John Wesley: Pietist Theologian

John Wesley has been quoted as saying that doctrine is but a “slender part” of true religion. judging by this statement, especially in isolation, one might assume that Wesley was a doctrinal indifferentist. However, upon further investigation we find that this could not be further from the truth. Wesley was not indifferent when it came to the task of articulating Christian doctrine.  We see this in his numerous tracts and sermons that deal with lofty concepts of Christian theology such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, the means of grace, original sin, prevenient grace and so forth.

To understand this statement of Wesley’s, we must understand him as fundamentally a pietist theologian. John Wesley was strongly influenced by pietist thought through the writings of Johan Arndt as well as by the Moravians whom he met on his voyage to Savannah, and with whom he spent much time with in England and Germany. The pietists communicated to Wesley, through both personal correspondence and their writings, that the Christian life did not consist solely of affirming certain theological propositions, heartfelt relationship with Jesus of Nazareth was necessary for a robust Christian life as well. Christianity consisted of both illumination and transformation. That is, transformation of the individual who though once isolated and alienated from God could now enjoy deep fellowship with God, who could grow into real, scriptural holiness and truly be more like Jesus!

Wesley understood this reality all too well. Prior to his “Aldersgate” experience, Wesley was more than ready to affirm the doctrines affirmed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Wesley had plenty of good theology and yet his spiritual life was empty, he had no real relationship with Jesus, he had not yet come to recognize Christ as his “personal” Savior. Wesley could affirm many truths about Christ but only when he had a real relationship with Christ did he finally experience spiritual peace.

I think the experience of Wesley, and the other pietists, provide us with valuable lessons for today. Good theology is important no doubt, and without good theology we will not have good spirituality. However, rational assent to scriptural truths (though extremely important) is not the whole of the Christian life, it is but a part. Our task as Christians today is to balance the rational and relational aspects of the Christian life. If we drop but one we will have a truncated and perhaps even counterfeit Christianity. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the scriptures I am convinced that we can balance these two aspects of the Christian faith quite well and present a robust version of the Christian faith that speaks well to both the head, and the heart, of the people we have the opportunity to minister to.

 

 

 

Why Pietism?

Recently I published an article on my blog about the renewal movement called “Pietism” that grew out of German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s. Lately I have been immersing myself in the writings of the great leaders of the Pietist movement such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Herman Franke. Furthermore, I have been reading the work of modern scholars of the Pietist movement such as Roger Olson, Dale Brown, F. Ernest Stoeffler, and Christian Collins-Winn. With so much of my time being spent on this enterprise, and with it being the probable subject of my doctoral dissertation (God willing, I will begin doctoral studies this fall), my wife understandably asked me “why are you so interested in studying Pietism?”

Pietism in not a well-known term amongst Evangelical Christians even though it might be the most influential renewal movement of the Protestant tradition. Pietism as a movement emphasized the necessity of conversion, the importance of individual as well as small group Bible Study, and that authentic Christianity was more than mere mental assent to core Christian doctrines. The Pietists firmly believed that Christianity was a “heart” and not just a “head” faith. The Pietists were also people of great social concern. Something of a rallying cry of theirs was that they existed for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good.”

Pietism as an ethos has influenced Lutheranism as well as the Anabaptist movement in Christianity. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren in the United States has been especially influenced by Pietism. The Evangelical Covenant Church (one of the fastest growing Protestant denominations in the United States) is a distinctly Pietistic denomination. John and Charles Wesley were profoundly influenced by the Moravians who were a Pietistic people. It is hard to find a Protestant tradition that has been entirely untouched by the Pietist tradition. It is remarkable that it is so little known when it’s influence has been so wide.

“Why am I studying Pietism?” I study Pietism in part because it brought revival to German Lutheranism when it was desperately needed. Mainstream German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s had become a stale and arid thing. The Pietists did much to revive German Lutheranism. The Pietists cared for thousands of orphans, printed millions of Bibles, and sent out many effective missionaries all over the world. The idea that they lived for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good” was more than just a slogan, it was a way of life.

I also study Pietism for greater self-understanding. Pietist ideas have deeply influenced Evangelicalism and I want to know more about this trans-denominational movement that has deeply shaped what I believe and how I live my life. Finally, I believe Pietism may contain valuable insights for renewal in Evangelicalism today. The Evangelical Church in the United States needs renewal. We need to mobilize for the 21st century and reach the one-third of the world that still has not heard the Gospel. Who better to draw inspiration from than the Pietists? Pietistic Lutherans were some of the first to send missionaries to the native peoples of Greenland and Canada. Pietists missionaries were the first people to translate the Bible into Tamil. A language spoken by many people in India.

In short, I believe that the Pietists can show Evangelicals what it truly means to live a life for “God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.” Is there a more authentically Christian way of life than this? Is any other kind of life even worth living?

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.