Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietism-So What?
In many contemporary Lutheran circles, the labels "Orthodoxy" and "Pietism" are distinctly uncomplimentary. In popular usage, Orthodoxy means a fossilized over-intellectualized theological system that neglected the life of the people and distorted the heritage of the Reformation, synonymous with "ivory-tower unregenerate reactionary intellectual."
One congregation, for example, had to listen to a sermon on Matthew 10:30 ("And even the hairs of your head are all counted") which the preacher subdivided into sections: the origins, style, and form of hair; its correct care; reminiscences, warnings, and comfort derived from hair; how to care for hair in good Christian fashion; and how to make use of it.
Its main characteristic was its emphasis on systematic thought.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦A second characteristic that made it similar to medieval theology was its use of Aristotle.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦The third reason why Lutheran theology in the seventeenth century is properly called "scholastic" is that it was mostly the product of schools. It was no longer, as in the previous century, a theology born out of the life of the church and directed towards preaching and the care of souls, but rather a theology developed in the universities, and addressed to other scholars and university professors.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦It left two important legacies: its doctrine of scriptural inspiration, and its spirit of rigid confessionalism.
Similarly, Pietism means a system of detailed ultra-conservative laws that lead to an empty formalism-a sort of Lutheran Judaism. In common parlance the term has come to mean "rigid piety" or "ostentatious quietist hypocrite".
These negative evaluations are not without some justification. They betray, however, a context-bound consciousness because they do not attempt to sympathetically enter into the times and thought of the period. Rather than rejecting our history, it is better to embrace it and bring from it the lessons it has for our own times.
In this paper, I will consider these movements by looking at their general characteristics, the way they answer the question "What must I do to be saved?", the sources of authority, the meaning of community, and their understanding of what is means to be a True Christian, and their weaknesses as viewed from the opposing camps. With this material in mind, I will then consider the implications of this understanding of our history for our present context.
Orthodoxy and Pietism-The Nature of the Movements
In general, it may be said that the Orthodox were concerned about learning right thinking, believing that it would lead to right action, while the Pietists were concerned about creating a right relationship, attempting to nurture that relationship through right action.
Lutheran Orthodoxy was distinguished by a single central concern: pure doctrine. The overriding concern was to establish, maintain, defend, and teach "pure doctrine". By pure doctrine, the Orthodox theologians meant a system of belief based on the content of Scripture used to interpret the Scriptures in teaching and preaching. The most stringent logical system of the time, Aristotelian logical analysis, was used to ensure that the doctrine was correctly deduced.
The necessity to maintain pure doctrine led to extreme intolerance of any variation in theology and to prompt and vigorous suppression of heresy. Because the aim of pure doctrine was to transmit the Word, large amounts of energy were spent in teaching and testing the laity in the recitation of the catechism.
Stoffler identifies three significant themes in Pietism: the importance of personal relationship with God, the necessity to strive for sanctification, the need for the individual to engage in Bible study. The emphasis on the need and ability for the laity to engage in teaching and study, a revival of the priesthood of all believers, is equally important.
The essence of Christianity is to be found in the personally meaningful relationship of the individual to GodÃ¢â‚¬Â¦(They mean to) point in the direction of the centrality of the individual's relationship to God.
Justification is meaningless from the point of view of the individual who needs salvation unless it is personally appropriated in a fiducial commitment. Justification must be more than a forensic act on the part of God. It must enter into human experience. This it does in the divinely wrought miracle of conversion and in the divinely initiated and supported striving for sanctification.
Pietism, from the beginningÃ¢â‚¬Â¦was strongly committed to Biblical norms of thought and life and became increasingly distrustful of reason.Ã¢â‚¬Â¦It was this implicit, somewhat naive, trust in the Word, rather than in man's words about the Word, which is also responsible for the fact that Pietists really trusted the religious opinions of theologically untrained laymen. Ã¢â‚¬Â¦Laymen were permitted to testify, exhort, and even to preach. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was thus rescued once again from being a mere dogma and set free to exert its influence in the Church.
The emphasis on personal relationship with God is a way of understanding Luther's definition of God,
A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.
Pietism thought of faith as an existential act of the whole person, and not merely assensus. The content of the faith was thus of less import. The educational focus became biblical literacy rather than theological literacy.
What Must I Do to be Saved?
The theological emphases of Orthodoxy and Pietism resulted in different types of practice for the laity, different styles of preaching, and different forms of devotional literature. It is helpful to consider the responses of the two movements to the practical question, "What Must I do to be Saved?"
The Orthodox response to this question is, "You must realize that you are a miserable sinner, completely incapable of being worthy of salvation. You must then think and feel correctly about Jesus. You will then be freely given salvation."
The Pietistic response is, "You must be converted to a new relationship with God. Examine your deeds. If they are not worthy of a follower of Christ, then your conversion is not completed. You will be freely given salvation if you have faith, shown by your deeds."
Both systems assumed, in dealing with salvation, that the person addressed was unjustified, did not have faith, and was not in a right relationship with God. They both asserted that repentance and faith would lead to right relationship and right action. Neither placed much emphasis on either baptism or on the sacrament of the altar.
The need to come to terms with "simultaneously justified and sinner" meant that neither system, however, could go beyond this, but began the cycle again. In other words the miserable sinner was saved but was still in need of salvation. The underlying message of such a theology is that humans must always be immersed in guilt and repentance, self-affliction and self-torment.
Both the Orthodox and the Pietists held the Bible to be the authoritative standard for faith and practice. They differed significantly with regard to interpretation and practical application of the Bible.
Orthodoxy held that the church is "the only proper and competent interpreter of the Bible." Not only was the Bible to be a standard but it was also assumed to be a complete sourcebook for theology and practice, "Sacred scripture contains everything to be believed and done." Thus, the Orthodox took little account of the changed physical and social circumstances between Biblical times and cultures and their own.
The Pietists emphasized the ability and necessity for the laity to engage in Bible study. The first of Spener's proposals was a greater use of the Scripture in church, home, and study group. All the laity were to be able to interpret Scripture for the edification and consolation of others. There was somewhat more freedom in interpretation with regard to application, but the hermeneutic remained Orthodox.
The confessional formulation of justification was important to the Orthodox and was frequently explicated in Arndt's True Christianity. The Pietists recognized that their emphasis on the Christian life appeared antithetical to justification by faith and spent time trying to reconcile the two. Neither group, however, was ever able to grasp the possibility that the sanctified life might be one of diversity.
Both movements had appeal to the Lutheran Confessions and to Luther's writings. The Orthodox frequently also used arguments from the early Fathers to support theological arguments. The Pietists, in contrast, used the writings of mediaeval mysticism and moralism, particularly those of St. Bernard of Clairveaux.
The role and value of community contrasted between the Orthodox and the Pietists.
The Orthodox were strongly conditioned by loyalty to their historical and physical communities. Conformity to knowledge and practice was supremely important. The visitation system, the legal code, the forced catechization, all acted to enforce conformity to community religious standards. Deviation from the community was rapidly punished.
The Pietists were more individualistic in approach. The important marks of sanctification that they intended to cultivate were more individual-for example, not attendance at worship, but cheerful and capable exercise of ones calling. The Pietists expected that only few of people would be true Christians. There was therefore little sense in encouraging group identification if the great mass of the community would be unregenerate. This separation from the community allowed the Pietists to emphasize service to the community at the same time that they could be critical of the community.
The pastoral goal for both the Orthodox and the Pietists was to spread "True Christianity". They defined the meaning of this goal differently. To the Orthodox, a true Christian was one who held to the Lutheran doctrine, the only really "pure" doctrine. The Pietists more commonly defined the true Christian as one who was a disciple of Jesus, that is the practical effects in the believer's life were the standard. These effects were often considered to include specific emotions, particularly the experience of conversion. The difference may be summarized as one of "The One True Faith" versus "The One True Praxis".
The Orthodox way of emphasizing the gracious nature of justification and the importance of conformity to the community could lead to a formalistic "lowest common denominator" religion with little evidence of transformation in the lives of the people, or even of the ministers. The visitation reports seem particularly depressing with their lists of misconduct and scandal. The Pietists complaints, however have a ring of truth:
"It has come so far with us, we who call ourselves Lutherans, because we have heard so often that the Catholics would be saved through good works but such is denied in the Lutheran Doctrine, that most think it is not even their duty to do good."
Our readings have not included primary anti-Pietistic literature. The primary complaints of the Orthodox were that the Pietists focus on the experience of conversion and the indwelling of Jesus created a subjectivist approach to justification. The danger of such an approach is that, since no one can will emotions, persons without such emotions can despair. In addition, the Orthodox were concerned that the emphasis on the signs of sanctification could lead to self-justification by works.
Orthodoxy in a Pietistic Spirit?
While our course attempted to make a case for contemporary Lutheranism as "Orthodoxy in a Pietistic Spirit," I suggest that that viewpoint does not apply to contemporary ELCA practice, but rather more accurately reflects the Missouri Synod's stance.
If we characterize the general ELCA position on the issues of importance to the Orthodox and the Pietists, perhaps the analogies with the past will be clarified.
We are not primarily Orthodox. Although we have some concern for the logical defensibility of doctrine, we do not tend to rely on an elaborated monolithic theology as the primary means of informing our preaching or maintaining our community. Our openness to ecumenical discussion and to theologies from other faith communities is antithetical to Orthodox stances. We do not restrict Biblical interpretation to the clergy. We are not reluctant to encourage practical social action. We teach almost no explicit theology to the laity; the catechism is almost unused, even in confirmation classes.
We have a much more prominent Pietistic influence. We have become increasingly concerned with social action. We spend massive resources on education; mostly in terms of Bible study and practical applications. The participation and ability of the laity to lead these programs are assumed, even without training. We emphasize relationship with God rather than understanding of doctrine. We are individualistic rather than communitarian because the Lutherans are merely one item on the smorgasbord of religious choices.
We have other elements that are antithetical to both Orthodoxy and Pietism. We tend to be grace-centered in perspective and do not emphasize the personal experience of sinfulness and despair; we never preach about the cursus. We are much more cognizant and accepting of "simul justus et pecattore" than either the Pietists or the Orthodox. Our authorities include more of the natural sciences and humanities than either. Modern Bible scholarship has changed the way in which the Bible is used as a standard for theology and practice. We place little emphasis on "True Christians" because we tend to recognize both the diversity and the on-going nature of personal transformation.
This suggests that our current situation could be described as one of "Transformed Pietism with an Orthodox Leavening".
How Does the History Inform our Present?
There are a number of conclusions relevant to today's Lutherans to be drawn from this history.
While it is easy to wax nostalgic about the days when everyone was Lutheran and everybody went to church, actual examination of those times shows a much less ideal situation. Both the Orthodox and the Pietists wrote and spoke at length about the un-faith and immorality of their times. The voluntary nature of church membership in our society can be seen as a blessing; the bulk of our parishioners can be presumed to have at least some level of commitment to the life of faith. We can thus be more concerned with nurturing faith rather than with trying to convert the unregenerate.
Both the Orthodox and the Pietist movements showed signs of undercutting the "free gift" nature of justification. Their methodologies help to show us where the swamps and thickets are when we try to guide people in the Christian life. The Orthodox show us the dangers of over-emphasis on doctrine, philosophy, and assensus, while the Pietists demonstrate those of subjectivity, emotionalism, and prescriptive ethics.
These movements also have given us examples of enduring themes and practices that we might do well to enhance. The Pietists insistence on Bible study that is informed by scholarship could be a welcome corrective to our tendency towards shallow lay Bible programs. The Orthodox respect for the catechism as a digest of the most important theological themes should caution us against its disuse in our congregations. The Pietist concern for personal works of faith should caution us against over-emphasis on corporate social action. Both suggest that we should have more sympathy for the experience of conversion among our parishioners, without making such an experience in any way a requirement or a good work. The Orthodox experience suggests that we should re-evaluate the importance of community loyalty to the maintenance of our church; it often seems that our commitment to inclusiveness demonizes our European pasts.
Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietism receive little attention in general surveys of church history. Perhaps we would do well to bring these movements back into our historical consciousness.
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