Monday, March 15, 2010

Help me understand Pietism, brother Dale Brown!

Six years ago, at the age of 25, I went back to college. This move was brought about by a sense of calling to set-aside ministry that my faith community had helped me identify and discern. This calling process in congregational life is based on a tradition long-held in the Church of the Brethren, the stream of the Christian faith that raised me and continues to support me as a licensed minister. As I became immersed in the studies that would lead to a BA in English, my family and I also became more involved in congregational church life.

Six months after starting college classes while working full-time, my wife got a job at a Presbyterian church in central Iowa, where we served in various ministry roles – primarily musical – for three and a half years. Education and ministry quickly became intertwined for me as I practiced both often. It was around this time that I became more curious about the Church of the Brethren itself. Despite being immersed in a wonderful Brethren congregation until I was 18, there was never much education about the tradition itself, a non-practice which I've found to be typically Brethren. I can still picture myself sitting in my wife's office at the Presbyterian church, looking through a Wikipedia article on the Brethren while likely hiding out during choir practice. It was there that I first recall coming across the term “Pietist.” For Brethren, it was closely linked with another term that I had fairly little knowledge of or exposure to at the time: “Anabaptism.”

Thus began an odyssey spanning years, continuing to the very present, to dig deeper into the roots of my faith tradition and understand better what these terms mean, in their original historical-sociological contexts, and how they've been transmitted and transformed across time, geography, and changing cultures and societies. Now, after having spent nearly two years studying in a Mennonite seminary, deeply rooted in the Anabaptist tradition – and fairly loud and clear about that – I've begun to absorb what that term represents and have even come to internalize much of what it stands for in my approach to the Christian faith. Less clear to me, though, is the former term, “Pietism.” This is rarely uttered in the halls of the Mennonite seminary. So in the context of this class on the traditions broadly categorized as Believers' Churches, I finally have an opportunity to take a definitive text on the subject of Pietism and begin digging into “the other half” of my particular Brethren tradition. Enter: Understanding Pietism, by Dale W. Brown.

So read on at your own peril, for my lengthy reflection on this important (to me) book!

Clues to themes; courtesy of Wordle

Upon reading the preface to this book, I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Brown. Not only because we are both Brethren, but we also seem to have both shared at various points (with a gap of nearly a half-century) a lack of clarity about what the term “Pietism” or “pietist” really describes. For Brown, it became the focus of his doctoral work, focusing on the late 17th/early 18th century radical German Pietist, Gottfried Arnold, whose writings were popular among the early Schwarzenau Brethren in 18th century Germany.1

Thesis and Summary
Brown makes clear in the preface and with allusions at various points throughout the rest of the book that the related terms, “Pietism,” “pietist,” and “pietistic” came to be used primarily as pejorative terms throughout the 20th century theological academy. Those who would utter these terms seemed to be explicitly, but more often implicitly, making negative value judgments against various things that seemed to involve “emotionalism, mysticism, rationalism, subjectivism, asceticism, quietism, synergism, chiliasm, moralism, legalism, separatism, individualism, and otherworldliness,"2 or as Brown later puts it, theologians would “project the bogey of Pietism.”3

So the thrust of Brown's thesis, which I will shortly attempt to articulate, is to umask this bogey for what it really is: a scapegoat for essentially anything that many theologians found repulsive in Brown's mid-20th century milieu. Put another way, Brown's thesis is intended to positively construct a working definition and nuanced understanding of what is meant by the word “Pietism.” So his thesis is this: Pietism was an historical, theological, spiritual, ecclesial, and mostly urban social reform movement of the late 17th century in Germany, and was led by two pivotal figures in Phillip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) and August Hermann Francke (1663-1727).4 Brown fleshes out this thesis by focusing on the thought and practice of the two leaders – Spener and Francke – and using their work to answer the critical accusations that were commonly being leveled at Pietism in Brown's day, but also in Spener's and Francke's time. The author is also quick to point out that Pietism was broadly influential, spawning many sub-movements such as Radical Pietism, which was the offshoot in which Brown's and my religious tradition was born: the aforementioned Schwarzenau Brethren.

The historical and social context predating Pietism's birth in the late 17th century is worth noting. The cataclysmic Thirty Years' War was a very recent memory which had just concluded with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.5 The now well-established state churches, including Lutheran and Reformed, were entering their golden age of scholasticism. Amidst this powerful and highly academic atmosphere that some saw as stifling, rigid, and at worst hypocritical, spiritual unrest with hints of mysticism began to foment, particularly with Spener, who “was nurtured devoutly in the womb of the [Lutheran] church,”6 and was himself a highly accomplished theological scholar. Brown also identifies the embattled Anabaptist movement, as old as the “victorious” reform movements themselves, as an influence on Pietism, going so far as to say that after Pietism had a few years to spread, that “the common people often used the names Pietists and Anabaptists synonymously.”7

The primary theological motif that Brown observes in his work with Pietism can best be summed up in his own words: “a love theology.”8 This driving motif seems to imbue all other themes. Most outwardly, Pietism had a deep “concern for the reformation of the church,”9 despite later more sectarian impulses. There was also a biblicism about the Pietist movement that echoed earlier Anabaptist exegetical methods, as recently described by Stuart Murray.10 Another echo of Anabaptism was Pietism's concern for ethical behavior, or “orthopraxis,”11 in addition to orthodoxy. This born out of the perceived disconnect in thought and practice that Pietists observed in some within the theological academy and in congregational leadership. Finally, perhaps expressing Pietism's trace elements of mysticism, the movement had a highly developed “theology of experience” that revolved around the Holy Spirit and touching topics such as “repentance, new birth, and conversion.”12

Consistently throughout the book, Brown is leveling critical questions at Pietism, asking if the detractors over the years have had a point in saying that the movement endorsed such things as subjectivism, individualism, and a retreat from ethical practice of the Christian faith. And consistently, Brown is saying both “Yes” and “No.” He uses the phrase “opened the door to...” a number of times throughout the book to describe good intentions on the parts of Spener and Francke (“Yes”) that subsequently went awry, degenerating into the characteristics listed above (“No”).

It is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore in detail the particular beliefs and the unintended theological consequences of German Pietism, but I will briefly say that Brown's exploration of these things helped me see just how “Pietist” the “Anabaptist-Pietist” Church of the Brethren is, and just how surprisingly pietistic I am in my faith. I've come to fancy myself quite Anabaptist in my approach to the Christian faith, but there are elements in this later reform movement that I can also claim and some I consciously do not, just as I don't fully “swallow the Anabaptist Kool-Aid”.

Impact on the Believers' Church traditions and beyond
After reading this book, it's hard not to see the impact that Pietism has had on the various believers' church traditions, including Mennonites, who sure are proud of Anabaptism in scholarly circles, but are seeing that tradition marginalized or abandoned in the practice of some congregational/regional groups. Brown doesn't follow this thread very far, but he also makes the connection of the movement's co-germination with Enlightenment thought, particularly noting Kant and his devout Pietist parents.13 Studying theology a bit farther along the postmodern shift than Brown, it's worth exploring further just how significant this connection may be (my guess is, it's significant). I would love to see a postmodern philosophical-theological critique of this movement, and a potential re-storying of it for contemporary use.

As a distinctly German movement in the 17th and 18th centuries, it follows that Pietism traveled across the Atlantic to the heavily Germanic areas of Pennsylvania and down into Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia14, before spreading like wildfire across the frontier in the Great Awakening.15 A quick run through “The Legacy of Pietism”16 section of Chapter 7 traces Pietism's deep impact on Protestant movements and denominations: descendants of the Schwarzenau Brethren, the Community of True Inspiration (who ultimately formed the Amana Colonies in Iowa, a tip of the hat to my home state), Moravians who directly influenced the Wesley brothers ergo Methodism, Mennonites,17 Martin Boehm (a Mennonite under the ban) and others who would morph into the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) and then merge with their Pietist kin, the Methodists, in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. While the inclusion of Methodism in the believers' church category is debated, it seems clear that Methodism's brush with believers' church traditions was formative.

Brown even cites Pietism's influence on early Dutch Reformed groups as they migrated to American soil. In addition to my paternal Brethren and Mennonite heritage, I aslo have maternal Dutch Reformed heritage. Throw in the circuit-riding Methodist preacher somewhere up my family tree a few generations, and it's plain to see the impact of Pietism even in my own family! It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say that if you're a Protestant in America these days, you've been touched in some way by Pietism. Outside believers' church categories, Brown cites Pietism's impact on “hymnody and devotional literature” as part of his discussion on the “emotionalism” inherent in the early movement.18 Pastoral visits, even, Brown ties to the ethical impulse in the early movement (his “Yes” to the movement).19 What pastor wouldn't be thankful for this innovation? These broad and century-spanning influences gives rise to another potential line of questioning: the broad Evangelical Christian movement in the United States and Pietism's likely hidden role in that.

The intense study of this short book has been tremendously helpful for my personal theological project, which will eventually have outward-vocational impact. Understanding Pietism has been high on my to-do list even before coming to seminary, and Dale Brown's book is perfectly titled and well-suited toward that end. There are realities at work within my church tradition, the Church of the Brethren, that often puzzle me. While it's beyond the scope of this reflection to go into those puzzlings, this exploration of Pietism has certainly been enlightening and will serve as a useful lens for further work within my fellowship of believers.

I'll close with a personal anecdote that I can't resist sharing here: A scholarly Brethren friend and mentor of mine came into possession of a number of Dale Brown's books, as Brown is in the process of retiring after a long career as a scholar in ministry within the Church of the Brethren. Some of these books have made their way to me, including an early paperback edition of The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, complete with Brown's scribbles and inserted note sheets. As a lover of both used books and good biblical theology, I'm salivating for the chance to finally read that pivotal book “along with” Dale Brown. I'm humbly grateful for Brown's work and hope to, as Spener saw himself doing with Luther, stand on the shoulders of giants...and see just a bit further.20

1 - Dale W. Brown. Understanding Pietism. Rev. ed. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Pub. House, 1996, p. 23.
2 - Ibid., p. 11.
3 - Ibid., p. 106.
4 - Ibid., pp. 25-6.
5 - Ibid., p. 18.
6 - Ibid., p. 25.
7 - Ibid., p. 17.
8 - Ibid., p. 21.
9 - Ibid., p. 22.
10 - Stuart Murray. Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, Studies in the Believers Church Tradition, 3. Kitchener, Ont. Scottdale, Pa.: Pandora Press; co-published with Herald Press, 2000.
11 - Brown, p. 22.
12 - Ibid., p. 22.
13 - Ibid., p. 100.
14 - See Stephen L. Longenecker. Shenandoah Religion : Outsiders and the Mainstream, 1716-1865. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2002.
15 - Speaking of Jonathan Edwards, Brown cites William Warren Sweet in identifying “Edwardianism as the impregnation of Calvinism with Pietism,” p. 104.
16 - Brown, pp. 102-6.
17 - Including Russian-derived Mennonites. For the Swiss-German and Dutch, “Harold Bender...observed that Pietism in some form or other has been the most powerful modifying influence on the Mennonites since the sixteenth century.” Brown, p. 104.
18 - Brown, p. 77.
19 - Ibid., p. 102.
20 - Ibid., p. 64.

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