The Story of Pietism: Part Three

Sorry it has been a long time since I have posted to this blog. Pastoring and writing a dissertation have kept me busy. Thank you for your patience.

No discussion of Pietism would be complete without mentioning two important forerunners of the Pietist movement. These two important thinkers, authors, and important “Proto-Pietists” are Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) and Johann Arndt (1555-1621).

Boehme was originally a shoemaker who resided in the little village of Gorlitz, Germany (now Poland). Pious from a young age, Boehme was a dedicated Bible reader and was spiritually sensitive throughout his life. Though he was a reasonably successful shoemaker, two powerful visions would radically change the course of his life.

In 1600 and 1610 Boehme reportedly experienced being overwhelmed by light. The first time for less than an hour, but the second lasting more than a day. These powerful experiences convinced Boehme that he was called to a spiritual vocation. He soon began to write on theological and devotional topics. Furthermore, after giving up shoemaking in 1613 he became a traveling yarn salesman which allowed him to spread his beliefs far from his hometown.

Some of Boehme’s books are the Aurora, The Threefold Life of Man, Answers to Forty Questions On The Soul, and The Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Boehme’s output is decidedly mystical and occasionally strays outside of Lutheran Orthodoxy. He seemingly rejected sola fide and though he loved Martin Luther’s Bible, he valued personal experience in the task of constructive theology far more than most Protestants would. For these reasons, Boehme was persecuted by the Lutheran authorities and would influence fewer Pietists than the more traditional Arndt.

On the other hand, Arndt was a rather traditional Lutheran who served as a pastor in several parishes. Arndt’s influence on the Pietist movement would be through his devotional classic True Christianity. Entirely consistent with Lutheran orthodoxy but focused on the development of the interior life, Arndt thought the focus of the Christian life should be mystical union with Jesus Christ.

For Arndt, faith meant far more than simply believing in the doctrines of the Christian Faith. Rather, a faith that was “true, living, and active” (See Arndt’s Preface in True Christianity) would result in a transformed life marked by love for Christ, love for others, and love for holiness. While such beliefs may not seem novel to contemporary Christians (particularly authentic Protestant Evangelicals), they were in Arndt’s day as many leading Lutherans had seemingly equated Christian faith with mental assent to Christian doctrine.

True Christianity was almost immediately popular and was translated into many languages. The book was warmly received by Pietists. Phillip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), who perhaps more than any other figure deserves the title of “Father of Pietism,” heartily endorsed True Christianity and it’s teachings. In many Pietist households, True Christianity was read almost as much as Luther’s Bible. Though Arndt would not live to see it, his book would have a major impact on Pietist spirituality.

F. Ernest Stoeffler, perhaps the most distinguished historian of Pietism in the 20th century, pictured Boehme as the Father of Radical Pietism (Pietism that was more separatist and mystical in it’s bent) and Arndt as the Father of Churchly Pietism (Pietism that was not separatist and orthodox). While there are some problems with such characterizations (Some radical groups such as the Brethren had little use for Boehme and his writings) there is some truth to it. Although Arndt almost certainly influenced more Pietists than Boehme, both figures were important spiritual influences on the movement.

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