Dr. Rast on Pietism

I returned home today from a retreat hosted by the Jacksonville and Lincoln Circuits of the Central Illinois District at Camp CILCA. The topic of the retreat was “Pietism.” There was a good turn out, and we had a great time. I enjoyed it more than our typical Pastor’s Conferences, because instead of the featured speaker having to ‘cut it short’ for the sake of District Staff reports, just as he is getting warmed up, this format allowed for much discussion, and it allowed for Dr. Rast to develop his points fully.

Even though I had Dr. Rast for several classes, including the one in which he lectures on Pietism, and have done a lot of reading on the movement on my own, I still learned a lot just listening during this retreat. I think one of the many points that Dr. Rast was trying to make for us is that things were just as ‘messy’ as far as the Church goes in the 17th century as they are now. Point taken!

As far as Pietism goes, I had never really considered the impact the Thirty-Years War had on the Church as much as I did this week. Rast explained how the Pietists (or Proto-pietists like Johann Arndt) believed Lutheran Orthodoxy’s focus on the external things such as Word, Sacrament, Confession, etc. was to blame for the moral depravity among church members. Obviously, said the Pietists, they (Lutheran Orthodox preachers) have given the impression to the people that personal faith and piety doesn’t matter as long as you accept certain doctrinal formulas, get baptized, go to confession, and hear the Word. Clearly, this is not enough. More is needed for true Reform. And hence, Spener comes along and comes up with the program, which Francke implements through the University of Halle.

Pietism was, initially, a reaction to a *perceived* lack of emphasis on the fruits of the Spirit among the Lutheran Orthodoxists, who spent more time (in the mind of the Pietists) writing scholastic tomes than they did cultivating the piety of their people. Rast does not think this is completely accurate. The Pietists were looking for something that was not possible: a Utopia on earth.

What resulted, whether they intended it or not, was a division of Word and Spirit, a division even of Theology and Life/Practice. They came to view dogmatic theology as merely an academic exercise, with little or no impact on the practice and ministry of the pastors. What mattered to the Pietists was not so much the theological convictions of a ministerial candidate for instance, but his way of life.

I think you see some of this today in the church. Some pastors will say: “I’m a pastor, not a theologian.” I read in the 125th anniversary book for my congregation about one of the former pastors who was known for saying that the seminary taught him to be theologian, but they (the people) taught him to be a pastor. Gag me. This is the kind of schlock that makes my skin crawl and my blood boil. Please, spare me the sentimental b.s. Theology is practical, or it ought to be. I can’t come away from one of these theological conferences without it affecting the way I preach and approach the ministry.

Another thing Dr. Rast spoke about was just how foreign to a pietist’s experience was a dyed-in-the-wool Confessionalist pastor. They don’t get us. They do not understand our commitment to Confessional documents written down in the 16th century. It just doesn’t register with them (the Pietists). I don’t know if there are any true pietists left today, at least, of the Spenerite brand. Probably so. You do hear a lot of belly-aching about the “mean-spiritied” polemics of some orthodox Lutheran pastors, and the so-called “doctrinal hair-splitting” that is done in the name of Truth. There is a strong tendency towards experiential Christianity over against Christianity that is centered around pulpit and altar.

All in all, it was a great presentation. Thanks Dr. Rast, as always. It was also fun to get to know some of my C.I.D. brethren a little better. Glad I went.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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