It’s said that when the early German settlers came to this country they often brought two books with them–Luther’s translation of the Bible and Johann Arendt’s book True Christianity. True Christianity was the opening statement, if you will, in the movement that became known as Pietism. Since that time this movement has been hailed as a saving force for Reformation theology and demonized as a substitution of personal feelings for Biblical truth.
I’ve been asked to write a little about Pietism and I’ll admit that I think it has overall been a good thing, but like any system established by people, it has its flaws and dangers.
The early Reformers did not spend much time on systematizing their theology–they were too busy dealing with the immediate problems and dangers they were facing. In the generations after Luther’s death, Lutheran scholars began to work on theology in way Luther had not. Indeed, some of the most famous ones began to again use the methodologies of the Scholastic scholars Luther so disliked. That, combined with the increasing Rationalism of the age, led many Lutheran clergy to treat faith as a series of doctrines which, once learned and professed, would lead to salvation for the believer. There was little discussion of what that should mean for the life of someone who professed Christ as Savior.
Arendt’s work was meant to encourage Christians to do more than simply recite statements, but to allow Christ to change their lives, to alter the way they saw the world and behaved in it. It was, in effect, a call to sanctification in the life of a believer.
A generation later Philip Spener wrote a new introduction to True Christianity which came to be called the Pia Desideria. This is often cited as the beginning of the Pietism movement. It was a powerful movement in Germany and Scandinavia for several centuries. Many of the Lutherans who came to American brought this as part of their religious understanding. The great organizer of early American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was trained at the University of Halle, the center of German Pietism at the time. Later on Scandinavian immigrants brought their version of the movement to the Us.
At its best Pietism was a holistic movement which taught both good doctrine and a life of piety, a faith life that showed itself in good works. At its worst Pietism could become overly fixated on the importance of a a personal response to Christ leading them to a semi-Pelagianism that substituted a person’s willful acceptance for Christ’s saving election. It would therefore be wrong to completely identify piety with Pietism. One can without a doubt live a pious life without being a Pietist. Works of piety are not part of a movement, but of a lifestyle.
On the whole Pietism had a lasting impact on Lutheran thought and life, especially in the United States where Lutheranism has remained a dynamic religious movement even as it has shed part of it’s ethnic identity