primary way of achieving it would be ‘that we do not stake everything on argumentation, for the present disposition of men’s minds, which are filled by as much fleshly as spiritual zeal, makes disputation fruitless.’

[THESIS:  And so the minds of young atheist/agnostics at universities—which is why I suggest that “experiential apologetic” (that is demonstrations of God’s commanding goodness in sanctifying individuals’ lives) could be far more fruitful than intellectual apologetic…]

Spener admits that Christ, the apostles, and their successors engaged in disputation, ‘vigorously refut[ing] opposing errors and defend[ing] the truth.’ (99)  But ‘I adhere to the splendidly demonstrated assertion of our sainted Arndt in his True Christianity, ‘purity of doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books but also by true repentance and holiness of life.’…and ‘An unchristian life leads to false doctrine, hardness of heart, and blindness.’ (99-100)

[Makes me wonder about the reconciliation between Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard at the end of the latter’s life.  Did Bernard relent once his opponent was living in the same monastery with him, because he saw first-hand the “true repentance and holiness of life” of the latter?  An intriguing episode.]

Spener sees in much disputation an ‘unholy fire brought into the sanctuary of the Lord–that is, an unholy intent, directed not to God’s glory but to man’s’ [how true!] (100)  This, Spener is careful to assert, is due to the ABUSE of disputation (with personal insults and other carnal attitudes and acts thrown into the mix) rather than disputation itself, which is as a result getting a bad name!

Also, many dispute, said Spener, seeking the ‘intellectual conversion’ of their opponents to Lutheranism, not caring if they in the process become true Christians or not, at the core.  ‘Such a convictio intellectus or conviction of truth is far from being faith.  Faith requires more.'(101) [this seems to me a key positional statement!] he adds: ‘Above all, there must be a desire, in promoting God’s glory, to apply to ourselves and to all others what we hold to be true, and in this light to serve God.  The glorious sayings of Christ belong here:  ‘If any man’s will is to do his will’ (namely, the Father’s who sent him, ‘he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority’ (John 7:17)  [One of my all-time favorite passages, showing that intellectual assent cannot be enough for faith, because unless you do the word of the lord, you cannot know the truth of it.]

Also ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:31-32), and ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14:21)’ (102)

[BOTH of these verses suggest a negative in stating a positive–that is, that if you do not continue in my word, you are not truly my disciples, and will not know the truth and be free, and that if you do not keep his commandments, you do not love him, and he will not love you and manifest himself to you.]

‘If only we Evangelicals would make it our serious business to offer God the fruits of his truth in fervent love, conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our calling, and show this in recognizable and unalloyed love of our neighbors, including those who are heretics…There is no doubt that God would then allow us to grow more and more in our knowledge of the truth, and also give us the pleasure of seeing others, whose error we now lament, alongside us in  the same faith.’

[THESIS:  I am absolutely convinced of the truth of this statement!  This is the core of Experiential Apologetic.  Love in action in our lives is the key both to our growth and to the conversion of others who see our witness.  Disputation will never serve either of these ends–only the negative, protective (though necessary) function of keeping us and those we teach from error which would sidetrack them from holy practice. So disputation is only valuable as it protects practice, in a sense! (yes it also protects access to salvation itself)]

Thus holiness of life itself contributes much to conversion, as Peter teaches (I Pet 3:1-2) (102)

On the necessary comportment of theological students

[I’m quoting this section at length to get it into my heart.  It is exciting to discover this stuff so soon after standing up at a meeting concerned with launching a new seminary in Eastern Canada, and voicing these same concerns—in fact, of sensing a consensus around a room filled with altogether un-radical but mostly born-again Congregational folk, that spiritual formation must have equality with or pre-eminence over academics in any school claiming to prepare ministers of God.  This is just delicious stuff, and level-headed to boot.  (OK, a tad anti-intellectual at times.)  No wonder Spener inflamed the countryside and set off a tidal wave of pamphleteering!  Love it.]

First he deals with the necessary attention to internal holiness in choosing ministers.  To take this back to its source, he earnestly prays ‘that the unchristian academic life [in seminaries]…may by vigorous measures be suppressed and reformed.  Then the schools would, as they ought, really be recognized from the outward life of the students to be nurseries of the church for all estates and as workshops of the Holy Spirit [GREAT phrase] rather than as places of worldliness…’ (103)  This of course must start with the professors, who should ‘conduct themselves as men who have died unto the world, in everything [seeking] not their own glory, gain, or pleasure but rather the glory of their God and the salvation of those entrusted to them…’ (104)  THESIS:  ‘Then the students would have a living example according to which they might regulate their life, for we are so fashioned that examples are as effective for us as teachings, and sometimes more effective.’ (104)

‘…students should unceasingly have it impressed upon them that holy life is not of less consequence than diligence and study, indeed that study without piety is worthless…the reality of our religion consists not of words but of deeds.  Or Paul, ‘The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.’ (I Cor 4:20)….Students should constantly be reminded that the rule in human life is…whoever grows in learning and declines in morals is on the decrease rather than the increase.  This is even more valid in spiritual life, for since theology is a practical discipline, everything must be directed to the practice of faith and life.’ The goal, quoting Dr. John Schmidt, should be ‘that the true and unadulterated Christian religion, the fervent practice of holiness, and Christian virtues be better planted, nurtured, and inculcated in the hearts of students.’ (104-105)

Calovius listed the following ‘reasons why a student of theology should apply himself to holiness of life’:

First, because Paul so instructs his Timothy (II Tim 2:24, I Tim 1:18-19, 3:2, 4:7, 12; Tit 2:7-8).  Second, the Holy Spirit, who is the true and only schoolmaster, will not dwell in a heart subject to sin (John 16:12; I John 2:27).  The world cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:17).  Third, a student of theology deals with divine wisdom, which is not carnal but spiritual and holy (James 3:15) and whose beginning is the fear of the Lord (Ps. 111:10, Prov 1:7; 9:10).  Fourth, theology does not consist merely of knowledge but also of the feelings of the heart and of practice….Fifth, blessed is the man who turns words into deeds, said the ancients.  ‘If you know these things,’ said Christ, ‘blessed are you if you do them’ (John 13:17).  So the disciples of Christ should search the Scriptures so as to put them into practice and do what they know.  Sixth, wisdom will not enter into an evil soul and will not dwell in a body that is subject to sin (Wis of Sol 1:4).  Whoever is addicted to sins, therefore, cannot become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  Seventh, as the Levites had to wash before they went into the tent of meeting…, so those who wish to enter and leave the house of the Lord must also BESTOW PAINS ON THE SANCTIFICATION AND PURIFICATION OF THEIR LIVES.’ (105-6)  [As Spener suggests, this should be posted where all students can see it…!]

‘It is certain that a young man who fervently loves God, although adorned with limited gifts, will be more useful to the church of God with his meager talent and academic achievement than a vain and worldly fool with double doctor’s degrees who is very clever but has not been taught by God.’ (108)  [Here Spener verges on anti-intellectualism.  A good answer does have value in the kingdom, whatever scholastic abuses he is witnessing in the schools of his time.]

‘Unnecessary argumentation would rather be reduced than extended, and the whole of theology ought to be brought back to apostolic simplicity.  Professors could be of great help if they not only regarded their own studies and writings accordingly but also diligently counteracted the curiosity of lustful intellects and again and again showed their antipathy to it.’

[Curiosity killed the theological student?  This concern echoes the words of many learned saints who at the end of their lives looked back and wished they had spent more time with their Bibles, and less with their own books and those of others.  This may rank with “I should have spent more time with my children” as an all-time most frequent regret of old age…among Christians at least!  And what are our theological schools doing about it?]

Then Spener recommends, following Luther and Arndt, both Tauler and the Theologia Germanica, as well as A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. (111)  He notes that ‘something of the darkness of their age still clings’ to these books (112), ‘but an intelligent reader will not go astray in them.  In any case, if diligently used they will accomplish much more good in students and give them a better taste of true piety than other writings which are often filled with useless subtleties and provide a good deal of easily digested fodder for the ego of the old Adam.’ (112)

Because study alone is not enough (because theology is practical), Spener suggests that thought be given to instituting exercises aimed at practice of piety, and that students be ‘given concrete suggestions on how to institute pious meditations, how to know themselves better through self-examination [Puritan echoes], how to resist the lusts of the flesh, how to hold their desires in check and die unto the world…how to observe growth in goodness or where there is still lack, and how they themselves may do what they must teach others to do.  Luther: ‘A man becomes a theologian not by comprehending, reading, or speculating but by living and indeed dying and being damned.” (112-113)

Spener further suggests that Professors particularly share these suggestions ‘not with many students but with only those among his auditors in whom he has already observed a fervent desire to be upright Christians.’ (113)

Students should also ‘come to a mutual agreement to keep an eye on one another and, with brotherly admonitions…’  also ‘give an account to one another and to their professor of how, in this or that situation, they have acquitted themselves in the light of the given rules.’ (113-114)  He tempers this with an admonition not to make rash judgments, or to pass sentence on anyone outside the group.

The hoped-for result:  that ‘finally the participants could become young men who are upright Christians (before they enter the ministry, where they should make other Christians) and who take pains to DO rather than to TEACH.’ (114)

‘…it would also be useful if the teachers made provision for practice in those things with which the students will have to deal when they are in the ministry.’ (115) [i.e. practicum, mentoring, etc.]

THESIS:  ‘Our whole Christian religion consists of the inner man or the new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life, and all sermons should be aimed at this.’ (116)

‘…works should be so set in motion that we may by no means be content merely to have the people refrain from outward vices and practice outward virtues and thus be concerned only with the outward man, which the ethics of the heathen can also accomplish, but that we lay the right foundation in the heart, show that what does not proceed from this foundation is mere hypocrisy, and hence accustom the people first to work on what is inward (awaken love of God and neighbor through suitable means) and only then to act accordingly.’ (116-117)

[For a more thorough look at the centrality of internal holiness rather than external ethics, look at the ‘6 antitheses’ of the sermon on the mount. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”]

Spener then points to Arndt’s work (to which Pia Desideria was originally a preface) as a model discourse on internal piety, the real core, the inner man. (117)

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

  1. I like this content so much.Imagination is more important than knowledge.

  2. Great article!!!

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