On Pietists and Preaching

Lately I have been doing a lot of research on the historical movement within Christianity known as Pietism. Pietism was a movement that grew out of German Lutheranism during the 1600s and 1700s. Pietism was essentially a revival movement that taught that renewal would only be achieved in the church when both the clergy and the laity more deeply engrossed themselves in the Holy Scriptures and moved beyond a mere “head knowledge” of the Christian faith and embraced the teachings of Christianity in their “hearts.”

Pietism as an ethos deeply influenced the Anabaptist movement as well as John and Charles Wesley and the broader Methodist movement they founded. Indeed, even today, Pietism’s influence can be felt in modern Evangelicalism even if it is rarely acknowledged or recognized.

Perhaps the greatest manifesto of early Pietism was a book entitled Pia Desideria or “Pious Desires” by Philipp Jakob Spener. Spener was a Lutheran clergyman who, though devoted to the Lutheran Church, nevertheless found that his native church was severely lacking in many areas. Interestingly, a problem that Spener found especially troubling within his native church was the poor state of the clergy.

It was not that the clergy were not well educated enough. Indeed, the average Lutheran clergyman had received rigorous training in Biblical languages, systematic theology, and logical reasoning, yet for all this training and knowledge, the preaching of many a Lutheran clergyman during Spener’s day was dull and ineffective.

Sermons had become highly academic affairs where pastors would wax eloquent over the most minor of theological matters. They would often lapse into long soliloquys in foreign languages the common people had no hope of understanding. Sermons were often seen as opportunities for the pastor to show off their rhetorical prowess with little thought given to whether the sermon would be of any practical value to the laity. Sermons were primarily informational and rarely transformational.

Whenever I read church history, I read with an eye to discover wisdom for the modern church. There is “nothing new under the sun” and a careful reading of the church’s past can give us insight for how to deal with the problems of today. As a preacher myself, Spener’s critique of the preaching of his time got me to thinking. How does the preaching of the modern Evangelical church compare to that of the Lutheran church of Spener’s time? Do I repeat many of the errors of Spener’s time when I get behind the pulpit?

I must confess that I too have been guilty of simply wanting to show off what I know when I preach. I study hard and work diligently at being a competent speaker. I am proud of my work ethic and I am passionate about teaching theology. Sometimes pride creeps in. I’m convinced that when this happens, I am not as effective as I could be. It becomes about me rather than pointing people to Jesus Christ and that is never good.

Furthermore, I have personally experienced preaching that was seemingly just about dispensing information to the congregation. It was like listening to a seminary lecture only far less interesting. Worse still, I have experienced preachers that were warped with pride by their intelligence, education, and rhetorical prowess. I remember one in particular who would not cease reminding everyone that he had four degrees including one from a prestigious research university. Fellow preachers, if we are guilty of this sin of pride in our education and abilities then we need to repent. We have an important job to do. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed! We can’t get in the way!

Now, I do not want anyone to think that I am teaching against seminary education or intellectually engaging preaching. I believe very strongly in both of these things and frequently in Evangelicalism we have the very opposite problem. Preaching in many Evangelical churches is often an emotionally charged spectacle, but a doctrinal mess with little to no good content. Indeed, an anti-intellectual strain runs deeply within Evangelicalism and it’s preaching, and it negatively affects our witness. This is not the kind of preaching I am advocating for.

Spener and the Pietists thought that preaching was vitally important. If revival and renewal were to take place in their time, better preaching was required. As preachers we must daily seek to preach more effectively by presenting sermons that while thoughtful and theologically sound, are also deeply practical. We need to preach sermons that provide for our people practical instruction in righteousness. We need sermons that point people to Jesus rather than our prowess and abilities. We need to be conscious of where our people are spiritually and intellectually so that we can gradually and carefully grow them into mature and theologically informed Christians.

I understand that this balancing act of the informational and the practical will not always be easy, but it is something we must strive for. I want my preaching to be effective and powerful, I want it to be transformational. When my eulogy is spoken, I want it to be said that my preaching pointed people to Jesus Christ rather than my meager abilities.

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John Wycliffe and the Beginning of a New Era.

John Wycliffe has often been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation” by historians and for very good reason. Wycliffe was born sometime around 1331 and died in 1384. Wycliffe lived his life for Christ and completed his work a century before Luther would write his Ninety Five Theses and nail it to the churches’ door. In the following paragraphs it is my desire to give a brief summary of Wycliffe’s life and work. Every English speaking Christian ought to know something about this great man of God who began many important reforms which would resonate in the church all over the world.

John Wycliffe was an ordained Roman Catholic priest and preacher but he was first and foremost an Academic. From his position at Oxford University, which was already one of the world’s finest colleges, he had a pulpit from which to preach his views. Although Wycliffe was a part of the Roman Catholic communion he quickly gained a reputation as something of a radical within the English church. He made not a few enemies including the Bishop of London, and later the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtenay. However, he also had some powerful friends as well. Perhaps his best known supporter was John of Gaunt who was the son of Edward the Black Prince. John would do his best to protect Wycliffe throughout the years though eventually Wycliffe grew a little too radical for even John of Gaunt. Wycliffe was primarily controversial because of his ideas about theology that were in direct contrast to some of the teachings of the larger church. Let us discuss them now.

Most Roman Catholic theologians of the time thought that the final authority and arbiter of doctrine should be the Papacy and the leadership of the church. Wycliffe thought very differently and suggested that the foundation should be Christ and the Holy Scriptures. He also argued that secular government and the church were far too intertwined. Perhaps what angered the Bishops and Priests the most was when Wycliffe began to criticize their opulent lifestyle. He argued that the church had lost its’ love and compassion for the poor and hurting common people. Wycliffe also began to send out other men into the countryside to spread these ideas. These poor preachers were often called Lollards and they did much to spread the Gospel around the whole of England.

While the Lollards continued to spread the truth all over Britain, Wycliffe continued to study at his home in Oxford. However, in 1381 Wycliffe was about to proclaim a doctrine that would shake the very foundation of the English church. Wycliffe proclaimed that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation had absolutely no scriptural support. This made many in the church livid with Wycliffe and by now many were starting to turn against him and his ideas. John of Gaunt would desert Wycliffe and William Courtenay who was now the Archbishop of Canterbury was ready to mount a synod against him. The synod was successful and condemned much of what Wycliffe taught. Because of this Wycliffe lost his position at Oxford and was officially censored by the Roman Catholic Church. However, Wycliffe’s work was not yet completed and when he returned to the village of Lutterworth God was calling him to the work that was perhaps his very greatest contribution to the cause of Christ.

By the time he had returned to the little village of Lutterworth in 1382 Wycliffe was gathering his followers to begin a translation of the Holy Bible. Wycliffe would use as his text the Latin Vulgate which had earlier been translated from the Koine Greek one thousand years prior. This project would consume the rest of Wycliffe’s life. It is very probable that Wycliffe translated the Gospels himself and was actively involved in the rest of translation of the New Testament. The significance of this work cannot be understated as it was the very first translation of the Bible into the English language. However this work would not make him popular in Roman Catholic circles. In fact after Wycliffe’s death in 1384 the church would condemn his teachings, exhume his body, burn the remains, and persecute his followers. However, Wycliffe’s work for the Kingdom of Christ could not be undone.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the great effect of John Wycliffe’s work. Because of him and his followers more and more people were willing to speak out against the more egregious doctrines of the church and Wycliffe through his example inspired other reformers such as John Hus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Even today, Wycliffe’s influence can be felt every time someone reads a translation of the Bible in the English language. Also many people read Bibles in foreign languages translated by Wycliffe translators who have used his namesake and continued to spread the Gospel around the world. For every one who seeks to live a life for Christ John Wycliffe stands out as a bold inspiration. We can always look to his life as an example of what one person can do when they follow Jesus with reckless abandon.